Thursday, December 23, 2010

Equipment Review: The Denon DVD-2930ci

If you've read a single AV-related post of mine, in any venue, then you know without my having to say so that the biggest problem-area in my system hasn't been the DVD-player. Neither has it been the amplifier, the television, the speakers, or the cabling. What it has been, is an inscrutable bug somewhere in my electrical system. I've installed dedicated lines, common-mode chokes, isolation transformers, even improvised additional AC-cord shielding using dryer duct. I've replaced speaker wires and interconnects and the romex in the wall. I've tried everything. Nothing has worked. Thwarted in my efforts to diagnose and solve the problem, I've resorted to more-or-less living with it: experimenting with different configurations in my rube-goldbergy power filtration scheme until the recurrence of the issue was reduced to acceptable, once-a-month levels.

I needed to say this right up-front today because it goes a long way to explaining how I ever got to meet the Denon DVD-2930ci in the first place: Were it not for this weird problem with my electricity (whatever it is), I'd still be the proudly contented owner of a Sony NS3100-ES that is now chugging away in the home of a close friend without incident. I would almost certainly still be the proudly contented owner of its bigger brother, the NS9100-ES -- had the same bizarre issue not compromised its performance in precisely the same way. As high-end machines for the enjoyment of conventional DVD's go, the Sonys are improbably hard to beat in nearly every respect. They do some things very well and other things better than any other player I've ever owned. But here's the thing: all the DVD-players I've ever owned, do at least some things better than any other player I've ever owned, and all of them have either immediately or eventually exhibited nagging issues that "forced" me into trying something else.

This, I believe, leaves me in an unusually advantageous position to comment on each one -- as if someone were telling you about his current tube amplifier after having worked his way through... well, all the others. The Denon DVD-2930ci, then, is the conventional DVD-player I review here because, after brief stops at Sony (the aforementioned 3100 and 9100, sequentially), Oppo (the 980H), Marantz (the DV-7001) and Pioneer (the DV-79 Avi), the Denon is the machine that I have "ended up with." At least until my house eats it.

Thinking Out of the Box

I bought my unit new-in-the-carton from an Ebay seller and straight away I was impressed with its compact, weighty build philosophy. The front faceplate is understated without being severe; the remote is thick and heavy and thoughtfully arrayed; the profile of the machine is low without going all the way to that awkwardly self-conscious, credit-cardy slim that seems to be so popular with so many vendors these days, but which always leaves me feeling like best practices are being sacrificed for trendy cosmetics that are sure to look as dated and silly ten years from now as the high-gloss silver chasses of the mid-seventies.

Rear-apron connectivity includes the predictable HDMI, optical and coaxial digital, and legacy video outputs, as well as both two- and five-channel analog audio ports -- the last of which is an absolute necessity in my rig, powered as it is by a discrete analog multichannel tube-integrated amp (the arrestingly good Dared DV-6C, about which much more anon). Connection was straightforward, though the needlessly close placement of the six multichannel audio sockets left me with the customary anxiety about having compromised the circuit integrity of the piece before I even got to play with it.

There is actually no really good reason for these sockets to be as close together as they tend to be on the rear aprons of home entertainment equipment: If you've had as many top covers off as I have, then you know that on the inboard side of these connections the circuits for each channel disperse to all corners of the board. Why, then, do I always have to wonder if my thicker-by-design RCA hozzles are cracking the shells of the interconnect hubs before I've even heard the first note of sound through each new machine? (I warn you not to respond casually: If you can answer that one, I'll next be asking you why control-W, which can easily be typed instead of shift-W, is the signal to my computer to discard fourteen pages of unsaved typing by closing my active fucking browser window. I digress.)

Life in Hell. Complete with Owners' Manual.

After connection, of course, the next step was to power-up the machine and put both myself and it through the aggrieved gauntlet of initial setup menus -- aided as usual by a badly written and needlessly over-stylized owners' manual. After the standard, excruciating preliminaries about what a power cord looks like and where to put the batteries in the remote control, the next four pages -- labeled "Making the initial settings" -- proved, on lengthy further review, to be nothing more than a fussy sub-table of contents (e.g., "HDMI Audio Setup: HDMI Speaker Setup: Channel Level: Test Tone: Front LCH: 19").

