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GROUP TEST

 

DVD PLAYERS

 

STANDFIRST

It's DVD Group Test time again. Rick Maybury checks out eight new arrivals costing between £250 and £500

 

COPY/INTRO

If you have any lingering doubts about the success and future prospects for DVD just take a look at the statistics. The worldwide population of players is now put at around 20 million, and counting. The number crunchers are still doing their sums but it looks as though sales are running at five times the level of VHS and CD during their first two years after launch. As many as 150,000 decks will be sold in the UK this year and with prices of entry-level models expected to fall to below £200 in time for Christmas the format is on course to becoming the most successful new consumer technology launch of all time.

 

Another measure of the format's growing popularity lies in the sales of discs and the size of the software catalogue. Upwards of 40,000 discs are being now sold each week, that's up from 11,000 a week at the beginning of the year and by the end of 1999 there should be between 800 to 1000 Region 1 titles available in the UK.  

 

If you still need convincing then just take a look at the number of new players coming on to the market. We began the year with around 18 or so models, that has more than doubled and there could be as many as 50 machines in the shops by years end. The final proof that DVD has finally arrived – not that it is needed -- occurred a couple of weeks ago when an HE writer came across a stall selling new and second-hand DVDs at a south London car boot sale…

 

The big increase in the number of titles appearing in the shops, and in rental outlets, allied with the reduction, and some cases, disappearance of the lead-time time between new movies appearing on tape and disc is having a big impact on the issue of regional coding. In the first year or so a lot of players were sold on the ease with which they could be modified for multi-region playback. As DVD has become a more mainstream product and the number of titles grows new owners are less concerned about a machine's ability to play imported titles, indeed it is likely that a lot of recent converts to DVD are either completely unaware or care little about regional coding. 

 

Once you have made the decision to buy a DVD player there are several points to consider. The market has quickly polarised into three fairly distinct product areas: budget or entry-level machines, mid-market models and top-end decks. The differences are mostly confined to the player's audio capabilities and to a lesser extent, the number of video facilities and convenience features. It's worth saying right away that unlike most other AV technologies there is comparatively little to choose between the cheapest and dearest models when it comes to the basics, like picture and sound quality, without exception all DVD players wipe the floor with hairy old VHS.

 

That's not to say there are no variations in performance, there are, but they tend to be more subtle and the fact remains that no player we've seen to gives poor picture or sound. Which model you choose largely depends on your current set-up and future ambitions, however, whatever equipment you have at the moment we reckon it's well worth budgeting an extra £50 to £100 for a player with built-in Dolby Digital decoder and DTS capabilities. You may not want or need these features right now but there is a very good chance that your next TV or hi-fi system will have multi-channel digital sound capabilities, once you've had a taste of DVD you will want to experience all that it has to offer.

 

HOW THE TESTS WERE DONE

First and second generation DVD players were refreshingly easy to test. Digital technology is inherently conformist, the DVD specification is tightly controlled moreover most models were built around a limited range of deck mechanisms and processing chipsets. The market has moved on and now there's noticeably more diversity, manufacturers are seeking to make their products more distinctive, adding extra functions and performance enhancements so now at last we've got something to get our teeth into.

 

Our testing procedures have evolved to take into account advances in performance – particularly in the audio department  – but our first concern is always digital processing and how well a player copes with rapid changes – fast movement, sudden fluctuations in brightness, contrast and colour, and their ability to resolve fine detail. To that end we use a number of test recordings and a small repertoire of movie sequences, including several that we've used since day-one, so we can accurately track the technology's progress and make meaningful long-term comparisons. Assessing the audio performance of DVD players is getting more complicated with the growing number of models with on-board Dolby Digital processors and DTS capability. Nevertheless we still use the mixed stereo output as the benchmark since – for the moment at least -- this is what most owners will use when connecting a player to the rest of their system.

 

THE TESTS

 

DENON DVD-2500, £400

VERDICT ****

Denon already has the distinction of making one of the most expensive DVD players on the market (DVD 5000, all yours for £1600), now it has turned its attention to the AV mainstream. Visually the DVD-2500 is a far cry from its exotic stablemate, the styling is very restrained, in fact it's plain to the point of blandness – deliberately so -- Denon say it will blend in more easily with other audio components. 

 

The main feature list is quite short, it has no on-board 5.1 channel decoding facilities but the optical and coaxial digital audio outputs are both DTS compliant and it does have a 2-mode 3D sound option called VSS (virtual surround sound). This generates a wide spatial image from two normal stereo speakers on a TV or hi-fi system connected to the player. Other extras worth a mention include a marker function for tagging up to five scenes, a dialogue enhancement option (on discs with a 5.1 soundtrack), a set of four preset picture controls (normal. Soft, fine, cinema) plus manual adjustments for contrast, colour hue, brightness and gamma correction. The 2500 has a decent set of replay modes (still, variable slomo and a 4-speed picture search) and there's real-time sound snippets during 2 x fast play. Denon has gone to a lot of effort in the power supply and audio processing departments and to reduce vibration. 

