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The Pioneer Elite DV 79AVi Universal Disc Player
Can A Do-It-All Video Player Deliver the Musical Goods?

 

January 2007

 
        

It doesn’t take unusually acute perception to realize that reasonably priced 2-channel CD-only players are getting scarcer and scarcer in the US home audio market. Indeed, walk into any slick ‘n’ sleazy, mass-market Mega Store and you’d be convinced that 2-channel stereo is obsolete and that the only choice is multi-channel Home Theater. Two-channel CD playback is available as almost an afterthought subset of DVD Video-based Universal Players, whose video-based features and list of compatible formats will likely thoroughly confuse any sentient being who is not a rabid techno-freak and a master of acronyms. If that sentient being also happens to love music and wants to hear high quality CD playback (and also have the ability to experience the higher resolution digital formats - SACD and DVD-A,) the confusion becomes acute.

Despite the attempt by the various large multi-national companies to ram multi-channel, surround-sound, large screen TV-based systems down our throats, most serious music lovers remain faithful to 2-channel stereo for a variety of reasons, the most obvious and glaringly practical of which is the simple lack of space in most households to set up a system with 6, 7, or 8 loudspeakers plus a large-screen TV. It’s hard enough getting 2 speakers to work correctly in the average living space/listening room; music lovers will rightly dedicate any appropriate physical space to music, rather than waste it on worshipping the Big Psychotic Eyeball and its attendant minions of speakers, cables, amplifiers, and remote controls. This is especially true of city dwellers, those who live in small spaces, and those mercifully exempt from the McMansion suburban ghetto ethos. A formidable and long-ingrained cultural fact bodes ill for universal acceptance of multi-channel TV-based systems: most Westerners divide and utilize interior domestic space in ways antithetical to the demands of multi-channel HT. Our tendency is to place furniture next to the walls of a room and to leave the center of the room open and unoccupied: directly contrary to Home Theater’s demand of centrally placed listeners surrounded by speakers.

A fundamental HT sore spot is sonic fidelity. Home Theater systems haven’t exactly earned a reputation for sonic accuracy and musical fidelity; their boom, spit and sizzle seemingly determined by the aural sophistication of the average pubescent/adolescent male. One such over-enthusiastic HT salesman actually pointed out to me, without any irony, the ‘realistic’ sound of a planet exploding in Outer Space. Given Home Theater’s function of adding un-real sound reinforcement to un-real visual artifices, the simple concept of High Fidelity, the ideal and pursuit of which had been the driving goal of audio gear for the century before the launch of the CD, has become an increasingly nebulous, if not entirely ignored, ideal. The increasing dominance of HT gives music listeners difficulty in identifying genuine High Fidelity components from the world of HT gear. “Are those real speakers or are they Home Theater speakers?”

Despite being a movie lover since the age of 5, and self-consciously a ‘film’ aficionado during the 60’s and 70’s, I can’t marshal much enthusiasm for movie theater surround sound, finding it both distracting and incongruent with the visual image. Not surprisingly, I have little to no interest in Home Theater, and indeed one of the reasons I retired from the retail audio world ten years ago was my lack of enthusiasm for HT gear. There is a world of difference to me between getting music lovers closer to Mozart and the Meters, and exposing them to the latest Special Effects-ridden blockbuster movie. Listening to music on a multi-channel HT system presents a new set of problems, the primary one being the lack of any unifying aesthetic for what a multi-channel audio system should do. Should the attempt be to immerse the listener in the sound field of the recording venue (not all that desirable, or even possible, for ersatz studio recordings,) or should the sound emanating from 6,7, or 8 speakers be used to put the listener in the center of the musical proceedings, without any reference to the conventional stage/audience paradigm? Given that High End HT can be mated with High End audio and speakers, I am surprised to find no attempts to record a faithful and literal depiction of a music event - where the visual element exactly matches the sound field created. I find this a glaring omission. Is the ideal of ultra fidelity to a live performance in both visual and sonic terms a forgotten goal?

