Review: Pioneer DV-563A Universal Disc Player CD Player
Don’t expect miracles from the Pioneer DV-563A universal player. It’s not going to beat many CD-only players below $500 in overall resolution or dynamics. But if you like music more than the equipment you play it on, it might be just the ticket until the format war between CD, SACD and DVD-A is finally decided. (Of course, it’s a possibility all three will lose and we’ll all be forced to download everything, but let’s try to think happy thoughts.)
Granted, I lack the superhuman hearing that allows some people to hear major differences between entry-level players. Sure, some are better than others, but they all involve compromises. (I’ll never understand magazine reviewers who write, “This $250 player does such-and-such as well as players costing three times a much!!!” What exact models are they referring to? They never seem to say. And so what if a certain set of strings on a certain track of a certain recording, when played back on the low-priced player, sound nearly as good as those same strings on, say, a Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista? What does that have to do with anything? Not much, I say.)
Over the years, I’ve had mid-priced two-box players from Rotel and Meridian (which I bought used), and sub-$500 one-box players and changers from Sony, Philips, Rotel, Pioneer and Denon. The Rotel (mid 1990s) and the Meridian (early 90s) are both probably outclassed by today’s entry-level models. As far as the single-box players are concerned, I can say that, in general, I’ve found that Sony players in this price range are laid-back and a little flat. Philips players tend to be easy to listen to, with fuzzier detail but a more relaxed presentation. Pioneer players are more “alive” than either Sony or Philips, but they can be grating sometimes. Rotel players have the most detail and sparkle of the brands I’m familiar with. And finally, Denon overall seems to make players that appeal to the widest range of people because they’re more neutral than the others. I’ve owned at least one model from each maker, and found each to be unsatisfying in one way or another.
The Pioneer DV-563A does indeed have the Pioneer house sound. It’s not particularly suave, but nothing in this price class is. However, it’s well-built and the transport seems solid, albeit a bit noisy. The remote control is excellent, and the on-screen menus are a breeze to navigate.
On DVD-A, it’s hard to say whether the Pioneer offers an advantage because this is my first player of that format. I have, so far, only two DVA-A discs, mainly because there aren’t that many available compared with SACD titles. Steely Dan’s “Everything Must Go” sounds rather CD-like: a little bright, digital sounding and quite thin. It’s a smidge smoother and more detailed than I might expect from a Red Book CD in general, but I have no basis for comparison. However, on Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors,” I was able to compare the DVD-A with the original LP release. And there’s no contest. The LP is smooth and dynamic, with warmish but natural sounding vocals and instruments, but it sounded slightly compressed dynamically. The DVD-A, on the other hand, seemed to have a wider dynamic range, with clearer treble and more defined bass, but it was a bit brittle for my tastes. Is it the player? The mastering? Or is it characteristic of the format? I can’t say. (Considering how few DVD-A titles there are, and how few of those I want, it could be awhile before I know the answer for sure.)
On SACD, the Pioneer performed as well as my Sony SCD-CE775 SACD changer which, at $250, was priced identically until it was recently discontinued. It passed the famous Linn test: can the listener pick out and follow a single instrument through a good recording? On Bucky Pizarelli’s “Swing Live,” for example, that was no trouble, and the general sense of atmosphere and space on this exceptional recording was excellent, though the Sony sounded slightly drier than the Pioneer. Conversely, strings and piano notes were a bit edgier on the Pioneer, especially on John Williams’ “The Magic Box,” but not as much as you’d experience with a standard-issue CD. I also played the Cowboy Junkies’ “Open,” and “Plays Live” and “Us” from Peter Gabriel, and found myself enjoying the music. What more can you ask for $250?
PLAYING CDs & DVDs
On CD, the Pioneer did a fine job. A Marantz or Cambridge single-disc player might do a bit better, but for $250, the bass was taut though not particularly deep, the midrange generally accurate and the highs crisp. These general impressions held true for Neil Young’s “Greendale,” Ryan Adams’ “Love is Hell, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2” and Randy Newman’s classic Americana soundtrack for “Seabiscuit.” I played many other CDs, and never really wanted for much.
On DVD, the Pioneer’s picture quality was impressive. Disc cueing was a bit slow, I thought, but track access with lightning fast. Things have sure come a long way since I bought my first DVD player in 1999 for nearly $300. It’s nice to see that DVD playback technology at the entry level is progressing much faster than CD ever did. (Think about it: it was well into the 1990s before I found a CD player I could stomach.)
A nifty feature from Dolby Labs, “SRS TruSurround,” attempts to simulate 5.1 surround with just two speakers. It actually does a decent job with DVDs provided you use it only with movies. The only trouble is, once engaged, it automatically activates itself on any 5.1-encoded music recording as well, be they CDs, SACDs or DVD-As. At first, I wondered why my SACD of Mark Levinson’s Red Rose Music sessions sounded a bit artificially spacious, with some instruments strangely recessed, but then I noticed the SRS indicator light on the display panel. To de-activate it, you have to stop the disc, turn on your TV, call up the on-screen menu, and then turn it off. It’s a pain. On the other hand, TruSurround has none of the fake, tinny echo I came to expect from earlier, similar systems. For movies, it’s great. For music, not so much.
WHY GO UNIVERSAL?
So why buy a universal player if it sounds merely OK? Two reasons, as I see it. Number one is convenience. If you don’t want your living room to look like a demo room, having one player that does the work of two, three, or even four is a plus. Number two is flexibility. It’s nice to be able to buy the music you want, without worrying about format compatibility. Well, there’s a third reason: multichannel music, but that never appealed to me.
For $249, this is a nice single-disc player. I compared it with the $700 Pioneer Elite DV-45A and the $629 Denon PMA-2200. Neither was particularly impressive to behold, as both seemed unnaturally light and plasticky. Maybe a good player doesn’t need to weigh 30 pounds, but for more than twice the DV-563A’s price, I expected the higher models to offer some substantial level of improvement in build quality, transport performance and durability.
Naturally, both the higher-priced Denon and Pioneer Elite models had more appealing specs. But my dealer offered me a discount on the Denon, so that’s what I listened to (with a Denon home theater receiver and B&W DM603S2 loudspeakers). What I heard didn’t knock my socks off. (A recent roundup of universal disc players in The Absolute Sound seemed to indicate that most, if not all, multi-format players in the sub-$1000 price class leave something to be desired.)
So instead of spending $500+, I spent $149.99 on the Pioneer DV-563A. That’s right: Best Buy has the Pioneer at a full $100 below list price. That’s hard to pass up, especially considering the Pioneer’s sexy slimline design, better-than-average CD/DVD performance, and its convincing SACD playback prowess. It’s the first player I know of for under $250, let alone $150, that plays CD, SACD, DVD and DVD-A. It also plays MP3 CDs, CD-RWs and even Kodak Picture CDs.
I always hate it when the stereo magazines describe a piece of gear as a “screaming bargain.” But in this case, it’s true. Sure, maybe in another year, all DVD players - - - even those below $100 - - - will offer the DV-563A’s format flexibility. Until then, the Pioneer DV-563A is the only game in town. And that’s not such a bad thing.
Denon DRA-395 stereo receiver with phono section
Rega P2 turntable (with P3 glass platter and None-Felt mat)
Denon DL-160 moving coil cartridge
Pioneer DV-563SA universal disc player
Philips CDR-785 CD Recorder
ProAc Tablette 2000 loudspeakers
Kimber 4PR speaker cables
Various Kimber, Audioquest and MonsterCable interconnects
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
Two-box players from Rotel and Meridian; sub-$500 one-box players and changers from Sony, Philips, Rotel, Pioneer and Denon.