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DVD PLAYERS

 

Panasonic DVD-RV20, £300

VERDICT ****

We love Panasonic dearly but just lately this highly respected bastion of the consumer electronic industry, and one of the pioneers of DVD technology, is starting to look a bit like an elderly maiden aunt, tut-tutting at the antics of the young upstarts jumping on a bandwagon that it helped to start rolling. Take the recently launched DVD-RV20. It is in all respects a very decent entry-level player that adheres strictly to the format strictures. Perish the thought that it should be able to play anything other than Region 2 discs, but in the face of such compelling competition we might have expected a more interesting specification on a machine costing £300.

 

The brief feature list wouldn’t look out of place on a sub-£200 player, the only extras worth mentioning are a super fast 100x picture search, 2-mode virtual surround sound (VSS) and sub-woofer output. In fact it lacks several quite basic facilities that we’ve come to take for granted on budget machines, like an RGB output on the SCART socket and a coaxial bitstream output. Even the styling is dowdy though to be fair the slimline cabinet doesn’t suffer from vast acres of empty panels so it doesn’t look out of proportion.

 

Setup menus and on-screen displays are standard-issue Panasonic, and none the worse for that as they are mostly clearly presented and easy to use. The setup menu is accessible from Stop mode and includes the usual picture format and language options. Some bright spark has split the picture format settings across two menu pages, so on the first display you can choose between 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratio, then you have to return to the main menu and select ‘Other Settings’, to get to the Pan & Scan/Letterbox switch. It probably doesn’t sound like a major inconvenience but when you consider that on most players making these adjustments involves maybe three or four button presses, on the RV20 it can involve more than 20 actions. On-screen menu navigation is actually quite straightforward thanks to the four large cursor control buttons on the remote handset. The rest of the handset buttons are reasonably well laid out and easy to find though some of the labelling could be clearer and we’re not terribly keen on close proximity of the chapter skip and picture search buttons. Until you get used to it you may find yourself inadvertently changing chapters when all you wanted to do was skim through the recording.

 

Up until now we’ve been a bit snippy about the specification and lack of features but as we come to the performance tests you may sense rather more enthusiasm. Picture quality is very good, indeed we would expect nothing less from Panasonic. Images are sharp and fluid, it manages to resolve the smallest details, even in very busy scenes containing lots of movement or rapid changes in brightness. Colour rendition is excellent and that includes skin tones, which look perfectly natural. Little or nothing is lost in shadows and dark scenes and it’s one of the few players we’ve tested recently that doesn’t need any additional picture controls. Slomo is smooth and we’re most impressed by the picture search facilities; 2x normal speed is just that, no skipped frames or jerkiness though we can’t see the point of not suppressing the soundtrack since it is virtually unintelligible. The only minor quibble is a slight intolerance of dirty or scratched discs that most other players manage to ignore, and fairly average layer change, which takes around a quarter of a second.

 

The RV20 is unfettered by on-board Dolby Digital and dts decoders, so we can concentrate on the mixed stereo output and audio CD quality. Both are fine, background noise levels in both cases is very low and the stereo output has a flat and open response that carries Dolby Surround soundtracks without any problems. The sub output is a welcome bonus and a good excuse to invest in a powered sub-woofer, especially if you’ve a penchant for action blockbusters. The bitstream output appears to be clean and open, it’s just a shame there’s not the option of a coaxial bitstream output. Audio CDs performance is comparable with upper mid-range hi-fi players, it creates a bright, punchy sound, the mid-range is a touch woolly but treble is pin-sharp and there’s a healthy bass response that’s well suited to rock and pop material.   

 

Fortunately the RV20 acquits itself with above average AV performance otherwise we would have had to say that it is a rather mediocre design, dull even, short on features and not especially good value for money. Even so, we can’t ignore the fact that it is up against some very well appointed players, with comparable picture and sound. Our guess is that without any killer features we suspect only dedicated Panasonic fans will notice it in the crowd.

