Review: Denon DVD-900
After two years with entry-level SACD and universal players, I’d finally had enough. Sure, SACD sounds great, and DVD-A too, but I’d accumulated less than 20 high-res discs. Meanwhile, because most universal players in my price range (under $1000) do a mediocre job with regular CD playback, my 500-plus Red Book CD collection sat neglected.
I’d auditioned units from Pioneer’s Elite line (the DV-45 and DV-47), alongside Denon’s DVD-2200 and 2900, but came away underwhelmed. I found the CD sound to be thin and grating with the Pioneer players, and a bit dull with the Denons. That’s why I bought the $249 Pioneer DV-563A…why spend more for a better built but equally compromised unit? And while the DV-563A is very good with SACD and DVD-A, it just didn’t cut the mustard sonically with CDs.
SOLUTION(?): THE DENON DVD-900
That brings me to the Denon DVD-900. This is a player that does two things, and two things only. It plays CDs. And it plays DVDs. It does both well, despite a few annoyances (more on those in a moment). Best of all, for well under my $1000 budget, it has given me back the full enjoyment of my Red Book CD collection, which hasn’t sounded this good since I sold my Rotel transport and DAC – proof positive that CD players (or, more likely, their chipsets) have come a very long way in a relatively short period of time.
The DVD-900 isn’t flimsy, but don’t expect a 45-pound heirloom, either. It has an aluminum front panel and nice cosmetics. It’s a bit stubby-looking on my rack, but I suppose the chassis only needs to be so deep to accommodate a single CD. All in all, the Denon is about as rich looking – and only slightly less hefty than – the company’s $629 DVD-2200. Though the DVD-900 retails for $329, the release of the updated DVD-910 and, later, the $429 DVD-1200 (virtually identical, except for the addition of DVD-A playback capability) guarantees you’ll receive a sizable discount on remaining stock. I did.
FEATURES & FUNCTIONALITY
The DVD-900 sports dual 24-bit, 192kHz Burr Brown DACs and a 10-bit, 54MHz video DAC. Home theater buffs will also find Faroudja DCDi (Directional Correlational Deinterlacing) onboard for smoother picture quality when standard interlaced video is viewed on progressive scan displays.
Movie lovers with two-channel A/V systems will appreciate the inclusion of SRS TruSurround processing, which I previously enjoyed on my Pioneer DV-563A. Unlike older matrix surround simulators, TruSurround actually creates a reasonable sense of depth and spaciousness without imparting a “tinny” quality to the sound. It’s still artificial sounding, so you won’t want to use it to view live concert DVDs, but it works acceptably well with most movies.
Unlike Pioneer, Denon smartly disables TruSurround during CD playback just in case you forgot to turn it off after watching a movie. In fact, it seems most of the video circuitry is either automatically disabled or bypassed during CD playback. Nice touch, and typical of Denon. Unfortunately, the DVD-900 also has an auto shutoff that means, like most lower-end players, you won’t be able to warm it up for more than a few minutes without it shutting down on its own. A shame, because the DVD-900 sounds slightly richer when warm.
The DVD-900 has a utilitarian remote by home theater standards, but for the audiophile, it’s more than sufficient. Though there are maybe one too many buttons on the aluminum front panel of the player itself, the upside is that you can operate nearly all functions without the remote. I could do without the half-dozen logos the Denon is emblazoned with, but aside from that, you won’t find a more attractive DVD/CD player in this price range except from Denon’s sister company, Marantz.
The transport’s operation is comparable to Denon’s $629 DVD-2200. While I found the 2200 somewhat flimsy for the price, the DVD-900 seems just right. The CD drawer opens smoothly and shuts firmly. The action is accompanied by a bit of gear whine, but not so much as to be horrifying. Cueing of CDs and DVDs is quick enough for me, with discs ready to play long before I make it back to the couch. So far, so good.
What a difference a DAC makes! While the Pioneer DV-563A uses a single 24/192 DAC, the Denon has two, sourced from Burr Brown. I had both players on hand for a few days and compared them side-by side using Audioquest Sidewinder cables. Even with the Denon still breaking in, I could hear the improvement yielded by the dual Burr Browns. The Denon makes the Pionner seem crude and one-dimensional by comparison during Red Book CD playback.
Bass was certainly more extended and better controlled on the Denon. In fact, when I cued up the CD layer of the SACD hybrid release of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” I had to check my receiver to be sure I didn’t accidentally trip the ‘loudness’ button. Big change from the thin-sounding Pioneer! The highs also sparkled more, as evidenced on James Taylor’s “Hourglass.” Delicate cymbal taps, for example, sounded more real, and less like a stop sign being pelted with pebbles. The Denon simply reached higher and deeper than the Pioneer, and reminded me of how good CDs can sound.
The amount of detail the Denon produced was also surprising. Sound effects and background noises on Roger Waters’ “Amused to Death” were well defined and crisp, rather than compacted and artificial like they were with the Pioneer. It was like the difference between watermelon-flavored chewing gum and real watermelon. Additionally, imaging and soundstaging were much improved over the Pioneer. Typical of Denon, the DVD-900 goes wider and deeper than you’d expect at its price point. I’ve never heard a cheap DVD player sound this good, and I’ve owned my share.
