A couple months ago, I realized that over a span of less than three years, I've spent some fairly significant time with nearly every DVD player that OPPO Digital has produced. I picked up an OPDV971H in May 2005, followed in the fall of 2006 by some beta testing for the DV-981HD that replaced the 971H. I skipped over the DV-970HD in the process, but that would be the only OPPO player I haven't used I've also had the pleasure of using the DV-980H and the DV-983H. All three of the 98x series players offer something a bit different, and after using all three and writing my thoughts on each, I felt that it might be interesting to try to stack them up together and offer some thoughts on the trio as a whole. At the end of it, I will also include some of my thoughts on how the HD format war affects OPPO's standard DVD player offerings. As in my previous equipment reviews, you can find an equipment list at the end of this review.
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I touched on aesthetics a bit in my HM-31 review last fall. Sure, it isn't relevent to performance, but it still plays a role in people's buying decisions in some cases. The 971H and 970HD's silver color schemes weren't my favorite I like a nice, clean, somewhat stealthy black faceplate and the design styles themselves weren't particularly remarkable, for better or for worse. The 981HD kept the 971H's lines but went with black instead of silver, which I like, but the outward appearance still suggests just another DVD player: low-profile, limited number of buttons, cool blue lights and a display that's about as big as it can be in such a short chassis. The 980H was a change from all three previous OPPO players, and its simpler style has always struck me as a bit more elegant. That was the first OPPO player with an industrial design that elicited any sort of real emotional reaction from me. The 983H retains much of the style of the 980H. It moves the USB port to the back, which may make using USB thumb drives slightly less convenient but should make external hard drive users happy (and a simple USB extension cable can take care of thumb drive users while also being less visibly obtrusive than the 980H's front panel jack). The only reason that the 983H didn't immediately unseat the 980H as my favorite is the elimination of the navigation pad controller on the right end. Over time, however, the 983H's aluminum faceplate and clean, symmetrical lines have largely cancelled that out, such that the 983H has eeked out the 980H as my favorite OPPO industrial design. The look of the 983H (particularly the use of aluminum intead of plastic) also reflects its higher price tag. I would classify both the 980H and 983H as quite handsome players.
Stack of OPPO Digital 98x players (logo stew)
Stack of OPPO Digital 98x players (rear panels)
OPPO Digital has routinely gotten good marks on packaging from their customers. They do not double-box, but with small, relatively lightweight players this decision seems to be reasonable: out of four production players and closer to half a dozen beta samples that I've received from OPPO over the years, all have made the trip from California to Tennessee without incident or even visible box damage. Inside that single box, they use heavy duty foam and fabric bags to protect and secure the players. An introductory card sits on top of the player and packing. It's an overall package that makes a good first impression.
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All of OPPO's players have shared a similar player setup structure. I've covered the various options that are spread across the five standard setup menu pages in my previous reviews of each player. I've also touched on the method of adjusting output resolution (using the "HDMI" button while disc playback is stopped). For the purpose of this article, I'm going to briefly mention a few general observations about the players. First, all of OPPO's players have been developed with DVI or HDMI-equipped HDTV's in mind. The video performance (about which much is said of these players) can only be fully experienced using the HDMI output. The 983H's ABT chips only work with that output, the 983H and 980H both limit component video output to 480p for copy-protected DVD's (provided in both cases by the Mediatek chipset), and the 981H doesn't even have a component video output. Analog video performance is not the focus of these players. Second, if you are going to use these players for DVD-Audio and SACD playback, take a good look through the user's manual. As I mention in my reviews of each player, there are some menu settings and connection requirements that must be taken into consideration due to the limits imposed by both formats' copy protection requirements. And if you use the HDMI output for DVD-Audio and SACD playback, keep in mind that the way the HDMI spec assigns audio bandwidth (not allowing it to exceed the video bandwidth being used at the same time) requires that the player be set to an HD resolution (720p, 1080i, or 1080p) in order to pass multichannel PCM.
