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DVD PLAYERS: BUYING GUIDE

DVD Background:

The first consumer DVD player models were available in 1997. Initially, DVD stood for Digital Video Disc, but has since changed to Digital Versatile Disc because of advancements in DVD-compatible formats. Like any new technology, the first DVD players were expensive and uncommon. LaserDiscs were at the height of their popularity, which added to the skepticism of DVD technology. Since then, LaserDisc players have become almost obsolete while DVD players are now the first choice for home theater enthusiasts.

A DVD looks exactly the same as a 4.8" Compact Disc. The information stored on a DVD is read by laser light, much like a CD. However, a DVD is capable of holding 268 minutes of information, significantly more than a CD. This is accomplished by narrowing the "pits," where data is stored. The DVD format allows for a disc to be dual-sided, as well as dual-layered. Potentially, two different formats of the same movie can be contained on a single disc.

For years consumers have flocked to video stores to rent their favorite movies on VHS tape. A DVD movie reproduces video at about 500 lines of horizontal resolution, twice the picture quality of VHS tape. And audio reproduction is impressive as well, with DVD players producing two-channel stereo, and six channel surround-sound.

DVD players for the home market have “arrived”, and are now an affordable choice for the home-movie audience. These devices are to the movie industry what CD-players were to the music industry. Your VHS player and associated VCR tape collection will soon go the way of your Vinyl, 8-Track, and audio cassette collections.

The DVD-movie offers (until the next upgrade comes along) the highest picture and sound quality available for home use. Of course, your performance may vary depending on the rest of the components that you hook your DVD-player up to, but both the sound and picture reproduction from DVD technology is designed to be as close to the “theatre version” of a film as possible (hence the wide-screen format and multiple channel sound). A DVD-disc also often contains additional materials not found on the VHS-version of a film, and, unlike tape, the DVD-DISC media never wears out through normal use (aside from handling issues).

There are now so many different choices available when shopping for a DVD-player, it can become confusing when trying to decide on a purchase. The following hints may help.

BUYING A DVD PLAYER:

Top 10 things to consider when purchasing a DVD-Player:


1.)          BRANDNAME: Like CD-Audio players, this issue is somewhat less important than it is with other electronics components. Since the signal is all digital, a ‘Brand X’ (no name) plays a DVD in many cases just as well as a Sony or Panasonic. That said, there are certainly some ‘quality control’ differences that might justify paying a higher price for the name brand. Warranty (as long as the unit comes with a 1 yr or better) is not much of a factor though, and, would not bother with any extended warranty or service plans, as the technology changes so quickly, and is not actually fixable anyhow – at least not locally. A good “middle of the road” brand such as Toshiba or Pioneer is often a good choice, since they usually have a good balance of price/quality.

2.)           CONNECTIONS: In addition to the common VHS-type audio and video connections, there are a few new connection options that should be considered:

 a.) Component Video Out – this 3-cable setup is the best way to connect the video signal from your player to your television set. Many TV sets don’t have this connection option, but if yours does – or you plan to purchase a new set in the near future, you should definitely make sure that the DVD-player you purchase has this connection type. Not many players come with these cables, so you will have to purchase them separately. Note that a good quality composite video cable with RCA-type connectors can be used for cabling. It is not necessary to purchase the ultra-expensive “component video cable”. A good trio of 6’ cables should cost around $20. In a pinch, you can even get away with some RCA-type audio cables.

 b.) S-Video – this cable with the round din-pins is the next best video signal path. All DVD-players should have this connection option, as do most larger TV sets. Again, the ‘quality’ of cable is debatable in its translation to picture quality. Most all these cables work about the same- so get the cheapest available (approx $10-$20 for a 6-footer). 

 c.) Composite  –this is the common VHS-type connection. Note that a DVD-player does not have an “RF-type” connection (Cable-TV coax), so your television must have this composite input option at least, in order to be able to hook up a DVD-player or you must buy a RF modulator box in order to connect to the TV.

3.)          REMOTE: With a DVD-player, you usually end up using the remote quite a bit, so its important to get one that you like (unless your “universal remote” will control a DVD-player). Also, DVD-movies often have special features and screens that you must navigate through using the remote. The low end players often have poor-quality remotes (hard to read, breakable), and many of these players often have trouble navigating some DVD-movies. Usually, a good remote is a sign of a good player – so pay careful attention to it.

4.)          SPECIAL EFFECTS: Some DVD-players are hyped as having lots of ‘special effects’ such as zoom, slow motion, 3-d virtual surround sound, etc.

5.)          BURNED CD-AUDIO PLAYBACK: Since DVD-Players can also play audio CDs, you may want to get a player that has this capability (especially if you burn Audio-CDs from your computer.)

6.)          MP3 PLAYBACK, VIDEO-CD PLAYBACK: If you download and burn CDs with a computer, you may want to ensure that the DVD-player you choose has this feature. You can burn 100-200 MP3 songs on a single CD with a CD-burner equipped computer (there are very few commercially made MP3 CDs available), and, with a DVD-player that offers this MP3 playback capability, you can listen to many hours of music from a single disc.

7.)          DIGITAL AUDIO (Dolby / DTS): To enjoy the full DVD-movie experience, you really should consider hooking your DVD-player up to a speaker setup that can take advantage of the unique audio signal output offered by DVD technology. Even it you’re not a music/sound ‘fan’, DVD-audio offers you the ability to control important aspects of your movie experience. For example, if you’ve ever had a hard time hearing the dialog because the soundtrack was too loud, you can reduce the soundtrack (main) speakers while boosting the center (dialog) speaker with a proper audio setup.

