Initially I had intended for this review of Integra's newest no-holds-barred AV preamp to be part of an AV preamp comparison, one that would include reviews of the Marantz AV7005, Onkyo PR-SC5508 and of course the Emotiva UMC-1 published on Home Theater Review. I chose the above-mentioned AV preamps because they were all priced well below $3,000 retail, which in this day and age is a big selling point for many. While I'm sure we'd all love the chance to own a Krell Evolution 707 or Classé SSP-800, it simply isn't in the cards for many of us. But that doesn't mean we should be forced to go without. Unfortunately, we'll have to settle for three out of four because Emotiva and their UMC-1 bowed out after being the first to commit to such a review over a year ago. Happily there are AV companies out there that aren't afraid to go toe-to-toe with their competition, so with that I bring you the Integra DHC-80.2.
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The DHC-80.2 is the latest, top-of-the-line, AV preamp from Integra retailing for $2,300, which makes it the most expensive of the before-mentioned AV preamps, but then again it also packs the most features. The DHC-80.2 continues in the tradition of my former reference AV preamp, the Integra DTC-9.8, which I used without incident for four years. A lot has changed in the two generations since then, though from the outside the DTC-9.8 and newer DHC-80.2 look eerily similar. The DHC-80.2 is rather large for an AV preamp, sharing the same chassis as Integra's largest multi-channel amplifier, the DTA-70.1. The DHC-80.2 has a large, bright display sitting front and center surrounded by various hard controls for everything from surround mode to source selection. There is a large silver dial to the right of the DHC-80.2's display that controls volume. Minus a similar silver button off to the left that toggles the DHC-80.2 in and out of standby mode, the DHC-80.2 is an entirely monochromatic affair. I do want to point out that the DHC-80.2 does have a few front mounted inputs including a single HDMI, USB as well as a composite video in, mated to analog stereo inputs as well as a digital audio input. DHC-80.2 itself measures a little over 17 inches wide by eight inches tall and 17 inches deep and tips the scales at a respectable 30 pounds.
Around back things get a lot more interesting, for the DHC-80.2 hosts more inputs than I think any rational home theater enthusiast would ever need starting with seven 3D compliant HDMI inputs (HDMI v1.4a) and two HDMI monitor outputs for a total of nine -unless of course you count the front-mounted HDMI input, in which case the total climbs to 10. Below the DHC-80.2's row of HDMI ports rest its digital audio inputs, three coaxial and three optical, all of which are assignable in the DHC-80.2's menus. There's an Ethernet port as well as a RS-232 input. Below that rests Integra's Universal Port along with a host of IR and 12-Volt triggers. To the right of the various control ports rests six complete sets (composite, S-video and analog audio) of legacy inputs followed by three sets of component inputs and two sets of component outputs. There is a complete set of analog multi-channel inputs as well as unbalanced preamp outputs including dual subwoofers; hence the .2 in the DHC-80.2 model designation. Below the unbalance inputs rests an entire row of balanced preamp outs including two subwoofer outputs as well as a pair of balanced audio inputs for say, a high-end source component such as a CD player. There's even a phono stage as well as an input for Sirius satellite radio (sold separately) as well.
Under the hood the DHC-80.2 is THX Ultra2 Plus certified and features completely isolated construction between the power supplies and preprocessor units. It features shielded Toroidal transformers with four independent power supplies throughout. The DHC-80.2 is capable of decoding all of the latest surround sound codecs including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. It also has a host of other sound codecs designed to extract the best possible sound from legacy source material and downloaded music files. Speaking of best possible sound - the DHC-80.2 features Audyssey's MultiEQ XT32 room correction software, which includes support for Audyssey's own Sub EQ HT, MultiEQ Pro (professional installer kit sold separately), DSX, Dynamic EQ and Dynamic Volume. There is also a Multi-Band (15) Speaker EQ for your manual tweakers out there. The DHC-80.2 plays host to six Burr-Brown 192K /24-Bit Audio DACs as well as a 192 / 32-Bit Audio DAC which employ ultra-low jitter circuitry for improved two channel audio performance. On the video side of things the DHC-80.2 is ISF Certified and comes with a complete host of ISF Calibration Controls, meaning the DHC-80.2 can truly serve as the epicenter of any home theater system, not to mention provide older HDTVs with a greater level of picture control. The DHC-80.2 also features HQV's latest Reon-VX chipset for its internal video processing.
Nowadays no home theater can exist in a bubble and must be able to be connected to one's home network, either via an Ethernet port or wireless. The DHC-80.2 can connect to your network via its Ethernet port and once connected can take full advantage of its Windows 7 certification as well as play back Pandora Internet Radio as well as music from Rhapsody, Napster and more.
