Pioneer DVL-909 DVD Player Reviewed

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Pioneer-DVL-909-review.gifFeeding a Lexicon DC-1 surround sound decoder/pre-amp and a speaker set-up of three Apogee LCRs across the front and two Apogee Compact Monitors at the back, driven by Acurus amplifiers, the DVL-909 was compared to a slew of CD players and DACs to assess its pure audio performance. These included Theta's now sadly-discontinued DATA III LD/CD transport, the Chroma and Pro Gen Va converters, Musical Fidelity's X-DAC, and the Jadis Orchestra and Roksan Caspian CD players. Programme material included a barrage of conventional CDs and samplers from Classic Records' 96kHz/24-bit program, plus assorted DTS titles. For the visuals, I compiled a selection of titles which I had on both LD and Zone One DVD, including a selection of demo DVDs, including the ornery DTS, of which the Meridian 586.2 DVD player could only access the visuals.

Week One with the DVL-909 involves merely exploring its features. Dig this: it comes with a 60-page English-only owner's manual -- 10-pages each of six languages. While you can connect it up as you would a set-and-forget CD player which happens to have a video connection, you'd be missing out on a host of options available on-screen, from the major (adapting the video to suit a widescreen TV) to the trivial (choosing the background colour of the screen saver). Once it's configured to your needs, you can exploit all the various available formats.

Paranoids: look elsewhere. The DVL-909 handles all manner of CD, laser disc or DVD (of the appropriate zone), including the following variants and options: Dolby Digital, DTS (into the necessary decoder), 96kHz/24-bit audio, and MPEG 1 digital Video CDs (for you karaoke psychos out there). And it plays CD-Rs, which some won't. A further nice touch, its billing amusingly free of the justifiable snobbery which other makers might have employed, is a 96kHz-48kHz 'step-down' so you can play 96kHz/24-bit CDs digitally into external DACs or digital recorders which can cope with 48kHz but not the full 96kHz. As Pioneer's John Bamford put it: "The DVL-909's SP/DIF output can actually deliver 96kHz/24-bit data, but where are you going to connect it? And what about jitter?" Which is a neat way of saying, "Stick with the on-board DAC..."

Which I did for most of the time because it's so ideally tailored to the transport. Never did I feel that the DAC was letting down the player, having discovered instantly that the transport section was simply stupendous. Feeding it digitally into various DACs showed it to possess exceptional detail and clarity, if a bit less warmth than either the Chroma or the Pro Gen Va. Pioneer shows allegiance toward high resolution and transparency rather than the ameliorative stance preferred by audiophile makes. At no time does it sound edgy or overly crisp; neither will you ever imagine that it carries valves in its analogue stages.

Using the DVL-909 as a standalone CD player, it easily delivered sound quality consistent with players in the 800 to 1200 bracket, while excelling in the creation of a wide and deep soundstage. Some might find its sound a touch lighter than, say, the Roksan Caspian or the Jadis, the former of which seem to be voiced in a similar way as the '909 as far as detail and transparency are concerned, the main difference being that the Roksan has a richer lower register. The Jadis lacks the detail but adds warmth.

What knocked me over, though, was the sound issued when the source consisted of 96kHz/24-bit discs. Quite blatantly, the sound improved in nearly all areas, with greater slam, detail, transparency, dynamics - hell, it was like going from small two-way speakers to WATT/Puppies. The 96kHz capability reinforces the pitch that the DVL-909 is more 'future-proof' than its competition. After all, DVL-909 owners will be among the few who can exploit, say, the next generation dCS Elgar converter.

When it came to assessing video, I was in for a double surprise. What I didn't expect was that the LD portion would be so markedly superior to earlier players, including the DATA III, itself based on an earlier top-end Pioneer mechanism. Amusingly, the one area showing the greatest improvement is that which is used as a hammer for DVD to bash LD: in the 'blackness' of the bars above and below a widescreen picture on a 4x3 monitor. DVD offers true black, while LD has always provided shades of grey. Improvement was noted first on the DTS version of Waterworld, with Kevin Costner and the perfectly named Jeanne Tripplehorn, but I swiftly tried a number of other widescreen titles and noticed gains every time. Quite clearly, the DVL-909 is the player to consider even if you're just sticking with LD.

But then there's DVD, and both Terminator 2 and the Beatles films converted me: the DVL-909 simply slaughters other DVD players I've tried. Previously, I thought the Beatles discs were simply bad transfers, and that the claims of remastering were bogus. Not so. Through the Pioneer, it was easy to see that the colours on help! were bolder and richer, while the black-and-white Hard Day's Night revealed a crystal-clarity not seen on any other formats, including the Criterion LD. As for Big Arnie...

Terminator 2, it was explained to me, is a special 'show-off' disc for DVD, mastered with a trick or three. Whatever, it revealed a visual depth bordering on the three-dimensional, visible from the earliest scenes in the wasteland of the future. The blurriness and 'acid trails' I witnessed in earlier players are gone, even on sequences showing flames. LD is still amazing, but DVD stomps it. There - I've said it.

Pioneer's DVL-909 costs 899.95; its nearly identical DVD-only sibling, the DV-505, costs 449.95. Not having tried the latter, I can't say that it's a clone of the DVL-909's DVD section, so I can't swear that it's THE DVD player to opt for if you don't need LD compatibility. But what I will say is that the DVL-909,even if it didn't play LDs, is so utterly wonderful as to be an absolute bargain, which is why I'm buying one. (Gawd, has this been an expensive month.) An extra 450 is a lot to pay for a facility you may never use, in which case the DV-505 has to be the way to go. But I - and other LD users - have been so well-served by the combo version that its price tag is a grand short of what I expected it to cost.

Now, how about some Zone Two discs to feed it?

Additional Resources
• Read more Denon DVD-Audio and SACD player reviews here.
• Read audiophile source component reviews here including SACD and DVD-Audio players, turntables, DACs, CD transports and more.
• For a blog about tubes, turntables and the future of audiophila - check out
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