The SSP (Surround Sound Processor) world has been a sad place for the last couple of years. All the mass market companies were implementing HDMI on just about every model of receiver they had, but all the high-end SSP companies hesitated, because HDMI versions kept changing.
Unfortunately, people trying to embrace new video formats like HD DVD and Blu-ray required HDMI audio processing to get the most out of the lossless audio locked in the TrueHD and DTS-MA sound tracks on those discs.
This year will be different. There are several companies now starting to offer good HDMI implementations on SSPs. Integra (Onkyo’s high end brand similar to Toyota’s Lexus) has decided to set the stage for this entire market by offering an exceptional value to consumers at an unheard of price. If you have read the book Blue Ocean Strategies, Integra has set themselves up to compete in a Blue Ocean.
- Codecs: Everything
- Inputs: XLR and RCA
- Outputs: Six HDMI, XLR AUdio, RCA Audio
- MFR: 5 Hz – 100kHz +1 dB, – 3 dB
- Dimensions: 7.6″ H x 17.1″ W x 17.5″
- Weight: 29.3 Pounds
- MSRP: $1,699 USA
Take a look at these features on the 9.8.
- Balanced inputs and outputs, something only seen in boutique brands.
- Includes top notch video processing (HQV Reon-VX) usually only found in very expensive separate video processors.
- Speaker setup a no-brainer with the Audyssey MultEQ XT (includes the mic).
- Has four HDMI inputs and two HDMI outputs so you can drive a second display in the room (although not both at the same time).
- HDMI 1.3a supporting all of the current Dolby and DTS formats (yes even DTS-MA).
- Top of the line 24/192 kHz Burr Brown DACs on all channels.
- Measurable performance, not just marketing hype (see our On the Bench section).
- Decent looks in a heavy chassis something that means a lot in terms of perceived value for your dollar.
- THX Ultra2 Certified (As Brian Florian would explain, this is important, if for nothing other than peace of mind).
- RS-232 and Ethernet control for custom installer.
The second part of any Blue Ocean strategy is the value price point. At $1,699 (almost $2000 less than the current nearest competitor), Integra has certainly achieved the right position.
When you pick up the box for the Integra, you will be impressed with its substantial weight. Comparing it directly to an Anthem D2, the 9.8 build quality is a little on the light side, but that isn’t a fair comparison, as the Anthem sells for over $5,000.
The Integra is like most other Japan-manufactured audio components with a solid build, but not overdone. There is no massive copper plate bolted to the bottom to add an extra 10 pounds, but it does have a nice aluminum front and a toroidal power transformer.
So you can already tell, I am excited about this unit (and have been since I saw it at CEDIA in September). I have been waiting for an SSP at this price point and functionality to hit the market for some time.
In terms of usability, the 9.8 has all the right parts. First, there are direct source access buttons on the front as well as a menu control. While this might not be important to most remote control users, direct access to sources and menus are important to many consumers.
The front of the unit has an Audio/Video input (including Toslink) which would be good for a game console or a standard def camcorder, but I wish they would have included component video or HDMI on the front to use with high def video cameras or a gaming console made in the last two years.
The back of the unit is equally as impressive, with a full row of balanced connectors across the bottom (7.1 out and 2 in). The two balanced rear channel outputs can also be used in a bi-amping solution (something I have never been a big fan of, although some people claim it sounds better). For analog stereo inputs, you have a CD, tape loop, and a phono input (yes vinyl is making a comeback). There are five additional input audio inputs that also support S-Video and composite. There are five digital audio inputs (three coaxial and two Toslink), as well as an optical output.
On the video side, there are three component inputs and four HDMI inputs. Video outputs include two component (one for the second zone) and two HDMI (only one HDMI output can be used at a time). The unit also has an Ethernet port and an RS-232 port for integration with control systems, two 12v trigger outputs, and IR inputs and outputs. There is even an antenna jack. The component, HDMI, and digital inputs and be assigned to any of the inputs on the unit. The inputs can also be renamed since AUX1 isn’t terribly descriptive.
Integra also included XM and Sirius Radio integration. It’s a great option to have both providers in one unit, not forcing us not to choose one or the other. The integration looks to be very nice, and while I don’t subscribe to either service, my co-workers do. The satellite radio setting and interface are accessible via the on-screen or front panel displays.
The DTC-9.8 also has an HD Radio tuner in it if you don’t want to pay for services like XM or Sirius. Integra, along with many other A/V vendors, has an iPod dock (as an optional accessory). If you purchase the optional dock, it connects to the TAPE or GAME inputs of the SSP. If you purchase the top of the line DS-A2x iPod dock, the unit passes the iPod interface out as a composite video signal, allowing you to see it on your display.
The only feature I could find missing was the Net-Tune function available on some of the older Onkyo and Integra models. Onkyo and Integra are in the process of moving the network-based audio file playback (MP3s, etc.) to the Microsoft “PlaysForSure” technology, so we may see more of this in future units.
