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GROUP TEST

 

DVD MEGA TEST

 

PRODUCT INFO

 

ALBA DVD108
Price                             £69.99

 

What's good                  Ultra cheap, multi-region

What's bad                    Ultra basic, no S-Video output

Overall comment             you really do get what you pay for but for a backup or bedroom player it doesnít look too bad

 

Caption             Well, itís quite compact and the case design is unobtrusive. For a budget machine the remote is not too bad and the picture is okay, bearing in mind the connection limitations but the rudimentary spec rules it out for serious home cinema work

 

Telephone Alba 020 8787 3111

Multi-Region            yes

Built in decoders            no

NTSC replay                  yes

MP3 playback            yes

Picture Zoom            yes

SCARTS                       1

Headphone socket  no

S-Video output            no

Component video     no

Other features            SCART & AV leads supplied

 

 

Weight              2.8kg

Dimensions (WHD)  360 x 60 x 120mm

 

DVD BUYERS GUIDE XTRA INFO

 

ALBA 108        

£                                  £69.99

VERDICT                      4

STATUS                       

COMMENT                    cheap and remarkably cheerful

TYPE                            DVD

5.1 OUT                        N

OUTPUT                       Dig

COMPíNT VID            N

SCARTS                       1

ISSUE              111

 

 

 

ARIA PDVD-2255

Price                             £88.13

 

What's good                  Some very unusual and potentially useful features

What's bad                    So-so picture quality on R2 recordings

Overall comment             An intriguing design that should give its best when used with non-standard display devices like projectors and plasma panels

 

Caption             Behind that rather bland exterior thereís a very unusual player with a remarkable, not to say unique assortment of features, certainly on a machine costing less than £90.  Picture performance is unremarkable though we suspect that it has been designed to work best with R1 recordings and display devices with progressive scan inputs

 

Telephone Aria, 0870 7444448, www.aria.co.uk

Video output                  composite/S-Video/RGB/component/VGA

SCARTs                        1

Audio output                  analogue mixed stereo/ analogue 5.1surround, coaxial/optical

5.1 decoders                 Dolby Digital & dts

 


Multi-Region            yes

Built in decoders            yes

NTSC replay                  yes

MP3 playback            yes

Picture Zoom            yes

SCARTS                       1

Headphone socket  no

S-Video output            yes

Component video     yes

Other features            JPEG replay, karaoke, picture zoom, VGA & component progressive scan video outputs, volume & mute controls, SCART & AV leads supplied

 

Weight              4.9kg

Dimensions (WHD)  420 x 44 x 265mm

 

DVD BUYERS GUIDE XTRA INFO

 

ARIA PDVD-2255    

£                                  £88.13

VERDICT                      3

STATUS                       

COMMENTS            Highly specified but fairly average picture

TYPE                            DVD

5.1 OUT                        Y

OUTPUT                       Dig, 5.1

COMPíNT VID            Y

SCARTS                       1

ISSUE              111

 

process

 

 

CYBERHOME CH-DVD 402

Price                             £80

 

What's good                  good AV performance for a budget model

What's bad                    small, cluttered remote

Overall comment             Better than expected picture and sound quality, made even more impressive by the fact that it costs less than £90

 

Caption             Whilst it may not be much to look at this moderately well specified budget player performs well and compares favourably with some mid-range models. The only minor drawbacks concerns the lack of compatibility with some recordable formats and the cheapie remote handset

 

Telephone Cyberhome http://www.cyberhome-europe.de/

Multi-Region            yes (see text)

Built in decoders            no

NTSC replay                  yes

MP3 playback            yes

Picture Zoom            yes

SCARTS                       1

Headphone socket  no

S-Video output            yes

Component video     no

Other features            JPEG replay, slide show, picture & sound controls, scene digest, mute, 12-scene bookmark, glow in the dark buttons, SCART & AV leads supplied

           

Weight              5kg

Dimensions (WHD)  430 x 80 x 290mm

 

DVD BUYERS GUIDE XTRA INFO

 

CYBERHOME CH-DVD 402

£                                  £80

VERDICT                      4

STATUS                       

COMMENTS            good budget spec, perhaps some compatibility issues

TYPE                            DVD

5.1 OUT                        N

OUTPUT                       Dig

COMPíNT VID            N

SCARTS                       1

ISSUE              111

 

 

 

 

