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GROUP TEST

 

HIGH END DVD PLYERS

 

STANDFIRST

 

Still thinking about DVD? New players are arriving thick and fast so it's time for another HE roundup. Rick Maybury looks at six recent arrivals costing from £350 to £1600

 

COPY/INTRODUCTION

It's no longer a question of will you buy a DVD player, but when?  Laserdisc has effectively reached the end of the road, VHS will struggle on for a while yet, but the time will come -- and it may not be that far away -- when new films debut simultaneously on DVD and tape. At that point it's downhill all the way for VHS but it won't be just availability of movies that'll make up your mind. DVD wins hands down on just about every other aspect of home cinema you can name. The picture can be literally twice as good as VHS and it is a natural medium for widescreen material. Audio performance is dramatically better than tape with the facility for cinema quality multi-channel surround sound. DVDs don't wear out and you can skip to any part of a recording in a matter of seconds. There are many more replay options and discs are very cheap to make (though it is taking longer than we had hoped to be reflected in the selling price of software).

 

The only areas where DVD looses out to tape is in the number of titles and the ability to record TV programmes. The DVD catalogue is expanding at a rate of knots and there should be around 1000 titles in the UK by year's end. As far as recording on DVD is concerned that is also being sorted out. The first DVD recorders could be in the shops within the next year or so, however, don't let that put you off buying a DVD player now. There are still a few technical and commercial issues that need resolving and we suspect it may be another two or three years at least before you can safely ditch your VCR.

 

Making the decision to buy DVD is the easy bit, the hard part is choosing a player from the thirty or so models currently on sale. It's a good idea to work out your priorities since there are now several distinct classes of player, and that's before you even think about price and performance. The good news on the latter is that there is far less variation between the best and the worst decks than there is with VCRs. In fact the differences in picture quality have been comparatively small so far and we've yet to see any real stinkers. This undoubtedly has a lot to do with the inherent consistency of digital systems though the fact that the same deck mechanisms and video processing circuitry turns up in between a half and two thirds of players may also have something to do with it.

 

But we digress, some factors to consider when shortlisting players include the type of audio processing, regional coding and connectivity. All DVD players have a composite video and combined analogue line-audio stereo output for plain vanilla mono/stereo soundtracks, CD audio and Dolby Surround information which can be processed by a TV or hi-fi system with a Dolby Pro Logic decoder. All players should also have one or two digital audio outputs carrying Dolby Digital and MPEG2 Audio multi-channel surround sound and linear PCM sound, for connection to an external digital processor. In addition many recent players can handle DTS (Digital Theatre Sound) surround sound data. The next step up the audio ladder is to have on-board AC-3 (and MPEG) decoders. This facility adds a little to the price but it does help reduce the box count and it means that even if don't want to go the whole digital surround-sound hog straight away, it will be easier for you to upgrade later on.

 

Regional coding is still a bone of contention but as the number of DVD titles grows and disc release dates fall into line with tape the ability, or otherwise of a DVD machine to be modified to play discs purchased in the US will become less significant. Remember also that chipping, modifying, or importing a Region 1 deck from the US could lead to problems with servicing and warranties, and there's no guarantee that coding schemes won't be devised that could scupper multi-region replay on some decks.

 

Having the right connections is very important. All players have composite video outputs, either separately or on a SCART socket, but we would only consider using that if the TV was an older model that didn't have an S-Video input. An S-Video connection is the starting point for DVD but there are two other video connection formats worth keeping an eye out for. RGB (red green blue) output on DVD players (via the SCART socket) is still quite rare but it is supported on a number of TVs and it will produce a sharper image with better colour fidelity. Lastly there is component video, available on a number of US players and a few top-end decks sold here. So far only a small handful of video projectors available in UK have the necessary input facility but it is an option if you are in the enviable position of being able to put performance above cost.   