Piggybacking these aesthetic problems is the question of varying levels of resolution, both audio and video, of the various devices to be played, not to mention the quality of the amplification and speakers. Despite all the B.S. about CD’s ‘perfect sound,’ the format’s resolution is lower than that of the average high-quality audio system, which can resolve low-level information and timbral neutrality that is missing from the CD. The low-resolution compressed versions of CD (MP3), now the darling of the downloading computer generation, cavalierly throw away part of the CD’s already too-low resolution. The Video DVD, the most successful format in US history in speed of acceptance, while substantially upping video information and surpassing CD in audio terms, still is lower in pictorial resolution than the Big Screen TV, and is far lower than the upcoming standard for High Definition Digital Television, thus necessitating new exotic Blue laser DVD technology to match resolution levels. The higher resolution audio formats, SACD and DVD-A, haven’t exactly set the world on fire in terms of sales or demand. We can expect new Blue Laser-based audio formats to place them even further into limbo.

The vision of these Mega Corporations is of a Large Screen TV-based home media entertainment center, incorporating conventional TV, cable, DVD-based movies and music, video games and other inter-active media, Internet, telephone, and even visual projections of printed books – all of it with multi-channel audio sound. Eventually this vision precludes the user owning any physical media software at all – no more DVD’s, CD’s, books, etc., the user downloading what media they want to use at any given moment. And of course, all this will be fed into other rooms in one’s abode by remote control, multi-room technology. Whether this will come to pass is an open question. Not owning any physical media has, personally, great appeal: my own home would easily double in space were I to eliminate the thousands of books and LP’s that abhor, and inexorably fill, any vacuum of empty space in my house. Given the chaos of intersecting technologies, and their various and at times conflicting levels of resolution and quality, integrating and standardizing the increasingly fragmenting media technologies will prove difficult. The users of these technologies are already fragmented: do adolescent down-loaders of music and movies onto their cell phones have anything in common with an audiophile listening to ultra-fidelity 2-channel LP playback regarding the reality of their experience? Were Ambrose Bierce writing his The Devil’s Dictionary today I’m sure he would define “Virtual Reality” as: ‘verging on the real, that is to say, completely un-Real.” Certainly there is a “Fahrenheit 451” aspect to all this; music lovers wanting to listen to 2-channel stereo almost become the “Book People” of that future dystopia of mindless media consumption.

Is one a fool for wanting to listen to music on a Universal DVD Player? Is it a fool’s errand to even try to find a high audio quality player that can be listened to on a 2-channel stereo system without a TV? This fool certainly found the errand complicated by this application. I had to download and sift through owner’s manuals as long as Russian novels to see if a given player could be truly operated without a TV and play 2-channel music with any pretence to high fidelity.

Most people are probably unaware that Pioneer was the most popular hi-fi line in the US during the 70’s. Saturation advertising, heavy marketing, and wanton mass- distribution policy quickly led to them being the biggest Hi-Fi Whores too. Most stores eventually only carried the line as advertising loss-leaders and fodder for Bait-and-Switch sales tactics: some stores even firing sales staff who actually sold Pioneer products at the hyped advertised prices. Pioneer turned their back on all this in the US by the end of the 70’s, attempting to change its focus and image by concentrating on Digital Video products, with which it was been closely associated since the launch of the Laser Disc format in 1980. Pioneer was also responsible for many of the first breakthroughs in making CD listenable, their Legato Link being one of the first commercially available up-sampling, re-quantization schemes in reasonably priced CD players. Pioneer was poised at the top of the wave when the DVD Video format thundered onto U.S. shores; some of the most highly respected High End Universal Players are based on Pioneer Elite players, the McCormack and Townshend being two.

