THE SCREENING ROOM
By Bill Kallay
The new Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player has me smiling with delight. The new Oppo BDP-95 has me so smitten with its ability to impress, it is hard to look at another Blu-ray player again.
FANCY ON THE INSIDE
The BDP-95 ($999.00) follows the impressive Oppo BDP-83SE. Both players are Oppo's flagship combination players, meaning they can play Blu-ray, DVD, CD, SACD, DVD-Audio, photo discs and a number of audio formats. Both players featured upgraded analog audio circuitry, power supplies and digital-to-analog (DAC) converters. The result in both players was a significant boost in audio quality, especially on CDs and SACDs.
Instead of resting on their laurels, Oppo went back to the lab and produced the BDP-95. They upgraded the analog audio section with a torridal transformer by Rotel, balanced XLR stereo output jacks, and the ESS9018 Sabre 32-bit reference DAC. The company also gave the new player upgraded video quality with the Marvell Kyoto-G2 video processor with Qdeo technology. Though identical to the Oppo BDP-93 on the video side, the BDP-95 surpasses the lower priced model in the audio department by a long shot.
BUILT LIKE A TANK
Oppo doesn't skimp on the packaging of its players. The BDP-95 comes nicely boxed and insulated with foam inserts. It's covered in a nice canvas tote bag with Oppo emblazoned on the outside. Taking the player out of the box took some care. I actually had to flex my meager muscles to bring the player out to install in my system.
The player has a remarkably clean design. The face place is adorned with the Oppo logo, an open/close button, and a nice touch-based interface for play/fast-forward/rewind/menu functions. The player is larger than a normal Blu-ray or DVD player, but it I had no problem fitting it into where my Sony Playstation 3 normally resides. The Oppo looks striking sitting beside my other electronics.
Once I put in a Blu-ray disc, the Oppo brought up the main FBI logos, studio logos, and menus very quickly. I didn't time the Oppo's load times versus my standard speed demon, the PS3. But I estimate that both players are equal on loading Blu-rays. The player doesn't seem to run very hot, unlike the PS3 which cooks my home theater den during the summer.
The BDP-95 is extremely versatile. On the rear of the player are all of the outputs and inputs. Two HDMI outputs can let users run one HDMI cable to a display and another to an audio receiver or sound processor. The BDP-95 will play 3-D Blu-ray discs. There is a set of 7.1 analog outputs, plus an additional stereo-only analog output. Users can plug in an external eSATA hard drive into the the back port. There are dual USB 2.0 jacks (one on the front, one on the back) if users wish to run photo, movie and music files on the BDP-95. The player can also play PAL Blu-rays and DVDs, depending on regional restrictions. The Oppo can do wireless or Ethernet Internet feeds for streaming movies from Netflix or Blockbuster, and it can be used for software updates. The unit also has a world power supply, external IR control, RS232 control and HDMI CEC. I don't even use half of what the Oppo offers, but I'm glad these features are there in case I needed them.
For all of the features the BDP-95 has to offer, I recommend visiting www.oppodigital.com.
I have always enjoyed the clean and sharp menu interface on Oppo's players. The BDP-95 has an upgraded menu system that is pleasing to use and pleasing to look at. It reminds me, a bit, of the ease of Apple's menus. The logos on the menu screens are quite nice. The first thing I noticed after plugging the Oppo into my system was how sharp and bright the menus were. This was a good indication the the picture quality would be excellent.
The PS3 has given me years of enjoyment in the picture quality department. The picture has always been bright, sharp and colorful. But once I installed the Oppo BDP-95, I was stunned with how much picture quality I was missing. The Oppo seems to take a filter of haze off of my Blu-rays.
"Monsters, Inc." (2001) is an excellent Blu-ray. On the PS3, the picture looks great. Details of Monstropolis and the monsters are clear. But the Oppo takes it further. Never have I seen the near three-dimensionality of Pixar's classic before. I remember reading about the intricate detail of Sully's fur, but I had never seen it until now. It's so clear through the Oppo that I felt as though I could reach into my plasma screen and touch the fur. Using a Pixar title is somewhat of a cheat for reviewing components. Even on a cheap Blu-ray player with a mediocre display, this film will look very good. But using a title like "Monsters, Inc." really shows the stellar picture quality of the BDP-95.
How does a film title look on the Oppo? Going gritty, I ran "Stop Making Sense" (1984), Jonathan Demme's concert film of the Talking Heads. The film is not slick and film grain is abundantly clear throughout. The Oppo presents those film "flaws" with glee. I felt as though I was watching a film and not a cleaned up, digitized presentation.
On DVDs, the BDP-95 gives my PS3 a run for its money. The picture upgrade is not eye-popping, but it does look very good. Episodes of "The Simpsons" on DVD looked crisper. Animated usually does look very good on DVD, but the Oppo boosts the quality. This is the first player I have used that made DVDs look respectable on a large plasma screen display.
