Audiolics Anonymous Chapter 46
Audiology And Ear Exams Plus
Denon's 2900 Combination Player
Article by Bill Gaw
Hello fellow Audiolics! Welcome to another meeting of Audiolics Anonymous, our support group for the insatiably
tweaked. Have we done any listening this month, or have you been spending most of your time tweaking as usual?
This month's topic should be near and dear to all of us, our hearing. It is funny (not in the ha-ha sense) that you do not think of how important our second most important sense, behind sight (and maybe the first for audiophiles) is until one thinks one may lose it. I had that fear this month.
For years I have had attacks once a year on average of severe dizziness, nausea, vomiting, funny eye movements, etc., and for years just thought it was a 24-hour flu. This month I had another episode and being the typical doctor, again thought of it as the flu, until my wife reminded me that this was the third attack in a year. This did get me thinking of other possible diagnoses, everything from labyrinthitis (inner ear inflammation) to brain tumor to syphilis (well maybe not the latter). So finally, to stop my wife's nagging, I went to my Ear, Nose and Throat Doctor for a checkup.
First off, I am going to recommend to all of you that you have your ear canals evaluated yearly for wax buildup. It was amazing how much of the cruddy junk, which looks like light brown show polish, came out of each ear. I could have waterproofed at least one pair of shoes with it. Interestingly, I was told that unless the canal becomes fully blocked, or that some of it gets pushed against the eardrum by excessive Q-Tip cleaning or by scuba diving, which happened to me once. Hearing is very little affected by it. But it certainly won't hurt to have them cleaned out. I did not notice any difference before and after, though you may.
Next, he did a thorough evaluation of my eardrum, nose, throat, and a quick hearing test, and made a preliminary diagnosis of recurrent paroxysmal vertigo, which happily should not affect my hearing. But he did want me to have an Audiologist examination with hearing test to rule out a problem called Meniere's Disease, which got me worrying again. Meniere's is a problem with the inner ear where our hearing and positioning sensors are located, that slowly over years damages both hearing and movement feeling, leading to deafness, and vertigo or dizziness. So off I went next door for the hearing evaluation I had wanted to do for years anyway to see if I actually have those "Golden Audiophile Ears".
The subject is placed in a soundproofed chamber that is built not only to keep sounds out but also to absorb any sound produced in it. You are given a set of headphones that are possibly somewhat better than one would have used with a ham radio setup 40 years ago. Pure tones are then played through the headphones beginning with the lowest octave, at sub hearing level, and increased in intensity until you detect it and give a nod to the tester. Then the next octave tone is played in the same manner, up to 10kHz. This is then repeated in the opposite ear. Finally, a probe is placed on the bone behind the ear and the same procedure is carried out to test bone conduction hearing.
Happily, my hearing was pretty close to perfect maxing out at 0 to -3dB from 20Hz to 10kHz. So Meniere's is out, which made me a very happy camper. Then I made the mistake of asking if the tester could evaluate my hearing in the highest octaves. The results were dismal, down 20dB at 16kHz and nothing a 20kHz.
So there it was... thought I was for all purposes deaf in the final octave. Old age and my 100dB listening nights had wiped out my final octave. Or maybe it was that summer working in the furniture factory, or my rifle shooting in college or those noisy jet plane trips that had done it. Guess I won't have to try out those super tweeters. Maybe that is why I have been able to tolerate digital music so well. I had lost my ability to hear the digital noise that so bothered me in my youth. Maybe digital had not gotten better, only my hearing had compensated.
Then I started thinking about how the test had been performed. First, those
headphones.... They looked exactly like the ones I used to have way back when mono was still the medium of choice. Could they really be accurate out beyond 10kHz? Interestingly, NO!! On discussion with the tech, it turns out that they have stopped doing testing above 10kHz because their testing method is very inaccurate from 5kHz on up. So anyone who tells you they have had an audiological exam and their hearing is as good as the day they were born is fibbing, unless it was done in a facility with much better than average equipment.