There are a few other basic setup and operational tips and tricks floating around that apply to all of OPPO Digital's players. First, there is an undocumented feature often called "Direct Play" that will allow you to skip most of the warnings, previews, ads, and other junk at the start of a disc. As soon as the DVD will allow, press "STOP" and then press "MENU." "Direct Play" may appear briefly on the screen, after which the movie should begin. Also, all three players offer a feature called "Alt RC Code" (added to the 981HD by firmware update, included from day one on the 980H and 983H). This feature allows the players to accept some standard "generic" DVD player remote codes in addition to the codes for the included remote, making it easier to operate them with universal remote controls that lack a learning function. I have some details on how to locate these codes (including a few examples from my experience) in my individual player reviews. Another undocumented feature that has seen a lot of use among OPPO owners is the region code control. By default, these are Region 1 players, as is required of players sold in the US and Canada. They can be changed to work with any other region code, however, and it can even be set to "0" (in which case it will work with all regions). To change the region code, first stop disc playback and press Setup on remote control to access the setup page. Once in the setup menu, enter 9210 on the remote. A menu will pop up allowing you to specify a region, and you can select any number from 0 to 6. Once done, press "SETUP" on the remote again. The 983H and 980H's remotes also have a button (labeled "Capture") that will allow the user to replace the default OPPO Digital splash screen with a screen shot just press the Capture button while the image you want is on screen and it will replace the default screen with that screen shot.
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Firmware updates are part of what put OPPO Digital on the map back in early 2005. They expanded on the 971H's functionality and improved its video performance several times via updates, and they have pursued similar improvements along with bug fixes for all of their players. Public "beta" firmware is often made available, granting users access to new firmware that they haven't finished polishing but that can provide early access to refinements, fixes, and new features. No matter which player we are talking about, there are several common firmware-related traits. If you want to find out the firmware version currently installed, power on the player with no disc inserted. Once the player is on, press "OSD" on remote and note the popup on the screen. The "Batch" notation will be the firmware level. The new firmware will overwrite any changes you made to the settings previously (TV display, HDMI output resolution, speaker settings, and so forth), so you'll want to take a minute to run through the 980H's menus and get things dialed back in before you toss in a DVD to try out the new firmware. It might even be handy to write down your settings before the firmware update. For the 981HD, you will need to burn a firmware update to CD-R and install it from the disc. The 980H and 983H offer that method of updating as well as the option of using the USB input to install the update. My individual reviews get into greater detail on how to get and install firmware updates.
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This is where the three players start to diverge. Each employs a different solution for de-interlacing and scaling video. The 980H uses a customized version of a common Mediatek chipset (the chipset that, in some form, is at the heart of all of OPPO's DVD players). The 981H uses an unmodified version of that Mediatek chip, but all of the de-interlacing and scaling is handled separately by a Genesis Faroudja FLI2310 chip one of the first reasonably economical chips to gain widespread praise for high-performance video processing. This chip produces a "softer" image than the Mediatek solution, but it is a better solution for use with really large displays (particularly those front projection setups whose screens can run up to or beyond 100"). Unfortunately, the Faroudja chip can have problems with certain display types (mainly DLP and some plasmas) and the video compression artifact "macroblocking." Specifically, it can enhance the visibility of that artifact, an enhancement that can be largely eliminated by careful video calibration but that does cause some people to hesitate before using Faroudja sources with susceptible displays. Due to this hardware limitation, OPPO set out to do something even better with the 983H, and they took the 980H's basic platform and followed the 981HD's lead by adding separate video processing hardware: that customized Mediatek chip is still present, but de-interlacing is handled by an Anchor Bay ABT102 chip and scaling by an ABT1018. These are the chips used in Anchor Bay's iScan VP30 standalone video processor.
How do the three approaches compare? This will be the central question for anyone considering an OPPO DVD player. I've been pleased with the performance from all three players, but I also have a relatively small display for the HD age. I've used the 981HD and its predecessor the 971H on three different HDTV's, two LCD and one CRT. None of those displays have been susceptible to macroblock enhancement, so I've never gone through the calibration process in order to reign in that particular behavior. As with the 971H before it, I always enjoyed my 981HD (and still do, as it is feeding an LCD HDTV in the bedroom currently). It is still an excellent player, and for my system (and my eyes) it offered a somewhat better picture than the 980H. The 980H did a good enough job that even after the beta test was concluded I still left it in the system as my day-to-day DVD player, although there were a few discs (mostly animation) that would exhibit some deinterlacing errors combing that my 981HD did not produce. Those instances were rare, resticted mostly to some CG animation that our daughter watched (and deinterlacing errors don't appear to bother two-year-olds, or at least not ours). For smaller screens (which includes a lot of displays larger than my 32" HDTV), I've found myself comfortable recommending the 980H to people. For larger screens (particularly front projection), I have tended to lean toward the 981HD. The 983H adds a wrinkle to that starting point, though. The price differential is significant, but if the $170 to $230 extra doesn't deter you it is hard to argue against the 983H (doubly so for a larger display). It impressed me time and again during the beta test process. While you will never be able to achieve true HD picture quality from a DVD source (particularly compared to good HD transfers that are able to make best use of the additional resolution), I was impressed on more than one occasion by how close the 983H could get.
