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GROUP TEST

 

DVD PLAYERS

 

STANDFIRST

All of a sudden DVD players and discs are coming out of the woodwork. Rick Maybury has been putting a selection of them through their paces, with help from his good friend Bruce Wayne and some bubble-headed martains…

 

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TEST INTRO

It only seems like yesterday that we were berating manufacturers for dragging their heels and being slow to launch DVD players in the UK. Now it feels as though we're knee-deep in the things. The signs are good that the software companies are about to do the same, now DVD can really start motoring…

 

Following that rather sluggish start dealer's shelves are now filling up nicely with a wide selection of machines covering a fairly broad range of prices and specifications. For obvious reasons the mid-market is being most heavily targeted, we've yet to see any seriously cheap or outrageously expensive machines, but give it time.

 

So is it time to take the plunge? There is no simple answer, what we can say is that DVD now just about qualifies as a risk-free technology, that's not going to suddenly disappear due to lack of support. It has been a big success in the US and Japan who have enjoyed almost a year's start on the UK and much of Europe and already we're seeing second and third generation machines. DVD movies are appearing in British shops in quantity and it looks as though the industry will easily fulfil, and probably exceed their promise of releasing more than 100 titles by Christmas. If there's enough movies on DVD, that you want to see, then the time is right.

 

But hang on, what's so special about DVD? A hundred or so DVDs doesn't stack up very well against several tens of thousands of movies and programs on good old VHS tape, and you can't record on DVD?

 

DVD means quality and it virtually sells itself. Most people who see it for the first time are amazed by the sharpness, detail and clarity of the images, it's at least as good as off-air broadcasts, in some cases it's actually better. If you're fortunate enough to have a local dealer with decent home cinema demo facilities ask to see a DVD movie -- preferably one you've already seen on VHS -- on a largish widescreen TV with a decent sound system. You will come away with the urge to spend lots of money!

 

As far as the number of discs are concerned we've already reached a sort of critical mass with sufficient movies to keep early adopters and pioneering deck owners happy. Within just a few months there should be more than enough titles to satisfy everyone, especially when new releases are launched simultaneously on DVD and tape.

 

But let's look at a worst-case scenario and speculate what would happen if the format went belly-up in the UK in the next few months. It won't happen but if it did it wouldn't necessarily be a problem. There's the potential to source Region 2 discs, with English language soundtracks, from other European countries the Middle East South Africa and Japan. A lot of players can be hacked to play Region 1 discs -- there's more than 1000 of them already -- there's still loads of movies on Video CD discs out there, and let's not forget that all DVD decks can play audio CDs as well. 

 

It's a mistake to try and compare DVD with VHS; it is not and was never meant to be a replacement. Recordable DVD is a bit of a red herring, it will probably happen in a year or two but even when it does it's not really a viable substitute for VHS in the age of digital TV. It's far more likely VHS will bumble on for a few more years and eventually superseded by D-VHS, which is the ideal medium for taping digital broadcasts.

 

DVD is all about enjoying movies and getting as close to the theatrical experience as is possible in your living room. The important arguments are over and DVD is off the ground. If you're still not convinced take a look at what these six players have to offer, but don't make up your mind until you've seen it in the flesh, if you keep an open mind we can almost guarantee you will be impressed!

 

BOX COPY 1

HOW THE TESTS WERE DONE

Unlike a lot of other AV technologies DVD players are relatively easy to test. We concentrate on three main areas, picture and sound quality plus ease of use. All of the AV tests are conducted using a set of carefully chosen sequences from DVD movies and test discs. The scenes we use stretch the player's capabilities to the limit, with fast action, rapid changes in brightness, intense and subtle colours and lots of fine detail. Our current test repertoire includes snippets from Batman & Robin, Jumanji, Mars Attacks and Legends of the Fall, plus a couple of Video CDs, for good measure.

 

The soundtracks on these movies also provide us with a good measure of a deck's sonic performance, in conjunction with more formal checks carried out using audio test CDs. Since some players do not have Dolby Digital or MPEG audio decoders our baseline tests are all carried out using a Dolby Pro Logic surround system; the better equipped machines are then hooked up to a multi-channel amp.

 

We put a lot of emphasis on connectivity, ease of use and the quality of the instructions; for a lot of people DVD is a new and unfamiliar technology, that needs to be user-friendly from day one.  Finally we assess players for build quality and cosmetics.

 

WHAT THE MAKERS SAY 50 per

 

Grundig -- to come

 

Hitachi

'The DVD player is about to become one of the most sought-after products on the high street. The product offers stunning picture and sound quality and with more and more software manufacturers and film companies offering an attractive catalogue of movie titles, readers will want to judge for themselves the quality that is the Hitachi DV-P2E. This machine has already been awarded a Best Buy award and has been the subject of favourable reviews in HE and other publications.'