For more information on the DHC-80.2's copious options including which features require ancillary equipment and/or subscriptions, please visit its product page on the Integra website.
Unboxing and installing the DHC-80.2 is relatively easy considering all the connection options and features listed above. I placed the DHC-80.2 on the bottom shelf of my Omni+ Vent equipment rack next to my Parasound 5250 v.2 multi-channel amplifier, which was connected to the DHC-80.2 via five, two-meter lengths of Transparent MusicLink Ultra interconnects (unbalanced). I connected my various source components, a Sony BDP-S580 Blu-ray player, Dish Network HD DVR and Apple TV, to the DHC-80.2 via individual runs of Transparent Performance HDMI cables. I had a number of HDTVs, ranging from two 3D displays courtesy of Vizio and Samsung as well as the giant 70-inch Sharp HDTV on hand during my review period, which were all connected to the DHC-80.2 via a single run of Transparent Performance HDMI cable. I even connected my reference Anthem LTX-500 LCOS projector to the DHC-80.2's second HDMI monitor out using a 40-foot run of Transparent's High Performance HDMI cable.
Once connected, it was time to navigate my way through the DHC-80.2's vast menu options. Before I go any further I should point out that Integra (and Onkyo) have some of, if not the best on-screen menus I've ever seen. They're easy to read, intuitive to navigate and provide a level of control few AV products can match - even those costing multiples more. Setting up the DHC-80.2 is a snap and while I know Integra's products, including the DHC-80.2, are aimed at the custom installer market, you don't need to be a hot shot installer to make the DHC-80.2 dance.
I began by running the Audyssey auto room EQ software, which by now most every home theater enthusiast is familiar with. Audyssey's software has gotten better over the years and the software package included with the DHC-80.2 is their best yet, though I would like to point out that for best results you should use all the listening positions Audyssey provides you with, as well as keep the spacing of said points to one foot increments versus placing the microphone all over your room. For me, I basically traced the outline of my entire sofa at ear level one foot at a time.
Once my speakers and subwoofers (I used two JL Audio Fathom F110s) were dialed in, I began setting up the various inputs, which included renaming them to reflect the source such as "Sony Blu-ray," "Apple TV" etc. Once each source was labeled correctly, I set their individual sound and surround sound parameters and even dictated what type of video processing, if any, I required. All and all the entire process took about an hour, give or take, and was easy enough even a caveman could do it.
I began my evaluation of the DHC-80.2 with The Mechanic starring Jason Statham and Ben Foster on Blu-ray disc (Sony Pictures). Skipping ahead to the scene involving Foster's character and a rival mechanic, the DHC-80.2's performance was visceral and explosive without losing sight of the details -details like the film's score, which underpins the action. Back to the hand-to-hand combat for a moment, the body hits through the DHC-80.2 were rich with texture and weight and had a palpable presence to them. When Foster is thrown through several glass room dividers the resulting shattering sounds were violent and sharp without sounding digital or harsh. In fact the entire performance was a touch forward and energetic in nature, which leant a sense of urgency to the moment and presentation. Many of the larger hits, especially those involving various furniture pieces, showcased the DHC-80.2's bass prowess, which was controlled and deep. A word on the DHC-80.2's bass performance; the ability to integrate two discrete subwoofers (non daisy chained) into one's home theater is a worthwhile feature and one of the DHC-80.2's party pieces, resulting in smoother bass response throughout. While there wasn't a great deal of dialog in the above mentioned scene, latter scenes shed light upon the DHC-80.2's dialog capabilities, which were always clear, focused and intelligible regardless of what was going on in the periphery. I set the DHC-80.2's video scaling to "through" so as to bypass any processing from the internal HQV chipset. With "through" selected and the DHC-80.2 in the chain, I couldn't see any changes in the video signal good, bad or otherwise when compared to directly connecting my Sony Blu-ray player to the display itself.
Continue reading about the performance of the Integra DHC-80.2 on Page 2.
Where I did notice the DHC-80.2's ISF Calibration controls to be of a huge benefit was when I connected my reference Samsung LCD HDTV, which was state of the art when I bought it four years ago but now is a bit long in the tooth. My Samsung lacks many of the finer image controls and adjustments found on a lot of today's modern HDTVs, which means calibrating it isn't an exact science so much as it is a compromise. For instance when adjusting my Samsung's brightness and contrast the jumps between steps is sometimes too great meaning I have to either live with an image that is a little to bright or to dark with contrast that isn't really ideal either. Well, thanks to the DHC-80.2 ISF Calibration controls, I can better dial in my Samsung and breathe a bit of renewed life into it and in turn save myself some money. While I plan on upgrading my HDTV soon, it's nice to know I don't have to put it out to pasture just yet.
