Appearance and Construction
Although the photo provided by Pioneer on their website shows a silver-color case, the unit supplied was of a beautiful gold brass color similar to the Marantz SACD player. As you can tell by the huge weight difference between this hi-res player and the Sony, the construction of the AX10 is certainly not "cheap and cheerful" as the Brits say. The chassis is described in the manual as "quad layered," which refers to four layers of copper shielding around the active components. There are two R-Core transformers which add greatly to the total weight, and the disc tray door construction is closer to a bank vault door than to the average plastic disc tray. It has what Pioneer dubs a double air lock shield door. The rf shielding, isolation and general heft I can understand, but this is the first time I've heard of air locks being involved. There is certainly no rattle or resonance when one taps on the top surface of the AX10. The massiveness of this player reminded me of the original Sony SACD-1, which I believe was about ten pounds heavier yet.
The array of features and functions on this flagship "universal" player are many. The rear panel is not as crowded as a typical AV processor or receiver today, but it does have plenty of sockets and small switches. There are of course the six analog out jacks, there are two balanced audio XLR jacks, the three component video out jacks, pairs of both composite and S-video outputs, both optical and coaxial digital out for stereo, special control jacks, and switches to turn on the balanced outputs and to set whether the video scanning system is interlaced or progressive. The front display window has 22 different indications, including Condition Memory (allows for the player memorizing six video settings for up to 15 individual DVDs), video angle indicator, a light showing when a video is present on the disc, indicators for the chapter/track number, random function, program function, repeat, remaining time, a light showing whether the playback is Linear PCM, DTS, Dolby Digital, MPEG or SACD, a small chart showing the sampling frequency and bit depth of any Linear PCM audio disc being played, a counter, a Last Memo indicator, another small chart showing which channels are being played back on the particular disc, and a Downmix indicator which indicates that a DVD 5.1 signal is being mixed down to stereo if you only have a pair of speakers selected for playback.
The DX10 remote also has many different functions, but most are similar to other AV remotes, including the jog dial, so I won't enumerate them here. In order to begin to use the player the first time, the Setup Navigator must be brought up on the video screen. The cursor joystick of the remote is used to make selections on the series of video display windows. There are the usual video adjustments. The audio setup comes set for stereo as the factory setting. You need to select 5.1 to get multichannel from any multichannel source. The next steps - if you select 5.1 - allocate the various speakers. There is a setting for playback of 96k audio DVDs that includes an option I don't believe I've seen before - "Don't Know." Now that's what I call user-friendly.
The various video and audio settings would take up this entire issue if detailed one by one, but let me point out a few specialized features on the AX10. One group of buttons on the front panel as well as functions selected onscreen, turn off various components in the player when they are not being used in playback to enhance the sound. These include the video decoding, the digital output, the CD Digital Direct - which turns off all unnecessary circuits during 44.1 CD playback - and something called Pure Audio Clock, which when selected turns off one of the two audio oscillators in the unit. One oscillator handles multiples of 44.1 and the other multiples of 48, so only one at a time is used for either stereo or multichannel playback.
Does going into the various onscreen menu displays and turning off all these items actually result in a hearable sonic enhancement? Well, in my present temporary setup I would have to say no, but let me give this another try in my new location with hopefully more revealing components in the system.
There are several pages in the manual for Advanced Functions for both video and audio. Some of the possibilities are to display not only the track numbers, elapsed time, remaining time etc., but also bitstream transmission rate level on DVD-As, turning the video screen saver on or off, changing the background colors of the display screen, or setting the disc menu to come up on the screen automatically when loading a disc. Still another is to display the video transmission rate; if a # mark appears above the numbers, it indicates that this is a video transfer of original film material, and the PureCinema function can then convert the 24 frames/sec. to 60 frames/sec. in progressive mode to smooth out the image quality.
Since multichannel DVD-A was the main focus for me I didn't spend much time on the video quality of this unit, but I found it definitely superior to my older non-progressive-scan Pioneer DVD player and very similar to my Sony 9000ES DVD/SACD player. The PureCinema feature worked beautifully, but not any better than in the Sony player due to any synergistic mating of the two Pioneer components.
Both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS playback were especially clean and transparent - I felt it was somewhat superior to using the 9000ES (which lacks both decoders) into my receiver with those two decoders. Hearing the DTS CD of the first Moody Blues album was a pure pleasure. The contrast between the lower resolution DTS format vs. the high-res newcomers didn't seem of any serious concern. I also tried one of my Classic Records 96K audio DVDs - talk about a short-lived format. The Art Davis disc sounded terrific, but I didn't have an alternate setup with my old Pioneer DVD player and so couldn't make an A/B comparison. With all the displays and settings for Linear PCM on the AX10 it appears the designers felt this format would continue more actively than it has. And while we're about it, why do so many components have MPEG decoding when there's nothing using that format to decode?
Excellent, at least the equal of my top-flight Sony 9000ES, using the Pioneer's own D-A. The Legato Link processing could not be disabled, but I didn't find it dropped the extreme high end response at all. (But then with age my high frequency hearing isn't what it was, I must admit.) Wasn't able to test with an outboard D-A, but then should one have to gild a $6,000 lily?
I tried several 2-channel SACDs, including Stravinsky conducting his Rite of Spring and Firebird Suite on Sony Classical. It definitely was improved over the standard CD version on the Pioneer - in the 44.1 version the music has a difficult time separating itself from the studio and tape background noise. On the AX10 there was greater transparency to the music, but the percussion whacks in Rite were rounded off considerably and strings sounded rather digital. On both Sony SACD players the music came alive and placed far in front of the background noise on these old tapes. So not very good considering the cost of the universal player and the high quality components and construction used. Probably due to the AX10 pre-conversion of the DSD bitstream into a Linear PCM bitstream before conversion to analog using the same oscillator as for standard CDs. This seems to fly in the face one of the advantages of DVD in requiring a simpler and less degrading circuit in the digital-to-analog processor. Also bear in mind this so-called "universal" player only plays two-channel SACDs, not multichannel SACDs. So to be completely honest, it's not really universal.
Superb. What the player was designed for primarily, along with the progressive-scan DVD-video. See the DVD-A software reviews this month for reactions to auditioning them on this player - it was used for all the reviews. I had not been impressed on hearing early DVD-A releases at demos. The first sampler discs were pretty awful. Yet the playback quality with the AX10 was excellent on all the DVD-As. The Telarc 1812 was the only identical recording in both formats and it was difficult to hear a major difference between the two. I didn't try to force a stereo downmix from the six-channel DVD-A to compare with the separate stereo mix found on all multichannel SACDs. One of the SACD camp's criticisms of the opposing format is that there is no room for a separate two-channel mix, necessitating the in player electronic mixdown from the 5.1 feed, which may not achieve exactly the stereo mix the original producer and/or artist had planned. In fact, the James Taylor SACD I was listening to while writing this review would probably sound very strange if mixed to stereo in the player - the producer put Taylor's voice only on the center channel!
There are DVD-A players at both extreme ends of the price point spectrum now, and this one is definitely at the high end. I haven't auditioned any others so can't compare, but if you only want a DVD-A player and not a CD or SACD player, you could probably save a great deal with something at the lower end of the spectrum. If you don't yet have a DVD-video player that comes with the territory, so you would be all set. There is talk that a newly-developed chip decodes both new high-res formats and may make truly universal and lower-priced players a reality, but don't hold your breath.
- John Sunier
Voice: (800) 421-1404