We noticed an interesting paradox while tracking down reviews for our DVD player report: Publications like Consumer Reports and Sound & Vision magazine cover the lower-end machines and reviewers like A/V Review, The Perfect Vision, and Sterophile mostly recommend players costing over. There aren’t many experts that cover both ends of the price continuum, which is why we also appreciate CNet and Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity, two expert sources that include players as well as players.
Odds are you wouldn’t be interested in buying an off-brand DVD player to save money, but just in case you are, be forewarned that professional reviewers and owners alike have issues with models by Oritron, which are sold in mass-market stores like Wal-Mart. The Oritron DVD 800 finishes dead last in a recent four-player roundup by Sound and Vision; Al Griffin says, “If not for the large Oritron logo on the front, I’d have sworn it was made by Fisher-Price!” Contributors to Epinions are more unforgiving about Oritron players, calling them “cheap,” and “absolute junk.” Few models get more than two stars out of five.
As with most consumer electronics products, there’s an order-of-magnitude price difference between entry-level DVD players (which you can pick up for as little as ) and top-of-the-line models with all the digital bells and whistles (which will set you back as much as ). But the truth is, to all but the best-trained eye, the difference in picture quality between the super high-end models and the others is almost imperceptible across the entire DVD player price spectrum. Plus, audio quality depends more on the sound system you’ve hooked up to the DVD than on the machine itself. Reviewers stress that you shouldn’t get more machine than you need unless you plan on upgrading your other components; for example, there’s no reason you should invest in a brand-new, player if your TV dates from 1980.
Fortunately there are plenty of good choices that won’t suck your wallet dry. For about , you can pick up the JVC XV-S45GD, top rated by Sound & Vision magazine. The JVC is an entry-level player with some nice extras thrown in, like a 2x zoom and a chapter preview that simultaneously displays the opening scene of each chapter so you can jump straight to the right place in a movie. There are five forward and backward speeds for zipping through slow spots or slowing down the action. The picture, as with most DVD players these days, is sharp and clear. The XV-S45GD comes in a gold color to match other JVC components, but is also sold in black as the XV-S40BK.
If you can spend a little more, the Samsung DVD-N501 (*est. ), with a NUON processor, has a few more features than the JVC. NUON chips were first promoted for their gaming capacities, but very few NUON DVD games exist, and with more sophisticated game consoles on the market, experts say this isn’t a big selling feature. The same NUON technology, however, provides some great extra zooming capability—twenty levels of zoom in/out. Sound and Vision says you can use this feature to turn a letterboxed movie in to a full-screen version, if you so desire. Some owners posting to review sites complain about the Samsung’s MP3 playback; sound quality is good, but you can’t customize the song order—you have to listen to songs sequentially.
The JVC XV-S45GD and Samsung DVD-N501 play video DVDs, audio CDs, and CD-R/CD-RW discs encoded with MP3 files. Although Sound & Vision had no problems with playback, owners report that the JVC and Samsung sometimes can’t play their home-burned discs. This problem is common to every low-priced DVD player we found. Manufacturers say that this is because not all CD burners are perfect, and DVD players can have occasional problems reading less-than-pristine CD-Rs and CD-RWs. So while many players will read most MP3 encoded discs, you can expect occasional problems. Fortunately, most folks are more interested in playing movies than home-burned music.
If you don’t care about playing MP3s on your DVD player at all, another low-cost option is the Toshiba SD-1700, featured in our last report. The price of this basic player has also dropped to about , and it’s still a favorite of reviewers and owners. The SD-1700, like the Samsung and JVC above, has no built-in decoders (DTS, Dolby) for surround sound, but this makes most reviewers happy. Since receivers these days already have these decoders, they may not be needed in a DVD player; besides, experts say you want your receiver to do the heavy lifting when it comes to audio, not your DVD unit.
