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Product Review
 

Onkyo DV-SP800 Universal (DVD-V, DVD-A, SACD) DVD Player

February, 2003

Matthew Abel

 

Click Photo to See Larger Version

Specifications:


12/108 Video DACs
24/192 Audio DACs

Component Video - Progressive Scan

Plays DVD-V, DVD-A, and SACD

96 kHz Digital Output

Size: 3 1/2" X 17 1/8" W x 12 3/8" D

Weight: 11 Pounds

 

MSRP: $1,000 USA

 

http://www.onkyousa.com 

Introduction

For most of the time since their release, DVD-A (DVD-Audio) and SACD have been bumbling along like the Beta and VHS format war with players handling only one or the other format. Luckily for everyone, a third front emerged on this battle last year, with Pioneer and Apex introducing DVD players that could play back both formats ("Universal DVD Players").

Neither Pioneer’s DV-47A or Apex’s AD-7701 was perfect, and in the case of the Apex, things were about as far from perfect as you can get, but both showed that it was possible to enjoy DVD-A and SACD in the same kind of format détente that Dolby Digital and DTS experience.

The start of 2003 has brought a number of new universal players to market. The THX Ultra-certified Onkyo DV-SP800 is Onkyo’s shot at a universal format machine.

Player Front Panel

The Onkyo is a handsome looking DVD player with a glossy black finish, classy blue lights, and a healthy complement of silk screened logos touting features that I’m sure kept their marketing people working late into the night. One of the distinctive features of the Onkyo’s appearance is the cool blue lights, reminiscent of Krell electronics, that alert one to whether the video circuits are off, where the stop and the play buttons are, and what type of disc is playing.

There is also a blue light that surrounds the open/close tray button, which is quite handy in finding this button in a dark room. The one downside to these lights is that they cannot be turned off (the main display can be dimmed, but not the button lights), and thus some might find them annoying.

The display window shows the usual track and decoding information in a clear and readable format. The front display also has an indicator to show which speakers are active, depending on the mix of the disc. Besides the standard stop, play open/close, and track select buttons, the Onkyo endows its front panel with joystick, menu, setup, and play order buttons. This is a nice addition as it allows one to fully operate the player without the remote control. To round out the front of the player, there is a headphone jack with an adjustable volume control.

Player Back Panel

The Onkyo offers an extensive set of connection options for both audio and video. For video, one has a set of component output jacks, two S-Video outputs (only one is active at a given time and it is selectable in the video menu), and two composite outputs. On the audio side, there are two pairs of stereo analog outputs, a coaxial digital output, two optical digital outputs, as well as a 5.1/7.1 analog output set for DVDA, SACD, DTS, and Dolby Digital. The 5.1/7.1 output allows you to replicate the sound from your main surround speakers (Surround 1) to another pair of surround speakers (Surround 2), such as your rear surround speakers in a standard 7.1 setup. There is a small switch on the rear of the player that allows you to toggle between Surround 1 and both Surround 1 and Surround 2. Unfortunately, you can’t also toggle to Surround 2 only.

Setup

I installed the DV-SP800 to the six-channel input of my receiver with its multi-channel output using Surround 1 only. I also used the coaxial digital output and the component video output to round out my connections. After this I delved into the player’s menus to set things up properly. The menus themselves have a relatively rudimentary look and feel, but they are easy to understand and to navigate. However, one problem with navigating the menus is the annoying joystick on the remote, but I’ll discuss that more later.

The first audio menu allows you to turn the dynamic range control on or off, select the nature of the digital output for DD, DTS, MPEG and 24/96 audio, the layer of the SACD to read (SACD layer or Redbook CD layer), and whether the digital output should be on or off. For DTS, DD and MPEG, one can either send the native bitstream for proper surround decoding or a downmixed two-channel PCM bitstream. One can also downmix DVD discs with 96 kHz audio to lower sampling rates if the user's receiver or processor can only handle 16/44. For SACD, one can set the option to the CD layer, a two channel SACD layer, or a multi-channel SACD layer. For my purposes, I left the player in the multi-channel mode for most of the time, since, when left in this mode, it will still output two channel SACDs properly, as well as multi-channel SACDs.

The second audio menu has the setup options for audio out type, speaker settings, gain settings, and CD digital direct. The audio type allows one to select either a two channel or a 5.1 speaker output. Since the primary purpose of this player is SACD and DVD Audio, I selected the 5.1 outputs and ignored the two-channel option. The speaker settings tab allows you to graphically set the speaker types in the normal 5.1 convention of large, small, and none.

The first problem with the Onkyo’s speaker setup is that the front speakers are fixed as "Large" no matter what you do. The other problem is that setting any of the speakers to "None" will automatically downmix any DVD Audio disc to two channels. So if you use a phantom center in your setup, be forewarned of this problem.