 

On screen displays during replay appear as row of icons at the top of the screen, it's a familiar layout, seen before on a good number of decks using Panasonic components. It's not especially intuitive but it is functional and reasonably easy to use, once you get the hang of it. The labelling on some of the remote control buttons can be a bit misleading and frequently used keys could have been better placed but again you quickly get used to it. 

 

Video performance is impeccable. The picture is squeaky clean with no trace of processing errors, even on tricky scenes containing a lot of movement. The image is generally well balanced with plenty of detail and that is most noticeable in darker areas or the picture and gloomy scenes. Colours are pin-sharp, well defined and natural looking, noise and texturing isn't a problem, because there isn't any. On our reference recordings layer change typically took less than a half a second, the image freezes for a split second before resuming, it's over before you have a chance to notice it. The faster slomo speeds are quite fluid but picture search over 2x normal speed is rather jerky. We found the control system a bit quirky in that you can step up through the picture search speeds, but not down again. Pressing the left picture search button throws the machine into 2x reverse, which is not what you're expecting, so finding a particular scene can be a bit of a palaver at first.   

 

Denon's Virtual Surround Sound is fairly typical of the breed, it puffs out the normal stereo soundtrack with noises and effects seemingly coming from some distance away from the speakers, though not, as the manual optimistically suggests, from 'virtual' rear channel surround speakers. The mixed stereo output is very smooth; Dolby Surround soundtracks come across as lively and detailed and there's little or no background hiss to distract you during the quiet bits.

 

The DVD-2500 is a solid little deck, it's a bit short on personality but there's no quibbling with AV performance, which is amongst the best in class. It has no nasty habits and whilst the controls and displays are nothing to write home about, they are reasonably informative and easy to follow.

 

BOX COMMENT 

If you think of DVD as a black box technology or a natural adjunct to hi-fi, where what appears on the screen and comes out of the speakers is more important that how it got there then the DVD-2500 is undoubtedly the kind machine you are looking for.

 

Denon (01753) 888447

 

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Features

Region 2 PAL/NTSC, DTS compatible digital output, Virtual Surround Sound, dialogue enhancer, marker function, monitor selector (CRT, CRT /LCD projector etc.), sound on search, variable headphone output, karaoke vocals cut

           

Sockets

AV output (2 x SCART), composite video & mixed stereo outputs (phono), S-Video output (mini DIN), digital audio outputs (coaxial & TOSlink optical) headphones (jack)  

 

Picture             *****

Sound              ****

Features            ***

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        A plain and unassuming front panel with a decent sized fluorescent display

 

·        No surprises here, twin SCARTs for ease of connection to NICAM TVs plus the usual assortment of analogue and digital outputs

 

·        A convenient sized button box, all of the functions are clearly labelled

 

 

PIONEER DV-626D,  £450

VERDICT *****

Thus far the Digital Theatre Sound (DTS) 5.1 channel surround system has been pretty much a secondary feature of DVD players. Most, if not all new players now sport a DTS compliant datastream output for connection to an external processor but Pioneer has followed Panasonic's lead and taken the next logical step and fitted an on-board DTS decoder to the DV-626. The supply of DTS software for Region 2 is still very limited but we take this as a welcome sign of the industry's growing confidence in the format.

 

A DTS decoder isn't the only thing that makes this player special, not by a long chalk, though you would hardly know it from the box, which is remarkably plain for such a sophisticated machine. The DV-626 has one of the most comprehensive set of picture adjustments we've come across, but they're typically understated and buried in an obscure sub-menu simply called Video Adjust. There are three presets (standard sports & art) plus three user memories, which store five adjustable parameters: picture noise reduction, detail enhancement, gamma correction and chroma delay. In short it gives the user an enormous amount of control over how the picture looks. These setting, along with screen format, the position of the OSD, language and subtitle, multi-angle and parental lock modes can be memorised in a Condition Memory that stores details of up to 15 DVDs.

 

The DV-626 OSD combines the initial set-up and operating menus, though some functions can only be accessed when the player is in the stop mode. Another unusual feature is an 'Expert' menu that permits adjustment to things like speaker set-up and even the colour of the background screen, which can be altered with three colour sliders. System connectivity is unusually comprehensive, even though it has only one SCART socket. Pioneer makes up for that with two composite and two S-Video sockets, additionally the SCART can be configured for composite S-Video or RGB outputs.

 

Of course there has to be a few niggles but you'll be relieved to know that they are all relatively minor in nature. At the top of our list is a glaring gap in the range of replay modes. It has still and variable slomo but only one picture search speed. Its quite fast – we estimate 25 – 30x normal speed – but the button has to be held down or it reverts to play mode. However, if the fast forward or reverse search buttons are held for more than five seconds it locks, which makes it very difficult to control, if you're trying to find a particular sequence. This is not helped by the layout of the remote control. The transport keys are small and difficult to discern in amongst a lot of other little buttons. Our last gripes concerns the on-screen display graphics, which have a slight but annoying jitter. Layer change is quick (0.5 sec) but is sometimes accompanied by a momentary flash on the screen. 