 

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

 

UP CLOSE

Features

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

 

Sockets

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

 

HE RATINGS

Picture  9

Movie sound            8

Music sound            9

Features            7

Value                7

 

 

Harman Kardon DVD-1, £450

VERDICT ****

HK is the latest in a steady stream of esteemed hi-fi manufacturers to get down and dirty with DVD and as the model number suggests the DVD-1 is the first model in the range. It has recently been joined by the DVD-5, which is a 5-disc front-loader; we await details of DVD’s 2, 3 and 4 with great interest… Harman Kardon are in the middle echelon of serious hi-fi brands so it should come as no surprise to learn that the DVD-1 sports a £450 price tag; what you may not have expected is the fact that it’s made in China, and that it is so basic, even after taking into account the minimalist tendencies of some high-end audio manufacturers.

 

Most DVD players have one or two unusual features we can latch on to, praise or deride, but the DVD-1 almost completely devoid of extras, over and above the core facilities required to play DVDs and audio CDs. If we dig really deep – and this is scraping the bottom of the barrel – the light-up buttons on the remote handset and a 9-scene bookmark just about qualify as vaguely interesting.

 

One unadvertised feature that may appeal to some users is the hackable region lock, which can be readily changed by tapping a few numbers into the remote handset. We shouldn’t really say how it’s done, but what the heck, it’s probably on the Internet by now. The player must be in standby mode, with no disc in the tray, enter the code 3141592, followed by the region number, the machine responds with a ‘Hello’ on the front panel display and its done. Before you get too excited you should be aware that there’s no all-region (Region 0) setting and the video output from an R1 disc is raw NTSC, so on a single standard TVs (i.e. most models) you’ll end up with a black and white picture. 

 

The black and gold cosmetics are designed to coordinate with other HK products and the unfussy front panel is rather smart; the illuminated front panel buttons are a good idea and we’re always pleased to see a headphone socket (with level control). Spin the DVD-1 around and you’re faced by twin SCART sockets, carrying both composite and RGB video outputs, so no complaints there. It has an S-Video output and both optical and coaxial bitstream sockets in addition to the usual mixed stereo line output. 

 

We did come across one tiny quirk -- and it’s a measure of how conventional the DVD-1 is that we’re even bothering to mention it, but the one Menu button is used to access the player’s set-up menu (when the player is in stop mode or no disc is loaded) and the disc menu. Speaking of the handset, it’s a bit of a strange shape but the buttons are a good size, neatly laid out according to function and shaped like arrows, in the case of the play and search keys.

 

The absence of any picture controls or video ‘equaliser’ facilities concerned us at first but after running a few discs through the DVD-1 it became apparent that it doesn’t need any help. It produces a clean and very well balanced image, packed with information and accurately rendered colours. DVD gremlins like processing artefacts and dull looking lowlights were nowhere to be seen and layer change takes place in less than a quarter of a second. Trick play is steady, though the fastest search speed is a fairly sedate 16x normal replay.

 

Audio CD response swings effortlessly from one end of the frequency spectrum to the other revealing plenty of low level sounds but without ever appearing cluttered or confused. The mixed stereo output has a similarly assured response, Dolby Surround effects are precisely located within the soundfield and background hiss is almost negligible. Dolby Digital and dts soundtracks pass through on to the bitstream output in pristine condition.

 

What the DVD-1 lacks in glitz and frills it makes up for with picture and sound quality to compliment any high-end home cinema system. The price is a touch intimidating, it can’t have escaped your notice that you can buy a fully-loaded DVD player for less then £200 these days, but it wouldn’t look as classy, perform as well or carry the same kudos.

 

Contact Harman Kardon/Gamepath, 01908 317707

 

UP CLOSE

Features

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

           

Sockets           

AV out (2 x SCART), S-Video out (mini DIN), mixed stereo, composite video & coaxial bitstream out (phono), optical bitstream out (TOSlink) Front: headphone (jack)

 

HE RATINGS

Picture  8

Movie sound            9

Music sound            9

Features            7

Value                7

 

ENCORE DV-450, £230

VERDICT ****

We’re accustomed to seeing the odd unfamiliar name attached to DVD players but in the past few weeks’ new brands seem to have been coming out of the woodwork! Encore is one such and the DV-450 is one of the more unusual players we’ve seen lately. A flash of white plastic when the disc drawer opens prompted us to reach for the screwdriver sooner than normal during the course of a test.