GOODMANS GDD134

Price                             £99.99

 

What's good                  swish mirror front design, fair AV quality

What's bad                    comparatively poor value for money

Overall comment             Apart from the fancy front panel it fails to shine in any particular respect

 

Caption             The mirrored front panel is about the only real point of interest, performance and features are all quite ordinary and in the scheme of things itís not especially cheap moreover the lack of multi-region replay is a disappointment though a handset hack may be possible given its parentage

 

Telephone Goodmans 0239 239 1100

Multi-Region            no

Built in decoders            no

NTSC replay                  yes

MP3 playback            yes

Picture Zoom            yes

SCARTS                       1

Headphone socket  no

S-Video output            yes

Component video     no

Other features            SCART & AV cables supplied

 

Weight              3.4kg

Dimensions (WHD)  430 x 50 x 257mm

 

DVD BUYERS GUIDE XTRA INFO

 

GOODMANS GDD134

£                                  £99.99

VERDICT                      3

STATUS                       

COMMENTS            ordinary design and performance

TYPE                            DVD

5.1 OUT                        N

OUTPUT                       Dig

COMPíNT VID            N

SCARTS                       1

ISSUE              111

 

 

 

SCHNEIDER DVD-857

Price                             £99

 

What's good                  impressive spec for the money, stylish design

What's bad                    average AV quality, awkward remote

Overall comment             a smart looking little machine with some useful features but let down by handset ergonomics

 

Caption             From the outside you probably wouldnít guess that it was a budget model, the reflective front panel and the list of features wouldnít look out of place on a mid-market player, though itís clear that little time or money was spent on the design of the remote control handset

 

Telephone Schneider UK Ltd, 0870 757 1500 (check???)

Multi-Region            no

Built in decoders            yes

NTSC replay                  yes

MP3 playback            yes

Picture Zoom            yes

SCARTS                       1

Headphone socket  no

S-Video output            yes

Component video     no

Other features            chapter digest, 3D sound (spatial & reverb), 6-scene bookmark, 3-stage zoom, JPEG picture display (unadvertised), SCART & AV leads supplied

 

Weight              3.8kg

Dimensions (WHD)  430 x 65 x 240mm

 

DVD BUYERS GUIDE XTRA INFO

 

SCHNEIDER DVD-857

£                                  £99

VERDICT                      4

STATUS                       

COMMENTS            good spec for a budget model

TYPE                            DVD

5.1 OUT                        Y

OUTPUT                       Dig, 5.1

COMPíNT VID            N

SCARTS                       1

ISSUE              111

 

procmediatek

 

 

BODY COPY

 

FEATURES AND CONNECTIONS

One of the few common threads running through this group of players is the fact that they all cost less than £100, significantly so in the case of the Alba DVD-108 and that is amply reflected in this modelís very basic specification, which is carried over onto the back panel where you will find the just bare minimum of connections. Unfortunately it doesnít even have an S-Video socket, which may have improved its picture performance rating. There is an RGB output on the SCART socket but we suspect few users Ė drawn by the very low price -- will bother to take advantage of it. Thereís also some consolation in the fact that it can play MP3 files on a CD-R and it has been enabled for multi-region replay.

 

At the other extreme we have the remarkably well appointed Aria PDVD-2255 which is positively bristling with sockets and in addition to the 5.1 channel outputs for the built-in Dolby Digital and dts decoders, composite, S-Video and RGB connections thereís a rare, if not unique combination Ė on a sub £90 player -- of component video and VGA monitor output sockets. Both of them carry a progressive scan video signal, though whether or not thatís a good thing remains to be seen, more about that in a moment. In the normal course of events the advanced video options would be more than enough to set this player apart but thereís more. It has a karaoke function with variable echo, it can play MP3 audio and JPEG picture files and it is multi-region capable straight out of the box.

 

All of the rest have the standard compliment of composite, RGB and S-Video outputs and coaxial and optical bitstream sockets but the Schneider DVD-857 is the only other player in this group to have on-board Dolby Digital and dts decoding and like the Aria it can also handle both MP3 and JPEG files though strangely the latter appears to be an unadvertised feature, which we discovered during one of our routine tests. Thereís a scene digest facility for previewing the beginning of each chapter on a display of 9 sub-screens plus spatial and reverb sound effects and but it is firmly locked to region 2 replay. We did manage to find one alleged hack for this model, but it didnít work on our machine though we havenít ruled it out completely.

