The Oppo BDP-95 Universal Audiophile Blu-ray Disc Player is here. It's $999. Not cheap. There's another new Oppo, the BDP-93, for half the price. A tour of the specs for both players reveals that the 95 has all the latest functionality – same as the 93 - e.g. Netflix and Blockbuster Internet streaming, Blu-ray 3D compatibility, DVD-Audio, SACD & Blu-ray Music Disc capability. Add to this that both players use the same Qdeo Marvell Kyoto-G2 video processor. So what's with the extra $500!
The short answer is the BDP-95‘s SABRE32 Reference ES9018 DACs and the Rotel Toroidal Power Supply that supports the analogue audio section once the digital side of the player has done its job converting the audio to analogue. And to put the icing on that cake, the 95 has a pair of dedicated stereo XLR outputs to deliver analogue music from CDs, SACDs DVD-Audio and Blu-ray music discs. Oppo makes a big deal out of its analogue section, adding that although the BDP-95 shares the same playback platform as the BDP-93, it is designed from the ground up with a different chassis and many different components optimized for the analog audio performance.
For all practical purposes, the BDP-93 uses much the same audio section as the BDP-83, but with an improved video processor and updated functionality. The BDP-95 is the same video player as the 93 (with all its functionality) but takes the audio improvements of the 83-SE a step forward. Whether that's a "step" or a "leap" depends on your playback equipment. The improvement in audio performance is apparent IF, and only if, the rest of your playback system is up to the task of making good on those improvements. And, quite frankly, most aren't. But, then, the BDP-95 isn't targeted for those who dump their HDMI into a TV or cheap surround receiver or just about any manufacturer's integrated surround sound receiver/speaker system. If this means you, then read no further. Be honest, now, because $500 buys a tank of gas and a lot of software.
Oppo promises that the BDP-95 will deliver better audio and video than what you probably have, even if it's an Oppo. We shall see. Let's start with a comparison of operational functions against the BDP-83.
We found that loading and searching is about the same as with the BDP-83, which is very short, indeed. One thing you might notice is that the 95 makes curious faint switching sounds as it goes through the various disc loading and menu searching operations, which Oppo attributes to its mute relays that function to mute potential audio glitches and pops that might occur when a user starts playback for the first time or switches between disc formats. Oppo adds: "Lower end players use transistors to perform the same function. Transistors are electronic parts and make no sound. Relays offer a higher audio quality and that's why the BDP-95 uses them. Many high-end A/V receivers also have this type of clicking sound when switching inputs or changing signal formats for the same reason."
The basic topography and functioning remains much the same as the BDP-83. The back panel is sensibly laid out, except that the labels for the audio outputs are below rather than above the connector, which makes it very difficult to see exactly who's who and what's what once you've made the connection. If, like me, you connect up by peering over the top of the unit, the only way you can check to see if you've installed the cables correctly is to look at the diagram and count outputs. You can't miss the XLR connectors which make for a dedicated stereo pair for 2-channel analogue reproduction.
Internet connectivity is also provided, but neither that function, BD-Live and other Internet streaming, nor 3D capability are addressed in this review.
The first rule is that measurements do not reveal very much - at least not to the end user, and can very easily misinform. There is a thinly veiled assumption that what we measure is relevant to the experience of listening to music or watching a movie on video. As of this writing, we have no reliable way to measure the effects of a recorded music performance or video movie on the listener.
The second rule is a variation on the adage that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Or: garbage-in, garbage-out. Ergo, if one's source component (LP, CD, DVD or Blu-ray player), is compromised, the rest of the playback chain will fail to make music or the movie intended by the filmmakers. And unless the rest of the chain is without blemish you will learn little about the component you are evaluating. Worse, you may draw the wrong conclusions.
The third rule is that a good internal signal transferring or processing component can be made worthless by careless management. Thus, a merely fair transformer, processor, or digital-to-analogue converter in a well designed circuit can have better results than a brilliant component in a poorly designed circuit. Location. Location. Location.