 

JVC -- to come

 

Kenwood  -- to come

 

Thomson -- to come

 

Yamaha

'We at Yamaha have been very excited about DVD for some time now and we are very pleased with the performance and results of our DVD-S700. It is a full function player offering on-board Dolby Digital 5.1 and MPEG 5.1 surround sound decoders. At the heart of the DVD-S700 is a 96kHz, 24-bit chipset with 32-bit DSP circuits to enhance surround sound modes that output to a suite of RCA phono sockets. All in all, a great package for DVD fans'.

 

THE TESTS

 

GRUNDIG  GDV-1000D ***

Traditionally Grundig has always been early into new home entertainment technologies but sometimes they jump the gun a bit in order to catch loyal and affluent early adopters. And so it is with DVD, the GDV-1000 feels a bit premature, it lacks several features that have become almost standard on decks released in the past weeks and months but more about that in a moment. The price is also a little out of step with what is happening in the rest of the market and £530 or thereabouts seems a lot to pay for such a basic player.

 

The good bits include the exterior design -- usually a Grundig strong point -- and ease of operation, at least as far as routine playback operations are concerned. All of the important functions are readily accessible on the large remote handset, and as an added bonus it will control channel change, on/standby and volume on Grundig TVs. For some strange reason not all routine functions are accessible from the remote, though, and that includes the Scan function which plays the first ten seconds of each track on an audio CD.

 

Points are also deducted for the back panel connections. It has a single SCART socket, which could make life difficult to those with limited socketry on their TVs or VCRs. There's no S-Video output and it has only a coaxial digital output, for connection to an external Dolby Digital decoder/amp. It hasn't got what you might call any killer-features but the necessary core replay facilities are all there and there's one or two extras that rate a brief mention. The parental lock is one of them; the player can be completely disabled using a four-digit PIN code, more than enough to determine most junior hackers. There's also a headphone socket with its own independent volume control and an energy-saving on-screen display, which reduces the picture brightness after 5 minutes, if no activity is detected.

 

Audio CD replay features include a favourite track selection memory that remembers track sequences for up to 100 discs and in common with most other players it will also play Video CDs and NTSC encoded (though not Regionally coded) discs, onto a PAL TV.

 

DVD picture quality is improving all the time and it has to be said that some early players were a bit iffy in that respect. Most first generation PAL players do a reasonably good job though, and that's where we'd put the GDV-1000. The picture is generally free of the most common types of motion artefacts, blocking being the most obvious. Colours are clean and well defined but they don't leap out of the screen, as they should in movies like Batman & Robin and Mars Attacks. That said there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the picture, it's just that without an S-Video output it lacks the pin-sharp clarity of most of its rivals.

 

Sound performance is altogether more satisfactory though in the absence of any Dolby Digital or MPEG decoding facilities the onus is shifted to the users own audio system, but what comes out of the player is clean and free of any unwanted background noise. Hooked up to a decent decoder amp and speakers it is quite capable of giving a good account of itself.

 

The GDV-1000 is a worthy first attempt by Grundig and all credit to them for being in at the beginning but such is the pace of development that it's already looking a little dated, not to say a touch expensive. For the same amount of money, possibly even a little less, it is possible to find more advanced players, with better connectivity, improved facilities and AV performance.

 

Grundig, telephone (01788) 577155

 

UP CLOSE

Features            energy-saving on-screen display, picture shift, parental lock, TV remote functions, 100-disc memory audio CD favourite track selection

 

Sockets            1 X SCART AV, stereo audio out, composite video out, coaxial digital audio out (phono)

 

Dimensions            435 x 70 x 305 mm

 

Picture quality            ***

Sound quality              ****

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ****

 

CAPTIONS

·        Simple yet stylish good looks, an easy to read display and functional controls are a Grundig trademark

 

·        The single SCART socket and the lack of an S-Video connection on the back panel might well prove a limitation for some users

 

·        The remote handset is designed to be easy to use and it should be of interest to owners of Grundig TVs

 

BOXOUT 45

'The GDV-1000 is a worthy first attempt by Grundig and all credit to them for being in at the beginning but such is the pace of development that it's already looking a little dated, not to say a touch expensive'.

 

 

HITACHI DV-P2E ****

Hitachi were not in the very first wave of manufacturers marketing PAL DVD in the UK, but they've lost no time catching up and the DV-P2E is assured a good deal of attention for being one of the cheapest players so far. The slivery cosmetics and smart styling should also get it noticed on the shelves full of black boxes.

 

You can take it as read that the low price means the player does not have any on-board Dolby Digital or MPEG audio decoding facilities but that's unlikely to be a concern for users with Dolby Pro Logic surround systems. It has both coaxial and optical digital outputs so it's a simple enough matter to use it with a full 5.1 system or upgrade at a later date. It also has an S-Video output so connectivity with suitably equipped TVs is not an issue. In addition to a single SCART AV socket and a separate composite video output there are two sets of stereo mixed outputs. We're not exactly sure why, but it's bound to be a godsend to someone, somewhere…

 

It's not completely devoid of additional audio functions and there's a virtual surround mode, using the SRS system, which generates a wide spatial effect on stereo (and mono) soundtracks that can be heard through the stereo speakers on a TV or hi-fi connected to the player.