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There are some differences between players on the audio side, but they are not as extensive. For digital output via optical or coaxial, the three players will perform identically: Dolby Digital, DTS, or PCM stereo bitstreams from DVD's and CD's will come out just the same in each case. All three will decode DVD-Audio, SACD, Dolby Digital, and DTS internally and output as either multichannel PCM (via HDMI) or multichannel analog. The 980H offers two additional capabilities: DSD bitstream output over HDMI, and 7.1 analog output. The 983H includes a 7.1 analog output as well, including some upgrades to the analog output section, but the presence of the ABT chips in the HDMI signal path made DSD bitstream output impossible. I can't test the HDMI output for audio, but all three should offer comparable performance that way. The only appreciable difference to be had there will come from the 980H's ability to output a DSD bistream from SACD. This is something I've not yet been able to evaluate first-hand, but I have seen a curious mix of opinions regarding whether DSD or PCM output of SACD sounds better. Some prefer to keep the DSD bitstream intact, while others report that the OPPO players do a very transparent job of PCM conversion and that in some cases (depending on the HDMI v1.2 receiver being used or even the SACD being played) PCM from the 980H ends up sounding better than DSD. For the purposes of this discussion, however, I will focus solely on analog audio output because that is where my experience with the three players lies and because the analog output section is where the three players differ the most.
If you find yourself wanting to play DVD-Audio or SACD discs but don't have an HDMI v1.1 or higher receiver, you are going to need to use the multichannel analog output. The 981HD is built on OPPO's first player (the 971H), a platform that was not developed with analog audio performance in mind the 971H's original firmware didn't even support DVD-Audio, and support was added via a firmware update early in its production life largely because the hardware supported it (the Mediatek chip could decode DVD-Audio's MLP data and there was a 5.1 analog output on the rear panel). The 981HD uses the multichannel DAC built into the Mediatek chipset, just as the 970HD and 971H did before it. There were some improvements made to the 981HD's analog section based on experience from the DV-970HD's development, and I considered the 981HD to come close to my more expensive Yamaha DVD-S1500 for DVD-Audio performance and to match it for SACD performance. The 980H, on the other hand, included a greater emphasis on analog audio performance. In addition to employing a 7.1 analog output, the 980H also adopted a separate Cirrus Logic DAC (the CS4361) and mimicked the 970HD's design by employing a cleaner signal path (from DSP to DAC to output jacks on a single circuit board, with no jumper wires something that the 981HD does not do). I found the 980H's DVD-Audio performance to be at least equal to my previous DVD-Audio players, but the SACD performance was definitely better than either the S1500 or the 981HD. The effort made with the analog section paid off, and when it was time to develop the 983H, OPPO wisely took the 980H platform and began building on that. The refinements made to the 980H platform for analog output are discussed in some detail in my 983H review. In my system, I found the 983H to at least equal the 980H, with the differences between the two to be subtle.
As I mentioned a moment ago, the 980H and 983H offer something a bit unusual: a 7.1 analog output. All of OPPO's players have offered Pro Logic II, something that is not uncommon these days among players with multichannel analog outputs. They've also all offered Dolby Digital and DTS, of course. Pro Logic IIx would allow the player to generate rear surround channels, but the Mediatek chip lacks the sort of DSP horsepower that a surround receiver would include, making Pro Logic IIx impossible. Instead, the 980H and 983H offer Dolby Digital EX in addition to PLII and toss in a basic matrix scheme for 5.1 sources (whether a Dolby Digital 5.1 source, a DTS 5.1 source, a two-channel source expanded to 5.1 by Pro Logic II, or a DVD-Audio or SACD source) to produce a 7.1 output. This matrix scheme copies some data from side surrounds to rear surrounds and reduces levels of the copied data, which provides a way to extend both two-channel and 5.1 sources to 7.1. This matrix logic is applied to the multichannel analog output when Downmix is set to 7.1CH and a 5.1 source is available, but it is not applied to HDMI audio output. Since systems that support HDMI v1.1 or higher will typically have processing such as Pro Logic IIx available at the receiver, this arrangement should work out nicely.
