Quite simply put, this is the best disc player that money can buy
Stunning life-like picture
Genuine hi-fi sound
Awesome DVD upscaling
Complex to set-up
Painful price tag
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Cast your mind back to the cult movie This Is Spinal Tap and the oft-quoted line about the band's Marshall amplifier that 'goes to 11'. It's simply one better, one louder, than everyone else's amps that only go to 10. In review terms and HCC star ratings, the Denon DVD-A1UD goes to 6.
And the first few hours with the DVD-A1UD filled me with tears. Tears of anguish.
Firstly, because it is ridiculously complex to set up, particularly if you are trying to navigate Denon system-specific features such as HDMI-sync jitter reduction over a network cable using DenonLink 4th Edition. Ouch.
Secondly, because I have only just purchased and installed the awesome Sony BDP-S5000ES and the Denon dismisses it in almost every respect. That really hurts.
And lastly, because I would give up eating to afford the DVD-A1UD and, as it bears a price tag of four and a half thousand quid, it means I am going to be really, really hungry by Christmas 2010. Sob, sniffle, blub.
Hell's popcorn! £4,500! When there are big-brand Profile 2.0 Blu-ray players out there for less than £200, that seems like a huge chunk of money. But compare a new 1.0 litre Kia Picanto at £6,000 to a Porsche 911 GT2 at £135,000 – it's the same price ratio and same performance ratio too.
For Denon's DVD-A1UD is comfortably the best universal disc-player ever made. Yes, it is one of only a few BD-based universal players ever made, but it is at the top of the game with every type of disc you put in it.
Not only is its Blu-ray video performance even smoother and richer than the reference Pioneer BDP-LX91, it upscales DVDs with close-to-HD quality perfection and plays music on CD, SACD and DVD-A with a virtuoso hand capable of embarrassing quite a few hi-fi exotica CD-players at multiples of the price.
Its upgradeable architecture and Profile 2.0 credentials means it will be riding the crest of the technology curve perhaps until we give up disc formats altogether. And it's built to last a lifetime, or perhaps two. I am a reviewer in luuurve.
Impressive at weigh in
Weighing in heavier than many AV amplifiers, the A1UD is built on a triple-layer steel base-plate with an enormous power supply transformer positioned over one of the feet for the greatest stability.
The internals are divided into seven separate blocks to eliminate any potential cross-talk or interference between analogue, digital, audio and video signals.
Middle-front of the chunky fascia is the classy disc mechanism, the latest generation of Denon's SVH (Suppress Vibration Hybrid) drive. The slim metal drawer glides out with a slick authority and draws your disc back in to the mechanism's hermetically-sealed die-cast zinc housing.
Among the many features, the A1UD offers an innovative Restorer function for compressed audio. It's not in itself revolutionary, as many AV amps offer this for MP3/AAC music, but the Denon takes this a step further and has a multichannel Restorer function. This aims to elevate compressed Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks to near TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio quality.
Think of it as an audio upscaler for all your DVDs. While I don't usually hold much truck with audio jiggery-pokery of this ilk, the Restorer added a greater clarity and sparkle to the sound of almost every DVD I tried.
In fact, it is audio performance generally where the Denon bounds ahead of other universal players on the market. Packed full of die-hard audiophile grade components and offering such delights as 32bit/192kHz DACs and Denon's AL32 processing, this player sounds great.
The only head-scratching comes with trying to decide the best way to get your audio out of the beast – over jitter-reduced HDMI, over Cat5/6 cable with DenonLink 4th edition, by full 7.1 channel analogue phonos, optical or coaxial S/PDIF or the A1UD's fully-balanced XLR stereo outputs. Phew.
After much faffing around with cables and connections, I opted for DenonLink to my AVP-A1HD for most video discs and switched to the stunning balanced XLR outputs for CD playback.
And then there is the Denon's video abilities, which could easily make a whole review in themselves. Based on Silicon Optix's flagship HQV Realta processor, the Denon can handle the most intense BD-Live PiP applications while outputting over twin HDMIs and component video simultaneously.
The 1080p24 output is seamlessly smooth and if you want to go large with Cinemascope (2.35:1 ratio) films there is a v.stretch mode for use with anamorphic lenses or Philips' new 21:9 ratio screens.
If you are really looking to eke out the very best from your Blu-rays, you can send video only over one HDMI output straight to the projector or TV, and use the other output purely for audio direct to the amp. The result is awesome home cinema.
