Integra DTC 9.8 AV Preamp/Processor 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Tuesday, 01 April 2008

High-end home theater processors are quickly becoming the hot topic amongst home theater enthusiasts, and not because they’re the best. No. Home theater processors, the once-touted peak of all things audio/video, have taken a hit in recent years, largely due to the ever-changing HD landscape and a little thing called HDMI. When HD was in its infancy, component cable was king and 720p/1080i seemed to be the best anyone could hope for – for a while, it was. Even when 1080p reared its head, it took some time before it became the norm. However, the HDMI cable inevitably became the chink in HD’s armor, causing massive amounts of confusion and frustration among manufacturers and consumers alike, forcing many high-end brands to simply wait out the storm.

It was during this time that many larger, mid-fi foreign brands took up the cause and pushed forward, offering numerous HDMI-enabled products. Some worked, but most didn’t. Yet, due to their huge volumes and larger cash flow, the big brands were able to cut their losses and try again and again and again, until they cracked it. Now the marketplace is seemingly flooded with sub-thousand-dollar receivers that can take full advantage of the HD formats, both audio and video, via HDMI, leaving the once-touted high-end brands in the dust.

One such brand that has led the charge in bringing HD and HDMI to the masses is none other than Integra, a division of Onkyo. However, unlike their parent company, Integra’s focus has always been on manufacturing and providing affordable high-end solutions for the ever-changing marketplace. While I would normally argue the high-end portion of my previous statement, the release of Integra’s new DTC-9.8 audio/video processor cements their claims, for it is, in fact, very high-end – except for the fact that it costs $1,600.

The DTC-9.8 isn’t as slick-looking as, say, a Krell or a Lexicon, but it’s hardly ugly. Its looks are born out of supreme functionality, much like many of today’s higher-priced receivers. At first glance, the DTC-9.8 looks a lot like a receiver, which it should, for it shares the same chassis as Integra’s own DTR-8.8 receiver. It measures in at a little over 17 inches wide by nearly eight inches high and 17-and-a-half inches deep. You can tell it’s no receiver, for it only weighs 29 pounds, a direct result of the missing power amplifier section.

Taking a peek around back reveals an impressive array of connection options, most notably four HDMI v1.3a inputs (with two monitor outs) and a complete 7.1 and two-channel set of balanced line level outputs.  The DTC-9.8 has three component video inputs, as well as two monitor outputs. It has a host of analog audio and video inputs, in addition to three coaxial and two optical audio inputs, mated with a single optical audio out. The DTC-9.8, along with having balanced line level outputs, also has a matching set of unbalanced audio outs. The DTC-9.8 is HD Radio-, XM- and Sirius satellite- radio ready (antenna and subscription sold separately) and features an Ethernet port.  The DTC-9.8 has an RS-232 port for custom installation applications or third-party control support, as well as multi-room/zone support. Throw in a detachable power cord and a standard power receptacle, and you have one hell of a full-featured audio/video processor in the Integra DTC-9.8.

Behind the scenes, the DTC-9.8 is THX Ultra2-certified and features two separate power transformers for audio and video processing. The DTC-9.8 is HDMI 1.3a-compliant, with 1080p Deep Color capabilities, as well as full up-conversion and transcoding to 1080p via its internal HQV Reon-VX chip. The DTC-9.8 features Audyssey’s latest MultiEQ XT room correction software and offers Burr Brown 192 kHz/24-bit DAC’s for all of its audio channels. The DTC-9.8 features Neural THX surround sound processing, as well as support for DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS HD audio, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus and everything in between. Needless to say, in today’s ever-changing marketplace, the Integra DTC-9.8 seems to cover all the bases, which is something that cannot be said for most of the competition.

This brings me to the remote. Luckily for me, I already had experience with the DTC-9.8’s remote, for it is the same remote that came with the Onkyo 805 receiver. I loved it then and I love it still. It’s big and a bit awkward at times, but it is supremely functional, easy to navigate and features full backlighting at the touch of a button. While there are other brands that also offer readily accessible backlighting, the DTC-9.8’s light button is actually easy to locate, for it’s on the side of the remote away from any actual controls, so you won’t accidentally power down your system when you’re simply trying to channel up or down in the dark.

