Processors

Integra DHC-80.1 Surround Sound Processor

ARTICLE INDEX

In Use

Before I address my individual content selections, I have one overall observation about the DHC's performance – detail. It's a word I use a lot in my reviews but it applies even more so here. Accuracy and clarity are what I covet both from audio and video and the 80.1 delivered in stellar fashion. A convincing surround sound effect depends on every detail, every environmental cue, and every nuance to be reproduced from each channel equally with clear placement of the sonic elements in 3D space. The Integra did this with total precision. It also showed a level of transparency I've only heard in the best audio products.

Integra DHC-80.1 Preamp/Processor

Avatar on Blu-ray disc represents the finest audio and video quality the format has to offer. I couldn't wait to watch this film as I had previously seen it in IMAX 3D and was dying to make the comparison. The video quality was, in a word, stunning. I used the 80.1 in its video bypass mode as there was no need for the application of video processing in the signal path. In fact, all my Blu-ray viewing was done this way. The DTS-HD Master Audio track was handled by my initial configuration as described in the previous section. In the past, I've felt Audyssey left the sub a little light and the 80.1 was no exception to this. A few minutes in to the movie, I went into the setup menu and turned up the level 5dB. After 20 more minutes or so, I went to the back of my SVS PB-12 Plus and turned the gain control from 11 o'clock to 1 o'clock. This gave me the punch I was looking for. Bass was still beautifully controlled and detailed. I just needed more. The rest of the frequency range was exquisite. Dialog was perfectly clear without even the slightest hint of chestiness; even after the sub level bump. The surround effects were very realistic especially during the battle scenes as bombs, bullets and bodies flew around me with chaotic abandon. Better than IMAX 3D? Yeah, way better!

Francis Ford Coppola's artistic film Tetro has one of the most subtly detailed soundtracks I've ever heard. While is a dialog-driven movie, the ambient sounds of the city are used to great effect. I was glad to view this film in a no-noise environment so I could hear the softest dynamics. I literally felt like I was sitting in a Buenos Aires apartment listening to cars and pedestrians move past my window. The softest elements were just as clear as the louder ones. This processor gave up no dynamic range whatsoever. If there was ever a reason to embrace lossless audio, a film like Tetro and a pre-pro like the 80.1 are all the justification I need.

Integra DHC-80.1 Preamp/Processor

The audio quality of the first two Spider-Man films is quite different. The first movie has fantastic sound design with a very realistic and detailed mix. Background effects provide a lot of environmental ambience and really put you in the scene. The second movie on the other hand, sounds very processed and flat. The sound is very present and clear but every scene sounds like it was recorded in the same studio. The environmental cues just aren't there. The 80.1 reproduced this quite faithfully. There is a price to be paid for accuracy and that is hearing everything that is wrong with a bad recording. It's worth it though because good tracks sound so realistic and immersive they transport you off your couch and into the film. While Spider-Man 2 delivered lots of punch and dynamics, the realism that comes from fine details wasn't on the disc to begin with.

Since the DHC-80.1 offers high-end video processing, I wanted to view some standard-def content to test its abilities. I started by setting my Oppo BDP-83 to Source Direct and the 80.1 to 1080p/24. Scaling was a tad soft compared to what I'm accustomed to from my Oppo BDP-83. I was quite surprised however at the quality of the 24p conversion. For the first time I was able to view a film-based DVD at 24 frames-per-second with absolutely no artifacts. Normally I see frame drops and tears when I try to do this but the 80.1 did a perfect job converting 60Hz material to 24Hz. To improve the scaling quality, I set the Oppo back to 1080p but left the player's 24p conversion off. This sent a 60Hz signal to the 80.1 for it to convert to 24Hz. Amazingly this not only worked, it worked perfectly. There were still no artifacts of any kind and the scaling was superb. Kudos to Integra for finally giving me something I've longed for – good 24p from DVD.

Integra DHC-80.1 Preamp/Processor

For DVD content, I started with A Beautiful Mind and Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope. Both these discs will show cadence problems and artifacts when the video processing isn't up to snuff. I never saw a single problem. Side-to-side pans were super-smooth without the usual 3:2 judder and resolution loss. Jaggies were non-existent and there was no line twitter at any time. I also watched the 1966 film Grand Prix in its entirety; almost three hours. The cadence lock was never lost even for the smallest moment. This is the first time I've experienced consistent and reliable 24p conversion from DVD. The combination of the Oppo's Anchor Bay processor and the superb cadence control of the 80.1 made my DVDs look better than any previous hardware I have tested.

I have one final word before I move on to the music portion of the review. My room is not laid out ideally for surround sound. Because of the small size of my theater, I have to place the seats against the back wall. It would be better to have a few feet of space back there to create a more convincing soundfield. With the DHC-80.1 in my system, the surround effect in my theater has never been more convincing. I could truly hear effects taking place behind my head. The sense of width is also greater than before. I attribute this to the Audyssey room correction and the 80.1's superb imaging and channel separation. Though I have used Audyssey before in other products, this particular implementation coupled with my measuring layout has produced a winning result. If you're not getting the sound you want with Audyssey, I highly recommend experimenting with different mic placements. It really is an excellent technology.

