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GROUP TEST

 

SUB £200 DVD PLAYERS

 

COPY/INTRO

Can it really be only eighteen months since DVD was officially launched in the UK? This time last year we were getting quite enthusiastic about the first raft of 'entry-level' players costing £400 to £450, which we considered to be pretty good value taking into account the fact that the very first players sold for around £600. You can now buy well specified DVD players for less than £200, doubtless in another twelve months time we will be putting together a Group Test on the best DVD players given away with packets of cornflakes…

 

Well maybe not next year, more likely 2002, but you get the idea. The cost of DVD hardware has fallen faster and further than almost anyone expected. We can but hope that software will go the same way, but that's another story for another day. DVD is now a mainstream consumer technology and if you haven't already got a player you're thinking about getting one. But which one, at the last count there were almost 60 models to choose from?

 

Immediately after launch the DVD market rapidly polarised into two fairly distinct groups, namely players with and players without on-board Dolby Digital (and MPEG audio) multi-channel surround sound decoders. This group now includes a small but rapidly growing number of players with integrated DTS decoders. There are also two smaller sub-categories worth a brief mention; they are the handful of high-end decks costing upwards of £800 or so and multi-disc players. We suspect the latter could take off in a big way and one or two models might even make it into the next budget DVD Group Test. As a very rough guide you can expect to pay £200 to £350 for a basic player and £350 plus for models with built-in digital surround decoders, but as we'll see there are exceptions to that rule.

 

Over the years we have repeated ad nauseam the age-old maxim that you only get what you pay for. That was certainly true of analogue home entertainment equipment. Ultra cheap VCRs and hi-fi systems invariably had crappy performance, or fell apart the day after the warranty expired but with digital gizmos there's much less variation in picture and sound performance. Furthermore, digital systems in general, and DVD players in particular, tend to have fewer moving parts. They also make greater use of large-scale integrated (LSI) microchips and other key components are sourced from a relatively small number of manufacturing plants, so far reliability doesn't seem to be an issue, but these are very early days…

 

The question is how come these players are so cheap, and what if any corners have been cut? The good news is that the falling cost of DVD is almost entirely due to the economies of scale in production, especially where the digital processing chip-sets are concerned. You only have to look inside most recent players and compare them with one of last year's models to see what's been happening. First generation DVDs usually had two or three large printed circuit boards, densely populated with components; nowadays there's usually only one or two small PCBs, with significantly fewer microchips. Indeed the insides of many recent players are mostly filled with air!

 

The other key factor is that unlike most new AV formats DVD is not dependent on any radically new technologies, in fact any manufacturer already making CD players can quickly adapt its production lines to DVD. That is precisely what is happening now as a growing number of OEM (original equipment manufacturer) plants in the Far East and China come on stream, resulting in a much broader range of makes and brands competing at the budget end of the market. 

 

Nevertheless there are still pitfalls to be aware of and some cheaper DVDs may lack useful convenience features, have awkward control systems and yes -- in spite of the equalising effects of digital technology -- inferior picture and sound performance. However, the most obvious penny pinching on budget players occurs on the pack panel. For maximum flexibility we prefer to have two SCART sockets preferably configured or switchable for S-Video and RGB output, and/or a separate S-Video output socket. Ideally a DVD player without an on-board digital surround decoder should have both coaxial and optical bitstream outputs and a front-mounted headphone sockets is a bonus.

 

On-screen displays are another area where manufacturers cut costs. The point to remember is that an OSD gets quite a lot of use on a DVD player, more so than a VCR or TV say, so it needs to be accessible and easy to use. Always try before you buy and if it's not obvious how it works straight away imagine the fun you'll have in a semi-darkened room when you can't find the instructions.  Other odds and ends worth looking out for are remote controls -- always try for size and button layout -- and have a close listen to demo machines; no not just the sound output but the noise coming from the deck mechanism. One or two models we've tried are surprisingly noisy and could be intrusive in the background.

 

HOW THE TESTS WERE DONE

DVD appeals to all of the senses. We look, we listen, we touch and yes even smell our test machines because that's what you do. (Well, maybe you don't sniff your equipment but trust us, a trained nose is important in this business!). Nevertheless, picture and sound quality are what we're mainly interested in and we're please to say that unlike analogue systems there is comparatively little variation between the best and the worst hardware (software is another matter…). That's due to the fact that the DVD specification is extremely rigid, leaving manufacturers relatively little scope to skimp.

 

We use a small selection of discs including both movies and test recordings, some of which go back to the early days, so we have a running check on improvements in both hardware and software. The most recent addition is Matrix, which is one of a growing number of discs containing PC data and this can upset some machines. We're looking for the kind of things that you will see on your TV screen, which includes a player's ability to recover and reproduce fine detail, subtle graduations in colour and brightness and how well it handles rapid changes in picture content (movement, brightness etc.). We are on the lookout for processing errors or 'artefacts' and the rapidity, or otherwise, of layer change. Sound performance comes under the same kind of scrutiny, we listen for fine detail, check the dynamic range, noise levels and processing errors with a series of test recordings on CD and DVD.  

