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HARMAN KARDON DVD-1, £450

 

DVD has become established as a mainstream consumer technology far quicker than anyone expected and that is due in part to an unusually wide manufacturing base very early on in the format’s short and eventful history. In addition to all of the usual consumer electronics companies there are quite a few new brands on the shelves, slugging it out at the budget end of the market, and several names that we are familiar with but had not until now associated with video. However, the technical and mechanical similarities between CD and DVD plus the format’s audio capabilities and compatibility means that it is a natural market for serious hi-fi companies like Harmon Kardon to venture into.

 

The DVD-1 is HK’s first player and it has started out with what appears to be a very basic specification. This is not at all unusual on high-end audio products, where less can often mean more by doing away with unnecessary sound mangling widgets and fripperies. Products from prestigious hi-fi brands also command a higher price premium so the £450 being asked for the DVD-1 doesn’t come as much of a surprise either, but what we were not expecting was for the player to be built in China, which until now has been mostly sourcing budget-priced DVD players. Don’t get us wrong, in general there’s nothing wrong with Chinese made electronic products – they’re getting plenty of practice -- you just don’t expect them to be making kit for high-end brands like HK.

 

There’s no indication on the feature list of where the money is going, indeed it’s hard to find any additional features other than what is needed to play audio CDs and DVDs. About the only things we could come up with was a 9-scene bookmark facility and illuminated buttons on the remote handset. There is one other feature we should mention, though you won’t find it listed anywhere, and that’s the region lock. It can be disabled from the player’s remote control handset so it’s classed as a firmware hack and doesn’t affect the guarantee. For the record the player has to be in standby mode, with the disc tray empty enter the following code: 3141592, followed by the region number. So if you wanted to switch from Region 2 to Region 1, the eighth digit should be 1. If you get it right ‘Hello’ appears in the display window and it’s set.  Sadly there’s no Region 0 (region free) setting and the video output will be whatever is on the disc, in other words if you’re playing an American R1 disc you’ll get a raw NTSC signal on the player’s video output. If you are thinking of getting one just make sure your TV can handle it!

 

Some of the price can be put down to the classy casework and cosmetics, which is designed to match other HK AV products, both visually and technically with an integrated remote control system. The design is very smart indeed and we particularly like the illuminated buttons on the front panel and the headphone socket with level control is a useful bonus. Set-up and day to day controls are very straightforward; one unusual feature is the single button menu control that access the set-up menu when the player is in stop mode (or no disc is loaded) and the disc menu when it’s playing back.

 

The DVD-1 has no picture controls but that’s not a problem since the video processing and factory set-up are close to optimum. The image is crisp and well balanced with comparatively little information lost in darker scenes and shadows. Resolution is a better than average rendering lots of fine detail, colours are bright and natural looking, even on skin tones and areas of high saturation. Trick play options are limited (the fastest search speed is only x16) but it looks reasonably fluid, we didn’t seen any processing artefacts – even in really busy scenes – and layer change takes around a quarter of a second.

 

It is clear Harmon Kardon has put a fair amount of effort into the machine’s audio performance and audio CDs have an added depth and clarity that you rarely hear on budget and even mid-market players. The mixed stereo output is also very clean, background noise levels are kept in check and the response is flat and wide enough to do justice to a good Dolby Surround soundtrack and decent Pro Logic amp. Dolby Digital and dts data leaves the player in near perfect condition and owners of top class equipment will find little to complain about.

 

Picture quality is comparable with the better mid-market players and you can easily pay as much for top-name CD player of similar capabilities, so maybe the £450 being asked for this machine isn’t so bad after all? HK fans will need no further convincing but we feel that it’s pitched a little high for the mass consumer market. A few more convenience features wouldn’t have gone amiss either, nothing fancy you understand, but a decent set of trick play options would have been a step in the right direction.