 

There are several useful convenience features. Last memory replay is one of them, it allows you to interrupt replay, even switch the machine off, when you return or switch it back on it will resume replay at the point in the movie where you left off. Another unusual option is Condition Memory, this stores picture and sound settings -- including aspect ratio, reply mode and language -- of up to 30 discs, so there no need to mess around with the menus when you play your favourite films. At least, it will, provided you don't unplug the machine or switch it off at the mains because the memory is cleared in the event of a power interruption. The on screen displays are not the most visually interesting or especially informative we've seen but they do the job. The remote handset could be better too, it has lots of buttons and the labelling can sometimes be hard to decipher.

 

For some peculiar reason we had problems getting the DV-P2 to play some Video CDs -- it wouldn't have anything to do with Four Weddings, others played without a hitch. All of the DVDs we tried played with no problems whatsoever and in general normal picture replay was very good indeed. Once or twice we noticed the odd digital artefact, scenes containing patches of heavily saturated colours and a lot of fast movement produce the occasional blocking flash and smear but it was rare enough not to be a concern. Colours are normally crisp and natural looking, with little or no noise, the image has a good dynamic range and bags of fine detail. 

 

The spatial effect works quite well on some types of soundtrack and we suspect it might prove useful when older back catalogue movies are released. Otherwise sound quality is good middle of the road stuff, fine for movies but hi-fi buffs might want to make other arrangements for their audio CDs.  

 

Hitachi have a keen eye for the mass-market and the DV-P2 delivers the goods as a useful entry-level product, with enough extras and design touches to make it stand out from the crowd.

 

Hitachi Home Electronics, telephone 0181-849 2000

 

UP CLOSE

Features                     Last memory replay, condition memory, virtual surround (SRS), parental control, S-Video output, GUI (graphical user interface)

Sockets                       1 x SCART AV, stereo audio out, composite video out, coaxial digital audio out (phono), S-Video out (mini DIN), digital audio out (optical jack)

Dimensions                 420 x 284 x 104 mm

 

Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ****

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ***

 

CAPTIONS

·        Attractively styled, the brushed aluminium case is a welcome alternative to the regiments of anonymous black box players crowding dealers shelves

 

·        The rear panel connections are adequate, though an extra SCART socket wouldn't have gone amiss. The extra set of mixed stereo line-audio output sockets are unusual

 

·        The handset is festooned with lots of small, indifferently labelled buttons, make sure you have a torch handy if you like watching movies in the dark…

 

BOXOUT

There are several useful convenience features. Last memory replay is one of them, it allows you to interrupt replay, even switch the machine off, when you return or switch it back on it will resume replay at the point in the movie where you left off.

 

JVC XV-D2000, ****

It's big! The XV-D2000 is unusually large, indeed an uncharitable reviewer might even be moved to suggest that JVC are using up left over VCR boxes, they've definitely found a use for their surplus remote handset cases. JVC say the styling blends in with its other AV products but another reason for it being so big is that the box is packed to the gunwales with circuit boards, amongst which there are some old friends from Matsushita (Panasonic), who are also responsible for the deck mechanism. However, JVC has gone its own way with the power supply module, which takes up around a quarter of the space inside the box. It is in two sections, one for the analogue processing circuitry, the other is for all the digital widgets; keeping the two supplies separate reduces interference, giving clean pictures and sounds, we shall see...

 

JVC has also used its own digital audio processing systems and on-screen displays, which are a big improvement over the rash of little icons and boring text menus used by most other manufacturers, but we'll come to that in a moment. It has a Dolby Digital decoder with outputs on the back panel for Dolby and linear PCM, but there's no MPEG sound facilities, not that anyone will miss it! There are also two SCART AV sockets, mixed stereo, composite and S-Video outputs, and optical and coaxial digital connections, so no problems there. The remote handset has multi-brand TV and satellite/cable box control facilities, though the latter is rather limited.  Other odds and ends include audio balance, parental lock and 3-stage picture 'character' (sharp, soft and noise reduction).

 

The on-screen display is excellent, the image is reduced in size by around 50% and appears in a window, alongside the menu display. A pointy finger moves around the display under the control of a cursor joypad on the handset. The graphics are well designed, with large easy to read text and it is almost idiot-proof, so there's no need to refer to the instructions to find out what something means. The remote handset is a bit of a lump and far too similar to JVC's VCR button boxes for our liking. The bright red disc-in indicator above the loading tray is very distracting.

 

Installation and set up are all quite painless and the XV-D2000 had no problems with any of our test discs. Picture performance was strikingly similar to several other decks we've seen recently, which is probably due to the fact that the DVD deck mechanisms and MPEG-2 processor boards are being produced by a relatively small number of companies. Resolution and colour fidelity are both very good indeed; the only evidence of digital processing occurred during the dark opening sequence in Legends of the Fall, when some slight blocking was apparent. Otherwise, in normally lit scenes, even those containing a lot of heavily saturated colours or rapid movement, the picture remained clean.  