 

Our suspicions proved correct for after removing the lid, instead of the usual skeletal deck mechanism inside there was a fully shrouded PC DVD-ROM drive. We haven’t seen one of those in a home deck player for quite a while. In the very early days of DVD, in the rush to get players onto the market, several manufacturers used PC drives but we had supposed that the supply of purpose-built DVD drive mechanisms had improved to the point where it was no longer necessary. Not that there’s anything wrong with PC drives in this application but it was clearly a stopgap measure as PC drives are more expensive to produce and additional interface circuitry is required to adapt them to the role of playing DVD Videos discs. That’s obviously no longer a problem as the DV-450 is a reasonably well-specified player with on-board Dolby Digital decoding, selling for the comparatively modest sum of £230.

 

As well as Dolby Digital the DV-450 has multi-speed replay, a 2-stage picture zoom, five-scene marker, front headphone jack, it ‘tings’ when you press the open/close button and it’s only the second player we’ve tested that can replay CD-R/RW discs encoded with MP3 music files. MP3 (MPEG layer 3) is a data compression scheme used to transport music files around the Internet to download onto PCs and from then onto memory cards used in Walkman-style personal players. Software is also available that can convert or ‘rip’ tracks on audio CDs and convert them to MP3 file format. PCs with CD recorders or ‘burners’ can copy files to disc and because the compression system is so efficient a standard CD-R/RW disc can hold around 12 hours of reasonably high quality music.

 

The 450 has two other features of note, in addition to the usual array of AV connections it has a component video output and the region lock can be easily disabled by tapping a code into the handset. Since the distributors are making no secret of the fact, and assure us it does not affect the warranty, we’ll pass on the ‘secret’. With the deck in stop mode select Setup and General Setup from the menu, press 38883 on the handset and a hidden menu called ‘Loopholes’ appears with Regions 1 to 6 and ‘Bypass’ (all regions) listed, plus a quaint message at the bottom that says ‘You should not be here’… Make your selection using the cursor buttons and it’s done. 

 

During replay the on-screen displays show mode and status; the setup menu can be accessed, though the picture freezes when changes are made to things like picture format, nevertheless it is very convenient not to have to exit playback. Picture quality is very good, colours and skin tones are natural, the image is crisp with lots of fine detail and contrast balance is just about right. Layer change is as near instantaneous as makes no difference and although picture search is jerky the range of speeds (2x, 4x, 8x, 15x, 30x) makes disc navigation easy. Slomo is odd though, it works in both directions but you have to step through the forward speeds (1/2x, 1/4x, 1/8x) to get to reverse slomo. Dolby Surround soundtracks on the mixed stereo output are clean and well presented, the Dolby Digital channels sound very sharp with a wide flat response and accurately located effects. MP3 is borderline hi-fi; a lot depends on the bit-rate used to encode the files, but at the highest speeds it is getting close to acceptable, certainly its good enough for parties and background listening.

 

In the end the fact that this machine uses hybrid deck technology appears to be largely irrelevant, it performs as well as most other entry-level/mid-range players of equivalent price and the fact that it has on-board Dolby Digital decoding, all region playback and MP3 replay can be counted as useful extras. The styling is plain and the layout of the remote handset could be better but these are relatively minor niggles on what is otherwise a perfectly respectable machine. The Encore brand might be new to DVD but if our first contact with the 450 is anything to go by, it could become a familiar sight.

 

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

 

UP CLOSE

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

 

Sockets

AV out (SCART), 5.1 channel out, mixed stereo out, coaxial digital out, composite video out, component video out (phono), S-Video out (mini DIN), optical digital out (TOSlink) Front: headphone (jack)   

 

HE RATINGS

Picture  9

Movie sound            8

Music sound            8

Features            9

Value                9

 

 

LECSON DVD-900, £170

VERDICT ****

Nope, we haven’t come across Lecron before; it is one of several new brands that have emerged in the wake of the DVD boom. As far as we’re concerned the more the merrier and anything that broadens consumer choice has to be a good thing – providing there’s not too much rubbish... Mind you the way the market is going we’re a little doubtful that it can sustain so many newcomers for much longer, especially with several well-known names thrashing it out at the budget end of the market. Nevertheless Lecron is off to a fairly good start with a Dolby Digital player costing just £170; so without further ado let’s see what else it has to offer.