 

Contact Harman Kardon/Gamepath, 01908 317707

 

BOX COPY 1 – REMOTE VIEWING

This is a remote you can do business with. Press a little button in the bottom right-hand corner and all of the buttons light up – great stuff! The main transport keys are large and shaped and all of the other regularly used buttons are exactly where you would expect to find them. The handset is ergonomically shaped and the centre of gravity is well forward, so it points naturally in the right direction. Knowing the way the industry works it’s probably all accidental, but whoever designed this one got it just right!

 

BOX COPY 3 – AROUND THE BACK

Twin SCART sockets are a bit of a luxury and it means less aggravation when trying to accommodate more than a couple of AV devices on a TV with a single AV input. The SCARTs are configured for RGB output and are looped-through, so you can connect other devices with an RGB output. There are separate S-Video and composite video output sockets and both optical and coaxial digital bitstream (dts compatible) for good measure. The two jack sockets on the right side are for Harmon Kardon’s proprietary integrated remote control system, enabling other compatible products to be controlled via the DVD-1’s IR sensor and vice versa. 

 

THE HARD FACTS

Harman Kardon DVD-1

OUTPUTS

SCART             Y

S-Video             Y

RGB out                        Y

Component                    N

Optical digital            Y

Coaxial digital            Y

5.1 decoder                   N

 

EXTRA FEATURES

Region 2 (see text), PAL/NTSC replay, multi-speed replay, dts compatible bitstream output, 9-scene marker, illuminated remote handset buttons

 

GOOD POINTS

AV performance, classy design and easy of use, extra points for the remote

 

BAD POINTS

Basic specification and highish price

 

Ease of use            5

Picture  5

Sound               5

Features            3

Overall  4

 

BUYERS GUIDE EXTRA INFO

Price                 £450

SCART 2

S-Video 1

Digital out            optical, coaxial

Decoder            none

 

Good Points

AV performance, classy design and easy of use, extra points for the remote

 

Bad points

Basic specification and highish price

 

Rating

4

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LG DVD-3200, £200

 

Past experience has shown that most manufacturers coming into to the DVD market really get into their stride after the second or third model range. On that basis the next budget DVD we see from LG should be a real cracker. Unfortunately the DVD-3200 marks only a relatively small improvement over its first entry-level machine, the DVD-2330, which appeared late last year. The 2330 actually did fairly well and came across as a decent enough machine selling for the then reasonable price of £250, but LG’s timing was a wee bit unfortunate. The 2330 reached the shops at about the same time as the floodgates opened with a wave of ultra cheap decks, many costing less than £200, several of them with high-end features like on-board Dolby Digital decoders. LG responded quickly and the price of the 2330 has since fallen to around £190, but the arrival of the DVD-3200, priced at just under £200 still puts them a step or two behind the budget leaders, in a segment of the market that LG has traditionally been a force to be reckoned with in other home entertainment technologies.

 

Although the core specification has changed very little from its predecessor the new machine has been given a facelift and it now looks quite smart in its silver livery and slimmed down case. There are number of welcome additions to the feature list and these include 3D sound and NTSC playback. The range of trick-play modes has been improved as well and now provides four slomo speeds (x1/16, x1/8, x1/4 and x1/2 normal speed in both directions) and four bi-directional picture search speeds (x2, x4, x16 and x100). It also has a two stage picture zoom (4x and 16x) and a 5-scene bookmark but the question is, are they enough to make it stand out from the crowd?  

 

Many machines in the sub £200 price bracket have easily hackable region code locks, or none at all; as far as we are aware the 3200 is fixed on Region 2 playback. At the time of going to press none of the usual web sites have any details about how to change that situation. It shouldn’t matter but it does and for some this lack of flexibility will count against it.  Operationally it is quite well behaved and easy to use; on-screen displays are confined to a simple menu bar that appears on the left side of the screen Available options include language and soundtrack settings and switching 3D sound on and off. One small bonus is the fact that you can switch to the high-level deck set-up menu without exiting playback; the picture is blanked, but once you have made changes you can return to the point where you left off. 

