Sony DVP-NS9100ES DVD/SACD Player

Sony's new flagship "ES" DVD player is the fourth in a proud line whose first progeny arrived seven years ago. The prices have remained relatively stable through all that time. Any changes have generally been price declines, while performance and features have improved, model after model.

"ES" has long been Sony's moniker for its "Elevated Standard" products. I have reviewed, and then purchased, every model in the line, and my reference player today is Sony's DVP-NS999ES, which came out three years ago. When I reviewed it back then I had few complaints, and now after three years of use I remain fully satisfied.

The DVP-NS9100ES breaks the pattern in one important respect: Sony raised the price, to $1,299. That's $100 more than the predecessor. For that a buyer gets all the same features, as well as a few more, and a bold new look. The player is brushed silver, not black, and its sculptured faceplate with a large knob on the right is a departure from the elegant, understated appearance of its predecessors.

Like its predecessors the DVP-9100ES is a near-universal player. It plays DVDs, of course, decodes Dolby Digital and DTS, all variant of CDs, most recordable DVD formats as well as multichannel Super Audio CDs. But, as usual for Sony, it does not support DVD-audio. That is a shame.

In large part because of the format war that was never settled, neither DVD-Audio nor SACD found a wide following, despite their clear and obvious benefits. I am on record as saying that, to my ear, SACD is a superior format, and from the looks of things today it appears that SACD has a larger share of the market than DVD-A. But in a larger sense, both sides lost the war. So I, and many others would be happier if Sony stopped pretending that the other format does not exist.

Sony's new player offers a handful of new features, some of them quite important. Chief among those is an HDMI output, and when using that, Sony says the player can upconvert DVD signals to either 1080i or 720p, depending on your set's display capabilities.

It offers two IEEE-1394 digital outputs-Sony calls these i.LINK – for digital carriage of the SACD signal. That allows you to avoid the cumbersome analog carriage with accompanying bass and speaker management problems. The digital outputs are guaranteed to be compatible with similarly equipped Sony receivers. According to Sony, the iLink connection meets the 5C copyright protection standard for digital signal transmission and therefore should match with any other iLink device as long as It meets the 5C standard). But check before you assume.

I own a Lexicon MC-12B processor, and when I checked with the company, an officer said they had no intention of providing a 1394 interface, or any other digital input for SACD players. Since SACD uses Sony's own Direct Stream Digital signal format, creating a digital input is not easy, I was told. What the Lexicon officer did not say is that SACD has not been embraced by the broad public, so it does not make sense to create an expensive new input for a niche product.

For those of us who cannot use the 1394 output, the player offers complete speaker and bass-management software allowing you to manipulate the player's signal so that it sends a properly balanced analog signal to the analog inputs on your receiver/processor. It's easy to set up and works just as it should. The subwoofer crossover point is fixed at 120 Hz.

This player's video DACs (digital-to-analog converters) are slightly more advanced than those in the older DVP-NS999ES. The new model uses 14-bit/216 MHz converters versus 14-bit/108 MHz in the older machine. According to Sony, this results in a 4x improvement in the gray scale resolution.

The remote is unremarkable; it looks like the one for the older machine with the buttons rearranged. The older remote has a small video display that allows easy access to a handful of oft-used features. The new remote omits that. It is not backlit, a complaint I and others have thrown at Sony for years, to no avail. Seven commonly used navigation buttons do glow slightly in the dark. And the remote and player are equipped with 3 different commands modes "IR Frequencies" that can be changed by the user if multiple units are used—like a DVD player, DVD Changer and DVD Recorder.

The remote Sony sent me was inoperative, for reasons I was not able to divine. I used the older remote during the review, which worked perfectly well with the new player .

Sony's new player carries over several important features from its predecessors. For one, it separates its video and audio circuitry so that one cannot interfere with the other. Like every player these days, it offers both progressive and interlaced signal outputs and 3/2 pulldown correction. The player allows you to make numerous picture quality adjustments, and can store picture settings for 400 discs– 100 more than the older DVP-NS999ES.

This player, like all Sonys, softens the picture when you convert an anamorphic DVD to a conventional letterbox for display on a 4:3 televisions. That is preferable In my judgment to the obtrusive artifacts many other players add.