The projector is, alas, last year's darling though, in its day, quite the bomb. I have since seen better from the same company. Damn! Ditto for my video screen, which has incredible value for the money, though I have seen better for thousands more. More to the point of this evaluation, if they reveal differences between one player and another then it will have sufficed, if not to the nth degree. If your projector, display or screen is better than mine, then you can reliably expect your results to be that much better.
I imagine that Audio Note is not a brand name familiar to most of my readers - or if familiar, it is by name only. Suffice to say that all of our panelists spent many hours with the Oppo BDP-83 and have ears-on experience with Audio Note components and systems and understand their contribution. (End of plug.)
The Tasting Panel
The BDP-95 has two HDMI outputs (only one of which is preceded by the Marvell processor), but it is folly in my opinion to use one for video and the other for audio. Fortunately a good surround processor will incorporate a workaround in the form of "multi-channel inputs" or some such nomenclature. So all you need do is send your already decoded, properly formatted and converted analogue signal via high quality interconnects to the appropriate inputs on your processor and let it act as traffic cop for distribution to your 5.1 or 7.1 amplifiers and speakers. Once you've sorted out the surround balance, your surround processor will maintain master volume control, and you're all set. (There is a volume control on the Oppo remote but you will want to avoid its use if you want the best sound, so keep it set at "100" where it is effectively bypassed.)
Let us look for a moment at Oppo's toroidal power supply. The function of a power supply is to supply the necessary low DC voltages needed for the circuitry to operate. The BDP-83, 83-SE and 93, like most other DVD and Blu-ray players, use switching power supplies with regulating transistors that are switched on and off very fast to produce the voltage from the AC. They are cheap, small, very efficient and lightweight. However, they rely on complex circuits to supply the regulating transistors with the correct switching voltage, and they produce a byproduct of electrical noise that can leak into sensitive audio and video circuits.
Transformer-based power supplies on the other hand, although they are less efficient and more expensive, are much quieter. Using a toroidal power transformer results in much less magnetic leakage and 60 Hz mechanical vibration compared to more conventional (E-I type) transformers, and none of the noise problems associated with switching supplies. The toroidal transformer can be constructed to be relatively short and fat and therefore fit neatly into a case the size of the BDP-95. Other than this there is nothing particularly remarkable about the "toroidal" aspect of the design. Laminated E- and C-core transformers are significantly better with readily perceived sonic advantages, but are larger and more costly. All of these solutions assume, of course, that whatever transformers are employed are carefully designed to start with and properly configured in the power supply. My tech guru, Nick Gowan of True Sound in Campbell, California (whose contribution to my theoretical and practical understanding of circuits is hereby acknowledged as are his observations as part of the evaluation panel), gives the BDP-95's power supply high marks for using an expensive high quality toroidal transformer where it matters.
Digital Versus Analogue Audio Performance
Oppo acknowledges that in the BDP-95 they have not addressed transport issues such as clocking or jitter, so we were not surprised to find little difference between the 95 and the 83 when a CD/PCM data stream fed the same outboard converter. However, it is important to keep i mind that once the sigal enters the digital-to-analogue conversion process, the Sabre32‘s own anti-jitter tricks come into play. Bottom line here is that as a transport there any number of vehicles out there that are better, but that to achieve the level of performance of the BDP-95 as a complete player you'd have to spend 4 or 5 times the money.
CD / SACD / PCM
In the present comparison, the 95 was connected for both PCM and analogue output. In PCM mode the signal was first sent to the DAC1 before making its way to my Audio Note M3 preamplifier. Here there were differences but not a clear winner. Most of the panel was inclined to give it to the 95 on points. But when my DAC1 went up against the BDP-95 using its DACs straight into my amplifier, the conclusion was obvious: the 95 was clearer, better resolved, more dynamic and more open. The difference was not huge huge, but it was easily perceived. When we performed the same experiment with the Audio Note DAC3/sig and CDT-Two/II transport (over $10,000 combined) then the decision went the other way by a greater margin even though the 95 has what are presumed to be better DACs on board. This should not come as a surprise since the 95's transport is not nearly as good, the DAC3 has a significantly better power supply and every component part within is of a higher grade.