 

Styling and presentation is conventional enough, the DVD-900 front panel is finished in grey gunmetal and the layout is reasonably tidy. The main points of interest on the feature list – over and above the Dolby Digital decoder – are 3D sound, picture zoom, a volume control on the handset, multi-speed replay (2 x, 4 x, 8x, 20x & single forward slomo 1/7x) and a karaoke function that works with suitably encoded discs. It’s labelled Region 2 but our sample happily played R1 discs without any further bidding. It has a 3-scene bookmark and like a couple of decks we’ve tested recently, it can replay MP3 music files recorded on CD-R/RW discs.

 

Rear panel connections comprise two fully wired SCART sockets, carrying both composite and RGB video outputs. There are also separate composite video (x2) and S-Video outputs, optical and coaxial bitstream outputs (dts compatible) and a bank of phono sockets for the 5.1 channel outputs. The remote control handset is not the worst we’ve seen by any means but it is a wee bit cluttered with a microscopic Play button nestling in the four-way cursor cluster, the track skip and fast forward/reverse search buttons are a bit jumbled and a couple of buttons are labelled with functions like ‘Digest’ and ‘PBC’ that seem to do nothing at all. The main on-screen display is for information purposes only, you have to come out of playback to get into the Setup menu, though things like soundtrack and subtitle can be changed whilst a disc is playing. The Setup menu has a TV system selector option (PAL, PAL60/60R NTSC & auto and very basic audio settings.

 

As far s routine DVD playback operations are concerned everything appears to be in order, it’s not quite as fast to respond as some rival players, loading is a little relaxed but it’s something you can easily live with. The picture on our sample was a little dark and since there are no picture controls you may find that you have to adjust the TV brightness and contrast controls to compensate. Contrast is a little on the heavy-set side and dark scenes look a bit dull, even after increasing the TV’s contrast. Resolution is satisfactory but colours lack the fine graduations of shade needed to accurately render things like skin tones; the differences between this player and its rivals are comparatively small but they are noticeable in a side by side comparison. Trick play is by skipping frames, which is normal at high speeds, but 2x and 4x could be a lot smoother and the single forward slomo is rather limited. Layer change on our reference discs is quick at well under one quarter of a second.

 

Background noise levels on the mixed stereo soundtracks is well within acceptable limits, the response is flat and wide providing Dolby Surround tracks with plenty of room, big dynamic bass effects come across really well. The Dolby Digital decoder works well too and 5.1 channels have a crisp open sound, low level effects are cleanly resolved and the sub channel is loud and lively. 3D sound is a disappointment, it has a mechanical quality and we can’t say that the soundfield is any wider or more interesting than plain vanilla stereo. Audio CD is satisfactory, it works as well as most mid-range hi-fi systems but there’s not the depth or clarity of a hi-fi component, or some of the better high-end multi-role DVD players.

 

There’s no denying you get a good number of bangs for your buck with this machine but overall performance, on our sample at least was fairly ordinary. The picture is okay but not especially involving and the range of trick play options could be better. Dolby Digital on a sub £200 player is still quite rare and all region playback is a bonus as is MP3 replay so by all means include it on your shortlist – especially if you’re on a very tight budget – but be aware that better AV performance is available for just a little more money. 

 

Contact Diva Corporation, (01480) 469253

 

UP CLOSE

Features

Region 2 (see text), PAL/NTSC replay, Dolby Digital decoder, dts compatible, MP3 replay, multi-speed replay, stage picture zoom, 3D sound, 3-scene marker, karaoke function, volume control 

 

Sockets           

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

 

HE RATINGS

Picture  7

Movie sound            8

Music sound            7

Features            8

Value                9

 

LG DVD-3200, £200

VERDICT ***

Most consumer electronics companies marketing DVD players follow a fairly well trodden path, releasing on average two or three new decks a year, with each season’s new models generally being cheaper and better specified than the ones they are replacing. LG on the other hand appear to be going the other way, or at least shifting sideways with its latest budget entry-level player, the DVD-3200. It’s the successor to the DVD-2330, which we first looked at earlier this year; at the time we commented that it was a bit basic and at £190 not especially great value, but it was a decent enough machine.

