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AZUDA DVD-862, £159

VERDICT ****

 

Whyís it here: The massive growth of the DVD market in the last year or so has prompted all manner of companies to jump aboard the bandwagon, which goes some way towards explaining why there are so many unfamiliar names on the front of many recently launched players, particularly at the budget end of the market. Azuda is one that you almost certainly wonít have heard of before, though this company has been around for a while, building PCs for high-street known brands. The DVD-862 is actually assembled in Wales though you wouldnít know it form the sloppily translated instructions and peculiar warning notices, like the one on the back panel that sternly advising owners Ďnot to immerse in wateríÖ

 

Any unique features: The PC connection is immediately obvious inside the box as the unit is built around an enclosed drive mechanism, the type used in PCs, and itís a bit like a PC chassis with all of the bits bolted together with lots of little screws. The spec looks very enticing for the price, which is officially £200 though itís currently being sold on-line for just £159. The DVD-862 has an on-board Dolby Digital decoder but as far as we can make out the bitstream output is not dts compatible. Good news for fans of Region 1 discs though, the region lock Ė if indeed it has oneóhas been disabled and itíll play any sort of DVD you care to load in the tray. It can also play MP3 files on CD-R/RW discs and it has component video and RGB output, though strangely there are no SCART sockets on the back panel. Thereís a Scene Digest facility that generates a video menu from stills Ďgrabbedí from the start of each chapter, it has a two-stage picture zoom (2x & 4x), multi-speed replay and the power supply is universal in that it works on 100 to 240VAC 50/60Hz. It has a karaoke option featuring two microphone inputs, with mixing and echo facilities. Incidentally, the main processing board uses the popular ESS MPEG-2 processor chipset, the same one found in several A-Brand manufacturerís products.

 

The design and cosmetics are a little gaudy by current European standard but the front panel controls are well laid out and include access to the machineís set-up menu. On-screen displays are fairly basic but the machineís top-level menu can be called up during replay. The remote is an odd shape but again control accessibility is good, though slomo is a bit inconvenient as both forward and reverse speeds have to be called up in sequence from a single button.

 

How does it perform: Itís mostly good news but weíll begin on an operational point. Although it has multi-speed replay the range of speeds is very narrow with 2x, 4x, 6x, and 8x. On the other hand layer change is very quick and is all over in just a couple of frames, in most cases you wonít even notice it. The fact that the 862 uses the same processor chipset as some top-name players bodes well but the contrast range is not as wide as weíd hoped and some darker scenes can end up looking a bit gloomy, colour fidelity is very good though, as is the players ability to render fine detail and we didnít see any processing artefacts on any of our troublesome test discs.

 

Donít get too excited about MP3 replay, the quality is not much better than cheapo compact cassette, flat and uninvolving but without the hiss, though the facility to cram 10 hours or more of music on a disc could prove quite useful, and the karaoke facility could make this machine quite popular for parties. On to more serious matters and mixed stereo output is clean and uncoloured with no more than average levels of background noise. The Dolby Digital decoder works reasonably well, it misses some of the quieter and subtle effects, that we know should be there, and this contributes to a less well focused soundfield, compared with most mid-range machines, but as a first step on the Dolby Digital ladder and an introduction to the glories of 5.1 channel surround, it sounds great.

 

Our Verdict: Yes there are few rough edges, itís not the prettiest player weíve seen so far this year and AV performance is not going to set any new records but we mustnít loose sight of the fact that this is a well-specified machine with Dolby Digital sound and a whole bunch of advanced features selling for significantly less than £200. In particular may we draw your attention to the fact that this machine is effectively region-free, the component video output could be a bonus for some, and unlike many other players with this facility it has RGB output as well and Scene Digest is not something you see very often on players costing less than £300, let along sub £200 machines!