 

From now on it's nought but good news. The picture from our test discs fair leapt off the screen, subtle shades and fine detail are faithfully rendered and there's not a trace of processing artefacts, even on busy sequences. Having so many picture adjustments to play around with could be a mixed blessing but it does mean that if you have the time and inclination you can fine-tune the picture for the best possible results.

 

The standard mixes stereo soundtrack is wide flat and uncoloured with near zero background hiss. The DTS output is a revelation. Sadly we have only a handful of test and demo discs to judge it by but if they're anything to go by, and it gets the support it needs from the software houses it is going to be huge! There's no doubt about it, the DV-626 sets the new performance, price and features benchmarks for DVD. Buy it!

 

BOX CAPTION

This is now the one to beat; the DV-626 is a genuine milestone in the development of DVD. Once you've heard DTS you probably won't want to go back, it has the most comprehensive range of picture adjustments of any deck we've seen and at £450 or so, it's a steal!

 

Pioneer, (01753) 789789

 

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Features        

Region 2 PAL/NTSC, built-in Dolby Digital & DTS decoders, digital audio output, picture noise reduction, disc condition memory (15 discs), picture setting memory (DNR, sharpness, detail, gamma correction, chroma delay), video memory (sports, art & 3-user set)  bit-rate display

 

Sockets          

AV output (1 x SCART), composite video & mixed stereo outputs (phono), S-Video output (2 x mini DIN), digital audio outputs (coaxial & TOSlink optical), system remote control (minijack)       

 

Picture             *****

Sound              *****

Features            *****

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        It might not look terribly exciting but inside this black box lurks on of the most advanced DVD players on the market

 

·        Only one SCART but two composite and S-Video outputs is a bonus

 

·        Not the friendliest remote we've seen, the transport buttons are hard to find

 

 

SAMSUNG DVD-709,  £250

VERDICT ***

Samsung were a little late entering the UK DVD market but in the past few months it has become one of the most aggressive participants, breaking new ground in terms of prices and features. Earlier in the year the Korean parent company ruffled a few feathers over an exclusive deal with Kingfisher stores, selling a basic spec player for less than £250 (closer to £200 when you take into account the freebie discs supplied with the machine). A couple of months ago it surprised a lot of people with the first one-box DVD autochanger mini system (MAX-950), a development some observers reckoned probably wouldn't happen until next year. 

 

The DVD-709 isn't in quite the same radical mould as some of Samsung's previous machines but it does represent good value for money and visually it suggests that Samsung are not going to be found wanting when it comes to design and presentation. However, one look at the back panel clearly shows that the DVD-709 is a fairly basic machine, it has just one SCART socket and the small handful of phono sockets confirms that it has only the format standard audio processing facilities. It has a mixed stereo output, for connection to a stereo TV or Dolby Pro Logic processor, and there's only one digital audio output (coaxial). There is an S-Video socket and the SCART can be configured for RGB but it has to be said that the options are a tad limited. For those looking for more advanced video and audio facilities it's worth checking out the DVD-709's stablemate, (DVD-909), which has an on-board Dolby Digital processor and extra replay options.

 

Picture replay options include high-speed picture search (2x, 8x, 16x and 32x in both directions), still and stepped slomo (forward only). Real time sound (effectively snatches from the soundtrack) can be enabled during 2x fast play. There are a couple of useful extras, like the two-stage picture zoom and the remote handset can control the main functions on a wide assortment of TVs from other manufacturers. Picture zoom makes use of a small joystick on the remote handset, it moves an on-screen target, superimposed on the picture. The joystick is also used to navigate through the on-screen menus. The displays are divided into two areas. The initial set-up menu can be brought up at any time to change things like aspect ratio, configure the SCART socket and make language selections, play resumes at the point you left off. The second menu display is available during disc replay, at the top of the picture and it shows disc time and chapter and audio selection. In addition to normal stereo sound the DVD-709 has a 3D spatial mode that widens the stereo image.   

 

Layer change is quick and slick involving only a momentary interruption to the picture lasting less than half a second on our test discs. Digital processing is very clean with no noticeable motion artefacts, however some scenes can be bit contrasty and some detail is lost in the shadows. There is a black level option in the set-up menu but this tends to raise the picture brightness without doing much for contrast. The picture (and the deck) are both stable and noise levels are minimal, even in shady areas and in bright colours. Noise levels on the analogue mixed stereo output are at a respectably low level and the response is wide and flat. 

 

Picture and sound performance are both quite satisfactory though the DVD-709 lacks the ability of some of its rivals to extract every last morsel of picture information. Picture replay facilities are adequate, though you get the feeling that Samsung has pared parts of the specification to achieve a price point, given a choice between something like picture zoom and better transport functions or an extra SCART sockets, we know which we'd choose.

 

BOX CAPTION

Samsung has put a lot of effort into the DVD-709's appearance; it's a smart-looking deck with a simple, uncluttered control panel and display. It works well too, though apart from the two-stage picture zoom and multi-brand TV remote the specification is fairly basic, though at less than £300 it's not a bad deal.