 

Multi-region replay is possible on the Cyberhome CH-DVD 402 using a simple handset hack (Open/Close, Setup, 1369, left cursor -- 3 times -- right cursor, then select region number on Version menu), and it can play CD-Rs with MP3 and JPEG files. There are several useful extras worth noting, like a scene digest, it has a small selection of picture controls (sharpness, brightness & contrast) a 12-scene bookmark and a set of sound Ďeffectsí for DVD and CD playback (for DVD the choices are rock, pop, live, dance, techno, classic & soft).

 

An internal inspection confirmed our suspicions that the Goodmans GDD135 is based on a near identical set of components to the Alba DVD-108 but there are a number of differences that help to explain the substantial price difference. The most important ones are the addition of S-Video and optical bitstream outputs, the case is also a little larger and the mirrored front panel probably adds a few bob to the overall cost but for some inexplicable reason Goodmans has seen fit to lock it Region 2 replay only; the fact that it uses the same processor chipset suggests a hack should be possible but at the time of writing one had not come to light.

 

ALBA    DVD-108                               2/5

ARIA PDVD-2255                             5/5

CYBERHOME CH-DVD 402            4/5

GOODMANS GDD134                        4/5

SCHNEIDER DVD-857                       4/5

 

 

EASE OF USE

Few manufacturers seem to appreciate the importance of the design and layout of DVD remote handsets and all too often the button boxes supplied with budget models seem like an afterthought or something cobbled together from old VCR and CD player remotes.

 

None of the handsets in this group are particularly distinguished in this respect, the one that comes with the Aria player, with its distinctively shaped numeric and transport keys is arguably the best of the bunch, but thatís really not saying much. The Cyberhome remote isnít too bad either and the most frequently used buttons glow in the dark but again itíll win no prizes for ergonomics. The remotes that accompany the Alba and Goodmans players are identical and yet more evidence of their common heritage but the transport buttons are small and cluttered and hard to use until you get used to the layout. The Schneider remote is just horrible with lots of small and hard to navigate keys, that makes it unnecessarily difficult to search through a movie or pause and review a scene and itís made worse by displacing the Enter button to one side of the four cursor keys, rather than the common convention of having it in the middle.

 

One frequently overlooked aspect of a DVD playerís ease of use is the instruction manuals and the booby prize for this group goes to the Aria offering, which is simply awful. Itís completely indecipherable in places: ĎPDVD uses Digital Video Image Processing Technology, making Inter-line inserting disposal of the output Digital Image Signal which has been MPEG-II image decoded and programmedí, is a fairly typical example, and unlikely to assist anyone seeking enlightenment on this important facility. It also didnít help that a couple of the pages had been double printed.

 

Thereís very little to choose between any of them when it comes to the on-screen displays, fortunately after the initial setup you wonít need to use the menus very often. In most cases the playback displays remain fairly unobtrusive and only appear when they are needed or summoned but thereís little or nothing in the way of extras Ė like bitrate indicators -- on any of them. Whilst it is rarely necessary to make much use of the controls on a playerís front panel the exception is the eject button and on both the Goodmans and Schneider players they are much too small and difficult to find Ė especially in subdued light -- though we quite like the way that the front panel displays on these two machines remain invisible behind the mirrored fascias, until theyíre switched on. The bright blue lights on the front of the Schneider machine we could have done without, though.

 

On the question of compatibility with recordable DVD formats the Alba, Aria and Goodmans players had no problems whatsoever with our DVD+RW/-R and +R test recordings. The Schneider 857 refused to play one DVD-R disc but accepted another made on a different recorder whilst the Cyberhome 402 was okay with DVD+RW but wouldnít recognise either ĖR or +R discs.

