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An SSP Benchmark Product Review
 

Integra DTC-9.4 Surround Sound Processor and DTA-9.4 Seven-Channel Power Amplifier

January, 2004

Sumit Chawla

 

Specifications:


DTC-9.4 (SSP)

Dolby Pro Logic II, Dolby Digital, THX Cinema, THX Surround EX, Thx Ultra2 Cinema, THX MusicMode, DTS (ES, Neo:6, 96/24), Dolby Headphone, Net-Tune
192 kHz/24-bit D/A Converters
CHAD Touchscreen Remote Control
2 Zone Operation
Size: 6 7/8" H x 17 1/8" W x 17 11/16" D
Weight: 20.9 Pounds
MSRP: $2,000

DTA-9.4 (Amplifier)

Power Output (8 Ohms, 20 Hz-20 kHz, 2 Channels Driven) : 120 Watts/Channel RMS x 7
THD (@120 W, 2 channels driven): 1%
Frequency Response: 10 Hz-60 kHz (+ 1 dB, -3 dB)
Size: 6 7/8" H x 17 1/8" W x 17 13/16" D
Weight: 39 Pounds
MSRP: $3,000

 

Integra

www.integrahometheater.com 

 

Introduction

Integra is a company that has been well respected for the value they bring to the home theater market. I reviewed the DTR-9.1 receiver about two years ago with much enthusiasm. When I heard about Integra’s foray into the world of separates, my feeling was that bringing their value proposition to this market segment would bode well for the consumer.

A quick glance at the DTC-9.4 manual reveals a long list of features. Bundled with it is the CHAD touch screen remote control. Look at the price, and you’ll realize that there is value here. Mate the DTC-9.4 with its companion, the Multi-channel DTA-9.4 power amplifier, and you have the makings of a fine system. It was time for a closer inspection.

Featurama

The DTC-9.4 has THX Ultra2 stamped on its forehead. As a result, all the THX goodies like Cinema Re-Eq, Timbre Matching, Adaptive Decorrelation, and Bass Management accompany it. When I received the unit, it was capable of decoding all the popular formats (THX surround EX, DTS-ES Discrete/Matrix, DTS-96/24, DTS Neo:6, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Pro Logic II w/ Panorama, Dimension and Center Width adjustments, MP3, WMA and even Dolby Headphone) at the time. At CEDIA-2003, Dolby announced Dolby Pro Logic IIx (DPL-IIx). So for now, the DTC-9.4 handles everything, except for Pro Logic IIx processing. DPL-IIx delivers 7.1 surround from analog stereo and digital 5.1 sources.

The horsepower for the decoding and processing is provided by two DSPs made by Fujitsu. The MB86D41 DSP is relegated for decoding Dolby Digital, DTS etc., and the MB86344B is used for post-processing (THX, etc.) Each DSP utilizes 32-bit fixed-point arithmetic, and can process 121 MIPS. The unit is software upgradeable through the Ethernet port. However, Dolby Pro Logic IIx processing cannot be accommodated on the current system resources. Other upgrades may, however, be made available in the future.

The important task of digital to analog conversion is performed by the Wolfson WM8740 DAC. This DAC supports word lengths from 16 to 24 bits and sampling rates up to 192 kHz. The same DAC is used for the center, surround, and subwoofer channels on the Proceed AVP2. The volume control is implemented in the analog domain to preserve all the resolution of the DACs.

Click on the Photo Above to See a Larger Version

The rear panel of the DTC-9.4 is anything but dull. On the audio side, there are seven assignable digital inputs: three coax and four optical. Two digital outputs are also provided, both of which are optical. There is a 7.1 multi-channel analog input. You are likely to use these with a 5.1 multi-channel analog output from a DVD-Audio and/or SACD equipped player. 7.1 – 5.1 = 2 unused inputs? I think that it is good forward thinking on Integra’s part to provide a 7.1 input instead of a 5.1 input. After all, the THX to THX Ultra2 progression went from 5.1 to 7.1! The fact that there are analog inputs means that whatever change is necessary to facilitate this progression in the source will be transparent to the DTC-9.4.

A set of 7.1 pre-out jacks, both balanced and unbalanced, are also provided. There are seven analog stereo inputs, three of which also have rec-out capability. And there is a phono input as well! The only downside of having numerous inputs and outputs is that the spacing between the connectors is tight. I found it difficult to plug in some of my cables. A little extra spacing would be nice. On the other hand, this could be a good opportunity to get your wife involved in setting up the processor, since she will have smaller fingers. Also, the jacks are color-coded in accordance with THX' suggested standard for 7.1, which makes things a lot easier.