As ever in this maddening contemporary world of if-you-mind-this-happening-then-you-must-be-the-Unabomber, a simple and inexpensive beta-test of the usefulness and understandability of the manual would've saved me a far larger dose of frustration on the customer end of the bargain. Then again, I would seem to be the only person to have noticed that our most frequently-used piece of consumer electronics is also the one we can't try before we buy it, and once we do buy it we can't get rid of for two whole years at a time -- so I suppose when it comes to consumer advocacy I've got bigger fish to fry than clamoring for an occasional double-blind experiment to see if anybody can read their owners' manuals. Point being, of all the bad owners' manuals out there, the Denon DVD-2930ci's was one of the worst -- surpassed only in its technocratic inscrutability by that of the Sony's, and surpassed in pointlessly fussy layout by... well, nobody's, really.

Much ado about nothing? Yeah, you'd think so, wouldn't ya. So did I. It was only after I thought I'd completed the lengthy setup process that I realized that this particular frustration, in this particular instance, was anything but academic. Indeed the frustration I had with this particular manual would in the end very, very, very nearly result in my having to box the entire unit up and resell it:

The trouble began with the fact that, for reasons apparent only to the manufacturer, the Denon DVD-2930ci is shipped from the factory with the HDMI output completely disabled. This means that spending half an hour on your hands-and-knees, hooking everything up the way you have a half-dozen times before, will reward you with a rich, sprawling, fifty-inch-diagonal plasma screen of nuthin'. To turn on the HDMI output, it happens, you must re-read the entire manual twice -- once to verify that you haven't missed a conspicuous step on account of your own haste, and a second time to find, in four-point type, the words "Upon Purchase" next to the place on page twenty-nine where the manual describes how to toggle-off the only video output that anybody on the planet ever uses. Then, just to make an evening of it, you have to reason-out that "Upon Purchase" means that this setting is the factory default. As for just what was so terribly deficient about the term "factory default," or why it would occur to anyone, anywhere, that defaulting an upconverting DVD-player to output video that isn't upconverted, I won't presume to ask.

Moreover, the act of toggling the HDMI output to the common-sense "on" position isn't even available, after having invested all this time and frustration into discovering the problem there. Instead the user must choose between "HDMI-YCbCr" and "HDMI-RGB," a distinction that not only doesn't serve any technical necessity, but which I for one can't really seem to accept as factually possible. Correct me if I'm wrong about this, do, but it seems to me that component is component, RGB is RGB, and HDMI is -- well, HDMI. Not only have I never seen a user-option that would conflate two of these three formats together into some freakish human-centipede-wannabe like this, I don't actually get how such a selection is even supposed to be practicable, let alone decided-upon by the user.

The manual, of course, says absolutely nothing informative about the decision, but in this case at least the folks at Denon are in good company: All owners' manuals are bad these days, and all DVD-player manuals are bad in this very peculiar way. They all manage to take four pages explaining how to use patch cords to hook the thing to a TV and an amp, and ZERO pages explaining what the results would be if I toggle some third-level-sub-menu setting between "Linear-PCM" and "96kHz Direct," or some other inscrutable but ominously important-sounding gibberish. As is always the case, I ended up skipping the first eleven pages of the manual and then guessing about the only video-related setting that could even hypothetically make any difference. And there's no excuse for that, either.

Life in Hell. Complete with Owners' Manual. Part II.

If this had been where the Denon's setup hassle ended, the shame of this preposterous set of inside-baseball decisions on the design table would've redounded to the company's shame for a very long time indeed. But regrettably my colorful evening of grappling with this machine's frightfully bad user interfaces was only just beginning, as I noticed immediately when I started playing the first DVD and realized that I didn't have multichannel sound.

