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If you’ve got a DVD player, or are still thinking about buying one, here’s some essential tips to help you to get the best out of your home cinema system



In only three years DVD has evolved from an expensive novelty into a mainstream home entertainment medium. That’s not bad going when you consider it took VCRs and CD players ten years to achieve the same sort of market penetration but whilst a lot of people have taken the plunge, and for the most part been suitably impressed, with any new technology it pays to know a bit about what’s going on behind the scenes.  


If you haven’t got a player yet the big question is which one? At the moment there are more than 150 models (and counting) to choose from. Prices start at less than £100 but if you’re really determined you could spend over £5000 on one, but for once more isn’t necessarily better and there are plenty of very good machines selling for under £200. The point is there are only so many ways to decode the digital data on a DVD and only half a dozen or so companies making the all-important processing microchips; it’s not unknown for the same chips to turn up in players with a price differential of several hundred pounds! Bottom line, don’t skimp on the DVD player but if you’ve got a lot of money burning a hole in your pocket it’s usually better spent on a big home cinema TV and high-end AV sound system.


DVD technology is a great leveller and pretty well all players have the same basic playback facilities and AV connections including a set of analogue stereo and digital ‘bitstream’ audio outputs. The latter carries Dolby Digital and dts multi-channel surround sound information. A growing number of players – including several budget models – have surround sound decoders built in. However, it’s a mixed blessing -- unless you happen to have a six-channel amplifier -- and not really worth paying any extra for as these days many AV amplifiers also have on-board digital surround sound decoders.


Nevertheless there are a few features that you may want to seek out, or pay extra for. They include things like smarter-looking cosmetics, a well-known brand name, an autochanger deck mechanism, fancy trick play facilities, component video output (more on that in a moment), and multi-region playback although many of those features are no longer confined to dearer up-market players, the Toshiba SD-110 is a case in point and indeed the facility to play American Region 1 discs is actually more common on budget models, the Reoc A3 for example plays just about any type of disc (all region DVD, CD, MP3 etc.) and costs less than £100.


Your money will show a more tangible return if you are interested in audio CD performance – some mid-market and high-end players qualify as accomplished hi-fi components -- or you’re keen to sample the delights of the new multi-channel SACD and DVD-A audio formats. A word of warning though, a format war is brewing and the jury is still out so check that the software that’s available now is to your liking because if a format goes under there may not be any more…


If you’re feeling really brave then you might want to have a punt on recordable DVD. There are two competing formats (DVD-R/RAM and DVD+RW; a third, DVD-RW seems to have fizzled out); no one is sure which system will prevail, there’s little to choose between them in terms of performance and if you’re only interested in recording TV programmes and replaying DVD movies compatibility with other players probably doesn’t matter too much. One thing you can be sure of, though, is recordable DVD will get a lot cheaper (current models sell for between £800 and £1000) so it might be sensible to wait a few months to see which way the wind blows.



So, you’ve got your shiny new DVD player home, how do you connect it up? Assuming that you have a reasonably recent NICAM TV with two or more SCART sockets on the back, the simplest way is to use a SCART-to-SCART cable from the player to the TV, which handles both picture (composite video) and basic stereo sound signals. Do not connect the DVD to a SCART socket on your VCR, you will get a lousy picture as all DVD players inject Macrovision anti-piracy spoiler signals on the video output, to stop you from making tape copies.


If your TV has an S-Video input on the back use that to connect to the S-Video socket on the DVD player (all models have one nowadays) in preference to a SCART lead and you’ll see a small but noticeable improvement in picture quality (sharper and crisper colours). Use stereo phono leads to connect the DVD’s audio output to the TV. A few high-end TVs and some DVD players have RGB video, if so use it for the best picture quality; you will need a ‘fully wired’ SCART cable and make the appropriate adjustments in both the TV and DVD player’s setup menus, so read those manuals! A few exotic home cinema TVs and a handful of DVD players have component video connections, it works best American Region 1(NTSC) discs. With Region 2 (PAL) discs it’s generally better to stick with an RGB connection between the player and TV.


