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HITACHI DV-W1E, £600

VERDICT ****

 

Why’s it here:  It may have gone something like this. Marketing analysts poring over sales charts notice that DVD players and CD recorders are selling like hot cakes. They are both consumer technologies that end up in the living room and use shiny 5-inch discs, so here’s a thought chaps, why not put them both together into one box? In fact it’s not such a wild leap of imagination as you might think. Out in the Far East twin-deck CD recorders or copy decks have been selling spectacularly well for reasons that you can doubtless figure out for yourself, a couple have even made it to the UK in recent months. Replacing one of the CD decks with a DVD player is a relatively easy matter for a company like Hitachi that has fingers in both technological pies; hey-presto you’ve got the world’s first combination DVD/CD recorder. That was the easy bit, now all Hitachi has to do is convince us that we actually need the DV-W1E…

 

Any unique features: Looked at individually the DVD player and CD-Recorder sections are not that unusual, but the DV-W1E is much more than the sum of its parts. The DVD part has a lot in common with the DV-P250, including the splendid Disc Navigation feature which creates a visual menu what’s on the disc, 2-stage zoom and spatial sound. Hitachi has added a Dolby Digital and dts decoder and given it some extra replay speeds (120x fast picture search in both directions). The CD recorder benefits greatly from the fact that it will be connected to a TV and uses a very well thought out on-screen display to simplify jobs like compiling an album of favourite tracks. It works with both CD-R (record once) and CD-RW (rewriteable) blank discs, but they must be the dearer ‘audio-only’ type, which include a copyright levy in the price. Options include fast 2x dubbing speed and the displays have easy to follow track length and time remain readouts, so you can make the most efficient use of the available space. ‘Finalising’ a disc, so that it can be played on any audio CD deck takes around 2 minutes.

 

How does it perform: On the whole it works very well, some of the controls and displays are a little unusual, like the fact that there are three separate replay speed controls, and getting to grips with the extra menus take some getting used to but picture quality is very good. The contrast range is wide and the video processing is clean, revealing lots of crisp detail, even in darker scenes and shadows. The picture is rock solid and 120x fast play comes in very handy for skimming through movies in no time flat. Layer change is a nimble quarter of a second or less.

 

The digital surround sound channels are very cleanly presented and filled with punchy, dynamic sounds, dts soundtracks fare especially well and it makes a good case for adding a sub-woofer your system to take advantage of the systems bass handling characteristics. CD copies made in real time (1x speed) sound almost as good as the original, there’s a slight blurring of treble frequencies but you have to be quite finicky to spot it. There’s another very slight drop in clarity at the 2x copy speed but again it’s not enough to be concerned about. The biggest problem though is the varying volume levels on compilation discs and some sort of manual level control – tied into each programmed track – wouldn’t go amiss. It has a manual control, but this is for recording from an external analogue source.

 

Our Verdict:

It’s a tricky one, there are a couple of twin deck CD recorders on the market for £350 or less and some very decent DVD players with Dolby Digital decoders for under £250, so the DV-W1E isn’t going to save you any money. Having both device in one box is a space saver, but only if you’re in the market for such an unusual combination of technologies. It’s an intriguing concept and full marks to Hitachi for being so bold but we remain to be convinced that there’s much of a demand for such a strange product, we shall just have to wait and see…

 

Hitachi 020 7849 2000

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features                       Region 2, PAL/NTSC/PAL 60 replay, Dolby Digital, dts & PCM decoders, multi-speed replay, Disc Navigation, 2-stage picture zoom, spatial sound, CR-R/RW recorder

           

Sockets                        1 x SCART AV, composite video, 5.1 channels, mixed stereo and coaxial digital out (phono), S-Video out (mini DIN), optical digital out (TOSlink), headphones (minijack)         

 

Dimensions                   435 x 330 x 81 mm

 

Rival Buys                     Not yet…

 

CAPTIONS

The deck on the left is the DVD/CD player, it’s simple to use and there’s even a one-button CD-to-CD copy function

 

Enough sockets to cover most eventualities, including copying from external analogue and digital sources

 

The longest remote yet, a full 9-inches from end to end. The jog shuttle is one of three separate speed/direction controls

 

 

HEAD

PANASONIC DVD-RV40, £350

VERDICT ****

 

Why’s it here: Now that the world and his wife are churning out cheap DVD players it’s getting harder for a company like Panasonic to compete across all sectors of the market and maintain its role as one of the format’s pioneers and leading innovators. One of Panasonic’s problems is that it can’t hope to match prices at the budget end of the market, where entry-level machines are now selling for close to £150 and players equipped with Dolby Digital decoders cost less than £180. Panasonic has wisely chosen to stick with what it knows best and that’s the less volatile middle ground, where the ticket price isn’t quite so critical and there’s a steady influx of newcomers to DVD seeking the reassurance of a familiar brand name with proven expertise and a reputation for quality. The DVD-RV40 fits the bill admirably and the designers have shown that it is still capable of showing the Johnny-come-latelys a thing or two.