 

JARGON BUSTER OK

 

BITSTREAM OUTPUT

Most DVD players have two 'digital' outputs (coaxial and optical) carrying 'raw' digital data from the disc containing the digitally encoded audio channels

 

DOLBY DIGITAL/AC-3

Six channel digital audio surround sound system (aka 5.1 sound) made up of five high quality 'wideband' channels (front stereo, centre-front dialogue and stereo surround) and one narrowband bass or sub woofer channel for low-frequency sound effects

 

DTS

Digital Theatre Sound, alternative high quality 5.1 surround sound system (see above), becoming increasingly popular amongst US home cinema fans. Most new players are now DTS compatible and can be connected to a suitable decoder using the bitstream output

 

DUAL LAYER

Many DVDs have the digital information stored on two reflective layers, one on top of the other made up of a spiral track that winds out from the centre to the edge and back in again. At the changeover point the laser pickup has to re-focus resulting in a momentary break in replay

 

GUI

Graphical user interface. The fancy name manufacturers give to on-screen display systems. GUI (say 'gooey'…) displays tend use PC-style icons and drop-down menus rather than text or number based menus

 

MPEG

Motion Picture Experts Group – the people responsible for developing and policing technical standards like DVD

 

REGIONAL CODING

Prompted by Hollywood Studio's concerns over piracy and a desire to control release dates the DVD world has been divided up into 6 regions or 'locales'. Embedded data on DVD movies ensure that discs sold in a particular region will only play on compatible decks. The UK, most of Europe, South Africa and Japan is designated Region 2 whilst the USA and Canada are Region 1, the rest of the world are in Regions 3 to 6.  

 

S-VIDEO

Brightness and colour video information is 'separated' when travelling between a DVD player and a TV so they cannot interact with one another and produce annoying cross-colour and 'herringbone' interference patterns

 

 

THE TESTS

 

BUSH DVD2000,  £200

VERDICT *****

A sticky label attached to the top of the DV2000 proclaims that the player is 'designed for the playback of Region 2 discs, discs from other regions may not operate correctly'. Guess what, our sample played back Region 1 discs without any messing around, but that's no guarantee others will and not what makes this player so special. It's the ridiculously low price of just £200. That would be cheap for any DVD player but it is even more remarkable when you consider it has a built-in Dolby Digital decoder!

 

There has to be a catch, right? Well, if there is we couldn't find it, though our first sample did have a slight problem -- caused, we suspect, by a hefty bump in transit -- but it was swiftly resolved and we'll put it down being an unfortunate one-off. The styling is clean and unfussy and although the front panel display is on the small side it's clearly legible from several feet away. The silvery finish is suitably trendy and the theme is carried across to the remote handset which has a handy joypad for navigating through the on-screen displays.

 

Maybe it's a bit light on secondary features but no more so than most other budget players, in fact there's nothing you can't live without, though a DTS compatible digital output is notable by its absence and a second SCART AV socket wouldn't have gone amiss. It has a fully featured on-screen display that looks a lot like the ones on Panasonic machines. There's a full set of playback features, including variable speed fast play and slomo. Incidentally, a word of warning about the language selection for the on-screen menus, it's set to English by default, with Chinese as the second choice. Should you be foolish enough to change the setting you'll have the devil's own job getting it back to English, unless of course you speak Chinese or you're friendly with someone at your local take-away. The instruction manual is hard going too with its interesting use of language and spelling…

 

A separate menu handles installation and set-up and it contains all of the usual language and screen format options. The only operational quirks are the layout of the transport buttons on the remote handset, which could be a lot more finger-friendly, and the infra red remote receptor on our test sample appeared to have a fairly narrow field of view. The handset had to be pointed directly at it, a few degrees either side and commands were ignored. An area of the top panel, immediately above the player's mains transformer gets quite warm – you can actually smell the components gently cooking -- so it's probably not a good idea to stack any other devices on top of it.

 

The picture on our sample was satisfactory. Fine detail is cleanly resolved but the dynamic range is slightly narrower than average and it doesn't always cope very well with darker scenes or images containing a lot of shadows or lowlights, which tend to look a shade muddy. Colour rendition is on the button, skin tones and natural shades look convincing and there's no noise to speak of, even in highly saturated areas. Slomo trick play is smooth and progressive, 2x fast play has soundtrack accompaniment though it's almost intelligible. Layer change on our benchmark tests disc took on average less than half a second with a momentary picture freeze and Matrix played without problems. 

 

Since this is the only player with a built-in Dolby Digital decoder it deserves a quick mention. It's quick because there's nothing to say other than it works really well with all channels coming through loud and proud with insignificant levels of background noise. The analogue mixed stereo is similarly free of problems with no more than average levels of background hiss.    

 

Apart from an unlucky spot of bother with the first sample the DV2000 looks like it could be a real winner for Bush. It could sell for another £50 to £100 and we'd think none the less of it, even without the Dolby Digital decoder it would be good value. Even if you're not on a tight budget put this one on your shortlist!

 

Bush, 0181-594 5533

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features

Region 2 (see text)  PAL/NTSC, built-in Dolby Digital decoder, multi-speed replay, 3-scene memory, dynamic range compression

           

Sockets           

AV output (1 x SCART), analogue digital surround & mixed stereo outputs (phono), S-Video output (mini DIN), digital audio outputs (coaxial & TOSlink optical), Front: headphones (minijack)

 

BOX OUT

If you think Dolby Pro Logic surround is good just wait until you've heard Dolby Digital, chalk and cheese have more in common! At this price it's a steal, though bear in mind that you're going to need a multi-channel amp and room load of speakers to go with it!