 

Contact Elecbrand, 01639 822222, www.yesola.co.uk

 

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Features            All Region, PAL/NTSC replay, Dolby Digital decoder, multi-speed replay, 2-stage picture zoom, scene digest, MP3 playback, karaoke facility with echo, repeat playback

           

Sockets             composite video, component/RGB video, 5.1 audio & coaxial bitstream (phono), S-Video (mini DIN), optical bitstream (TOSlink)

 

Dimensions                 

 

 

BUSH DVD-2009, £170

VERDICT ***

 

Whyís it here: The reason for introducing the DVD-2009 is clear enough, itís an entry-level player with a modest line of up features and in the scheme of things the asking price of around £170 is fair enough. However, it sits a little uncomfortably alongside Bushís other current player, the DVD-2002, which has a built-in Dolby Digital decoder. Obviously thereís nothing wrong with that, except that the 2009 is only £10 cheaper. There are other oddities, usually players within a manufacturers range have a clear family resemblance, but these two are as different as chalk and cheese. It seems that Bush DVD players have been selling by the shed-load and in order to meet demand has had to source its new budget player in double quick time from another factory.

 

Any unique features: It is an unusually small machine, just 390mm wide and that could be a selling point if youíre short on space. Otherwise the layout and cosmetics are fairly nondescript. The line up of features isnít terribly exciting either, you can judge how interesting they are from the fact that at the top of the list are items like 3D sound, a 5-scene marker and a 2x picture zoom. The way the operating system and on-screen display handles the multi-speed replay options is a little unusual, thereís four forward and reverse picture search and a quite ridiculous 11 slomo speeds, but itís the way theyíre presented thatís so odd. The search speeds are 2x, 4x, 8x and 15x, which is fair enough, but the on-screen display shows them as percentages, i.e. 200%, 400%, 800% & 1500%, and yes, we know you canít have more than 100% of anything. Percentages are also used to designate slomo speeds, which makes a little more sense, but whatís the point of having so many of them? 

 

Apart from that the on-screen display system is actually rather good, a bit like the oneís JVC use with the image appearing as an inset sub screen alongside the menu and disc information displays time, chapter, bit-rate etc). We havenít mentioned regional coding yet because as far as we can make out this machine is region-free, no fiddling around with hacks or codes, it plays R2 discs straight off and we suspect discs from any other region too, though you might want to check that first before buying one if thatís going to be a consideration.

 

Normally we donít expect too much form remote handsets on budget players but the one supplied with the 2009 is actually quite well designed, with large clearly labelled buttons, theyíre well spread out and infrequently used functions are tucked away out of sight beneath a flap.

 

How does it perform: The picture rates as satisfactory, the dynamic range could do with being a little wider as dark scenes look a bit murky; it does a fair job of extracting fine detail but colours lack vibrancy and subtle graduations in shade, are sometimes lost. Not that itís a bad picture but differences are evident when itís viewed alongside a typical mid-market player. It makes up for some lost ground with very clean processing and fast layer change Ė usually only one or two frames Ė and thatís something few players, including models costing two or three times as much, can manage. 

 

Audio CD performance is comparable with mid-range hi-fi components, it sounds clean but treble detail is a touch woolly. The Mixed stereo output has no more than average amounts of background hiss and overall the response is flat and uncoloured, carrying Dolby Surround effects without any difficulty. The TrueSound 3D option spreads and layers the soundfield but it lacks focus and is really only good for pepping up old mono and basic stereo soundtracks.

 

Our Verdict: As a basic budget machine the 2009 isnít too bad but there is a bit of a problem with the pricing and its proximity to the 2002. The trouble is there are now some very attractive and well specified machines selling for around £200, including several models with on-board Dolby Digital decoders, and that includes the 2002, which is selling for just £10 more. The matter is further complicated by other players from the same stable, thereís an Alba branded model Ė also with all region playback and eye-catching extras like Scene Digest Ė selling for only £150, not to mention several players from less well known and obscure brands at or around the same price point, offering considerably more in terms of features.

 

Contact Bush 020 8594 5533

 

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

           

Sockets             AV & RGB out (SCART), S-Video out (mini DIN) composite video, mixed stereo & coaxial bitstream (phono), optical bitstream (TOSlink)

           

Dimensions            390 x 100 x 315mm

           

 

HITACHI DV-P505, £300

VERDICT ***

 

Whyís it here: Whilst some manufacturers are on their fifth, sixth or even seventh DVD players to date Hitachi has only launched two machines in the UK, unless you count the weird and wonderful DV-W1E twin-deck DVD/CD-R machine. (Hitachiís very first player, the DV-P2E was a badge-engineered Pioneer machine). Not that there has been any need for Hitachi to churn out a succession of new products, itís first home-grown model the DV-P250 was, and still is a real cracker, so given the time it has taken to come up with this new machine, and the companyís past history of innovation we had quite high expectations for the DV-P505

