But if Batman Begins shows the Oppo’s three dimensionality and power, then Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima shows how expressive and evocative the player’s smooth, richly detailed sound can be—even in relatively quiet scenes where we hear only dialog and natural sound effects. Part of the power and poignancy of Letters From Iwo Jima is seeing how the Japanese officers find ways to mount a vigorous defense of the island, even as they come to see that their cause is lost. For a great example of this, note the scene where General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) leads five of his key officers on a walking tour of the island and explains to his men the seemingly unorthodox strategy of abandoning traditional beach defenses and instead defending the island from a series of underground caves and tunnels that the troops will have to dig.
To express both the desperation and solemnity of the occasion, the sound designer lets us hear the soft sound of waves crashing on the beach and the dry, mournful sound of wind swirling over the tops of dunes as Kuribayashi presents his new strategy, flatly stating, “We will build these underground fortifications, and fight to the end.” At first the men find Kuribayashi’s proposed defenisve strategy appalling and argue against it, imagining that they might yet win if, as naval officer Ohsugi puts its, the Japanese can “force the Americans near the island and launch a pincer drive from the sea and air.”
With a terrible mixture of patience and pain in his voice, Kuribayashi explains (almost as if to a stubborn child), “Ohsugi, doesn’t the Navy yet know? The Combined Fleet has been completely destroyed off the Marianas.” And a moment later, Kuribayashi further dashes the mens’ hopes for outright victory by adding, “What’s more, I received a new order from the Imperial headquarters this morning. The remaining fighter planes are to be sent back to Tokyo to defend the mainland.” There will be no “pincer drive from the sea and air” because there will be no viable Navy support or air power of any kind.”
The men are stunned and outraged by this news, and as if to mirror their complex emotions the sound of the wind picks up and a distant peal of thunder is heard. It is a profoundly gripping moment, as each of the men wrestles with a sincere desire to do his duty, but in a context where neither victory nor survival will be possible. The scene concludes with Kuribayashi sadly turning away and somberly concluding, “There is no time for discussion. We should head back.” Though the Oppo sounds terrific in large scale scenes (as in Batman Begins), it is often at its best in small scale scenes where its effortless naturalism make quiet but deeply emotional moments both sound and feel real.
For a fine example of many of the Oppo’s musical strengths at play, try listening to the third (“The Alcotts”) movement of Charles Ives A Concord Symphony—a piece originally written as a piano sonata and later orchestrated by Henry Brant (Michael Tilson Thomas/ San Francisco Symphony, SFS Media, Multichannel SACD). Though only a bit more than six minutes long, this movement spans quite a range of orchestral moods, introducing everything from gentle, contemplative woodwind themes, to vigorous and at times quite angular string passages, on through to powerful and sometimes deliberately dissonant brass and percussion outbursts.
Through the movement, the BDP-95 impressed me favorably in several ways. First, the Oppo caught the distinctive timbres of each orchestral section in a rich and vibrant, yet never overstated way. Instead, you hear what Brant describes as the “athletic surefootedness” of the orchestration conveying Ives’ musical ideas in “clear, vivid, and intense sonorities.” This player is all about getting the tonal colors and textures of instruments right.
Next, the sheer smoothness of the BDP-95 allowed it to navigate the more angular and dissonant aspects of Ives’ themes in a way that revealed their intentional (and sometimes startling) idiosyncrasies, while at the same time allowing their richness and underlying beauty to shine through. If you know Ives’ music, then you probably know that many disc players tend to turn it into a strident, jagged-sounded mess, but not so the Oppo. String tones, for example, are buttery smooth, while the brass section sounds appropriately golden and burnished. While the Oppo certainly does not hide the at times quirky aspects of Ives’ themes, its inherent smoothness invites you to listen to and to embrace the broader sweep and flow of the composition.