ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

May 1, 2006

Exemplar/Denon DVD-3910 Universal Audio/Video Player

When is a Denon DVD-3910 universal A/V player not a Denon? Answer: When it’s an Exemplar. Exemplar Audio’s modifications and internal rebuild of the Denon DVD-3910 go far beyond the usual mods of branded audio equipment. As a starter, the Exemplar sticker on the faceplate indicates that the originally solid-state player now includes tubes. Other internal changes transform an already respectable player into one fit for the best audio systems.

Without access to a stock unit, I couldn’t compare the modified and unmodified versions. When I asked Exemplar’s John Tucker why he chose the Denon, he said, "Because it’s well built and a great value."

Listing at $1500 USD, the stock DVD-3910 has build, heft, and can play virtually anything that comes on a 5" optical disc. A Google search indicated that the Denon DVD-3910 gets favorable responses from reviewers and users alike, most of whom focus on its video capabilities (it’s marketed as a home-theater DVD player). But this isn’t another review of the Denon DVD-3910; it’s a review of Exemplar Audio’s DVD-3910 ($5000 USD). My sole interest lay in what it could do to and for music playback in a two-channel system.

Inside and outside the Exemplar DVD-3910

John Tucker is Exemplar Audio. He designs and produces a single-ended 300B power amplifier, a line-level preamp, and D/A converters, and offers services in modification and custom design for individuals and other manufacturers, including a new "statement" amp for DK Design Group. In addition to the DVD-3910, he also modifies Denon’s DVD-2910 and DVD-5910 universal A/V players. In fact, I first heard of Exemplar through audio buddies who were enthusiastic about the DVD-2910. Tucker’s website, www.exemplaraudio.com, can give you more detailed descriptions of his work and product line, and a list of ten Exemplar dealers around the country.

Like other modifiers of stock equipment, Tucker does the usual job of upgrading to audiophile standards a product’s resistors, rectifiers, and capacitors. But the most important changes are these three: replacement of the clock circuit, active loading technology, and replacing the solid-state output section with tubes. The stock internal clock is replaced by the high-performance Tent Engineering Clock Circuit. Tucker’s custom, actively loaded shunt regulator powers it. He then adds even more to Denon’s existing circuitry, including the new shunt-regulated tube stage. This high-voltage solid-state circuitry also replaces the usual resistors in a tube output stage. Tucker is quick to share credit for this advanced active loading technology with his late mentor and friend, John Camille.

Exemplar takes the luxury route, replacing Denon’s internal wiring with Siltech Gen 5s, which made the DVD-3910 a happy camper in my Siltech-wired system. Because the DVD-3910 can accept a variety of tubes (6829, 5965, CV 8431, and 7062 all work), tube rollers should be happy as well. After my first Exemplar arrived damaged in shipping, a replacement was sent by a SoundStage! colleague, along with a pair of Amperex E180CC/7062 tubes for me to audition. After diligent listening, I replaced them with Tucker’s stock 6829s. They may have a less exalted pedigree, but they vastly improved the sound, which was now warmer and more lifelike but still provided all the top-end snap and detail I could have asked for.

At the factory, Denon sets a default 50kHz filter for SACD playback, though this can be changed to 100kHz in the audio section of the setup menu. The Exemplar, on the other hand, is set up to run at the unit’s full capability of 100kHz. If you want to use the Exemplar in a multichannel home-theater system, you can, but it won’t use the tube output. However, the changes in the power supply and the new clock circuit should improve the sound of multichannel playback.

The exterior and rear of the stock DVD-3910 remain unchanged -- only the neat Exemplar sticker on the front indicates that this is a different animal. Denon’s looks are nice in a boxy, hi-fi-gear sort of way; nothing offensive, but lacking the exotic touches affected by some manufacturers. The upper third of the front includes the disc tray and a minimal row of operational buttons -- the remote control has all the buttons you’ll want and many you probably won’t use. Below the bevel that runs across the unit are a display window whose defeatable output is large enough to read from a reasonable distance, various buttons for home theater functions, and a few that concern us more.

If, like me, you’ll use the Exemplar only for music recorded on CD and SACD, the button of greatest interest is marked Super Audio CD Setup. You choose Normal (for stereo), Multichannel, or CD (the "Red Book" layer). You’ll need this only for hybrid discs; the DVD-3910 automatically defaults to the disc’s primary format. Unless you manually turn the DVD-3910 off it automatically reverts to Standby position, minimizing warmup time and tube wear.

The rear panel sports an array of input and output jacks, video connections, and more; the only ones of interest to me were the pair of clearly marked two-channel output RCAs. Because John Tucker leaves the Denon’s video section untouched, you can still benefit from it in a home-theater system that does double duty as a main music system.