I might add, in the interest of full disclosure that none of us felt that the BDP-95 actually made music that could be seriously enjoyed for the length of a disc, unlike the CDT-Two/II / DAC3, which at least kept a couple of our panelists interested for as long. But keep in mind we are an extremely difficult audience that do not represent the general public who would, we believe, be perfectly happy with the BDP-95, even if hours earlier they could be found to be listening to MP3 without embarrassment.
Moving on to more densely populated plastic media, we see that the the BDP-95 permits reading of whatever mixes exist on the disc - Multi-Channel, Stereo and CD - but in most cases can only be accessed through the navigation set-up window on your TV display. Oppo was kind enough to include 2L's multi-channel reference sampler "The Nordic Sound" for us to use in this evaluation. The Nordic Sound is 2-disc affair whose nineteen eclectic music tracks (two of which come from Grammy winning albums for multi-channel sound) appear in [a] SACD 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo @ 2.8224 Mbit/sec/ch, and 2.0 stereo 16-bit/44.1kHz, and [b] Blu-ray in two 5.1 versions: DTS HD-MA and LPCM 24-bit/192kHz. The tracks are selectable on the fly with the colored buttons on the remote. The 2L discs are handy for an unbiased comparison of the two media, and you might be surprised which you prefer so try them all without prejudice.
Piano and voice – solo or chorus – in particular, is shown off to very good advantage, while orchestral ensembles are just a bit screechy. As expected, the Gregorian Chant track is totally enveloping and luscious. The harp and strings excerpt (#4) is as delicate as the chant piece exceeds the boundaries of your listening space. The Bartok solo violin sonata, however, seemed uncharacteristically harsh, even for this composer. We all got through the disc without drifting off which for us is something of a victory for the medium.
All the same, our panel was divided: While everyone agreed that the sound was a great improvement over the 83 regardless of configuration, three panelists felt the 5.1 sound to be unsettling, some tracks more than others. They opined that this might have been due to the multi-channel nature of the 2L SACD recordings, since the two-channel renderings were found to be less disorienting, if also less interesting. They thought that their reaction was in large part due to the unfamiliar nature of a multi-channel milieu that placed the listener in the middle of things rather than at the end of a concert hall.
In the end we agreed that the most likely cause was due to the fact that the amplifier/speaker complement was not identical all the way around. This resulted in a certain fuzziness somewhere in the middle of the soundscape. So while our front L/R amp/speakers were as dynamic and highly nuanced as could be, the same could not be said for the surround channels. The Lord giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. The moral is that unless you have balanced amplification/speakers all around, do not use the system for playback of music in a multi-channel configuration. When we returned to 2-channel playback using the 95‘s Stereo outputs, all was right as rain. Quite nice, actually. My own feeling was that the 2.0 versions of the tracks on both 2L discs were more nuanced even if they gave up some in airiness, but there was no question that this provided the most listenable configuration.
You don't have to read very deeply between the lines to get past my underselling of the BDP-95 in regards its ability to recover bits of music form plastic media. While its performance in this area can hardly be considered its strong point, most people who aren't nearly as critical as this panel will accept the player with open ears. For the value, and considering the damn thing plays Blu-ray movie movies like nobody's business, as we shall see presently, I doubt you can find better.