The remote control for the 9.8 is quite functional and lights up when you hit a button on the side. I can’t imagine anyone paying $1,699 for this unit and not using it with a universal remote of some form, but the remote that comes with it does support IR learning and macros.
Setup of the DTC-9.8 was as simple as any receiver I have used. The menu system is easy to follow and visually attractive as well. It is nice to see an SSP that has put some work into making the menus look good as well as functional.
While the menus have all the same functions as a typical SSP, the devil is in the details so to speak. At Secrets, we are always impressed when a processor allows us to set distance in either feet or meters selectable by the user (if it uses milliseconds, we typically just send the processor back with a note saying when you build something in this century send us another one). The next requirement is being able to set the distance in increments of 0.5 ft. Many (even very respectable) processors have one foot as the basic unit. The 9.8 takes it one step further allowing increments of 0.2 ft.
If you choose to use the Audyssey setup in the Integra you can pretty much bypass dealing with setting distances and levels for the speakers. I spent a lot of time trying to find the Audyssey setup in the menu system to discover that it wasn’t there. A quick check of the manual reveals that you simply plug in the calibration mic and the Audyssey setup menu appears (very nice usability).
The Audyssey setup was very accurate in my theater, although it did suggest 120/150 Hz crossover points for my side and rear surrounds, and while it is possible, they start to roll off before 80 Hz, so 120 Hz is a bit high.
A quick adjustment in the menu allows you to override this setting as well as another other basic setting in terms of distance or level. The setup also wanted to leave my main floor-standing speakers full spectrum, which I moved back to 80 Hz.
There is a lot of debate about using crossover frequencies lower than 80 Hz for your main channels. THX would recommend (especially if using their THX certified speakers) 80 Hz as an optimal point. I am not going to cover any of that now, but you can refer to a Colin Miller and Brian Florian essay for more reading here.
The setup does not allow you to adjust the slopes or frequencies it sets up at part of the calibration in terms of room correction. If you want to attempt to perform room corrections yourself, you can disable the Audyssey and configure the graphical EQ manually.
The HDMI menu lets the user choose what resolution they would like the output scaled to. The choices are 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p. There is also an Auto and a Through mode. The Auto mode will basically negotiate supported resolutions with the display device and convert all input video signals not supported by your display to use a supported one. In a perfect world, that should be what everyone would do, but we have experienced some issues using ‘Auto’ methods in the past, with some displays and some devices (specifically issues with games consoles and budgets displays). The Through option allows the source device to control the resolution and bypasses the scaling in the 9.8. In my case, about 90% of my content comes off an HTPC which outputs native 1080p, so there is no need for the 9.8 to further process the signal. The 9.8 also allows for lip-sync delay to avoid issues of video processing delays where the video lags behind the audio.
There is a lack of a 60fps to 24fps conversion when the system is scaling. I hope Integra will implement this in a future firmware upgrade, but the unit does pass 24fps signals if your device supports it. Integra was also kind enough to send me a firmware upgrade for my unit, showing that they can be upgraded. They are not sure if this is a dealer upgrade or a user upgrade, but that doesn’t matter to me. I am just happy to know it can be upgraded. This particular upgrade added minor adjustments for black/white levels and further enhancements and adjustments for picture mode, edge enhancement, brightness, hue, contrast, saturation, and mosquito, random, and block noise reduction.
As mentioned above, every stereo and multi-channel audio format I can think of is supported by this unit. I could list every audio format the system supports but it is easier to refer to pages 80-82 of the manual which can be downloaded here. To give you an idea of how complete it is beyond all the Dolby, DTS, lossless stereo and multi-channel PCM formats, the 9.8 also supports the DSD format on SACD discs as a digital bitstream from your player.
Integra has added a few (though not as many as other) surround modes (for instance Orchestra and Unplugged) to enhance your listening experience. While these may be fun from time to time, we don’t see too many serious listeners using them on a regular basis.
There are a few other features we look for at Secrets when we review an SSP or a receiver. I will cover those quickly below.
- Global AV Delay: Yes
- Speaker Delay: Yes (0.2 second increments for all speakers)
- Muting: All, or Adjustable between -50 and -10 dB.
- Power On-Volume/Max Volume: Last, Off, or adjustable between -81 and +18 dB max and can be applied for each zone separately.
- Input Level Trim: -12 to +12dB per input.
- Volume Scale and Speaker Calibration Level: No.
- Headphone: only for Main Zone and mutes speakers upon connection.
- All options in the Benchmark are covered by the Onkyo plus many more. We will be updating this section of the Benchmark in future reviews.
- Crossover Frequency: Adjustable. (40,45,50,55,60,70,80,90,100,110,120,130,150,200 Hz).
- LFE Trim: Yes (DD, DTS, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, DSD and Multich PCM).