 

Sound output on the 5.1 and mixed stereo channels was well up to standard, background noise levels were well below average and the responses were all as flat as pancakes. Could be that split power supply has paid off.

 

The XV-D2000 is a bit of an odd-bod; physically it has the look and feel of a parts-bin special, but some design elements, like the on-screen display are way ahead of the pack, setting a new standard for usability. Fortunately it gels together quite well, if you can live with the biggish box and the chunky remote, and you fancy something a bit different it is well worth shortlisting.

 

JVC UK, telephone 0181-208 7654

 

JVC XV-D2000

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Built-in Dolby Digital decoder, graphical user interface, resume play, parental control, multi-brand TV remote, picture soft/sharp control

 

Sockets            AC-3/MPEG Audio, stereo line out, composite video out & coaxial digital out (phono), S- Video out (mini DIN), optical digital out (optical jack), 2 x SCART AV in/out

 

Dimensions            435 x 112 x 327 mm

 

Picture quality            ****

Sound quality              ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

 

CAPTIONS

·        The box is deceptively large, it's as big as a mid-range VCR, and then some

 

·        No problems on the connectivity front, two SCARTs, S- Video out and enough phonos to keep everyone happy

 

·        This might look familiar if you've got a recent JVC VCR, could this be a cunning plan to use up surplus handset stocks…

 

BOXOUT 45

'…the XV-D2000 had no problems with any of our test discs. Picture performance was strikingly similar to several other decks we've seen recently, which is probably due to the fact that the DVD deck mechanisms and MPEG-2 processor boards are being produced by a relatively small number of companies'.

 

 

KENWOOD DVF-9010 £1000 ****

So far most of the DVD players we've seen have conformed to a more or less standard layout so the nifty motorised front panel on the Kenwood DVF-9010 provides a welcome break with convention. As indeed it should with a price tag that's the thick end of £1000, and for that sort of money you would rightly expect it to have a few more tricks up its sleeves! Fortunately it has, though most of them are tucked away inside the box and are for the most part dedicated to improving picture and sound performance.

 

At the top of the list is a sophisticated power supply that ensures absolute stability under all replay conditions, and Kenwood's proprietary 24-bit signal processing technology. Other more obvious reasons for the higher than average price is a full set of Dolby Digital and MPEG decoders, gold-plated plugs and sockets and one of the best remote control systems we've come across, on any DVD player. The handset is a dinky little thing, it reminded us a bit of a Star Trek phaser (TNG issue), there's only a few buttons as most of the hard work is done by a clever little joystick. This controls playback and helps you move around and change things on the on-screen display (or 'interactive graphical user interface' as Kenwood call it).

 

Not everything is made by them though and the deck mechanism is sourced from Matsushita. Clearly that's no bad thing, it has a proven track record and Panasonic players have always done well in our reviews. For good measure it also has virtual sound option, for puffing up mono and stereo soundtracks, a bookmark memory that allows you to return to a movie if you have to stop or pause for any reason, and it supports the parental control options that are available on some discs. There are no SCART connectors on the back panel, all of the audio outputs and composite video are handled by phono connectors, and there are also two S-Video sockets and both optical and coaxial digital outputs.

 

You probably won't be surprised to hear that picture quality is excellent. It ranks as one of the best performers we've seen to date with sparkling colours that appear to have added depth; subtle flesh tones are rendered with unusual accuracy. We never say any motion artefacts, even in the really busy action scenes in Batman and Robin and Jumanji and the sheer amount of fine detail in the picture easily rivals laserdisc and live off-air broadcasts.

 

Sound performance is equally good; the Dolby Digital soundtracks are crystal clear and packed with tiny little sounds that you suddenly become aware of, that you missed or were swamped by effects on other players. MPEG audio wasn't quite so dramatic, though it sounds impressive compared with most other configurations including Dolby Pro Logic and the stereo sound systems on VCRs and laserdisc. 

 

Inevitably the things that stand out on the DVF-9010 are the very smooth motorised front panel, and the price. It is a great gimmick and fun to play with but as far as we can see serves no practical purpose. The price would be hard to explain as well, were it not for the fact that the AV performance on this machine is so good. It's still a little early in the day to be using words like 'best' and 'one to beat' but when we do, we suspect it will be in the same sentence as Kenwood DVF-9010…

 

Kenwood, telephone (01923) 816444

 

UP CLOSE

Features                     Built-in Dolby Digital and MPEG 2 decoders, graphical user interface, bookmark memory, 8-level parental control, moving panel design, virtual surround

Sockets                       Rear: AC-3/MPEG Audio, stereo line out, composite video out & coaxial digital out (phono), 2 x S- Video out (mini DIN), optical digital out (optical jack). Front: headphone (jack)              

Dimensions                 440 x 128 x 384mm

 

Picture Quality            *****

Sound Quality            *****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

 

CAPTIONS

·        If you're wondering why it costs so much it might help to spend a few minutes playing with the motorised front panel, the kids will love it…

 

·        There's gold in them thar sockets. Not a SCART in sight but who needs them when there are so many alternatives

 

·        Set handset on stun… A really wacky remote that's dead easy to use. The little joystick makes finding your way around the on-screen displays a breeze

 

BOXOUT

'You probably won't be surprised to hear that picture quality is excellent. It ranks as one of the best performers we've seen to date with sparkling colours that appear to have added depth; subtle flesh tones are rendered with unusual accuracy'.

