HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



September
2003

Reviewed by
Anthony Di Marco
REVIEWERS' CHOICE 2003


Denon
DVD-2900
Universal Audio/Video Player

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: Denon DVD-2900

Price: $999.99 USD
Dimensions: 17.1"W x 5.2"H x 13.5"D
Weight: 22 pounds

Warranty: One year parts and labor

Features

  • Progressive-scan video output
  • DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, SACD, CD, DVD-RAM, DVD-R, Video CD, MP3, CD-R/CD-RW playback
  • Internal DTS and Dolby Digital decoders
  • Resonance-resistant chassis
  • Shielded audio, video, and power-supply sections

Features
  • Silicon Image DVDO SIL504 PureProgressive video deinterlacing
  • Analog Devices Noise Shaping Video (NSV) processing
  • SuperSub Alias Filter
  • RCA connections for composite and component-video outputs
  • 12-bit/54MHz video DACs
  • Burr-Brown 1790 24-bit/192kHz audio DACs
  • Picture controls for contrast, color, brightness, black level, gamma
  • 16:9-to-4:3 image scaling
  • SACD/DVD-A digital bass management
  • 75-ohm coaxial digital output
  • SRS TruSurround
  • Full-function, nonprogrammable remote control with glow-in-the-dark buttons
  • Detachable IEC power cord

High value and high performance are tough goals to attain when many technologies are merged into one component. The advent of the universal audio/video player is an example of such a product. Designing a single player capable of reading DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, Super Audio CD (which is actually a DVD under the skin), and standard 16-bit/44.1kHz CD could easily end in disaster. Without solid development and consistent technical specifications running the show, class-leading flexibility could easily produce a machine that fails to do anything right.

When I first received Denon’s DVD-2900 ($999.99), I couldn’t help but expect great things. The prototype I’d seen at CES 2003 looked like a gigantic bargain. The build quality looked solid and the features seemed extensive, though the level of performance remained unknown. But given the company’s excellent reputation, my expectations were high: Denon rarely delivers a dud. The question was whether they could pull off such a format tour de force for $1000.

Judging a book by its cover

On the outside, the Denon DVD-2900 comes across as a tight and well-finished product. Cost-cutting measures are apparent in the relatively lightweight steel that encloses the top of the chassis, but the stamped reinforcement ribs, the 12 screws securing its wraparound cover, and the thin but well-finished aluminum faceplate do a nice job of conveying an impression of solidity. Denon boasts that the DVD-2900 has a "thorough vibration-resistant design," and rapping on the player’s top and sides produced a dead thunk rather than a tinny ring. Also impressive was the smooth, quiet operation of the DVD-2900’s tray and mechanism. My first impressions at CES held fast -- this was a well-constructed machine.

The six multichannel outputs, a set of stereo outputs, optical and digital coaxial connections, and the composite, S-video, and component-video outputs are all well laid out on the DVD-2900’s rear panel. Also featured is a standard IEC-type three-prong removable power cord, which should make those who enjoy tweaking power cables happy.

The front panel is equally well thought out and free of extraneous controls. The large buttons for play, track skip, track scan, and power engage with confident feel. Additional controls for SACD setup and Pure Direct modes are also up front. The dot-matrix LCD readout was pretty easy to read from 10’ away. For a bonus, the display has three-position dimming and an Off setting.

The Denon’s onscreen display is another high point. Menu updating is lightning-fast, while the majority of settings are intuitive -- I adjusted most of them without having to consult the manual. I also liked having the choice of setting my screen background color to gray, to preserve the life of my Mitsubishi monitor. The user interface for this player is near perfect -- except when it comes to bass management.

When a book’s cover does not tell the whole story

As most people understand it, bass management is a process in which bass below a certain frequency is redirected from small speakers to a subwoofer or large speaker. Such processing is purported to both increase the power handling and dynamic range of a multichannel system and to save smaller speakers from having to reproduce frequencies below their capabilities. The process seems simple, but in talking with a few people at Dolby Labs, DTS, and Denon I discovered an interesting fact: The Small speaker setting in today’s surround products was a side effect of market demand; it’s not a requirement of any formal specification.

In most bass-management arrangements, speakers designated as Large are sent all bass, mid, and high frequencies, while the subwoofer is sent bass frequencies from 120Hz down through the low-frequency effects (LFE) channel. From there, it’s up to the mixing engineers to direct bass and LFE within a music or movie recording. Unfortunately, manufacturers of small speakers are not able to adhere to this specification because their speakers can’t reproduce the bass required to fall within the 80-120Hz guideline -- the enclosures and drivers are simply too small. To mitigate this, receiver manufacturers incorporate more flexible crossovers, and include a Small speaker setting so people with smaller speakers can integrate their setups optimally. This added flexibility is not defined in Dolby’s 5.1 specification.