Music

Though I expect a feature-rich controller like the 80.1 to be used mainly for movie-watching, it has a lot to offer for the serious music-listener. I am a big fan of multi-channel music whether it is native material on SACD or matrixed with a Dolby or DTS codec to 5.1. As such I covered examples of both over a couple of music-only listening sessions. I also compared three different connection options – HDMI, digital coax, and analog stereo.

For SACD the only choice is HDMI which sounded great using Direct Stream Digital from the source. When playing Redbook CD, you can use HDMI, digital (coax or optical), or analog. I hooked up all three and did A/B comparisons by simply switching inputs while the music played. The clear winner was coax digital. The soundstage was much larger and the imaging far more three-dimensional than HDMI or analog. You may recall a thread on the Secrets CAVE about jitter. (http://cave.hometheaterhifi.com/profiles/blogs/how-much-do-you-know-or-care) The conclusion was that coax had the lowest jitter and HDMI the highest. I noticed the difference instantly when switching back and forth. I had previously used HDMI for music-listening but will now use coax for all my two-channel recordings.

Integra DHC-80.1 Preamp/Processor

One of my favorite vocal recordings is the Berlin Philharmonic/Bernard Haitink CD of Mahler's Fourth Symphony. The sublime soprano solo in the final movement is performed by Sylvia McNair. Her voice has purity and grace that is equaled only by a very few. I tried both Dolby PLII and DTS Neo:6 to convert this two-channel recording to 5.1 with the winner being the Dolby codec. The balance between the front and surround channels was just right. Even though the 80.1 offers control of the center image width, I did not have to change it from the default setting. Hearing this recording in multi-channel form opened it up immensely. Accompanying the voice is essentially a small chamber ensemble from within the orchestra; just minimal strings and a few woodwinds. The separation of instruments was very clear and it was easy to place them in the virtual space created before me. The hall ambience was very clear with a nice long decay and just the right amount of reverberation. The clarity and detail were further enhanced by the excellent Audyssey room correction. I did try listening in both Direct and Stereo modes. Direct sends everything to the main speakers only while Stereo utilizes the bass management settings engaging the sub and the Audyssey correction. Both these choices narrowed the scope of the performance noticeably. Still, if you prefer the purist approach to your music, the 80.1 will deliver a decent soundstage and accurate imaging without the surround channels.

Turning to SACD, I cued up the Fifth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich with Valery Gergiev and the Kirov orchestra. This is one of the few orchestral recordings to encode the LFE channel. It is used to great effect throughout. The violin sound was particularly nice as I felt as though I were literally inside the instruments. The bassoon section solos in the Scherzo movement sounded fantastic with a depth and punch I had not heard before. In the opening of the fourth movement you could feel the pain of the tympani heads as they were pummeled without mercy. It was also easy to hear when the string players dug into the frogs of their bows in loud forzando passages.

Integra DHC-80.1 Preamp/Processor

Next I dropped in a disc from my Solti Beethoven cycle, this time the Fifth and Second symphonies. In this case, DTS Neo:6 was clearly better than Dolby Pro Logic II with a more present center image and wider soundstage. The woodwind section was brought forward strongly and much better balanced with the strings and brass than I had heard previously. Along with this newfound balance, the string section sounded like a cast of a thousand with a huge rich sound. In the 70s and 80s I'd give the Philadelphia Orchestra the edge in string warmth but Chicago gets the win for sheer presence. The bass instruments sounded tight and controlled but a little reticent. I initially blamed the 80.1 but when I moved to Mahler's Fifth Symphony on SACD, I knew it was the recording's compression at fault. I've used these Solti Brahms and Beethoven discs for several reviews now and they've never sounded better.

Speaking of discs that reintroduced themselves, the San Francisco Symphony SACD of Mahler's Fifth Symphony was a true revelation. The opening trumpet solo sounded like Caesar's army crossing the Rubicon and marching into Rome! It was an astonishingly big sound for only one player. The hall ambience was so large; I would have believed the audience to be absent – except I know this is a live recording. The transparency was that good. The bass I had missed from the Beethoven CD was back in full force. To assemble a superior setup for hi-res and multi-channel music would cost a good deal more than the price of the 80.1 paired with my Emotiva amp and Oppo player.

I finished my sessions with a blast from the past in the form of Huey Lewis and the News. From the opening track I was treated to crisp drums, vocals with clean tight reverb and great instrument separation. Once again, the soundstage was huge and the post-production environmental effects added an ambience that you won't hear with lesser gear.

To test the 80.1's streaming feature, I ripped a few discs with Windows Media Player to WMA lossless format. If you want to use iTunes, your music must be ripped to AAC format. Apple Lossless is not supported. Also your music must be stored on a PC, not a Mac. Since I use Windows 7, I had only to enable sharing in Media Player 11 for the processor to see my music library on the network. The navigation screen is a bit crude and unfortunately has no search function. If you have a large music collection, you'll have to scroll through the list to find the tracks you want. Once you select a folder, the tracks are presented in order. Simply make your choice and moments later, music comes out. Though the manual recommends a hard-wired connection, I had no problems using a wireless bridge. Sound quality is excellent and indistinguishable from CD. While selections are playing, the screen shows cover art and all the track information along with total and elapsed time. You can use the streaming feature without your TV on but information is limited to a single line of the 80.1's front panel display. The DHC also supports Internet Radio and the Pandora and Rhapsody services.