 

Captions

·         The swish silvery styling and panel layout is simple and understated, the DVD200 could easily pass muster as a mid-market machine

 

·         A second SCART would have been welcome but that's the only thing that's missing and it will integrate easily with almost any type of AV set-up

 

·         The transport button layout could be better, you need long, well-trained fingers to find the play button but the joypad makes menu navigation easy

 

 

HITACHI DV-P250,  £300

VERDICT ****

The DV-P250 is a bit of a surprise, and a most pleasant one at that. To begin with it doesn't look a bit like a budget machine, or a Hitachi product come to that, at least not if you're accustomed to its generally bland-looking TVs and VCRs. Not that there's anything wrong with bland, or Hitachi gear in general, it's just that this particular player has a classy up-market feel about it, that belies the £300 price tag. The curvy corners and big knobs (jog/shuttle and cursor control joypad) make a welcome change to the featureless -- apparently standard-issue -- front panels that many manufacturers seem to favour these days. 

 

The specification is quite juicy too and at the top of the feature list is Disc Navigation. It's not exactly a new idea and JVC showed something very similar on one of its mid-market players a few months back, (and reprised it on its current entry-level machine). Basically what happens is this. Once a disc has loaded you press the 'Disc Navi' button on the handset (or front panel) and the machine whizzes through the disc, reading the start of each chapter and building up a visual on screen index as it goes. When it has finished simply highlight the chapter you want to see with an on-screen cursor and press the enter button. It's similar to the embedded chapter menus on some (but not all) DVDs, but this system works with all discs and is a good deal faster.  

 

Most of the rest of the features are familiar territory, but it's unusual to see so many of them on an entry-level machine. Picture zoom isn't that uncommon but this one is different. It magnifies the image in two stages (2x and 4x) and a pair of scroll bars, controlled using the remote joypad shows the area of the picture display. It has a virtual surround option in the shape of Hitachi's Spatialiser system and switchable RGB output on the one and only SCART AV output socket.

 

Buried deep in the set-up menu there's an undocumented option for changing black level (aka gamma correction), a feature that should help increase the amount of detail in darker scenes, which can be lost when shown on a video displays, (as opposed to a cinema screen). Several features on the set-up menu can also be accessed during replay. They include various housekeeping functions (OSD position etc.) and a 3-stage picture sharpness control. The DV-P250 has a fair range of playback speeds, with 2-stage slomo (forward only) and four fast picture search modes (both directions), up to 30x normal speed. There's also a frame stepper, which works in the forward direction, but skips back around 25 frames or one second intervals in reverse, so it’s not much use for studying effects, to find out how they did it. On-screen mode, status and chapter/time displays appear in the picture area but they are semi-transparent so you can still see what's going on.

 

Video quality is fine, the picture is clean and packed with information; it doesn't suffer from any obvious processing errors but bright colours can look a bit flat at times. The contrast range is not especially wide either and swapping between the two black level modes doesn't make a great deal of difference. It's certainly not a bad picture but it lacks that indefinable sparkle that some players seem to have. There's definitely nothing wrong with the analogue mixed stereo output, the response is deep and wide giving Dolby Surround information plenty of room to breath, moreover background hiss is a little below average, so hooked up to a decent AV amp and speakers the results can be very pleasing.

 

The DV-P250 has plenty going for it, not least its stylish good looks, a useful assortment of playback facilities and the splendid Disc Navigation feature. Picture and sound performance is all good middle of the road stuff and guaranteed to impress anyone trading up to DVD from VHS. It's a refined design with well thought out controls and operating system. It has no bad habits to speak of and the price is fair, worth considering.

 

Hitachi 0181-849 2000

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features

Region 2 PAL/NTSC, DTS compatible, Disc Navigation, picture zoom, 3D sound, multi-speed replay, jog/shuttle control, RGB out

           

Sockets           

AV output (1 x SCART), composite video & analogue stereo outputs (phono), S-Video output (mini DIN), digital audio outputs (coaxial & TOSlink optical)

 

BOX OUT

Disc Navigation is a quick and easy alternative to a DVD's own chapter menu, assuming it has one. Pressing the 'Navi' button instructs the machine to skim through the disc and generate a series of index pictures. To go to the start of any chapter, just highlight the picture with the cursor and press Enter. 

 

Captions

·         A solid, chunky-looking machine the lots of knobs and buttons to play with, it's just a shame there's no jog/shuttle on the remote

 

·         The single SCART looks a bit lonely but connectivity shouldn't be a problem

 

·         Lots of small buttons but the important ones are well placed and easy to find

 

 

JVC XV-515,  £300

VERDICT ****

The degree of conformity amongst the mainstream manufacturers is a bit scary, there seems to be a clear resolve to make DVD a bland and predictable black box technology. Fortunately there is a rebellious tendency at work and JVC is one of the few big names to dare to buck the trend. To begin with the XV-515, which is a cut-down version of the XV-D701 (reviewed in HE XX), is housed in a shiny champagne coloured box, and JVC has followed it's own distinctive path when it comes to the operating system and on-screen displays. There are some unusual secondary features too, including something called Screen Digest, Strobe (more about those in moment) plus a multi-brand TV remote as well as the more usual bits and bobs like picture zoom, 3D sound and multi-speed replay.