I placed the DTC-9.8 in my reference rack, where the Lexicon MC12 HD once sat and my Meridian G Series processor had been before that. At least in terms of industry clout, the DTC-9.8 had its work cut out for it. I connected the DTC-9.8 to my Bel Canto REF1000 mono blocks; I had five of these on hand. I utilized a variety of sources, including my Sony BDP-S1 Blu-ray player, Toshiba HD-A35 HD DVD player and AppleTV, all with the latest software updates. For speakers, my reference Meridian in-walls were up to the task, with all video being fed to my reference Sony VW-50 Pearl projector. All cabling came by way of UltraLink and XLO, with power filtration coming from Monster Cable.

Integrating the DTC-9.8 into my rack was a snap and making the requisite connections was equally easy, especially when I was able to connect all of my sources via single runs of HDMI cable. I connected the Bel Canto REF1000s to the DTC-9.8 via balanced interconnects and ran the DTC-9.8 in balanced mode for the duration of my review.

The DTC-9.8’s menus are superb. Much like the Onkyo 805’s menus, the DTC-9.8’s are easy enough to navigate and programming is simple enough to be handled without the need for a manual or installer. I connected the included Audyssey microphone to the front-mounted input (a design idea lost on most high-end brands) and followed the onscreen instructions. I set the microphone in all five listening positions and, in about 20 minutes, had a fully calibrated set-up. The change in sound quality wasn’t subtle and the Audyssey EQ proved to be robust and accurate when it came to tailoring my speakers’ sound to my room. In under an hour, I had the DTC-9.8 dialed in and ready to rock. Unless you need to integrate the DTC-9.8 into a complex control system like a Crestron or AMX or simply don’t have the time to do it yourself, I see no need for an installer. However, if you need one, there are a number of Integra dealers who would be happy to install your DTC-9.8 for you.

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.

The Downside
I consider the DTC-9.8 to be a remarkable processor, and not just for its price. However, there are a few areas where there is room for improvement. For starters, the HDMI switching (both audio and video) isn’t as smooth or as fast as some. While HDMI switching has been a thorn in everyone’s side, there are a few products and switchers out there that do it better. While the DTC-9.8 did lock onto every signal thrown at it and never left me staring at a purple or blank screen, I was able to trip it up a few times.

I wish the DTC-9.8 looked a bit more special. I know utilizing the same case work as other Integra processors keeps costs low, but I can’t help but think how much more special the DTC-9.8 would feel if it didn’t look exactly like every other receiver from Integra or Onkyo. I know Integra can build a sexy chassis – look at their multi-channel digital amp – they just missed the boat here.

Who knew that for $1,600 retail you could get a state of the art audio/video processor, complete with all the latest bells and whistles like HDMI 1.3a inputs and both Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio capability? I didn’t, until I stumbled across the Integra DTC-9.8.  In my endless quest to find an up-to-date high-end processor, I happened upon a giant killer from a company more rooted in the masses than the elite, yet the DTC-9.8 can roll with the big boys and even show them a thing or two. The DTC-9.8 is one of those rare products, although they are coming along a bit more frequently now, that challenges the status quo and threatens to put this so-called high-end aristocracy on its ass.

And why not? Who says the once untouchable kingpins of home theater aren’t to be messed with from time to time? Competition is what drives this business and you’re only as good as your last product. This puts the Integra DTC-9.8 reviewed here at the top of the proverbial mountain. I was so impressed by its performance on paper that I bought it before I even had a chance to listen to it. Now that I’ve lived with it for a while, not only is the price an absolute steal, I honestly believe Integra could charge twice as much for it and it still sell out their stock. According to my local dealer, this is exactly what is happening, as DTC-9.8’s are flying off the shelves nationwide. If you’re in the market for a processor, I highly recommend picking one up before it’s too late.
Manufacturer Integra
Model DTC 9.8 AV Preamp/Processor
Reviewer Andrew Robinson

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