 

LG has always been a bit of a pacesetter when it comes to budget-priced audio and video products, so we were expecting great things of the DVD-3200, particularly since the price is actually up on the DVD-2330 at around the £200 mark. It certainly looks better than its predecessor, quite classy in fact and the compact and shiny case is the kind of thing we’re seeing from the big name Japanese firms. However, get a little closer and it becomes clear that internally little has changed and it is only marginally better specified than the DVD-2330. You’ll need no reminding that players with Dolby Digital can be found for less than £170 so the bare bones audio facilities on the 3200 are a surprise, it doesn’t even have an optical bitstream output, though we should mention that the coaxial digital is bitstream compatible, and it does have a 3D or spatial sound mode to liven up the analogue mixed stereo output. 

 

The lack of NTSC playback was something we grumbled about on the 2330 so we’re please to see it has been incorporated on the 3200. The trick play options have been uprated and improved; it has a useful range of slomo speeds (1/16x, 1/8x 1/4x and 1/2x normal speed, both directions, and picture search starts out quite promising with four forward and reverse speeds of 2x, 4x, 16x and 100x, but the latter is just too fast and something in the range 30x to 50x would have been more useable. It also has a 2-stage (x4 & x16) picture zoom and 5-scene bookmark but that’s yer lot.

 

Playback on our sample was fixed on Region 2; at the time of writing we were not aware of any hacks or unlock codes, though that isn’t to say it can’t be tweaked, if you are interested you will have to keep tabs on the many web sites devoted to such matters.

 

The wacky remote handset warrants a quick mention, particularly since we grumbled about the one supplied with the 2330. It’s a little on the large side but it really is rather good, even the cheesy number-shaped buttons. However it’s the large clearly labelled and strategically positioned disc transport buttons that earned our admiration. This should be an object lesson to others, especially those manufacturers who persist with tiny, awkward button-encrusted aberrations – yes, you know who you are…

 

Pressing the ‘GUI’ button (graphical user interface) brings up a rather nondescript menu bar on the left side of the screen from where you can move trough tracks and chapters, change language settings and select 3D sound. The setup menu can also be invoked when a disc is playing, the picture disappears but you can return to the point in the movie where you left off.

 

Colour fidelity is quite good though small graduations in flesh tones are glossed over. Overall resolution is about average for a budget player, most fine detail is captured but some is left behind especially when there’s a lot of movement on the screen. Contrast balance is not too bad at all and comparatively little picture information is lost in murky scenes and shadows.

 

Audio CD performance is typical of most budget DVD players, on a par with the decks in mid-range hi-fi systems, in other words acceptable to most users but with enough minor flaws in the presentation to irritate picky audiophiles. There’s little or nothing to be concerned with on the mixed stereo output, it’s all routine stuff with a wide and largely uncoloured response and no more than average amounts of background hiss.

 

The improvements to the control system, remote handset and the addition of NTSC playback are all very welcome, as is the new casework and the 3200 looks and feels a lot better than its predecessor, but the basic specification and price remains unexciting. We can only reiterate what we said about the 2330, it’s okay, but we suspect it will be overshadowed by its similarly priced rivals.

 

Contact LG Electronics 01753 500470

 

UP CLOSE

Features

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

           

Sockets           

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

 

HE RATINGS

Picture  8

Movie sound            8

Music sound            8

Features            7

Value                8

 

 

 

 

Make/Model, £

VERDICT *****

 

Contact

 

 

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BOX OUT 50

 

HE RATINGS

Picture  x

Movie sound            x

Music sound            x

Features            x

Value                x

 

 

 

---end---

ã R. Maybury 2000 XXXX

 

 

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