It happens that if you connect the DVD-2930ci via the multichannel analog audio outputs, and then slavishly follow every single step in the owners' manual for making this connection work, not only isn't there any sound output from the center and surround sockets, but the setup menus don't even allow the user to skate to the appropriate sub-page to fix the problem! Instead, when the user finds the option to adjust multichannel sound output, he attempts to scroll to that choice and discovers that it is "grey'ed": the remote just skates completely over the entire sub-menu and directly to a lower option called "compression." (Since that's something we all need more of in our audio these days, apparently. You know, I was just thinking that what I'd been really missing in my DVD sound, is more compression.)

It went on this way for the better part of two hours: I, in increasingly profane exasperation, consulting the manual again and again, then skating over the only sub-menu I wanted; the machine stoically responding with still more, non-downmixed, two-channel sound. For the length of a feature presentation, I tried switching and un-switching every other setting I could think of, then went back to the manual and re-read the same eleven passages for the eleventh time, then cursed loudly enough for the neighbors to cover their childrens' ears, then started all over again.

Finally, as a last resort before boxing the whole thing up and getting rid of it, I retreated to the friendly confines of the internet discussion fora -- there to discover that the exact-same problem had been exasperating a veritable can-can line of other would-be happy customers, over and over and over again, dating across the entire four-year history of this product's existence. And the thing is, some of their posts were completely un-responded, meaning they'd either figured out the solution on their own, or spent the entire period of time between then and now without analog mulitchannel sound from their analog-multichannel-capable DVD-player. Products in my particular household have been thrown against walls and stomped up and down on, for less.

It turns out that, *after* having (1) toggled the HDMI audio off, (2) toggled the sound from two-channel virtual surround to discrete multichannel, and (3) selected "direct" mode to disable the digital sound-output circuitry altogether, the customer must *THEN* switch the HDMI sound output (which has, you understand, already been utterly de-activated in three different ways, on three different setup screens) from multichannel to two-channel. You read that right, folks: Your completely dead HDMI sound signal has to be two-channel in order for your only live sound signal to be anything else, with this machine.

There is, I perhaps don't have to say, absolutely, no, reason, for this much trouble. If the analog output sockets were active by factory default, it wouldn't hurt a thing in the digital domain. And even if it did, toggling the HDMI sound to the off position (even once, much less three times), should surely be enough of an indication that the user expects to hear something through the analog connections.

More to the point, the owners' manual says *N*O*T*H*I*N*G* about this. I had to find out for myself, more-or-less completely by accident, by reading a dozen blind threads on different discussion boards until at last finding the solution, authored by someone else who discovered it completely by accident. But really, I shouldn't complain this much: After all, it had only taken me a total of four hours of slowly unraveling consumer satisfaction before I found a piece of information that could have appeared in boldface capital letters on the same page as the multichannel connection diagram. How silly of me to complain.

Impressions (Upon Emerging from Hell).

When I'd finally calmed down enough to actually play with it, the Denon DVD-2930ci exhibited several other interesting -- if less maddening -- quirks of personality that in total make it by far the most distinctive of the various models I've tried, from disc access to menus to picture to sound.

The spin-up time and time-to-menu-access of this machine are both noticeably unhurried (this, you understand, coming from a past and satisfied owner of the notoriously lethargic Sonys). On more than one occasion I inadvertently canceled my own instructions to the machine by hitting the same button twice on the remote, thinking I'd missed the infrared bulls' eye the first time. If the amateur review literature is any indication this bothers people far less easily agitated than myself, but my personal ace-in-the-hole in this instance is that, unlike most of the other things I've ranted on about in this cranky little trope, I don't actually give a shit about slow menu-access times. I've had such bad luck, on so many other fronts, that these days I'm pleasantly surprised when my disc media spins-up and plays *at* *all*. Indeed, pretentious as it may sound, I'm actually inclined to derive a certain vicarious, upper-crusty satisfaction from the wait -- as though seated in an expensive restaurant and in no hurry for the waiter to finish pouring the taste-sample of that Sauvignon Blanc he's just recommended. Still it should be said that long wait-times are frustrating for many would-be customers of this product, and I'd have to count myself among them if the wait were any longer than it is.

