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Audiolics Anonymous Chapter 31
APEX AD-7701
The All-In-One Super-Duper Digital Player
Article By Bill Gaw

 

APEX AD-7701

 

  Welcome to our March meeting of Audiolics Anonymous. Actually, this may be considered the February-Plus meeting as I am writing the column in mid January. Why you may ask? Because I have had the chance to review the first, of what I hope to be many, reasonably priced all-in-one combo digital players. Specifically, the APEX AD-7701 progressive scan digital disc player. I was hoping to be the first to actually do a published report on the machine, but another journalist beat me to it in Sound and Vision Magazine, but at least I will be the first to give an accurate one. More on that later.

Am I enthusiastic about the unit? In a word, yes. Is it the machine of my dreams to replace all other digital players/decoders in my system at any price? Unhappily, no, but it comes pretty close and portends a wonderful future. This is the first under $5,000 unit that will play and decode DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, SACD, CD and HDCD CD. That is right, it decodes all of them. In addition it will put out either the normal 480I video or a 480P progressive line doubled picture in both NTSC and PAL so you can also take the unit to Europe with you. Also, it does internal Dolby Digital, and 24-bit/96kHz decoding of DVD-Video and those DVD-Video  two-channel audio discs. In addition it will decode MP3 homemade CD-R and RW discs and also DVD-R and -RW discs. In addition, (these "in additions" are becoming monotonous) it has dual microphone input for Karaoke for those so inclined to mimic Pavarotti. Finally, in addition it will read jpeg CD-R, VCD Video discs and Kodak Picture discs. Did I forget anything? Yes, the one thing it is missing which I wish it had, i.e., DTS internal decoding that must be done by external decoder through the digital output. Therefore I could not get rid of my external processor. You get the idea that this is the first truly do-everything digital player, as even the $5000 units do not accomplish one or more of the important functions. The obvious question is, "How well does it do each?"

Price you may ask? Try $279 plus shipping from J&R in New York. That is right, just 6% of the cost of the next lowest priced unit available today, although Pioneer is scheduled to bring out their DV-047 unit for about $1,000 in the next few months. Does it do everything perfectly or as well as the more expensive unit? No. But it does about 95% at 6% of the price.

First off, this is a product of Mainland China, home of slave and pseudo-slave labor. If that bothers you, or you are a member of an American trade union, stop reading now. Out of the box it looks and feels cheesy, but heh, what do you want for under $300? Must weigh all of two pounds (actually 6 lb.) with an all-plastic chassis and drive, cheap feet and a cheap detachable power cord with a really weird looking input plug which I have never seen before. Needless to say, no audiophile power cords will or can be used. So do not lose the one that came with the unit or else "no tickee, no shirtee". Also do not lose the remote as that is not expendable either.

There are two mini-phono jacks on the front for two microphones for Karaoke, with a volume pot and an echo pot (just think, now everyone can hear you sound like you are singing in the shower with the Boston Symphony). On the rear of the unit are RCA outputs for composite and component video, SPDIF digital, six-channel analog, and an S-Video output. All of adequate but not audiophile grade (plus an optical digital output). The RCA digital can pass PCM, 24-bit/96kHz as raw digital data for external DD, DTS and 24-bit/96kHz stereo decoding, or can be turned off for internal decoding of DD and 24-bit/96kHz stereo.

Inside is a typical DVD-ROM drive and three circuit boards. One is a very small power supply with a cheesy transformer, one is a Sony DVD/SACD L9 board, and the third seems to be a Korean based product. No audiophile grade parts visible here, although the workmanship on the boards is clean. The remote is typical. Well laid out except for a plastic cover over some of the controls that are unnecessary but easily removed. It has just about every control you would need including one for changing from interlaced to progressive scan for the component output, and a digital volume control with sixteen levels. Obviously you want to use the latter as little as possible as each step down is a loss of digits, not just volume.