 

Samsung 0800 521652

 

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Features        

Region 2 PAL/NTSC, DTS compatible digital output, 3D Sound, picture zoom, bookmark function, volume control, audio scan (2x replay only), multi-brand TV remote

 

Sockets          

AV output (1 x SCART) composite video & mixed stereo audio outputs (phono), S-Video output (mini DIN), digital audio output (coaxial)

 

Picture             ***

Sound              ***

Features            ***

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        Contemporary styling with a silver–grey fascia and smoothy integrated controls

 

·        Just the basics – a single SCART and a coaxial digital output

 

·        The chunky remote can also control the main functions on a wide range of TVs

 

 

SHARP DV-600H,  £350

VERDICT ***

The DV-600 is the smallest player in this group, mainly because it has been designed to integrate with Sharp's range of mini hi-fi systems. Don't worry, it functions perfectly well as a stand-alone AV component and the compact size could be a bonus if you're running out of room.

 

Being so small has other advantages. The narrower front panel has meant that the designers haven't had to spread the knobs and buttons out or go in for a lot of convolute cosmetic fripperies to occupy the space. It looks much neater in fact we'd go so far as to say that this is the natural size for DVD players. Incidentally, unlike most other DVD players -- which are mostly full of air -- the deck mechanism and circuit boards in this one just about fill the box.

 

Feature-wise it ranks as an entry-level machine since it has no on-board digital audio decoders (it has coaxial and optical digital outputs and it is DTS compliant), and there's not much to talk about in the gadgets and toys department. Only one feature counts as slightly unusual and that's Gamma Correction. Gamma correction is a means of weighting the contrast range of a video signal to suit the characteristics of picture tubes and transmission, recording and replay systems. Normally it's fixed (the nominal value is 0.45) but the DV-600 has a switchable option that alters the balance of contrast to increase the amount of visible detail in shadowy areas and dark scenes. The only other unusual display option is Digital Super Picture, which is a 5-step detail enhancer, however it might as well be left in the optimum mid position, as the image is either too hard or too soft.

 

On-screen displays when a disc is playing are confined to a simple overlay showing time, track and status information. The main set-up menu can only be accessed when the deck is in stop mode. The only audio enhancement is a 3D or virtual surround effect, which extracts spatial information from discs with Dolby Digital and Dolby Surround soundtracks and combines them with the mixed stereo output. Picture playback options are confined to single (approx. 3x) fast picture search, in both directions, still and slomo (forward only).

 

Gamma correction works very well and it really shows its worth on movies like Godzilla and Batman and Robin, cutting through the murk and exposing an impressive amount of lost detail. It's worth leaving it on 'auto' all of the time as it can usually be relied upon to make the right decision. The picture is comparable with mid-market and top-end players in most respects, it's bright lively and free of any processing artefacts, colours are rich, vibrant and true to life. Still and slomo are both very steady. Fast picture search is quite jerky and we would have preferred one or two more speed options. Layer change takes a little over half a second and apart from a momentary switch to still frame there's no untoward picture disturbance.

 

Virtual 3D surround is fairly subdued, there's a definite increase in activity at the edges of the soundfield but effects are not particularly well focussed and it can sound a bit muddled. Unfortunately there's no on-screen indication, so you have to keep looking at the front panel display in order to find out which mode it is in. 

 

The DV-600 is a bit of a mixed bag. We really like the mini-sized box, front panel design and control layout. It’s a great space-saver even if its not going to end up on top of a mini hi-fi system. Sound and picture performance are comfortably in the first division and Gamma correction is a definite plus point but general replay is let down a little by the somewhat limited assortment trick play options and our wish list would have to include another SCART socket.   

 

BOX CAPTION

Well, it's different! The pint-sized box is two-thirds the width of a conventional DVD player, which could be an advantage, when space is at a premium. Performance is fine and we like the gamma correction facility, which works very well indeed on movies with a lot of dark scenes.

 

Sharp, 0161-205 2333

 

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Features        

Region 2 PAL/NTSC, DTS compatible digital output, 3D Sound, Gamma correction, Digital Picture Control, variable headphone output

 

Sockets          

AV output (1 x SCART) composite video & mixed stereo audio outputs (phono), S-Video output (mini DIN), digital audio output (coaxial & TOSlink optical), headphone (jack)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ****

Features            ***

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        The mini-sized box is ideal for confined spaces or stack it on your hi-fi

 

·        Just the basics, the single SCART can be configured for composite, S-Video or RGB

 

·        Rather a lot of buttons for what is actually a fairly basic machine

 

 

TEAC DV-1000,  £400

VERDICT ****

Although not quite peas from the same pod the number of common components and subtle similarities between this machine and the Pioneer DV-626 leads us to suspect they both originated on the same production line. To be completely fair the two machines are quite different to one another when it comes to the headline features and therefore aimed at two entirely different segments of the market. The DV-1000 is essentially an entry-level machine in that it has only basic audio facilities, and compared with the DV-626, just two bells and only half a whistle.

 

Over and above the standard-issue DVD widgets the DV-1000 has a Virtual Dolby Surround 3D sound system and a 3-mode picture control with presets for movies (cinema), cartoons (animation) and standard. The only other feature of note is a disc condition memory, which is something else it has in common with the Pioneer deck though this one can store the set-up parameters of up to 30 discs. These include such things as the position of the on-screen display, parental control, picture format, picture mode, language, subtitle and camera angle, but unlike the Pioneer model there are no user-set picture adjustments. 