High Definition Audio
And now for the good bad news: There is one downside to improved accuracy, especially with movie soundtracks. Soundtracks violate just about every real-world expectation imaginable. They do this deliberately, calculatingly, manipulatively. And the more accurate your playback, the more readily you will hear what soundscape designers are up to. I believe it is not their intention for the listener to hear how they do what they do, but merely to sweep us off our feet. It's much the same as how the high-definition image reveals more detail than you would ever see or wish to see in the theater. In short, the Oppo BDP-95 applies a microscope at the visual and sonic level so acute that the home theatre is converted into an entirely different medium for watching movies than was ever imagined by the filmmakers. I say this up front so that you should not be alarmed when you start to hear (and see) things that seem disproportional.
Proportion and balance aside, there are gains that cannot be overstressed. A few examples:
One of the most telling is Universal's new Les Misérables 25th Anniversary Concert which, on the BDP-83, with or without the AN DAC1, sounded shrill and compressed. With the BDP-95 feeding the amplifiers directly from its analogue outputs, the orchestra opened up, the voices found their chest tone, the choruses had power. An emotional connection was found at last. True, the sound engineers would fiddle with balances to distracting levels with each change of scene or group of singers, but if you could get past that, there was excitement to be had. On Blu-ray after Blu-ray, when the audio had been felt to be gnarly on the BDP-83, it became glorious on the 95.
Up to a point, the worse the audio was yesterday, the healthier it seemed today. But the BDP-95 will give new life to your demonstration library as well.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix on Baraka struck some of us as entirely new, so open and dynamic and rich with previously hidden nuance and dynamics. The bass here as with every soundtrack we played (even on Dolby Digital surround mixes. e.g. from The Aviator Blu-ray and The Paranoids DVD) had more authority: deeper, more solid, more tuneful in some cases (as on Baraka), more open - so that it did not gobble up nearby lower tones as did the 83 (in the sonic equivalent of black crush).
A particularly good example of how well formed the bass could be is found under the opening credits for Sweeney Todd with its whacking good drum and low brass thrusts over the organ. Great effects mixes are nothing short of revelatory: the garbage incinerator scene in Toy Story 3, the opening 18-wheeler duel in Fast and the Furious and the engine warm-up in Tokyo Drift, the explosive, ever-changing immersive soundscape of Cloverfield and the enveloping rainstorm of the 2008 Rambo. We ducked for cover when banging doors and clattering kitchenware attacked Christine in her house in Drag Me to Hell; we sat in awe of Danny Boyle's overpowering but never overbearing Sunshine, and gripped our seats during the staggering T-Rex fight scene in Peter Jackson's King Kong - to name a few that put the new player through its paces. It's like hearing them for the first time all over again - only more so, more nuanced, more dynamic, scarier, sweeter, more powerful.
On a more subtle note, it will be of interest to some of you that dialogue has been given a boost in clarity such that those with hearing losses might be able to disengage the subtitles. How often do we groan when actors mumble their way through a scene, in character, perhaps? It was clear to me how rarely I would need to replay a scrap of dialogue, or worse: bring up the subtitles. Hmmm... a good reason to consider the BDP-95 even if your playback is of only average quality.
Keep your eye on the decorations of Lun Tha's jacket as he moves, turns and exits; also the king's shiny pearl buttons against his black shirt. With a lesser processor the geometric shapes of Lun Tha's beautiful garment will lose their integrity, and the king's buttons will shimmer even as he just sits there. Once in motion, as when the king turns to face Anna, and especially in a medium long shot where there isn't much for the processor to grab hold of, any processor less than the Marvell could not help but give off a few of those telltale jaggies. It's not like the 95 nails every button or moving shape no matter what, but the difference between the 83 and the 95 in this scene is something to behold.
The other major problematic scene in The King and I is just about anywhere during the jaw-droppingly gorgeous and relentlessly inventive "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which offers dozens of impossible hurdles. Once situated at her recital position, Tuptim is seen in medium shot along with her musicians. We see that her collar is laced with precious stones of various colors never before made apparent. "Eva's Escape" is death to processors: Once the "rain" is thrown onto the dancers, already moving this way and that with costumes and silks of reds, golds, oranges, greens and blues, it's all over. Look again with the 95. It's enough to take the breath. I won't claim that The King and I DVD has miraculously turned into Blu-ray, but I can attest to its fooling anyone who isn't looking to be critical.
