Saturday, May 3, 2008

Integra DTC-9.8 A/V Processor

Integra DTC-9.8 A/V Processor 
 Integra DTC-9.8 A/V Processor 
 Integra DTC-9.8 A/V Processor 
 Integra DTC-9.8 A/V Processor 
 Integra DTC-9.8 A/V Processor 
 HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

Integra raised a lot of eyebrows when it announced the new DTC-9.8 A/V processor at CEDIA last year. Not only was this the first pre/pro on the market to offer decoding of the next-gen audio codecs from Dolby and DTS, it also boasts Silicon Optix video processing and highly sophisticated Audyssey room correction. And its $1,600 price point was almost unheard of in the separates market.

Today’s AVRs and pre/pros must combine up-to-the-minute audio decoding and processing with all of the features of the multi-thousand-dollar video scalers of yesteryear. This may just be the most fully featured value-priced surround processor out there.

The Design
The DTC-9.8’s front-panel display shows all the pertinent information, including the source selected, surround mode, channels used, and volume. The display can be dimmed but can’t be completely turned off.

The back panel looks almost identical to those of the higher-end Integra receivers, less the speaker-output terminals. Instead, you’ll find enough XLR audio connections for a 7.1 audio setup, or you can biamp the front channels in a 5.1 configuration. Integra has also included a balanced two-channel input. Despite the fact that the Integra uses balanced audio outputs, this is not a true dual-differential design.

Integra DTC-9.8 A/V Processor

There are four HDMI 1.3a inputs and dual HDMI outputs. These support every audio and video format currently on the market. Other key additions are XM and Sirius radio support, an Ethernet port for future expansion, and an optional iPod dock.

Features, Features, Features
The DTC-9.8 is equipped with three state-of-the-art DSP engines, allowing it to offer a wide range of features you won’t find in other surround processors in this price range.

The Integra internally decodes and processes every high-resolution audio source available today. This includes PCM sources up to 7.1 channels, pure DSD streams from SACD playback, and the newest flavors from Dolby and DTS, including lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

The Integra DTC-9.8 also includes a broad range of post processing. This includes THX Neural Surround post processing (designed for gaming and broadcast applications and derives up to 7.1 channels of audio from 5.1 sources and 5.1 audio from stereo sources), Dolby’s Pro Logic suite, and THX’s full complement of post-processing features. All of the post-processing modes can be layered on any incoming audio signal, including the next-gen codecs from Dolby and DTS.

Another big plus on the audio side is Audyssey’s MultEQ XT, a full-featured room-correction system. Audyssey calibrates your system and performs correction for in-room response, optimized for multiple seating positions. The DTC-9.8 also supports MultEQ Pro, which allows an Audyssey installer to take the calibration a level further, using more sophisticated analyzing equipment. The additional capabilities of MultEQ Pro not only allow for the inclusion of more seating positions, but also allow the calibrator to select from multiple curves that are better suited to certain room dimensions. This level of calibration can only be achieved through an installer fee of about $400; but depending on the circumstances, it may be worth the added price.

The Integra’s video-processing capabilities are courtesy of Silicon Optix’s Reon video processor. This is one of the better high-definition video-processing solutions on the market. The DTC-9.8 can also convert all analog video inputs to HDMI, providing the end user with a single-cable solution to their display.

Because many consumer HD displays are either 720p or 1080p, using a high-quality HD video processor is essential to getting the most out of HD broadcast signals from cable or satellite, many of which are 1080i. The Reon chip is one of the only chips on the market that converts 1080i to 1080p (or 720p) properly. This means performing proper 3:2 pulldown with film sources and correct processing of video-based material. If you have a 720p display, the video processor still needs to properly deinterlace 1080i to 1080p and then scale down. The few pre/pros that do offer video processing at this level cost much more than the DTC-9.8.

But with HD content becoming more and more prevalent now that Blu-ray and HD DVD are around, additional video processing can actually hurt the quality of the video as much as it helps. The DTC-9.8 provides pristine passthrough of 1080p/60 and 1080p/24 sources, with no discernible loss of image quality.

In Use
The DTC-9.8 was one of the easiest processors I’ve ever set up. The graphic user interface (GUI) lets the user assign video and audio sources to inputs, select default surround and audio modes, set speaker levels and crossovers, and customize their user experience with name tags and custom audio/video settings.

