New Blue-Ray Players from Denon and Oppo

New Blue-Ray Players from Denon and Oppo
(begin deep movie-trailer voiceover)
“In a world where Blue-Ray Players sell for $39, but the average guy still doesn’t know what they are…In a world where the lifespan of a disc player is measured in months…In a world where streaming and on-demand video are poised to ecclipse physical media of all kinds…two lone voices strive to dominate the realm of the Blue-Ray Disc”
(movie trailer voiceover off)
Odd, isn’t it?  There are probably a good half-dozen streaming or on-demand services now, and some are getting pretty darn good.  Apple TV is now at 1080p, even if the content isn’t quite all there.  Vudu claims 1080p.  And then there’s the Mighty Amazon.  Even former disc rental houses are scrambling to provide media-less content services.  So why, in this world, would you spend $1000 or more to play a Blue-Ray disc?
Both Denon and Oppo seem to think you might.  Each of them has introduced new BD players in that price range.  But of course, if all you wanted to do was play a disc, you wouldn’t spend that kinda cash, now, would you?  No, you wouldn’t. That $39 player (watch for it this Black Friday) might just do the trick.  But with physical media on the way out, why buy a player at all?  
For Denon and Oppo, the answer is: “It’s not only a disc player!” The Tech these guys have shoe-horned into their latest players is mind-boggling.  But to grasp it, consider what’s really important in the world of playing discs of any kind (except the kind with the grooves).  
These are “Flagship” players, the top-o-the-line, best they can make and still sell legally (or even illegally).  There are a whole list of improvements, but rather that itemize, dissect and bore to tears, here are a few that catch the eye:
Oppo’s BDP-105 is to offer stereo XLR balanced audio outputs.  Now there’s an odd one.  Odd because, being just stereo, clearly this isn’t a feature targeted at someone watching movies.  This is an audio-only feature for someone interested in high-end, high resolution stereo presented to their world as two analog signals.  Odd also because there really aren’t a whole lot of consumer devices that have mating XLR inputs.  Tripply odd because the entire point of balanced connections is noise immunity, and unless you plan to put your BDP-105 in some other suburb than yours and cable its balanced outputs back home, it’s kind of pointless.  The chances for noise entering short cables found in system racks is quite minimal, and if you use any other of the unbalanced connections, or even HDMI, you will create the standard grounding problem, though perhaps not on the balanced connections IF, and this is a big one, they connect to a true balanced input with high common mode rejection.  You see, it ain’t the balanced output that does the lifting, it’s the input it connects to that rejects the noise.  Being in the pro and broadcast industry, I appreciate their attempt, but it’s going to be lost on all but a precious few consumers.
Both players from Oppo, the BDP-105 and the BDP-103, as well as the Denon offerings, the DBT-1713UD and the DBT-3313UDCI…yes all 4 new players are fanless.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have anyone to give them love, it means the potentially noisy cooling fan found in former players has been ditched.  My one comment..it’s about time.  
Disc load time.  Am I the only one who’s impatient?  Does a lengthy wait for a BD to load just plain make you want to throw something?  The only thing more annoying is the lengthy menu-entry videos on discs.  That’s why both makers are working towards shortened the load times.  Interesting to note, load time isn’t ever shown in their specs.  The best they can do is to say “the new ones are faster”.  Denon claims a 20% speed increase over older players, but they don’t say how old.  Their former mid-line player wasn’t exactly slow, though, so I’d expect these to load up a disk right quick.  Oppo doesn’t put numbers on their speed improvement.
All four are “universal” disc players, meaning if it’s round, digital, and fits in the tray, they can probably play it.  This includes some of the more esoteric audio formats like SACD, DVD Audio (remember that?)  as well as DVD, CD and Blue-Ray with all of its many audio formats contained within.  That makes these players great audio machines.  
Speaking of audio, and we seem to be, Denon has a unique feature called Denon Link HD which is an additional port that connects to Denon receivers and permits precision re-clocking digital audio at the receiver, “eliminating distortion-causing jitter for pristine audio quality.”  Interesting idea, too bad it’s not more universal.  
Oppo boasts a lot of audio features too, outstripping the high-end Denon by a considerable margin.  Just from a connection standpoint alone, in addition to the balanced stereo outputs, the prototype BDP-105 showed 7.1 analog audio outputs, optical and coax digital outputs, and something I’ve never seen on a disc player, a USB connection permitting the use of the player’s high quality 24bit DACs by another device, typically a computer.  What a great idea!
We don’t have the final info on the BDP-105 yet, but the BDP-103 has plenty to boast about right now.  Pretty much the little brother of the 105, it’s missing the USB input connection, the analog 7.1 outs, and the balanced stereo outputs.  Otherwise, it’s loaded with things to love.  3D capable, with video processing to do a 2D to 3D conversion, scaling to 4K (yes, that’s not a typo), streaming features like Vudo HD, Netflix, Pandora Radio, streaming from Fresh Film, Leanback, YouTube and Picasa.  All that means a network connection, and it’s there in addition to a built-in WiFI function.   They’ve also put on 3 USB2 ports, two on back, one on front, so you can pop in that Jump/Thumb/Flash/Pen drive and play your stuff that way.  Many file formats are supported, but conspicuous in their absence are any of the Apple specific formats like AAC or Apple Lossless.  Flac and Wav are represented, though.
Both Denon players stream too, listing Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and VUDU as supported, and there’s a front panel USB port for your memory thing.  The Denons also support DLNA over the network for media sharing. 
Controlling these things means a lot to an integrator like me, so when I see RS-232 on all of them, I’m happy, but I’d also like IP control which saves me a bridge device. It’s a little undocumented, but since both companies offer control apps for mobile devices, it’s clear IP control is there, hopefully they’ll document it so we can use it without the apps.  
My least favorite technology, HDMI, is also represented well.  The Denon DBT-3313UDCI has two HDMI outputs, handy, the DBT-1713UD has only one.  Oppo trumps again with not only two HDMI outputs on both players, but also two HDMI inputs on the BDP-103 and one on the BDP-105 giving you access to the internal video processor should you want to use it with other devices.
Clearly from an audio standpoint, the BDP-105 has the most features, and some pretty cool ones never seen on a player before.  From the standpoint of the more typical user who won’t probably use the analog outputs, or even the built-in 24 bit DACs, the BDP-103 and both Denons seem fairly close, but Oppo does get a leg up  with additional features and functions not available on any Denon.  
So while it remains true that the average Blue-Ray fan will be satiated with a $100 or less basic player, for those who love audio-only, or appreciate additional flexibility and function, these four new players offer a buffet full of tasty treats.  The Denons are well built, solid performers, but the Oppos once again win with features.  In fact, this years offerings widen the gap.