All DVD players have a setup menu with a TV shape or ‘aspect ratio’ setting. This tells the player what sort of TV it is connected to, so it can configure the picture signal. If you have a conventional (i.e. non-widescreen) TV the picture shape menu should be set to ‘4:3’ or ‘4:3 pan and scan’ (full screen with cropped sides or narrow ‘letterboxed’ display). If you have a widescreen TV it should be set to 16:9. You’ll know if you get it wrong because the picture will appear distorted (stretched vertically or horizontally).


DVD picture quality can be stunning but that’s only half the story. To get the full impact you also need a multi-channel surround sound system. Some TVs have surround sound decoders built in but the speakers tend to be a bit feeble. If you are going to do it, do it properly with an AV amplifier and some decent speakers, a good starting point would be the Yamaha DSP-AX60 and Mission M71 package. In either case it’s usually best to use the amplifier or hi-fi system’s on-board surround sound decoder, as opposed to one in the player; apart from anything else it’s easier to wire up, using just one cable (optical or coaxial type) between the player and the amplifier. Most recent movie soundtracks carry a lot of bass-heavy effects and low frequency background sounds so if funds/spouse/parents/neighbours/structural integrity allows get a sub-woofer, and make it a good one like the REL Q150. 


Some DVD players come with a SCART cable and cheapo stereo phono lead but it is definitely worth investing in some high quality cables, we’re not talking about the really exotic stuff but don’t be afraid to spend £25 to £40 on a SCART cable, like the Ixos 141AV-150 and expect to pay similar amounts for quality phono and optical digital cables. Any improvements in picture and sound quality are likely to be quite subtle and may not be immediately noticeable but they will generally be better made, less likely to fall apart or become noisy.



It’s worth spending a little time setting up your system properly, even if soon afterwards you wind up the centre, surround and sub-woofer channels to painful levels (yes, we all do it…). What you are trying to achieve is a balanced soundfield with the levels from all channels sounding more or less the same. Virtually all surround decoders have a white or pink noise sequencer – usually called the ‘Test Tone’ -- that generates a whooshing sound, fed to each speaker in turn so you can adjust the level controls.


By the way, double-check your speaker polarities (i.e. make sure the plusses and minuses on the amp go to the same terminals on the speakers). If one or more speakers are connected back to front or ‘out of phase’ the soundfield can appear muddled and effects will be less well focused. Your TV or video display also need to be set correctly to get the best results. Pay particular attention to contrast and brightness levels.


Various proprietary test discs are available that can help in system setup, some of them are quite entertaining but before you spend any money check out the freebies. Have a look in the Options and Language menus on your DVDs for the THX Optimizer logo. Quite a few new releases have this very useful feature including Star Wars Phantom Menace, Pearl Harbour, and Terminator 2 etc. The Optimizer includes a series of audio and video test sequences and patterns that can help you to set up your audio system and TV. One of the tests requires the use of special filter glasses, they are free but you pay carriage charges (about £3.50 for the UK), there’s an order form on the THX web site (www.thx.com). The Optimizer’s instructions are clear and easy to follow, it’s simple to use, there’s lot of useful advice and best of all it really works!




TOSHIBA SD-110 £180
Superb picture and sound with the kind of performance and features you would expect to find on a mid market player from a top brand. Toshiba certainly qualifies on that last point but the ticket price, at well below £200 puts this machine firmly into the budget category.


REOC A3 £100

The name may not be familiar but inside you’ll find the same processing microchips as players costing two and three times as much. Good AV performance, an easily switchable region lock and lots of useful features. Why spend more if you’re dipping a tentative toe into the DVD waters?



The AX60 might be short on frills but it has plenty of muscle (5 x 90 watts) and there a full set of analogue and digital surround sound decoders (Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital and dts) and sound processor modes plus video switching. A natural, energetic sound at a very realistic price.


IXOS 141AV-151, £40

Built to last – we reckon the housings and connecting pins are virtually indestructible – and it is about as transparent to video and DVD audio signals as it is possible to get. It looks pretty too, though the actual cable is flat so it can be hidden away under carpets.


REL Q150, £500

Power and performance at a realistic price and able to integrate seamlessly with a wide range of systems. Despite the Q150’s compact shape and seemingly modest 150-watt output this handsome little unit still manages to pack quite a punch but it’s very well controlled and won’t drown out the rest of the soundtrack.



Ó R. Maybury 2002, 1602





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