 

Here's, a few more points to think about. System integration is normally a lot easier if you stick to one make for the TV, VCR and DVD though a few machines now come with multi-brand remote controls. Don't forget all DVD machines play audio CDs as well, some better than others, but even mid range decks can double up as hi-fi components. Finally a warning, DVD will quickly show up deficiencies in the rest of your home cinema equipment so be prepared to lash out on a new widescreen TV and decent audio system soon afterwards…

 

BOX COPY

HOW THE TESTS WERE DONE

Digital technology is a great leveller – there are only so many ways of turning a string of numbers into pictures and sounds – which makes our lives a little easier since there is less scope for manufacturers to confuse the issue with wacky performance enhancements. Picture and sound assessments also benefit from the fact that discs don't deteriorate so we can make meaningful long-term comparisons. We're on the look out for signs of sloppy processing and decoding. That means we're keep a close watch on a players ability to cope with lots of information – rapid movement, sudden changes in brightness and contrast, small variations in colour. On the audio side we're listening out for clarity and detail plus the ability to cope with movement, sudden loud effects and subtle sounds. It's a little difficult to make side by side comparisons since this is an area where specifications vary but we assess the analogue surround and Dolby Digital soundtrack performance on all decks to give us a benchmark, any extra audio facilities are rated accordingly. We also listen to a selection of audio CDs and for the record our video tests discs include old stalwarts like Batman & Robin, Mars Attacks and Legends of the Fall and we've also added some more recent titles, such as Godzilla and Flubber.  

 

THE TESTS

 

DENON DVD-5000, £1600

VERDICT ****

Before you even think about buying a DVD-5000 -- assuming you have 1600 smackeroons to spare -- make sure you have somewhere to put it, that can stand the weight. At 17.5 kilograms it weighs almost as much as all of the other players in this group test put together! The reason it is so heavy is simple, where other manufacturers use plastic Denon has used metal, and lots of it, thick gauge stuff! Where one mains transformer is sufficient for most other decks Denon use three – one for the video circuitry, one for audio processing and one for the control system. Where other companies are happy with off the shelf electronic components Denon used high quality graded parts. In short it's built like a brick privvy, there have been no compromises over performance, the DVD-5000 is one of the first DVD players reaching these shores to qualify for audiophile status and it is THX certified.

 

The DVD-5000 isn't burdened with flashy features and gimmicks, in fact parts of the specification are surprisingly modest but make no mistake, this is a very serious piece of kit. It has no on-board digital audio decoders for example but it is configured for DTS and it can play HDCD discs (more about that in a moment). The deck mechanism and control system looks suspiciously like Panasonic items but Denon has gone to extraordinary lengths to isolate and dampen mechanical vibration with an industrial-strength all metal chassis and big sintered alloy insulators. It doesn't have a SCART AV socket but it does have two composite and two S-Video outputs plus a colour component video output (Pr, Pb & Y to its friends) which works with only a small number of exotic US sourced display devices. There are only a handful of front panel controls – and very smart they look too, all fancy turned metal knobs and buttons – but the remote control handset looks like it belongs to a budget hi-fi system. We have to say light up buttons are a tad tacky on a grand and a half's worth of gear…

 

Denon has gone to town on the audio features at the top of the list is AL24 precision 24-bit digital to analogue processing and a HDCD (high definition compatible digital) decoder/filter. This converts 24-bit data from the HDCD discs into a 16-bit data stream, apparently with no loss of definition (we'll leave that one for the specialist hi-fi mags to mull over). The deck also has digital inputs, so it can act as a high quality D/A converter, when connected to other suitably equipped digital devices like CD and MD players.

 

The on screen set-up menus and displays are fairly straightforward and it is doesn't take long to get it up and running. There are few user adjustments apart from the usual language and picture format adjustments. It has a five-position scene marker and the usual repeat play and A-B functions in fact nothing that we would count as out of the ordinary.

 

Normal operation holds few surprises though it emits a fairly loud click when changing chapters and there is some motor noise from the deck, otherwise it behaves impeccably. The video output is pin-sharp and free of any texture or processing artefacts. Colour accuracy is spot on, noise is virtually zero and the picture is rock steady at all speeds. The sound output is excellent, plain vanilla Dolby Surround tracks are crisp, open and packed with subtle little sounds most other usually will miss. Audio CDs get the same kind of treatment, there's extra depth and detail sounds are warmer and more focused, it's a genuine treat to listen to!

 

The DVD-5000's big selling point is that it's a one-box solution for DVD and CD and HDCD should you be so inclined. If you take sound quality seriously there is no longer any need to put up with second or third best when you watch a movie, mind you, this level of performance doesn't come cheap… 

 

BOX

Colour component video output is not something we see or hear much about in the UK but it's big news in the US and according to the cognoscenti it's the only way to go for top quality DVD. A colour component signal is split into three, made up of two colour difference signals and brightness information.