The 981HD provided me with a quite satisfactory analog audio output, enough so that I happily used it to replace both my 971H and my Yamaha DVD-S1500 (which had been retained solely for audio playback duties when the 971H arrived the previous year). The fact that a $230 player could basically match the analog audio performance of a $400 player while also clearly besting it in video performance spoke well of the 981HD. The 980H, on the other hand, clearly made some improvements. DVD-Audio performance was perhaps just subtly improved, but SACD performance was a clear step up. My 980H is currently serving as the source component in a two-channel music setup, a role in which it works very well. The 983H improved the 980H's analog output section, although by that point I felt that we were starting to edge into the realm of diminishing returns: it was doing things a bit better, but we were past the point of "night and day" sorts of changes. In an era when DVD-Audio is essentially dead and SACD is a niche format, the 981HD does a respectable job with both formats even if neither format is the player's principle reason for being. For a purely audio-oriented system, where these formats may be on heavy rotation but powerful video processing capabilities are secondary or even unnecessary, the 980H clearly comes out on top as the best combination of performance and value. At the same time, the 983H can match or exceed the 980H's capabilities for analog audio output, making analog audio performance just one more way in which the 983H earns the "flagship" slot in the OPPO line-up.
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The first glimpse of the 983H came at CEDIA last fall, with the player sitting quietly in ABT's booth. Once word of the player's existence reached the internet, it often led to questions about OPPO's future plans for HD-DVD and/or Blu-ray. Those questions had been circulating even before that, but the 983H seemed to be instrumental in keeping the issue under discussion in various online forums. Hand-in-hand with these debates, the question of whether an OPPO player is a better choice than an HD-DVD or Blu-ray player that offers upscaling of standard DVD's as well as access to a new HD video format is one that frequently deserves asking. For that reason and in light of recent news on the 'net indicating that OPPO has plans to develop a Blu-ray player, I thought I'd take a moment to offer my take on these two subjects before I wrap up my thoughts on the three 98x players.
Why did OPPO Digital elect to continue development of standard DVD players rather than working on an HD format player? An OPPO Digital HD disc player would seem to be an inevitable product offering, of course, but there are clearly some challenges standing in the way of getting that product to market. First is the format war itself. It has been recently concluded, of course, but until a reasonably certain conclusion appeared in the last couple months it was impossible to make plans without considering the format war. They had to consider whether to pick one side and develop for it (thus gambling that their choice will survive and flourish in the market long enough to support the player); pursue a combo HD-DVD/Blu-ray player (with all the development and licensing challenges that must inevitably include); or hold off on getting deep into product development of any kind until the format war's long-term fate becomes clearer (thus reducing the risk involved in choosing one of those three options).
If they had decided to develop for HD-DVD, they would have been competing with the only other significant manufacturer in that market: Toshiba. Toshiba's prices became profit-unfriendly quite some time ago, making it difficult to market a profitable OPPO HD-DVD player. A standalone HD-DVD player would have been a risky project to embark on in 2007. Today, it's obvious that it would have been a complete write-off.
What about a combo player? History (both from the DVD-Audio/SACD format war and the early combo HD players released last year) tells us that being among the first to actually create such a beast is a significant challenge, even for the larger manufacturers with much greater R&D resources, and the product is likely to incorporate an assortment of design compromises. If the format war had dragged on into 2009 or if some really successful groundwork was done by third-party chip manufacturers, a combo player would have been worth considering, but it would inevitably force a longer and more costly development process and a more costly product.
Deciding to develop for Blu-ray brings up a different set of challenges. Until late 2007, there were no standalone Profile 1.1 players or discs, and the first standalone Profile 2.0 players were announced at CES 2008 for release later this spring. The Profile 1.1 and 2.0 specs were difficult targets to pin down, and without titles mastered to use those features it becomes even more difficult for a small manufacturer like OPPO to develop and test hardware based on those specs. A company like OPPO Digital would most likely want to delay significant hardware development until they could produce a Profile 2.0 player to avoid the risk of limiting customer options down the road, but that choice would automatically impose some development schedule limitations. If prominent BDA members like Sony and Panasonic are still working on getting Profile 2.0 hardware and firmware developed, companies like OPPO are inevitably going to be trailing behind them.