On the video side, there is a composite video and S-Video monitor output. Of the seven analog stereo inputs, five have inputs that are linked to a composite video and S-Video input, and two have a composite video and S-Video output. There are two component video inputs and one output. The bandwidth of the component video inputs is 60 MHz. 100 MHz would have been better. Composite video inputs are converted to S-Video, and both composite video and S-Video are converted to 480i component video, for use when you have the output to your TV connected via component video. The OSD (On-Screen Display) can be also enabled or disabled through the component output. I did try an A/B comparison by passing a HD signal straight to the display and through the DTC-9.4. I noticed a very slight softening of the image. As always, if you can, connect the video cables directly to your display.

An audio/video output is provided for a second zone operation. There is a RS232 port as well as three 12V trigger outputs. One trigger output is for Zone 2 use, and another is to be used for the companion DTA-9.4 amplifier.

Drop the front panel and you have access to some A/V inputs. Optical and analog stereo inputs are available for audio, and composite video and S-Video inputs are available for video.

Setup

Back when I reviewed the DTR-9.1, I found the user interface to be very intuitive. The interface had a logical structure, and setup was easy. I will echo that sentiment with the DTC-9.4. Setup with the feature rich DTC-9.4 was uneventful, which is good.
Below is a one level deep menu hierarchy. The individual pages have a logical layout. The top level has a "Basic" and "Advanced" setting. The latter setting simply tags along the last two setup options.

Speakers can be set to either "Large" or "Small", and the crossover can be varied between 40 Hz and 120 Hz in 20 Hz increments. I set the crossover frequency at 80 Hz (THX setting). Speaker distance is adjustable in 0.5 foot increments. These settings do not apply to the multi-channel input, which stays in the analog domain. There is one sub-menu screen (shown below) for THX audio setup.

If you are using subwoofers that are Ultra2 certified, you may need to engage "Boundary Gain Compensation". Ultra2 subwoofers are rated to have a flat response down to 20 Hz. Take room-gain into account, and you may require some bass attenuation. That is what this control does, although it would be nice to have a 1-3 band parametric equalizer which can give you finer control. If you have a parametric equalizer on your subwoofer, you may instead want to tweak the response there. This is what I did with the Atlantic Technology 8200 system which I had at the time. The second item requires you to input the distance between the rear surrounds. The distance between them can be specified to be within three intervals: 0-12 inches, >12-48 inches, and >48 inches. For best results, place the speakers close together.

When playing back a 5.1 encoded bitstream on a 7.1 speaker setup, the signal that reaches the rear and side surrounds is configurable. You could, for example, just choose to output the signal from the side surrounds, which would be the normal configuration. You can also choose to output the sound from the rear surrounds instead. Or, you can output share the signal among the side and rear surrounds.
THX Re-EQ is a global setting that can be toggled independently of the THX mode, which is good. The detection of the EX and ES flags for Dolby Digital and DTS are automatic if "Auto" detection is enabled. The option for auto or manual selection only appears if you have your rear surrounds set to something other than none in the speaker setup menu. Makes sense! The flags are detected correctly when they are present in the source bitstream. The lock-on time was quite quick. When appropriate, the Dialog Normalization is asserted.

As per THX's requirements, DTS soundtracks are internally and transparently attenuated by 4 dB, equating them to Dolby Digital tracks at the default dialnorm of -27. The LFE level can be adjusted independently for DTS and Dolby Digital. The "Academy Filter" can be turned on only when you are in "Mono" mode. There is a global delay that can be used to time align the sound if your video processing sub-system introduces a processing induced delay. The delay is adjustable between 0 ms and 74 ms in 0.5 ms increments. Each input format can be routed through a default processing mode. For example, you may choose to engage "THX" on a Dolby Digital bitstream; or you might want to hear all your PCM material using Dolby Pro Logic II Music. The “Late Night” feature compresses the dynamic range so that subtle sounds do not get drowned at low listening levels. This can be set to “Off”, “Low” or “High”. This functionality is only available with Dolby Digital material.

Upsampling (16/44 upsampled to 24/96) can be turned on for two-channel PCM sources, or a digital signal converted from an analog source. It can be toggled while listening to music, making it easier to compare its effect. There were some CDs where I had to scratch my head trying to discern any difference, but there were some where the improvement with upsampling was apparent. I preferred to leave it turned on.