 

Hayden Laboratories (01753) 888447

 

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Features

Region 2, digital output DTS, Dolby Digital, linear PCM, AL24 96kHz/24-bit twin DAC, HDCD filtration, illuminated remote handset, NTSC playback, digital inputs, THX certified

 

Sockets

composite & component video, fixed/variable line audio out & RF digital in/out (phono), S-Video out (2 x mini DIN), remote control (mini jack), optical digital in/out (TOSlink)

 

Picture             *****

Sound              *****

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        classy, elegant and very big, the DVD-500 is a heavyweight player, with performance to match

 

·        All the connections you're likely to need, plus one or two you probably won't but it's good to have them anyway

 

·        It does light up but compared with the rest of the machine the remote control is a bit, well, ordinary…

 

 

JVC XV-D701, £500

VERDICT ****

Most DVD player manufacturers go to quite a lot of trouble to downplay the technology striving to make the product appear unthreatening and easy to use. JVC appear to have veered slightly off-message with the XV-D701, the front panel of which is smothered in loads of granny-scaring knobs and buttons… Fortunately it's been done quite tastefully and unless you're fitness fanatic or unlucky enough to loose the handset, they can be safely ignored since everything you need to drive the D701 is on the well-designed remote button box.  

 

JVC has also gone its own way and developed its own deck mechanism, video processing and control systems, consequently the 701 has a number of interesting facilities you won't find on other players, but first the basics. The headline features are on-board Dolby Digital and MPEG audio decoders, it is DTS compatible (digital output only) and it has JVC's proprietary 3D-Phonic surround system that generates a wide spatial soundfield from normal TV or hi-fi system stereo speakers.

 

It has a number of unusual secondary features, like picture zoom (the enlarged area of the picture can be moved around using a 'joystick' on the remote), strobe effect and 'digest'. This generates a sequence of 9 miniature sub-screens showing a still from the beginning of each chapter; you can then skip to the chapter using a moveable highlight controlled by the joystick. The D701 has a 4-mode picture sharpness adjustment (normal, sharp, soft, and manual) and a set of options for modifying 3D Phonic sound (action, drama, and theatre). The on-screen set-up menus are well presented and divided into three 'tabbed' sections. The first includes language selection (subtitle and menu) and monitor display format. Menu 2 covers the audio options (digital output, down-mix and compression), screen saver selection (scroll, static or dimmed display) and auto standby (30 or 60 minutes). Menu 3 handles speaker set-up -- with some rather nifty graphics -- and a test tone generator. The remote handset can also control the main functions on a good selection of TVs and satellite receivers from around 20 other manufacturers.

 

DVD Control is another useful feature of the OSD; it creates a quarter-sized screen inset into a kind of virtual control panel with on-screen buttons for selecting camera angle (on discs that support multi-angle viewing), soundtrack, subtitle, repeat play, A-B repeat, time and chapter search. There's also a time and chapter display, position indicator and winking bit-rate bar graph. Connectivity is satisfactory with a single SCART, twin digital outputs (RF and optical), S-Video and a second composite video out, there's also a headphone socket (with level control) on the front panel. 

 

Video performance is superb and it had no problems with any of the most troublesome DVD bogeymen, namely motion artefacts and blocking in areas of rapid movement or layer change stutter. The picture was very clean indeed with excellent colour rendition and near zero noise. In bright, well-lit scenes fine detail is very well resolved, darker areas can be a bit murky though. Picture stability is excellent and slow motion very smooth. The combined stereo analogue output is clean; Dolby Surround soundtracks are lively with lots of detail. AC-3 is better still, the decoder is pin-sharp, there's no bleed whatsoever and the sub channel really packs a punch. 

 

DVD is a technology where blandness and conformity are almost regarded as virtues, after all no-one wants to frighten off sceptical consumers, but JVC are daring to be a little different, and all credit to them. The D701 has a real personality and several handy features you won't find elsewhere. The price is towards the top end of the rapidly developing mid-market sector but don't let that dissuade you as it is reflected in better than average AV performance and audio facilities.  