The "Broadway Melody" ballet from Singin' in the Rain is probably the most vivid live action color sequence on DVD, exquisitely preserved by Warner in their 2-disc Special Edition. Thanks to MGM's art direction and the BDP-95, it beats all to hell many a Blu-ray for sheer mouth-watering eye candy. All those bold slashes of color and nuanced detail are so stunningly revealed, you won't want to play anything else for an hour while your brain tries to make sense of it all. The spectre of a Blu-ray of this movie is a fearsome thought.
Classic Black & White movies from the late 1930s through the early 60s especially are known for their breath of tonal scale and their dimensionality. They are imbued with a reach-out-and-touch-it quality that few color movies from any period possess. Our interest in using such films on DVD for comparison is one of the trickier and more subjective pieces of evaluation. Here we're not looking for errors; we're looking for involvement, seduction. We want the experience to transport me convincingly, compellingly, into another reality. We employ some of the best B&W transfers to DVD, among them: Citizen Kane, Now Voyager, Only Angels Have Wings, Sunset Blvd., Ordet, Rebecca, La Dolce Vita. The Apartment, too, dark as it is, has its pleasures, and the opening scene of Jack Lemmon sitting at his desk in the midst of a sea of typewriters makes for a good upscaling test as well. Without belaboring the point, it was hard to let go of any of these movies once into them for a few minutes - a true test of the system, and the player.
The next thing we all noticed was that colors are richer: reds, blues, greens especially are deeper, as are, not surprisingly, blacks. You might want to use this Opportunity to recalibrate your display. At the same time, mass is more accurately rendered. Heavy objects seemed heavier; light things, from bubbles to clothing, were lighter, water seems more fluid – wetter, if you will. What really surprised us was that this was true even in the fantastic world of animation, as in: Ponyo. Notice Vicky's layered skirts as she spins about in the opening scene of The Red Shoes Ballet – how light and buoyant they are now, working with her instead of against her, each layer moves interdependently with the others.
The more work the image required, the more valuable the 95's contribution. Perhaps nowhere is this more manifest than with the Battlestar Galactica series. With the 83 a fine dust seemed to settle over the image, along with poorly resolved faces – not only Adama's – lacking sufficient continuity and density of flesh. We now see we see dustless continuity, detail, and in place of blotchy skin we see something resembling flesh. The same goes for all surfaces, fabrics and metals. It's quite revelatory.
Animation sources, whether CG-sourced, like Toy Story, or cell-animation, like Pinocchio, or anime, like the Ghost in the Shell television series, are all cleaner, as if that much closer to the source. We are used to thinking that CG-sourced material is rendered onto Blu-ray without any translation; ditto, its realization to your display. The BDP-95 demands a rethink. One such moment comes in Pixar's Up when Carl's balloons first break from their enveloping skin - itself seen as if for the first time - and they burst into a living organism tied to the house by scores of delicate strings. Note how much lighter the balloons are now, yet even more colorful. Each balloon has an independent life absent before. We can almost feel the skin tension as they rub against each other.
Mass is rendered more accurately: heavy stuff has weight; light stuff floats.
The panel noted numerous times how this or that detail was made apparent with the BDP-95 that they hadn't noticed with the 83. This was true with Blu-ray as well as DVD, but surprisingly so on Blu-ray. When we would return to the 83, such details were present but not apparent, as it were. You could see them if you looked for them, but they did not register as they do with the 95. This is one of the the BDP-95's most subtle and most profound pleasures. Keep in mind that such benefits are just as present with the BDP-93, but without the 95‘s excellent audio for support, in a sly way, the details are not as evident. My hypothesis is that the better the audio, the less the brain has to process to make sense of, and is thus free to "see" what else is there. I call this the "Mourning Adonais Effect."
