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
Anthem stood out in the crowd as the leader when it came to
a respectable HDMI implementation on an SSP with the D2 and AVM50.
Most of the other SSPs that did have HDMI were simple switchers
and didn't process the audio over the HDMI.
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.
Take a look at these features on the 9.8.
◊ Balanced inputs and outputs, something only seen in
◊ 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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Go to Part II.