 

BOX

DVD is a black box technology but JVC take the view that their black box doesn't have to look like everyone else's, the XV-D701 also performs really well and sports several rather unusual convenience features

 

JVC UK Ltd., 0181-450 3282

 

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Features

Region 2, built-in Dolby Digital & MPEG decoders, DTS output, 96kHz/24-bit 1-bit DAC, 3-D Phonic pseudo surround, multi-brand remote, 'zoom' & 'strobe' effects, 3-mode screen saver, NTSC playback, 'digest' preview

 

Sockets

AV out (SCART & phono), S-Video out (mini DIN), digital out (phono and TOSlink optical), control in (minijack), headphones (jack/front)

 

Picture             *****

Sound              *****

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

 

·        A busy and businesslike front panel, lots of knobs and buttons to play with and a lively display

 

·        Simple and straightforward connections including separate sockets for the AC-3 and MPEG 5.1 channel outputs

 

·        The remote is a bit of a handful but it can also control the main functions on a wide range of TVs and satellite receivers

 

 

PANASONIC DVD-A160, £380

VERDICT ****

Panasonic has played a pivotal role in getting DVD off the ground, both in the early days when they were developing the technology and now producing a fair chunk of the available hardware. As well as being one of the first manufacturers into the market they also manufacture a number of key components, like deck mechanisms and digital processing circuit boards that turn up in quite a few other manufacturer's boxes.

 

The DVD-A160 is a fairly speedy response by Panasonic to the emergence of a budget or 'entry-level' segment, which has developed over the past few months. This £380 deck has relatively few frills -- for example there are no 5.1 digital sound decoders or flashy replay facilities -- but Panasonic expertise and build quality more than makes up for any lack of glitz. Nevertheless, it is notable for being one of the cheaper decks on the market with a DTS enabled digital output. Panasonic has also managed to squeeze in a 'Virtual Surround Sound' (VSS) pseudo surround facility, advanced 96kHz/24-bit digital to analogue converter (DAC), and a  'marker' system that allows you to quickly 'tag' and jump to five positions on a disc. 

 

Head on it's not much to look at the styling is reminiscent of the venerable DVD-A350 but with fewer knobs and the slide out loading tray is now on top of the display. The remote handset and on-screen graphics used on earlier models were nothing to write home about so we're pleased to see both have come in for a bit of attention. The new remote is much less of a handful and the OSD or graphic user interface, as Panasonic like to call it, is much easier to navigate with all of the set-up functions neatly laid out on just two menu pages. When a disc is playing the OSD creates a series of graphical menu bars at the top of the screen. All menu and toolbar selections are made using a four-way 'cursor' control button cluster on the handset.

 

There's good and bad news on the back panel. Panasonic receive bonus points for the twin SCART connectors, but they're quickly taken back for giving the A160 only one digital output socket. To make matters worse it's an optical socket, the leads are not always that easy to find, they can be quite expensive, and not all decoders have an optical digital inputs. 

 

That's about the only quibble on this otherwise very tidy little machine. Picture quality is well up to scratch with no significant processing defects. Colours are clean and natural looking and it deals well with tricky flesh tones and subtle shades. The dynamic range is reasonably wide though it's weighted more for bright scenes, movies with a lot of dark sequences – Batman and Robin is a good example – could do with a bit of a lift as a lot of detail is lost in the gloom.  Audio options are limited so we can really only talk about the line level analogue output. The response is wide and flat with just a trace of background hiss but it is not enough to be concerned about and in practice it will be largely inconsequential by the time the stereo soundtrack has been through the Dolby Pro Logic decoder mill.   

 

We suspect Panasonic have worked hard to get the price of the A160 down to below £400 and in an ideal world it would rank as one of the best value machines on the market. However, things move remarkably quickly in DVD land and already the first sub £200 machines have appeared in the shops and £300 is now established as the starting point price for players from top name Japanese manufacturers. Nevertheless the A160 can stand on its own merits which are solid AV performance, ease of use and an impeccable pedigree. 

 

BOX

Two SCARTs good, one SCART bad, at least two are well worth having if the backside of your TV is starting to look like an explosion in a spaghetti factory. The second SCART could prove useful if you have an older VCR or satellite box and only a single SCART socket on the TV. 

 

Panasonic UK, (0990) 357357

 

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Features

Region 2, 96kHz/24-bit, 10-bit DAC, Virtual Surround Sound, dialogue enhancer, 5-position 'marker' memory, NTSC replay, AC-3/MPEG/DTS digital outputs, display dimmer

 

Sockets

AV out (2 x SCART & phono), S-Video out (mini DIN), digital out (TOSlink optical)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ****

Features            ***

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        Plain and simple cosmetics and few controls, it's so simple your granny could use it

 

·        Just the basics – rear panel connections are few and far between, though the second SCART could be useful in some set-ups

 

·        The remote is quite tidy and the most frequently used controls fall readily to hand

 

 

PHILIPS DVD-710, £350

VERDICT ****

 

For an illustration of how far and fast DVD technology has progressed you need look no further than inside the case of the Philips DVD-710 (actually you had better not, you'll void the warranty…), but if you did you would probably be surprised at how little there is to see. There's the deck mechanism three small printed circuit boards and a lot of empty space!