Setup is a snap. Hit the menu button on the remote and up comes the Setup Menu. General setup allows change from 4:3 to 16:9 video, sets the language, allows for a screen saver, and whether the video out should be S-video or component. Speaker setup allows you to turn on or off center, surround and subwoofer channels. Whatever gets shut off gets rerouted to the front speakers. In addition, for internal decoding, it will control time delay for both center and surround speakers. Although I am unsure from the booklet whether this is done for only Dolby Digital or for SACD and DVD-A as well. Something even the expensive players do not do. Plus the unit has test tones for each channel for using external pre-amplifiers or your six input pass-through receiver to adjust volume for each channel. The remote can then be used for adjusting volume for all channels together.

Audio Setup allows output of the decoded six channel audio signal, or a 24-bit/96kHz raw signal for external DD and DTS decoding or a PCM signal for 16-bit/44kHz decoding. It probably does not pass the raw DVD-A or SACD signal, but I have no way of checking that. Who knows, maybe they let that slip through. This would not help though as there are no external decoders on the market. There is also a dynamic compression dial for late night listening to dinosaur vocalizations. Finally, a switch allows one to turn off the Karaoke inputs, and a parental control setting for all those perverts with porno DVD's or the religious fanatics out there afraid of PG films, and a switch for NTSC or PAL video decoding.

On the web there had been talk for weeks about the unit as possibly being a giant killer, and it was awaited with much anticipation. The first units were shipped out to consumers on a Wednesday, and by Friday there were reports about how picture and audio quality were poor, discs skipped or were unplayable, commands would not be accepted from the remote, etc. The unit was written off, all of the chatter shifted to the future Pioneer unit as being the savior for the unwashed, and the Apex disappeared from the chat groups never to be heard from again. Then there was a less than enthusiastic review in Sound and Vision Magazine (alias Stereo Review), which may have given the final blow to this product. More on that later. 

I received my unit the following Monday, having ordered and paid for it just like you, rather than getting a souped up reviewer unit. It was plugged it into my system and I was immediately under whelmed. Since my line quadrupler could not work with a progressive signal, and my projector takes RGBHV and the unit only has a component output, and I do not have a component to RGBHV converter. So I could only evaluate the video as composite, S-Video and 480 I component output that I line quadrupled. But I must say the picture was less than spectacular. Pretty washed out, no life and almost looked out of focus. And several of my best videodiscs skipped, or tiled.

Next came CD's, and the sound was also less than spectacular. No depth, mid-bass suckout, and the old digital high frequency stridency. Finally, for the first time in my house with my own unit, I tried DVD-Audio and SACD's. While somewhat of an improvement over the CD's, especially the surround sound ones, the sound was still not as good as the best 16-bit/44kHz digital. Over the next few days, both the video and audio improved, but never came up to what I had seen and heard with other more expensive players. After seeing the talk group reviews, and reading the aforementioned article, I almost gave up on the thing and almost shipped it back for a refund. After all, I had paid my own money.

Luckily, I was going away on a two week vacation and the repeat function on the player was never-ending, so I left it running on repeat with a multi-channel SACD while away to let it break in. I figured that $279 is not equal to the price of my cheapest interconnect. I could give the unit to my daughter for her apartment, so what was to lose? I know, the experts say there is no such thing as break in, but boy are they (and the idiots who wrote up their reviews after listening for an hour) wrong.

Now I do not know about your experiences, but when I have been away from my system for a week or two, the sound is usually spectacular on the first day back. I think it is partly because we become so used to the elevator music and garbage we hear that when we listen to our high-end systems again they sound phenomenal, but I also think it has something to do with most of the components having a rest from the electricity. Maybe there is a buildup of electromagnetic charges on the circuit boards, or maybe the electrons align themselves differently in the wire... or maybe resistors need stress reduction, but I could swear that the system itself sounds much better after their own vacation.

So, as I always do on return from a holiday, I turned all of the components on for an hour to warm up, put on a record, and listened to analog for a while. Boy did it sound great. Why do I bother to go away and spend money needlessly on hotel rooms instead of audio when I could spend the vacation time listening to music for eight hours a day for a week or two and spend the money on a new product? Easy… because I have a wife and kids who would make my life hell if we did not go. But that is another story.

