Review: Initial DMA-710 Mini Home Theater Surround Pre
I can’t play it cool. This miniature home theater system is the neatest little thing I’ve ever seen. (Well, aside from the new PowerMac G5.) The low price—under $89 at your local Wal-Mart, of all places—adds considerably to my excitement. The fact that it sounds better than it has a right to and has a ton of features makes it probably the coolest thing you can buy for under $100.
The DMA-710 is something I can’t believe nobody’s ever thought of before: a 2-channel, mini desktop stereo with a built-in DVD player. This would be perfect with a little 13-inch plasma screen TV, or for your kids’ bedrooms, a dorm room or even a small apartment. And, again—this thing costs less than a decent half-meter interconnect, for crying out loud!
THE LONG ROAD FROM BOSE TO WAL-MART
Okay, some explanation of how I ended up in the godforsaken electronics section of my local Wal-Mart Supercenter is in order. So here goes. I needed a little system for my bedroom. So, about two years ago, I started looking around. I went to my local Bose store and tried out a Wave Radio/CD. It sounded about as good as a decent boom box. Trouble was, it’s $500. Good as it is for what it is, this thing isn’t worth anywhere near $500. (They can stick their acoustic wave-guide where the sun don’t shine.)
So I ordered a much more reasonably priced Cambridge SoundWorks Model 88. About $200, if I remember right. I had a spare Philips CD changer so I hooked it up with a cheap Monster Cable interconnect and listened. It sounded about as good as a decent boom box, with a little more bass than the Bose but a lousy tuner. (Even with a $50 Terk Pi antenna, it could barely pull in NPR.)
So I traded the Cambridge and some cash for a big old 1979 Yamaha 60-watt receiver that I immediately felt sorry for. (I knew this thing deserved better than to be stuck in a lonely, dusty corner of my bedroom. Amazing tuner, smooth sound, nice phono section.) Plus, it was gigantic. It sat alongside the TV cabinet it was supposed to fit into.
I started searching for a minisystem with an input so I could hook up a DVD player. Nothing like an NAD or Linn all-in-one, just an el cheapo that would meet the following criteria:
1. It must be cheap. (This whole stupid project of getting a radio for my bedroom was getting too damn expensive.)
2. It must be something I won’t feel sorry for. (I must be able to leave it on all night and forget to turn it off in the morning without any regrets.)
3. It must be able to take a bump or two and still come out swinging. (And when it gets a ding or a scratch, I must not care.)
4. It must sound good, but not too good. (I must not be tempted to buy a pair of B&W DM302s because the amp deserves better speakers. And it must not sound so good that it keeps me awake at night by involving me too much in the music. After all, I’m trying to get to sleep.)
5. It must be cheap. (Did I say that already?)
So I came across the Initial Mini Home Theater during an online search of stores like Best Buy and Target. Only $88.84, and about $95 with PA sales tax. Only problem: my local Wal-Mart didn’t have it.
So I trekked to the bafflingly huge and inhumanly cold Wal-Mart Supercenter. Simply negotiating the parking lot was an Olympic event. Pedestrians everywhere were pushing giant carts overflowing with family packs of hamburger meat, 27” TVs and snow blowers—all on the same cart, by the way. Abandoned shopping carts rolled eerily through the parking lot, grazing the flanks of everything from BMW M5s to rusted-out Cavaliers. Wal-Mart is the great equalizer: everyone needs snow blowers and hamburger meat, so everyone comes to Wal-Mart.
Once inside, it’s not easy to find an actual Wal-Mart employee. The reason is simple: there aren’t many. Except at the checkouts, to take your money. Once you pass that friendly greeter—who will eye you suspiciously in a very unfriendly manner on the way out while carefully checking your receipt – you’re on your own, jack. (I guess now would be a good time to mention that the opinions stated here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone at Audiogon.)
After a few minutes of wandering the electronics section, I was able to find a nice man who ascended a giant ladder and picked a DMA-710 off a monolithic pile of the things. I guess Wal-Mart anticipates selling a ton of these, and they should. (That’s a good thing and a bad thing at the same time—more on that later, though.)
UNPACKING THE DMA-710
After wolfing down a few Odwalla food bars (I’ve been taking meals in bar form as of late due to a packed schedule) I ripped the box open like a kid at Christmas. Inside I found a lightweight but nice-looking amp/disc player. Its silver finish was nice looking, and build quality didn’t seem any worse than the other minisytems I looked at. In fact, it was better than almost anything in its price range, though not quite as good as more expensive systems from Yamaha or Sony.
Also in the box were audio and video cables, short lengths of speaker wire, a remote with batteries included and separate AM and FM antennas. The speakers were surprisingly hefty and the cabinets were quite rigid. The weight was biased strongly toward the front, suggesting a big magnet for the midbass driver. Spring clip terminals on the back were cheesy, but certainly better than most systems in this class, in which the speaker wires are soldered directly to the drivers or crossovers and terminated with an RCA plug. That’s good, because someone could—if they wanted—add a cheap pair of Polks and have a nice starter system.