 

The front panel is a fairly uninspiring example of the black box school of design. An attempt has been made to cheer it up by slapping what looks like a bay window into the middle of the fascia, but you would still have a hard time telling it apart from the regiment of black boxes now crowding dealers shelves. More evidence of the Pioneer connection, if it was needed, lies in the remote control and the machine's operating system. The button boxes are essential the same, which means this one is also not very well laid out and you end up playing hunt the button in normal room lighting. The control system difficulties centre on the fact that there's only one fast picture search speed and to make it happen you have to hold down the 'fwd' or 'rev' buttons, but after five seconds it locks. Search whizzes along at 25 – 30x normal speed and that makes it hard to find the start of a scene, the locking search mode makes it doubly difficult. This machine, like its second cousin (twice removed) is crying out for better trick play facilities.     

 

One area where the two machines clearly diverge is in the on-screen display systems. The one used on the DV-1000 is inevitably a lot simpler and there is a separate set of menus for the initial set-up, which can only be accessed from the Stop mode. They do have one feature in common, though, and that's the variable colour background screen, in case you tire of the blue default. 

 

The Pioneer connection also pays off when it comes to picture and sound performance. Although it has only rudimentary video controls and no manual adjustments the factory settings are on the button. The image is brimming with information, lots of fine gradation in colours and shades and no visible after effects of all the digital processing going on behind the scenes. Image stability is very good indeed and the OSD is very stable. Noise levels on the mixed stereo are a little below average and the Virtual Dolby Surround system is quite effective in that sounds appear to come from some distance either side of the TV speakers but they're not localised and overall the effect is a bit hit and miss.

 

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the DV-1000 it's just that it's up against some tough competition, however, what it lacks in personality and toys it more than makes up for with top-class pictures and sounds.  

 

BOX CAPTION

The DV-1000 is a plain, almost austere machine. If the intention was to design a DVD player that wouldn't stand out from the crowd or offend anyone with bucket-loads of gadgets then it succeeds brilliantly. Fortunately video performance is excellent, and it sounds good too 

 

Teac, (01923) 819699

 

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Features        

Region 2 PAL/NTSC, DTS compatible digital output, Virtual Dolby Surround, 3-mode picture control (standard, cinema & animation), disc condition memory (30 discs)

 

Sockets          

AV output (1 x SCART) composite video & mixed stereo audio outputs (phono), S-Video output (mini DIN), digital audio output (coaxial & TOSlink optical)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ****

Features            ***

Ease of use            ***

 

Captions

·        Fitting a bay window to the front panel hasn't does much to change the fact that it's a boring black box

 

·        The single SCART is just about adequate, two would be better…

 

·        Too many buttons, hard to find transport keys and grey on silver labelling means fun and games in semi-darkened rooms

 

 

THOMSON DTH-3300,  £330

VERDICT ****

Following a long association with the top French designer Philippe Starck, the most recent influx of Thomson products appear to be drifting back into the mainstream, if the Samsung-sourced DTH-3300 is anything to go by. Nonetheless, it is a slickly styled player and welcome reassurance that a formless black box and badly thought out controls are not mandatory or part of the DVD specification.

 

The DTH-3300 is one of two DVD players in the Thomson 1999 line-up. It's the simpler of the two with standard 2-channel analogue audio and streamed digital outputs plus a modest selection of convenience features, very similar in fact to those on the Samsung DVD-709. As a matter of interest its stablemate is the DTH-3600, the key differences are a built-in Dolby Digital decoder, some extra trick-play facilities and a headphone output. The main points of interest on the DTH-3300 are a Virtual 3D sound option, two stage picture zoom (2x and 4x magnification), a bookmark function that 'tags' up three selected scenes, there's real time sound during 2x fast play and it comes with a multi-brand remote. A couple of those items are worth a closer look. The picture zoom facility generates a moveable target that defines the area of the picture to be enlarged. The target is moved around the screen using the four cursor buttons on the remote box. The remote handset can also control the main functions on a good selection of other makers TVs and VCR (the remote supplied with the DTH-3600 can additionally operate satellite receivers).

 

Rear panel connections are exactly right for this type of player. It has two SCART sockets AV1 is configurable for composite, S-Video or RGB output. There's also separate composite and S-Video sockets, analogue mixed stereo outputs plus optical and coaxial outputs carrying the Dolby Digital, MPEG and DTS 5.1 channel datastream. 

 

It has a useful selection of trick play modes. There's a 4-speed picture search (2x, 8x, 16x and 32x, in both directions), 3-stage slow motion (1/8, 1/4 and 1/2 normal speed, also in both directions) still and frame advance. One rather unusual feature for an entry-level DVD player is a master volume control and it has a black-level adjustment which lifts contrast levels for improving the look of movies containing a lot of dark scenes. The on-screen displays are split into two areas. The first is a set-up menu, which covers the basics, like TV shape, audio and subtitle languages, video outputs, display settings and the parental lock. The main menu is only available in stop mode. When a disc is playing a set of time, status and function displays appear along the top of the picture.