2012 CEDIA Report

Indianapolis 09-10-12

After 2 action-packed days at CEDIA, our feet are tired, our heads pounding, but it’s all good.  Here’s the basics and things of note. 

The big deal at this CEDIA was 4K.  Sony had the biggest display of 4K product, and though it’s expensive now, it’s available.  My impression of their 4K display: simply impressive.  I was not expecting to be impressed, for a lot of reasons, mostly that at normal viewing distances 2K should in theory be good enough.  But if you creep just a bit closer to the screen you can easily start to see pixels in most 2K displays, and it was quite a treat to move close and away from the 4K image and not see pixels, but see a silky smooth image, crystal clear, sharp and noise-free.  Content is the issue of course, there’s no native 4K available to mere mortals, unless you buy your own RED camera,  but scaled 2K is darn nice.  No more detail, but no visible pixels either.  Turns out it’s not a big deal to scale 2K up to 4K, not as hard as SD video to 1080p.

My pick, though, for practical HD displays was the Pioneer/Sharp Elite LCD line, actually introduced last year, and shown this year in 60″ and 70″ class.  Call me slow, but I watched the display for several minutes before realizing I was watching an LED/LCD unit and NOT an plasma!  Off axis viewing is amazing, contrast shocking with blacks so deep you’ll feel you’re looking straight into an abyss, and spot-on color, pretty much that way out of the box, but capable of being calibrated too.  It’s 1080p, not 4K, but since few will be able to afford 4K for a few years yet, this would be the pick this year for the most amazing practical TV. 