 

The only absentee from the back panel is a coaxial digital output otherwise connectivity is okay. It can't play Region 2 NTSC discs, which won't trouble most users but bear that in mind if you have a hankering for imported discs. On the front there's a large shuttle dial that duplicates handset buttons controlling replay speed and direction. It has an impressive five forward and five reverse search speeds (2x, 5x 10x, 20, 60x) plus six forward slomo speeds and five reverse. The main display panel is larger than usual, and what with the winking disc icon it can be quite distracting. The main on-screen display is an original design in fact we haven't seen anything like it since the XV-D701. Instead of the usual superimposed menus or icon bars the play menu screen displays the reduced sized picture in a window alongside a set of selectable options. The set-up menu is different too, with smartly presented tabbed menus and a big gold coloured arrow that moves around the screen, guided by a set of cursor controls on the remote handset.

 

Screen Digest and strobe are carried over from the D701; they're up market features and not the kind of thing you expect to find on a entry-level machine. Strobe changes the display to a set of 9 sub-screens breaking up the action as a series of still shots. It's vaguely diverting but we can't say it has much real use. Screen Digest on the other hand is definitely a bonus feature. Press the Digest button at the start of replay and the machine works its way through the disc, displaying a still image (9 per screen) from the start of each chapter. It's like the scene finder on some discs, but it's faster and it works on any movie.

 

Theatre position is a 3-stage picture control, though we're not sure why since all of the settings, except off, degrade the picture in one way or another. 3D Phonic sound is a bit more successful, certainly it's worth having if you're stuck with a basic stereo sound system or rely on the TVs speakers but it's not a substitute for proper analogue or digital surround.

 

Matrix played without any glitches and layer change occurs in less than half a second, so no problems there. Overall picture quality is very good, it's sharp and detailed and on our test discs the dynamic range only suffered if you messed around with the theatre position picture control. Noise levels are low and colours are accurately rendered. Trick play is smooth though slomo lacks fluidity past 1/2x normal speed, and you can't work your way up or down the speed range from the handset. The front-panel jog control is only marginally more useful for controlling slomo. Whilst it has all the various replay speeds it has to be said they're not especially easy to use. 

 

Analogue Dolby Surround sounds good on the mixed stereo output, dialogue and effects are very clean, the overall response is very crisp and there's minimal background hiss.

 

The XV-515 is one of the dearer entry-level machines we've looked at and since the cheapest budget machines are so good we're tempted to say why pay more, but in this case the higher price is justified. The XV-515 has better than average AV performance and some handy extras. It also has that increasingly rare quality in new DVD players and that's a bit of personality.

 

JVC 0181-450 3282

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features

Region 2 PAL, DTS compatible, picture zoom, 3D sound, scene digest, multi-speed replay, picture strobe, shuttle control, 3-mode picture control

 

Sockets           

AV output (1 x SCART), composite video & analogue stereo outputs (phono), S-Video output (mini DIN), digital audio output (TOSlink optical)

 

BOX OUT

Not all discs have scene finders or index screens, which is a pain if you're looking for a particular shot, and that's what makes the Screen Digest facility on this machine so useful. You can see a snapshot from the start of each chapter, and move quickly to it, at the touch of a button.

 

Captions

·         It's big, and the larger than normal front panel display is a bit distracting but the style and layout are very eye-catching

 

·         There's no coaxial digital output and the SCART is composite video only but that won't be  problem for most users

 

·         Button layout on the handset is a bit cluttered but it can also control the main functions on over 20 different brands of TV     

 

LG DVD-2330,  £190

VERDICT ***

Although LG are comparatively recent arrivals on the UK's DVD-Video scene its association with the technology goes way back and in 1997 it was one of the first companies to produce a DVD-ROM drive for the PC. The DVD-2330 is a solid-looking black box. The front panel is peppered with a few tiny buttons a four-way cursor control joypad plus a good-sized front panel display. The specification about what you would expect for an entry-level machine, though it is in danger of being overshadowed by other, similarly priced but more exotically specified budget decks.

 

One little oddity before we begin -- which seems more than a coincidence -- is the switch on and off messages 'Welcome to the world of DVD' and 'Bye', which appears in the front panel display, are identical to the ones on Panasonic decks, work that one out… 

 

It has several other features of note; the 2-stage zoom is unusual in that it will magnify a selected area of the image – shown by a moveable picture frame – by 4x and 16x. It has a 3D spatial sound option uses information from the Dolby Surround and Dolby digital soundtracks to generate a wide spatial soundfield. There's a 5-scene marker, 4-speed slomo and 3-speed picture search, which operate in both directions. It has a DTS compatible digital output and the on-screen display uses large, colourful and easy to understand icons on a semi-transparent background.

 

There are a couple of omissions. It has only one digital output socket (coaxial) and a single SCART on the back panel moreover it only plays PAL Region 2 discs (no region-free NTSC playback), nor can it play Video CD or indeed any of the other CD variants, other than audio CD. The remote handset is also a bit odd. The button layout is decidedly quirky. The picture search and chapter skip buttons are a pair of small rockers mounted vertically either side of the tiny stop and play keys. They're not that easy to find at the best of times and the control system is not that responsive. For example it will lock on 2x picture search with a single press but to access the higher speeds you have to press, hold and wait several seconds for it to ramp up the speed, if you release the button it drops back to play. It's not exactly a big deal, but it does take some getting used to.

