Universal Players

Oppo DV-980H Universal DVD player: Audio Performance


front view

Introduction

Oppo Digital is a very rare light among the stifling mediocrity found in most low to middle priced digital audio and video electronics. Readers of this website know that we all have a virtually uniform love for their products, and it is for extremely good reason. While most mass-market manufacturers are happy to turn out barely functioning garbage, Oppo products are impeccably engineered and offer performance that thoroughly embarrasses many of their upscale competitors.

Specifications

  • DVD-Audio, Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Video universal playback
  • Compatible with Audio CD, HDCD, WMA, Kodak Picture CD, and other digital audio/video/picture media and formats* (*Note: The DV-980H does not play Blu-Ray nor HD-DVD discs)
  • Official DivX® Certified product, certified to the Home Theater Profile
  • Plays all versions of DivX® video (including DivX® 6) with standard playback of DivX® media files
  • High resolution picture slide show
  • Plays XviD and .SRT, .SMI, .IDX and .SUB format
  • Compatible with CD-R/RW, DVD±R/RW and DVD+R DL* (*Note: Compatibility with user-encoded contents or user-created discs is on a best effort basis with no guarantee due to the variation of media, software and techniques used. For example, Discs recorded on some stand-alone DVD recorders or DVD camcorders may not exhibit smooth playback.)

While Oppo's main area of expertise is in digital video electronics, benchmark level performance in DVD deinterlacing and upscaling, sound engineering has lead to remarkably good audio performance and industry leading flexibility. The well-known DV-970HD not only offered excellent video performance, particularly when feeding an outboard scaler, it also garnered several awards from both online and print media for its remarkable performance as a universal audio player. As with all Oppo players, it could play any digital audio disc in existence, from redbook CD to DVD-Audio and SACD, in addition to home made mp3 CDs. For a MSRP well under $200, it was the budget audiophile's choice for a universal disc player. And you got first class video performance for free! I learned an interesting piece of information from Oppo's engineering and management staff at this year's CEDIA, though. The DV-970HD had no special effort paid to its audio performance. Good engineering is never an accident, but the 970HD managed its award winning level of audio performance without any special attention paid to audio side of the box.

The DV-980H is Oppo's new budget DVD player offering, and is their first product to be engineered specifically for audio performance. It still offers 1080p upconversion and quality deinterlacing, although this is done with a simpler single chip solution, whereas the flagship 981HD uses a Faroudja DCDi deinterlacing and scaling engine. For the 980H, Oppo enlisted the help of a well-known (but unnamed) high-end audio company to assist in the development of the 980H's audio circuitry. Like "store brand" wines from Costco or Trader Joe's, this method can result in some incredible products at stupendously low prices. As with wine, the "well known" company might be happy to help, but doesn't want its own business undercut by having it known that their work can be found in a product costing less than 1/10 what their own products sell for. In the end it's the results that matter, and the DV-980H delivers.

Features, Construction and Engineering

The 980H resembles the other Oppo DVD player offerings, packaged in a thin, relatively light-weight metal enclosure. Outputs are complete, including HDMI, Component video, 7.1 channel analog audio and two digital outputs (Toslink optical and analog). The 980H even outputs DSD digital from SACD over HDMI for receivers and processors that are compatible. The player supports redbook CD, HDCD, SACD, DVD audio and 24/96 PCM audio on DVD. Build quality for a product of this price is excellent, with sturdy back panel connectors, and an IEC jack for use with aftermarket power cords. The digital output can be configured for multiple sampling rates and bit depths for use with many outboard processors, including my Bel Canto DAC 1.1. The single chip video processing solution, (built into the MPEG decoder) can output up to 1080p. Unfortunately my older Westinghouse LVM-37W1 LCD panel as DVI inputs and would not sync to the 1080p signal output by the 980H. DVI and HDMI are similar but use slightly different timing, which can cause this issue. Fixing the timing for DVI would mess up the HDMI timing. I am still hoping that Oppo will release a beta firmware with DVI video timing for us few customers that have DVI based displays. Other video resolutions work fine, and the 720p output produced a picture that was 95% as good as the 1080p output from my Oppo 981HD. The audio performance gains brought by the 980H over the 981HD were well worth sacrificing the 1080p. The only other complaint about the 980H is also an issue with the 981. Front panel buttons can be very slow to respond to presses. While there is never a response issue with the remote, the front panel buttons can sometimes be annoyingly slow.

right angle view
Inside, the Oppo is very well put together for such an inexpensive component. The power supply does have the expected small transformer, and not all that much power supply capacitance, but the quality of the boards is high, and electrolytic capacitors are used throughout. The power supply board is separate from one other L-shaped board housing both the video and audio circuitry. This is another sacrifice to keep the cost down. Eight audio channels (for 7.1 output, with mixed L and R analog outputs doubling as LF and RF), are located just behind the RCA jacks. Analog output stages are based on the TI NE5532A low noise dual op amp, a high quality but fairly low cost chip. Electrolytic caps are again used throughout the audio output stage. A Cirrus Logic CS4631 6-channel 24 bit 196 kHz sampling rate DAC handles the digital to analog conversion. All in all, I've seen (and own) many components costing several times more than have lower quality internal construction.