Integra DTC-9.8 A/V ProcessorI was able to set up the DTC-9.8 using both the pre/pro’s own onboard calibration and microphone, as well as the MultEQ Pro calibration using the Audyssey installer kit, which includes the MultEQ Pro software. The standard auto calibration is easy to accomplish with the included microphone and guides you step by step using onscreen menus. I haven’t been really impressed with most auto EQ systems I’ve used, but this time around, I found the results quite compelling. The soundstage was opened up quite a bit, especially the side-wall imaging, and the bass response was tighter across all of the seating positions. The back row wasn’t nearly as boomy after the EQ process, and the primary seats didn’t take a hit in audio quality, either.

The MultEQ Pro calibration produced slightly different results. It allows you to select from four different EQ curves tailored to specific room sizes. The sound difference relative to the standard setup procedure wasn’t huge in my room, but I was impressed with how it further opened up the surround soundstage. Bass response improved yet again, especially in my second row of seating, which is close to the back wall. While the standard calibration did an impressive job with this, the MultEQ Pro calibration virtually eliminated any difference between the rows in terms of bass performance. I was surprised that every seat now sounded nearly as well balanced as the sweet spot, apart from the expected variations in imaging at different seating positions.

I was far more impressed than I thought I would be with both solutions from Audyssey. The pro calibration is expensive, especially in comparison with the cost of the processor, but it does yield nice results. In the end, I think most consumers would be more than satisfied with the onboard EQ, but the consummate tweaker might want to look into the pro calibration.

Switching to video, I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to enjoy all of my HDMI source components without any snags. I’ve had quite a few headaches with some of the newer HDMI-based A/V processors out there and the constant HDMI handshake issues. Blu-ray and HD DVD playback were problem free here.

I mated the DTC-9.8 with the Toshiba HD-A35 HD DVD player and the Pioneer Elite BDP-95FD Blu-ray player. Both of these next-generation players support native bitstream output of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, allowing the DTC-9.8 to do full decoding duties. This was my first taste of DTS’ elusive DTS-HD MA. I was impressed with the increase in spatial resolution and clarity in the lower end that the Master Audio decoding offered. Some highlights included the aggressive ambience and low-end prowess of Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (Blu-ray) and the amazing sound design of the French animated film Renaissance (on import HD DVD). Both films showcased engaging soundstages and impressive dynamics, and their standard, lossy audio tracks came up a tad short when compared with the full lossless Master Audio.

Overall, sonically, I wasn’t hearing any loss of detail or soundstage despite being used to processors costing much more. Movie soundtracks actually sounded considerably better than I was used to, thanks to the Audyssey processing, a statement I thought I would never make.

Compared with my reference Anthem Statement D2 processor, the DTC-9.8 didn’t leave me wanting in any way. The benefits of the Audyssey post processing actually have me leaning a bit more in favor of the DTC-9.8, although I haven’t yet tested Anthem’s new room-correction system. The DTC-9.8 threw a wider soundstage with the EQ on, and I thought the Integra reproduced side-wall imaging and surrounds with a more transparent sense of environment than the Anthem. The Anthem did, however, sometimes trump the Integra with dialogue. I noticed a slight sibilance with the Integra during movie playback that wasn’t there with the Anthem. I thought this may be a result of the EQ, but it was there with or without EQ.

With digital music playback, both units were exceptional. The Anthem Statement D2 is a state-of-the-art surround processor, and I’ve always been elated with its music performance. I was actually quite surprised that the Integra stood its ground so well against the D2 since its price is roughly a third of the Anthem’s. Granted, it does not have the Anthem’s configurable design, which can be upgraded with new video, audio, and DSP boards. The Integra is an as-is design with software updates available but no hardware upgrade paths.

While I had little to complain about with the DTC-9.8’s digital performance, I wasn’t quite as impressed with its analog sound. Mating the DTC-9.8 with the Classé CDP-300 for CD and DVD-Audio playback didn’t provide nearly the level of performance I was used to from the Anthem. Detail and depth of image suffered with musical selections. This shortcoming of the DTC-9.8 wasn’t unexpected given its price point. Thankfully, it was only an issue with the analog inputs and didn’t affect sources connected via HDMI or TosLink.

The Integra DTC-9.8 is probably the greatest value in surround sound processors I’ve seen to date. The video processing is superb, and its ability to decode literally every sound format on the market today makes it a rarity and a safe bet for long-term compatibility. The Audyssey calibration is without a doubt the best EQ system I’ve seen or used on a processor and rounds out the package even more. Honestly, at twice the price, I would call this a steal. At under $2,000, I would just about call it a must-have.

Outstanding video processing including full support for high-definition deinterlacing and 1080p/24 passthrough
State-of-the-art room correction is simple and provides great results
Full complement of audio decoding with support for every audio format on the market today
One of the most fully featured processors on the market, and one of the cheapest, to boot

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