The HDMI video output, which I tried first at 720p YCrCb and then toggled to 720p RGB just to be sure, was surprisingly laid-back, almost muted-looking. For this, though, I had a fun and easy solution: I've always used the "cinema" presets on my Panasonic TH50 plasma, designed to suffuse the image in that faint hint of gauzy, cellulosy blush we've instinctually come to expect from our movie-going experience. But with past machines this effort has, unbeknownst to me, been actively canceled by those other players' tenacious insistence on bludgeoning every last black pixel until it has bled its last drop of black into the outlines of the figures on the screen.

The Sonys were particularly noteworthy in this regard: With the Panasonic set at all-neutral, the picture output from the 9100 was edgy-sharp to the point of being nerve-wracking; with the 3100 it was almost comically so. The Denon, it would seem, opts for a much quieter output philosophy -- the difference being analogous in some ways to that of the hyper-fidelity of every last microphonic detail emanating from McCormack or Linn or Bryston audio gear, on the one hand, vs. the more "musical" disposition of, let us say, Naim or YBA or McIntosh.

Had I not nulled-out the TV settings I would not have preferred the Denon's picture. But I did, and so I do. With the TV set at +13 sharpness (on a scale of -30 to +30), and +15 for picture (on the same scale), I found that the Denon could play nice on the tiniest details and still not distract me with that fatiguing, look-ma-no-hands vibe I'd always gotten from other high-end conventional DVD players.

The brightness, I should also mention, I left set at a jaw-droppingly-low minus-7. That's because this is the one and most-important trick to getting the most out of one's home-entertainment system: The factory-default brightness settings on TV's are preposterously too high, the better to compensate for the possibility that any one specimen ends up the floor-model in a seizure-inducingly over-lit retail showroom. Turn your brightness down as low as you can without having to strain to see the images in a day-for-night movie scene, and in the long-run your improvement in satisfaction will outstrip all but the most expensive of electronic upgrades. Everything about a home theater looks and feels better when the blacks are black.

What is the Frequency, Kenneth?

The counter-point to all this rosy, laid-back picture quality turns out to be the sound, which is as forward and intense as I'd be personally be able to tolerate. Adjusting the trim levels helped a little, but the catch here is that, as with several other players in its class, it is not possible to adjust the Front-Left and Front-Right trim below zero dB, so the only other choice is to over-rev the center- and surround channels and then turn the whole thing down at the amp -- yet another pointless design oversight that can easily (indeed almost has to) lead to distortion on particularly complex passages, especially when someone in the center of the frame is shouting over something noisy happening off to one side.

After about an hour of experimentation with several tricky source materials (the opening battle scene of Star Wars Episode III is an especially good pace-putter-througher), my summative impression was of a unit whose picture personality could be almost infinitely toyed and teased and prodded until everything was just so, and whose sound quality manifestly could not. Indeed if my Chirstmas wishes come true and I am granted both omnipotence and a time machine, then you make take it as read that, after murdering the team of pimply-faced twentysomethings who farted-out the instruction manual, the ability to trim the front channels below zero-dB is the first and perhaps only thing about this player that I would change. Then again, turning down the volume on my Dared DV-6C will also reduce the likelihood that Jim Salk suffers an unexplained, telepathic stroke, so I don't really consider this a major drawback, either. At least not yet. If the audio begins to sound brittle and fatiguing because of the higher levels, we'll only know that later. But it would be a pretty big problem with no fix.

And in This Corner....

As I said before, none of the high-end conventional DVD players I've owned have been without their curious foibles or their curious advantages. The Sonys took the cake on functionality by a factor too large to mention, mostly on account of one simple little thing that they do so much better than everyone else that it serves as a constant source of amazement to me that nobody has copied them: stored break-points. On a Sony-ES machine, one can remove the DVD from the player, place it back in a few days later -- even after having viewed other material -- and the machine will remember and resume playback at the precise moment where you stopped viewing the program. No other machine I've yet owned, including the Denon, can do this. They all store a break-point, but only if I don't open the tray. The instant I do, it's gone.

