Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray/Universal Player (TPV 103)

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OPPO BDP-95
Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray/Universal Player (TPV 103)

Over the past several years, Oppo has steadily been carving out a healthy chunk of the disk player market and for all the right reasons. From day one, the firm has followed a singular vision that involves building versatile players that combine often shockingly high levels of performance and value in equal measure. As a result, Oppo’s disc players have in turn been winning friends, influencing people, and merrily re-writing the rulebooks that define exactly how much sound and picture quality one can reasonably expect for a given sum of money.

But one other aspect of Oppo that’s also deeply admirable is their practice of continuous product improvement. Let’s call this the “never-miss-an-opportunity-to-make-a-good-thing-better” impulse that, in my view, defines Oppo as a true high-end manufacturer (albeit one whose products are, by design, affordable). From year to year, the Oppo folks just keep on pressing forward—never resting on their laurels (of which they’ve garnered quite a bunch), so that each new Oppo model really is better than the last—and in genuinely meaningful ways.

Those of you who have followed Oppo since its inception know that the firm’s practice has been to produce really good, full-featured standard models, but then to offer somewhat more costly hot-rod models targeted specifically toward sound quality-conscious music lovers. This basic practice continues with the firm’s new second-generation Blu-ray/universal players, where Oppo’s BDP-93 ($499) serves as the standard model, while the just-released BDP-95 ($999) stands as the flagship, audiophile-grade model (and arguably as the finest player Oppo has yet produced).

In the past, Oppo’s flagship players were often “tuned to the nines” versions of its standard models, but that’s no longer the case here. Even a cursory glance at the chassis and rear panels of the two players will show that while the BDP-95 shares some features in common with the BDP-93, it is in fact an entirely different player in ways that run more than “skin deep.” Let me begin this review, then, by listing some of the BDP-95’s distinguishing features and characteristics.

FEATURES

Audio highlights: Apart from externally obvious differences, the BDP-95 differs from the BDP-93 (and from most other competing Blu-ray/universal players on the market), by providing a distinctive array of audio features, as highlighted below.

Very high quality DACs: The BDP-95 uses two 8-channel, 32-bit ESS SABRE32 ES9018 Reference Audio DACs—one of the highest performance DACs in the entire ESS SABRE family. In fact, the ES9018 is similar to the DACs some high-end manufacturers use in multi-thousand-dollar, two-channel SACD players. ESS claims that the ES9018 “is the world’s best performing 32-bit audio DAC solution targeted for high-end consumer applications and professional studio equipment).”
Dedicated stereo analog output: The BDP-95 offers a dedicated stereo analog output with “specially optimized ES9018 DAC and output driving stages.” Oppo adds that, “each output is driven by 4 DAC channels stacking together to achieve even higher performance.” The stereo output offers two sets of output connectors with different associated drive circuitry. One set provides XLR balanced connectors while the other provides RCA single-ended connectors. Oppo emphasizes, “the balanced output features a true differential signal path all the way from the DAC to the 3-pin XLR connector.” There are even setup options for running normal or inverted XLR pin-out polarity configurations. Frankly, these are the sorts of features you might expect to see in multi-thousand-dollar audio-only players, but that are more-or-less unheard of in universal players selling for under $1000.
Multichannel analog output: The BDP-95 also offers a set of 7.1-channel analog outputs, which are driven by the second of the two ES9018 DACs.
Substantial, low-noise power supply: The BDP-95 incorporates a toroidal power supply that, according to Oppo, is “custom designed and built by Rotel,” and that is said to offer “superior power efficiency and much lower exterior magnetic field over traditional laminated steel core transformers.”
Coaxial and optical digital outputs: Recognizing that some owners will use their Oppo players as digital transports, the BDP-95 provides both coaxial and optical digital outputs. This also means the player can be used with pre-HDMI legacy A/V receivers and controllers.
Rich disc/media format support: The BDP-95 is a true universal player that supports: Blu-ray Disc, Blu-ray 3D, DVD-Audio/Video, SACD, HDCD, CD, Kodak Picture CD, AVCHD, MP4, DivX, MKV, FLAC and WAV from recorded discs or, where feasible, from USB or eSATA drives.
Direct DSD bitstream output: Though this may seem a small point, the BDP-95 is set up so that, when playing SACD discs, it can output direct DSD bitstreams (the native SACD data format) or convert SACD content into LPCM format.
Dual HDMI outputs: The BDP-95 supports dual HDMI outputs and thus allows one system setup configuration most universal players cannot support: namely, a configuration where one HDMI output (potentially set up to provide video data only) feeds the display directly, while the other HDMI output is used purely to provide high resolution audio data to an A/V receiver or controller. One scenario where this could be particularly helpful is in using the BDP-95 to play 3D Blu-ray content to a 3D-capable display, while using an earlier generation, non-3D-capable A/V receiver or controller.
Expanded bass management options: Unlike the earlier BDP-83-series players, the BDP-95 gives users an expanded range of subwoofer crossover options, including settings for: 40 Hz, 60 Hz, 80Hz, 90 Hz, 100 Hz, 110 Hz, 120 Hz, 150 Hz, 200 Hz, and 250 Hz.

