|Integra DTC 9.8 AV Preamp/Processor|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Andrew Robinson|
|Tuesday, 01 April 2008|
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Music and Movies
I kicked things off with ZZ Top’s Best Of album (Warner Bros.) and the classic track “Le Grange.”. The opening trill across the snare drum rim was snappy, yet could be clearly heard as wood rapping against metal, for there was an appropriate amount of organic “thwack” with a trailing metallic edge to the sound. A handful of seconds into the song, the resolving prowess of the DTC-9.8 became apparent. The resulting drum fill, followed by the iconic guitar riff, showcased the DTC-9.8’s ability to rock and roll. The sound was a touch old-fashioned, as you could tell this was an older recording without a lot of bells and whistles trying to make it something it was never meant to be. The drum solos and fills were appropriately weighted and sounded natural, with the right amount of air and attack. Did they fool me into thinking the real thing was in my living room? No, but they didn’t let me get wrapped up in mechanical wizardry, either. The DTC-9.8 is surprisingly musical, with a good sense of rhythm and soul. I’ve heard richer-sounding processors, but for what the DTC-9.8 costs, it’s pretty damn good. Vocals were clearly and accurately reproduced and sounded very natural, with a good sense of in-room presence that rivaled higher-end processors. Dynamically, the DTC-9.8 does have to be pushed just a bit to come alive, but once you’re there, it too is better than the price tag would have you believe. While not instantaneous, it can shift its weight pretty quickly. Keep in mind the Bel Cantos are wickedly fast and will tell you if your gear isn’t quite as nimble as they are. In terms of soundstage, the DTC-9.8 is as good as it gets from a processor this side of five Gs. Width and depth were both equally expansive, and the control and separation exhibited by the DTC-9.8 was quite remarkable.
I’ve grown a bit tired of my multi-channel music selection as of late and have been turning to well-recorded live shows on DVD and now Blu-ray for my multi-channel music fix. I cued up Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds: Live at Radio City Music Hall (Sony) on Blu-ray. I set the disc’s audio settings to Dolby Digital, for my BDP-S1 does not output TrueHD and I have not yet upgraded. Starting with the track “Save Me,” the DTC-9.8’s multi-channel prowess was immediately apparent. While not the greatest audiophile processor on the market, the DTC-9.8 proved to be among the best with higher-resolution material. The midrange fleshed out a bit, while the treble exhibited touches of added sweetness. The bass firmed up and plunged a little deeper (mind you, this isn’t a bass heavy recording) with even more control than with previous two-channel demos. Vocals remained the DTC-9.8’s strong suit, as Dave’s raspy babblings sounded live yet bordered on up-close and personal. As the song progressed, the DTC-9.8 did an excellent job of making the venue seem big, yet retained enough of the little details to keep it intimate as well. The surround sound performance was terrific, creating a seamless 360-degree performance that engulfed my living room. The dual guitars were distinct and accompanied each other without sounding too singular or larger than life. Nuances in playing styles were easily heard and tracked throughout the song, aided by the DTC-9.8’s airy breadth and increased dynamic envelope. That’s right, dynamics improved dramatically over standard two-channel fare, as did the need to throttle the volume in order to make the DTC-9.8 sing. It’s very clear just what market Integra is going after with the DTC-9.8, because it clearly isn’t the vinyl/tube crowd. This is a modern piece of equipment, with modern listeners and tastes in mind.
Excited by my findings with multi-channel music, I immediately shifted gears to movies, kicking things off with 300 (Warner Home Video) on HD DVD. I set the disc’s settings to output Dolby TrueHD and let ‘er rip. Within a second, the DTC-9.8 locked onto the 1080p video and uncompressed audio signal and went to work. Since I have seen this film a few times, I chaptered ahead to the fight between the Spartans and the Persian horde in the narrow passageway of the canyon. The thundering sound of hundreds of bodies crashing into one another against the clanging of cold steel was enough to send chills up my spine. The metallic scratching was so vivid and sharp-sounding it made me wince, not out of ear fatigue, but out of anticipation of the bloody end some poor fool would suffer at the point of one of the Spartans’ spears. The bass added weight to the struggle, yet this time, with the DTC-9.8 in my system, the added bass seemed organic, as opposed to mechanical. It sounded as if the plodding, low rolling tones were actually produced by hundreds of battle-worn soldiers slamming against one another and not a sound effects mixer just playing with the dials. I know, ultimately it was a sound effects guy messing about, but he did such a good job that I wasn’t aware of his presence this time. Vocals remained intelligible and firmly placed among the action and tracked well horizontally, as well as from front to back, as the camera panned or changed angles completely. Truthfully, I was very impressed by the DTC-9.8’s sonic performance during 300, which I would say is on par with some of the best – albeit man of the so-called best can’t decode half of what the DTC-9.8 can.