The BDP-95 gives you three options in which to hear movie sound: HDMI, up-to-7.1 analog surround sound, and stereo. It can also run Blu-ray audio either through converting it into LPCM or bit stream. Via bit stream, formats like DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD are decoded by a compatible receiver or surround sound processor. In LPCM, those lossless formats are converted within the Oppo.
"The Police: Certifiable" (2008) Blu-ray is one of my favorite discs. It captures the energy of the band's reunion tour with gusto. My only issue was with the sound quality. On the PS3, the sound at times is distorted. Sting's vocals, in particular on "Wrapped Around Your Finger," are muddy and undefined. The PS3's DACs are excellent, but with this particular title, the sound is not to my liking. Yet playing this Blu-ray on the Oppo BDP-95 was a revelation.
I used all different methods in which the player can send out sound. My first route was with HDMI via bit stream, which allowed my Onkyo pre-amplifier to decode the audio tracks. The result of this high definition Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack was of elation on my part. This finally sounded like it was supposed to! At 24-bit/96kHz, the audio was stunningly realistic and engaging. Switching over to the Dolby TrueHD 2.0 soundtrack, the sound was even more clear. The bass was more deep and the overall experience, to my ears, was more enjoyable. The BDP-95 did its job in passing the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack to the Onkyo without alteration.
The Oppo has two other audio options that owners can use. They can choose LPCM via HDMI, or the analog outputs. In both cases, the sound was excellent. But the volume was about 2-to-3dBs lower than using the HDMI bit stream option. I tried both the multichannel analog output and the dedicated stereo output on the Oppo and the results were identical. The volume control on the Oppo remote was set at "100."
Switching to the analog multichannel output, I adjusted the volume to match the HDMI bit stream audio. I played the same tracks from The Police Blu-ray. The sound was excellent, clear, and engaging. I did find it to sound a bit lower in volume compared to the HDMI bit stream feed, despite raising the sound level. Please keep in mind that this isn't an issue of playing movies loudly or the Oppo not playing the way it's supposed to. The Oppo works like it should. This was a case of preference. I generally preferred hearing Blu-rays through the HDMI bit stream route.
Why was there a difference in the overall volume between formats? The Onkyo pre-amplifier has a "dialog normalization" feature built into it. When HDMI audio signals from a Blu-ray enters the Onkyo, the pre-amplifier automatically boosts the volume to compensate between various audio formats. I couldn't change this feature on the Onkyo. The analog output from the Oppo is set at 2Vrms at 0dBFS. According to Jason Liao of Oppo, this is the "de-facto standard for consumer audio/video equipment." My recommendation is to check the features on your receiver/pre-amplifier and make sure the settings work accordingly with the Oppo BDP-95.
However, playing DVDs was a different story.
Playing an older DVD title, "Dick Tracy," I found there was no difference in sound volume between HDMI bit stream and analog output from the Oppo. Even on DVD, this is a very powerful sounding disc with Dolby Digital and DTS sound options. The BDP-95's analog output sounded every bit as clear and dynamic as the HDMI bit stream to the Onkyo pre-amplifier.
The beauty of the BDP-95 is that if a user, such as myself, has a preference on sound playback, he or she can chose whatever method they want. With my PS3, I do not have that option. Bravo, Oppo!
The SACD format has managed to survive the onslaught of iTunes-quality files, the resurgence of LPs, and the overall desertion of music companies supporting the format. Thankfully, a number of smaller companies such as Mobile Fidelity are keeping SACD available to the public. With a number of hardware manufactures deciding not to make SACD players, Oppo has helped keep the format available to consumers who need a player.
How does the BDP-95 do with SACD? Quite well, thank you. In fact, I kept digging through my small library of SACDs to try on the Oppo and came away with a huge grin on my face. For years, I've played the discs on a reliable Sony C222ES player. But it is on its final legs. My only option was to play SACDs on the PS3, which is simply depressing. The PS3 is a fine video game and Blu-ray/DVD player, but it is not a good high resolution music player. This is where the Oppo came to my rescue.
I used HDMI with DSD engaged in the Oppo. The Onkyo pre-amplifier decodes DSD. Then I used the Oppo's stereo-only analog output to compare the differences, if any, in sound quality. For my listening, I used SACDs in the two-channel format. The discs were Peter Gabriel's "So," and Diana Krall's "When I Look Into Your Eyes." For CD, I used Steely Dan's "Gaucho" (remastered in 1999). All of these are brilliant recordings and would showcase any strengths or weaknesses of the Oppo.