 

ALBA    DVD-108                               3/5

ARIA PDVD-2255                             3/5

CYBERHOME CH-DVD 402            3/5

GOODMANS GDD134                        3/5

SCHNEIDER DVD-857                       3/5

 

 

PICTURE QUALITY

With all of the extra video connection options we had very high hopes for the Aria player but our sample at least appeared to have a couple of problems. The most noticeable ones were on the composite and S-Video outputs where in dimly lit scenes there was a pronounced red fringing around any highlights in the picture. The image also suffered from a very slight jerkiness on PAL R2 recordings, this was most apparent in animated scenes and titles, like the opening curtain sequence at the start of Moulin Rouge. Perversely R1 playback was very good indeed with rich vibrant colours, smooth motion and crisp definition. Colours on the progressive scan VGA output, when playing an NTSC R1 disc were hopelessly over saturated and looked coarse when viewed on a PC monitor, giving the image an artificial, almost cartoon-like quality. Due to the limited nature of the picture controls on most computer monitors thereís little you can do about it. The adjustments on a projector or plasma panel should be able to compensate for most of the defects and despite all that the picture looks silky smooth with not a trace of flicker but this is not progressive scan at its best, or even second best.

 

The nature of some of these faults suggests that this player may have originally been designed and optimised for NTSC operation and PAL playback is something of an add-on but the progressive scan processing definitely seems to be out of kilter.    

 

As expected there was little or no difference between the picture performance of the Alba and Goodmans players, at least nothing that couldnít be explained by minor batch variations and certainly nothing that would show up in normal use. Generally speaking picture quality in both cases is okay but they suffer from the all too common problem of a restricted contrast range and that can be seen most clearly in darker scenes and shadows where there is a distinct loss of detail. Under-lit static backgrounds can also cause problems and where thereís little or no movement they can appear detached from the foreground and heavily textured. This is evident in movies like Se7en, in the many interior shots where the detectives are searching a murder scene; the changes of brightness at the edges of torch beams are heavily graduated or stepped. Otherwise, in bright and well-lit shots these players give a reasonably good account of themselves, though the Alba DVD-180 definitely misses out by not having an S-Video output as the picture on composite connection looks a bit flat and lacks colour depth.

 

The Schneider 857 also has a little difficulty rendering darker scenes but to a much lesser extent and gloomy background retain their integrity longer, before eventually and usually very briefly freezing into noise. Fine detail and colour is also more cleanly resolved, even when thereís a lot of movement, as in the vibrant dance sequences in Moulin Rouge and the brilliant pod race in Phantom Menace. Rapid changes in brightness are deftly handled and it has no problems capturing the action in battle scenes in movies like Phantom Menace and Fifth Element.

 

Of the five machines tested the Cyberhome CH-DVD 402 came out on top but true to form it too would have benefited from a slightly broader contrast range, however the signs were harder to spot and less frequent. Colours, especially finely graduated shades and skin tones in close-ups were very clean and were just a touch more natural-looking that the others. This machine came closest to the kind of picture performance of a mid-market machine, indeed it compares well with some top name players costing up to twice as much. The only gripe concerned the slightly cranky control system which on our model stubbornly refused to allow picture search or chapter skip on some movies until after the movie had started playing and on several occasions impatience to skip the opening credits was rewarded with a restart and an annoying re-run of the copyright notices back to the discís top menu.

 

ALBA    DVD-108                               3/5

ARIA PDVD-2255                             2/5

CYBERHOME CH-DVD 402            4/5

GOODMANS GDD134                        3/5

SCHNEIDER DVD-857                       4/5

 

 

SOUND QUALITY

The precise value of having Dolby Digital and dts decoders in a DVD player is open to debate since so many AV amplifiers nowadays have them built in, moreover itís a lot easier to wire up a system when the decoders are in the amplifier, requiring only one coaxial or optical lead between the player and the amp but two of the machines in this roundup have the facility, at no significant cost penalty, so itís worth seeing how they stack up against external decoders.

 

You canít beat a good battle scene to really put a 5.1 decoder through its paces and there are a couple of crackers in chapter 38 of the Phantom Menace. The Ariaís Dolby Digital decoder does a great job of filling the soundfield with tightly focused sounds and thereís a real sense of movement as the space fighters fly across the screen but big set piece effects explosions on the sub channel lack the all-important stomach rumbling punch and the absence of any level controls on the playerís setup menu makes it harder to achieve a natural balance without fussing around with the amplifier. Thereís a similar lack of adjustment on the Schneider player though you can choose between small, medium and large speakers but it doesnít seem to make a great deal of difference. The sub-woofer channel on this machine is more dramatic however, with a bit more low down background grumble that gets behind really big bangs, otherwise thereís comparatively little difference between the two. Apart from the lack of level controls and the fact that it is a less convenient arrangement the bottom line is that decoders in these two machines are on a par with most budget AV amplifiers.

