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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Audiophile Review!
Oppo BDP-105 Universal Player:
New Flagship Gets HDMI/SPDIF Inputs,
Onboard Headphone Amplifier



Brevis...
Price: $$1,199
Likes: Smooth sound, HDMI, SPDIF inputs,
headphone amp, no fan noise
Dislikes: no full-res DVD-A SPDIF out
More info:  Oppo BDP105

by John Gatski
  In just seven years, Oppo Digital has positioned itself as one of the more popular manufacturers of high-quality, audiophile universal audio players — at very reasonable prices. In fact, these days, the Oppo players are the standard by which most any universal player is judged. And as Blu-ray home cinema players eschew more and more features, Oppo still gives the quality conscious A/V and audiophile enthusiasts a stable line of players with a full array of audio outputs.
  Replacing the heralded BDP-95 flagship player, introduced two years ago, the $1,199 BDP-105 utilizes the same ESS Sabre 32 ES9018 DAC chips. Two ES9018 DAC chips are used. Each has eight DAC channels. The stereo outputs and headphone amps use one DAC chip, and the multichannel output uses the other. As with the BDP-95, the unit features balanced analog outputs for the audio-quality conscious, but now adds a Texas Instruments headphone amp circuit for your onboard ‘phone listening pleasure, a first for Oppo.
  The other significant upgrade, is the plethora of new digital inputs; that’s right, I said inputs — coax, TOSlink and HDMI — that allow other sources to be connected to the 105’s outstanding audio DACs. Oppo's entry level player, BDP-103 has many of the inputs/outputs of the BDP-105, but no balanced audio outputs, no ESS Sabre 32 DAC (Cirrus), no dedicated stereo outputs, and no headphone amp — for $499.

Features 
  The new Oppo flagship player looks very similar to the BDP-95, though it is just a bit taller; the giveaway is the headphone jack on the front. And that is just one of the upgrades. The new features incorporate an asynchronous USB DAC, which allows computer audio, up to 24-bit/192 sample rate, to be played using the Oppo. It’s a smart move since many of the standalone DAC competitors have offered that feature for several years. Now Oppo has it.
  The new SPDIF digital audio input allows digital signals from other sources as well, but is limited to 24/96. The SPDIF input is designed more for sources, such as satellite receivers, cable boxes, TV sets, etc.
  The player also is endowed with two HDMI inputs (front panel and rear panel) to allow the user to connect HDMI output sources, such as satellite receivers, cable boxes, or other BD players. The front-panel HDMI input is compatible with MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) products — such as iPad-style tablets, smart phones and digital video/recorder/players that can connect via HDMI.
  To further enhance the audio, the BDP-105 gets an upgraded toroidal power supply and associated parts, as well as upgraded parts in the analog audio path. According to the Oppo specs, the BDP-105’s dedicated two-channel analog output, with specially optimized ESS Sabre 32 ES9018 DAC and output driving stages, improves the measured performance of the player, especially through the balanced outputs.
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  The headphone amp is a feature that I had suggested to Oppo a couple of years ago, when I remarked that the addition of a headphone listening option was a natural for a machine that has such a good DAC. I don’t presume to know if I had any influence on their design decisions, but it sure is a feature that makes the Oppo one step closer to the complete media player.
  Audiophiles are going to like the addition of the headphone amp. The remote control, volume-adjusted headphone amp features a 32-bit digital volume control connected to a stacked pair of ESS Sabre 32 DACs, creating a very good, high-end audio path for most any kind of headphone. I found it a well-used option for reasonable high-res music listening during the test sessions. It's not an ultra-high-end, discrete headphone stage, but it does the job.
  One other audiophile improvement is the elimination of the rather noisy cooling fan that was in the BDP-95. Those who like to listen to classical and acoustic music, including myself, noted that once the previous player warmed up, the fan would stayed activated for long periods of time, and its noise was noticeable. By increasing the number of heat sinks in the ‘105 and a slight increase in cabinet height, Oppo was able to eliminate the fan, while maintaining adequate cooling.
  The BDP-105‘s other features are pretty much the same as the BDP-95, including coaxial and TOSLink digital outputs, a digital test jack, two USB inputs., 7.1 analog multichannel outputs and two separate unbalanced outputs.

