because the midrange of the various video parameters is pushed toward the extremes. Furthermore, if the modulation of these several video parameters is pushed toward the extremes in these competing DVD players, these players are likely to have insufficient discrimination left among the subtle variations in video's midrange, just where it's most needed to make human flesh and everyday objects look realistic. These competing DVD players assign one value of luminance, color hue, and/or color saturation to a relatively large area of (say) the flesh of a human face, and the result will be that this human face will look artificially uniform, pasty, flat, and even two dimensional - as though the actor were wearing a flat two dimensional coating of uniform pancake makeup on the surface of his skin.
I realize that specs like black level and contrast and sharpness are the current darlings of specsmanship and videophile discussions. Indeed, display contrast has gotten completely out of hand as a horsepower race among manufacturers, with wild claims based on unrealistic measurements (e.g. the ratio of full white screen with horrible overdrive and bloom, to lamp off), measurements that bear no relevance or resemblance to real world modulation and viewing conditions. But, just as with the emperor's new clothes, somebody has to finally stand up and tell it like it is. So here goes.
Black level, and the consequent contrast capability that black level implies, and sharpness, might be important, but they are not everything, they are not the only thing, and they are not even the most important things. The industry has latched onto black level and contrast and sharpness because they are simple concepts, and relatively simple to measure, and make video pop for na´ve viewers. But there are other factors besides black level and contrast, factors which are far more important to the video experience. As noted, subtle, high resolution modulation of color hue, saturation, and luminance, within large dynamic ranges but especially in the middle of those ranges, crucially affect how realistic the flesh tones of people look, and how natural real world everyday objects look (as opposed to stage props that are painted too uniformly).
I don't know about you, but for me the most important characters, the ones I watch most closely in most movies, are people. Most stories, most plots, most shots are about people. Usually, I'm more interested in looking at people, than I am in studying the dark interiors of submarines to see how well the black level descends into the murky darkness. I want people to look realistic and thus believable. And I want decently lit interior and exterior backgrounds to look natural, so I can believe in them too. In fact, one thing I don't want is excess contrast just for the sake of contrast, because that can make people and backgrounds look artificial, cartoonish, and two dimensional. Likewise, excessively pumped up color saturation and or excessive color hue swings, exaggerated to show off a system's video dynamic range or to make pictures pop to impress na´ve viewers, make video look artificial, unnatural, and not believable. Instead, I want subtle rendition of color hue, of color saturation, and of luminance. And, even more importantly, I want these subtle renditions to vary and be subtly modulated across every square micron of a person's face.
Video experts and photographers have long spoken of how tricky it is to accurately render human flesh tone, and the human flesh tone of each different person, because the exact hue and saturation of human flesh tone is so subtle and elusive. This is true enough, but it is also misleading. It misleadingly implies that each human being has only one single flesh tone, however subtle, that needs to be captured. But flesh tone should not be singular. It should be plural, for each face, for each person. In reality, each person's flesh varies quite noticeably in tone (i.e. in hue, saturation, and luminance), across every square micron of flesh. That variation or modulation in subtle flesh tone, from one square micron to the next, is what makes each person look real. Without this variation, a person's flesh looks pasty, flat, and two dimensional, as if a single flesh tone were painted across the surface of his skin, or as though he were wearing that thick surface coat of uniformly colored pancake makeup mentioned above.
When you look attentively at a live, real human face, you can see this incredibly rich variation and subtle modulation across every square micron. This same subtle modulation must be reproduced by your video equipment, in order for human flesh to look believably real.
When the subtle modulation of color hue, saturation, and luminance all come together just right, then the portrayal of human flesh does something magic - the flesh not only looks natural and realistic across its surface, but the flesh also seems to glow from within. As you may know, one index of a natural pearl's quality is how well you can look into the pearl, into a depth beneath the outer surface, because the outer surface is slightly translucent. Similarly, if you look closely at most human flesh lit just right, you can see that the light penetrates the outer skin surface, and makes the flesh underneath the skin surface literally glow with the light that has penetrated and diffused into the flesh beneath the skin surface. Movie lighting can bring out this natural glow, and it can bring a further dimension of depth and three dimensional realism to the film medium that is after all restricted to being merely a two dimensional representation. Without this pearlescent glow from within, human flesh can easily look pasty and flat, as if the actor were wearing far too much pancake makeup. If your video system does not have the capability of revealing subtle modulations of color hue, saturation, and luminance as they vary across every square micron of an actor's face, then your video system will impose this same pasty, flat look to human flesh, making human flesh look two dimensional, and artificially uniform from one square inch to the next, as if the actor had indeed put on far too much uniformly colored pancake makeup, so that you are seeing only the two dimensional surface of the pancake makeup, not the three dimensional depth of real human flesh.
Similar considerations apply to real world everyday objects. These objects also subtly vary, over every square micron of their surface, in luminance, color hue, and color saturation. Indeed, even what we perceive as being the texture of a real world object is largely dependent on these subtle variations over the surface area. When a video system can reveal and reproduce these subtle microscopic variations, everyday objects look real, and more three dimensional, with real texture popping up in every square micron of surface, so that each surface itself is subtly three dimensional. On the other hand, studio props painted a uniform color have a far simpler, far more uniform surface appearance, with each surface looking flat, non-textured, and two dimensional (and any decent video system can reproduce these). Poorer video systems make real world three dimensional objects with rich surface texture all look like studio props with flat, non-textured surfaces.