Video highlights: The video features set of the BDP-95 closely mirrors that of the BDP-93. Key features (shared, in this case, by both players) are as noted below.

Up-to-the-minute, high-tech video processor: At the time of their release to the market, Oppo’s players have traditionally made a point of offering the very latest and most powerful onboard video processing devices, and the BDP-93 and BDP-95 are no exception. Both incorporate the second-generation Marvell Qdeo Kyoto G2 video processor, which provides:
        oVideo noise reduction.
        oCompression artifact reduction.
        oIntelligent color, contrast, detail, and edge enhancement.
        oDVD (or other video format) upconversion to 1080p.
•Source Direct mode: As in the Audio discussion above, Oppo recognizes that some owners will want the BDP-95 to serve as a “digital transport” for use with external video processers. Accordingly, Oppo provides a “Source Direct” mode where the player outputs A/V data as read, with “no processing or alteration.”
True 24p Video: The BDP-95 supports playback of video content captured at 24 fps, “the same frame rate as the original movie’s theatrical release.”
Multiple Zoom Modes: According to Oppo, the BDP-95 supports “multiple levels of aspect ratio control and image zooming, including a vertical stretch mode for customers with a 2.35:1 CIH (Constant Image Height) display system.”
Dual HDMI outputs: As mentioned under “Audio highlights,” above, the BDP-95 provides dual HDMI outputs, with separately configurable video settings for each (in fact, the HDMI 1 output can be configured to output video data only).

Connectivity highlights:

Dual USB Ports: The BDP-95 provides two USB 2.0 ports that can read audio, video, or photo data from attached USB drives. Note, however, that the BDP-95 is not set up to be used as a USB DAC through which, say music files could be played from a computer (though there is—or at least may be—a different connectivity option for playing files from computers: see “Experimental Functions”, below).
eSATA Ports: The BDP-95 allows users to connect and play audio, video or photo content from eSATA drives (or drive arrays).
Wireless & Ethernet Connectivity: The BDP-95 provides both a hardwired RJ-45-type Ethernet port and a plug-in Wireless-N adapter that can support streaming content from the Internet or (potentially) from the user’s home network.
Netflix & Blockbuster-On-Demand Ready: The BDP-95 supports movie streaming from Netflix and Blockbuster-On-Demand, and in fact ships with free trial membership offers from both services (offered to U.S.-based owners only, however).
PAL/NTSC Conversion: By design, the BDP-95 can—at least in principle—play both NTSC and PAL format contents, and support conversion of one format to the other for playback purposes. However, the BDP-95 manual contains this caveat: “(Subject to DVD and BD region restrictions.)”
“Experimental functions”: Within the “Media File Playback” section of the BDP-95 manual, users will find a menu option labeled MY NETWORK, which is described as “an experimental feature which enables the player to stream audio, video and photo (content) from media servers on the home network.” The Oppo technical support team does not official support this DNLA Server-like functionality package, but prospective buyers can learn more by visiting wiki.oppodigital.com.
IR & RS-232: The BDP-95 provides IR and RS-232 ports to support custom installations.

