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Harmon Kardon isn’t exactly prolific when it comes to marketing DVD homedecks and the first couple of machines we looked at were in the worthy but dull category but it has more than made up for it with the DVD 21. It may not be much to look at but on-screen performance and the list of features sets a new benchmark for mid-priced players.


The highlights include a new video processing chipset utilising 10-bit decoding and a Panasonic deck mechanism, the upshot of which is a crisper picture with a broader contrast range plus smoother, more accurately rendered colours, and it’s a difference you can see, but more on that in a moment.


H/K wisely decided not to over-egg the pudding and haven’t given the DVD-21any on-board digital surround decoders, which in any case are best left to external components but there is a very good selection of convenience features, like a test pattern generator which, along with some useful guidance in the instructions, helps the owner to set up the picture on their display device to its best advantage. In addition to DVD-Video and CD Audio it can play a wide variety of optical disc formats, including all current recordable DVD variants (DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R and DVD+RW), as well as VCD, SVCD and CD-R/RWs containing audio CD and MP3 tracks, the latter benefiting from a well thought out Playlist Editor that can compile selections of up to 60 tracks.


There’s the usual assortment of playback widgets, the picture Zoom has four levels of magnification, it has a 9-scene bookmark and a very decent set of replay speeds, up to 100x in Search mode, forward and reverse slomo (4 speeds) plus forward and reverse frame step. Gold plated phono sockets on the back panel carry the composite video, mixed stereo and bitstream outputs, there’s a separate TOSLink optical bitstream output and a mini DIN socket for S-Video. The single SCART socket can be configured for either S-Video or RGB outputs and a pair of minijack sockets is used for a wired remote control system when the DVD 21 is partnered with other H/K components.


Many otherwise excellent players fall down on usability, which almost always means a poorly designed handset but the one supplied with the DVD 21 is an ergonomic triumph, even if it does look like a cheapo universal remote. The main transport keys are large and easy to find and all of the buttons light up at the touch of a button. The on-screen displays are a model of clarity and for those who like to know what’s going on behind the scenes there’s a couple of ‘Info’ screens that show a range of disc and player statistics.


Owners of first and second-generation players know to their cost that movies with new or extra multimedia features can prove troublesome but this shouldn’t be a problem for the DVD 21 as updated firmware can be downloaded from the Internet. This backdoor into the player’s inner workings also means its region lock can be disabled, though we suspect most models sold in the UK will be set to all-region replay but just in case, we’ve included details of how the firmware update and region code hack works (see Regional Development).


It’s immediately obvious that the picture quality of this machine is a cut above the norm. Movies like Se7en and The Lord of the Rings contain a lot of moody and deliberately under-lit scenes; on lesser players gloomy backgrounds are usually a dark or static mush but on the DVD 21 they bristle with texture and detail. Incidentally, this is one of only a small handful of machines we’ve seen that’s able to do justice to the mines of Moria sequence in LOTR revealing the full depth and intricacy of the vast caverns.


Subtle gradients of shade and colour are smoothly rendered, skin tones look natural; extreme close–ups show every pore and wrinkle on Gandalf’s face. It swings easily to the other extreme deftly handling rapid movement, fast changes in brightness and it’s a dab hand at explosions in fast-paced action blockbusters, like Phantom Menace and Fifth Element.


With that kind of picture quality Dolby Digital and dts digital sound are the only way to go when watching movies on this player and the optical or coaxial bitstream outputs are both as clean as a whistle but the stereo analogue output is no slouch. It delivers a rich and dynamic sound with very little in the way of background noise, a welcome trait that’s repeated on CD-Audio and MP3 replay. In purely hi-fi terms it compares favourably with a fair number of mid-range CD decks and audio systems


The DVD 21 is a very welcome new arrival in the usually quiet mid-market sector and H/K nudge DVD performance another small step closer to the cinema experience.



020 8731 4670 http://www.harmankardon.com/


10-bit video decoding

Video alignment test screen

Upgradeable firmware via CD-R




Outstanding picture and sound quality at a very reasonable price, plenty of genuinely useful extras, a very civilised remote control and the unadvertised bonus of all region replay



Considering its pedigree and above average capabilities it’s a surprisingly bland looking machine and the shiny disc loading tray escutcheon looks a bit like an afterthought


It lacks for almost nothing; JPEG replay would have been the icing on the cake…



The best picture and sound so far this year on a sub £300 player



The well thought out remote makes this machine a real pleasure to use



Terrific value, a class act and high-end performance at a mid-market price



Definitely one for the shortlist, an excellent machine, superbly well equipped and capable of outstanding results `



Not perhaps the most elegant remote we’ve ever seen but the important buttons are all a good size, easy to identify and they light up




The DVD 21, in common with most other DVD players, is essentially a computer, albeit one programmed to carry out one particular task, and that is to decode and process the digital data stored on DVDs, turning it into analogue video and audio. All of the player’s functions are controlled by software stored in a programmable read-only memory or PROM chip. The control software or ‘firmware’ includes the region code instructions that tell the player which discs it may or may not play. On some players the firmware can be ‘hacked’ by pressing a combination of keys but the region lock on the DVD 21, like many Toshiba DVD players, can only be disabled by altering the firmware.  


It’s basically a simple process (not for complete novices, though…) and it requires a PC with a CD writer and an Internet connection. The updated firmware, available from web sites like www.apache.co.uk/vision, is in the form of a ‘zip’ file and before it can be used this has to be decompressed with a utility like WinZip (available free from www.winzip.com). The resulting ‘bin’ files are then copied to a CD-R. As with similar firmware patches and updates it’s important to use good quality blank discs, ‘burn’ at the safe 1x speed and follow the instructions to the letter since any corruption of the data on the disc could render the player useless.


When the data has been recorded and the disc finalised all that remains is to pop it into the player (connected to a TV or video display via the composite video output) and follow the on-screen prompts; it only takes a few seconds. Normally this is a one-way process and it won’t necessarily let you play R1 discs encoded with RCE (Region Code Enhancement) but since it involves no physical changes or meddling with the player’s innards it shouldn’t affect the warranty.




Ó R. Maybury 2003, 0801



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