The Sound


back view
The 980H replaced an Oppo 981HD in my system (bought from Oppo on my own, with no audio reviewer association). The 981 has virtually identical audio performance to the 970H, and was used as a comparison. The 980H also fed a Bel Canto DAC 1.1 upsampling DAC. This somewhat old DAC still uses a very sophisticated reclocking technique, where the digital data is read into a FIFO buffer (First In First Out), and then clocked out with a very stable crystal oscillator. This method completely eliminates transport induced clock jitter. Since Redbook CD's sample timing is completely defined by the stability of the transport, reclocking can be very effective.

left angle view
The performance punchline for the 980H is that it blows the 981HD out of the water with all source material, while almost equaling the performance of the $1500 Bel Canto on Redbook CD and 24/96 PCM. While the 981HD had fairly good audio performance, I always knew I was missing something. The Bel Canto DAC 1.1 sounded far better on standard CD material in every way. Listening to SACD improved matters some, but not to the level it should have. Substituting the 980H was transforming.  What was a huge difference between the Oppo and the DAC 1.1 now took extremely careful listening to tell apart. SACD regained that transcendent space and smoothness it should deliver. By comparison, the 981HD was coarse and bright sounding, with muddy bass and artifical sounding midrange. The 980H offered smooth, natural sound, with tight, well-controlled bass.  When compared to the $1500 DAC 1.1, the Oppo revealed a couple very small shortcomings. The high end of the Oppo was just a little bit hard and brittle in comparison, while the bass was not quite as tight and deep. In addition, the Bel Canto's images were a bit more three dimensional, although the width, and height of the soundstage, along with image separation was indistinguishable. To find this took direct A-B comparison, flipping back and forth between the two sources on the preamp. The effects are very small. Large enough that I haven't sold the DAC 1.1 yet, but very minor points. I'm sure the modders will have a field day with this player, since the power supply is an obvious first step to improving performance. The electrolytic coupling capacitors in the analog stage might also benefit from higher quality replacements. The op-amps are already very good, so I can't imagine you would gain too much there. Their small 16 pin SOIC packages will make it a real pain in the rear to kludge in a discrete part op-amp replacement like a Burson Audio super op-amp.

in the box
With SACD source material, all parts of the 980H's presentation improve, but the small amount of high frequency hardness and slightly loose bass are still identifiable. Images are far more three dimensional as expected, and soundstage width, depth and height all improve significantly. Unlike the 981HD, I clearly preferred SACD on the 980H compared to standard CD with the Bel Canto. SACD with the older Oppo had enough shortcomings that it was a wash between its SACD presentation and the Bel Canto's handling of redbook CD. The Bel Canto can play 24/96 PCM material on DVD (pre DVD-audio stuff). Comparing this to the Oppo 980H playing SACD, the results are basically the same as with redbook CD. The Bel Canto has a little more high frequency smoothness, and a bit better bass extension and control. Any advantage in imaging and soundstaging the Bel Canto had with standard CD was gone, however.

Conclusions

The Oppo 980H receives my strongest recommendation. The audio performance this player can deliver for $169 is astounding. Not considering the video performance of the player at all, this would be a no-brainer audio player for any audiophile on a budget. The video performance thrown in for free will keep all but the most picky videophiles happy. I cannot wait for the day when I get my hands on the planned DV-983HD player. According to Oppo, this player will also be engineered for audio performance, but will be far better than even the 980H. No details yet, but just a bigger power supply would help a lot, as would separating the video and audio better on the board. This player will also have ABT video processing, making it possibly the ultimate standard-def DVD player. The next step for Oppo is a universal HD-DVD/Blu-Ray player. The impediment to this is not Oppo, but the legal barriers in place to prevent small companies from getting licenses to use the specialized chips necessary to build either a HD-DVD player or SACD player. Moves are afoot to make this licensing easier, so Oppo still may be able to get us the "everything box" that all of us want, but no one sells.

Associated Equipment

Source Components:
Oppo Digital DV-981HD Universal disc player
Bel Canto DAC-1.1 Digital to Analog Converter
Linn LP-12 Valhalla, Ittok LV-II, Grado Reference Platinum

Amplification:
Acurus 3x100 3-channel power amplifier (center, rears)
Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference SA subwoofer amplifier

Video Components:
Rotel RTC-965 Surround Sound Processor
Directv HR-20 HD-DVR
Westinghouse LVM-37W1 1080p LCD panel

Loudspeakers:
Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3.1 (left, right)
Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference AV center (center)
Anthony Gallo Acoustics A’Diva (rear)

Power Conditioning:
OneAC 1920VA Isolation transformer

Cables:
Nordost Red Dawn speaker cables
Nordost Flatline Gold MK-II speaker cables (2nd voice coil for Reference 3.1s)
Audioquest 4+ speaker cable (center channel)
Audioquest F-16 speaker cable (rear channels)
Nordost Blue Heaven & Kimber PBJ interconnect
Best Deal Cables DVI & HDMI cables