Anyone listening to SACDs first when auditioning a multi-format player is less likely to be charitable when listening to CDs. So as is my custom, I began with CDs. I also chose several of the excellent hybrid CD/SACD discs Telarc has been releasing, which allowed me to listen to the same recordings in both formats.

Dvorak's New World Symphony #9 (Paavo Jarvi, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Telarc SACD-60616), is a rousing piece with both subtlety and pyrotechnics. The DVP-NS9100ES provided clear imaging and depth with Sony's characteristic warmth. At times this turned edgy, and overly bright, an unfortunate characteristic of the CD format. Still, bass was sharp and tight, and for a CD it sounded pretty good.

Comparing the new Sony flagship with the older 999 on CDs, I have to say they sounded remarkably similar. If there was a difference, I could not hear it. Both are great machines. I should also note that while disc's CD layer was two-channel, of course, I used my Lexicon processor's LOGIC 7 mode to simulate multichannel so one major difference would be removed when I switched to multichannel SACD for comparison.

After that, I listened to the multichannel SACD layer of the same disc on both players. As usual all the stridency that was evident on the CD layer was gone. The sound stage opened up. Clarity markedly improved. Bass, using Sony's built-in bass management, was tight and sharp, cleanly channeled to the dual subwoofers on my Infinity Composition MTS speakers. But once again, hard as I tried, I could not hear a difference between the new 9100 and the older 999. Both offered superb, even thrilling renditions of this and several other SACDs.

Finally, we turn to video. For this I used my Sony G90 projector, with 9-inch CRTs, and a Faroudja DVP-5000 video processor. The 9100 offered the classic, enjoyable Sony image that I have grown to admire. I watched Something's Gotta Give and Gangs of New York. The 9100 rendition was vibrant, almost luminescent. Faces had an appealing warmth; detail popped out. Colors seemed utterly natural to me. And when I tried to do an A/B test with the 999, using the Lexicon as a switcher and plugging the players into different component different inputs, once again the 999 and the 9100 seemed remarkably similar though not identical. The 9100 image might have seemed just a little cleaner, with perhaps just a bit less video noise. But to be honest the difference was so slight I cannot be certain.

My G90 does not have an HDMI input. So I hauled the player into another room and plugged it into another Sony set, a KD-36XS955 36-inch direct-view set with both component and HDMI inputs. The HDMI input was a bit sharper and cleaner, no question. If you have a TV with an HDMI input, use it.

The direct-view set professes to offer 1080-line HDTV, though horizontal resolution is certainly much less than the 1920 lines that the standard provides. In any case, I used the player's upconversion to pump a 1080i HDMI signal into the display. The TV recognized it as a high-definition signal, as well it should given that a Sony player was talking to a Sony TV. But I have to say the upconversion circuitry in the player appeared no better to my eyes than the upconversion circuitry in the television. For my application I saw no particular benefit from using the player's unconversion circuits instead of the TV's. Buyers who don't have a TV with upconversion circuits equal to those in the KD-36XS955 will find this feature to be more useful.

This is a superb DVD player, no question. But the number of improvements and new features is relatively modest, when compared to its predecessor, which might raise the question of whether it makes sense to upgrade, if you have Sony's older machine, or another similar player. For some people the HDMI output might be worth the price, if they have a newer display that uses it. Others, however, might decide that now is not the time to buy a new DVD player. After all, new high-definition DVD players are likely to be out by next spring, and they are likely to be in this general price range.

That may be one reason Sony did not push hard to make this a dramatically new player. The company realized that the DVP-NS999ES was aging, and consumers were demanding DVD players with HDMI outputs, so Sony had to respond. But beyond that, the upgrades in the 9100 are modest. Much of the company's energy in this field right now, more than likely, is being used to gear up for the launch of Blu-ray, high-definition DVD players in the coming year.

If you do want or need a new DVD player and are a fan of SACD, not DVD-Audio, this is the player to buy in the mid-price range. Spending thousands more won't get you appreciably better performance. You will not be disappointed.

Highs and Lows

• Superb video
• Outstanding SACD performance
• HDMI output

• Does not support DVD-audio
• Few new upgrades or features to go with price increase
• Uninspiring remote