I have only a few minor complaints. One is that the Denon lacks authority. I’d sometimes be bracing myself for a loud crescendo that would never fully bloom. I found this across a wide range of CDs, from rock to classical. (The Denon does offer a sound level compression feature for watching loud movies at night, and I double-checked to see if it was engaged. It wasn’t, and can’t be, during CD playback.) I don’t want to overstate the issue; it’s not that the Denon is dynamically hopeless. It’s just that, on occasion, its sound is a bit on the light side.
Another problem is that vocals can sometimes sound oddly submerged, and other times, too far out front. I first noticed this on certain tracks of Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” but later noticed it on other discs. It could be that the Denon is more highly resolved than any player I’ve owned recently, and the differences between the tracks are simply due to their being recorded at different times and in different studios, or maybe with different mics. I can’t say for certain.
Finally, the Denon is ever so slightly dry, with the trailing edges of notes shriveling up a bit prematurely. If memory serves, it also doesn’t carry a tune quite as well as my Rotel and Meridian players did. That should come as no surprise, as those players cost at least four times what the Denon does. But make no mistake: the DVD-900 lacks the musical cohesion of much higher-priced players, and as a result, various elements of a recording can sometimes sound curiously disconnected from one another.
I wouldn’t want to use this player with, say, $5000 worth of amplification. Within the context of a low to moderately priced system however, my complaints all amount to relatively minor criticisms given the DVD-900’s many strengths.
STANDARD CD vs. HI-RES
Before selling my hi-res collection, I decided to compare the CD layers of the hybrid discs (played back on the Denon) with the hi-res layers (played back on the Pioneer). Though I used the same cables (AQ Sidewinders), I don’t own a decibel meter so I couldn’t match volume levels. I also made no special effort to isolate the Pioneer; I simply rested it temporarily on top of my Rega turntable’s dustcover.
I played a few tracks from the excellent Deluxe Edition of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and found the SACD layer to have slightly more depth and a bit more analog-like smoothness. I also compared Jimmy Lee Robinson’s “…All My Life” and found the same characteristics. Also, the CD layers, played on the Denon, offered a slightly veiled vocal presentation compared with the SACD layer. By contrast, the CD and DVD-A versions of the Barenaked Ladies’ “Everything to Everyone” were nearly indistinguishable. The same was generally true of the SACD and CD layers of some Abcko Rolling Stones discs.
At their best, the high-res formats offered a bit more depth and life than the CD versions. Had I the room, I’d happily keep both the Pioneer and the Denon in my system. But for the vast majority of my CD collection, the Denon is more satisfying overall.
I connected the Denon to my Sharp 27” flat-tube TV, with both units set to 16:9 mode, via the player’s component video output. Screening DVDs of the BBC TV series “The Office,” Michael Mann’s “The Insider” and the well-transferred (if not well-tolerated) “Fight Club,” I found the Denon’s picture quality to be slightly softer, though no less resolved, than the Pioneer’s. It’s also neither jagged nor harsh, which some players in its class most certainly are.
On the negative side, the Denon has possibly the most annoying feature ever conceived for DVD playback: “Black Mode.” It automatically boosts the brightness to allow for easier viewing during daylight hours or in well-lit rooms. It doesn’t work. Instead, it simply makes the picture look washed out and floury. Of course, you won’t realize this until AFTER you’ve read the manual because the Denon defaults to Black Mode with every new DVD unless you manually disengage it each time.
Has it really been four or five years since I last owned a good digital player? It has, and wow have things changed. Back then, even expensive DVD/CD players offered generally lousy CD playback unless you hooked them up to an affordable outboard DAC (which I did). Today, you can buy a beer-budget DVD player like the DVD-900 that sounds good enough with CDs that you might happily use it for both formats.
Taking its low price and dual purpose into account, the DVD-900 is a well-rounded CD player with a wide and deep soundstage, above average imaging, excellent detail, and surprising top-to-bottom frequency response. As a bonus, the Denon is fine DVD player, too. Depending on your needs, you may find it hard to justify spending more.
Denon DRA-395 stereo receiver with MM phono section
Rega P2 turntable (with P3 glass platter and None-Felt mat)
Ortofon X1-MC moving coil cartridge
Denon DVD-900 DVD/CD player
Pioneer DV-563A universal disc player
Philips CDR-785 CD Recorder
ProAc Tablette 2000 loudspeakers
Various Kimber, Audioquest, Radio Shack and MonsterCable cables
MonsterPower HTS2500 Power Center
AudioQuest MC cartridge demagnetizer
Record Doctor II record cleaning machine
Sennheiser HD580 Precision headphones
Sony ProAudio MDR-7506 studio monitor headphones
Grado 15’ headphone extension cable
Various DVD players from RCA, Pioneer, Phillips and others. DACs from Theta and CAL. Also, CD players from Rotel and Meridian.