A romp through Hot Fuzz on Blu-ray reveals the Denon's true mettle with stunning clarity, rich colours and deep, deep blacks. The picture falls shy of the sheer vibrancy of the Pioneer BDP-LX92, but is arguably more natural and realistic.
The fleshpots of Denon Flesh tones are the best I have seen on any player to date. The opening scene, where various high-level Metropolitan police are telling Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) he is being promoted and transferred to the country, is incredibly life-like.
You feel you are right there sitting at the table, with every character's facial line, pock-mark and skin pore etched in the finest detail. And with Bill Nighy's craggy features, that's a whole lot of detail. The actor's faint sheen of sweat under the set lights is clear, their minimal make-up is obvious and the very texture of the skin has a tangible, um, skin-like quality. While their uniforms are inkyblack there is no shortage of shadow detail in the folds and creases of the fabric.
With all video parameters set to default I found the picture just a little too dark with the iris on my DLP projector clamped down hard (default settings were almost perfect on a Samsung LED TV) but the Denon's comprehensive Gamma adjustment allows a fabulous measure of fine tuning.
Cut to the fast-moving scene where Sergeant Angel chases a purple-clad hoodie and the Denon does not let up. The scenery flows past with silky ease, interestingly adding a greater level of natural blur to the background (juddery pans are actually easier for the eye to focus on specific details).
The purple of the yoof's jacket never loses its silky texture even as the chase unfolds in high-speed running and piston-like arm movements. The Denon's HD picture performance with Blu-ray is state-of-the-art, no question.
Scaling new heights I am used to the obvious drop in clarity when looking at upscaled DVDs, of course, but within seconds of slipping in the tortuous DVD of Ice Age, I had to double-check I hadn't put the Blu-ray disc in by accident. The scaling is fabulously detailed with very little of the smoothness many Blu-ray players exhibit with standard-def material.
Colours and core picture dynamics with DVDs are superb, and better than both my old DVD-3930 or my DVD-2500BT by a good margin (both of those machines can now be found on Ebay).
On the downside, the Denon is sluggish to load some Blu-rays with access to BD-Live content. Our Tech Labs test disc took 100 secs to get to the menu screens. But hey, it gives you time to get the cork out of the Rioja before the film starts.
Frustratingly, my AVP-A1HD cannot be upgraded with the HDMI jitter-elimination circuitry of DenonLink 4th Edition, but it has been upgraded to vanilla DL4 – and the connection between the two is quite incredible.
Dip into the menus (with a spare half-hour and hot sweet tea to hand) and you can send the image over HDMI with the audio transferring by Cat5 or Cat6 cable on DL4. Once you have manually sorted the lip-sync, the sound is sumptuously huge, crisper than a frozen bag of Walkers and lightning fast.
TrueHD transfers seem to have been turned up a notch in pace and precision and DTS-HD Master Audio mixes have more scale and dynamic range than ever. It also allows multichannel Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio discs to bypass the HDMI altogether, further improving their already rather awesome clarity, although using the A1UD's internal DACs for either is arguably even better still!
Interestingly, Denon's Roger Batchelor recommended Chord's Active Silver HDMI cables with the A1UD – so I called on Chord to join the party. Sure enough, the picture to my projector leaped up another notch, getting even closer to the Pioneer's colour vibrancy without sacrificing the Denon's inherent naturalness. And as the plaster is drying over the Active Silver now buried in the wall, it is worth noting that choice of cable is important to elicit the very best from the a1UD – much like the best high-end hi-fi.
This is a neat link into Denon's CD playback. If, like me, you have a fair-sized collection of music and actually listen to more CDs than you watch movies, the A1UD is a revelation. This is only the second universal disc player I have ever used that offers genuinely reference-quality performance with CD playback (the other being Linn's Unidisc and that doesn't do Blu-ray, natch).
Using the XLR outputs, the Denon A1UD sounds sweet, yet unerringly capable of revealing tiny dynamic detailing with microscope precision. Step up to rock music on CD, or better still on Blu-ray, and the Denon offers spectacular dynamic scale and a bass punch that will leave you gasping.
So, in case you hadn't realised, I reckon the Denon DVD-A1UD is the reference disc-spinner by which all others will be judged for some time to come. It's not just a high-end Blu-ray player – it's so much more.
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