SO MANY FEATURES, SO LITTLE CASH
And once I hooked it all up, the DMA-710 was just that: a nice little system. My first attempt to cue up a CD resulted in an error message. (It had a hard time cueing up a few of the discs I tried, actually.) After a few tries, it came to life and sounded pretty damn good. Better than it has a right to.
But semi-serious listening would have to wait while I negotiated the features. Which, by the way, there a ton of. The back panel of this thing is more complicated than some early A/V receivers I’ve owned. It has an S-Video output, component video outs, an audio input, audio outputs, jacks for AM and FM antennas, and even a detachable power cord. A lunactic could have a field day with this thing. I half-expected to see balanced ins and outs. And yes, for a brief second, I did consider trying a better power cord.
But that’s missing the point. So I grabbed the remote and—wow! This thing has more features than the DVD player I paid $400 for back in the 90s. I guess I should have expected that. It lets you zoom in and out when you’re playing a DVD, mess with the orientation of the picture and switch audio tracks with the push of a button.
The remote duplicates every feature of the unit itself, except for Open/Close, and has a few more, too. You can turn the unit on and off, adjust the volume, bass, treble and balance. It has a few EQ presets (for rock, jazz, classical, etc.) that you can cycle through from your listening position. All this was pretty amazing to me, of course, considering my living room system’s preamp has just four buttons: power, volume, source and tape monitor. And no remote. (Purism has its drawbacks.)
Then DMA-710 plays just about everything except DVD-A and SACD. It even plays Kodak picture CDs and MP3s. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if this thing had an HDCD decoder in it. Oh, by the way, the DMA-710 has two microphone inputs for karaoke. Freaking karaoke! I bet, if you read the instruction manual very carefully, you’d find a way to toast Pop Tarts, too. There may even be a nose hair trimmer tucked away somewhere on the back.
LISTENING TO CDs
Bose has a lot of explaining to do. Because, while the Wave Radio is more accurate tonally, it’s not $400 better than this little guy. And the Wave Radio is not that much smaller, ether. Better looking, you bet. Better built, absolutely. More ingenious? Well, I don’t know about that one. Packing all these features and functions and bells and whistles into a tiny 7-lb. plastic box that actually works well is something of an accomplishment.
Once you get the EQ set to the least offensive setting, and adjust the bass and treble a bit, the DMA-710 is easy to live with. In fact, I wish I had one of these in my job-hopping, apartment-swapping post-college years. It would have spared me a lot of backaches, the result of dragging a giant Pioneer Elite home theater receiver around with its associated gear.
Like any small stereo with limited bass, this one is best suited to jazz and acoustic music. It performed well, on everything from Whiskeytown’s “Pneumonia” to Michael Hedges’ “Live on the Double Planet.” Rock music gave it some trouble; Fountains of Wayne’s “Welcome Interstate Managers” and Liz Phair’s new self-titled release got a little compressed-sounding. And every selection I played sounded a just a little distant and tinny. But all in all, the sound was fuller and more spacious than I expected.
By the way, I have to say I did not allow any break-in time. Maybe in another 50 more hours or so, the drivers (which look half-decent, by the way) will loosen up, the amp will settle down and my gripes will disappear. Then again, maybe they won’t.
My only real complaint is that the CD motor vibrates audibly, rumbling slightly at times like the one in the Gateway desktop sitting next to my monitor. That could be a problem if I sat closer, but I don’t; the unit is tucked away in a sturdy wood cabinet. Problem solved.
WATCHING AND LISTENING TO DVDs
The miracle of this player is that it can actually play a DVD at its price. I couldn’t believe it when it popped in “25th Hour” and it actually read the disk and a picture came up on my TV’s screen. I mean, think about it: the cheapest DVD player you can buy that I know of is $40 or $50 and it feels like it’s made of saran wrap and rubber bands. If it costs $40 for a DVD player, than how can anyone make a complete stereo with amp, tuner and speakers for another $30? It’s baffling, considering I once paid $100 for a turntable mat. And the mat just sat there, not playing DVDs or doing much of anything.
Another reason to love this player: it has no scruples. Unlike mass-market players that force you to watch those damn FBI warnings, this one lets you skip right past them. It also lets you skip through those over-animated root menus, too. I have to wonder if this thing has regional coding or even copy protection circuitry built-in. I don’t burn CDs or DVDs, and I don’t own any DVDs from other regions, so I didn’t test it out. Might be worth a try, though.
The picture quality is as you’d expect for the price. Artifacts galore. A little jagged. But my bedroom TV is only a 20-incher. I don’t how this would fare with a 31” or larger TV, but it’s perfectly fine for me.
