By Jim Bray
Oppo Digital is back with a new universal player and, in the company's grand tradition, it's a winner.
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The UDP-203 takes all that was great about the company's BDP-103, and there was plenty, and adds 4K UHD and HDR capability. Along the way it also got a classy new interface and a remote control that, while it looks pretty much like the BDPs' that came before it, now lights up when you grab it - a really handy feature.
Oppo regularly knocks it out of the park with their products which, while priced higher than the average mainstream consumer might like to justify, are easily worth their weight in wampum if you're an audio and/or videophile. The stuff is built well, works great, and offers just about any feature you could want in such a device.
And the UHD-203 continues this fine tradition. I've only been using it for a few weeks at the time of this writing, but have fallen for it already. As mentioned, it's like their previous great universal disc players, but updated to take advantage of both the present and the near future of audio/video. And it will apparently be updated even more down the road. Oppo says it'll add Dolby Vision capability via a software update in the future - and if their "future" is anything like their past they'll have plenty of other downloadable upgradesthat will not only add new features but will also address issues that may come along. These updates are generally easily done via the units' networking capabilities.
The big new feature, of course, is that the UDP-203 plays the new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs, and it's one of only a handful of players that offer such capability so far. Its predecessor BDP's up converted 1080p (or whatever other resolution you had) to 4K, and they did it very well, but the UHD is the first Oppo to offer native 4K output - not just from UHD Blu-rays, but from such 4K streaming devices as the Roku Ultra (which offers 4K and HDR), which you can patch into the Oppo via its own HDMI input port.
The UDP-203 also supports High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Wide Color Gamut, though your TV will also have to support these if you want to take advantage of it. My 4K TV didn't when the UHD arrived, but it does now, thanks to a downloaded software upgrade, and the difference is noticeable immediately. Heck, I streamed some 4K HDR travelogue stuff from YouTube and some of it looked better than I'd ever seen a TV before, at least in my home.
The UDP-203 uses a customized quad-core video decoder/processor to work its video magic and to help ensure you get your entertainment fix as quickly as possible, it also fires up very quickly.
Salivating embarrassingly at the prospect, I dove right into my 4K discs, which include all three of the Star Trek reboots as well as Ron Howard's Angels and Demons (I also tried the 4K Deadpool). I did my testing using the Oppo's "Source Direct" resolution output, which passes through native signals without up conversion. Despite my 4K TV being only 55 inches in size, the difference was clear: colours are richer and the picture overall is smoother and more involving than even a great 1080p disc.
Then I turned on the Oppo's up conversion capabilities and tried the conventional Blu-rays again. The difference was noticeable, and the player did a fantastic job of turning regular HD into UHD - just like its predecessors did, to a quality that was close to, though not quite up to, the native 4K discs. Great 1080p titles like Guardians of the Galaxy and Avatar looked fantastic up converted, good enough that I won't be tempted run out and replace all my 1080p Blu-rays with 4K ones, which should save plenty of money over the next few years. Indeed, the Oppo's fine performance means it feasible to start purchasing 4K versions only of titles that aren't in my library already. As someone who's replaced VHS versions with Laserdiscs, then DVD's, and then Blu-rays, this is a very welcome thing!
The results weren't as spectacular when playing 480i or 480p DVD's or video files of questionable quality, but that's only to be expected. The up conversion via the Oppo always made videos look better, but even mighty Oppo can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
You can play pretty well anything through this Oppo, too. Not only will it play 4K and regular Blu-ray, it'll also handle Blu-ray 3D, DVD, DVD-Audio, SACD, and audio CD's - and that's just its disc-based capabilities! Thanks to its pair of USB 3.0 ports on the back (there's another port on the front, too), you can play video, music and photos from USB drives, while the Oppo's built-in 802.11ac Wi-Fi or Gigabit Ethernet capabilities let you connect the UDP-203 to your home network and play the stuff you have stored there. It's incredible flexibility, but this shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with Oppo's history.
One thing you can't access that you could with the BDP's is apps such as Netflix and YouTube. I don't think this will be a big deal, since most TV's being sold today are of the "smart" variety and have such apps built in already. And even if your TV is "dumb," you can still access such apps via things like the Roku, either patched through the Oppo or directly into the TV.