Pioneer’s line of Universal Players starts below $100, an amazing price considering the amount of features and technology contained in them. The Pioneer Elite DV79AVi retails at $1000 and is the top of the Elite line. Unfortunately, the video world is experiencing some of the same problems that the computer world has made standard operating procedure: products are obsolete the moment you buy them. During the 4 months I spent with this player, the new Blue Laser technology has been launched, and though the DV79AVi is a ‘new’ player, it is not compatible with this emerging technology. The Pioneer’s video performance was lost on my 10-year old TV and does not concern us here since music playback is the focus. The DV79 offers 2-channel CD with 3 Legato Link Pro up-sampling choices, 2-channel and multi-channel SACD and DVD-A playback. A switch allows turning off the video circuitry for high quality music-only playback. The player’s display can also be turned off while listening. After a one-time set-up using a video monitor, the Pioneer can be treated as a stand-alone CD/SACD/DVD-A player. Switching between the 3 up-sampling modes of the Legato Link Pro conversion, however, does require connection to a video monitor, so I used the “1” setting for most of my auditioning. The Pioneer manual and website offer no information about how these settings differ. The DV79AVi weighs a substantial 20 lbs.; its Direct Mount Drive transport features triple-layer reinforced construction techniques to hold resonance at bay.

The first requirement for CD players, to my mind, is a variation of the old Hippocratic Oath:” First, Cause no Pain.” CD playback of the Pioneer sounded remarkably free of the harshness, edge, and brittle sound that are automatically associated with digital. The other side of the digital coin – flat, affect-less lifelessness – didn’t appear in listening either. Somewhat more surprising, and supremely welcome, was the Pioneer’s reproduction of the fundamentals of music – rhythm, timing, drive, melody, harmony, and the sense that the musicians were playing together in service of a musical purpose. This sine qua non requisite of music reproduction was very well portrayed for a CD player. The Pioneer handily outperformed some musically inept High End CD players I’ve heard at 3 to 7 times the price, so this is notable performance. While the Pioneer didn’t come anywhere close to the standard-bearing Rega Apollo CD player (also priced at $1000) in replicating rhythm and timing, it did allow deep musical involvement. Those prone to “air” accompaniment to the music, be it “air” drums, bass, guitar, violin, krumhorn, or flageolet, will find it infectiously easy to give rein to their phantom instruments. Similarly, the DV79AVi stimulated physical movement and exuberance: Religious fanatics of a strong anti-life bent should be aware that the Pioneer will lead to dancing. The Pioneer grabs one’s attention musically: my mind didn’t wander and it was easy to pay attention and to understand the musical proceedings.

The Achilles Heel of the CD format has always been reproduction of the timbre of orchestral instruments. I’ve never heard any CD player, at any price, reproduce the sound of a violin correctly. Given the CD format’s limited resolution and the random, ever-changing distortion caused by the application of dither during the digital recording conversion process, it seems unlikely that is even possible. I hope to be proven wrong on this, but so far it hasn’t happened. I wasn’t surprised, then, that the Pioneer didn’t make violins sound like violins. The DV79AVi also had a problem differentiating instruments in the woodwind family from each other. This was compounded when the instruments were playing ensemble. Despite CD’s inadequate timbral reproduction, all was not lost when listening to Classical music on the Pioneer. One could follow the musical lines well enough due to the player’s good performance with timing and punctuation, even if the instruments playing were somewhat ambiguous as to identity. Music based on amplified instruments was far less affected by this common CD weakness, unless of course, high-quality analogue LP playback was available for comparison.

Bass response of the Pioneer was somewhat irregular: control, resolution, and definition in the low bass were at times a bit slack. Again, it lagged behind the standard-setting Rega Apollo. While the Pioneer never sounded boomy or out of control, its bass did sound slightly discontinuous with the rest of the frequency bandwidth, which was unobjectionable and did not draw attention to itself. Although the player lacks ultimate resolution compared to dedicated ultra performance CD players, it doesn’t sound dumbed-down, rolled-off, or falsely euphonic.

Trying various isolation devices with the Pioneer proved fruitless. The loose bass definition was not ameliorated and a slight sweetening of the high frequencies was not significant, as the player isn’t harsh or falsely bright when played ‘neat.’ While there was a slight increase in resolution in the higher frequencies when isolated, the increased resolution was not organized into any sort of sonic sense and didn’t lead to increased musical performance. Pioneer seems to have integrated the ultimate resolution of this player with its chassis design and supporting feet. What you see is what you hear; there were no hidden glories and potentials released by applying state-of-the-art isolation.