The sound

The Exemplar was inserted into a reference system that included the Metronome Signature transport and DAC, Wyetech Opal line-stage preamplifier, Jadis JA-80 monoblock amplifiers, Von Schweikert VR-4 Gen.III HSE speakers, and Siltech Classic Series Mk.II interconnects and speaker cables. Accessories included the high-performance, high-value Vibrapod Isolators and Cones, Harmonix footers, L’art du son disc-cleaning fluids, and a Bedini Ultra Clarifier.

Because my previous experience with the SACD format had been with players of lesser quality, I was interested in doing A/B listening, switching between the SACD and CD layers of hybrid discs. My initial attempt was compromised because I used SACD/CD reissues of golden age recordings, and the sound of tape hiss (or a rushing sound akin to tape hiss) was sometimes bothersome. John Tucker says that’s built into the Denon, whose extreme bandwidth (2Hz-100kHz) makes obvious what more limited bandwidths obscure. I suspect he’s right; the hiss or rush didn’t show up on recently recorded SACD discs, though a few did exhibit very slight background hiss.

The Exemplar DVD-3910 was also somewhat prone to static. Every now and then, especially when playing SACDs, I’d hear a brief clicking sound, usually when starting a disc or jumping between tracks. Tucker told me this was endemic to the Denon DVD-3910 and DVD-2910, though not to Denon’s (and Exemplar’s) top-of-the-line DVD-5910. The hiss and static never amounted to more than a minor annoyance -- hardly a reason not to consider purchase of this superb musical instrument. After a while I got used to both; they no longer bothered me because they didn’t materially affect the music, which blossomed through the Exemplar.

Returning to that comparison of SACD and CD tracks: In general, I found few meaningful differences, and those largely of degree. Most of the time, my preference for one format over another was a fairly close call. Bear in mind that I listened to SACD two-channel tracks; multichannel, which is a nonstarter for me, might possibly have altered my reactions (though from what I’ve heard in demonstrations, I doubt it).

Peter Wispelwey’s set of Beethoven’s complete cello music [Channel Classics 22605] offers an individual take on these works. My favorites are still the versions by JŠnos Starker and Mstislav Rostropovich, but Wispelwey’s imaginative use of rubato and portamento is compelling, especially in sound that lets you hear every nuance and overtone in his panoply of timbral colors. His dynamic range on this recording is enormous yet never overbearing, and the pearly trills on the piano, the balance between the instruments, and the air surrounding the players are impressive in both formats. I found it hard to decide which I preferred, though the immediacy of the SACD won out over the CD layer, which set the players slightly farther back on the stage.

I had a similar reaction to Olatunji’s exciting Circle of Drums disc [Chesky SACD295], its rhythmic drive welded to traditional styles and spiritual beliefs. Here the Exemplar’s powerful bass was intoxicating -- and I’m no bass freak. Presumably it’s even more thrilling in multichannel, but even in only two channels I preferred the SACD’s upfront sound, which revealed more of the venue. But even if I’d heard only the CD layer, I’d still be a happy toe-tapper.

Turning to the Boston Baroque’s fine version of Bach’s Magnificat [Telarc SACD-60651], the SACD layer emerged a clear winner. Both layers reproduced the thrill of the brightly gleaming trumpets, but the CD track was like a reproduction of a print -- its slightly fuzzy lines weren’t as accurate or as pleasing as the clean, clearly defined lines of chorus and soloists on the SACD track. But again, this was a shift of degrees, not paradigms.

After listening to the above discs and many others, I concluded that, for me, two-channel SACD wins on points -- but it was a close fight with no knockouts. Because the Exemplar DVD-3910 includes the HDCD chip, I made sure to play one of Reference Recordings’ fine releases, all of which employ the HDCD process. I often use Mephisto & Co. [RR-82CD], a collection of short classical blockbusters, and particularly Saint-SaŽns’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which has huge dynamic range and timbral accuracy, among many other virtues. I can’t recall having heard this recording sound more impressive through my system with any other player.

Curious about DVD-Audio, I dug out the only disc I have in that format, a promotional sampler from Warner/Reprise. Eric Clapton’s "Got You On My Mind" was startling in its immediacy, Clapton sounding as if he were only a few feet away. Other tracks exhibited a similar you-are-there quality; even the violins in Joni Mitchell’s "A Case of You" (in her later, orchestral recording) sounded smooth without a hint of edginess. It left me wanting to hear more recordings in this format.