BDP-105 Now Has HDMI, SPDIF Digital Inputs

  One of the biggest reasons I like the Oppo players, since the 80 series, is their evolving, open digital output hierarchy. The BDP-80, 83, 83SE could output full resolution stereo audio up to 24/192 from the HDMI jack (but not the SPDIF), regardless of copy protection status of the source media, such as a DVD-A, Dual-Disc or SACD (via DSD-to-PCM conversion). This allowed owners of DAC separates to play the music from an Oppo player by plugging the HDMI output into an HDMI audio de-embedder, which routes the HDMI digital audio to a SPDIF output and on to an outboard DAC. You can buy them for as little as $40. (EAN plans a HDMI audio de-embedder round-up in February).
  With the release of The BDP-93 and ‘95 in 2011, Oppo opened up all digital outputs: HDMI, SPDIF and coax, to allow up to 24/192 kHz PCM audio output for most any format: Blu-ray music audio (HDMI), DVD-A (SPDIF and HDMI), DVD Data (SPDIF and HDMI), DVD Video (SPDIF and HDMI), USB drive (SPDIF and HDMI), Blu-ray data (SPDIF and HDMI), and DSD-to-PCM conversion (at 24/88) and direct DSD bitstream (HDMI).
  The new BDP105, and its less-costly sibling the BDP-103, continues most of the digital-output openness of the 93/95 series, though I was disappointed when I discovered that the SPDIF output (optical and coax) is truncated when playing DVD-A copy protected discs. The stereo PCM output is reduced from 24-bit to 16-bit, and the sample rate is converted to the lower rate of 48 kHz - regardless of the music’s native rate.
  Oppo said that the firmware is integrated into the DSP, and cannot be changed, so those who have a collection of DVD-Audios and want to use an external DAC, you will have to buy an HDMI de-embedder to get the DVD-A full-res to your DAC.
  As with the BDP-95, I love the BDP-105's ability to play almost any PCM or FLAC sources: it will play commercial Blu-ray, DVD-A, DVD-V, USB drive, DVD Data disc, and Blue-ray Data disc. Like the BDP-93/95 players, the BDP-105 even plays audio data discs from TASCAM’s DVRA1000-HD’s professional high resolution recorder, which records tracks as .WAV audio. There are other players that now support more open digital formats, but Oppo started the trend.
  For you streamers, I should point out that the new Oppos are also fully DLNA compliant and can retrieve streamed audio from various sources including computers at up to 24/96 stereo audio, if you are so inclined to stream wirelessly,

The BDP-105 is a logical progression from the BDP-95. Its sonic refinement, rather than wholesale improvement, and its plethora of extra inputs, outputs, streaming features and 4K video compatibility, make it the closest thing to a complete media player.

  Video-wise, the BDP-105 sports the Marvell Kyoto-G2H video processor with the latest generation Qdeo™ technology; it does an excellent job at 1080P and DVD upconversion. The machine also addresses upcoming higher-resolution HDTV technology, by adding 4K upsampling technology. The fledgling 4K HDTV standard increases resolution so that the popular, larger flat screens look sharper during close-in viewing in home cinema rooms. The 4K upsampling used in the BDP-105 and other players on the market, upconverts typical BD video so they can be viewed on the 4K screens. I did not have a 4K HD screen to try the feature. (I have put in a request for Sony’s latest 4K LCD. Stay tuned.)
  Other noted BDP-105 goodies include video streaming of VideoNow VUDU and NETFLIX video services, as well as streaming of Pandora and Rhapsody Internet Radio services.
  Speaking of video, I noticed that the Oppo does not have an analog video output, a trend that you will see on many new A/V devices; it has been mandated that analog connections be phased out for many consumer products, including TVs and media players.

The set up
  The BDP-105 was a snap to connect and operate — its functions are nearly identical to the BDP-95; the GUI is the same as is the remote control. To test its audio performance, I connected it to various components, including a Pass Labs XP-10 FET preamp with passive output, a Legacy/Coda active, solid state preamp, and Bryston BHA-1 discrete headphone amp. I routed the audio to a Pass Labs X350.5 amplifier, which was connected to Martin Logan Montis electrostatic speakers (review upcoming) via Alpha-Core solid-silver speaker cables.
  I had several BD and universal players on hand, including the previous flagship, BDP-95, an older BDP-83SE (the first Oppo player with an ESS DAC chip), the new Esoteric K-07 SACD player (about $7,000) and my ten-year old Esoteric DV-50. For comparison purposes, I also had several DACS, including the new Benchmark DAC2 HGC, Mytek Stereo 192 (review upcoming) Benchmark DAC1 Pre and a Lavry DA10, made in 2007.
  For home cinema use, I plugged the analog 5.1 outputs into an AudioControl M4 Concert A/V receiver, and played numerous Blu-ray movies. That system also included Alpha-Core speaker and interconnect cables, Westlake LC8.1, LC2.65 and NHT speakers and a Paradigm Sub-15 subwoofer. All gear was plugged into the AC, using Essential Sound Products Essence II power cords and power strip.