 

Admittedly the 710 is a budget DVD player, so you can't expect too much in the way of bells and whistles but it has all of the format's basic necessities plus a couple of welcome facilities, like a DTS digital output and RGB video connections on the SCART socket. Nevertheless, in trimming the price Philips has economised on one or two quite important features. The first is the lack of an S-Video output socket. We haven't done a head count lately but we suspect there are more mid-range and high-end TVs with S-Video inputs than RGB connections. Secondly, the control system is a bit cranky in places, getting into and out of the set-up menu is quite laborious if a disc is loaded and the operating on-screen displays are a bit cheap and cheerful.

 

The trick play functions are quite basic and it has slomo but only 4x picture search. The deck mechanism is also surprisingly noisy, it makes quite a loud whirring sound when a disc is playing and chatters away when a disc is first loaded. The little remote handset has a lot of tiny buttons; the main transport keys could have done with being a bit bigger or easier to distinguish.

 

The front panel layout is slightly unusual, with the disc tray on the far left but it does mean the display isn't obscured or squashed up, as happens on some centre mount decks. The buttons for stop play and pause are quite small and clumped together they could do with being a bit further apart as it's quite easy to press the wrong one by accident. Feature wise there are only a handful of extras, they are Trusound SRS pseudo 3D surround (whatever happened 'Incredible Sound'…) and it comes with a SCART lead, encouraging owners to use the best possible AV connection system to their TV. There is only one digital output for connection to an external AC-3. MPEG or DTS decoder, fortunately it's the more common RF type (via a phono socket).

 

It's easiest to access the set-up menu when there's no disc in the tray, this brings up a simple two page menu with all of the usual options for setting the soundtrack language, screen format and audio output and parental control. You may recall that previous Philips DVD players could be 'hacked' to play Region 1 discs by entering a servicing code via the remote. We tried it on the 710 and sad to say it didn't work, but it seemed to go through the motions and it is possible the facility remains but the codes have changed, (it was intended for deck owners moving to different regions).

 

Colour saturation on a SCART (RGB) connection appeared to be set a little too high and brightness was a little on the low side so it was usually necessary to adjust the TV picture. However, picture quality on a composite video feed is very good, lots of detail with no obvious processing faults, brightness, contrast and colour are well balanced, which is just as well in the absence of any user picture adjustments. The stereo output is quite clean and Dolby Surround comes through unscathed, background noise levels are a little below average and overall it sounds reasonably good. Truesound SRS didn't do much for us its no substitute for proper multi-channel surround but it does generate quite a wide, lively soundfield.

 

We can't quite make up our mind about the 710. It is a competent AV performer and it is good to see DTS and RGB on an entry-level player. We're disappointed by the absence of an S-Video socket and things like the remote handset and control system have some room for improvement.   

 

BOX

An RGB output is the next best thing to S-Video and component video output, though the latter is currently only of interest to those with high-end display devices, like specialist video projectors and monitors. An RGB connection gives the most faithful colour reproduction, though it may necessitate some fiddling of the TVs picture controls 

 

UP CLOSE

Features

Region 2, Trusound SRS pseudo surround, NTSC replay, AC-3/MPEG/DTS digital outputs, auto screen saver dimmer, RGB output

 

Sockets

AV out (SCART, inc. RGB), combined analogue stereo line audio, composite video & RF digital (phono)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ****

Features            ***

Ease of use            ***

 

Captions

·        The side mounted deck mechanism is a bit retro but overall it doesn't look too bad

 

·        Rear panel socketry is brief and to the point but where's the S-Video socket

 

 

·        The handset is small and encrusted with buttons, not that easy to use on a dark night…

 

 

PIONEER DV-515, £400

VERDICT ****

A DVD group test just would not be complete without a Pioneer machine. Although Pioneer has been a faithful and long standing champion of the Laserdisc format it clearly saw the writing on the wall and has moved almost seamlessly from LD/CD combis to LD/DVD players and on to DVD only decks. No one could accuse Pioneer of following the pack it always pushes at the edges of the performance envelope and usually manages to introduce a new feature or two on each new model range. The DV-515 is the cheapest Pioneer DVD deck to date and the second one to feature a DTS enabled digital output, indeed for a short while it was the lowest price DTS compatible machine on the market. DTS outputs have become almost commonplace on recently launched 1999 season models but when the 515 first appeared just a few months ago it really was quite a novelty.