 

 

THOMSON DTH 2500, ****

At a time when a lot of consumer electronics manufacturers are still dipping tentative toes into the DVD waters, Thomson has just launched its third model. The DTH 2500, which is based on the Panasonic DVD-A350, follows hard on the heels of the DTH 2000, which we reviewed back in the Summer; the new machine costs around £100 more but the higher price reflects a more advanced specification. It also looks different. the distinctive Starcke-inspired minimalist styling that has characterised a lot of their AV products for the past few years has been replaced by a more traditional, albeit quite compact, bland black box. The big knob on the right of the fascia controls slow motion and picture search speeds. The only hangover from the DTH 2000 -- apart from similar-looking front panel display panels -- is the horrible remote control handset, that looks as though it was inspired by a doorstop.

 

The DTH 2500 is Thomson's flagship player, it has on-board Dolby Digital and MPEG digital audio decoders, plus an unusual number of user-adjustments for picture, sound and general operation. The remote handset, for all of its ergonomic shortcomings, is quite handy as it has multi-brand TV and VCR control facilities. On-screen displays are split into two sections; when the deck is in stop mode or the disc tray is empty, pressing the menu button brings up the set-up options. When a disc is playing the display changes to a set of icons in a menu bar running across the top of the screen, to control basic playback functions.

 

On the set-up menu there are channel level settings for adjusting sound balance and a dynamic compression mode; this reduces the impact of loud sounds, for late night playback, so as not to annoy the neighbours. There is some display options as well, including aspect ratio control and a choice of soft, sharp or normal picture. During replay up to five scene markers can be stored, making it easy to return to a particular point on a recording.

 

Around the back there are two SCARTs, individual channel outputs for the Dolby Digital and MPEG decoders, mixed stereo, composite video and S-Video sockets plus coaxial and optical digital connectors.

 

We were not overly impressed with the picture quality of the DTH 2000; the DTH 2500 is better but not by much.  Peak whites look a wee bit muted, gloomy scenes sometimes appear darker than they should; you feel like turning up the picture brightness in movies like Batman and Robin. The picture can also appear a little grainy at times, nevertheless, in bright scenes colours are bright and lifelike and overall picture quality is very acceptable. 

 

The sound performance of its predecessor wasn't so hot either but once again the DTH-2500 is an improvement. The mixed stereo output is clean and well balanced; default Dolby Surround soundtracks are lively with lots of sharply defined detail. The Dolby Digital channels sound very smooth too, especially when it comes to bass information.

 

The DTH 2000 is a big step up from its lacklustre stablemate. Picture quality good but it's not going to win any prizes and that remote handset really could do with a redesign. On balance we quite like it and when all said and done it's not bad value, so by all means put it on your shortlist -- along with the other Panny clones -- if you're in the market for a full-spec player. 

 

Thomson Multimedia, telephone 0181-344 4444

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Built-in Dolby Digital and MPEG 2 decoders, graphical user interface, resume play, 5-scene memory, virtual surround, parental control, multi-brand TV remote, picture soft/sharp control, auto power off, display dimmer

 

Sockets            AC-3/MPEG Audio, stereo line out, composite video out & coaxial digital out (phono), S- Video out (mini DIN), optical digital out (optical jack), 2 x SCART AV in/out

 

Dimensions            400 x 72 x 290 mm

 

Picture quality            ****

Sound quality              ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

 

CAPTIONS

·        A marked change from the radical square boxy shape of its predecessor, Thomson have decided to play it safe with a compact midi-sized unit

 

·        There should be no problems connecting this machine to other AV components, it has sockets to spare

 

·        A definite case of style taking precedence over ergonomics, an awkward shape and layout, not one our favourite remote handsets…

 

BOXOUT 45

'The DTH 2500 follows hard on the heels of the DTH 2000, which we reviewed back in the Summer; the new machine costs around £100 more but the higher price reflects a more advanced specification. It also looks different; Thomson has abandoned the distinctive Starcke-inspired minimalist styling'.

 

 

YAMAHA DVD-S700, ****

Reviewing the current crop of DVD players reminds us of the early days of VHS, when the same JVC-made deck would turn up in a half a dozen or more different guises. This time around it's Panasonic who are busily cloning machines for a number of different manufacturers and the guts of one particular model -- the DVD-A350 -- is turning up all over the place. Badge engineering is a lot more sophisticated these days and the Yamaha DVD-S700 has sufficient differences in the detail to make it worth reviewing in its own right.