According to Denon, they follow the Dolby and DTS specifications to the letter, which should mean that the DVD-2900’s bass management sets all speakers to Large and the subwoofer to On, and relies on the recording to do the right thing with the bass. What I found was the contrary. The DVD-2900’s speaker-configuration menu includes a Filter setting, which allows the user to set speakers to Small and direct all bass below 80Hz to a sub. The manual states that the user should enable Filter when listening to Dolby Digital and PCM multichannel recordings, but turn it off when listening to SACD- and DTS-encoded material. Everything works fine following the manual, but the absence of a Filter switch on the front panel made things annoying when it came time to switch formats. Given that I have smaller speakers for my surrounds and center-channel, I hoped that the mixing engineers had done their job correctly.

What the manual doesn’t say is that you should also disable Filter when listening to 6.0 recordings from Chesky. This piece of information is included in a technical note available on Denon’s website. The problem is that this note directly contradicts the manual, telling owners to use their receivers’ bass management for Dolby Digital and DTS. The tech note also points out that users can set speakers to Small for SACD and DVD-Audio recordings, and that the Filter setting is not meant for 5.1 recordings, only 6.0. When I configured the DVD-2900 in accordance with the tech note, I lost all bass to my main speakers when playing back DTS or SACD recordings. Dolby Digital and DVD-A worked fine. When I turned Filter off, bass was restored.

The other issue with the DVD-2900’s bass management is in the speaker-level settings. Unlike the level adjustments in receivers and my Panasonic DVD-RP82S DVD player, a user can only reduce levels, from a default setting of 0dB to a minimum of -10dB. The trouble is that my subwoofer is down 15dB at the Denon’s factory default of 0, which makes matching subwoofer and speaker-level outputs impossible using the DVD-2900’s pink-noise generator. What I ended up doing was to reduce the speaker level to -10dB and adjust the bass down in respect to the recording until it sounded right. This was a major pain.

So how does the book sound?

Once I’d figured out the rules of bass management, I spun some discs. The Denon DVD-2900 had no problem playing anything I threw at it: SACDs, DVD-As, DVD-Vs, CDs, and CD-Rs played back without a problem.

Unlike many SACD players, the DVD-2900 uses a dedicated DSD decoder and does not convert DSD data to PCM. According to Denon, this allows the DVD-2900 to support the maximum potential of SACD. The SACD of John Pizzarelli’s Live at Birdland [Telarc SACD-63577] sounded absolutely real through my Canton Ergo home-theater speaker system. And although I don’t have large speakers all around, the sound was full, natural, and enveloping. I simply had to close my eyes to believe that I was sitting in a jazz club. The images and voices were extremely tangible and clear; Pizzarelli’s humorous interludes seemed to appear right in front of me.

The new two-channel SACD remastering of the Kinks’ Low Budget [Mobile Fidelity CMFSA2008] is equally impressive. Compared with an earlier HDCD version of this album, the SACD had more ambient information as well as a crisper but still natural leading edge to dynamics. Cymbals and rim shots sounded very open and articulate, without any edginess. Bass was detailed and extended.

Playback of Björk’s Vespertine DVD-A [Elektra 62653] was open and lush, and the album’s dense sound design was even more enveloping than I remembered. The copious high-frequency information throughout the album never sounded etched or artificially enhanced. As on the SACDs I listened to, the bass was very firm, with nice harmonic texture. There was a coolness to the experience -- like the feeling of condensed breath across lips on a cold day. The CD of Vespertine always sounded a bit harsh and clinical to my ear. Through the Denon, the DVD-A version sounded natural and refreshing.

CDs impressed the least, but sounded better than I’d expected through a product with the Denon’s numerous features. The DVD-2900 had a very warm sound that was a bit recessed in the midrange. High frequencies sounded rolled-off as well; horns and cymbals didn’t shimmer as much compared to my Rotel RCD-991AE or Arcam’s FMJ-CD23T CD players. The bass response was strong, but leaned toward the punchy rather than the extended. Soundstage depth and width were also a bit restricted, and the stereo image was almost too precise in its placement of voices and instruments. The Denon did, however, get pace, rhythm, and timing down perfectly. Rock and pop recordings, such as Iris’s Disconnected [Orchard 4674] and Peter Gabriel’s So [Universal 493284], got my foot tapping.

Feeding the Denon’s digital output to my B&K AVR305 or Sunfire’s Ultimate Receiver yielded a more dynamic and detailed presentation while allowing me to adjust DTS bass management more effectively. Ironically, two-channel playback sounded slightly compressed with very dynamic recordings, such as Telarc’s Carmina Burana [CD-80056].

So how does the book read?