 

The set-up menu is a model of clarity and an example to others, though it has to be said it benefits from having only the basic sound, subtitle, PIN coded parental lock, digital output and picture format options.

 

Picture performance is remarkably good and it stands critical comparison with players costing twice as much. Specifically there were no significant artefacts in scenes containing a lot of movement or rapid changes in brightness. The dynamic range is wide with a lot of detail in darker scenes and shadows, colours are natural looking and the image is sharp and rock solid at all replay speeds. There was also a rather pleasant surprise when it came to layer change. Matrix played without a hitch and this machine has the fastest response of any player we've seen to date, with no perceptible interruption to playback. In fact it was so good we spend some time checking a range of discs at various speeds and on almost all of them the switchover occurred in just one frame, it's so fast that you are not aware that it has happened.

 

Dolby Pro Logic soundtracks on the mixed stereo analogue outputs are clean with no more than average amounts of background hiss and they have a wide flat response. Audio CDs sound fine as well, certainly as good as the decks fitted to most mid-market hi-fi systems.

 

The DVD-2330 does everything you would expect from a budget DVD player, and more, there's nothing to complain about when it comes to important things like picture and sound quality. Functionally it does fall short on one or two points. The layout of the remote handset is not that wonderful and the control system is a bit clumsy. The lack of a second digital output and the single SCART is unlikely to trouble most users nor is its inability to play anything other than DVD videos and audio CDs going to be a problem. We do find it a bit strange that there's no facility to play region free NTSC DVDs, this might irritate some users if they become more widely available. Taken in isolation it represents fair value for money but we have to return to that earlier point about similarly priced players from rival manufacturers.

 

LG, (01753) 500400

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features

Region 2 PAL, DTS compatible, 3-stage picture zoom, 3D sound, multi-speed replay, 5-scene memory,

 

Sockets           

AV output (1 x SCART), composite video & analogue stereo outputs, coaxial digital out (phono), S-Video output (mini DIN)

 

BOX OUT

Layer change was major bugbear on first generation players. A couple of early machines took several seconds to sort themselves out with a frozen picture or blank screens but LG has shown that is possible to get a glitch-free switchover and this is all the more remarkable on a budget deck.

 

Captions

·         Classy styling for such an inexpensive machine, the controls are neatly laid out and clearly labelled

 

·         Not much to see here, a solitary SCART and the basic analogue audio outputs, coaxial digital but no optical digital output

 

·         Button layout on the handset could be better; the picture search and chapter skip keys are the wrong way around…

 

 

PHILIPS DVD-710,  £260

VERDICT ***

The DVD-710 is not as other DVD players. To begin with the disc loading tray is on the left side of the front panel, and it has the smallest remote control handset we've seen in quite a while, so small in fact that we suspect it is destined to spend most of its life behind seat cushions. The offset loading mechanism is unusual, we'll be charitable and call it chic mid 90's retro and nothing whatsoever to do with using up left over Grundig DVD boxes…

Technically this is a budget deck, at least it's the cheapest one in the range but to be honest it looks and feels a bit dated by comparison with most other makers entry-level machines. One or two foibles have been carried across from earlier models, like the fact that it doesn't have an S-Video output and there's only one digital output (coaxial). That's unlikely to concern most users who we suspect will opt for a basic set-up with the player connected to a TV by SCART cable. The lack of an S-Video output is not too serious since the player has an RGB output which works just as well though not all TVs have a suitable input and it depends on connecting the player to the TV with a fully wired SCART cable (one is supplied).

 

As far as the rest of the features are concerned the 710 has 2 speed picture search and slomo (forward only), there's a 3D sound mode and a fancy parental control that can authorise up to 50 discs, but sadly that's about it, it is very basic. The control system and on-screen displays are virtually identical to previous models in the range though interestingly Philips has made changes to the software and the codes that could be used to alter the Region settings no longer work. We suspect the facility is still there but without knowing the right numbers it is inaccessible. 

 

The main on-screen display that appears during disc replay is for information only, though it is possible to change soundtrack and subtitle languages without going back to the first-level set-up menu.  The tiny handset makes life a bit awkward since the buttons are very small and packed quite closely together but it's easy to shift between the various trick play modes using the four orange coloured cursor keys.  The disc tray eject button is very small and hard to find, especially in subdued light. Although the player has a 3D sound facility you have to hunt it down. It is dealt with only briefly in the instructions and the facility to enable it lives on page 2 of the set-up menu, which is only accessible when the player is on stop mode. Clearly this is not very convenient if you want to switch it on or off.

 

Video quality is satisfactory, there's some loss of detail in lowlights and shadows on a composite video feed but it perks up considerably when using RGB and the picture is clean with bright, accurately rendered colours and negligible noise. There are no processing artefacts to speak of and the picture is free of jitter.

 

Layer change was a problem on one of our test discs (Godzilla) and it occasionally froze though Matrix ran through cleanly. The only way to get it to play through the switchover point was to skip to the next chapter and use reverse picture search to back up past the layer change. At other times it froze for around half a second with the display data disappearing and replaced by the word 'info', once or twice it played through without interruption, in short it was a bit hit and miss. Analogue Dolby Surround on the mixed stereo output was very lively with no more than average amounts of background hiss.

