The Denon DVD-2930 is physically the biggest player of the group, and also the most solidly built. It looks and feels very substantial, yet it’s also the cheapest with a street price well under £600. As a DVD player, it has garnered several rave reviews in the USA for picture quality, and its video options and versatility make it extremely attractive in a mixed media context. But how would it compare in terms of sound quality alone? Well, I was immediately encouraged by the bright lucid nature of the DVD- 2930’s sound. In isolation it sounded fine. The impression was of a sharp, lively presentation with plenty of presence and detail. But, subsequent comparisons to the (more expensive) Arcam and NAD players showed that the Denon sounded slightly shallower. The overall impression was of a marginally ‘smaller’ soundstage – as though one had moved slightly further away from the players. The presentation wasn’t as subtle and fine-grained as it had been with the other two players. Clarity was good, but not absolutely outstanding – there wasn’t the same separation and dimensionality.
By the way, I found the DVD-2930 less sure-footed than the others when playing CDs. The review sample sometimes ‘muted’ while playing CDs and would not continue. It also had greater difficulties playing ‘faulty’ discs. With one particular example, it refused to play at all, whereas the Arcam and NAD at least made a sound - albeit with the odd click and dropout. This isn’t a big deal and should have no impact with new discs at all. But collectors in the habit of playing older or secondhand discs might want to consider it.
Comparing CD and SACD via the Denon, there seemed less of a difference between the two. SACD did sound slightly better, but the extra cleanness and separation that had been so noticeable with the Arcam and NAD players was reduced. Everything seemed more contained and ‘samey’. Nor was there quite the same sense of background ‘quietness’ - the impression of the music emanating from an inky-black ‘silent’ background. I’m not talking about noise in terms of hiss, but something more subliminal. It’s an impression of the music coming from nothing.
This lack of ‘noise’ allows you to hear deeper into the soundstage. People talk about the wide dynamic range of better systems like SACD as though it were simply a question of expanding the contrast between peak loudness and background noise. But more important is the increase in working dynamic range.
This is the degree to which quiet voices or instruments can be still heard while louder ones are playing. Suppose an orchestra is playing very loudly. A wide working dynamic range would enable you to hear an instruments playing quietly. It also means that subtle low-level hall ambience is not be obliterated.
This should (should!) give the music a keener sense of place – as a listener, you should get a truer impression of the musicians occupying a specific acoustic space. SACD does a better job of this than CD, but obviously you must capture the hall acoustic when the recording is being made. With regard to these kinds of things, the DVD-2930 produces results that are less clear-cut than the other players in this test. SACD was better than CD, but the difference seemed less tangible. In isolation I was happy with the DVD- 29330, and could certainly live with the results produced by it.
But my judgement is that the DVD- 2930 is a better bet for movie buffs than audiophiles. It’s got the best build quality and the lowest price, and thus offers brilliant value for money. If you want to run as many movies as musiconly discs it offers a brilliant balance of virtues: great on image, equally good when it comes to CD and SACD. At this point perhaps you should read the Sidebar, before deciding what kind of listener you are (or might become). But purist twin-channelers with a clear bias to listening rather than watching, would be better off paying the extra and buying the Arcam or NAD machines.
In it for the long haul? So - either the Arcam or NAD machines would be my choice, but, whether you’d be better off buying a specialist CD player and avoiding multi-format altogether remains a key question. Disregarding the future of SACD, the answer must depend on whether you intend to use your player for movies as well as music - and also on the number of SACDs in your music collection. However, I can say that, in purely sonic terms, the Arcam and NAD machines are very good CD players in their own right. They stand their ground against good specialist CD players, while giving you the option of SACD (and DVD movie) playback, should that be required.
One downside I haven’t so far mentioned is operating speed – the time taken to read a disc’s contents, respond to a command, move to a new track, fast search within a track – and so on. The bad news is, all three SACD players are clunky and slow – like some of the first (and worst) CD players made back in the early 1980s. Yes; that bad! Even the disc eject draws seem to operate in slow-motion. You have to learn patience and give each player time to think about what sort of disc it’s being asked to play. If you put a disc in the open tray and press ‘close’, the time taken for each player to reach a state of readiness is as follows. The NAD was the slowest, taking around 30 seconds before being ready to play; the Arcam and Denon were a comparatively nippy 15 seconds. But none matched the ASTINtrew, which only took just 4 or 5 seconds. Of course, this comes as no surprise to anybody familiar with DVD players, but again underlines the technology step-change, the differences in hardware as we move from CD only replay to more versatile digital formats.