Along with heightened detail and resolution, and perhaps because of them, the Special Edition Oppo has an even more transparent and focused sound than the standard model, and it produces more fully fleshed-out and vividly three-dimensional soundstages. Put all these elements together and you have a player that takes you much further toward the sonic mountaintop than it has any right to for the money.
If you listen to the standard Oppo as it navigated a complex musical passage you might rightly think, “Man, that’s pretty great sound for a $499 player.” But listen to the same passage through the Special Edition and you’ll discover that perceptual centers in your brain suddenly have much more high-quality information to work with, so that you can’t help but relax and think, “Ahhh, now this is how that passage is really supposed to sound.”
Just to satisfy my own curiosity, I took the Special Edition home, plugged it into my high-end two-channel rig, and compared the Oppo vs. my reference Musical Fidelity kW SACD player. Not too surprisingly, the big Musical Fidelity player did outperform the Oppo both on CD and SACD material, offering even finer shadings of detail, a smoother yet still very tightly focused sound, a bit better bass definition, and even more expansive soundstages. Even so, the Oppo certainly did not get “blown away,” so to speak, nor did it embarrass itself (its superb resolution would never, ever allow that). But when you stop to consider that the Musical Fidelity is a very expensive, vacuum tube-equipped, audio-only player that handles just two disc formats (SACD and CD), while the BDP-83SE can play just about any audio or video disc format under the sun and for many thousands of dollars less, its sonic prowess seems all the more amazing.
Is the difference between the BDP-83 and the SE version worth the extra $400? For casual listeners perhaps not, but for audiophiles and music lovers who cherish the richness and intricacy of fine recordings it emphatically is. In fact, I would argue that in terms of performance per dollar, the SE might be an even bigger bargain than the standard model is.
Are there other universal/Blu-ray players that can beat the BDP-83SE in terms of sound quality? Well, I haven’t had a chance to try either of the top two Denon universal/Blu-ray players (the DVD-A1UDCI at $4500, or the DBP-4010UDCI at $1999), nor have I tested the new Marantz flagship (the UD9004 at $5999). Any one of those units might given the Oppo stiff competition. But at the $899 price point I think I can safely say the Oppo Special Edition is in a class of its own.
Readers have asked if the BDP-83SE’s superior audio circuitry makes a difference for movie playback if the player’s multichannel analog outputs are used in lieu of digital audio connections to an AVR or A/V controller. The answer is that yes, you can enjoy the superior sonic quality of the Special Edition player--especially on high-res concert film soundtracks (though only you can determine whether the Oppo’s DACs and analog audio section sound superior to the DACs, etc. found in your particular receiver or controller).
To give the Oppo a workout, I put on a favorite Blu-ray test disc, Return to Forever Returns—Live at Montreux 2008 (the film features a beautifully produced DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack). Two particular elements of the soundtrack will show what makes the Special Edition, well, special. First, I played the “Al’s Solo” sequence, which features a deliciously subtle and elegant, flamenco-inflected acoustic guitar solo performed by Al Di Meola. What I found fascinating about the Oppo’s performance was not only the things it did do, but also those that it did not. On the one hand, the player captured the smooth, rounded attack and sweet but never saccharine tonality of the acoustic guitar (which stood in sharp contrast to the more biting, incisive sounds of the electric guitars Di Meola had used earlier in the concert). Di Meola’s blazingly fast solo lines were presented with great clarity, and I was impressed to find that the Oppo also nailed a certain elusive quality of fluidity in Di Meola’s playing that is not always easy to reproduce. On the other hand, the Oppo thankfully did not inject any kind of artificial sonic “edge enhancement” to soup-up or over-dramatize the impact of Di Meola’s cat-quick fingering changes. Throughout the solo, the Oppo kept its composure, revealing—but never overemphasizing—the sheer technical brilliance of Di Meola’s performance. What I especially liked, then, was the fact that the Oppo got out of the way and let the music speak for itself.