The audition
  After a couple days of break in, I dove into the music listening with the BDP-105. I popped in some of my favorite DVD-As, Internet-downloaded PCM, SACDs, and music Blu-rays.
  It should be said that other than CDs or SACDs, where the playlist auto loads and can be easily played via the Play button on the remote or front panel, you have to use a video display to easily access and play the contents of most other music formats. It is crucial to have a video screen to navigate the setup menus, as well as the playlist menus. Otherwise, you are just trying to push buttons to get it to play. I used a compact, not-so-obtrusive, 15-inch LCD to enable me to see the menus, which fits nicely on top of the player in my test rack.
  One other new feature that I discovered: the BDP-105 (and BDP-103 sibling) can transmit audio and video on the two separate HDMI outputs simultaneously (Dual Display mode), or it can split the audio and video in the Split Mode: one for audio one for video.


Oppo's Neat and Tidy Board Layout


  Be careful, though, if you use the Dual Display mode to play hi-res audio from either HDMI and then connect an LCD TV to the other HDMI output to see the menus. Since most LCD TVs only operate at 48 kHz sample rate, the Oppo, in the Dual Display mode, downsamples HDMI audio in both HDMI outputs to 48 kHz — regardless of the high-res audio's native source sample rate. I confirmed this with the Benchmark DAC2-HGC’s sample rate indicator. You can avoid this limitation by using the Split A/V mode — where only the audio is routed to HDMI 2 and the video is routed to HDMI 1. HDMI 2 will then transmit full-res audio up to 192 kHz — regardless what is connected to HDMI 1. I bring all this up because many audiophiles will likely use the HDMI out, and they could be getting reduced audio quality — if they select the Dual-Display option and use an LCD to navigate the menus. The SPDIF outputs are always fully open (except for DVD-A, BD and DSD) as long as the downsampling parameter (audio options menu) is set to 192 kHz.
  With that little problem taken care of, I started my initial listening sessions through the amazingly detailed, Martin Logan Montis, electrostats’. I quickly found the BDP-105’s sonic signature to be very familiar — in that it sounds, essentially, like the BDP-95. After all, it is the same ESS DAC chip.
  In careful A/B tests with the BDP-95 and BDP-105’s unbalanced inputs into the Bryston headphone amp using the Coda preamp as the source switcher and audio relay, I could not reliably tell the difference between the two players when listening through my reference Shure SRH1840 or the AKG-K701 headphones. Oppo’s tweaked-out power supply and upgraded parts may have improved measured performance a bit, but it is not enough of a change to make a significant audible difference under most listening conditions.
  Suffice it say that the BDP-105 retains the sonic pluses of the ’95 with some potential audible refinement, but its main advantage over the previous player is its greatly expanded feature set.
  On the Natalie Merchant - Tiger Lilly DVD-A, a really well-recorded pop album from 1995, the drum transients, keyboard and guitar layers had that open, smooth, accurate character that typifies the ESS Sabre 32 sound. The PCM has nearly the smoothness of DSD, yet that energetic snap of the transients you get with PCM. It's a wonderful combination!

As with the BDP-95, I love the BDP-105's ability to play almost any PCM or FLAC sources: it will play commercial Blu-ray, DVD-A, DVD-V, USB drive, DVD Data disc, and Blue-ray Data disc.

  Even versus the new batch of ESS Sabre 32 chipped DACs, such as the Benchmark DAC2 HGC and the Mytek Stereo 192, there was not a huge difference in the subjective audio quality. The ESS Sabre chip's superb detail and ultra-smooth reproduction is a signature that is quite noticeable in all of the products that utilize it.
  The standalone ESS-based DAC’s have a modest increase in soundstage and inter-transient detail over the BDP-105, likely the result of their analog stages and unique DSP. I noticed this on the Natalie Merchant DVD-A, in particular, on the song Carnival; the Benchmark and the Mytek revealed a slight expansion of width and depth with the drum cymbals. Timbre-wise, though, the Oppo was right there.
  The Oppo BDP-105 was much smoother sounding than the older Benchmark DAC1 Pre on energetic music, and the old Lavry DA10 was not even close — with less dimension and a bit of hardness in its midrange and treble — compared to the newer DACs.
  On PCM or DSD, the BDP-105 delivered its high-end audio detail without a hint of harshness. The DSD playback via analog jacks, as with the BDP-95, is quite good. Only when I moved to the $7,999 Esoteric did I hear significant differences in upper-end detail when playing SACDs, such as Anthony Wilson - Our Gang (Groovenote) and Steve DavisQuality of Your Silence (DMP). But the Esoteric is $7,000. The Oppo is $1,200.
  As mentioned, the Oppo BDP-105 does transmit native multichannel DSD from the HDMI jack, thus, a DSD DAC equipped preamp, receiver or dedicated DAC can be used. However, it would take a significantly more expensive separate DSD DAC to top the Oppo for most listening purposes.