Nor was the player ultra-sensitive to interconnect choice: I got excellent performance with such reasonably priced interconnects as the DNM/Reson Solid Core, XLO PRO, and the Rega Couple.

One of my motives for reviewing the Pioneer was to try to come to grips with SACD and DVD-A, to form some judgment on their merits that my previous experiences with these two higher-resolution digital formats had left undecided. I don’t seem to be alone in this; most audio enthusiasts seem to be somewhat on the fence about them, and few seem to have adopted them exclusively. No one would call the formats a commercial success, and their future seems nebulous, even more so now that the even higher resolution Blue Laser technology is now being launched. Part of this lack of success is simply incompetent, half-assed, and downright bone-headed marketing from both component and record companies. Much of this centers on limited and hard-to-find source material. Most available titles are re-issues of recordings that the average audio enthusiast is likely to have multiple versions of already. I had to stretch to find enough SACD’s and DVD-A’s to use as auditioning tools (I had to go on-line to find them too: even a multi-million population metro area like Minneapolis/St. Paul was bereft of a single Bricks and Mortar store with any kind of selection.) This difficulty was compounded by many DVD-A’s that don’t have 2-channel programs or even DVD-A standard, full-resolution transfers.

Certainly no one listening to SACD for the first time with the Pioneer is likely to have a Road to Damascus conversion experience. While SACD did sound better than standard CD in some specific sonic ways, it was, oddly, musically inferior to the Pioneer’s CD performance in terms of rhythm, timing, and musical momentum. This was a baffling experience, but it was repeated for all the dozen or so SACD sample titles I tried.

A prime example was the Bruno Walter performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, that classic old Columbia recording that has had countless re-issues on both LP and CD. While SACD playback did recreate soundstage and recording venue artifacts better than say, a budget “Odyssey” label LP re-issue, and while the recreation of the timbre of the orchestral instruments was better than CD, it still was not true-to-life or the equal of analogue LP. Much more disconcerting was the failure to portray the musical value of the performance. The Pioneer lost the plot of this lyrically moving and poetic rendition of Beethoven’s symphony. Whether this was due to the transfer, the Pioneer, or the SACD format was impossible to distinguish. I was unable to use the Pioneer’s SACD playback to make a reliable judgment of SACD potential.

DVD-A faired quite a bit better. Excellent analogue recordings like Muddy Waters: Folksinger, the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, and the well-known Minnesota Orchestra Vox Box Ravel compilation sounded excellent by any standard. The timbre of acoustic instruments was reproduced with a fidelity that has eluded all other digital formats. For the first time in a digital format, violins were recognizable as violins, and distinguished from violas. Woodwinds were also remarkably recognizable in timbre. Musical progression and communication surpassed SACD, but fell slightly short of The DV79AVi’s CD performance; LP playback still trumped all the formats in musical communication. Still the Pioneer’s excellent DVD-A performance made the half-assed marketing of music software seem even more criminal and incompetent. Here we have the first truly high fidelity digital format and it’s dying on the vine due to lack of music to play on it! Idiotic.

As the deadline for HDTV changeover looms closer, all of us will have to make some concession to some aspect of the HT world, even if it only involves adding 2-channel stereo playback to HDTV technology. The Pioneer DV79AVi’s very good CD performance will serve those who want also to listen to music on these systems, though as a stand-alone, TV monitor-less CD player in a high quality pure-audio system, the equally priced Rega Apollo far outperforms the Pioneer musically and sonically. Given the tenuous stature of SACD and DVD-A, particularly in light of impending Blue Laser replacement technology, the incorporation of their playback is somewhat hard to value, especially considering the inconclusive SACD playback. The Pioneer is a safe bet though, especially since buyers will find substantial discounts and are likely to pay nowhere near its $1000 retail price.

Paul Szabady

                               ____________________



Specifications:
See Pioneer Website below.
Price: - $1,000.

Address:
Pioneer Electronics, Inc.
Website: http://www.pioneerelectronics.com/pna/v3/pg/home/0,,2076_310069575,00.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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