 

On screen it's a capable performer with a reasonable contrast and bags of fine detail in the highlights. Lowlights can appear a bit dense though, especially in the shadows and in murky or nighttime sequences. Colour rendition is good though and it handles skin tones well. Layer change is one of, if the fastest in this group taking less than a quarter of a second on one of our reference discs, definitely a case of blink and you'll miss it! Noise levels on the analogue mixed stereo output were about average, which is to say negligible at normal listening levels. Dolby Surround information makes it through the digital mill without any problems and Virtual 3D Surround does its stuff, creating an interesting spatial effect from the TV's stereo speakers.

 

The DTH-3300 is the company's fourth or possibly its fifth player – we're starting to loose count – in the past two years. This machine is a marked change from its previous entry-level model (sourced from Panasonic) and it shouldn't disappoint when it comes to AV performance and just for a change it doesn't look half bad.   

 

BOX CAPTION

In spite of its fairly brief list of features the DTH-3300 is one of the smartest-looking DVD players on the market. The machine has few quirks and performance is generally good. The multi-brand remote control, which will also operate VCRs and satellite boxes, is a worthwhile extra.   

 

Thomson 0181-344 4444

 

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Features        

Region 2 PAL/NTSC, DTS compatible digital output, Virtual 3D surround, 2 stage picture zoom, bookmark function, sound on search (2x normal speed only), multi-brand TV/VCR & satellite remote, 

 

Sockets          

AV output (2 x SCART), composite video, mixed stereo outputs (phono), S-Video out (mini DIN), digital audio out (coaxial & TOSlink optical)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ****

Features            ***

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        Slim and stylish good looks demonstrating that DVD players don't have look dull

 

·        Twin SCARTs and a full set of digital outputs, the DTH-3300 should fit in easily with most set-ups

 

·        It's not as bad as it looks since it can also control a wide range of other products

 

 

TOSHIBA SD-3109,  £500

VERDICT ****

It's not immediately obvious from the outside but the SD-3109 has one rather unusual feature, it's the first DVD player to reach these shores with a twin disc loading mechanism. This hasn't created any problems with space, the case is a more or less standard size and shape and like most other players the box is mostly full of air.

 

Toshiba has opted for a mid-range specification for the 3109; it has a built-in Dolby Digital decoder and a handful of fancy convenience features, like a 3-stage picture zoom and it is HDCD compatible, otherwise it is fairly conventional. The front panel cosmetics are quite busy, lot of shiny bits, gentle curves and sharply defined panels; it's reasonably attractive in a flashy sort of way. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the remote control handset that comes with it. It's awful, a great lump of a thing that's twice as big as it needs to be. The only good thing about it is a jog/shuttle dial for adjusting replay speed and direction. Oh yes, and the buttons glow in the dark…

 

Back to the box, connections to the outside world are hampered slightly by the fact that it has just one lonely SCART socket on the back panel. One is okay if your system includes at least one other component (TV, VCR, satellite TV decoder etc), with two or more SCART sockets otherwise things could get difficult. The player set-up and the main on-screen displays are as one, which is rather unusual. Normally the set-up options – covering things like TV shape and housekeeping functions (background colours screensavers etc.) is a separate entity to the OSD but in this case they share the same drop-down menus and display system, though some functions are disabled when a disc is playing. A second status display is available, which superimposes title, track, time, and audio and subtitle information, along with various disc parameters, pressing the display button a second time brings up a bit-rate indicator that winks pointlessly at the bottom of the picture.

 

As per normal picture search is disabled during the intro sequences (copyright warnings and those interminable movie-company logos) but the jog/shuttle display is still active. It says the deck is whizzing through at up to 30x normal speed. In fact it is doing nothing of the sort and the player is actually stuck in still frame mode, which is incredibly annoying!

 

The deck mechanism works very smoothly, and it is possible to change one disc, whilst the other is playing. However, we reckon Toshiba may have missed a trick with the control system, we would have liked the machine to have some sort of disc position memory, making it possible to switch between discs, without having to go start from the beginning each time.

 

Toshiba has gone to the trouble of developing its own deck mechanism and processing circuitry and it was worth the effort since AV performance is very good indeed. Colours are accurately rendered with no noise to speak of, even in highly saturated areas. Processing artefacts are very few and far between in fact the only ones we saw were in dark shadowy parts of the picture, movement and fine detail were cleanly resolved. Trick play performance is very impressive and the jog/shuttle dial is fast is excellent for reviewing scenes, a frame at a time if necessary. Still frame and slomo are both very stable. The mixed stereo output is largely free of background noise with no detectable colouration, stereo and Dolby soundtracks pass through unhindered, CDs in particular sound very good and the 3109 qualifies as a competent audio component.

 

BOX CAPTION

The twin disc deck mechanism sets the 3109 apart from the crowd though how long this particular feature remains unique to Toshiba is open to question. However, for the moment at least this rates as one of the more interesting DVD players on the market, definitely worth considering.