 

The DVD-710 is a bit of a disappointment, even putting the layer change glitch to one side, it still has a few too many shortcomings. The lack of an S-Video output socket is an inconvenience, especially for those whose TVs do not have RGB input. The 3D sound feature is buried too deep in the set-up menu and the ergonomics of the remote handset is not very good. Sadly it's a lacklustre machine at a not very competitive price.

 

Philips 0181-689 2166

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features

Region 2 PAL/NTSC, multi-speed replay, 3D sound

           

Sockets           

AV output (1 x SCART), analogue stereo outputs, coaxial digital out (phono)

 

BOX OUT

There's nothing wrong with having the disc tray on the left side of the front panel but the on-going trend for mid-mount deck mechanisms is more than a cosmetic frippery. It is widely accepted that this type of layout is the most stable it reduces vibration and provides better insulation from external shock or vibration

 

Captions

·         The disc loading tray on the left side of the front panel is unusual

 

·         The lack of an S-Video socket is a disadvantage, there's no optical digital output either

 

·         The remote is tiny but then the feature list is fairly brief

 

 

PANASONIC DVD-A160,  £330

VERDICT ****

The Panasonic DVD-A160 is billed as a 'standard' player. That's a slightly unusual marketing tag for an A-brand manufacturer that prides it self on an upmarket image but given that it works so well – more on that in a moment – we'll assume that Panasonic is not using the word in it's utilitarian sense. In any case it would be inappropriate to call it a budget machine considering the £350 price ticket, though at the time of writing that did include a promotional disc.

 

It would also be unfair to describe the DVD-A160 as basic, though it doesn't have any on-board digital decoders or glitzy widgets. What it does have is a solid sensible specification, with a fair number of genuinely useful features. The trick play facilities are particularly good with four-speed picture search and slow motion that operate in forward and reverse directions. It has an unusually effective 2-stage spatial sound system called VSS (virtual surround sound), a four-scene memory and one of the best remote handsets in the business. There's almost a full set of AV sockets on the back panel with twin SCARTs, S-Video and composite video outputs, the only let down is the single digital audio output, and it's optical, which is less common than the coaxial type of connector.

 

Front panel design is best described as contemporary stylish black box. There are enough curves and edges to distinguish it from the crowd -- and keep your duster busy -- but it still manages to look quite classy. The control layout is sensible and the front panel display is a good size and easy to read (it's also dimmable). The on-screen display bars that appear at the top of the screen are carried over from previous Panasonic DVD players and although the OSD is not as flashy as some we've seen lately, it is easy to understand and use, and doesn't take up too much room. The only slight operational niggles are that when the OSD is showing it blanks out the deck mode displays, and there's no on-screen indication for the VSS audio modes.

 

The first-level set-up display has a more conventional menu-driven layout but it's simple and clear. The DVD-A160 is one of those rare machines that you can use without reading the instructions (that's not a recommendation though!). The deck is very responsive, doing most things quickly and quietly

 

Picture quality is quite simply outstanding! There's no single reason; colours just that little bit crisper, more clearly defined with more subtle graduation in shade. The contrast range is a gnats wider than usual with more clearly defined highlights and lowlights and the image is just a tad sharper and more detailed. All these little improvements combine to produce a picture that appears to have greater depth, almost, but not quite three dimensional in character and the kind of picture that will still look good on a large TV or video display. There were no problems with layer change (0.5 seconds) or Matrix. Trick play is excellent too, there's sound on 2x fast play and higher speeds lack the jerkiness of some rival machines. Forward slomo is silky smooth and simple to control, so you can easily go back over a shot, to see how they did it. The image is very steady with no trace of jitter. 

 

Noise levels on the analogue mixed stereo output are a little below average, nothing to be excited abut but it carries Dolby Surround soundtracks with ease, preserving all of the fine details that are lost on VHS hi-fi, and introducing new sounds and effects that tape just can't handle. The response is very clean and will give a very good account of itself when partnered with a decent Pro Logic decoder and AV system.

 

Panasonic has consistently led the way in DVD, from the earliest days when it developed the specification to producing the first consumer decks. It was responsible for the first players with on-board digital decoders and now, with the DVD-A160, producing an entry-level player with top-end performance. It's by no means perfect, it's not particularly cheap and there's a growing expectation that for that sort of money you should be getting a few more bells and whistles, but the bottom line is that the extra cost is going where it really counts, up there on the screen.

   

Panasonic (0990) 357357

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features

Region 2 PAL/NTSC, DTS compatible, multi-speed replay, 3D sound, 4-scene memory

           

Sockets           

AV output (2 x SCART), composite video & analogue mixed stereo outputs (phono), S-Video (mini DIN), digital output (optical TOSlink)

 

BOX OUT

On a normal 2-channel stereo soundtrack the Virtual Surround Sound (VSS) system broadens the stereo image, making it sound as though the speakers are set wider apart than they actually are. VSS on Dolby Digital soundtracks create a deeper spatial effect, Panasonic claim that sound appear to be coming from non-existent surround speaker, which is a bit optimistic, but the effect is impressive nonetheless. 