The BDP-95 produces a pleasing presentation via HDMI. However, I quickly found myself losing interest in the performances of each artist. The sound was not quite "there" for me. There was no liveliness to the sound. Vocals had little decay or richness. It was as if the recordings were filtered with noise reduction. I suspected, and it was confirmed by Oppo, that HDMI was the culprit. I will not go into the details (see "Oppo Feedback" below), but it had something to do with how Onkyo was "clocking" the DSD signal from the BDP-95. Again, it is not a bad sounding presentation if listeners chose HDMI. But they are missing out on something much better by using the analog output instead.
Once I used the Oppo's analog stereo-only output, playing SACDs in their native format (1-bit/2.8MHz), I was stunned, yet not surprised, by the difference in sound quality. The BDP-95 simply smokes any other player I have experienced in my system.
Peter Gabriel's "So" album is brilliant, but it has always sounded bloated on CD or SACD. The mix just seemed to have too much bass and a lack of emotion on any of my previous CD or SACD players. Not so on the BDP-95. It was as if I was listening to the album for the first time. What I finally heard was an excellent recording with deep, but pleasing bass. Gabriel's vocals sounded so much smoother and natural than before. The album brought me back to my teenage years when the album moved me.
Although Diana Krall is a talented musician, her vocals are admittedly not the strongest in music. The combination of a great orchestra and superb recordings help elevate Krall's limited range to respectability. Her "When I Look in Your Eyes" SACD does not rank up there with "Love Scenes," but it does sound superb. My sentimental favorite, "Why Should I Care," is emotionally involving. The song's soundstage is deep and wide, placing the listener right in the room with Krall. The BDP-95 offered a lush and involving presentation of the entire album.
"Gaucho" has always sounded good on the radio and on CD. It's a great recording. The 1999 remastered CD sounds even more stunning on the BDP-95. "Glamour Profession" is tinged with a heavy disco rhythm, but I cannot help but dig it. My foot started tapping to the fat drum beat. I eagerly switched tracks to hear "Hey Nineteen." The Oppo rendered the song so well that I had to keep turning down my pre-amplifier. This remastered CD made most of my CDs sound pretty darned poor in comparison. Clarity and dynamics dominate this disc and the Oppo played "Gaucho" with ease.
As good as this player is, it will not rescue poorly recorded discs (or audio files). In my collection are some CDs from the 1980s and 1990s. Many sound dreadful. At the very least, the BDP-95 tries to pull as much audio information off these bad discs as possible. One such horrific disc is "Big Generator" by Yes. I know what you're saying: Yes? Back in the day, I loved a few of the songs on this album and still do, but it was always a pain to listen to. This is a shrill sounding CD and has always sounded bad, no matter what player it has been played in. That said, the Oppo does a respectable job in trying to help it sound better. This album has never sounded better than on the Oppo.
The BDP-95 can play digital files from a USB device or directly from an external hard drive. I hooked up an external hard drive to the Oppo. All of my digital audio comes from WAV files. For comparison, I played the same tracks from my iPod via the Wadia 170 Transport with identical WAV files. The Wadia was linked to the Onkyo pre-amplifier via a digital coaxial cable. I chose The Eagles "Hell Freezes Over," an audiophile standard.
During the first listening session, I casually switched from the Oppo's DACs to the Onkyo's DACs. At first, there didn't seem to be any difference in the sound quality. Audio from digital files played very nicely whether they were from the Oppo or Wadia. But after further comparison, the Oppo's playback via its DACs sounded a bit more refined and clean. There was more depth to the overall soundstage, bass was more involving, and the sound was better. It was not a huge difference, but enough for me to notice. The only drawback was a gap between songs while playing digital files on the Oppo. Case in point: "Hell Freezes Over." The concert runs through uninterrupted on CD or WAV file. But on the Oppo, there was a silent audio gap between songs. This is not a deal breaker for me. It's nice to have the ability to play thousands of songs from a hard drive through the Oppo.
Delving further into the BDP-95's universal playback capabilities, I played two FLAC songs I bought from HDTracks, Stan Getz With Tjader's "I've Grown Accustomed to her Face," and the Bill Evans Trio's "Some Other Time." In both cases, the Oppo BDP-95 presented the songs with a very pleasent listening experience.
WHAT'S THE FUSS ABOUT?
After having used and reviewed Oppo's players for the last few years, I've continued to be impressed with their products and customer service. Whenever a friend or family member asks me for which Blu-ray player to buy, I always recommend Oppo. Indeed, Oppo has players that are more expensive than those at a local big box store. But in my experience, you get what you pay for. The Oppo players are built well and are backed by superb customer service.
The Oppo BDP-95 price may sound like it's expensive, but it's a stunning bargain. With universal playback of nearly any kind of disc or file format, strong construction, ease-of-use, remarkable picture and sound quality, the Oppo BDP-95 will make you grin with glee.
Special thanks to Jason Liao
Photos: © 2011 Oppo Digital. All rights reserved.