 

Toshiba (01276) 62222

 

UP CLOSE

Features        

Region 2 PAL/NTSC, built-in Dolby Digital & MPEG decoders, DTS compatible digital audio output, HDCD audio, twin disc loading mechanism, jog/shuttle dial, 3-stage picture zoom, karaoke vocal cut, remote bleeper, glow-in the dark buttons, bit-rate display

 

Sockets          

AV output (1 x SCART) composite video, mixed stereo & 5.1 channel audio outputs (phono), S-Video output (mini DIN), digital audio outputs (coaxial & TOSlink optical)  

 

Picture             *****

Sound              ****

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        The twin disc loading mechanism takes up no more room than a single and it's fast

 

·        Only one SCART, which could be inconvenient, otherwise a fairly standard set of sockets and connectors

 

·        Horrible – the handset is enormous, difficult to hold and use, the buttons do glow in the dark though…

 

 

YAMAHA DVD-S795,  £375

VERDICT ****

Someone out there must be listening to us. The last time we reviewed a Yamaha DVD player (DVD-S700, HE December 98), about the only bad thing we could find to say about it was the fact that it lacked any SCART AV sockets on the back panel, which could make it difficult to plumb in to some systems. The DVD-S795, which we are looking at here has all the right connections with not one, but two SCART sockets, and the designers have also given it a headphone socket as well, so it's off to quite a good start.

 

Like its predecessor (and several other machines in this roundup) Yamaha has decided to stick with tried and tested components sourced from Panasonic – there's nothing wrong with that – but it does limit the scope for individuality and that is apparent from the fairly short list of secondary features and gimmicks. Nevertheless, it does have all the right bits where it really counts and that includes the all-important on-board Dolby Digital 5.1 decoder. Otherwise the spec is fairly ordinary and it's one of the few DVD players on the market not to have some kind of 3D or spatial sound system, not that anyone will miss it.  

 

The front panel cosmetics and layout are also quite conservative. It's a black box, with black knobs and buttons, even the control labelling is designed to be inconspicuous and the front panel display emits an unusually subdued orange glow. The on-screen displays are split into two section, the set-up menu is accessible when the disc tray is empty of the machine is in stop mode, it covers things like language selection, TV aspect ratio and 5.1 channel speaker set-up. During disc replay the second set of menus come into play, they're based on a strip of icons that appear along the top edge of the screen and these cover time readout, chapter selection, subtitle audio mode, replay features, a five-scene marker and switchable dialogue enhancer, for 5.1 channel soundtracks. As we have said on several occasions this type of display is not especially pretty but it is simple to use, and unintrusive. The button layout on the remote handset could be better – some controls, like the transport keys could be in a more convenient position -- but we're getting picky and most users will quickly adapt to it.

 

There's little to add to what we've already said about the performance of Panasonic-based players such as this one. The most notable features are an almost complete absence of digital artefacts and the amount of detail in dark areas of the picture and gloomy scenes is a definite notch up on first generation machines. It shares the same control foibles as other decks using the same operating system, in particular the picture search speed control which steps up, but not down. The image is rock steady at all replay speeds but it lacks fluidity above 2x normal speed. Colours are bright and clean and subtle shades, like skin tones are faithfully reproduced. The mixed stereo soundtrack has a wide uncoloured response with very low levels of background noise. The on-board Dolby Digital processor is fast and responsive and able to precisely locate effects; the sub-woofer channel is remarkably effective, it really deserves to be heard in all of its glory and is a strong argument for getting a decent sub. It's ability to play audio CDs is on a par with most other mid-range CD decks, which might help reduce the box count for some users.

 

Yamaha has taken the view that DVD players should remain very much in the background consequently it's not much to look at, but that's no bad thing and it will blend in easily with most other hi-fi separates.

 

BOX CAPTION

No one could accuse the S795 of looking flash. In keeping with its background in mid to top end audio Yamaha has designed this player to fit in with its range of separate hi-fi components. A good all-round audio and video performer, with the added benefits of built-in Dolby digital processing 

 

Yamaha, (01923) 233166

 

Features        

Region 2 PAL/NTSC, built-in Dolby Digital & MPEG decoders, DTS compatible digital output, dialogue enhancer, marker function, monitor selector (CRT, CRT /LCD projector etc.), sound on search, variable headphone output, karaoke vocals cut

 

Sockets          

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

 

Picture             *****

Sound              *****

Features            ***

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        Another bland black box but it will fit in easily with a separates system

 

·        Good news for SCART fans, it has two AV connectors on the back panel

 

·        Looks familiar? The remote handset is a similar design used on several other Panasonic-based machines 

 

 

THE VERDICT

So, you've got around £500 to spend on a DVD player, which one is it going to be? For once the answer is simple, you should go straight to your nearest Pioneer dealer and put your name down for a DV-626. You might be lucky if you're quick but once news of this machine gets out we wouldn't mind better it will become a sought-after collector's item! Just take a look at the feature list. True, there are one or two small gaps but if you were asked to draw up a spec for a do-everything mid-range DVD player that's not going to be out of date this time next week then it would come pretty close to what you're seeing here. Don't forget that DTS is supposed to be a high-end luxury feature but here it is, large as life on a DVD player costing £450. Has the world gone mad?