 

Any unique features: The majority of DVD players look as though they’ve been housed in surplus VCR boxes. If you open most machines up you will usually find the box is mostly full of air. Panasonic has designed the casework from the ground up and the DVD-R40’s front panel is a good bit slimmer than usual, which suits the proportions of the disc loading tray, display and control layout. It’s a little shorter too, so there’s more room around the back for cables and connectors. The line up of features is largely unremarkable though it does have an on-board Dolby Digital decoder, a very good assortment of multi-speed replay options (four forward and four reverse picture search and slomo speeds), spatial sound and switchable NTSC/PAL 60 output.

 

It has two SCART sockets and that could prove very useful if your system is straining at the seams and running short of AV connections. The on-screen displays are a familiar design and although not as flashy as some recent examples they are easy to understand and use, especially the surround speaker set-up screens. There’s only one notable omission and that’s an RGB output, and we still haven’t managed to work out what the Chapter Review function is all about. It’s a bit like an intro scan, but it only works when you’ve entered stop mode, when it replays the first few seconds of each chapter up to the point you reached...

 

Panasonic has decided to play it safe with the on-screen displays and stick with the icon-filled menu bar system that has been a feature of Panasonic DVD players since the first machines appeared way back in Summer of 1997. It’s not flashy or particularly eye-catching, but it works and you don’t need to read the book to figure it out, what more can you ask? Much the same applies to the remote handset, nothing too extreme here either; the buttons are a good size, sensibly labelled and more or less where you would expect to find them.

 

How does it perform: The old adage about if something looks right, it usually is, holds true in this case. The RV40 delivers a crisp, sharp picture with no processing errors or artefacts to speak of, even on our crummiest test recordings. Colours are clean and natural looking, fine detail really stands out and a wide contrast range ensures that very little picture information is lost in darker scenes or shadows. We’re very impressed with the trick play facilities, the picture is fluid at all slomo and the first couple of picture search speeds, layer change takes less than a quarter of a second on most discs.

 

Dolby Digital soundtracks are very busy and the decoder manages to winkle out some quite subtle low-level sounds and effects are ignored or muddied on many other decks and decoders. Effects on analogue Dolby Surround soundtracks benefit from lower than average levels of background hiss and appear to be more distinct and clearly focused within the soundfield.

 

Our Verdict: The price and relatively modest specification could be a sticking point for some but against that must be weighed the top-notch picture and sound quality, the very eye-catching design and extra SCART, which has genuine advantages if you’re short of space, or fed up with bland black boxes. On balance the RV40 just about justifies its £350 price tag, but as Panasonic’s marketing people must be all too keenly aware, convincing consumers to dig that little bit deeper in the current cut-throat climate is going to be hard work.

 

Panasonic (0990) 357357, www.panasonic.com

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features                       Region 2, PAL/NTSC replay, Dolby Digital decoder, dts compatible bitstream output, multi-speed replay, 3-mode spatial sound

 

Sockets                        2 x SCART AV, composite video, 5.1 channels, mixed stereo and coaxial digital out (phono), S-Video out (mini DIN), optical digital out (TOSlink)

 

Dimensions                   430 x 273 x 82

 

Rival Buys                    

Bush DVD-2002, £180

Samsung DVD-909, £50

Yamaha DVD-S795 £375

 

CAPTIONS

It’s not just a pretty face, it has built-in Dolby Digital as well, but this has to be one of the best-looking players to date

 

Two SCART sockets, great for solving connection problems but why no RGB output?

 

Not a bad effort as handsets go, large well spaced buttons, though we would have liked the transport keys to be a bit easier to find

 

 

HEAD

SONY DAV-S300, £550

VERDICT ****

 

Why’s it here: In industry jargon the Sony DAV-S300 comes under the broad heading of a ‘lifestyle’ system. That usually means several silvery boxes that are small in size but big on style convenience and functionality. The space saving qualities of lifestyle systems makes them particularly suitable for flat and apartment dwellers and in this case, home cinema fans with a space problem. Sony has also sought to address the tricky question of installation. On the face of it the S300 is a technically complex piece of kit incorporating a fully-fledged multi-channel digital surround system but it comes with a full set of speakers and a passive sub-woofer plus cables and is almost foolproof to set up. Traditionally lifestyle systems tend to be more expensive than equivalent separate components but Sony has pitched this one at the busy mid-market sector, which should bring it to the attention of a much wider audience.