- Parametric Subwoofer Eq: Audyssey MultEQ XT as well or 15 band graphic.
- Surround Mode Pre-Set: Yes.
- Multiple Surround Management: No.
- Academy Mono Filter: No but has its own mono mode.
- Downmix: Yes.
- Setting Storage: Yes plus lock.
Comparisons to a $999 Receiver
Onkyo and Integra obviously share a lot of technology between their product lines and sell substantially more units than boutique brands of audio gear. This helps keep the prices down and allows them to implement technology on the cutting edge.
Sometimes users question if they are getting any value in buying a higher end piece from a company like Integra over say a mid-lineup receiver and just using the receiver as an SSP. This is one time where we can make a direct comparison of the two options. Brian Florian recently reviewed the Onkyo TX-SR805. While these reviews have very little to do with one another (SSP vs. receiver) you can’t help but draw a few comparisons. As an example, both have Audyssey room setup, HDMI 1.3a, and support all the latest surround formats. One would hope that for $600 more than the 805, the Integra 9.8 would have superior audio and video circuitry. Brian lives fairly close to me, so we measured both units using the exact same equipment. In all aspects, the 9.8 measured better. In the simple frequency response test, while the receiver is down almost 0.75 dB from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, the Integra 9.8 is down only 0.015 dB over the same frequency range. This kind of performance is amazing for an SSP at this price point. THD+N was lower on the 9.8 than the 805 as well.
Some of the internal components are better in the 9.8 as well. For example, it uses a toroidal power supply transformer, where the receiver just uses a conventional (though massive) power transformer. The menu options are different too, as the SR805 only allowed 0.5 ft increment adjustments for speaker distance, while the 9.8 allows for 0.2.
So, don’t be worried about spending the extra coin on the 9.8. You really are getting more for the money.
So how does all this technology sound in practice?
Amazing. I can hardly express how happy I am with the sound of this unit. For those of you who have ever sat though a professional demo in a controlled environment, you know the feeling when the hair on the back of your neck stands up, and you think, “I wish my home setup were this good!” The Integra DTC-9.8 can help get you there.
In my case, I have a relatively large room with acoustic treatment and some other very good equipment to complement the Integra. I can safely say that I get that exact same demo experience when watching some of the new movie disc formats in the room. The intro to Cars on Blu-ray made me simply shake my head. I think I have listened to the opening to that movie 30 times in the last couple of weeks. With the silent McQueen prepping himself for the day’s race, to the contrasted roar of engines and tires, to the pumped up soundtrack of “Real Gone”, it was an experience no one could resist.
To take things to a softer note, I went to the Phantom of the Opera HD-DVD. When I was a teenager, I saw the play Phantom when it was visiting Toronto. Listening to the audio from that movie reminds me so much of that wonderful experience which opened my eyes and ears to the wonders of theater, but honestly I think I enjoy it as much watching the HD DVD at home now.
On the audio side, I was just as impressed. I store all my music in lossless format on a PC which was connected to the Integra. The image and presentation of the soundstage put forth by the unit were amazing. I tried it with and without the Audyssey EQ, and it did make a difference. It wasn’t jaw dropping, but it helped enough to give it a big thumbs up, and my guess is in a room with less acoustical treatment, the difference would be even more pronounced.
So what’s not to like?
I am a reviewer, and if I ever found a product I didn’t have anything to complain about, I would probably stop writing. The Integra is pretty close to perfect, but there is one annoying little thing. When the digital format changes, say from Dolby Digital to Stereo PCM, there is about a 1 second delay before the new signal is locked on. For most people you will never notice this, as your DVD player will be sending DD all the time and your CD Player will send PCM. In this case, one will only ever notice the delay when changing sources, and since you are starting to use a new source you probably won’t even notice the second it take to sync. In my case, my media server sends all kinds of different audio formats (16/44.1 PCM, DTS, AC-3, 24/192 kHz, and the list goes on), and everytime it sends something new, there is a one second delay before the audio starts. It isn’t serious, but the Anthem D2 locks almost instantaneously.
On the Bench
The Integra shines. I took the measurements using the balanced inputs and outputs. Measurements were at 2 volts RMS output.
THD+N was 0.009% at 2 volts output. Notice the almost complete lack of harmonics.
Using 10 kHz and 11 kHz sine waves, there was no observable IMD peak at either the B-A position (1 kHz) or the A+B position (21 kHz).
The measured frequency response was 20 Hz – 20 kHz +0, – 0.015 dB.
Honestly, if you are in the market for a new SSP, and you can’t afford to buy an Anthem D2, just go buy this unit. I can’t give my recommendation any more strongly.
Anthem Statement P5
Additional Amplifier: B&K ST2140
DVD-Audio Player: Toshiba HD-A2, Panasonic RP-91
DVD Player/Scaler/Media Store: HTPC
Speakers 1: Mirage OM-6, OM-R2
Speakers 2: CANTON ERGO