There is actually a sub-menu dedicated just to volume setup. In this sub-menu, you’ll find some very useful adjustments. The mute functionality is nice in that it provides two options. One is the obvious one, complete silence. The other, which I liked to use, allows you to reduce the output between -50 dB and -10 dB in 10 dB increments. The latter is perfect when those blasted commercials come on. You can hear the muttering in the background, and you know to switch your attention back to the program material once they are done. Volume differences between different input sources can be adjusted between -12 dB and + 12 dB. Integra calls this “IntelliVolume”.

The volume display can be set to either “Absolute” or “Relative.” A maximum volume level can be set to protect components from being damaged by excessively loud volumes. A power on volume can also be set to make the sound come out at a comfortable loudness level when the DTC-9.4 is powered on. If there is a volume mismatch between the main speakers and the headphone (this is in a different sub-menu), an adjustment between -12 dB and + 12 dB can be applied to correct this. Adjustments can still be made through the front volume dial. All settings appear to be saved into non-volatile memory, so they are not lost across power cycles.

The "Direct" audio mode is provided to bypass all digital processing. If in addition, you want to shut off the video circuitry, you can select the "Pure" audio mode. All processing is disabled in this mode. For example, upsampling is disabled when you switch into one of these modes when listening to a PCM source. The front panel display has four dimming options. Three options control the brightness of the display, and the fourth option only displays the volume level and source selection indicator. There is no “all-off” setting.

The Remote

The SSP comes with the CHAD (Custom Home Automation Device) touch screen remote control. This remote is a derivative of the highly popular Philips Pronto remote control. Customization capabilities of the Pronto and CHAD have brought them popularity. With the aid of a PC application, an individual can design an interface just the way they want it. Each device can have a different set of controls and/or layout. Each button can be a macro. You can simulate the operation using a PC simulator, and if you don’t like something, change it. Once the design is done, the configuration file can be downloaded into the remote through the serial port. The best part of it all is that design configurations can be shared. RemoteCentral.com, for example, is a repository of abundant configuration files. One tradeoff is that there are few hard buttons. Folks who like tactile feedback will feel limited with such remote controls.

As might be expected, the CHAD comes pre-configured to operate the DTC-9.4. The operating functionality has been laid out across several screens, and each one is well laid out.

Adding the capability to control other devices is relatively easy. There is a code database for other devices resident on the CHAD. If a match is not found, you could either learn the code from another remote or browse the excellent catalog over at Remote Central. You get 2 MB of memory, so configure away!

The remote is backlit and the contrast is adjustable. Viewing the LCD display in the dark is not a problem. The CHAD does not come with a re-charging dock. That is an optional accessory that can be purchased separately.

The navigation interface and the location of the buttons is the same as the Pronto. Since I own a Pronto, using the CHAD was easy. The newer Prontos have a few more hard buttons, and having those on the CHAD would be a bonus. But that might add to the cost. The other issue was its size, which is a little bigger than the Pronto; holding it was not as comfortable as the Pronto.

DTA-9.4 Amplifier

The DTA-9.4 is a seven-channel amplifier. Each channel is capable of delivering 120 Watts/channel minimum of continuous power into 8 ohms, from 20 Hz to 20 kHz with no more than 1% THD (two channels driven). The THD specification is a touch on the high side. The amplifier is stated to double the power into a low impedance 4 ohm load. At the heart of the amplifier is a 400 kHz switching power supply with 156,000 microfarads of capacitance. The amplifier is not THX certified.

Integra’s Vector Linear PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) technology is utilized for the first time in the DTA-9.4. The highly efficient PWM design results in an operating efficiency of 90%. High efficiency also translates into less heat, which is good unless you are fond of amplifiers that also double as space heaters, and in the case of the DTA-9.4, removes the need for a cooling fan. During the time I had this amplifier, I never felt that it was producing too much heat. Another bonus of this design is a small “footprint” for the amplifier.

The amplifier offers balanced and unbalanced inputs for all channels. A switch can be used to select the input type for each channel. The amplifier itself is not a truly balanced design.

A 12V trigger input is present to turn on the amplifier or place it in standby mode. If this input is connected to the 12V Trigger Out B terminal on the DTC-9.4, then the brightness of the on or standby indicator changes as a function of the dimmer setting of the DTC-9.4.