Next, I cued up the James L. Brooks romantic comedy How Do You Know on Blu-ray (Sony). Wanting to catch a glimpse of the DHC-80.2's softer side, I went ahead and let the movie play, noticing along the way that while the DHC-80.2 can speak loudly and carry a big stick it's also capable of whispering sweet nothings just as easily. The ambiance of New York was sublime and textural as if made from layer upon layer of sound and subtlety until it was a complete sonic tapestry. The DHC-80.2's performance was spacious - okay, cavernous - but never vague; car horns and squeaky breaks several blocks away were still noticeable from the rear speakers but never distracting from what was happening on the screen. Dialog, again, was clean and focused and free of any noticeable coloration, keeping the actor's natural tone and inflection completely intact, especially dialog spoken by the venerable Jack Nicholson.
Wanting to go for broke, I fired up Transformers: Rise of the Fallen on Blu-ray (Paramount). I skipped ahead to the battle in the woods where Optimus Prime loses his fight against the Decepticons in spectacular fashion. I set the DHC-80.2's volume at the THX Reference point and braced myself for impact. While the entire presentation was larger and louder than life, it was never harsh or fatiguing, nor did I detect any compression. The DHC-80.2 was steadfast in its rendering of every explosion, shattering tree and metal on metal contact, retaining all the visceral qualities needed to compliment the action unfolding on screen. The DHC-80.2's high frequency performance was crystalline and, dare I say, sweet as heard in the slow motion fall of Optimus Prime at the conclusion of the battle. The DHC-80.2's low frequency performance was controlled and deep with tremendous texture and air when called for. The DHC-80.2's dynamic prowess was startling at times, though I found it was a bit sluggish in the lower registers compared to some higher end AV preamps. About the only thing that I noticed that separated the DHC-80.2 from costlier competition - at least in terms of overall sound quality - was that it seemed to let some of the most minute details, like the leading and trailing edges of a sound go in favor of the overall or big picture. Again I'm splitting hairs here, for where it matters most - one's personal enjoyment of their favorite movies and music, the DHC-80.2 more than delivers the goods.
While the DHC-80.2 may be aimed at the home theater enthusiast, one who is more likely to use it in conjunction with movie night than two channel listening, that doesn't mean it gets a pass. Happily the DHC-80.2 doesn't suck when it comes to two-channel playback, evident in my tests using Michael Jackson's "Black and White" off the album Dangerous (Sony) or Mindy Smith's "Raggedy Ann" from her album One Moment More (Vanguard Records). Like with movies, vocals were placed center stage with terrific presence and weight where appropriate. The DHC-80.2's midrange with two-channel music seemed a little leaner than it did with multi-channel fare but only just; it's high and low frequency performance remained constant. Dynamically the DHC-80.2 was equally impressive, especially on "Black and White" and from a soundstage perspective I found the DHC-80.2's soundstage to be equal parts width and depth with good separation and definition throughout. I've heard a lot of people knock the DHC-80.2 (and Integra AV preamps in general) for not being musical or good for two channel playback, to which I say - nonsense. In my room, using comparable associated equipment I found nothing offensive about the DHC-80.2's two-channel performance, in fact I enjoyed it.
Competition and Comparison
An obvious competitor to the DHC-80.2 comes from one of its own family members, the Onkyo PR-SC5508 AV preamp. Retailing for $2,199, the Onkyo is only marginally more affordable and shares many of the same features as the DHC-80.2. The DHC-80.2 is aimed more at the custom installer market whereas the Onkyo is more readily available to the enthusiast consumer - either way you'll be hard pressed to beat their performance and feature set at their respective price points.
Next up would be Marantz's AV7005 AV preamp, which at $1,499 is noticeably less expensive than the DHC-80.2, not to mention better looking. Still the AV7005 doesn't have the same number of inputs or outputs (it's a 7.2 AV preamp versus a 9.2 with the DHC-80.2) as the DHC-80.2, nor does it boast the same feature set or THX/ISF certification. Still, it's a capable performer and probably enough AV preamp for most, but you do get more with the DHC-80.2, which is why it costs more. If you want a processor from Integra that is more in line with the AV7005, then I suggest you check out Integra's $1,200 DHC-40.2.