 

The DVD-S700 shares its headline feature -- namely built-in Dolby Digital and MPEG audio decoders -- with its cousins from Denon and Thomson. The design of the front panel display is a dead give-away too but the one used by Yamaha has orange characters and the driver software is different with little messages, like 'Welcome to DVD World' when the machine is switched on, and 'Bye' as it goes into standby mode. Small touches like that, and variations in the deck layout help give this deck a distinct personality and appearance but operationally the differences are even more marked. The remote control handset supplied with the S700 is almost identical to the one supplied with the Denon DVD3000 and quite unlike the horrible Thomson button box. This one is reasonably small and easy to use, though it's still not a patch on the one that comes with the Panasonic A350, and it doesn’t have the multi-brand TV/VCR control functions provided by Thomson.

 

There's some variation in the socketry department as well, the Yamaha model doesn't have any SCART sockets on the back panel, just phonos -- but they are gold plated -- for the audio decoder and composite video outputs. It does have an S-Video connector but there's no headphone socket and the front panel control layout is more like the Denon DVD 3000 than either the Panasonic or Thomson decks.

 

The on-screen displays and graphic user interfaces are another common feature on these decks, a detailed set-up menu is accessible when the deck is in the stop mode, this includes settings for aspect ratio, speaker level adjustment and audio dynamic compression. During replay user controls are handed over to the by now familiar graphical user interface toolbar across the top of the screen. This mirrors the ones on its close relatives, though instead of a virtual surround mode it has a variable sound level option.

 

It would be surprising, not to say a little worrying if there were many differences in the AV performance of these players. Video quality on our sample was within a gnats of the others though peak whites were possibly a tad lighter, compared with the Thomson deck. Once again however the picture is clean and detailed with realistic colours and no digital artefacts to speak of.

 

It's a similar story with the sound output, such differences as there are tend to be very small and subtle, the quality of Dolby Surround soundtracks on the mixed stereo output is crisp and detailed. The 5.1 channels are superb and a joy to the ear, especially if you're stepping up from DPL, though as usual a lot will depend on the system and speakers it's attached to. 

 

With so many similar machines to choose from the deciding factors are bound to come down to the relatively small details concerning operation and cosmetics. In that respect the DVD-S700 scores well. The absence of SCART socket support is a fairly minor concern, but it could be enough to put off those who like to keep things simple, otherwise it is definitely worth considering.  

 

Yamaha, telephone (01923) 233166

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Built-in Dolby Digital and MPEG 2 decoders, graphical user interface, resume play, 5-scene memory, level output control, parental control, display dimmer, auto power off 

 

Sockets            AC-3/MPEG Audio, stereo line out, composite video out & coaxial digital out (phono), S- Video out (mini DIN), optical digital out (optical jack)

 

Dimensions            435 x 280 x 85 mm

 

Picture quality            *****

Sound quality              *****

Features                     *****

Ease of use                 ****

 

CAPTIONS

·        The display panel is an old friend, it's very similar to those on other Panasonic clones, though this one is orange

 

·        No SCART connectors but it does have a full set of AV outputs, using a mixture of phonos for audio and composite video, and a mini DIN for S-Video

 

·        The remote control is on the small side, it's covered in buttons and some functions could be better identified

 

BOXOUT 45

'With so many similar machines to choose from the deciding factors are bound to come down to the relatively small details concerning operation and cosmetics. In that respect the DVD-S700 scores well'.

 

TEST VERDICT

If nothing else this pack of players provides final conclusive proof -- if any is needed -- that DVD is a serious technology, that delivers the goods. All that remains now is for the software companies to get their fingers out! The point is the picture and sound quality on all six players is quite simply excellent; if you've been happy with what VHS has been throwing at us for the past quarter century then DVD will come as a revelation!

 

None of the players produced a bad picture nevertheless there was some slight variation and the least satisfactory on-screen performance was turned in by the Grundig GDV-1000. For all we know it could be capable of quite exceptional picture quality, the trouble is without an S-Video output socket it's difficult to tell, and good though the composite output is, you know it could be better. In view of the fairly basic specification the price is on the high side but it's clean unobtrusive design and we have no doubt it will appeal to loyal Grundig fans.

 

The Hitachi DV-P2 has nothing wrong with it whatsoever. It's exactly right for those who haven't any plans for upgrading to a 5.1 sound system; it would even suit anyone still happy with basic stereo sound from their TVs. The no-fuss spec is reflected in the price, so keep this player in mind if your want to keep things simple, and in budget.

 

Kenwood have gone for the opposite end of the market with the DVF-9010, and AV performance was the flawless, but the differences are very small, so small in fact that we doubt they would be visible on a moving picture, on the average living room TV. This is a high-end deck that deserves to be used with a top-grade telly, and that motorised front panel is a real hoot, but we still can't help thinking the £1000 asking price is just a tad OTT.