 

Any unique features: The five microscopic ‘satellite’ speakers are probably the best place to start. They really are tiny, worryingly so in fact when you consider they’re smaller than most PC speakers, and you know how bad they can be, but more about that in a moment. The speakers, cables and rear-panel sockets are colour coded, so there’s no chance of a mix-up, and the speaker cables are an unusually generous length too, long enough to make it around most living rooms with some to spare. Joining the CD/DVD player a 5.1 decoder for Dolby Digital, dts and PCM soundtracks, the other built-in source component is an AM/FM tuner with 20 station presets. The 6-channel ‘digital’ amplifier (30 watts rms per channel) is accompanied by a 10-mode digital sound processor; it covers all the usual ‘hall’ and ‘theatre’ options plus some interesting ‘cinema studio’ settings which are supposed to mimic the acoustical properties of actual production studios. DVD facilities are fairly sparse and in the absence of a SCART socket output options are confined to composite and S-Video. The lack of any S-Video inputs is also regrettable, nor are there any digital bitstream inputs. It has provision for two external AV inputs, which is just about adequate; a front AV input would have been handy as well, especially since the DSP has a special mode for video games consoles. One last gripe, the front panel display is very small and very difficult to read from more than a couple of metres away. The remote handset includes multi-brand TV functions, which is some compensation for its size and the number of buttons.

 

How does it perform: The DVD section has a few things in common with Sony’s excellent stand-alone players, the on-screen displays for example, are almost identical, but there are some notable differences. Picture quality is satisfactory, resolution and colour accuracy were both good on our sample but the contrast range was only fair to middling with some detail lost in gloomy sequences and layer change is fairly relaxed at around half a second. Trick play was frankly disappointing, just two speeds for picture search and slomo; the former was too fast and jumpy and the latter a touch too slow to be of much use.

 

No one, not even Sony can defy the laws of physics when it comes to speaker design, and there’s no way those tiny satellites with two and three quarter inch driver units are going to be anything but trebly. This has the effect of localising sounds to a much greater degree than speakers with a broader mid-range, so spacing is quite important otherwise the soundfield can end up ‘bitty’ and dialogue or movement may appear jerky, as sounds jump from one speaker to another. The Dolby Digital and dts decoders do a pretty good job of extracting sounds and locating them within the soundfield, but the shallow mid-band is deprives effects of impact, the sub woofer tries to make up for it but unless it is set to a fairly low level the overall sound can appear bass-heavy and unbalanced.

  

Our Verdict: The S300 is at its best in a relatively small space, in larger rooms we suspect the speakers will quickly run out of steam and if you move them too far apart you’ll end up with more holes in the soundfield than a slice of Gruyere cheese. To some extent style has taken precedence over substance and some proper speakers would make it sound a whole lot better, but in its favour it is sensibly priced, it looks smart, the system is childishly easy to connect up and in a small room it can give a taste of what digital multi-channel home cinema has to offer

 

Contact Sony (0990) 111999, www.sony.com

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features            Region 2 PAL/NTSC/PAL 60, Dolby Digital & dts decoders, 10-mode DSP, time search, AM/FM tuner with 20 station preset, sleep timer, multi-brand TV remote, 2 AV inputs, 5 x 30 watts RMS amplification, 5 micro satellite speakers (single 2.75-in driver) & passive subwoofer (7-in driver) included

           

Sockets             S-Video out (mini DIN), composite video, 5.1 channels & sub woofer out (phono), headphones (minijack), speakers (2-pin proprietary)

 

Dimensions            355 x 70 x 365           

 

Rival Buys

Onkyo DR-90, £800 (ex. speakers)

Pioneer NS-DV1, £1200

Samsung MAX-945, £500 (DPL mini system)

 

CAPTIONS

The tiny front panel display is the only ergonomic slip-up, it’s hard to see across a living room

 

Not a SCART in sight, a relief to some and good news for purveyors of cables and interconnects

 

The remote is a fair old size but it has a lot to do and it can control the main functions on quite a few different brands of TV

 

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Ó R. Maybury 2000, 1505

 

 

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