 

 

Captions

·         Slickly sculptured front panel a sensible control layout and easy to read display

 

·         Two SCARTs but the single optical digital output could cause problems for some users

 

·         A decent remote for a change, the important keys are well laid out and easy to find

 

THE VERDICT

From the outset we all knew that if and when DVD took off the cost of the hardware would fall but most pundits were expecting a fairly slow burn, lasting three or four years, before the format gained a significant market share. At the time of launch the notion of a well-specified player, with a built-in Dolby Digital decoder, selling for less than £200 would have seemed far fetched, but here we are, less than two years later with the remarkable Bush DVD2000. It's not the prettiest machine around nor does it set any new standards – at least as far as picture and sound quality are concerned – but the performance is well inside the DVD ballpark and for those experiencing DVD for the first time it will be a revelation! It's a fantastic deal and the fact that samples we've seen also play Region 1 discs (please don't assume that it is a standard feature – things change fast in DVD land…) means you would be mad not to have a very close look at it. If you've been holding off and waiting for the cost of Dolby Digital to come down to a more realistic level, the wait is over!

 

On the other hand, if you're not interested in digital surround, multi-region replay and you're not watching the pennies but you are prepared to pay a little extra for top-notch AV performance then the next two machines deserve your very serious consideration. They are the Hitachi DV-P250 and the JVC XV-515. They have several interesting things in common, the price for one, and the picture indexing feature (Disc Navi and Scene Digest) is another. Both machines are stripped down versions of players higher up the respective manufacturer's ranges, but there has been no compromise over the critical components that determine picture and sound quality. However, what really appeals to us is the fact that both manufacturers have tried hard to get away from the boring black box syndrome that has afflicted DVD from the beginning, they just don't look like DVD players! If we had to choose between the two – and it really is almost too close to call – then the JVC machine scrapes in by the merest whisker by virtue of its multi-brand TV remote and extra trick play facilities.

 

The dearest and the cheapest players in this roundup – the LG DVD-2330 and the Panasonic DVD-A160 – have one bizarre feature in common and that's an identical switch-on greeting and goodbye message on the front panel displays. They're also good examples of the old adage about usually getting what you pay for, though it's by no means an unbreakable rule, as Bush convincingly demonstrate. The LG machine is cheap and it is also quite basic, especially when compared with the Bush player, which costs only a few pounds more. The Panasonic deck is a quality item, short on glitzy gadgets but picture and sound quality is as good as anything you'll find on decks costing a couple of hundred pounds more.   

 

That leaves the Philips DVD-710. Whilst there's nothing intrinsically wrong with this machine it does feel a bit of a half-hearted attempt to capture a slice of the budget sector; we know from the company's many notable achievements in the VCR market they can and do make more interesting and innovative machines. It seems and odd thing to say about such a new technology, but the 710 looks and feels rather dated.

 

Several lessons can be drawn from this somewhat eclectic collection of players. Firstly prices have fallen faster than expected and we suspect there's more to come. By this time next year we wouldn't be at all surprised to see budget decks selling for £150 or less! Second, features that once commanded a premium, like Dolby Digital are well on the way to becoming a standard fitment. And third, the trickle of players with multi-region playback could well turn into a flood now that manufacturing plants in Korea and China are ramping up production. The whole concept of Regional coding could be blown out of the water though it's debatable whether it will make much difference to the average DVD user now there's a good supply of Region 2 discs.

 

That brings us to the age-old question, should you buy now or wait? At first glance the argument for the cautious approach appears to be quite compelling. It sometimes seem that DVD has been around forever but the fact is it is a very new technology. It is also worth remembering that it has been a viable consumer product for a little over two years. There are still numerous on-going developments, imminent and in the pipeline, that will render today’s decks obsolete, indeed some early machines already are. There’s plenty of precedence in DVD’s short history, most first generation decks cannot read discs with DTS soundtracks and a lot of players stumble or give altogether when playing dual-layer discs.

 

More recently there was the little difficulty that some players had with mixed media discs. In short some movies wouldn’t play, the best known examples were The Matrix, and Something About Mary, both of which have PC content that some player’s processing and decoding software objected to. Fortunately that one was fairly easily resolved by manufacturers updating player’s firmware, but how many other little time bombs are out there lurking in the shadows?

 

Still to come there’s DVD-Audio and compatibility with recordable DVD. DVD-Audio is still an unknown quantity but there is little doubt that none of today’s DVD decks will be able replay edited discs made on DVD-RW machines, like the Pioneer XXXX. It’s not a big problem for manufacturers and it’s possible that by this time next year it will be a common feature on new players but there is a whole bunch of compatibility issues still to be resolved concerning other recordable DVD systems.

 

The point is the DVD spec is virtually open-ended, even in the near term – the next three or four years -- there are numerous enhancements that could be introduced. Triple and quadruple-layer discs and HD-DVD are just two examples, we could come up with half a dozen more, and they’re the one’s we know about, heaven only knows what’s going on behind closed doors.

 

If that sounds like a good argument for not buying DVD just yet then our apologies because it’s not meant to be. There are now well over 1000 R2 titles in the shops and we wouldn’t mind betting that that figure will double over the next twelve months or so. However, the most compelling argument for not waiting is the swift and dramatic reduction in cost of hardware; £200 to £300 for an entry level machine is not a lot of money in the scheme of things and whilst it is almost inevitable that within the next few years discs will be released that won’t play on current hardware, there’s plenty to enjoy right now.