Like I said earlier, this comparison was set to include Emotiva's $699 UMC-1, which has set the Internet and budget-minded consumers atwitter for its seemingly unprecedented value. Truthfully, the UMC-1 doesn't belong in the conversation when talking about the other AV preamps in this category for it's too limited. It doesn't have the connection options nor the features when compared to the above-mentioned AV preamps. Furthermore, if you read Emotiva's own forum regarding the UMC-1 you'll find that it's plagued with software and firmware issues -something I can say I didn't experience with the DHC-80.2. The UMC-1 appears to be a nice piece on paper but a giant killer (or a Krell/Sunfire preamp in disguise as some on our staff used to think) it is not, for its spec sheet reads more like a "can not" versus a "can do" product in comparison to the competition. If it were me - I'd buy a comparably priced AV receiver from the likes of Integra or Onkyo and mate it to an outboard multi-channel amplifier before I'd consider the UMC-1 because of reports of reliability issues and additional features for about the same money.
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There are a few issues with the DHC-80.2's performance that are worth noting beginning with its somewhat sluggish signal acquisition and source selection. When switching between inputs (sources) you'll often hear an audible click as the internal hardware goes through its handshake protocols. The process is fairly quick, though there are AV preamps that do lock on faster and without such an announcement. When watching broadcast material you'll sometimes hear the "click" when the audio signal switches from Dolby Digital to stereo as well. It's nothing to be alarmed over and NEVER happens while watching or listening to the same source material for an extended period of time, but nevertheless is present.
I wish the DHC-80.2 had built-in WiFi or at the very least some form of AirPlay-like technology, for the whole world is rapidly moving away from hardwired connections, and the ability to stream music from portable devices such as an iPhone or iPad is a big deal for a lot of consumers. Hopefully future AV preamps from Integra will have this feature for some of its competition, mainly Marantz and Denon, already does.
If you have a home theater with two HDMI-capable displays as I do (HDTV and front projector), the only way to toggle between them is via a small button on the DHC-80.2 faceplate or by going into the DHC-80.2's menu and finding it that way, which as you can imagine is annoying. I hope Integra will include an HDMI output selector button on future remotes to curb this inconvenience.
The DHC-80.2 does run a bit on the warm side. Okay - it runs hot, so careful consideration should be taken to ensure proper ventilation. Under no circumstances should any piece of equipment be stacked directly atop the DHC-80.2's vents.
This downside probably rests more on Audyssey's shoulders than Integra's, but I wish either company would step-up and make the call to include the more professional Audyssey calibration tools with the DHC-80.2. The DHC-80.2 is a flagship product and it has the capabilities to provide greater levels of EQ control via its Audyssey software, but is limited by the small microphone that comes standard with the unit. Audyssey says they'll sell you the professional installer kit; you just have to be clairvoyant and know to call their tech support line and ask for it. I know not including it is a custom install ploy, but I've bought Integra processors at local dealers in the past and never once have I been offered custom Audyssey installation or support with my purchase. Audyssey says future software will have pro-like levels of control in products such as the DHC-80.2, but who knows when that will happen. In the meantime including the installer kit or perhaps offering a special promotion between Integra and Audyssey to assist current or future DHC-80.2 owners now would go a long way in showing customers how important they truly are.
Speaking of flagship status - I kind of wish the DHC-80.2 looked the part instead of looking the same as every other Integra preamp and receiver before it. I know the DHC-80.2's looks are a cost saving measure but come on - sprinkle a little pizzazz on it ... please. With AV preamps like the Marantz and even the Onkyo squaring off against the DHC-80.2, especially with regards to the Onkyo, looks can be the X factor that either makes or breaks the sale.
For $2,300 retail I'm surprised by the level of performance and number of features Integra was able to shoehorn into the DHC-80.2 AV preamp. It is one of the most up-to-date, feature-laden, easy to use and reliable AV preamps I've encountered thus far regardless of price and provides the consumer with a level of performance and enjoyment you could spend more for - but don't really need to.
Sure there are a few odds and ends that the DHC-80.2 could improve upon but none of them are truly performance-related, meaning if you want an AV preamp that excels at bringing you your favorite movies, be they in 2D or 3D with the latest surround sound codecs, look no further than the DHC-80.2 for it has figuratively everything you need to do so. If you're looking to enjoy you music library, be it on CD or iTunes - the DHC-80.2 has you covered as well. Seriously, the DHC-80.2 is the Swiss Army knife of AV preamps - it does it all. The best part is, the DHC-80.2 does it all for a price many can afford.
• Read more AV preamplifier reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com's staff.
• Find a Blu-ray player for the DHC-80.2.
• Explore source components in our Source Components Review section.