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Breaking the Sound Barrier

High-resolution audio takes your sound system supersonic. We test the best disc players and fight the format war.
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

(continued from page 2)

format offers the music you enjoy. Inevitably, there will be discs in each flavor that appeal. You could buy separate SACD and DVD-A players, but there's a much more elegant solution: a single player that handles both SACDs and DVD-A discs (along with DVD movies and standard audio CDs). At least 17 manufacturers offer players that handle both formats with equal aplomb and, while many are priced in the audiophile $1,000-plus range, we're also starting to see units at prices even lowly journalists can afford.

If you're serious about your audio gear, I especially recommend the combination players from Denon, Pioneer and Marantz. For simplicity's sake, you can't beat the Pioneer DV59-AVi ($1,600) paired with its VSX-59TXi receiver ($4,500)—a single FireWire cable sends SACD and DVD-Audio data between the two components, allowing easy setup for bass management and speaker output balancing. Pairing Denon's DVD-5900 ($2,000) with its AVR-5803 receiver ($4,400) lets you send DVD-A digitally using the company's proprietary single-cable connection, but you will need to connect six separate cables (one for each audio channel) for SACD output. The Denon does involve more cabling, but the important point is that you,ll still have full audio output control through the receiver. With most high-res audio setups, you have to make bass management and speaker output settings twice: first on the receiver, then again on the SACD/DVD-A player.

Of course, if you're going to use a single player for both audio and DVD movies, the quality of the movie playback is another essential consideration. The Marantz DV8400 ($1,699) offers superb audio performance and also incorporates DVI output, a direct digital connection to your high-definition display that provides the sharpest possible video images.

While it's fun hanging around the high end, I have to say that it's the affordable combo players that really excite me at this point. Pioneer led the way here with its DV563A, a high-performance model that lists at $249 and can found for as little as $149. Toshiba recently announced it was coming out with two inexpensive combo players, the single-disc SD-4960 ($180), due to arrive in June, and the five-disc changer SD-6915 ($200), scheduled for a May introduction. No, we're not talking a $39 Wal-Mart DVD movie player here, but these combo units are certainly affordable and flexible enough to be compelling purchases. And as player prices fall, music publishers have more incentive to release more discs, which in turn makes buying a player more enticing, and so on and so on.

If you're just starting out with surround sound, consider a convenient home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) system. With HTIB all you have to add is the display—the receiver/amplifier plus all the speakers and wiring are included. While audio snobs may still thumb their noses at this approach, there are distinct advantages, not only in convenience but in having a full set of components professionally matched to work well together. And we're not talking second-rate gear here. Klipsch has announced a primo system that will ship this year, the KES-6100-THX, includes a "control center" with a built-in receiver/amp and universal DVD player, plus six satellite speakers and a big honking subwoofer. The company has even thrown in Monster cables for system hookup—but then again, with a $4,000 price tag, throwing in the speaker wire seems fair.

For a more affordable receiver/universal DVD player solution (albeit minus the speakers), Sharp is introducing its SD-HX600 system ($1,499), a strikingly modern-looking anodized aluminium and plexiglass concoction featuring the company's impressive 1-Bit amplification system. If you want the whole enchilada—receiver, universal DVD, speakers—Pioneer will deliver three new HTIB systems between May and July, ranging in price from $600 to $1,400 (the $1,400 HTZ-950 includes flat-panel speakers), all with built-in

DVD-A/SACD playback capability.

Meanwhile, Outside the Living Room…

For most of us, the time we spend listening to music on our stereo systems is a small part of the time we spend listening to music. When it comes to enjoying the full effect of DVD-A and SACD audio without a rack full of audio gear, the choices are limited.

For drive-time listening, only DVD-Audio players are currently available; the easiest way to get one is to buy a 2004 Acura TL, which is the first car to incorporate a factory-installed DVD-Audio surround system as standard equipment. The audio system, designed by the famed producer/audio engineer Elliott Scheiner and built by Panasonic, includes an in-dash radio with a built-in six-disc DVD-Audio/CD changer as well as eight speakers.

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