A missed opportunity from the recent past is the 24-bit/96kHz Digital Audio Disc format pioneered by such audiophile labels as Classic Records and Chesky. I was so impressed with 24/96 DAD recordings when they first came out that I held on to several Classic releases, even though my "Red Book" CD players couldn’t read them. Now, with universal players like the Exemplar, I can refresh my memory of their sound.

I played several DADs and found them uniformly impressive, but the one I kept coming back to was John Coltrane’s Blue Train, remastered from Blue Note 1577 [Classic DAD 1028]. With a sextet including trumpeter Lee Morgan and trombonist Curtis Fuller in the front line, this was a spine-tingling experience, as alive and as open a recording as I’ve heard. Coltrane is in top form throughout, weaving long-lined solos and playing with tremendous vitality. Morgan’s sweet-sounding statement of the melody of "Lazy Bird" is stunning, and when he builds into a dazzling solo, I had to start the track over again to savor it one more time. I heard more of Philly Joe Jones’s drum kit and cymbal work than I’d ever experienced in a jazz recording of c. 1957, here in stereo originally taped by the great Rudy Van Gelder.

My Blue Train experience led to some extended jazz listening sessions sparked by the arrival of one of the great finds in jazz history -- a hitherto lost 1957 recording, Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, with both of those jazz immortals at their peaks, originally made by the Voice of America for overseas broadcast [CD, Blue Note 35173].

My fears that the live monophonic sound might have suffered the ravages of time and circumstance were dispelled by the haunting opening piano soliloquy of "Monk’s Mood." This ruminative but clearly focused introduction leads to a long-lined Coltrane solo backed by Monk’s keyboard runs and punctuations. This recording -- adequate for its time and place but hardly what today we’d call audiophile quality -- became an unforgettable listening experience thanks to the Exemplar’s timbral rightness, liquidity, and rhythmic accuracy. The Exemplar quickly made me forget any dated aspects of the sound and appreciate its honesty and truthfulness: it was a total immersion in music reproduced without hi-fi gloss. On some tracks, whether through mid-concert changes in microphone placement or other technical reasons, the sound was more cohesive and upfront, with detailed bass and drums more solidly integrated into the picture. But I never missed the lack of stereo, SACD, or DVD-A.

You don’t abruptly climb down from that sort of music-induced emotional high. You step down slowly by feeding it with more -- in my case, several releases in Blue Note’s The Very Best series, beginning with the Thelonious Monk entry [Blue Note 77389], a superb transfer of a well-chosen baker’s dozen tracks produced by Alfred Lion between 1947 and 1952. Except for fact that these are monaural recordings, they sounded as fresh as anything made yesterday, conveying in all their glory the individualism of Monk’s piano style, Max Roach’s driving, detailed drumming, Kenny Dorham’s gleaming trumpet, and more. The album throws off spark after spark, like others I’ve heard in this outstanding series.


The compulsion to keep listening was what separated my response to the Exemplar/Denon DVD-3910 from my response to the vast majority of CD players I’ve heard in my system. Only the Reimyo CDP-777 has had the same effect on me, and while the CDP-777 is still the best I’ve ever heard, it lists for triple the Exemplar’s price. My difficulty in ending those listening sessions tells me the Exemplar is true to the music, conveying the sonic and emotional truths of the discs it plays. To me, that’s the most important factor.

What was it that gave the Exemplar its emotional punch? It’s not due to the euphonic overlays typical of earlier tube electronics -- I found the Exemplar’s sound as close to neutral as I’d want. Nor could that rare involving quality be credited to the Exemplar’s other attributes -- expanded bandwidth, tonal rightness, dynamics, soundstage, palpability, detail, or any of a dozen or so other things. Other elite players have most of those attributes, though most of them to a lesser degree.

My guess is that the Exemplar encouraged compulsive listening by this music lover because all of these factors were combined in a package that was consistent in its excellence. Another player might have, say, killer dynamics or detail as good as the Exemplar’s, but it might also have leaner timbres, or stress one area of the total spectrum -- usually, to my dismay, the mid-treble.

But the Exemplar/Denon DVD-3910 universal player excelled across the board. That’s why it belongs on anyone’s short list of top units you can buy without selling your children. Even at $5000, it qualifies as a great value in high-end audio.

…Dan Davis

Exemplar/Denon DVD-3910 Universal Audio/Video Player
Price: $5000 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor (upgrade work only); Denon factory warranty voided due to modifications.

Exemplar Audio
2909 95th Drive SE
Everett, WA 98205
Phone: (425) 334-4733

E-mail: jtucker@exemplaraudio.com
Website: www.exemplaraudio.com

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