 

One thing that hasn’t changed is the lack of an optical bitstream output, not in itself a big problem, but some may find this inconvenient. The coaxial bitstream output is now dts compatible though. A new remote handset is included with this machine and it is markedly easier to use than the one that came with its predecessor.

 

Picture quality hasn’t changed a great deal since the 2330, overall it is quite good though we feel that skin tones are still a bit flat and it doesn’t fully render all of the subtle variations in shade that some of the better players are able to manage, nevertheless colour accuracy is fine and images look reasonably natural. Resolution is generally okay but on our sample some fine detail was lost when there was a lot of activity on the screen. The picture’s dynamic range is fair to middling though shadows and dimly lit scenes manage to obscure some picture information. We didn’t see any processing artefacts and layer change is about average, taking just under a quarter of a second on most of our test discs.

 

The mixed stereo output has a wide and flat response with plenty of room for Dolby Surround soundtracks. Background hiss is adequately well suppressed; low-level sounds and dialogue are clearly focused and there’s sufficient bass to drive big action blockbuster effects.  It stacks up quite well as an audio CD player as well, comparable with mid-range players and systems in it ability to extract fine detail in most types of music.

 

There is no doubt that the 3200 is an improvement over the 2330 and we are pleased to see new features like NTSC playback and the revamped remote, but little things, like the lack of an optical bitstream output continue to irritate. Visually it looks a lot better and it doesn’t look out of place alongside players costing significantly more. However, whilst LG has done a lot to improve this machine the fact remains that rival manufacturers continue to up the ante with cheaper and better-specified players that will inevitably make them look like more attractive propositions. The LG brand simply doesn’t have the same kudos as the better-known Japanese and European brands, which is a shame because there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this player; it’s just not very interesting.

 

Contact LG Electronics 01753 500470

 

BOX COPY 1 – REMOTE VIEWING

The remote handset supplied with the 2330 was a bit of a dog and we are very pleased to see that it has been replaced on this new machine. As you can see it is on the large size but the layout has been well thought out and all of the most frequently used control and transport buttons are large, clearly labelled, easy to identify and fall readily to hand. We even quite like the number shaped buttons, though past experience has shown they attract crud like mad and quickly become sticky, so don’t forget to wipe your fingers if you’re eating pizza… 

 

BOX COPY 3 – AROUND THE BACK

Although not a huge problem -- and most users probably won’t miss it -- we reckon the lack of an optical bitstream output is a bit short-sighted. Otherwise the back panel has a fairly routine selection of socketry. The single SCART socket can be configured for RGB or S-Video output, this option is on the player’s set-up menu. There are separate S-Video and composite video outputs and the analogue mixed stereo output is carried by a pair of phono sockets. NTSC output is selected using a small switch next to the video output phono.

 

THE HARD FACTS

LG DVD-3200               

OUTPUTS

SCART             Y

S-Video             Y

RGB out                        Y

Component                    N

Optical digital            N

Coaxial digital            Y

5.1 decoder                   N

 

EXTRA FEATURES

Region 2, PAL/NTSC replay, dts compatible bitstream out, multi-speed replay, 2-stage picture zoom, 3D sound, 5-scene marker

 

GOOD POINTS

Average to good AV performance, improved features and styling

 

BAD POINTS

Lacklustre specification, no optical bitstream output

 

Ease of use            4

Picture  4

Sound               4

Features            3

Overall  3

 

 

BUYERS GUIDE EXTRA INFO

Price                 £200

SCART 1

S-Video 1

Digital out            coaxial

Decoder            none

 

Good Points

Average to good AV performance, improved features and styling

 

Bad points

Lacklustre specification, no optical bitstream output

 

Rating

3

 

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ENCORE DV-450, £230

Any thoughts we may have had lately, that DVD technology might be getting just a bit predictable, has been quickly dispelled by the recently arrived Encore DV-450. It looks ordinary enough from the outside, in fact it is an unusually dull-looking black box, but the first sign that it’s a bit different comes when loading and unloading discs. When the flap opens you get a glimpse of cream-coloured plastic inside. Instead of the usual drive DVD mechanism inside the box there’s a fully encased 5.25-inch PC DVD-ROM drive. We haven’t seen one of those in a home deck DVD for quite a long time. One or two players in the very early days of DVD had them but we put that down to supply problems on purpose-built deck mechanisms. PC drives almost certainly cost more and requires non-standard interface circuitry, so it’s even more surprising to see one in such an apparently well-equipped and modestly priced player.