A "sound" investment…
Above and beyond the Oppo's prodigious video capabilities are equally prodigious audio chops. So besides CD, SACD and DVD-Audio discs, you can stream or play a huge variety of audio files, including AIFF, WAV, ALAC, APE and FLAC. It will also play Direct-Stream Digital audio files and, for your videos' audio enjoyment, it handles Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, with bit stream output for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
I love that Oppo still gives analogue outputs with its players - the UDP-203 includes 7.1 channels worth - because that's been my preferred playback method for years. All things being equal, the sound from the analogue outputs is generally cleaner, louder and more robust than audio via HDMI (which, of course, the Oppo will do as well). Oppo says the analogue section features "Velvet Sound" 32-bit premium digital-to-analog converters from AKM of Japan to handle the duties.
"Velvet" is a pretty good description, too, because the UHD's audio output is smooth and classy - depending, of course, on the quality of your music files. The player also features a "pure audio" mode you can access from the remote control; it shuts off all the video stuff and lets the player concentrate exclusively on reproducing the audio as best as it can.
UDP-203 purchasers with installed systems can rest assured the unit will integrate well with their equipment, thanks to RS-232 control, a back panel IR sensor and IP control. And if you want to send the UHD's output to two separate destinations (a TV, perhaps, and an A/V receiver?) there are two HDMI outputs on the back of the player. Unlike previous models, however, the UHD only has one video output, because of the higher data rate required for 4K. The other HDMI is for audio only.
Oppo has also made the UHD a nerd and a tweaker's dream. For example, when you press the "info" button on the remote, you get a readout on the screen showing stuff like elapsed/total time, the type of disc/file, etc. Keep that button pressed, and up pops a whole new info screen with lots more stuff you may or may not find interesting (does the disc have HDR, for example?). It's a little thing, but Oppo is great at giving you little things.
You can also tweak a dizzying array of features, including customizing the resolution and an amazing number of picture parameters. I messed with a lot of these just for the sake of science, but ended up leaving most settings on "automatic" because the Oppo does such a good job right out of the box that further tweaking, while fun and interesting, was mostly unnecessary. As for stuff like gamma, colour, etc., I used the HD Basics setup disc to check the Oppo's settings and it was virtually bang on with the test patterns right out of the box.
Ditto for the player's audio settings. Since I prefer using the analogue outputs, which bypass all the processing in my preamp/processor, balancing the speakers via the playback unit itself makes the most sense. Naturally, the Oppo facilitates this (and has for years, actually), so I set up the speaker sizes, distances, and crossover frequencies using the HD-203, which is an easy process if you know what you're doing (and not that bad even if you don't). Just make sure you have a sound pressure level meter on hand.
The UHD-203 also has an attractive and clean new interface with nifty wallpaper pictures instead of just a black background. You can no longer scroll "around" the home screen in one direction, so when you get to the leftmost icon you have to go right instead of continuing left and having the cursor appear on the rightmost icon. This is hardly a big deal, but I missed it.
The setup menu is pretty well the same as before (though with some different options that reflect the new features/technology) and that's okay with me; it's always been a model of efficiency and simplicity that some other companies should steal - er, be inspired by.
And of course there are handy little features throughout. One of my favourites is "gapless play." This addresses, partly, an issue that has driven me nuts for years: digital files of albums that had continuous cuts (Moody Blues, Pink Floyd albums, for example) in which the music went directly from one track to the next with no pause. Since digital files are self-contained and discrete from each other, playing them back leaves a slight pause between them, as the player switches from one file to the next. And it can destroy the mood of the album.
Then Oppo brought out gapless play, which is also featured on the UHD-203 and it works quite well. You access it from the "Options" menu via the remote control, and it's almost seamless when you play the tunes back from a disc or USB stick etc. Alas, it doesn't won't work if you're streaming across the network, so hopefully Oppo can address this someday. I know they're working on it. In the meantime, it's a thoughtful and handy bonus that's included in the unit's very reasonable $549U.S. price.
But that's an aside - an indication of just the type of thoughtful and useful things Oppo stuffs into its players. And there's enough other meat inside the UHD-203's attractive and solid chassis to entertain aficionados looking for the best in audio and video performance.
I figured the UDP-203 would turn out to be the latest in a line of great players from Oppo Digital, given its history, but you never know if a company is keeping up its quality or coasting on its name until you try, and after messing with most of the UHD-203's features I'm confident in saying that Oppo's is still on top, and that the UDP is their best player yet.
And if it isn't enough to assuage your audio needs, Oppo promises a higher end UDP-205 will be coming out in the next months. It's undoubtedly a 4K replacement for the excellent BDP-105 and may be overkill for many people, but it will probably be an excellent choice for those who want even better audio performance and flexibility. I can't wait to see what new goodies will be on it!
The UHD-203, recommended highly, is available on Oppo's website.
Copyright 2017 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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