 

As the price indicates the 515 is going to have a fairly routine specification, it doesn't have any built-in decoders or fancy replay tricks, but that doesn't mean it's a slouch in the features department, far from it. How about a twin laser pickup (one for DVD, the other for CD), and Vertibi RF decoding for starters? The latter is an advanced error correction system that helps sort out problems caused by dust or fingerprints on the surface of the disc. It has Truesound SRS pseudo surround, three picture settings (cinema animation and standard) and a bucket load of audio enhancements including Legato Link (optimises high frequency response) and variable dynamic range compression for sharpening up dialogue on Dolby Digital soundtracks.

 

The cosmetics are bland but around the backside AV connectivity is quite good though a second SCART and headphone socket would have been welcome. In comparison with most other machines in the sub £400 price bracket the on-screen displays and status indicators are quite crude, none of your fancy computer style graphical user interfaces here, more Sinclair Spectrum than Apple iMac… Nevertheless it is functional and the set-up menu is fairly easy to use, at least it would be but for the horribly overcrowded remote handset. What on earth are the main transport keys doing in the middle of a forest of 43 titchy buttons? 

 

It looks as though Pioneer has raided the parts bin for the 515 and several bits and pieces appear to have been culled from its more upmarket stablemate, the DV-717. That's all to the good and picture performance is comparable with its dearer cousin. Our sample coped well with the usual DVD nasties but the contrast range could have done with being just a little wider. The amount of fine detail in the image drops off quickly as scene brightness falls and we noticed some texturing in dark corners and sometimes during rapid panning. Picture stability is excellent at all replay speeds but trick play facilities are limited. Picture scan is rather disappointing, in addition to having to hold the button down for around six second to lock the function and the recording advances in a series of skips, rather than proper fast motion. Dolby Surround soundtracks on the combined analogue output sounded fine, there's minimal background noise, the response is open and flat, big effects and subtle background sounds are handled equally well.  

 

We were quite upbeat about the 515 when we first got our hands on it a few weeks ago but that's an age in the DVD business. Between then and now a lot has happened, including the arrival of several very well equipped players in and around the same price band and that has robbed it of a little of its shine. Even so the 515 is still a very agreeable machine, it does everything most people would want from a DVD player and we are sure Pioneer's many loyal fans -- and quite a few others -- will have no problems including it on their shortlist.

 

BOX

DVD on-screen display systems have advanced in leaps and bounds during the past year. The best ones are pretty to look at and easy to use, so easy in fact you won't even need to consult the instruction book. Some DVDs OSDs are no fun at all though, and heaven knows what the symbols and icons mean…

 

Pioneer UK, Pioneer, telephone (01753) 789500

 (01753) 789500

 

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Features

Region 2, Trusound-SRS 'virtual' Dolby Surround, AC-3/MPEG/DTS digital outputs 96kHz/24-bit DAC, picture presets (standard, cinema or animation), condition memory

 

Sockets          

AV out (SCART & phono), S-Video out (mini DIN), digital out (phono and TOSlink optical), control in (minijack)       

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ****

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        Undramatic cosmetics but then you're supposed to be looking at the TV screen, not the player

 

·        A fairly standard set of connections but it does have two video ouputs, which is a bit unusual

 

·        A normal looking remote and colour coded buttons makes regularly used functions easy to find

 

SONY DVP-S725, £550

VERDICT *****

The DVP-S725 is one of three new DVD players from Sony launched in the past few weeks. First generation Sony players earned a lot of praise over the past year, deservedly so (and in spite of the layer-change glitch on some models), the S725, which is the new top-end model looks as though it is going to carry on the tradition.

 

It's a real crowd-pleaser with all of the top-level features we reckon you're going to need if you're at all serious about DVD home cinema. They include built-in AC-3 and MPEG decoders, DTS digital out, digital noise reduction and outstanding connectivity. In fact it has a full compliment of back panel sockets with twin SCARTs, S-Video and component video out, optical and RF digital and headphones.  We can’t say that the cosmetics are particularly inspiring – a bit on the dull side for Sony in fact – but there's quite a few useful-looking knobs and buttons to play around with if you fancy a bit of exercise.