 

Any unique features: Bearing in mind that big name brands like Hitachi tend not to get involved with cut-throat pricing at the budget end of the market, the £300 being asked for this machine seems quite reasonable, especially since it has a built-in Dolby Digital decoder, virtual surround and a two stage picture zoom. We are a little disappointed to see that it doesnít have the excellent Digest facility that Hitachi pioneered on the P250. Well, thatís not strictly true, it does have a scene digest mode, that grabs stills from the start of each chapter but hereís the rub, it only works on Video CDs and not DVDs. Thatís just what we need, a useful high-end feature that only works on an obsolete disc format, brilliant! What makes this even more ironic is that the feature is enabled for DVD on players from other makers sharing the same MPEG-2 processor chipset. 

 

Some things the designers have managed to get right though, like having a full set of setup controls on the front panel, which could get you out of trouble if the remote handset goes walkabout or the dog gets hold of it. Menu options are chosen using a little joystick on the front panel, which is fine except that the one on our test machine was a bit floppy and very sensitive. We hope that itís confined to our early and probably quite well used sample, but if youíre auditioning one in the shops give it a prod, just in case. Whilst weíre on the subject of the remote, we have to say itís not that great, button layout is haphazard and not terribly logical and thereís a recessed button for changing the video output (PAL, PAL60, NTSC and multi/auto) on the fly, very strangeÖ

 

As is customary with Hitachi DVDs (and VCRs for that matter) on-screen displays are quite bland and all youíll see during replay is basic track, chapter and time information; most routine operations are carried out from the remote handset. The setup menu can be engaged during replay (the machine goes into pause mode) and the main menu includes a fair assortment of audio adjustments for setting channel levels and delays.

 

It has multi-speed replay but the speed range is weird, thereís 2x, 5x and 10x normal, but the fourth speed is 100x, which makes trying to find a scene very difficult as more often than not you forget about the fourth speed option and go whizzing off past the point youíre trying to find as 100x search kicks in. It also has three forward and reverse slomo speeds but theyíre accessed sequentially from one button, which also makes disc navigation unnecessarily difficult.

 

The rear panel socketry is conventional enough though someone might want to have a look at the labelling for the mixed stereo output, which implies that you connect he lead to one of the 5.1 channel outputs. The SCART socket has a switchable S-Video and RGB output and all of the phonos are gold plated, which is always a welcome sight. Our machine was locked onto Region 2 replay and at the time of going to press we had no information about how to unlock it, though we strongly suspect a firmware hack is possible on this model.

 

How does it perform: In terms of picture quality the P505 adds little or nothing to its predecessor, which is to say that video performance is generally good, we would have liked to have seen a little more detail in darker scenes but it was no worse than average in that respect. Colour rendition is very good and it copes well with subtle shades, hues and skin tones. Trick play works well and later change is quick, taking less than two frames on average.

 

There is some hiss on the mixed stereo outputs but it is kept in check and isnít enough to be concerned about. Dolby Surround effects have plenty of headroom and the response is wide and flat. Dolby Digital soundtracks sound lively and the 505 generates a big busy soundfield full of sharply focused effects. 

 

Our Verdict: Thereís really nothing wrong with the P505; weíre sorry Hitachi has saw fit to drop or disable the Digest feature and the trick play options need tidying up but AV performance is up to scratch, it looks okay, the price is fair and itís well behaved, but to be honest we had expected something a little more interesting from Hitachi, given itís recent track record. The P505 feels like a bit of a stop-gap and we can only hope thereís something a bit more interesting around the corner.