The last problem is that none of the bass management applies to DVD audio discs. Since I felt the crossovers were too high anyway, I set all of my speakers to "Large", even though they are monitors. The second part of this menu allows one to set the time alignment of the speakers in 0.5 foot increments. It is worth noting that the front speakers have to be set at the same distance offset and that none of the time alignment features apply to SACD audio. The next tab in the menu allows one to select the gain as either fixed or variable. For my setup, I needed to use the variable setting, and I was pleased to see that one can adjust the gain of each of the channels individually in accurate 0.5 dB increments. There is a test tone generator for easy balancing of the channels.

The last item in the audio menu is whether one wants to turn Onkyo’s “CD Digital Direct” on or off. This is a feature that “increases CD audio quality by bypassing certain audio circuits in the player that audio signal would otherwise pass through.” I didn’t find this feature to make a difference in the quality of CD audio, but I gave Onkyo the benefit of the doubt and left it on for all of my listening tests.

Remote Control

Overall, this is a relatively full function remote control for a DVD player offering control of three other devices, preloaded codes for TVs and VCRs, as well as full learning ability for any of its devices. The Onkyo’s remote control is large, but it fit comfortably in my hands with a slot for the index finger to rest on the back. The buttons are a soft rubber, and the overall feel is nice. Many of the buttons are also shaped like their function to make it easier to find them. Some of the buttons are backlit, but unfortunately not all of them are.

The Onkyo’s remote lacks a jog wheel, but that’s something people might not miss. As much as I liked almost all aspects of the Onkyo remote control, the joystick was entirely frustrating to use. The joystick has little resistance in any of its directions, but in particular it has very little resistance when pressing down on it to select something. This makes it all too easy to select something when I wanted to scroll in some direction. Even after becoming conscious of this problem and trying to avoid it, it still happened all too frequently. I’m a big fan of these five-way style joysticks, and if the one on the front panel of the player is any indication, Onkyo knows how to make a decent one. It’s a shame that they have crippled such an otherwise excellent remote control with such a maddening deficiency.

Click Photo to See Larger Version

General Operation

Overall, I found the Onkyo smooth and efficient to operate as a DVD, DVD-A, SACD, or CD player, easily the equal or better in most respects to all of the players I have used before. However, the Onkyo, like many other DVD Audio players, has an annoying habit of pausing between tracks. This happens whether one lets the track normally move to the next one or when one is skipping between tracks. In the latter case, this problem is frustratingly evident. The Onkyo is not alone in this fault, as most DVD-A players have it to a greater or lesser extent. The problem stems from the time it takes the player to load the menu for the next track, thus it can vary widely from disc to disc. The “Buena Vista Social Club” has agonizingly long load times between tracks, averaging eight seconds, but the tracks on Queen’s “A Night at the Opera” load significantly faster with an average of two seconds on the Onkyo.

I should mention that there is no such problem with SACD as there are no menus to load with each track. I compared the Onkyo to last year’s Pioneer DV-47A and found the two to have essentially the same performance in loading tracks for DVD Audio. However, Pioneer has updated the DV-47A to the DV-47Ai, and in my brief time playing with it, it feels more responsive. I don’t have extensive quantitative measurements to say how much faster it is, but the quick tests I did indicate that it changes tracks one to two seconds faster.

Listening Tests

DVD Audio –

Buena Vista Social Club, Track 4 Pueblo Nuevo, Elektra/Asylum B0000560XI

Despite the annoying loading times, this is one of my favorite DVD-As. The music is interesting, and the mix does an excellent job of putting you in the kind of small club setting where you would expect this music to be performed. The surround channels add nicely to the overall presentation of the music, generally providing a good sense of ambience, but occasionally they get a little more aggressive with a distinct guitar and cowbell in this track coming primarily from the surrounds. “Pueblo Nuevo” starts off with the piano carrying the melody, and it sounded solid and quite believable on the Onkyo. The accompanying string bass also had a pleasingly solid and harmonically rich sound. At about four minutes thirty seconds into the track, the trumpet comes in and things really start to pick up. The Onkyo’s portrayal of the trumpet impressed me with a nice realistic edge to its sound that I often find lacking in the digital reproduction of brass instruments

Fleetwood Mac, "Rumours", Track 2 Dreams, Warner Brothers B00005B5L4

This DVD-A has both a high resolution two channel and 5.1 channel mixes on it, and I thought it might interesting to compare the two on the Onkyo. On the stereo recording, I was struck by how clean and noise free it sounded. The soundstage was confined to the area in between my speakers, and switching to the 5.1 track really opened up the sound, making it fuller and richer. My speakers disappeared more effectively into the soundstage, and the soundstage itself gained a more three-dimensional feel. The vocals sounded outstanding, and the percussion had a more live feel to them compared to the two-channel track, which just sounded flatter. The Onkyo did most everything right on this track, although I felt it sounded a little closed in on the top end when compared to the Pioneer DV-47A, particularly on percussion instruments. It’s not really a detriment, it’s just that the Onkyo seemed a little more laid back than the Pioneer. Overall, this recording is an excellent argument for why we should listen to more surround music, and the Onkyo proved a capable piece of equipment to support this.