The best part is, the DMA-710 does movie soundtracks pretty well. It’s not going to give even the most basic Pro-Logic home-theater-in-a-box system a run for its money. It will, however, reproduce the booms and crashes loudly and deeply enough for a bedroom or dorm room. It may even disturb the neighbors. (And remember, it has those audio outputs so you could easily add a cheap $99 subwoofer from Best Buy. For less than $200, you’d be the king of your dorm.)
THE TUNER IS EVEN GOOD, FOR PETE’S SAKE
My Cambridge SoundWorks Model 88 had a disappointing tuner. So did the Bose Wave Radio I auditioned. But the DMA-710 pulls in every station in my market with nothing more than the 10-cent wire antenna it came with. It has 20 presets, which you can cycle through with the remote. You can even use the remote’s numerical keypad for direct access to one of the presets.
The only problem: you can’t manually switch between stereo and mono. On some distant channels, there was static that would have been eliminated if I could have switched to mono. Unfortunately, the weak signals were just strong enough to keep the DMA-710 in stereo mode.
All right, I can’t help myself. I’ll probably, at some point, need to try this with a pair of cheap Wharfedales or B&Ws or something to see how it sounds. And yes, I’ll likely add a subwoofer at some point when I see one at a yard sale. Because, damnit, the outputs are there, just waiting to be used! However, I will resist the urge to upgrade the power cord. And I will not be using Kimber Heroes to hook up my hi-fi VCR to the inputs. (I used what came in the box, for the first time in 10 years.)
But I did have to upgrade to thicker-gauge Radio Shack zip cord, which improved the sound considerably from the stock speaker wires. (Which makes me wonder what Monster Cable XP might sound like, or even Kimber 4PR or something—which is really cheap if bought un-terminated, right?) I also want to stick it on Vibrpods. Really, really badly. So much so that I keep dialing Music Direct but hanging up before they answer when I come to my senses.
I am, admittedly, not a well man.
THE SOCIOECONOMIC IMPACT OF AN $88 STEREO (OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE CHINESE)
“Made in China.” Until recently, that wasn’t very confidence inspiring. Then big names started making mid-fi gear there. Roy Hall is even slapping the Music Hall name on a very good CD player that I think is made by Shanling. Shanling, by the way, makes those really cool-looking tubed CD players. Antique Sound Labs made one of the best amps I’ve ever owned.
Not only are China’s top electronics manufacturing facilities clean and modern, from what I’ve read they’re also not the sweatshops of old. People work less than 30-hour shifts, make decent money, and build a heck of a good product. So any guilt I might have felt a few years ago from buying a Chinese-made product is lacking. (Aside from the guilt I feel buying anything that’s not American made. Like everything I own except a few pair of chinos. And the aftermarket winter floor mats in my VW, which were made in Compton, California.)
The only internal conflict I have is that this thing is too good for the money. Kids will buy this, and so will cheapskate adults, and they’ll enjoy it. They’ll hear music reproduced fairly well. They’ll watch movies and crank the volume and they will like what they hear and see. And when this thing breaks—which it assuredly will, especially if it is mistreated like I expect it to be by the purchaser it’s targeted at—they will likely replace it with a similar product, instead of an NAD music system or something. Because people who shop for stereos at Wal-Mart just don’t wander into their local hi-fi boutique to A-B the low and medium output versions of the Benz Glider.
So Andy Singer won’t be seeing any any DMA-710 buyers anytime soon. And yes, this is one more (small) nail in the well-nailed coffin of the two-channel hi-fi hobby. But there is a bright side, and it’s this: people who buy something like this may find themselves enjoying music more than they did on their Emerson boom box, and they’ll maybe buy more CDs. Of course, they’ll be buying them a Wal-Mart instead of their local independent music store, but that’s another issue.
If music survives, so will hi-fi in some form or another. Even if that means us two-channel folks will have our two speakers powered by a 7.1 receiver (with RF-blocking caps over the 160-odd jacks not being used).
SO…GO GET ONE
Buy one for your kids. Buy one for your musty, damp basement to go with the console TV that’s been rotting down there since the days of console TVs. While you’re at it, buy one for yourself.
If this were just a mini stereo, it would be slightly better than average. If it were just a DVD player, it would be way overpriced. But to get a sensitive AM/FM tuner, a DVD player, a CD player, a full-function remote and a 15-watt amp that doesn’t sound like a chainsaw in one package—with good speakers—is pretty remarkable by any standard. I’m sure in a few years Sony and Aiwa will have systems like this for $50. Until then, the Initial DMA-710 is the only game in town.
Hmmm…I think I left a CD playing in it when I left the house, and I won’t be home for another 12 hours. And I don’t even care. Ha!
Sharp and Panasonic HiFi VCRs, ancient RCA 20" TV, MonsterPower surge protector.
Various HT Reveivers & Seperates from Pioneer Elite, Yamaha, Teac and others.