 

There's no shortage of secondary features either, like the Favourite scene memory that recalls up to 9 'bookmarked' positions for 200-odd discs. The S725 has an upgraded version of the Smooth Scan trick play facility featured on earlier decks, it comes with a multi-brand remote and to make it things happen there's Magic Pad, one of the best-looking on-screen displays in the business. In the play mode the graphics are coloured and semi-transparent, so you can still follow the movie, the set-up menus seem to go on forever but it's really easy to move around and make selections and changes, though it takes a bit of getting used to. This is another machine your old granny definitely will not appreciate…

 

It is stuffed full of audio enhancements and widgets, including multi mode pseudo/virtual 3D surround modes but it's the video options that mark this one out as different. There's a 3-stage noise reduction system and a video 'equaliser' with three pre-set and one user-set memory with adjustments for contrast, brightness, colour and sharpness. The remote handset is quite a size but it has glow in the dark buttons (it's not naff on a £550 machine, in case you were wondering…) and a neat shuttle dial that allows you to make menu selections really quickly, and precisely control slomo-replay.

 

So far so good, and we're pleased to say it gets even better because the picture and sound are both excellent. Naturally we checked for layer-change stutter but Sony have obviously learned their lesson on that one… The picture is very clean, even without the noise reduction switched in, colours are really vibrant and it's clean as a whistle, as far as processing artefacts are concerned. Dolby Surround on the stereo soundtracks is about as good as it gets, effects are sharply focused and background noise is well below average. Even the virtual surround modes were a notch up on the competition. The Dolby Digital decoder does an excellent job on the dialogue and sub-woofer channels, which come alive on action blockbusters.

 

You have probably guess by now that we quite like the S725, and you wouldn't be too far wrong, in fact it comes out on top of the pile for general AV performance and facilities. It stumbles a bit on looks and ease of use, but in a good way. Manufacturers seem determined to turn DVD into an unthreatening black box technology, Sony (and JVC) recognise that there are still plenty of us left who like to have a fiddle… If you can muster the readies this one should be at or close to the top of your short-list!

 

BOX

All DVD players have still frame and frame advance facilities but as you move up the price scale you'll find models with variable speed replay, in both directions, with smooth motion search, as opposed to the jerky frame skip technique used on cheaper models

 

UP CLOSE

Features

Region 2, built-in Dolby Digital & MPEG decoders, DTS output, Digital Cinema Sound modes, 96kHz/24-bit 1-bit DAC, 3-D pseudo surround, digital noise reduction, 200 disc playback memory, multi-brand remote, NTSC playback, luminous buttons on remote

 

Sockets

AV out (2 x SCART & phono), S-Video out (mini DIN), component video and digital out (phono & TOSlink optical), headphone (jack)

 

Picture             *****

Sound              *****

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        A bit bland for Sony but look hard, there are a few knobs and buttons tpo play with

 

·        Socket heaven, just about every type of connector you could wish for, and one or two besides

 

·        A real man's remote with glow in the dark buttons and that smart little jog dial thingy

 

VERDICT

The DVD market is developing at breathtaking speed, and some unexpected ways. This time last year we were drooling over machines costing six and seven hundred pounds, now we're seeing players costing half as much, some of them better specified with equivalent or even better performance than those first generation decks. If this goes on they'll be giving them away with packets of corn flakes in a couple of year's time…

 

Several other trends have emerged. As expected even the cheapest players wipe the floor with tape when it comes to picture and sound quality. That means for a relatively modest outlay – little more than the cost of a mid range NICAM VCR -- you can enjoy truly outstanding cinema-quality AV performance, if there are any disadvantages to buying DVD for home cinema we've yet to find them.

 

Where variations do exist they tend to be centred on extra audio facilities and the number of convenience features. At this stage of the game we reckon it is worth spending an extra £50 to £100, say, on a machine with a built in AC-3 decoder, even if you're not going to use it right away as it will save you the bother of upgrading later on. Nevertheless, if you're happy with what Dolby Pro Logic surround sound has to offer – and it can be spectacular on DVD – then an entry-level player won't disappoint. For that reason we'd like to commend to you the Panasonic DVD-A160 as being the best all-round budget player we've see so far. Everything about this player looks and feels right and that's not just out opinion, judging by the number of other manufacturers who use Panasonic bits in their machines. The Philips DVD-710 comes in a close second but it is let down a bit by the lack of an S-Video output socket, even so, it is still a decent machine and worth considering if you can make use of that RGB connection.   