Curiously, the Sony is also the standard-bearer in backup compatibility -- a fact that would surprise anyone who's ever read ten sentences about Sony's relentless campaign to make it impossible for any of us to enjoy our source material, as a result of its shamelessly fascistic pursuit of an ever more-restrictive set of copy protection protocols, collectively called the DRM. By some bizarre logic, the same company that produces media I can't take with me anywhere, also produces the machines that will play any grunge-copied backup of some one-dollar Malaysian ripoff, without so much as hesitating at the dual layer-break. No other machines I've owned have come close in either of these two columns of the checklist.

But the Sonys, as previously mentioned, are harsh. They produce a harsh picture and, though the 9100 is better than the 3100 in this second regard, they both produce a harsh sound, as well. Some of this, it should be said, may be the result of a lack of double-blindness on the part of your intrepid reviewer: Sony products have to me *always* had an over-detaily, unsubtle, brittle feel to them, ranging from their at-the-time almost garishly crisp triniton line of TVs, to the TA series of audio separates, and back to their current generation of scalding-hot flat screens, I've always had the feeling that Sony's output philosophy was, if not too cute for its own good, then certainly too heavy-handed-technical, evoking recollections of the steak that Jeff Goldbloom ran through his teleporter in the 80s remake of The Fly: Everything's there except the only thing that matters, somehow. Yes, I've liked every single Sony product I've ever owned. But I've loved a grand-total of zero of them.

Worse, the mysterious problem I continue to have with my home electricity led to a bizarre side-effect in the Sony machines that has never reproduced itself with another machine in my house, or with either of my Sony's in their new homes. Periodically, and always at the same moments in the program material being played, the Sony's would issue this extremely shrill high-frequency "bang," a sort of CD-skip-on-steroids, leaving me to sit bolt upright for the next several minutes, waiting for the first symptoms of tweeter damage to manifest in my Songtowers. When this happened not just with personal backups but with retail copies of movies, I knew that the problem with the Sonys was serious and impossible to fix for as long as my house was doing whatever it does to everything I bring in here, and got rid of them. Neither unit has ever made the "bang" in its new home -- one of which is just a few blocks away.

The Marantz DV-7001, bless its heart, was fated to last less than a week -- either because of whatever is wrong here on Saturn-3, or because the particular used specimen I bought through Audiogon was defective from the get-go. At all events, the picture would work fine for about fifteen minutes at a time, then go completely black, and then, when it returned, would be all different shades of pink. Mind you, this player among all of them was the lone candidate for a suitable CD-audio-playback deck, richer and less textured than my beloved Arcam CD-23 but also (wait for it) more musical. But under such sub-optimal circumstances I don't think it would be fair to comment about the Marantz in further detail. Except perhaps to observe that this isn't the first time I've bought something with the Marantz logo and had it cease to function properly after a notably short period of time. Again, we might blame this on the house. We might not. I am increasingly resigned to the fact that we will probably never know.

Oppo certainly has a lot of friends in the amateur review literature, and it deserves them. After a nasty experience getting my 980H to play *any* of my personal backups without a bizarre and totally unacceptable herky-jerk, I wrote a scathing review of the experience and, *after* I'd done so, the company offered to buy the unit back from me for the full price that I had paid -- this despite the fact that I hadn't purchased it from them in the first place. They were classy about everything, and in hindsight it shames me that I tacked so hard-negative about my initial experiences with a scrappy little company that's doing a heck of a job competing with the big boys.

On retail DVD's, the tiny little Oppo clearly and easily stole the show, striking an improbably unceremonious balance between the razor-edged defiles of the Sony and the no-hurry-to-get-there Denon and Marantz. All of that being said, the initial experience doesn't disappear just because someone at the company was nice about getting you out of its consequences. If you own a lot of personal backups, and unless something big has changed in the three years since I owned an Oppo, you probably want to look elsewhere.