Experts don’t spend much time reviewing multi-disc players, and although no other reviewer mentions it, five-disc changer Panasonic DVD-CV51 is recommended by CNet. The editors are impressed with its feature set, and ability to customize play between CDs and DVDs. It takes some knocks for its distracting front display and lackluster remote, but if you’re looking for a 5-disc player, the CV51 is a contender. This multi-DVD player doesn’t have a zoom feature—if that’s important to you, take a closer look at the single-disc players, above.
Progressive Scan Players
Certainly, the majority of consumers are more interested in lower-priced players, and luckily, there are excellent choices for about. But if you have an HD-capable TV, there’s a good reason why you should spend more. Regular TVs display interlaced pictures. They deliver data to the TV screen by skipping every other resolution line, then going back to the top of the screen and filling in the missing lines. HDTVs, however, use progressive scanning—just like a computer screen—to display all lines of horizontal resolution in sequential order, meaning the picture is sharper and colors more true with fewer artifacts on moving objects, and fewer jagged edges on the sides of the screen.
To take full advantage of an HDTV, you should spring for a progressive scan DVD player. The Panasonic DVD-RP91 is cited by four different expert sources as a great choice for people who want to make the most of an HDTV display and enjoy a range of fine adjustments to customize playback. With the RP91, you can adjust picture quality, contrast, color saturation, edge enhancement and noise reduction for a movie, then the Panasonic will remember your settings, automatically recalling them each time you insert the same disc. Another feature that impresses reviewers is the Panasonic’s ability to scale a 4:3 aspect-ratio program (like a TV series on DVD) to fit a 16:9 display (like a widescreen TV). This means the Panasonic can make the Sopranos look like a movie on your plasma display without distorting the picture.
The Panasonic plays just about every disc format you can get your hands on, except for Super Audio CD (SACD). Another player consistently cited as a “reference standard” model does play SACDs (but oddly, not Audio DVDs), the Sony DVP-S9000ES . There aren’t a lot of releases available yet on SACD, but some experts think that this is eventually the way the CD technology will evolve. Naturally, with a player this high-end, video performance is terrific. If you are interested in playing a wide variety of audio formats in addition to watching movies, this Sony may merit a closer look, but we chose not to include it in Fast Answers.
Experts say you should consider the following features when shopping for a player:
- Component video outputs. Found on more advanced models, these break down color signals for better accuracy, and can only be used in conjunction with TVs that have corresponding inputs. Don’t worry if your DVD player doesn’t measure up; the S-video outputs that come standard on all DVD machines are adequate for all but the most demanding home theater enthusiast.
- Single vs. dual lasers. Some DVD players have a second laser for use with audio CDs; such machines handle audio CDs better than most stand-alone CD players, let alone single-laser DVD machines. Dual-laser machines can also flawlessly play back audio CDs recorded on CD-R (recordable once) and CD-RW (multi-rewritable) discs.
- Dolby digital or DTS decoding. If you’re going to hook your new DVD player up directly to your TV and use your TV’s speakers, you don’t need these features. But if you’re planning to hook up to a digital-ready receiver and a full complement of surround-sound speakers, you’ll want a player with decoder outputs. All the models in Fast Answers have these; the Panasonic DVD-RP91 has on-board decoding.
- Virtual surround sound. This feature, which creates “phantom” six-speaker surround sound using just two speakers, is available on many low- to mid-priced DVD players and goes by various names, including VSS, TruSurround/SRS, Virtual Enhanced Surround (VES), and Spatializer N-2-2. It’s not necessary if you already have a true home theater surround-sound setup.
One major complaint with DVD players regards their ability to play damaged discs—like those rented over and over again from Blockbuster. And unfortunately, reviewers don’t often test DVD players on such less-than-perfect discs. Opinion sites abound with comments from angry owners who experience such problems, but there’s no ready solution. Chances are, you will occasionally rent a DVD that your player rejects. We wish we could report which players handle such problems better than others, but until reviewers add the “damaged disc test” to their reports, we can’t answer that question.