The DTA-9.4 only comes in a seven-channel configuration. If you want to start with five-channels, you might be inclined to look elsewhere; but budget permitting, you can always future-proof your buying decision by having two unused channels at the start. Or, you could use the two-channels to power the second zone.

Net-Tune

Net-Tune is Integra’s solution to interface the SSP with a computer. The SSP serves as an audio client, and the PC serves as the distributor of content in the form of MP3/WMA files (WMA “Lossless” is not supported). The umbilical cord between the two is a CAT-5 cable. Ethernet support is built into the SSP.

The Net-Tune Central software needs to be downloaded from the Integra website and installed on your computer. Current support is limited to the Windows operating system. Once it is installed, you can catalog your audio file collection, which then becomes available for streaming to the SSP. I wish that this software got packaged with the SSP. When I first tried to download the software, I got error messages that seemed to indicate that there were security settings on my end that were preventing the download. I tried different machines, a different location, changed several settings on my computer to no avail. I finally called technical support. They tried to download and had the same problem. Well, the server was malfunctioning! It would just have been easier had the software arrived with the SSP. Hopefully you will have better luck the first time.

Setup was easy. I connected the SSP to my router and voila, the song listings appeared on my display. If nothing shows up, go through an off/on cycle on the SSP. Navigating through the list was easy. What about the sound quality? Well, that was limited by the compression of the source. The experience was undoubtedly better than when I listen to music sitting at the computer. I really like this feature. It makes listening to music that is stored on a computer so easy.

Press Play

I had the wonderful sounding Atlantic Technology 8200 loudspeaker system when I received DTC-9.4 and DTA-9.4. Combining these systems did justice to the movie soundtracks from the get go. Watching the Pod race with Ultra2 processing engaged was extremely exciting. The pods were flying all around the room, and their location was identifiable through the precise spatial cues. The rear surrounds definitely helped here, improving the 360 degree sound field. Amidst the rumble of the engines, the frenzied crowd could be heard in the background. The low level detail was being preserved. I had a few friends were over, and we watched the Omaha beach landing sequence in “Saving Private Ryan.” The chaotic atmosphere with bullets flying all over and people screaming was reproduced remarkably well. That was intense.

CD playback through this combination was very good. In fact, I enjoyed listening to several CDs with Dolby Pro Logic II engaged. However, playing some high-resolution recordings is what really exemplified the capabilities of this system. Chesky Records has an audio sampler DVD with two-channel 96 kHz, 24-bit recordings. The high-resolution signal on this disc does not get down-sampled on the digital output, so the input into the DTC-9.4 was a 96 kHz/24-bit bitstream. Listening to this disc was an absolute delight! The vocals of Sara K. and Kelly Flint sounded very natural. It was apparent that the DACs on the DTC-9.4 are of very high quality.

After having spent a good deal of time with this Integra combo, I swapped in my Proceed AMP5 for the DTA-9.4. The AMP5 sounds mighty good, but it also costs almost twice that of the DTA-9.4, and the DTA-9.4 has seven channels against the AMP5's five channels. With the AMP5, there was more detail, the bass got tighter, and the treble became crisp. The improvement in each area was small, but added together they made the listening experience more immersive. The DTC-9.4 and the AMP5 just proved to be a wonderful match. But the DTA-9.4 was no slouch either. I enjoyed many a movie and CD through the DTA-9.4.

This is the first time I have reviewed a SSP with Dolby Headphone capability. I plugged in my headphones and played the Star Wars pod race sequence. The headphones I have are not of very high quality, but even so, the sound through them was remarkably good. The spatial cues and the ambient effects were all preserved. In comparison, hearing the same track with Dolby Headphone disabled was just dull. The Dolby Headphone setting in the setup menu has three adjustment modes: DH1, DH2, and DH3. Each mode simulates the sound field as a function of room size and adds the appropriate amount of reverberation. I liked DH2. If you use headphones for the occasional listening, definitely enable this functionality.

Conclusions

Integra has introduced an SSP that boasts a long list of features and, more importantly, has excellent sound. The Wolfson DACs that are used are of extremely high quality. Add to that the CHAD remote control, and the value proposition for the DTC-9.4 is clear! The DTA-9.4, with its seven-channels of amplification, is a fine sounding companion amplifier. Add these two to your home theater, and your experience with movies and music will get a whole lot better!

 

- Sumit Chawla -

 

© Copyright 2004 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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