A couple of brief examples: We noted that during "The Red Shoes Ballet," Vicky's slippers are the same red in every shot, or nearly. They always were, I suppose, but now, our attention is drawn to them like a magnet. Our appreciation for the art and science and discipline of Technicolor just rose several points. In Baraka the slow pan across Emperor Qin's terracotta soldiers revealed a meaning of historical import: that each face is different was always apparent, but that their uniqueness meant something - this was new.
The awareness of perception is followed by the reception of meaning.
More surprising to us was how transcendentally meditative Baraka's whirling dervishes were felt to be. We knew this was the intent of the whirling, but never before had this quality been transmitted to us in a way that welcomed us to join in their meditation. The Oppo allows us to immediately forget that the technical aspects of player, amplification and electronics and we are lost in the unique space of the movie.
There was no question in the minds of our panel that what they were seeing and hearing was the best they had encountered. Rich Green, a leading international figure in CEDIA (Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association), declared the picture from the DP-95 "flawless" and that he had never felt a living room disappear so quickly and effectively. (Rich also very much liked Oppo's Speaker Configuration diagrammatic menu. Me, too.)
A Unique Opportunity
This is sensible and advisable, and seems at first blush to be the only solution left to us – but, in the immortal words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, there is another. Alternatively, you could feed the Oppo's multi-channel outputs directly to two pairs of high quality preamp/amp/speakers, folding in center and subwoofer channels into your front L/R and using your volume controls there to sort out balance. Depending on how good your amps and speakers are, while some work to sort out, this could be a dynamite solution for the clearest and most exciting audio.
So here you are with this little toy Oppo and suddenly your home theatre takes on dimension, clarity and dynamic scale like you wouldn't have believed possible. This is not Bose territory we are talking about here. I kid you not.
Just as with the 83, the 95 is not entirely projector friendly, since the set up routines are not possible without first turning on the projector. I like that the display window is less bright than the BDP-83. In fact, it's perfect, if a little smallish. At a distance of greater than 12 feet you could be in trouble - unless you have your TV display turned on. I suppose this is all very well if you're going to then watch something, but not so good if you want to play a CD with the secondary audio program function turned off for optimum sound, or if you want to access the various SACD layer choices. Oppo is of the opinion that most users will decide form the get-go how they want to set up their player in this regard, and they'd be right. However, it does not follow that another choice might not be preferred if access were made easier.
For those of us who will want to perform a custom set-up, we find that we must rely on the Speaker Configuration Menu for, among other things, rear channel delay. This is calculated behind the scenes, as it were, once the distance from the listener to the various speakers is entered. In my case this turned out to be an unreliable calculation and I had to set that distance to the rear speakers the same as to the front instead of half that, which is what it measured. Your mileage may vary.
I like that I no longer need the services of either a surround sound processor or my 5-year old outboard DAC, good as it was in its day. I have to go through some hoops to get there and, while I find the result well worth the trouble, it seems that Oppo may not have realized its potential to completely eliminate the need for a surround processor, and stopped just short.
As thorough as the User Manual is, it has no index, only a Table of Contents. I should also mention that this player is region-locked for DVD and Blu-ray playback, as was the BDP-83.
But if you have first-class audio playback and surround, or are willing to pay for whatever gain you can find to avoid subtitles - if you want the best value in a universal Blu-ray/DVD/CD player, with superb digital-to-analogue reproduction, whether from high definition video sources or tried and true CD or SACD sources - if you want to breathe new life into your video library - if you want more than technical excellence - if you want an emotional connection to and lose yourself in your movies, then look no further than the BDP-95.
Many thanks to: Rich Green, Stan Head, Paul Healey, Tom Larsen and The True Sound Gang of Three for their support and critical openness throughout the audition of the Oppo BDP-95. I would also like to thank Jason Liao at Oppo for his technical assistance and product support. – LN