On the video side of things, the DTC-9.8 didn’t disappoint. With the DTC-9.8 in the video chain, I could detect no more video abnormalities than when it was absent. Black levels were inky smooth, with good gray scale rendering. Noise levels were kept to a minimum, aside from the natural film grain we’ve all grown accustomed to. White levels were pristine and vibrant, without bleeding into the surrounding colors. Colors were vivid, dimensional and accurate. The red capes of the Spartan army were appropriately saturated and rendered with tremendous depth and detail. Edge fidelity was as good as it gets, keeping the image in sharp focus without added enhancements, which lent a true three-dimensional feel to the HD image. The motion produced no artifacts and the depth to the image was impressive, to say the least. However, when comparing the signal straight into my projector, I achieved similar if not identical results. It’s nice to know that when using the DTC-9.8 to switch between HD sources, it’s not a hindrance to the overall video performance.
I ended my time with the DTC-9.8 with another HD DVD offering, The Bourne Ultimatum (Universal Studios Home Video). Sonically, The Bourne Ultimatum proved to be quite good, although not quite as well mixed and recorded as 300. I chaptered ahead to the rooftop sequence, where Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, jumped from rooftop to rooftop, trying to head off the assassin before he can reach Bourne’s partner, played by Julia Stiles. Every detail, from the sound of Bourne’s feet running across gravel to the varying degrees of weight to each of his landings, was rendered faithfully and naturally. When Bourne finally met up with his assailant, the resulting fistfight was raw and palpable. The dead-sounding thwack of flesh-on-flesh contact was a workout for the DTC-9.8’s lower midrange and bass capabilities, which it passed with flying colors. The occasional metallic sounds of the shower curtain only added to the realism the DTC-9.8 was capable of dishing out. Again, the soundstage coherence across all five of my speakers was incredible, as the DTC-9.8 transported me smack dab in the middle of the cramped bathroom for the fight. Character dialogue was natural and distinct, even when played back through several of the film’s electronic surveillance devices. Normally, playback devices in films somewhat mask the vocals in a sort of faux compression, which makes everything sound as if it was passed through a tin can. Not so with Ultimatum or with the DTC-9.8. While it didn’t sound as though it was in the room with you, you could hear the technology in the scene at work, giving the vocal track a distinct characteristic, without muddying up or overpowering the dialogue. The car chase towards the end was an adrenaline-packed thrill ride that, while not as exciting as the chase in the first movie, offered up more than its share of spills and crashes for the DTC-9.8 to grab hold of and play with. Dynamically, the DTC-9.8 proved to be at the top of its game with sequences such as the car chase and proved to be far more explosive yet composed than I had previously given it credit for.
Video-wise, The Bourne Ultimatum is far from a brilliant transfer, for there seems to be a lot of variation in depth, saturation and clarity from scene to scene. The DTC-9.8 did little to mask these flaws, which I consider to be a good thing. While the DTC-9.8 has tremendous video tools at its disposal, I don’t take kindly to processors that attempt to know more than the director or cinematographer by being a bit too liberal with their power. Black levels were good where appropriate, as were white levels. Colors were a bit more muted throughout the film, leaning heavily on the cooler end of the spectrum, which in the face of poor blacks resulted in a somewhat flattened image. Edge fidelity wasn’t as crisp as it was in 300, but it was still much improved over the standard DVD transfer. Overall, the DTC-9.8 is going to show you what’s on the disc and nothing more. For a budget processor, it’s very judicious with how it presents material to you, opting for “just the facts,” as opposed to retelling a tall tale. I for one appreciate its approach, for while it shares many features and attributes with its receiver brethren, it utilizes those traits the way a more traditional high-end piece would.