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DVD/CD Players Buying Guide

by August 25, 2004
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Choosing the right DVD player is not a trivial matter in a market flooded with products from various hardware vendors. There are more than several players to choose from in each price category and the notion of spending more money will buy you better performance does not always apply here, especially when DVD players are concerned. Usually when you spend money on a unit, it will offer you more features, better remotes, and more usable / intuitive On Screen Displays (OSD's) with marginal if any improvements in audio / video performance. The purpose of the DVD/CD Player Buying Guidelines is to help educate the consumer about DVD players and assist them in choosing the best model for their needs based upon budget, performance expectations and system compatibility.

User Interface

One of the most important features of a DVD player is the user interface. The player needs to be intuitive for the user to operate especially in the dark which is how most people watch DVD's. The remote should be simple in design and layout and uncluttered with unnecessary buttons. Most players in the $300 price range suffer from poorly designed remotes. Once the lights are out, good luck in setting up a DVD, especially some of the DVD's which requires the user to go through the set up menus via the OSD to set the audio to DD 5.1. Moving up the price ladder will, in most cases, offer better a remote with backlit capability. However, this unit may also feature built in Dolby Digital/DTS decoders which would be a wasted feature if you already have a Receiver or Preamp / Processor with the decoder built in. It is preferred to use the internal DD decoder of your Receiver / Preamp as it almost always offers more convenience, better performance and bass management over the internal decoders of DVD players. A better option to the consumer is to purchase a good $300 DVD player and add a $100-$200 universal remote with backlit capability for easier and more convenient operation if needed.

Performance

Audio Performance
Judging a DVD player for audio performance is only an issue if you plan on using the internal DAC's of the unit. There are two cases where this would be evident
  1. Listening to 96KHz/24 bit CD's and/or DVD Audio/SACDs
  2. Using the unit with an analog Receiver or Preamp / Processor with no internal DAC's or built-in decoders.

The majority of DVD users operate the player primarily as a DVD player with a Dolby Digital Source. Even if one wanted to use it as a CD player, good performance may be achieved by bypassing the internal DAC's of the DVD player and using it as a transport only in your digital system. Audio performance should only be considered a critical issue if you plan on using the DVD player's analog outputs for DVD-Audio/SACD or 96/24 2-channel music.

Bass Management
Many (most, OK nearly ALL) DVD players have horrendous bass management options. Only recently have manufacturers started paying attention to this at all. While not critical for Dolby Digital and DTS source material, advanced bass management is absolutely CRITICAL for high-end users hoping to take analogue SACD or DVD-Audio siganls from theoir players. The only way to avoid another pesky A-to-D and D-to-A conversion is to have a player that does a sufficient job at bass management. Right now, Denon leads the pack in this area (and has for quite some time). On their newest models, dual bass management is supplied for both HDMI PCM output and analogue.

Specs

Comparing specs on the back of the user manual to the DVD player(s) is mostly a colossal waist of time since the specs to all DVD players appear to be quite excellent. Interpret the specs with a grain of salt, and note the tolerances with which they measure frequency response, signal to noise ratio, and output voltage. Some players boast excellent frequency response or S/N ratios with wide tolerances or low output voltage when making these measurements. If you plan on using the DVD players analog outputs as you would with a CD player in a system with no alternate DAC's, note the following:

Important Audio Specifications

  1. Frequency Response: The tighter the tolerance, the more realistic the measurement is.
  2. Output Voltage: Reference should be 2Vrms(min). Many players rate output voltage at 200mV to give illusion of better S/N ratios.
  3. Signal to noise ratio for CD and DVD Audio/SACD

Video

Performance

Most DVD players have excellent video performance, if you compare them to the legacy capabilities of a VCR or cable TV. There are, however not-so-subtle differences between players to the trained eye, which should be noticeable enough to prefer one brand over the other (if you don't know what to look for count yourself blessed!) One common occurrence of some of the 1st generation players was the presence of scan lines and / or black vertical bars faintly present in the background while viewing the DVD. When comparing DVD players, one important video characteristic to note is the deinterlacing capability of the player.