 

It's quite difficult to separate the last three players, to begin with they all cost the same, and there's not a lot to choose between them in terms of features and functionality. There's hardly a hair's breadth between the Thomson and Yamaha players, mainly because key components, like the deck mechanism and video processing circuitry come from the same source. Despite various claims for tweaks we couldn't say hand on heart there was any significant differences in picture or sound performance. Yamaha's decision not to fit SCART sockets will loose it as many potential customers as it gains. In the end if your shortlist comes down to these two decks you'll probably end up weighing the merits of small details, like cosmetics and control layout, and that is something you are going to have to figure out for yourselves.

 

JVC haven't made things easy for us either, the XV-D2000 is not an especially pretty sight, it's rather large and we really don't like the bright red indicators on the front panel, or the hand-me-down VCR remote. The lack of an MPEG audio decoder is also a little troubling, though we're not exactly sure why since it is highly unlikely that there ever be any MPEG-only discs…  However, almost all of its (largely cosmetic) shortcomings are forgiven, on-screen performance is exemplary and within a whisker of the group leader, the Kenwood DVF-9010. Sound quality is great too; it's probably no coincidence that both the JVC and Kenwood players have spit-mode power supplies, that reduce or eliminate interaction and interference between the various circuits and systems inside the decks. However, the final deciding factor was JVC's smart looking and very easy to use on-screen displays. We have to say that the standard of OSDs on the DVDs seen so far has been a bit disappointing; giving then grandiose names, like graphical user interfaces doesn't make them any easier to use.

 

DVD players are going to get even better and you can bet your boots they'll get cheaper too, but for the first time since players arrived in the UK we feel confident enough to say there's no need to wait any longer! 

 

BEST IN TEST

JVC XV-D2000, £600

This one is a bit of an ugly duckling on the outside but it's swans all the way as far as picture and sound performance are concerned. JVC also earn some extra points for having the best-looking and most user friendly set of on-screen displays, it has good connectivity and there's a couple of handy convenience features like the multi-brand TV remote.

 

THOMSON DTH 2500 £600

It's a toss-up between this player and the similarly priced and almost identically specified Yamaha DVD-S700. However, in the end the balance tips just slightly in Thomson's favour for its more conventional approach to the rear panel socketry (SCARTs, for all their shortcomings, can make life easier for the techno-wary), slightly better front panel controls and the multi-brand TV remote. Nevertheless, make sure you see the Yamaha deck and it's other close relative from Denon, before you decide.

 

KENWOOD DVF-9010, £1000

The DVF9010 costs twice as much as the cheapest player in this roundup, yet audio and video performance are only slightly better, so what's going on? It is expensive, but those small improvements cost, and if you want the best you're going to have to pay for it. Then there are the bells and whistles, like the motorised front panel, the excellent little remote handset and the styling. It looks like it cost a grand, and for a lot of people, that's money well spent.

 

BOX COPY 2

BUY NOW, OR WAIT?

DVD technology is moving so quickly that in the few months since the European launch we have progressed through two generations of players and there have been marked improvements in picture quality. This won't concern determined 'early adopters' who can be relied upon to buy new technology, at any price, and are prepared to suffer the consequences of being the first kids on the block.  But what about the rest of us, who look for stability in a technology and don't like being caught out? Does this mean you should wait a little longer, for things to settle down?   

 

The short answer is no, we have little doubt that some picture and sound improvements are still in the pipeline but the latest players are already running at or close to the performance capabilities of most domestic televisions, so they're going to be increasingly harder to spot. The quality and consistency of disc pressings will also get better, but that's needn't stop you buying a player now.  

 

Price is another consideration, and the one thing you can be certain of is that they are going to get cheaper. However, this will probably happen quite slowly and you needn't worry too much about £99.99 players reaching the shops just yet. Yes, you probably could save a few pounds by waiting another six months, but that will be six months you've wasted, missing out on some superb pictures and sounds.

 

INSTANT EXPERT

 

DOLBY DIGITAL/AC-3

Six channel digital audio surround sound system (aka 5.1 sound). Unlike four-channel analogue Dolby Pro Logic surround sound each channel is independent or 'discrete'. Five of the six channels are capable CD-like performance; the sixth channel is used for low-frequency bass and sound effects information.

 

GUI

Graphical user interface. A posh name for the on-screen display systems used on a number of DVD players. GUI (pronounced 'gooey') displays tend to be based on small icons and graphical buttons, rather than the more traditional text and menu systems we're used to on VCRs and TVs.  Moreover GUIs tend to be less intrusive, with smaller displays confined to the top edge of the screen, so you can still see the picture

 

MPEG

Motion Picture Experts Group, a division of the ISO (International Standards Organisation) set up to develop and maintain the technical standards for various digital technologies, including DVD. DVD uses MPEG-2 video compression schemes and 5.1 multi-channel sound, as part of the PAL standard. However, most discs also contain Dolby Digital soundtracks as well, which has also been incorporated into the Region 2 DVD standard.