 

In any case if past experience and present developments are anything to go by, within the next three or four years the cost of recordable DVD machines could well be comparable with today’s high end VCRs. Our current best guess is £400 to £600 but at least one manufacturer -- speaking off the record -- has speculated that a £300 recordable DVD deck is a distinct possibility within five years. In short buying a DVD player now is not a big risk and even if it is doomed to obsolescence, you will still get a few years use out of it.

 

There’s no need to worry about buying discs either (apart from the fact that they will be getting progressively cheaper to buy). Backwards compatibility within a dominant format has been a cornerstone of audio and video technologies since the earliest days, and we see no reason for that to change with DVD. A VHS VCR made today will happily play tapes recorded on the earliest decks a quarter of a century ago. The same basic tenet applies to audio compact cassette and CD, the bottom line is that any discs you buy now should be playable for as long as the DVD format survives. (As a matter of interest the average lifespan of successful recording system, from the wax cylinder through to VHS, has been around twenty-five years.)

 

If you’ve looked at DVD and you like what you see go ahead, there’s no need to dive in at the deep end, budget players like the ones we’ve been looking at work well, they’re here now, buy and enjoy!

 

BEST IN TEST

 

BUSH DVD2000, £200

Up until a few weeks ago you could have expected to pay anything up to £100 more for a DVD player with a Dolby Digital decoder, now Bush has brought the feature down to earth with a bang and made it accessible to everyone. The DVD2000 is milestone in the very short history of DVD and it should provide a useful boost for makers of AV amplifiers and speakers. 

 

HITACHI DV-P250, £300

The DV-P20 is a real touch of class and a determined attempt by Hitachi to provide an alternative to the bland and conventional styling most manufacturers seem content to stick with. What's more it performs, it has a well thought out assortment of picture and sound playback options and enhancements, AV quality is very good and features like Disc Navi picture indexing are genuinely useful.

 

JVC XV-515, £300

JVC, like Hitachi has taken a sideswipe at the cosmetic conformity of most first and second-generation players, adding a breath of fresh air to what has become a very predictable product. The 515 also happens to be very well specified with advanced disc indexing facilities, outstanding trick-play options and a better than average selection of convenience features, like the multi-brand TV remote.

 

RIVAL BUYS

 

MATSUI DVD-110, £180

In just a few weeks after the launch late last year and in the run up to Christmas the price of this Dixons own brand machine was cut by £10; it seems the company is determined to remain competitive. The feature list is routine but the trick replay options look good and it is very easy to use. Worth thinking about if you're a timid first timer or a Dixons fan on a tight budget.

 

SAMSUNG DVD-709,  £250

This smart looking player is already a classic and the stuff legends are made of. The 709 was the first budget DVD player with a flaky region lock, that could be easily switched off, if you knew the right codes. It looks good but under the skin it's standard fare though it does have one or two useful extras like a multi-brand TV remote and 2-stage picture zoom.

 

WHARFEDALE DVD-750, £180

A Tesco's exclusive that marks a new direction for Wharfedale into home cinema electronics and they've hit the ground running. The spec is basic and there's not much in the way of convenience features but it does have an easily hackable Region lock that can be disabled with a 3-digit code number. Picture and sound are both average but it's a major price breakthrough for Region 1 fans

 

TABLE 1                      

BRAND

BUS

HIT

JVC

LG

PAN

PHL

Price**

200

300

300

190

330

260

Dolby Digital

*

-

-

-

-

-

DTS compat

-

*

*

*

*

?

Spatial/3D

-

*

*

*

*

*

Pic/FX

-

*

*

*

 

-

MB remote

-

-

*

-

-

-

Dig op/coax

*/*

*/*

*/-

-/*

*/-

-/*

SCART AV

1

1

1

1

2

1

 

** typical street price

 

BOX COPY

BUILT-IN OR ADD-ON?

Where's the best place to have your digital surround decoder? Clearly it doesn't matter that much if right now you are content with plain vanilla stereo or Dolby Pro Logic but it's still something you might like to consider as you are bound to want to upgrade sooner or later. Basically there are three options (four if you're in the market for a new TV as well). They are DVD player with built in decoders, a stand-alone decoder box, or a digital AV amp/processor. (So far only Toshiba has TVs with on-board Dolby Digital decoders but don't be surprised if others follow suit).

 

At first glance having the decoder inside the DVD player makes a lot of sense since it adds little to the cost. The downside is that it's not very flexible, moreover you are still going to have to buy a multi-channel AV amplifier and speakers if and when you upgrade. Separate decoders appeal mostly to home cinema and hi-fi enthusiasts since there's more scope for mixing and matching kit, particularly when it comes to high-end equipment, but it will work out more expensive and it's a lot more hassle, with all the cables. If you are looking for a simple upgrade path then an AV amplifier/receiver with built-in decoders is the way to go. You'll save a few bob on the cost of a DVD player and have all of your surround sound eggs in one convenient basket. However, one word of caution, DTS looks as though it could be a runner -- when the software companies get their acts together. If you're thinking of getting an integrated AV amp/receiver we suggest you go for one with DTS capability, they're still fairly thin on the ground so you might want to hang on for a few months until there's a wider choice and prices have settled down.

 

---end---

ã R. Maybury 1999 1312

 

 

OUTRO ADD COPY…

 

 

 

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