To determine this you can either use a test disc like AVIA or HQV's Benchmark DVD, or you can queue up movies that have scenes with the following characteristics:

  • Moving diagonal elements or lines
  • Noisy images or images that will show noise well, like blue skies and bodies of water
  • Tightly woven parrallel lines, as in a wide swath of steps or the close-up texture of a knit shirt.

Color accuracy and richness are also important characteristics of video quality. Pay careful attention to the realism of color and how detailed the picture is when switching between different players.

Operational

Performance

While almost all DVD players have excellent audio and video performance, some players suffer from various electromechanical problems. There are players on the market that skip or pixelate very easily when the DVD disc is slightly soiled. A great test in determining a DVD players tracking capabilities is to play a DVD soiled in fingerprints on each player and watch for tracking problems. If you come across a problem disc - keep it around - they make for interesting test material.

It is important to choose the player with good tracking capabilities. In most cases, people will rent DVD's which are in less than ideal condition from video stores of mass rental distribution and will mumble unpleasant comments at the DVD Player or rental store every time the player skips or freezes up. Do yourself a favor, pick a player that will minimize this occurrence, you will thank yourself in the long run. Another test of a DVD players tracking prowess is to play a dual layer disc at the point where the DVD player must switch layers. Record how long it takes the machine to switch layers on the DVD and take note if it has a problem doing so. Some players will skip a track or a few seconds of a track when switching layers. A good player caches the video stream and can switch layers in less than a second. It is useful to choose a player with built in internal cache to minimize annoying delays during layer changes in the DVD disc.

Another anomaly plaguing some DVD players is Lip Sync problems. This occurrence is more apparent on certain DVDs. A Lip Sync problem is when the voice doesn't match the video. This can be very annoying in movies containing a lot of dialogue where the Lip Sync is easily noticed. Some players offer a feature to add group delay to the audio or video signal to combat any potential Lip Sync issues you may experience.

Another side issue to note, but very important in my opinion, is if the DVD player has an internal memory buffer. Some players will forget where you left off in a movie once you press stop or power down the machine. This can really cause problems when you decide to take a bathroom break or raid the fridge and accidentally hit the stop button instead of the pause. This is a useful feature.

Technical Features

Today's DVD players have improved significantly over their 1st generation relatives, with respect to operational performance, features and audio/video quality. Spending $300 on a new player today should get the the minimum of the following technical features:

  1. Dolby Digital / DTS digital output(s)
  2. 96KHz / 24 Bit DAC's
  3. Virtual Surround mode for applications limited to 2 channel configurations
  4. 10 bit Video DAC's
  5. Component Video outputs
  6. HDMI output with scaling od SD disc content to at least 720p/1080i
  7. Ability to play CD-R's
  8. DVD-Audio and/or SACD multi-channel capability
  9. Bass management for DVD-Audio and/or SACD

Note: While the user may not need all of these features today, they may become significantly important in a year or two, especially numbers 2, 5, 7, 8 and 9.

Recommendations

Take your time when evaluating DVD players. Decide what features you require now and in the future, and how much money you plan to spend.

Choose a DVD player which:

  1. is easy and intuitive to operate
  2. is free from above mentioned tracking and electromechanical problems
  3. has excellent video performance in both interlaced and non-interlaced modes
  4. has excellent audio performance for DVD Audio and/or SACD
  5. has at least the minimum features you require
  6. falls within your budget and performance expectations

Good luck and most importantly, enjoy the movies!

 

About the author:
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Gene manages this organization, establishes relations with manufacturers and keeps Audioholics a well oiled machine. His goal is to educate about home theater and develop more standards in the industry to eliminate consumer confusion clouded by industry snake oil.

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