There are two ways of making a DVD player: the easy way and the hard way. The easy way involves taking someone else's DVD player and modifying it to the new company's requirements (even if this means simply an exercise in badge engineering). The harder - and considerably more expensive option is to start from scratch and design your own player. Surprisingly, most high-end universal and DVD players take the "easy" option, updating an OEM device. Denon is one of the few that takes the tougher route.
The DVD-3910 only costs two grand. Not bad for a high-quality universal player. And despite its relatively low cost, the 3910 bristles with techie innovations that only occur when the company both designs and builds the player. The centre-mounted transport mechanism is a case in point; more akin to a DVD-ROM transport, this enclosed unit is built with that reassuring solidity that makes you think it won't break down in a month of Sundays.
The rigidity of build extends from the transport mechanism to the chassis itself: a thick modular design, which helps with the stiffness and antivibration properties of the player and effectively mechanically separates the key stages (analogue audio, analogue video, digital audio, digital video, power supply, logic and transport mech, etc) from one another.
Of course, a fancy transport and rigid case do not provide much in the way of quality without the technology to back them up. The DVD-3910 rises easily to this challenge, featuring Denon's AL24 192kHz, 24-bit digital processing through all channels. It also supports HDCD encoded discs.
The DVD-3910 represents a great leap forward in video performance. It is infinitely adjustable, right down to the pixel level. It already has the right credentials with its DCDi progressive scan circuit and its 216MHz, 12-bit video conversion. However, a raft of picture adjustment facilities make the player deliver the best possible picture whatever the screen. The list of corrections reads like the intro to The Outer Limits - you can control the horizontal, you can control the vertical, you can adjust the brightness and luminescence and diagonal performance and more. The only downside to this is it becomes bewilderingly complex, even to the experts. Imagine trying to explain how to download an MP3 file from the internet to your great-great grandfather and you can see how complex this might be. Suffice it to say, in the hands of an expert this can tailor-make an already excellent picture to your own TV screen and, in the process, become better than any other player today.
One of the more interesting additions to the player is that it places both HDMI and DVI-D video connections (alongside the more commonplace composite, S-Video, SCART and interlaced/progressive component video connections) on the back panel. This may be of little direct interest for the musical content of the player, but demonstrates Denon's commitment to keeping the player ahead of the curve. HDMI is currently digital video link du jour for the plasma fraternity; DVI-D is more popular among projector and LCD makers. Although the two are effectively interchangeable, DVI-HDMI (or vice versa) leads are relatively hard to come by and this makes the player more directly display-friendly. HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) has had an interface lift very recently and now supports digital multi-channel music alongside digital stereo music and digital video. This HDMI v2 is not supported by the DVD-3910 as yet, but the chances are this will be a firmware upgrade for those that need it (amplifiers that support HDMI as a digital audio link are practically non-existent today, but in a couple of years' time this could be the digital SCART lead, with just a single cable connecting all kinds of devices together).
Until HDMI takes over the duties, the DVD-3910 uses the proprietary DenonLink3 connection and the more commonplace IEEE1394 to digitally connect multi-channel music. These should support DVD-Audio and SACD out of the box, but - as usual - there's a hold-up with SACD approval and a few media lawyers need to earn another Porsche or two before the player squirts a digital SACD signal to an amplifier. Until then, the six-channel analogue connection fits the bill, while vanilla optical and coaxial digital links are also supplied for stereo audio and Dolby/DTS surround in digital.
Denon is clearly onto something here, because this sets a new standard in universal players; this is the first high-quality player to deliver decent performance in all formats at anything approaching affordability. Of course, with SACD being limited to analogue (DVD-Audio/Video and CD capable of being played in the digital and analogue domains), comparing formats becomes a bit hampered, but this does put in a good performance pretty much however you use it. This is what you would expect from a universal player but is in fact surprisingly rare, especially among players that cost $2,000 or less. Processing the individual needs of the three main sound formats (SACD, DVD-Audio and CD) is uniquely complex without ruining one or more formats.
Starting with SACD in analogue only, the sound the Denon produces is every bit as extended as a dedicated SACD player, but with an accent more on the richness of the sound instead of the stark upper frequency detail. This seems to give SACD more body and weight, but not at the expense of information or soundstaging. It's a very good balance, although those seeking to demonstrate the brilliance of SACD over DVD-Audio may find this places the accent on the wrong part of the sound. Personally, I find this a better sound than the brighter, typical SACD sound; too often, there's a disparity between the CD and SACD layers, or between the SACD and a CD mix on the same player, with the brightness of the SACD being perceived as much of an improvement as the detail. Until there comes a time when SACD versions of almost every disc are freely available, I prefer no such shift from stereo to multi-channel.