After about five sides of some of my best analog recordings, it was time to subject myself to the Apex again. As it had been playing a Telarc SACD for two weeks of Ben Zander's great recording of the Mahler Sym. # 5 [SACD-60569] with the Philharmonia Orchestra, a must for any of you with SACD capability. So I decided to try that one first. Off went the analog, on went the surround system and the play button on the Apex was pressed. WOW!!! The caterpillar was gone and the butterfly was free in my room. While not the best SACD reproduction I have heard (that was from the Philips SACD player I heard at last year's CES) this improvement was the biggest I have ever heard from a component during break in. Those idiots who say that there is no break in phenomenon should have to listen to a new Apex player for their entire lives non-stop, but then they may not know the difference anyway. Those individuals who reported problems with the units after listening to them for one day, and then bad mouthing them, should not have their money refunded to them when they send the unit back.

Gone was the stridency, and in its place was the silky smoothness of SACD's extended high end. I do not know whether this unit automatically blocks out the 50kHz plus noise that SACD produces, but my tube equipment probably does not pass it anyway. To my ears in my system the high frequency information was not harsh or lacking. All in all, a tremendous improvement, and obviously better than CD from my HTPC.

Next up was an SACD of the Berlioz Symphony Fantastique on Telarc [SACD-60578] with the Cincinnati Symphony under Jarvi. Again glorious room filling sound, concert-hall like in nature, and also a great performance. While it was playing I went to the back of my room to touch my subwoofers to see if they were functioning, and found them to be playing something other than sub-bass information. On reading the SACD label, I found to my chagrin, that the subwoofer channel was being used by Telarc for height information, so I shut off the subs, and will try putting a couple of full range speakers on my room's beams to see if it makes a difference. Hopefully I will be able to let you know the findings in the future.

Time for DVD-Audio. On went Carmina Burana, a Teldec with Mehta and the London Philharmonic [8573-86597-9] and again, I was transported to the hall. The soundstage was deep, wide and full, with excellent delineation of various instruments and voices in the sound field. Especially one basso, who really stood out - probably some Russian. The surround effect was just right, with no voices coming from the rear, just hall. Too bad the performance was not up to the standard of my Ormandy recording of 30 years ago.

As an experiment, I turned off the center channel, and the field changed very little, losing a minimum of center fill. All of the information had been rerouted to the front left and right channels. I can not comment on how this unit performed compared to straight DVD-Audio high priced ones, as all demos I have ever heard of DVD-Audio have been in less than optimal situations, but in my room, the sound was better than any DVD-Audio I have heard before, but not up to SACD. DVD-Audio lacks SACD's natural analog like sound, at least in every demo I have heard. Plus, you have to have a TV running to see the menus as it is impossible to get the music going otherwise unless you memorize the menu's from each individual disc. A pain, at least in my system, as my projector makes some fan noise and therefore needs to be shut off for critical listening. Why can't they make a music mode for these things without menus? How are people going to listen to them in their cars, portables, etc.?

One disc was a disappointment, the Vivaldi Four Seasons with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, Orbelian conducting, on Delos, [SACD 3280]. While the playing was great, the mic'ing was too close and the sound was strident, at least on my system. On the other hand, other very well done and sounding recordings, are Gaudeamus on DMP [SACD-09], and the Mahler Sym. # 2 by Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic [Teldec 4509-94545-9]. Both highly recommended.

Now the $64 question, how did the SACD and DVD-Audio compare to good old analog from my Walker/Audio Note turntable system? Still, not quite there. While very close, analog still holds the edge for naturalness of sound, but the super digital formats do give more feeling of hall ambience when in multi-channel. So a trade-off, but close enough that I could be happy with either as listened to in my system now. So a tremendous advancement for digital.

CD's definitely sounded very good, but not quite up to the best $5,000 plus units. Again, the mid-bass suckout was gone, as was the stridency, and the soundstage had opened up. The unit sounded up around the $1,000 to $1,500 player level, which was surprising as most SACD or DVD-Audio players sacrifice CD playback.

Video at 480I transposed to 960P by my IEV quadrupler to my Electrohome 9500 projector was about up to normal level for most under $500 players. I wish I could see how the 480 Progressive output looks, but my unit will not take a component signal and 480P line structure leaves much to be desired with a high-end projector. Happily, all of the problems I had with skipping and tiling were gone, except for one disc, a DVD-Audio of Organ music by Teldec [8573-82041-9], which I could not get the Apex to play yet worked fine in Dolby Digital on my HTPC.