In audio, there were a lot of wireless solutions.  Wire less speakers, subwoofers, amplifiers, and all-in-one speaker/amps.  Sonos didn’t have much new, but it was good to see the entire line, though impossible to hear above the din of their own other demos.  But they were far from the only game in Indy.  There are lots of custom install solutions, including an impressive line of wireless audio amps from Knoll ElectronicsContact us for more info.

GoldenEar Technologies showed Sandy Gross’s latest brainstorm, his version of the soundbar speaker called the SuperCinema 3D Array.  But as you might expect, it’s got Sandy’s touch, including passive crosstalk cancellation, and it does create a believable  LCR soundstage.  It’s simply the best soundbar I’ve ever heard, though that statement in itself does the product a dis-service.  Soundbars are notably the worst category of speakers in today’s market.  That makes the Golden Ear soundbar all the more impressive, as it actually sounds quite good, and even on music.  A soundbar I could live with? Even I have a hard time believing it!

In a category I normally wouldn’t bother talking about, it’s funny there should be more than one soundbar innovation at CEDIA worth talking about, but there is. The second was the Definitive Technology Solo Cinema XTR, designed to aim squarely at the overly simplistic (and frankly a bit shameful) HTIB market, and shoot holes in it.  You know the type: they got to Big Box, say “I want a surround system!”, walk out with a dinky set of speakers, and under-powered DVD/AVR combo, and a subwoofer that barely qualifies.  Enter the DT XTR.  The new product not only is a fine sounding soundbar speaker system, but it takes care of the entire 5 channels with a believable virtual surround system.  While not has high impact or dimensional as having real surround speakers, if you don’t have the room, this is the solution, and does provides a believable surround sound field.  But then they throw in the wireless subwoofer that really has some sonic heft, and a little remote.  And as if that weren’t enough, the thing will take a digital output from your TV with all that 5.1 material on it, handle decoding, processing and volume control.  So with the bar and sub, and your TV, you’re done.  The DT SoloCinema XTR soundbar and sub combo sell for $2000,  and when you consider the simplicity and performance of this system that runs without the help (or need) of an AVR, you’ve got yourself a bargain.  Call us to get yours on order.

Being the creators of our own control system built with iRule, you can bet we’d be interested in the competition in that area.  There were more iPad apps than  ever, and everybody has their own idea of how a control app should look and operate.  Crestron was doing their own iPad app that works with their systems, but they weren’t particularly interested in discussing the exact cost of even the most basic system.  It seems you’d be into them for well over $3500 (plus programming time!), but that’s a guess.  (Sorry, Crestron, I’m not linking to you!) Key Digital showed their Compass Control system, which would be fairly economical until you needed to control any device that isn’t up to IP based commands (like your TV, projector, older AVR, AppleTV…need I go on?), at which point you need their $2500 master control unit.  So you could throw $2800 their way but you wouldn’t have anything that actually controlled something until it was programmed.  Universal Remote showed their usual line-up of candy-bar remotes with pseudo touch screens and the usual tiny buttons with 3 point gray type legends.  We were impressed by the fact that touching a function button on their flagship touch screen system brought up the Windows CE logo for 10 seconds before it responded.  

Pretty much every serious equipment manufacturer has a control app now.  And this has created the virtual coffee table full of remotes (see my earlier post).  It’s exactly the same problem: a remote for each device, each is different, each works and looks differently, and you have to find the right app to accomplish the task at hand.  But it’s actually harder to exit one app and bring up another than dropping one stick remote and picking up another.  I say: don’t bother.  They’re free, and worth every penny you spend.  I’m more convince than ever than our Platinum Control System will make your remote control life easy and happy, and won’t break the bank.

We visited our partners at iRule and got our first look at the latest software that includes “drawers”, little slide-out trays on your screen that can hold seldom used functions that slide out of the way when you don’t need them, or help make a more usable screen on a smaller device.  Watch for us to integrate those features soon! I’ve said it before, but again, after years of searching for the best solution, I think iRule, in the hands of an expert programmer/integrator, is the ultimate solution, winning in functionality and value simultaneously. 

On our way out of the main show floor we stopped at the VRX booth to test drive their latest iMotion  simulator designed for driving and flying game play.  They showed a triple screen 3D display with full motion in the seat and steering wheel, a package that cost about like a family car, but can caster out of the way in your basement until you’re ready to play against other players world wide in the 3D head-to-head race of your life.  Video 1 here, Video 2 here. Watch the Platinum web site for more details soon!

