Universal Audio/Video Player
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
FeaturesProgressive-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
Shielded audio, video, and power-supply sections
Silicon Image DVDO SIL504 PureProgressive video
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
16:9-to-4:3 image scaling
SACD/DVD-A digital bass management
75-ohm coaxial digital output
Full-function, nonprogrammable remote control with
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 Denons DVD-2900 ($999.99), I
couldnt help but expect great things. The prototype Id 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 companys 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
players top and sides produced a dead thunk rather than a tinny ring. Also
impressive was the smooth, quiet operation of the DVD-2900s 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-2900s 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 Denons 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
When a books 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 todays surround products was a side effect of market
demand; its 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,
its 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 cant 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 Dolbys 5.1 specification.
According to Denon, they follow the Dolby and DTS
specifications to the letter, which should mean that the DVD-2900s 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-2900s
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
What the manual doesnt 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 Denons 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-2900s 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 Denons
factory default of 0, which makes matching subwoofer and speaker-level outputs impossible
using the DVD-2900s 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 Id 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 Pizzarellis Live at
Birdland [Telarc SACD-63577] sounded absolutely real through my Canton Ergo
home-theater speaker system. And although I dont 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;
Pizzarellis 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 Björks Vespertine DVD-A [Elektra
62653] was open and lush, and the albums 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 Id
expected through a product with the Denons 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 didnt shimmer as much compared to my Rotel
RCD-991AE or Arcams 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 Iriss Disconnected [Orchard 4674] and Peter
Gabriels So [Universal 493284], got my foot tapping.
Feeding the Denons digital output to my B&K
AVR305 or Sunfires 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 Telarcs 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 thats said
to remedy a chroma bug that was common in previous Denon models. However, I didnt
hook up the DVD-2900 to any test equipment or compare it to its predecessors, so I
cant 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 Buzzs helmet.
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 Denons Silicon
Image picture was richer than the hyper-sharp quality of the Panasonic, which used
Faroudjas DCDi processing, but I think the picture argument is more a question of
personal taste than right or wrong.
The Denons chassis and parts quality are far superior
to the Panasonics -- 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 fitnfinish of the Denon and Panasonic are equally good --
the Panasonic just uses more plastic and lower-cost electronics, and its cheesy silver
chassis doesnt help its perceived quality. Open up the Denon and youll notice
metal partitions that shield the power supply, video, and audio sections. Open up the
Panasonic and youll see a single large circuit board, with no shielding and a
smaller power supply.
Audio through the Panasonics 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
DVD-Audio playback was especially rich and natural with the
Denon. The Panasonics DVD-A sound didnt have as much glare as its two-channel
sound did, but it also didnt convey the same enveloping sense of space or refinement
as the Denon. Vespertine through the Denon was crisp and dimensional, while the
Panasonics 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 Denons video playback more than the
Panasonic. The Denons slightly softer but more vibrant color reproduction contrasted
with the Panasonics linear but slightly shallow images. It was apparent that the
Denons 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. Its well-built, offers dependable
playback of every multichannel format currently available, and sounds very impressive.
Measured against its list of features, its 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 theyll 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 youll be covered for the foreseeable future.
|Speakers - Canton Ergo RC-A
(mains), Ergo CM 500 DC (center), Ergo F (surrounds)
- B&K AVR305, Sunfire Ultimate Receiver
|Sources - Panasonic RP82S DVD player,
Rotel RCD-991AE CD player
|Cables - Mitsubishi WT-46809
rear-projection widescreen monitor (with Duvetyne modification and full ISF Calibration)