Second, only one pitch per octave was evaluated. Remember, the sound band is continuous, there are (in the western system) eight notes and five intervening tones per octave. We do have the ability, theoretically, to hear the entire frequency band without discontinuities. So measuring one tone or octave is a very inaccurate way of evaluating hearing. It would be like measuring loudspeaker response using one tone per octave rather than a frequency sweep.
Third, unless you have worn ear plugs before the test (which I did), or are allowed to sit in the isolation chamber for a while (which won't happen in this time of quick HMO evaluations), and especially if you have it done in the middle of a mall or doctor's office, the results will be inaccurate.
On the other hand, as mine turned out almost perfect for the limits of the testing machine, my results must be correct and I have perfect hearing, thus Golden Ears. So get your testing done, especially those other reviewers out there that audiophiles rely on.
Denon 2900 Combination Player
In my never ending quest to find a combination DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, and SACD player, I went ahead and purchased the Denon 2900 sight unseen after hearing some good word of mouth on the
AV Science bulletin
board (which by the way is a great place to pick up information on audio-video). My first combi player, on which I reported in Chapter 31 was the Apex 7701, a $300 player which worked superbly for me, but which caused much aggravation for other people due to breakdowns. It sounded very good with SACD, more like a $1,000 SACD unit! It also sounded pretty good with DVD-Audio and worked very nicely with video. Furthermore, it had easy volume adjustments of all channels from the remote, which is very important if you are not running your music through a pre-pro that I have not found on any other machine. I must have gotten an exceptional unit because others failed rapidly and the model was taken quickly out of production, but my daughter is still happily using mine without problem.
Then I purchased the Pioneer Elite 47A combi player, reviewed in Chapter 34, which I found to have poor (actually I said
sucky) SACD and DVD-Audio playback yet very good video. Have now been using it for six months and it still sounds
middlin. But except for the video, it did not live up to my expectations of what a $1,200 player should be, actually being inferior to the Apex. It certainly was not up to the Pioneer Elite standard, with flimsy lightweight case, no volume control, and mediocre sound.
The Denon, on the other hand, has certainly lived up to my expectations. Out of the box the unit functioned perfectly and was easy to set up and use. It has considerable heft for a $1,299 list price ($899 street) with a drawer action that could take a finger off if it got caught. There is a switch on the front of the unit to turn off the video and front panel screen, which does improve the audio output. It also has a standard IEC AC plug, which it turns out is very important as this unit is very responsive to high-end AC cords.
Remember that all digital players, but especially combi players for some reason, require long break-in periods. I love going to web sites a week or so after one of these hits the market to read some of the comments from the early buyers who want to be first with a review, about how poor the units sound. They all need several weeks of continuous playing to sound their best. And no, it is not the listener breaking in to the players inherent sound. Each unit goes through stages of varying sound.
Like the other two combi units, it took the Denon about three plus weeks of continuously playing discs for it to break in. At first, all three audio types were somewhat muffled, that after about a week turned into just the opposite of high-end exaggeration. By the end of the third week an even tonal balance, but a feeling of decreased hall information replaced this, almost as if bits were missing. Finally, at the end of the third week the unit opened up and has sounded wonderful since. Then I started playing around with AC cords. I used the Electraglide
Fatboy, Silent Source, Elrod 3 Sig., and finally settled on the Omega Micro cord that Lloyd Walker sent me for review (more on them next month). The Omega Micro brought out the best in the player.
SACD sounds as good as I have heard from all except the multi mega-bucks units. Tonality is spot on while ambience recovery is superb. Except for some of the original RCA and Mercury master tapes I had years ago, and still fondly remember, SACD is as close to live as I have gotten. It is probably not up to what Ed Meitner is getting from his EMM SACD converter at $8,000 a unit, but good enough for me. I am afraid it is close enough to analog that I have not listened to vinyl in over a month (Editor Steve sez: Bill, maybe that ear infection also caused other problems. With your excellent analog rig it is hard to fathom not using it many times each week).