While I’m on 3D for a moment, this one comment:  3D wasn’t absent from CEDIA this year, but was a small fraction of the total display demos, which now focus on high brightness, high resolution, and by the way, we can do 3D if you insist.  It’s a refreshing take on what I’ve been saying was just another peak in the on-going 3D wave that started in the 1950s.  Every so often 3D makes an appearance, is claimed to be the next big thing, peaks, then fades again for another decade or so.  And we’re now riding the wave downward.  The benefits of 3D this time around, though, are great bright displays, particularly projectors, at a reasonable cost.  Epson showed their latest not-release-yet projector that will be THX and THX 3D certified, lots-o-lumens, and comes with 2 pairs of 3D glasses.  We saw the demo, the 3D was as good as any, but the 2D was spectacular, blowing away Sim2’s admittedly better styled Italian-looking units.  The Sim2 demo was just another huge but average picture, but with a surprisingly noticeable amount of chromatic aberration in it.  Sorry Sim2, they’re beautiful boxes to look at, not so great to watch.

One odd surprise was the Perrot Zik headphones, a full sized over the ear set that is bluetooth wireless, and has active noise canceling.  Being a many-decade headphone listener, I’ve been disappointed with nearly every headphone set I’ve demoed in the last few years.  I had no expectations from something that looked this slick, had finger-touch volume control, and would also work to make phone calls, but surprise, they really sounded excellent, and the active noise canceling worked scary-well.  400 beans is a lot for a set of cans, but I’m hooked, will probably end up with a pair.  The were actually less colored in response than a set of Stax electrostatic phones I recently divested.  That’s saying quite a bit.

Lastly, in a rather odd tangential product, I’ve found a solution to one of the more annoying problems of this century: poor cellular coverage in your own home.  I suffer from living in a AT&T hole, both at home and at our summer home, and it often renders my iPhone about as useful as a brick.  But I’ve got the solution, thanks to zBoost from Wi-EX. Simply, it grabs the tower signal up on  your roof where it is, and repeats it down in your home where you live giving you all the bars you want, even in the basement.  Yes, I know it’s odd for a home theater guy to handle this product, but when I see a tech solution I can get behind,  it’s worth it to me and my clients to make it happen.  As usual, call us for details.  We’re Wi-EX dealers as of this weekend.

It’s impossible to completely cover a show of this size in two short days, but those are highlights.

Virtual Coffee Table Full of Remotes

Going to CEDIA tomorrow, and checking out more cool stuff. 

You’ve probably noticed we’re proud of our Platinum Control system based on the iPad.  Yet many receivers, disc players, and TVs have their own iPad app for control.  And they’re free!  So what’s wrong with just getting all the apps for all your stuff?  There’s a lot wrong.

You know how you’ve probably got a collection of remotes on your coffee table now?  And when you want to control something, you reach for one, grab the wrong one, and they’re all the same basic shape but have totally different buttons?  Yes, it’s a nightmare.  Downloading all the free iPad apps is the digital equivalent of that coffee table full of remotes.  In fact, it’s a bit worse because you’re holding one nice unit, but each device works differently.  You start a disc, then want to change the volume, so you exit the disc app, launch the AVR’s app, and adjust the volume.  Now you want to dim the lights.  Exit the AVR app, launch your lighting app.  You get the idea?  In one app, and out the other, and they all look, feel and work differently.

Now, look at our Platinum Control app.  It’s more than just an app, it’s an entire integrated system with custom screens, custom graphics, and simple unified navigation.  Each device control screen has full-time light and sound controls, and always in the same location on the screen.  The navigation flow makes it easy to change sources, activities, and devices pretty much without thought.  Each device screen shows you just what you need to deal with the unit, and no more. No confusing and useless buttons, cryptic legends, and fields of controls you’ll never use.  No tiny buttons that change what they do without warning, no tiny gray on black legends.

Regardless if you collect physical or virtual remotes, they are designed to provide you with every single feature, not just the ones you need.  That makes them all cluttered and difficult to use and learn.  And if you didn’t like grabbing the wrong remote and searching for the right one, you won’t like the virtual version any more. 

We think our Platinum Control system wins, and we know you will to.  Call for an estimate for your own custom system.