DVD-Audio is just as competent as SACD. That's a rare statement, in itself. Like SACD, DVD-Audio has the emphasis on musical mid-range, with detailed extended treble and deep, potent bass. Comparing analogue SACD to analogue DVD-Audio, the sound really isn't that different from one format to the other; the differences between the two styles of recording are greater than between the two formats when played through the analogue outputs of the DVD-3910.
So, the overall sound of both DVD-Audio and SACD is generally impressive, with good steering around the room, plenty of detail and extension in the upper regions, clean and deep bass and a fluid, open mid-range. Ultimately, DVD-Audio is slightly better in the bass while SACD is cleaner in the upper regions, but these differences are comparatively mild through the DVD-3910.
This would suggest the DVD-3910 is doing something wrong, but in fact it isn't at all. We have come to expect the sound of the two to be fundamentally and significantly different, but why should this be so? Multi-channel music should sound similar regardless of source, and this is one of the few players that allows just that.
That said, it's hard not to find DVD-Audio more attractive on the DVD-3910 at the moment, simply because it can be processed through DenonLink, while SACD (for now) cannot. This makes the sound considerably more precise, especially in steering. Suddenly, bass management becomes more accurate, speakers appear more solid and precisely located and the whole sound appears more direct than through the analogue output. The advantage is significant, but temporary; SACD will also be processed digitally, soon.
The acid test for any universal player is its CD replay. There's usually so much jitter floating around the insides of a DVD player that it makes the possibility of a decent CD sound next to impossible. Even the DVD-3910 suffers here; but it suffers less than most. The player isn't the most directly beat-sniffing model around and will leave those who begin and end all listening criteria with timing slightly disappointed. That said, the same people will not be particularly chuffed with any DVD player - universal or not - this side of about $4,000, and the Denon does a better job of keeping the music in time than any of its rivals. Its strengths in a stereo context include fine detail delivery and good stereo soundstaging, all without making you think DVD stands for Duvet oVer the Drivers. There's no soggy, stodgy sound here, and CD is more reminiscent of a good mid-price Arcam CD player of a few years ago, mixed with a little bit of Marantz DNA for good measure.
There is a slight weakness across all music formats, a flavour of the Denon rather than the disc. This is not the most dynamic player around, and music may be detailed, precise and possessed of good soundstaging, but the sort of powerful swings of sound that bring out the fire and passion of a musical recording are slightly flattened. If you value the sort of lithe dynamic freedom of a good single-ended valve amp, this ain't the source for you. However, this dynamic flattening is commonplace among home cinema electronics and seems to match the dynamic shortcomings of most multi-channel amplifiers, especially models that will be used with a player at this sort of price tag. In stereo, though, there are more dynamic models around, particularly for CD replay.
Finally comes the video performance. And, as you'd expect with a high-performing, infinitely adjustable player, this is first-rate. But that just doesn't cover it. It can potentially out-perform every DVD player out there if correctly installed. If you aren't entirely sure what you are doing with the picture connections, it's still worth experimenting (there are presets, so you won't ruin your basic picture); but even left entirely as standard, the picture is rich and natural, with a good sense of film-like layering to the images on screen. Colours are not overblown, but neither are they muted. The player is just honest and accurate. Of course, you can tweak to deliver shiny brilliant colours and sharp contrasts, or washed-out colours with bland, soft contrast if required; but overall, the picture is just about right for most tastes, especially in standard guise.
This player needs to be put into some kind of perspective. Is this a high-end player? Well, yes and no. For high-end home cinema fans, this is wonderful stuff. The video scaling and proliferation of digital and analogue video connectors, coupled with the technology to back those connections up, make this one of the best bargains around. Musically, too, there is much to commend this model. Most important is the degree of balance it has, delivering good DVD-Audio, SACD and CD sounds alike. There may be players that excel in a single field and turn in a better performance in one particular format, but few work so well across the board, unless you spend considerably more.
But perhaps the single most important aspect of the Denon DVD-3910 is the message it sends to the home cinema and hi-fi industries. It boldly proclaims that you need to do something more than stick a thick front panel on a cheap universal player if you want to make a high-end player these days. Those who have to make machines based on OEM parts must now do more to justify their players; the McCormack UDP-1 and especially the Townshend Audio TA 565 being perfect examples of how to customise an existing model and make the differences credible. However, those with expensive badge-engineered range-filler players had better think again; the DVD-3910 will get you!
Price: $1,999; Vendor: Denon; Distributor: Audio Products Australia Pty Ltd; Phone: (02) 9669 3477; URL: http://www.audioproducts.com.au/