 

The headline features on this machine are an on-board Dolby Digital decoder and component video output, both of which were regarded as luxury fitments as recently as a year ago. Take a closer look at the features list and you’ll spot another very unusual addition and that’s MP3 replay. MP3, in case you haven’t heard is a data compression system that’s mainly used to send sound and music files around the Internet, for downloading onto PCs. From there MP3 files can be transferred to memory cards and downloaded into personal players or, and this is the salient point as far as we are concerned, copied to CD-R or CD-RW discs on PCs with a CD ‘burner’. If you are wondering where all this is going, CD-R/RW discs can be filled with up to 12 hours worth of music, which can be played on the DV-450. We’ll deal with the quality in a moment…

 

Back now to the home cinema oriented features. One unadvertised facility is the player’s easily changed or disabled region lock. It’s in the player’s ‘firmware’, so here’s no need to remove the lid and risk voiding the warranty. The exact procedure is as follows: put the deck in stop mode, select the Setup menu then General Setup, tap in 38883 and a menu called ‘Loopholes’ and a message ‘You should not be here’ appears with a listing of Regions and Bypass or all region playback. Use the cursor buttons to make your selection and the deed is done.

 

Connections and operation are both very good. The single SCART carries both RGB and S-Video (in addition to normal composite video), Separate S-Video and composite sockets are also provided and there are three component video outputs, for high-end TVs and video projectors. It’s worth having since it clearly doesn’t add anything to the price but be aware that Component video is the preferred video connection system for NTSC material, on PAL discs you’re better off using S-Video or RGB. On-screen displays show the usual time, chapter, subtitle and language info, everything else lives on the setup menu, which can be accessed during disc replay, without loosing your place when the picture freezes. 

 

If our sample is anything to go by the PC drive has no impact on picture or sound quality and the DV-450 looks and sounds as good as any ‘normal’ DVD player, better in fact than some we could mention. The image is filled with fine detail, colours are sharp and well-defined, skin tones look okay and the contrast balance is not too bad at all. Layer change is over in a couple of frames; blink and you’ll miss it. Trick play is very good but slomo access is a bit clumsy forcing the user to step through forward speeds to get to the three reverse slomo speeds.

 

The Dolby Digital decoder works very well with all channels clearly defined and effects tightly focused within the soundfield. The frequency response is wide and open and background noise is at a very low level. The mixed stereo output is also clean with no more than average noise levels. It’s fine for Dolby Surround soundtracks. The added ingredient on this machine is MP3 replay. MP3 sound quality is typical of what the format is capable of, which means it is okay for undemanding applications – personal stereos and party music – but even the most carefully coded files sound flat and uninvolving and it is not a substitute for CD or even good quality tape cassette.

 

From the outside the DV-450 doesn’t look very promising but AV performance is as good, if not a little better than many budget priced players but the fact that it has a built in Dolby Digital decoder and hackable region lock makes it an even more attractive proposition. MP3 replay is an interesting extra but don’t let it influence your buying decision, and the odd deck arrangement obviously isn’t a concern. Encore is one of a number of new and unfamiliar brands, we suspect many will fall by the wayside but if Encore can continue with this kind of value and quality it could be one of the survivors.

 

Contact Laser UK, (01895) 450450, www.laseruk.co.uk

 

BOX COPY 1 – REMOTE VIEWING

The remote control handset looks pretty much like a standard issue item, similar to ones supplied with a wide range of AV components. DVD operation was clearly not its original intended function nor has it been given a particularly high priority. Important and frequently used controls, like Play and Stop are not defined by size or shape, in fact the transport buttons are mixed in with the rest of the keys so they’re not that easy to find by touch, if you’re watching movies in a darkened room.