 

REGIONAL CODING

Coding system introduced at the behest of Hollywood to ensure that DVDs released and sold in one country will not necessarily play on DVD decks in another country or region. This gives movie distributors control over release dates as well as enabling discs to conform to various national censorship, language and subtitle requirements. 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. 

 

PARENTAL CONTROL

Some DVD players have internal PIN-coded or password enabled security systems. Additionally some discs will include extra control software, that suitably equipped players will recognise and prevent the disc from playing, if the parental lock has been enabled.

 

S-VIDEO

Component or 'separated' video signals. Video connection system between some DVD players and suitably equipped TVs that keeps the brightness and colour signals apart from one another, so they cannot interact and produce annoying cross-colour and 'herringbone' interference patterns

 

RIVAL BUYS

Since several of the decks in this roundup are very closely related to the Panasonic DVD-A350 so it must rate a mention as a rival buy, though it's worth pointing out that the list price is actually £100 more than most of its clones. Some of this can be put down to variations in the spec, so read the features lists carefully.

 

The Sony DVP-S715 is a firm favourite with HE and AV performance is outstanding. It's good looking too, and easy to use; the only thing that counts against it is the lack of Dolby Digital or MPEG audio decoding facilities, nevertheless it still deserves your very serious consideration.

 

Pioneer has been in the shiny disc business for longer than most, and it shows. Their entry-level player, the DVL-505 is very well equipped, with good all round performance and the price is right, it's currently selling for just under £450.

 

Sharp are fairly recent arrivals in the DVD market but the DV-560 is already making quite a splash, In addition to be the smallest player so far, it's one of the cheapest machines with a full set of 5.1 digital surround decoders. It also has some interesting extras, like the gamma correction, and performance rates as above average.

 

TABLE

Make/model                           ££s            AP         D/O     SCT            S-Vid            P   S   F    E  

 

GRUNDIG  GDV-1000D            530            --            C/-       1            --            3    4    3    3   

HITACHI DV-P2E                      450            P            C/O     1            1            4    4    3    3  

JVC XV-D2000             600            A           C/O     2            1            4    4    4    4   

KENWOOD DVF-9010             1000            A/M/P   C/O     --            2            5    5    4    4

THOMSON DTH 2500            600            A/M/P   C/O     2            1            4    4    4    4

YAMAHA DVD-S700            600             A/M      C/O     -            1            4    4    4    3

 

Key: AP audio processor A = AC-3, M= MPEG, P = pseudo surround; D/O = digital outputs C= coax, O = optical, SCT = SCART sockets

 

TABLE COMMENTS

GRUNDIG  GDV-1000D

Good in its day but starting to look a little long in the tooth

 

HITACHI DV-P2E                     

A smart-looking entry-level machine, with a good all-round performance

 

JVC

A bit on the large side, but definitely different

 

KENWOOD DVF-9010      

The bee's knees, as far as pics sound and gadgets are concerned, but pricey

 

THOMSON DTH 2500

A solid spec, great picture and sound, nasty remote

 

YAMAHA

A very likeable machine, good pedigree and AV performance

 

---end---

ã R. Maybury 1998 1210

 

 

HOME ENTERTAINMENT                                                            TEXT 2…98

 

STRAP

DVD GROUP TEST

 

BLUE CIRCLE BOXOUTS

 

CLONE ALONE

Internally the Thomson and Yamaha DVD players in this group are virtually identical but both manufacturers have sufficient clout with Panasonic -- who make all the important bits -- to ensure that there are enough cosmetic and operational differences to give them quite different personalities.

 

THE RIGHT CONNECTIONS

The absolute best picture quality comes when a DVD player is hooked up to the to the TV using an RGB (red, green and blue) component video connection, via a SCART lead. Unfortunately not all DVDs and TVs have this facility, in which case the S-Video or Y/C connection is almost as good. 

 

REMOTELY INTERESTING

Several DVDs in this roundup can also control the main functions (i.e. on/standby, volume and channel change) of TVs, however some of them only work with TVs from the same manufacturer. If your TV is made by another company look for remotes with universal of 'multi-brand' facilities.

 

PSEUDO SURROUND

When is surround not surround? Pseudo surround systems featured on some DVD players attempt to recreate a three-dimensional sound stage from just two speakers -- usually the ones fitted to the TV -- but this is not true surround. That can only be achieved using a decoder, multi channel amplifier and speakers placed in front of and behind the seating position.

 

MPEG 2 AUDIO

Do you need it? Probably not, it looks as though Dolby Digital will become the defacto multi-channel surround sound system, in addition all movies with surround sound soundtracks will have Dolby Surround on the standard mixed stereo soundtrack. If and when any movies appear with MPEG audio soundtracks they will almost certainly have Dolby Digital and Dolby Surround as well.

 

DIGITAL OUTPUTS

There are two standard connectors for the digital outputs on the back of DVD players; they're used to connect the deck to an external decoder. It's handy to have both optical and coaxial connections but not essential since most decoders have both types, but it's as well to check.

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