The DVD-2900 uses the newest SIL504 PureProgressive video-processing engine from Silicon Image, and an updated MPEG decoder that’s said to remedy a chroma bug that was common in previous Denon models. However, I didn’t hook up the DVD-2900 to any test equipment or compare it to its predecessors, so I can’t comment on whether it performs better. I will say that its image quality was outstanding.

Colors had a very clean, saturated quality, while depth of field was cavernous. Watching the newly remastered Patriot Games was a visual feast. Skin color, reds, and blacks were rich and natural-looking. The opening chapter of Toy Story 2 was breathtaking in both sound and image quality. The scene in which Buzz is surrounded by what seems to be a million robot guards is amazing to behold: The metallic surface on each robot exhibited a beautiful rusty sheen, and I could almost see myself reflected in the plastic window of Buzz’s helmet.

Two books

Last September I picked up the Panasonic DVD-RP82S. This low-budget, feature-rich player was praised by videophiles for its striking picture quality. It also included DVD-Audio playback in a package that retailed for around $300! The only thing it lacked was SACD playback. Sadly, Panasonic has recently discontinued it.

The DVD-RP82S gave up build quality and sonic refinement when compared with the Denon DVD-2900. One could also argue that the Denon’s Silicon Image picture was richer than the hyper-sharp quality of the Panasonic, which used Faroudja’s DCDi processing, but I think the picture argument is more a question of personal taste than right or wrong.

The Denon’s chassis and parts quality are far superior to the Panasonic’s -- and for a $700 premium, they should be. Despite being a mass-manufactured device, the Denon is closer to the quality of a hand-built specialty audio component. The fit’n’finish of the Denon and Panasonic are equally good -- the Panasonic just uses more plastic and lower-cost electronics, and its cheesy silver chassis doesn’t help its perceived quality. Open up the Denon and you’ll notice metal partitions that shield the power supply, video, and audio sections. Open up the Panasonic and you’ll see a single large circuit board, with no shielding and a smaller power supply.

Audio through the Panasonic’s digital outputs was very close to that of the Denon. The DVD-2900 offered cleaner high-frequency extension and a slightly more natural sound. Analog output was another story. The Denon had a warmer, more analog presentation that was devoid of digital harshness, while the Panasonic sucked every last ounce of involvement from the music. The Panasonic was antiseptic, the Denon musically involving.

DVD-Audio playback was especially rich and natural with the Denon. The Panasonic’s DVD-A sound didn’t have as much glare as its two-channel sound did, but it also didn’t convey the same enveloping sense of space or refinement as the Denon. Vespertine through the Denon was crisp and dimensional, while the Panasonic’s presentation was hard and flat. Sounds from the Panasonic tended to stick against the speakers, while the Denon created more palpable depth.

I enjoyed the Denon’s video playback more than the Panasonic. The Denon’s slightly softer but more vibrant color reproduction contrasted with the Panasonic’s linear but slightly shallow images. It was apparent that the Denon’s frequency response was not ruler-flat, but there was a quality to the picture that pulled me into every film I watched.

Is it worth the extra money for hardcover?

The Denon DVD-2900 did an impressive job of living up to the reaction I had at CES when I first saw it. It’s well-built, offers dependable playback of every multichannel format currently available, and sounds very impressive. Measured against its list of features, it’s a steal for $1000. The ease of operation of its bass management is another story, but, to be fair, it handles bass more effectively than much of its competition.

Like its predecessors, the DVD-2900 is firmware-upgradeable, and Denon has proven that they’ll fix bugs if they can. What I question, and what should be more of a concern to a consumer, is whether the futures of SACD and DVD-A are solid enough to rationalize investing in a universal player. Either way, with the Denon DVD-2900 you’ll be covered for the foreseeable future.

Review System
Speakers - Canton Ergo RC-A (mains), Ergo CM 500 DC (center), Ergo F (surrounds)
Receivers - B&K AVR305, Sunfire Ultimate Receiver
Sources - Panasonic RP82S DVD player, Rotel RCD-991AE CD player
Cables - BetterCables
Cables - Mitsubishi WT-46809 rear-projection widescreen monitor (with Duvetyne modification and full ISF Calibration)
 

Manufacturer contact information:

Denon Electronics Ltd.
19 Chapin Road
P.O. Box 867
Pine Brook, NJ 07058-9777
Phone: (973) 396-0810
Fax: (973) 396-7459

Website: www.denon.com

 


PART OF THE SOUNDSTAGE NETWORK -- www.soundstagenetwork.com

All contents copyright © Schneider Publishing Inc., all rights reserved.
Any reproduction, without permission, is prohibited.

Home Theater & Sound is part of the SoundStage! Network.
A world of websites and publications for audio, video, music and movie enthusiasts.