 

BOX COPY 3 – AROUND THE BACK

It’s an impressive sight and there’s something for everyone here. The SCART socket can be configured for RGB or S-Video and there are individual sockets for composite video and S-Video signal outputs. The three video outputs on the far left carry component video, which is now becoming a familiar sight on top-end players. Component video works best with NTSC recordings, when shown on an NTSC or multi-standard TV or video projectors; most users will find little difference on PAL recordings. The audio outputs include separate connections for the mixed stereo and Dolby Digital channels. By the way, the DV-450 also has a front mounted headphone socket.

 

THE HARD FACTS

ENCORE DV-450

OUTPUTS

SCART             Y

S-Video             Y

RGB out                        Y

Component                    Y

Optical digital            Y

Coaxial digital            Y

5.1 decoder                   Y

 

EXTRA FEATURES

Region 2 (see text), PAL/NTSC replay, Dolby Digital decoder, dts compatible, MP3 replay, multi-speed replay, 2-stage picture zoom, 5-scene marker, front-mounted headphone socket and level control

 

GOOD POINTS

Price and performance, Dolby Digital, the loose region lock, and MP3, for them as wants it

 

BAD POINTS

Extra bland cosmetics and unhelpful remote control design

 

Ease of use            4

Picture  5

Sound               4

Features            5

Overall  5

 

BUYERS GUIDE EXTRA INFO

Price                 £230

SCART 1

S-Video 1

Digital out            optical & coaxial

Decoder            Dolby Digital

 

Good Points

Price and performance, Dolby Digital, the loose region lock, and MP3, for them as wants it

 

Bad points

Extra bland cosmetics and unhelpful remote control design

 

Rating

5

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Panasonic DVD-RV20, £300

As one of the pioneers of the DVD format it behoves Panasonic to adhere strictly to the specification, so you can forget any notions of an easily disabled region locks on any of its machines. Fair enough, but there are plenty of other ways the company can demonstrate its undoubted expertise, especially on a player with a price tag that puts it slap-bang in the middle of one of the most fiercely contested sectors of the market, or so you would think…

 

Panasonic is going to have to trade heavily on its good reputation to get the DVD-R20 noticed. The price of basic entry level players now starts at £150, there are several machines with built-in Dolby Digital decoders for less than £200, so for £300 or thereabouts – which is what you can expect to pay for a DVD-R20 – you might be forgiven for expecting something a little more exciting. Don’t get us wrong, this is a fine little machine and as we’ll see in a moment, AV performance is beyond reproach but you would, have to be a very big Panasonic fan to include it on your shortlist when there are so many other better-equipped players available for the same sort of money, or less.

 

In terms of features it is very much in the entry-level mould; as we’ve already pointed out there’s no 5.1 decoding, but why has Panasonic left out basic and we presume relatively inexpensive features, like a coaxial digital bitstream output and an RGB output option on the SCART socket? Apart from the standard playback facilities there’s only a couple of extras, x100 picture search is one of them, the others are 2-mode ‘Virtual Surround Sound’ (VSS) and it has a separate sub-woofer output. Admittedly it is a very sleek looking machine with its compact case and neatly presented front panel, but other manufacturers are going for the slim-line look and DVD players don’t sell just on looks – at least they shouldn’t.

 

Okay, so it’s basic but surely it has other redeeming features? The fact that it uses the same tried and tested on-screen display system as most previous Panasonic players should count for something, but there again, even after all this time it’s not without its funny little ways. For example take the way the operating system handles picture format changes. On most other players it’s a single option on the set-up menu, allowing you to choose between 16:9 and 4:3 in letterbox or pan & scan mode. On the RV20 these options are split, on the first menu page there’s 16:9 and 4:3 mode switch, the pan & scan/letterbox option is on another menu page, under ‘other settings’, so instead of 3 or 4 button clicks to make the selection, it can take 20 or more actions to achieve the same result on the RV20.