The headphone zone
  Since Oppo added a headphone amp, I took a long listen from its new front-panel audio portal, plugging in a pair of AKG K701s and the Shure SRH1840s. I also had the Bryston headphone amp for reference, as well as the other DACs.
  On first listen, I could tell that Oppo paid attention to the headphone jack, especially within the player’s overall price point. It was not an afterthought like on many BD players, CD players, receivers and preamps these days. It may be a chip amp, but the headphone output sounds good.
  The smooth, textured ESS Sabre 32 sonic signature came through clearly in headphone listening (maybe just a touch thinner than the analog out and versus the other HP outputs on the DACs and the wonderful Bryston BHA-1), but there was plenty of detail and width.
  A couple of listens to Warren BernhardtSo Real SACD, recorded in 2002 by Tom Jung at DMP, proved that the headphone amp could do the job. I heard most of the subtle drum cymbal reverb edges that I heard through the speakers. And even against the Benchmark DAC2 HGC, Mytek and the Bryston BHA-1 headphone outputs (the DACs were connected to the BDP-105’s analog balanced jacks), the Oppo’s headphone amp was not out of the game — in terms of audible detail, correct instrument timbre and basic soundstage.
  The BHA-1’s overall soundstage was a bit wider and deeper than the 105’s headphone delivery, and the Benchmark and Mytek gave a bit more as HP-equipped DACs, but the Oppo is pretty good, When not in the A/B test mode, I enjoyed numerous recordings through the Shure and AKGs, and did not feel I was missing the essential hi-res finesse.
  For those of you who like the tactile feel of separate volume control for your headphone amp, Oppo’s remote control-only volume adjustment may disappoint. I like an onboard control as well, and initially considered “dinging” the company for not including it. However, an Oppo spokesman said that adding a high-quality, onboard volume control would have necessitated a redesign, and would likely have boosted the retail price beyond their $1,200 limit. If you use the headphone jack, keep the remote at hand.
  Speaking of remote controls, the Oppo remotes are among the best A/V player remote controls out there— with durable build, nice big buttons and excellent IR coverage — even from steep beaming angles.
  BTW, one more headphone-related item with the BDP-105: I discovered that when you insert the headphones into the jack, the other digital and analog audio outputs are muted, including HDMI. So much is going in the BDP-105's multiple signal routing, according to Oppo, that the muting is necessary to keep potential noise out of the headphone circuit.


BDP-105 Has XLR Balanced Stereo Outputs


  Besides its excellent converters and headphone amp, I thoroughly enjoyed the BDP-105’s compatibility with all types of digital music formats for playing music From USB sticks to DVD and BD Data discs, commercial SACD and DVD-A and digital downloads, the player played everything I threw at it, except for SACD-copy ISO discs. You can even format a FAT32 USB powered portable hard drive and plug it in and have thousands of songs at your disposal.
  I tested the BDP-105‘s digital output capability through the SPDIF and HDMI, using the ATI ADAC and the Benchmark DAC2 HGC word length/sample rate indicators. The HDMI audio output was routed to a KaneEX Audio De-embedder; its SPDIF output was connected to the converters.
  If you want to use a separate DAC, receiver, preamp, etc., this player can deliver the full-res goodies. Other than the SPDIF limiting of DVD-A to 16/48 (and it does not sound good compared to full res), you don’t have to worry about this machine clamping down on 24-bit output.
  By the way, the open spigot of the HDMI and SPDIF audio outputs allow for making real-time backups of rare DVD-As, Dual Disc or SACDs (via PCM). I copied numerous out-of-print SACDs and DVD-As, via an outboard PCM recorder, from the digital output of the Oppo BDP-105. The audio was recorded (yes, in real time; no ripping) onto my TASCAM DVRA1000-HD, which I then transferred to a dedicated audio storage hard drive. This capability allows me to have replacements of rare, high-res music — when the original gets lost, scratched or damaged. I have also used it to make audio-only copies of BD concert soundtracks. The WhoLive at the Isle of Wight 1970, for example, has a dedicated 24/48 stereo soundtrack that I dubbed for listening on my hi-res TASCAM portable.
  As mentioned, the new digital audio input features allow the BDP-105 to become a DAC for other sources, such as your computer, or video gear. Or maybe you have an old CD transport that you love, but the DAC is out of date. No problem; just plug into the SPDIF input, and the audio is now running through the Oppo’s Sabre DAC.