The Arcam DV27A is in our experience unsurpassed at handling these more complex and subtle aspects of video reproduction. Human flesh glows from within, giving it a palpable reality you want to reach out and touch, and a solid three dimensionality that transcends the limits of the two dimensional screen. With the DV27A, people simply look much more real, so you can believe in them. Since most movies are most importantly about people, when you believe in the people, you can believe in the whole movie you see. With most competing DVD players, you can't really believe in the people you see, so you can't even get off the ground in believing the whole movie you see.
Likewise, the Arcam DV27A is unsurpassed at reproducing the natural look and texture of real world everyday objects, which are the framework around the actors in a movie. With the DV27A, you believe in the look of the scene, and thus the look of the alternative venue. When you couple this with the DV27A's superb audio mastery of space, your eyes and your ears work together to help you succumb to the movie as a whole, and to be transported out of your room and to the other world where the movie is taking place. With most competing DVD players, real world everyday objects often look like artificial, uniformly painted studio props, so again you can't even get off the ground visually in believing in the alternative venue you see.
The Arcam DV27A obviously deserves the finest associated video equipment, that can reveal its prowess in modulated video subtleties. Personally, I find that only a few video systems can do justice to the DV27A's ability to give human flesh that transcendent glow from within. The best direct view CRTs qualify, as do the best plasma displays (we employed a Princeton HDTV monitor, designed with the help of Joe Kane). The only projection system I have ever seen that qualifies is the new Samsung DLP projector, also designed with the help of Joe Kane (it is the only projection system that can make human flesh three dimensional with that inner glow, whereas other projection systems render a much flatter, much more uniform single flesh tone that's just on the surface).
DV27A Audio Performance
As discussed above, the sound of the Arcam DV27A DVD player combined with the AV8 preamp processor was superb in the classic audio virtues (including transparency, resolution, and clean purity), and achieved a whole new higher plateau in surround imaging and spatial portrayal. And of course the DV27A was the source supplying the entire signal for these observations. Obviously, then, the sound of the source of this signal, the DV27A itself, must be at least this superb, since its signal sounds superb even after going through some additional circuitry in the AV8. But, in the interests of a thorough review, we also wanted to put the DV27A's feet to the fire, and analyze just what it sounds like on its own. Also, we wanted to hear the DV27A strut its stuff alone at its very best, so we could learn all the intimate secrets of its intrinsic strengths and weaknesses. Then we could learn (and in turn teach you) how to configure and employ both these remarkable products, the DV27A and AV8, to get the very best sound from them, for various applications.
Therefore, we also analyzed the intrinsic sound of the DV27A, playing straight into various power amps, in order to take the sound of the AV8 out of the equation as a variable. The analog outputs of the DV27A can advantageously be used this way for films with Dolby Digital 5.1 (aka 3/2.1) soundtracks, for DTS 5.1 discs, for DVD-A multichannel discs, and for two channel stereo CDs. The DV27A also includes on-board Pro Logic processing, which can be used for some older film soundtracks. But the DV27A does not include the more recent and more useful Pro Logic II processing, nor THX enhancements, nor EX or ES matrix decoding for the surround channels (all of which are available in the AV8 processor).
As superb as the sound was of the combined Arcam units, the DV27A plus AV8, the intrinsic sound of the DV27A itself was even more stunning, with even better transparent resolution of subtle sonic information, and even better clean purity. The DV27A's stunning sound was of course advantageous on DVD-As, but, surprisingly, was also advantageous on many film soundtracks, where the extra transparency brought even more realism to an already convincingly real sonic portrait. Clearly, the DV27A's internal circuitry was doing an incredible job, in everything from controlling noise and jitter to achieving high resolution D/A conversion (these tasks are especially difficult in the complex electrical environment of a DVD player). On two channel stereo CDs, the DV27A was even competitive with the very best dedicated CD players in those classic sonic virtues of transparency, resolution, and clean purity. The only sonic aspect where the DV27A could be slightly faulted, and where it gave ground to the best CD players, was a slight solid state crispness that it imposed on the lower treble frequencies.
The DV27A has a generous set of signal processing controls on board for a DVD player, including a good set of spatial optimization controls, such as delay and level for each logical group of loudspeakers (front, center, side surround, and subwoofer level but not subwoofer delay). Thus, using the DV27A alone, we were able to fine tune nearly our whole system for superb spatial portrayal. And of course the level controls can also act as overall volume controls, which is particularly useful for special purist system setups, when you want to play some or all of the DV27A's analog outputs directly into a power amplifier, as discussed further below.