 

If you can't get hold of a DV-626 and on-board Dolby Digital processing is a must-have feature then the Yamaha DVD-S795 deserves your very serious attention. The twin tray loading mechanism on the Toshiba SD-3109 is certainly a feature that a lot of people will be happy to pay a premium for. It's our guess that by this time next year multi-play DVD players will be coming out of the woodwork. This machine is an accomplished home cinema machine but arguably just a little lacklustre once you get past the fancy deck mechanism.

 

Moving on now to the decoderless entry level models the choice is even harder to make. The Denon DVD-2500 is a polished performer, if you are already a fan and own any Denon separates or a system then you may well feel it is worth spending a few extra quid on all of those small but important internal refinements. The Teac DV-1000 is another player that will probably benefit from brand loyalty and it comes out well in all of the performance checks. The design is a wee bit bland for our taste but we'll leave you to make up your own minds on that score.

 

Sharp's delightful little DV-600 did well in all of the tests, it's also a very good price but what sold it to us was the cute silvery mini-sized box. It's not going to happen, we know, but this is the size and shape that DVD players should be, and all other AV components come to that. The only negative point concerning this machine is that it’s a bit short on features and the single SCART could be a limitation, if your system is going to expand.

 

Samsung and Thomson have also helped restore our faith in consumer electronics design, proving that DVDs don't have to be featureless black boxes. The Samsung DVD-709 is especially good value for money and a clear indicator of the direction in which the DVD market is moving. Samsung has set or reinforced new price benchmarks in just about every consumer electronic market they've entered and it looks as though they're about to do the same with DVD. The slightly better specified Thomson DTH-3300 just about warrants the higher price but it is worth remembering that under the skin they are very similar indeed. As far as AV performance is concerned they both lack the precision of some of their rivals. To be fair such differences as there are will only show up in a side by side comparison, but if you look really closely you may see that these machines occasionally miss some of the finer details and subtle colour graduations in the better quality recordings.

 

BEST IN TEST

PIONEER DV-626D,  £450

Even without the on-board DTS decoder the DV-626 would probably still have made it into our top three but there's no doubt whatsoever that this is the feature that made the difference. Pioneer could have followed Panasonic's example and asked another £100 for this machine and we wouldn't have blinked an eyelid, but at £450 it has to be the best specified DVD player on the market under £500.

 

YAMAHA DVD-S795,  £375

There's nothing particularly special about the DVD-S795, apart from having a very well rounded specification, excellent picture and sound quality and a very attractive selling price. It's the sort of machine you should aim for if you're getting your first player as it's not going to be found wanting when you later come to upgrade

 

TOSHIBA SD-3109,  £500

Mark our words, we'll be knee-deep in DVD autochangers in a couple of years time. The SD-3109 is the first of a new breed of players and the standard by which others that follow will be judged. It's going to be a tough act to follow!

 

RIVAL BUYS

PANASONIC DVD-A360, £580

When it was launched in the summer the A360 was the first Region 2 DVD player to have an on-board DTS decoder and although it's no longer unique it is still a very impressive piece of kit. Although the Pioneer machine undercuts the A360's price by quite a margin there is still much to commend this player including superb picture and sound and stunning good looks.

 

KENWOOD DVF-5010, £400

This fairly well-specified mid-range machine has a few idiosyncrasies – mostly endearing – and the exterior design is not much to write home about but it does fairly well in the picture and sound departments. The only serious omission is the lack of DTS compatibility, which could be a problem if the format takes off, if that doesn't worry you and you are looking for a prestige brand at a sensible price it is worth considering.

 

SONY DVP-S725, £550

A real cracker from Sony, it's got the lot, well almost, there's no DTS decoder, but it has a compliant digital output. Anyway, the main selling points are outstanding picture and sound performance – it came out on top in a recent HE Group Test – plus it has a bucket load of gizmos and performance enhancing goodies. We particularly like the jog/shuttle dial on the handset and its glow in the dark buttons… It looks the part and it has the facilities and performance to see you through the ne

 

JARGON BUSTER

 

AC-3/DOLBY DIGITAL

High performance digital surround sound system, based on the system used in cinemas. Aka 5.1 sound with five separate or 'discrete' wideband channels, (centre dialogue, two front stereo & two rear surround) plus one narrow band 'sub woofer' channel carrying bass information.  

 

DOLBY SURROUND

Format standard four channel analogue surround sound system, it's not as precise as Dolby Digital but it can still yield impressive results.

 

DTS

Digital Theatre Sound, a new and upcoming six channel digital surround sound system, similar to Dolby Digital, but with a broader bandwidth and potentially even better performance.   

 

LAYER CHANGE

A standard DVD can hold around 2 hours of video and sound information per side, extra information can be stored on a second and subsequent layers on the disc. The laser pickup has to re-focus to read the next layer and this causes a momentary interruption to playback

 

SPATIAL SOUND

Aka 3D or virtual surround. Players with this feature usually extract Dolby Surround or Dolby Digital information and recombine it with the main stereo channels, to produce a wide and highly detailed soundfield from a normal 2-speaker stereo TV (or hi-fi) sound system

---end---

ã R. Maybury 1999 2009

 

 

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