Which brings us to the Pioneer, a surprisingly terrific all-around unit from a company I haven't been able to take seriously since the first time I was invited over to a fellow high-school kid's room to listen to his rack system. Everything the DV-79 does, it does well, and that's not a small assortment of things. It's an adequate if not thrilling music machine; its access-speed and menu functionality are both well above average; it puts out a great and easily adjustable picture.

The problem I had with the Pioneer is that, while it does a lot of things well, it doesn't do any one thing better than the other machines I've tried. Its sound is great, but not as good as the Marantz. Its picture is great, but not as good as the Oppo. It plays personal backups better than the Oppo, but not as well as the Sony. And -- here's the thing -- the Denon, at least to me, at least so far, is slightly to significantly better in every single category, with the possible exception of access and menu times that, as I've said, I don't really care about, anyway.

So, Wait: You're Keeping the Denon?

In a word, yes.

The wildcard left un-discussed in all of this wasted bandwidth is that the DVD-player I use in my home entertainment system has to be grimly, almost preternaturally reliable, so as to spare me the cackling derision of the set of asshole friends I keep foolishly inviting over. Something stops working in the ordinary rig, the owner gets up from his chair and figures it out, no harm, no foul. Something stops working in my rig, I am savaged about it for *months*.

Well, if initial-but-still-scientific impressions are anything to go by, not even the Sonys measure-up to the Denon in this regard. My long first night of experimenting with this machine (once I could get it to work at all, ahem, ahem), was characterized by a stout, take-all-comer's vibe from the thing. In all the discs I tried, from all the sources, I couldn't get the Denon to skip, choke on a layer-break, *or* display any house-specific behavioral anomalies such as bangs or skips or (thank God) all-pink screens.

Might it be possible that this rush of satisfaction is attributable to the fact that, of all the players listed here, the Denon is the only one I purchased brand-new and received in a sealed box? Yes. Of course it is. And this admission, coming as it does at the very end of such a long and turgid write-up, must surely be taken into front-line consideration by anyone considering the purchase of one or more of these devices. Thing is, it's also the one attribute of this entire experience that I cannot go back in time and control. If I could, I'd probably start with buying a different house.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

Denon DVD-2930ci DVD player (reviewed)
Arcam CD-23 CD-player
Dared DV-6C multichannel tube-hybrid integrated amplifier (review forthcoming)
Panasonic TH50PX60U plasma television (720p)
Salk Songtower QWT's, front left and right
Linn Trikan center channel
Totem Mite-T surrounds
Element Cable speaker wire
Control Audio CTRL-1 RF-shield-grounded interconnects
Signal Cable AC cords
DaleTech MI-1500 isolation transformer (for the amp)
AudioCircle DIY "Felix" common-mode choke (for the sources)
APC H-15 AC-line conditioner (for the TV)
Dedicated AC-line

Source Material:
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
No Country for Old Men
The Return
Night On Earth


ScottW said...

I'm not a audiophile, my recent purchase of a used 2930ci is solely as a upgrade to my Denon system. My movie collection has been saved to hard drive and discs are burned when needed. I have found that the 2930ci will not play my DL discs but will play SL burns. Diffferent media type and manufacturers have been tried. These same discs will play in my budget players and laptop. Quite simply, does your unit play DL burns or is this a issue with my machine.

The Key Grip said...

Hi! Thanks for checking me out; I'm sorry it has taken this long to reply to your question. I have had no difficulty playing "DVD R+ DL" blank media, regardless of manufacturer (I have several brands of such media). My technique for making a personal backup is to use DVD decrypter to rip my original to my hard drive, then IMG BURN to produce the backup.

There used to be a discussion forum called "Club CD-freaks" that was peppered with potential advisers on compatibility issues, but now that it's been absorbed into a larger community (whose name I forget), I'm not sure what the protocols are any longer.

Sorry I couldn't be of any further assistance.