 

Contact Hitachi 0345 581455, www.hitachitv.com

 

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Features            Region 2, PAL/NTSC replay, Dolby Digital & dts decoder, multi-speed replay, picture zoom, spatial sound

           

Sockets             AV & RGB/S-Video out (SCART),             composite video, 5.1 channel, mixed stereo & coaxial bitstream (phono), optical bitstream (TOSlink)

 

Dimensions                 

 

 

PHILIPS DVD-960, £520

VERDICT ***

 

Whyís it here: At one time or another most mainstream consumer electronics manufacturers go through a branding phase, producing a distinctively styled range of upmarket products, with price tags to match. It usually only lasts a year or two after learning the hard way that high-end markets are fickle and that volumes and margins do not fit in well with big company corporate strategies. Philips are an exception, it has stuck with itís Matchline range through thick and thin and we can trace the origins of this particular branding exercise back to the mid 1980ís, which is an age in the consumer electronics business.  The DVD-960 is a classic Matchline product bearing a strong family resemblance to the VR-969 Super VHS VCR, which as you may recall was the one with the round clock set into the front panel.

 

Any unique features: As you will know you there are some pretty spectacular machines on the market for that sort of money, so how does the 960 stack up against other high-end machines? Inside the very smart looking box there appears to be innards of one of Philips more ordinary mid-market players. The feature list is sparse; there are no 5.1 channel decoders or indeed anything that could be remotely described as a luxury feature, or even a gadget, unless you count the 3D sound mode though we have to report that the remote control is a bit unusual. To be honest itís one of the most interesting things about the whole machine, to begin with by our reckoning it is the largest remote handset supplied with a DVD player to date. From top to toe it measures no less than 23.7cm (10.7 inches in old money) beating the previous record holder (Hitachi DV-W1E) by a full 2mm. Not only that, it has multi-brand TV and AV amplifier control facilities and thereís a neat-looking jog/shuttle dial in the middle, for controlling the multi-speed replay options. Well, it would if there were any, itís a bit wasted on the paltry two picture search speeds (4x and 13x) and two slomo speeds (1/8x and 1/2x), moreover it is a bit touchy and difficult to control, and to make matters worse you have to press a button to enable the jog/shuttle facility.

 

On-screen displays are all very similar to previous Philips players, the only slightly unusual feature is a shift function, that moves the picture side to side, though nowhere in the book does it explain why. It may have something to do with the fact that this machine has a component video output, which is slightly mystifying in view of the fact that there are no Matchline, or indeed any TVs in the current Philips range with component video inputs. Component video, as you know is the video connection system of choice for NTSC playback, which might suggest that this machine has a loose region lock. Actually it does, and it can be switched to Region 1 playback by using the same code as previous Philips players, namely: Play 274, then enter 005 000 128 156 into the handset when the machine is in stop mode (Play 274, 002 000 128 156 to get it back again). However, this can only be done a maximum of 25 times, after which it sticks on the last Region setting. Itís also worth knowing that it only outputs raw NTSC, which means that on a lot of TVs youíll get a black and white picture.

 

How does it perform: All of the evidence points to the DVD-960 being all Ďkippers and curtainsí, with a fancy box housing quite ordinary guts. Nothing about the on-screen performance inspires us to change that view, picture quality is generally good, but itís no better than other Philips machines, including models costing a couple of hundred pounds less. The picture is crisp and detailed with natural looking colours, the contrast range is quite well balanced, the image is free of processing artefacts but layer change is comparatively slow and takes a little less than half a second.

 

Audio CDs sound very good though and it wouldnít disgrace itself in a decent hi-fi system. The mixed stereo output is a fraction sharper than usual too with a small but worthwhile reduction in background hiss levels good treble and the ability to carry a lot of heavyweight bass effects. 

 

Our Verdict: Itís a great pity that Philips didnít do a bit more to make the 960 distinctive, true it looks very smart and we cannot fault the slick styling but there has to more than just window dressing for that sort of money. No doubt it will appeal to Matchline fans and it will look good alongside any collection of AV components, but the bottom line has to be that if AV performance and features are your main considerations there are some outstanding players on the market for quite a lot less than £520.

           

Contact Philips 020 8689 2166

 

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Features            Region 2, PAL/NTSC replay, dts compatible bitstream output, trick play, multi-brand TV/amplifier remote handset

           

Sockets             AV & RGB/S-Video out (SCART),             component video, composite video, 5.1 channel, mixed stereo & coaxial bitstream (phono), optical bitstream (TOSlink)

           

Dimensions            430 x 95 x 275mm

           

---end---

R. Maybury 2000, 2707

 

 

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