The only caveat is that, while you are trimming the DV27A's volume level or delay for your various loudspeaker groups, to fine tune the spatial portrayal, you must stop the disc that's playing, so you cannot be listening live to any disc (music or video) while making the fine tuning adjustments (this is due to an understandable limitation in on-board computing power, in what is after all merely a DVD player, not a processor nor control center). Thus, the fine tuning procedure is clumsy, and lacks immediate feedback, so you must rely on your long term aural memory. But the effort is well worth it, because the fine tuned spatial portrayal, from listening to the DV27A directly, was unbelievably spectacular, as were the DV27A's stunning transparency, resolution, and clean purity. Note that, for DVD-A discs, you have no choice but to make these fine tuning adjustments in the DV27A, because the AV8's similar adjustments are disabled for the AV8's direct mode, which is enforced upon the AV8's multichannel analog input.
Using the DV27A in this direct way, which yields such spectacular sonic results, is advantageously applicable primarily to DVD-A audio discs and films with Dolby Digital or DTS 5.1 soundtracks (and also to two channel stereo CDs). As a practical matter, most of you will simply route all signals from the DV27A through the AV8 (in the various manners explored below), rather than directly into a power amp. Only diehard purists, who want to hear the absolute ultimate that the DV27A can do (or reviewers like us, who have an obligation to evaluate each product intrinsically and at its best), would likely want to connect the DV27A directly to a power amplifier, and thereby commit themselves to the nuisance of pulling interconnect cables for playing different disc formats.
Also note that the DV27A does not include capability for extracting the back surround signal, nor does it have analog outputs for a back surround signal. And, as noted above, we found back surround speakers to be very important, given the whole new world of realistic spatial portrayal that these Arcam units open up. Thus, even when playing the DV27A directly into a power amplifier for the five main channels plus subwoofer, we still simultaneously also routed the signal to and through the AV8, in order to generate a back surround signal and feed it to another power amplifier channel or channels for the back surround loudspeaker(s).
AV8 Audio Performance
AV processors are very complex products, especially if they include powerful and flexible signal processing capabilities, as the Arcam AV8 does. If an audio signal passes through all the signal processing stages in such a product, it must travel a long, tortuous labyrinth of circuitry. Most of this circuitry consists of IC chips, rather than discrete devices, because circuitry using discrete devices would take up far too much real estate to fit in one chassis, and would be far too expensive for you to afford, and would be impossible for any single audio manufacturer to design (given the complexity of the signal processing). Audio manufacturers rely on IC chipsets designed and manufactured by well known makers, and then work to engineer the best sounding environment and support circuitry for those chipsets.
A pristine audio signal, passing through such a labyrinth, can only be degraded by its journey, especially with respect to the classic audio virtues of transparency, resolution, and clean purity. The length and complexity of the signal path alone is enough to faze any truly high fidelity signal. In addition, IC chips are not noted for being kind to the classic sonic virtues, so all the IC chipsets in the signal path necessarily take their toll on signal quality. In addition, the environment inside an AV processor chassis is hostile to audio signal quality. The signal processing must be accomplished in digital format, so there are digital noise and jitter problems. The public demands that their video signals also be routed through AV processors (even though these processors do not in fact do any video processing, and merely add an occasional OSD [on-screen-display] signal to the video), and this means that radiated noise from the video signal, now admitted to the inside of the AV chassis, also contaminates and degrades the pristine audio signals.
The best that a manufacturer of a high end AV processor can do is try to control these degrading factors, and reduce their effect on the audio signals, while also optimizing the sound he can get from the IC chipsets.
In the interests of providing a shorter signal path that does not suffer all these degradations, most AV processors offer a direct analog throughput path, which bypasses all internal signal processing, and routes the audio signals only through the volume control and line level output buffer stage, thereby effectively reducing the whole complex processor to a simple analog line section control preamp. This is a useful mode when the signal source can provide a high quality multichannel audio output, as the DV27A can from DVD-A, DTS 5.1, and Dolby Digital discs. But of course it cuts out the AV processor's chief forte, the extraction and enhancement of surround sound information.
Some high end AV processors, including the Arcam AV8, also employ other methods for minimizing audio signal degradation. In the AV8, various sections of signal processing can be cut out of the signal path when they are not needed. For example, setting the tone controls to flat zero actually bypasses the section of DSP processing that accomplishes the tone control function, and we can easily hear the sonic benefit, as the sound gets even clearer and cleaner at this flat zero setting of the processor's tone controls. Also, various sections of the AV8's processing circuitry are literally turned off when they are not in use, so that they don't radiate contaminating digital noise within the chassis. In the AV8, an active video input can be turned off, which does indeed improve the sound.
Of course, the reason we want and buy an AV processor is primarily to extract and possibly enhance surround soundfield information from an incoming audio signal. We should be willing to accept slight degradation of the audio signal's classic virtues, in order to obtain the surround soundfield benefits of extracting surround signals. The alternative (for many program sources) is no surround information at all. Of course, the operative key word is "slight". How slight can the degradation be made? It's crucial to preserve the classic audio virtues as well as possible, since, as we saw above, degradations in the classic audio virtues also produce severe degradations in achieving a truly convincing portrayal of an alternative surround space.
So, just how good is the Arcam AV8 in preserving the quality of the input audio signal? As with most processors, there are different types of inputs to choose from (some analog, some digital), and
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