SACD –

Carl Orff, "Carmina Burana", Track 14 In taberna quando sumus and Track 15 Amor volat undique, Telarc SACD-60575

Carmina Burana is the kind of romantic classical music that begs to be recorded in surround sound. However, this is also the kind of music that often ends up with the old “head in a string bass” type of surround sound mix. Luckily, Telarc’s recording has a subtle surround mix that gives a nice sense of concert hall ambience and not too many flying cellos. These two tracks are a nice cross section of the diverse music one will find in this work, the first a boisterous drinking song and second a subtle love song. On track 14, the Onkyo was doing great things with a tension to the upbeats and nice delineation of the different instruments. Again, I liked the sound of brass instruments on the Onkyo, and an exposed tuba part was particularly impressive. Overall, the Onkyo was very dynamic and exciting on this track. Track 15 again showed a nice neutral sound, but I was a little disappointed in the sound of the triangle, as it lacked the sparkle one normally associates with this instrument.

Rolling Stones, "Let it Bleed", ABKCO B00006AW2G

About half way through my review, I picked up the new SACD copy of Let it Bleed, and it ended up being so good I couldn’t manage to single out a track. In the end, I just decided to look at the album as a whole. Let it Bleed is a two channel SACD with a Redbook CD layer, and for the purpose of this review, I only listened to the SACD portion. It’s amazing what SACD can do for an older recording like this, and it is a strong argument for adding SACD to your system. I had nothing to complain about with the way the Onkyo handled this disc. It is everything an SACD should be, great music with excellent fidelity.

Redbook CD –

Gustav Holst, "Second Suite in F", Track 7 Fantasia on the Dargason, Telarc CD-80038

Since I had it in my mind that the Onkyo sounded good with brass music, I pulled out an old band favorite of mine. Overall, I felt that the Onkyo sounded very good playing this track, capturing the essential character of the woodwinds and the brass instruments.

Malcolm Arnold, "Arnold for Band", Track 12 Water Music: Vivace, Reference Recordings RR-66

To finish things up, I pulled out another band favorite, Arnold for Band. Reference Recordings' CDs of the Dallas Wind Symphony are some of the best you will find, and Arnold for Band is no exception. I used the quick paced Vivace from the Water Music, and it sounded first class on the Onkyo. The brass instruments sounded quite realistic, and bass was tight. I felt the Onkyo handled standard CDs quite impressively, although this might be of dubious value to you if you already own a quality processor or receiver with good DACs. I would still experiment with both analog and digital connections if you buy this player.

On the Bench (JEJ)

At 1 kHz, Redbook CD, there was only one small peak at the third harmonic (graph shown below). I am very impressed with the way the newer op-amps have eliminated the harmonic distortion they used to have only a few years ago.

11 kHz and 12 kHz inputs, Redbook CD, resulted in only a modest amount of IMD (graph shown below).

With Redbook CD, the frequency response was flat until about 2 kHz, when it rose about 1 dB at 20 kHz (graphs below).

With a 24/96 signal, DVD-A, the frequency response was within 0.25 dB to 20 kHz, and within 1 dB to 48 kHz (graphs below).

For details on the Benchmark video test results for this player, click HERE.

Conclusions

Overall, I could find little to fault in the audio performance of the Onkyo DV-SP800, as it sounded universally excellent on CD, DVD-A, and SACD. I thought it to be a little laid back compared to the Pioneer DV-47A, but this might be to the liking of many people, as some find the Pioneer too forward. These differences were very minor though, and the two players sounded very similar in all of my listening tests.

The minor ergonomic foibles of the remote control and the player’s slow response time for DVD-A were a serious detriment to me, although this has nothing to do with the sound quality. There is also the matter of bass management, which due to its limited implementation in this player might as well be nonexistent. A year ago the Onkyo would have competed favorably against Pioneer’s DV-47A, but today Pioneer has updated its flagship player to fix many of the most glaring weaknesses that both the 47A and the Onkyo share. None of the current universal players are perfect, but at relatively similar price points, I feel the new players from Yamaha and Pioneer are competitive with the Onkyo.

The fact is that most of us only have one multi-channel input on our receivers or processors, and thus it is cumbersome to have separate DVD-A and SACD players. So, it is very convenient that we now have at least a few players available that handle all the formats in one component. Throughout 2003, a number of manufacturers will introduce universal disc players at all kinds of price points, and hopefully some of them will have good bass management, but until then you will have to weigh the compromises of the current offerings and decide whether or not you want to rush to the front lines and pick up a universal disc player now.


 

- Matthew Abel -

Related to the article above, we recommend the following:

DVD Benchmark

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