So there you have it. A $279 DVD progressive scan player that also happens to decode in multichannel just about anything available today that can be thrown at it except DTS, and all competently performed. While not quite up to the standards set by two $5,000 players, one for DVD-Audio and one for SACD (that's $10,000 total), at least you will have one unit that does a better than average job with all. I would love to compare it to the new Pioneer DV-047 unit, and maybe I will get a chance in the future. Just remember to put a disc in, set in it repeat and let it cook for a month before listening to it. But by then they will be the above and probably others out using similar chips, that may do a better job.

Now to the Sound and Vision article. It upsets me that guys who do reviews for the major magazines can get away with mistakes in their articles that may deep-six a good product before it ever hits the streets. For instance, this article in Sound and Vision Magazine in the February - March 2002 edition article on this player that had several errors in my opinion. First he reviews the unit as if its most important output is the video. Considering that this is the first unit to decode almost all possible audio combinations, I would consider it first from the audio side. Then he discussed how the unit "did fine with Dolby Digital and DTS multi-channel playback" when, actually, it does not do DTS decoding.

Then he stated that DVD-Audio playback was only 6 to 9 dB quieter than CD and SACD was noisier than CD. Well, while I do not have the specialized equipment that their magazine has available, I will swear to you on a stack of bibles that the SACD and DVD-Audio were dead silent until the microphones or studio electronics turned on, and then all I could hear was typical hall background noise that is usually lacking with CD's low bit rate. This noise actually added to the realism of the performance. Then he said that his unit's maximum output level for SACD was 6 dB lower than CD and DVD-Audio was 12 dB. I do not know what to make of this except that I left my pre-amplifiers and Apex's volume pots at exactly the same levels for all three and only had to make one to two dB adjustments between various discs to get ideal volume levels.

Then he stated that the unit does not do bass management. Well it does. If you shut off the subwoofer control, that "noise" is redirected into the front speakers. That is more than some super expensive units do. He also niggles about the unit not being able to do volume control of the six channels separately. But none of the units available now do, and at least the Apex can do general volume control in the digital domain through the remote. He spends two paragraphs discussing having to move speakers back and forth to adjust volume from each. I do not know about you, but I have volume controls for each speaker at its pre-amplifier, and most new receivers are coming out with six-channel pass-through with volume control.

To make matters worse, he makes no mention about the possibility of doing time alignment of the speakers with the Apex, which other much more expensive units can not do, and which is just as important as volume control (especially if you are moving the speakers back and forth to get volume control.)

Well enough ranting for this month. Do I recommend the unit? Yes, with the caveat that I think Apex for a couple of hundred dollars more, could have come out with a superb unit that would have been a giant killer. For $279, this unit is a steal, but remember do not be I am sure there will be better equipment out there doing all of the decoding that the Apex does, and even better.

 

Specifications

Audio:

Dolby Digital/DTS/PCM Ready
Dolby Pro Logic
3D Virtual Surround Sound
Digital Equalizer
5.1 Channel Built-in Decoder Output
Analog Audio Out (Dual)
Optical Digital Output
Headphone Jack w/ Volume Control

 

Video:

Progressive Scan Video Output
S-Video Output
RCA Video Output
Component Video Output

 

Karaoke:

Echo Control
Pitch Control
Vocal Assist Function
Microphone Volume Control
Two Microphone Jacks

 

Special Features:

Plays DVD-VCD-SVCD-CD-CD/R-CD/RW Discs
Decodes MP3, DVD-Audio and SACD
Remote Control
NTSC & Pal Video Outputs
Fast Motion Forward & Backward
Slow Motion
Multiple Angle
Multiple Language Subtitles (Captions)
Parental Lock
Frame by Frame Advance
Programmable Playback Sequence
Built-In Screen Saver
Zoom (2x, 4x)
Evaluate 9 Frames at a Time
Firmware Upgradable

 

Company Information

Apex Digital, Inc.
2919 E. Philadelphia St.
Ontario, CA 91761

Voice: (909) 930-0132
Website: www.apexdigitalinc.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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