DVD-Audio is almost as good. Actually it is excellent but still slightly behind SACD as far a naturalness of sound is concerned. SACD just flows while DVD-Audio still has some digital feeling, at least with the recordings I have. On the other hand, it still beats CD. This is especially true with 5.1 channel sound. This is the first combi player I have heard where both DVD-Audio and SACD are very good to excellent. CD is also very good, at least equaling what I have obtained in the past from standard CD players in the $1,200 range. Out of the box it was very poor, sounding almost like digital players of yore. After break-in the upper frequencies smoothed out and the soundstage opened up to the point where it matched my home theater computer running through an M-Audio 1010 professional D/A studio converter.
In addition, the video is excellent and very close to the Pioneer's, although it still does not come close to the near HDTV quality I can get from my home theater computer. It is definitely better than most of the other players out there, although it does show the so-called Chroma Defect (minimally). This is an inherent defect in 95% of the DVD players out there and is unnoticeable, at least to me, if you are not looking for it.
There are several tricks that need to be done in setup to get the best sound. First, there is an on-screen control called Filter under the Audio panel that when turned off allows full range sound from all channels, which is a must for those out there with high-end audio systems. Second, shut off Bass Management as these decreases midrange clarity for some reason. Third, do not use the internal sounds produced by the unit for loudspeaker volume setup, as they are inaccurate. Get one of the CD or DVD test discs made by Chesky or Video Essentials to adjust relative volume. Fourth, accurately set up relative loudspeaker distance by measuring the distance from your listening position for each loudspeaker. I found that rather than resetting all speakers with their actual distances, it sounded better to set the furthest loudspeaker or speakers at the maximum distance, then subtract from that for the closer loudspeakers. It sounds confusing, but is easy in practice. Also, subtract a couple of feet from the rear and side speaker measurements, thus making them appear further away, to open up the room a little and give a better perspective of the sound field to any persons listening behind you. This will only negatively affect those surround albums that are supposed to put you in the middle of the ensemble rather than in a hall. Fifth, use the mode control on the front of the unit to shut off the on screen information and video, and use the display button on the remote to turn that off when listening to audio. It does make a slight improvement in the sound.
So where do we stand with combi players? First, the Denon 2900 is the by far the best of the three I have tried out so far, at least equaling any individual CD, DVD-Audio, SACD and DVD-Video player out there in its price range. So you are getting four machines for the price of one. While there are CD and SACD players out there that will outperform the Denon, all cost significantly more and you can get the Denon for less than $900 street price. So if you want the ultimate, get a Sony NS-999 or Meitner converter for SACD, otherwise the Denon. There is another couple of combi players out there I haven't tried including the Marantz and Onkyo, and would be interested in hearing from other audiophiles who have them.
Second, the one thing missing is a master volume control for all six channels that is easily controllable from the remote. The Apex had one and it was great to be able to adjust volume instantly from the listening position. This is a must for those people running directly from the unit to amplifiers, but is probably not included by the manufacturer so you'll buy one of their receivers or pre-pro's. Third, wait for the unit to break in before listening to it. Also do not listen to the web "experts" who listen to one disc and immediately write about how poorly the combi units perform. They need a long time playing discs to sound their best. Whether this is a mechanical thing related to break-in of the drive mechanism or electrical I have no idea. Fourth, the loudspeaker distance adjustment works only for DVD-Video and DVD-Audio, but not for SACD. Very few other combi units allow for this either.
Finally, there has been some talk on the web sites that the bass management does not work properly and that the .1 channel may be 10dB down from where it should be. I have not noticed it with my unit and my .1 subwoofers certainly are working overtime on those movies with a strong subwoofer channel, so it may be a problem with only some of the Denon units out there or maybe with those individuals with small loudspeakers who use the .1 channel for all bass. All in all, I feel the unit is a great buy for the price, and definitely recommend it for individuals looking for a Swiss Army Knife approach to digital. That is it for this month. Good Listening and Good Hearing! Now go out there and get those ears checked.