VIDEO PERFORMANCE

I tested the BDP-95 using a number of benchmarking disc, including the Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray Edition and the IDT HQV Benchmark 2.0, Blu-ray Disc version 2.0. In each case, I found the BDP-95 was able to equal or surpass the results achieved by any other disc player I’ve tested, and likewise able to meet or beat the performance of any of the built-in video processors I’ve tested in various A/V receivers or controllers.

More importantly, the BDP-95 gave of its best on high quality HD images, where—in a subtle and yet noticeable way—the player produced onscreen images with remarkable depth and “snap” (this in contrast to players whose images offer the expected high levels of resolution, yet that seem a bit dull, lifeless, and “flat”).

SONIC CHARACTER

The BDP-95, like many high quality players, benefits from a generous amount of run-in time, after which its sound quality becomes very special indeed. As I perceive it, the BDP-95 has three signature qualities that set it apart from the competition.

First, the flagship Oppo has a highly detailed sound, yet a sound where the different aspects of “detail” are so thoroughly and beautifully integrated that you may not, at first blush, notice just how much sonic information this player can convey. When I use the term detail to describe the BDP-95, I am thinking of the complete package: that is, of subtle timbres, textures, harmonics, transient sounds, reverberations and echoes, and especially spatial cues. Put all of these elements together and listen to a familiar piece of music and you may be apt to conclude that, with the Oppo in play, there’s suddenly more “there” there.

Second, the BDP-95 is remarkably smooth sounding, which all the more impressive when you consider that it also highly detailed. In my experience, the qualities of detail and smoothness don’t necessarily travel together, so that it’s a rarity to find them working synergistically as they do in the Oppo. There’s real sonic “magic” in this combination of virtues—sort of the audiophile equivalent of all gain with (surprisingly) no pain. In the case of the BDP-95, detail may be what draws you in at first, but the player’s relaxed, effortless smoothness is what keeps you listening, hour after hour. If you were to try to capture the player’s sound in a “formula,” it might look something like this: Detail + Smoothness = A Musically Natural Sound.

Finally, the BDP-95 is capable of an exceptionally three-dimensional presentation, whether it happens to be playing stereo or multichannel (i.e., surround sound) material. This quality, more than any other, is the one that makes the top Oppo sound like a much, much higher-priced component than it actually is. During our listening tests, for example, I spent a fair amount of time comparing the sound of discs played through the digital front-end of our excellent Anthem Statement D2v A/V controller (a superb-sounding controller, priced at $8499) vs. the sound of the same discs played through the DAC section and analog audio electronics of the BDP-95. As you might expect, the Anthem sounded fine: clear, tightly focused, and well defined. But what was most impressive was that the BDP-95 consistently sounded even better—at once smoother and more detailed, and substantially more three-dimensional and therefore enveloping in its presentation. It is precisely this kind of sonic difference that makes it worthwhile for music lovers to consider stepping up to the BDP-85.

MOVIE/SOUNDTACK PERFORMANCE

To get a glimpse of the Oppo’s almost spooky-good 3D sonic qualities, put on the Blu-ray version of Batman Begins and make a point of watching and listening to the scene where Bruce Wayne visits the underground cavern that will eventually be transformed into the “Bat Cave.” Wayne enters the cave through the bottom of a well or cistern (the same one into which he had once fallen as a child), where a tiny crevasse opens onto the enormous cavern below. As Wayne descends to the bottom of the cistern and then work his way through the small opening, you can hear the acoustics palpably shift. Initially, you hear the hard, bright reflections of sounds off the tightly confined brick walls of the cistern, but then—as Wayne presses through the crevasse—the acoustic suddenly shift to become those of a giant, reverberant cavern where Wayne’s footfalls echo, reverberate, and slowly decay with the hall-like space, while the faint sound of an underground waterfall can be heard in the background.

