The two supersounding audio formats, Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio, have been around for a couple of years, but they're just now starting to show up on the mainstream radar. The record labels are bolstering their release schedules, and on the hardware side, we're seeing more and more universal players, which can play both formats. One such device is Onkyo's new DV-SP800 (listed at $1,000). Matched with a high-quality surround system, this machine delivers extraordinary sound and video. The DV-SP800's front panel seems somewhat cluttered, but that's because it offers more than the standard options. For example, it has a complete set of menu/cursor and setup controls. Cool-looking blue LEDs illuminate the transport buttons. And the headphone jack has its own volume adjustment, so you can listen to DVDs or CDs without turning on the rest of your system.
Navigating the setup menus, which is absolutely necessary for optimum sound and picture quality, isn't as intuitive as we'd like. We had to read and reread the user manual to make any headway. Curiously, the factory default settings for this DVD-Audio/SACD player are for stereo; you must slog through the setup menus and select the 5.1-surround options to get multichannel sound.
The large, fully backlit remote is identical to the ones that ship with Onkyo's receivers. It comes with preprogrammed codes for TV and VCR control, and it can learn new codes from other brands. It can control the disc player and three other devices. Audio quality is this player's prime focus, but Onkyo's engineers also endowed the SP800 with a bunch of the latest video goodies. Its progressive-scan component-video outputs take full advantage of HDTV-monitor capabilities, and 3:2 pull-down circuitry removes the video artifacts that can result when filmed images are converted for video displays.
The SP800 accommodated our standard selection of DVD-Rs, DVD+Rs, DVD+RWs, and DVD-RWs. While our MP3 CD-Rs all played, the unit didn't always show their menu folders.
Connectivity provisions include two composite-video, two S-Video, and one set of component-video outputs. Since this is an SACD/DVD-Audio player, we expected its outputs for 5.1 analog, but they're augmented by extra sets of stereo outputs, as well as those for rear surround for 7.1 operation. You also get three digital outputs: two optical and one coaxial.
Which reminds us: To fully experience the SP800's surround glories, you'll need to hook up the unit to a receiver with 5.1 analog inputs; the digital-audio connections don't work for SACD and DVD-A. Most newer A/V receivers have the necessary inputs, but we recommend that you check yours before buying this or any other SACD/DVD-A player. The best-sounding DVD-Audio discs, such as Linda Ronstadt's remastered classic, What's New, totally knocked us out. Ronstadt's magnificent vocals are set off against lush orchestration. Even better was Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon SACD. A special treat, this new disc features a wonderfully enveloping surround mix. The sound doesn't just pop out of the surround speakers as a gratuitous effect. No, it projects a holographic, completely coherent sound field. The SP800 earned its keep on this one!
Up to this point, we had relied on our five large Dynaudio Contour speakers, but since a lot of folks use small satellites, we hooked up our Energy subwoofer/satellite system. In DVD-Audio playback, the SP800 lacks bass management--a function that redirects the bass from the front, center, and surround channels to the subwoofer--so the sound thinned out. Most of the midbass on Frank Zappa's newly released Halloween DVD-A disappeared. His disco-inspired "Dancin' Fool" exercised the sub all right, but the little sats lost the big, fat bass lines. The beautifully recorded vocal harmonies on the Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead DVD-A were similarly robbed of their full-bodied sound. The lesson here is that you'd better team the SP800 with full-size tower or bookshelf speakers, in all or at least the front left/right positions, or you'll likely miss out on most of the audio quality you paid for.
As for video quality, the SP800 acquitted itself well on a variety of test discs. It displayed a few jagged-edge artifacts in video material, namely the waving flag from Video Essentials, but the unit's detection of 3:2 pull-down cadence in film-based DVDs was quick. We watched some selections from Monsters Inc. on our Samsung , and the detail in Sulley's fur and the noise-free rendering of Mike's red car looked great.