 

Thereís barely a whisker between the digital coaxial and optical bitstream outputs on the five players (with the exception of the Alba 108, which only has a coaxial socket) when heard through a half decent system indicating that the decoders and processors are essentially neutral in character but wider differences do emerge when it comes to the analogue stereo outputs. In particular there is some variation in the levels of background hiss. The least noisy was the Schneider 857 and what little noise there is remains largely unobtrusive on lively DVD soundtracks. Itís just a tad more noticeable on the Cyberhome but once again itís at an acceptably low level and only makes its presence felt during really quiet passages. Noise levels are still unlikely to cause any concern on the Aria machine but you are aware of it more often, especially when the wick is turned up high. Hiss on the Goodmans and Alba machines are only slightly noisier, at the sort of level you can hear if you are listening for it but itís unlikely to spoil your enjoyment too much, or pose a problem, especially if the sound output is piped through a stereo TV. Dolby Surround effects emerge from all five players is relatively good condition.

 

Audio CD playback follows the same pattern as DVD soundtracks carried on the analogue stereo outputs but itís unwise to judge any of these machines too harshly as audio CD replay is very much a secondary function on DVD players, especially at the budget end of the market. Nevertheless, to put their abilities into context any of them would pass muster as budget audio components. Since all of them have MP3 playback itís worth giving that a quick mention. Much depends on the way the original recording is encoded, but even at the heist compression rates most people can tell the difference between an original CD and an MP3 recording and none of the players tested were able to disguise the fact, nor did any of them turn in a significantly inferior performance, but if weíve got to select a winner, of the five the Cyberhome was arguably the least offensive. MP3 is a genuinely facility and great for cramming several hoursí worth of background music on a single disc, but itís really not something you should base a buying decision on.  

 

ALBA    DVD-108                               3/5

ARIA PDVD-2255                             4/5

CYBERHOME CH-DVD 402            4/5

GOODMANS GDD134                        3/5

SCHNEIDER DVD-857                       4/5

 

 

VALUE

On virtually every group test of budget DVD players weíve carried out in the past couple of years we dutifully remark on the lower prices and improvements in the specification of cheapie machines, and how the market must by now have bottomed out. Not any more, having seen DVD players selling in the US in chain stores like Circuit City and Wal-Mart for less than £45 and on the evidence of this roundup weíre now quite convinced that DVD players will eventually be given away with packets of cornflakes, in fact theyíll probably be paying us to take them away soon!

 

Who could have foreseen that when DVD was first launched a little over five years ago that you would be able to buy a perfectly respectable compact player like the Alba DVD-108 for under £70 or that for less than £90 you could get a machine with on-board digital surround sound decoders and a host of luxury features like progressive scan and a VGA output? Admittedly those particular facilities on the Aria PDVD-2255 leave something to be desired but itís surely only a matter of time before someone gets it right. However, as impressive as the Aria spec might look we feel that on R2 material at least picture performance is not that wonderful and for the same money (or less) you can do better.

 

The Alba 108 really is incredible value for money, especially when you consider itís also region free and it has the capability at least Ė courtesy of its RGB and bitstream outputs Ė to deliver very fair picture and sound quality, though we feel itís probably better suited to lighter duties as a second player for the kids or in the bedroom. The Alba 108 also makes a nonsense of its close relative and stablemate the Goodmans GDD134, which basically costs thirty quid more and for that you get an S-Video socket and shiny front panel but denies you the opportunity to watch Region 1 movies. Work that one outÖ

 

We are suitably impressed by the Schneider 857 and the cosmetics are definitely eye-catching, though not necessarily to everyoneís taste. The 5.1 decoders may also be a plus point for some as well but even if you put that to one side it is still a most attractive package, more so if anyone can come up with a working region code hack.

 

However, by quite a good margin the Cyberhome CH-DVD 402 comes out on top. It is a solid all-rounder with very passable AV performance. Itís not as small or glitzy as most of the others but the line-up of features is exactly right for a modest home cinema system and thereís the bonus of that loose region lock.

 

ALBA    DVD108                                    4/5

ARIA PDVD-2255                             3/5

CYBERHOME CH-DVD 402            5/5

GOODMANS GDD134                        3/5

SCHNEIDER DVD-857                       4/5

 

---end---

 

R. Maybury 2002, xx

 

 

 

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