 

We like the Pioneer DV-515, the only thing we would say about this machine is that it is just a wee bit ordinary, there's nothing about it that says 'buy me, I'm special'. Our favourite mid-range decks are the superb XV-D701 and Sony DVP-S725 which clearly illustrate our earlier point, about the benefits of spending a little more on a player. The extra replay facilities on the XV-701 really make it stand out from the crowd plus it has bags of style and good looks. The Sony DVP-S725 has all the makings of a classic and if there's a God in heaven it'll be moddable for Region 1 playback. Even if it can be hacked this is still one helluva player and it's not going to leave you high and dry because its as near future proof as DVD gets.  All we need now are some TV manufacturers to start fitting component video sockets to their boxes.  

 

That just leaves the Denon DVD-5000, which really is in a class of its own. Denon has put together a truly remarkable machine that sets new standard for audio performance and weight… The price sets it well apart from the hoi-polloi, there's no way anyone is going to buy one of these monsters who is not a thoroughly committed audiophile, with a healthy bank balance to boot. However, one word of caution. We suspect this is just a taste of things to come and we fully expect to see even more outrageously expensive high-end equipment making its way across the pond over the next few months. If you're thinking this has to be the last word in DVD excellence, you 'aint seen nothing yet!

 

BEST IN TEST

JVC XV-D701, £500

Not the cheapest player in this roundup, or the best specified but JVC has got the balance of features and performance just about right. It has the all-important Dolby Digital decoder, some interesting playback facilities and AV performance that's amongst the best in its class. That would have been enough to put this player in the top slot, but JVC went further and gave it that rare commodity, a bit of personality.

 

SONY DVP-S725, £550

Hats off to Sony for one of the most complete DVD players yet (well, there might be an even better one we haven't seen yet…), AV performance is truly wonderful but it's the extra details and facilities that won us over. Things like the on-screen displays, all of the picture and sound adjustments, and a set of back panel sockets that put most other manufacturers to shame!  

 

DENON DVD-5000, £1600

At a time when most manufacturers are trying to cut the cost of DVD players Denon are going the other way finding ways of making them more expensive. The DVD-5000 is quite simply the best sounding deck to date, and not just for DVDs, its audio CD facilities put it in the audiophile category. A big lump of a machine, eye-wateringly expensive, but admit it, you'd give up beer for a year to own one…

 

RIVAL BUYS

Hitachi DV-P2, £450

Not so long ago this was one of the cheapest DVD players on the market, that was six months ago, now it's starting to look a little dated but great pictures and sound never go out of fashion. The spec is a little dull but if you can find one for the right price it is still worth considering.

 

Kenwood DVF-9010, £1000

Denon has knocked the DVF-9010 off the top of the tree, when it comes to price, but this slick-looking player still has a couple of big plus points. How about the smooth motorised front panel, built-in AC-3 decoder. Captain Kirk would be proud of the phaser-like remote control and picture and sound quality are excellent.

 

Yamaha DVD-S700, £600

Mostly made from Panasonic bits but don't let that put you off. The S700 is one of the best looking second generation machines. Connectivity to the outside world is adequate -- gold plated phonos no less – but there's no SCART. The built-in AC-3 and MPEG decoders are a useful bonus for those alarmed by the growing number of boxes cluttering up their living rooms.

 

TABLE

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

 

DENON DVD-5000                  1600                            VC            COD            4   5    4    4   

JVC XV-D701               500            AMP               SV            CO            5   5    4    4

PANASONIC DVD-A160            380            P                      2SV            O            4   4    3    4

PHILIPS DVD-710                    350            P                      S            C            4   4    3    3   

PIONEER DV-515                       400            P                      SV            CO            4   4   4     4  

SONY                                     550            AMP               SVC            CO            5   5   4     4

 

 

Key: AP audio processor A = AC-3, M= MPEG, P = pseudo surround; D/O = digital outputs C= coax, O = optical, D = DTS, SKT = Sockets, S = SCART sockets, V = S-Video, C = component video

 

 

TABLE COMMENTS

DENON DVD-5000

Top class audio performer, the one to beat!

 

JVC XV-D701

Lots of interesting features, great AV quality

 

PANASONIC DVD-A160

Good performance and good value too

 

PHILIPS DVD-710

Moderately interesting entry-level design, good AV

 

PIONEER DV-515

Light on looks and gadgets but good picture and sound

 

SONY

Superbly well specified, excellent performance

 

 

---end---

ã R. Maybury 1999 3004

 

 

 

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