The effect is breathtakingly expansive, and highly realistic, so that you instinctively feel Wayne’s sense of awe at finding such a space deep below the mansion in which he grew up. But the whole tenor of the scene shifts as Wayne flips on a portable lantern and realizes—with equal parts horror and amazement—that the cave is also home to hundreds if not thousands of bats. Sensing Wayne’s presence, the animals suddenly take flight and swirl around Wayne’s figure as he stands stock-still, transfixed. Eventually, the frantic beating of the bats’ wings and their communicative squeaks drown out the roar of the waterfall, neatly expressing both Wayne’s deepest fears but also the bats’ collective power. Here, the Oppo produces a giant 3D soundstage, complete with an uncanny illusion of height (which reinforces the idea that the immense cavern is deep below ground).

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.

MUSICAL EXAMPLE

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.

Finally, the BDP-95’s three-dimensionality lets you hear that this is a live and therefore living and breathing recording captured in Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. The Oppo’s ability to retrieve low-level details lets you have a sense for the acoustics of the recording venue and, on louder passages, to sense the manner in which the orchestra energizes the entire hall. The Oppo isn’t however, one of those players that render gobs of detail for detail’s sake; instead, the player’s many small sonic details coalesce to form an integral, organic whole that simply “sounds right.” If you stop to think about it, that’s one of the highest complements we could give to any disk player.

CONCLUSION

Consider this player if: you want a versatile and highly capable audiophile-grade universal player that is, quite simply, a bargain at its price. Part of the beauty, here, is that the BDP-95 is an equally strong audio and video performer. Built-in Netflix and Blockbuster-On-Demand support are very cool, too.

Look further if: you want to go for even higher levels of sound quality (something that can be found if you want to push a point, but typically only at several multiples of the BDP-95’s oh-so-reasonable price). Also look further if you don’t need the BDP-95’s potent DACs and analog audio section, in which case the $499 BDP-93 might be a better option for you.

BOTTOM LINE

The BDP-95 is by far the finest Blu-ray/universal disc player Oppo has yet produced. If you can afford one, then put the Oppo right at the top of your short list. If you can afford something more expensive, strongly consider buying the Oppo anyway. It’s that good.

Caveats: With an eye toward the future and the growing popularity of computer-based systems, we would like to see this player set up so that it could be used as a USB DAC and so that its current DNLA Server-like “Experimental Functions” could become fully supported.

SPECS & PRICING

Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray/Universal Disc Player
Disc/file formats supported: Blu-ray Disc, Blu-ray 3D, DVD-Audio/Video, SACD, HDCD, CD, Kodak Picture CD, AVCHD, MP4, DivX, MKV, FLAC and WAV from recorded discs or, where feasible, from USB or eSATA drives.
HDMI audio bitstream support: Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital; DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS-HD High Resolution Audio, DTS-Digital Surround; SACD via DSD bitstream or LPCM conversion, LPCM 7.1-channel, 5.1-channel and 2-channel
Onboard decoder support: As above
Outputs: 1080p at: 24Hz, 50Hz, 60Hz
Video outputs: Two HDMI, one component video, one composite video
Digital audio outputs: Two HDMI, two digital (one coaxial, one optical)
Analog audio outputs: one 7.1-channel output, two stereo outputs (on single-ended via RCA jacks, one balanced via XLR connectors)
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20kHz (-0.3 dB ± 0.05dB), 20 Hz – 96kHz (-2.5 dB ± 0.05dB)
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: >130 dB (A-weighted, mute), > 115 dB (A-weighted, unmute)
Other connections: Ethernet and Wireless-n (for firmware updates, BD-Live content, Netflix and Blockbuster-On-Demand content streaming, and for “Experimental Functions”), two USB ports (for content playback from USB drives), eSATA port, IR in/out, RS-232 (optional)
Dimensions (HxWxD): 4” x 16.875” x 12.25”
Weight: 15.4 lbs.
Warranty: One year, parts and labor
Price: $999

Oppo Digital, Inc.
(650) 961-1118

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