 

If the feature list is disappointing then you’ll be glad to know that the RV20 makes up a lot of lost ground with the on-screen performance. In short it’s one of the best pictures we’ve seen on any player this year, and that includes some quite fancy mid-market and top-end models. Resolution is impeccable, the smallest details are crisply revealed and do not mush out, even when the video processing circuitry is working overtime with lots of movement and rapid variations in brightness and colour. Colours are accurate and lifelike and there’s none of the blotchiness in skin tones that spoil the picture on a lot of players, and we’re not just talking about budget models. The contrast balance is good, shadows and moody scenes are crisply rendered and the fact that is doesn’t have any user picture controls isn’t a problem, it doesn’t need them!

 

Trick play is fluid and you get to hear the soundtrack at x2 normal speed, though we can’t say it’s much use since it’s an unintelligible babble. There were no processing artefacts to speak of though our sample didn’t much care for scratched or dirty discs and layer change is only average, taking a quarter of a second or thereabouts.

 

Background noise on the analogue mixed stereo output is very low and it has a broad and flat response, Dolby Surround soundtracks have plenty of room for loud and bass-heavy dynamic effects – it’s well worth making use of that separate sub-woofer output -- but it carries low level effects equally well and does a pretty good job with audio CDs too, comparing favourably with mid-range decks and systems. The optical bitstream output is clean but we can’t help feeling that leaving off the coaxial digital output is a mistake since it is the more commonly used system.  

 

In the end picture and sound quality save the RV20 from mediocrity and when it comes down to it, this is, or should be the number one buying criteria. Obviously we would have liked to see a few more bells and whistles and in the end we suspect a lot of would-be purchasers will be lured away by extra knobs and buttons, and lower prices, but for loyal Panasonic fans those who put performance first, the RV20 has to be worth considering.

 

BOX COPY 1 – REMOTE VIEWING

Panasonic has a bit of a chequered history with remote controls but the one supplied with the RV20 isn’t too bad at all. Good points include the large four-way cursor controls, sensible layout and clear labelling. However, several points are deducted for putting the picture search and chapter skip buttons so close together, this makes using the handset by ‘feel’ alone more difficult than it needs to be and until you get accustomed to it, you can find yourself skipping chapters, when trying to find the picture search buttons

 

BOX COPY 3 – AROUND THE BACK

Panasonic has been a bit mean with the output connections, which is a pity considering that it is capable of above average picture quality. The omission of an RGB connection on the SCART socket is regrettable, it doesn’t have S-Video either, though this is available on a separate mini DIN socket and it has a second composite video output. In addition to the standard analogue mixed stereo output there’s a line-level sub woofer output, just begging to be used with an active sub. There’s only one digital bitstream output, it’s an optical type, which is less common than coaxial bitstream connections and it’s possible this could cause problems on some set-ups.

 

Contact             Panasonic (08705) 357357, www.panasonic.co.uk

 

THE HARD FACTS

Panasonic DVD-RV20               

OUTPUTS

SCART             Y

S-Video             Y

RGB out                        N

Component                    N

Optical digital            Y

Coaxial digital            N

5.1 decoder                   N

 

EXTRA FEATURES

Region 2, PAL/NTSC replay, multi-speed replay, dts compatible bitstream output, 2-mode Virtual Surround sound, sub-woofer output, 5-scene marker

 

GOOD POINTS

Outstanding AV performance, compact neat design

 

BAD POINTS

Meagre specification for the price, no coaxial bitstream or RGB outputs

 

Ease of use            4

Picture  4

Sound               4

Features            3

Overall  4

 

BUYERS GUIDE EXTRA INFO

Price                 £300

SCART 1

S-Video 1

Digital out            optical

Decoder            none

 

Good Points

Outstanding AV performance, compact neat design

 

Bad points

Meagre specification for the price, no coaxial bitstream or RGB outputs

 

Rating

4

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Ó R. Maybury 2000, 0407

 

 

 


 

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