Via the USB input, I connected the Mac laptop using Audirvana software player, and played HD Tracks downloads and my own high-res 24-bit/192 kHz guitar recordings.

  The new inputs give the Oppo more user flexibility. Via the USB input, I connected the Mac laptop using Audirvana software player, and played HD Tracks downloads and my own high-res 24-bit/192 kHz guitar recordings. I also used the coaxial output of the TASCAM DR-100 Mark II portable, high-res recorder to play my 24/96 guitar recordings I had made minutes earlier. Plug the digital cable into the SPDIF input of the Oppo, select the input via the menu, and push play on the TASCAM. Out came all the fresh, directly recorded acoustic guitar tracks —  through a first-rate DAC built into a Blu-ray/universal player. How about that?

A top-notch Blu-ray
  The BDP-105 is an excellent Blu-ray player — with its onboard DAC audio output and video performance. Because of the uneven audio quality of some BDs, DVDs and video streaming, the smooth ESS Sabre DAC delivers the sound without an ear ache. Even MP3s sound better with the ESS Saber DACs.
  For the most direct signal path, Oppo’s variable volume option, enables straight-to-amplifier analog audio. The 32-bit volume control for multichannel or stereo audio, relays the adjusted audio with good results. It is not quite as smooth as using a really high-end stereo preamp or multichannel A/V preamp, but the variable output is certainly better than many of the low and mid-class receivers on the market.
  You can, of course, also HDMI (since when is HDMI a verb) the audio to a processor or receiver, but it is nice to know that Oppo continues to make players with quality analog outputs; many manufacturers have deleted the analog output feature in their Blu-ray players.
  The BDP-105‘s video quality is first rate. This may be the best video player on the market — with pristine 1080P HD video and excellent up conversion. My previous benchmark was the Pioneer Elite BDP-09FD (close to $3,000) from 2009-2010, but I believe this latest generation Marvell video processor contained in the Oppo makes DVDs look a tad more detailed, yet clean when upconverting to 1080P.

For sheer utility and sound quality, its hard to beat the Oppo BDP-105. Does it garner an EAN Stellar Sound Award? What do you think?

  Ergonomically speaking, the BDP-105 is easy to use via the remote, or the basic onboard buttons, which includes just the essential Power, Play, Pause, Stop, Track forward and back. Enough buttons to get your CD or SACD playing. Beyond that, you need the video screen.
  Oppo did a great job quieting down the BDP-105 versus the BDP-95. The fan-less player is super quiet — with just a modicum of transport noise on start up and disc I/O. Of all the new functions, my only real complaint with the BDP-105 is the clamp-down on DVD-Audio digital output when using the SPDIF jacks. It is a deletion of a feature that was on the previous generation. Also, I would not mind an onboard headphone volume control, but I understand why Oppo did not add it.

The verdict
  The BDP-105 is a logical progression from the BDP-95. Its sonic refinement, rather than wholesale improvement, and its plethora of extra inputs, outputs, streaming features and 4K video compatibility, make it the closest thing to a complete media player now available to the audiophile/videophile market segments. And it is a very reasonable $1,199 — direct from Oppo or select dealers.
  If you have a BDP-95, and you primarily listen to stereo music through an amp/preamp/headphone amp, you may not gain that much by upgrading to the BDP-105. However, if you don’t have a BDP-95, the BDP-105 offers the same great audio performance, and you can connect more sources to take advantage of its grade-A sound, as well as having a headphone amp.
  For sheer utility and sound quality, its hard to beat the Oppo BDP-105. Does it garner an EAN Stellar Sound Award? What do you think? 

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2 comments:

Barry Hellman said...

You made a short comment about the BDP-105 when used as a DAC. Would you please care to expand on that? The prospect of using this device as both as disc player and DAC for computer based audio is enticing. An Oppo rep indicated to me that they are working with Xmos to allow for DSD to be input through the DAC as well as PCM. I have also been considering the Benchmark 2 and the MyTek DAC. Thank you.

MikePS said...

Ditto what Barry asked! It appears veryone who reviews the 105 leaves out useable comments/comparisons re the USB DAC, which I believe is a major selling factor of the 105. Also, it apparently doesn't play AIFF (or ALAC), which is not a limitation of the ESS Sabre chip. Why would that be excluded and is there any plans to enable it via firmware? THANKS!