For any HD disc player, disc compatibility will likely lead to a significant and ongoing support effort in order to generate firmware updates when "problem" discs appear. Both formats have suffered from multiple disc releases that strain the specs of each format, leading to player compatibility problems that have routinely forced hardware makers to develop firmware "fixes" to address these "problem" software titles. The longer that OPPO waits, the greater the chance that disc mastering will stabilize and reduce the frequency of such problems. A company the size of OPPO Digital needs to guard its resources carefully stepping into a situation where their firmware development teams would be forced to spend all their time fixing problems created by ill-behaved discs is not going to be good for them or their customers, as it would hamper other firmware work for existing players and interfere with development of future products.
OPPO Digital has built their success on a relatively simple foundation: take established technology, optimize the heck out of it, and support the resulting product diligently. Blu-ray is not yet established at this point. It is finally about to see Profile 2.0 players (including a promise of a Profile 2.0 firmware update for the PS3 eventually), but it is still a young format that has only just escaped the uncertainty of a format war in the last month or so. With the format war settled, OPPO can safely proceed with development of a Blu-ray player, but it will take them time to produce it. In the meanwhile, consumers considering an OPPO DVD player will need to weigh their individual needs against the features, performance, value, and customer support represented by the different players (both DVD and Blu-ray, from OPPO or from other companies) available to them.
When deciding between a standard DVD player (like any of the OPPO players mentioned here) and a new Blu-ray player, it comes down to an issue of individual need. Do you have any DVD-Audio or SACD discs that you listen to? Do you have any DVD's from regions other than Region 1? Do you have any PAL discs? What size display do you have and what quality video scalers exist elsewhere in your system? Are you ready to pick up a Blu-ray player now, or do you have reason to hold out for more mature hardware (profile 2.0, on-board decoding of the new audio formats, faster performance with BD-Java discs)? Several of the HD-DVD and Blu-ray players can provide very good standard DVD performance (particularly players like the Toshiba HD-XA2 and Samsung BD-S1200 that use the Silicon Optix Reon chip, which should be pretty comparable to the 983H's ABT chips for scaling of DVD sources), but they typically are slower machines without the nearly invisible layer changes of the OPPO players and they lack support for a number of other disc formats (DVD-A, SACD, non-Region 1, PAL). The players that often end up closest in price to the OPPO's also often end up very close in performance (such as an HD-A3 and a 980H) while trading those standard OPPO extras for HD support. There is no one exactly right choice for every case, and there are pros and cons for each option. For me, the collection of DVD-Audio and SACD titles and the large library of standard DVD's has led me to retain interest in a good standalone DVD player, as the HD-DVD and Blu-ray players currently available have not been able to offer the features needed to replace a DVD player.
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OPPO Digital made their name by delivering digital upscaling video performance and offering first-rate customer support. Features like region-free playback, DVD-Audio and SACD support, PAL support, and support for an assortment of audio and video file formats have also become trademarks that have helped create a loyal customer base. In these early post-format-wars days of HD optical discs, the OPPO 98x series offers a trio of alternatives that will deserve serious consideration for some users. They all offer faster user interfaces than Blu-ray players, very quick layer changes, upscaling that ranges from good to exceptional, and that lengthy list of "trademark" features. While it will never be possible to achieve image quality equal to good HD from a DVD source, any one of these players may win out over picking up a Blu-ray player because of factors such as features (many of those OPPO "trademark" features that I just mentioned are absent from Blu-ray players at present) or a desire to get optimal performance from large existing standard DVD libraries. The 981HD and 983H will yield the greatest benefits when used with large screens (certainly starting around the 50" range, although smaller screens will still benefit), with the 983H being particularly well suited to DLP displays that may be susceptible to macroblock enhancing. For smaller screens, particularly in systems where the budget doesn't justify $400 for a DVD player, the 980H offers very good video performance as well as a great value. And for audio-centric systems that would like to include support DVD-Audio and SACD, the 980H also represents a great value. There is no easy answer to "which player is best for me" but fortunately, there are are no bad answers, either.
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