Some DVD players offer this “decoding” capability built-in, so that you can use a bunch of analog cables to hook up to a receiver. This option is not recommended, since the player is often more expensive than the regular ones, and the decoding task is best left to the amplifier. 
If you are purchasing an amp you should opt for one that has both Dolby Digital and DTS decoding. 

You will also need to have 4 regular speakers, a FRONT-CHANNEL speaker, and (optionally) a SUB-WOOFER speaker. The cable that hooks up the DVD-player to the amp is usually a single TOSLINK or COAX SPDIF cable.

The most common type available in DVD-players is TOSLINK (fiber optic), but either type of digital connection will work equally well (there is no difference in sound quality). Make sure the player you choose has one of these Digital Sound Outputs, and that you hook up your DVD-player to the amplifier via this connection! Note that there is absolutely no benefit to getting an expensive cable over a cheap one –get the cheapest cable available ($10-$20 for a 6’ fiber optic cable.)

8.)          ANAMORPHIC – do I need it? This is a new feature available on the more expensive DVD-players. It is only important to you if you have an actual “high definition” television that can accept this type of signal (basically a non-interlaced format). Unless you have a $4K television, or plan to purchase one soon, you probably shouldn’t bother paying extra for this feature.

9.)          TRAY NOISE: If your player is going to be in a bedroom, for example, an often overlooked consideration is how much noise the DVD-player makes when it is playing back. Pioneer, for example, make a very good DVD-player, but they have noisy mechanisms that is audible in a bedroom setting.

10.)      COST: Low end players are available at some stores for as little as $30! These players are perfectly acceptable (providing they come with a warranty), especially as a starter player, or for the kids rec room, etc. Mid-range players are usually around $100 - $200. This is a popular range, and probably the safest bet for most people.  The high end is anything over about $300, and are usually purchased by high-end audio/videophiles, etc.


If you come across a “last year’s model” or other such clearance item, you can be fairly confident that such a machine will be up to the job of playing commercial DVDs just fine. The DVD player industry has quickly become quite mature and any machine made in the last 18 months or so compare quite favorably to the ‘latest and greatest’ models (as long as they have a full warranty). However, PC-made discs from a CD or DVD-burner are likely to be less compatible on older DVD-players than on the newest ones.

If you are still puzzled by all this, the best advise would be to purchase an entry-level player, which can be picked up for as little as $40 at some of the bigger stores, and jump in. You can always purchase a better player later, and simply relegate your entry-level player to the bedroom when you upgrade to a better unit.

Apart from the dramatic improvement in video and sound quality that DVD players offer over the familiar VCR, probably the DVD player’s greatest appeal lies in its price and convenience. Like CD playback, a DVD is played by a reflected laser beam; nothing touches the disc itself, so there is no deterioration of the image and sound with repeated use, or even in storage. 

By comparison, the VCR seems almost crude: tape heads spin at 1,000 rpm against the surface of video tape as it spools from one reel to the other inside its cassette shell, causing gradual tape degradation. And when it’s rewound at high speed, the mechanical spooling action damages the tape’s edge, which affects the picture stability. Moreover, the VCR is intensely mechanical--virtually everyone has had a tape jam or seen a favorite tape "eaten" by a malfunctioning VCR as it ages.

DVD players have also come down in price very rapidly (VCRs took many years to reach affordable prices), so now you can find major brands (Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic, etc.) with excellent picture and sound quality for $200 or less. And because the video and audio information on a DVD is stored in digital form, differences in picture and sound quality between different brands have become very small. Even inexpensive players produce picture and sound that’s a huge improvement over the best VCR.

How much better is a DVD’s picture and sound? 

Picture sharpness and clarity is measured in "horizontal lines of resolution." A DVD’s maximum is 540 lines, the sharpest picture available to consumers in the home other than High-Definition TV. (Don’t confuse horizontal lines of resolution with our TV system’s 525 scanning lines; all North American sets use 525 lines to "paint" the image across the screen.) Compared to DVD playback, a VCR produces horizontal resolution of 240 lines maximum, a TV picture that’s fuzzy with bleeding or overlapping colors when you look at it next to a DVD’s image. Live TV of a sports event or a studio talk show will yield 330 lines of resolution--better than a VCR but no match for a DVD player. And because a DVD’s picture is stored digitally (and a VCR’s is analog), video noise--the grainy look to VCR images--is essentially absent from DVD playback.

In the sound department, stereo hi-fi sound from a VCR is really very good, but again it’s no match for six channels of Dolby Digital surround sound that virtually every modern movie release has on its soundtrack. The first thing to make sure of in a DVD player is that it will play back Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround sound -- as well as DTS surround, Dolby’s competitor. Almost all DVD players will pass these multi-channel audio signals via a coaxial cable or a "Toslink" optical cable to your A/V surround sound receiver. Even if you haven’t got a surround sound unit yet, a DVD player will still deliver a stereo audio signal that you can feed to your stereo amplifier until you can afford to upgrade to a Dolby Digital surround receiver.

What video features do you look for and what does more money buy in a DVD player? 

First, a short course in connections: Even the most basic DVD player (or VCR) will have a "composite-video" output (an RCA jack just like the jacks on your CD player), which will give you a very good picture on your TV. All TV sets except very old, basic models have a composite-video input. The next level up is called "S-Video." It’s a single cable with a multi-pin connector that separates the color signal from the brightness signal. Your TV or receiver must have S-video inputs if you are to benefit from the significantly better picture that S-video connectors will deliver. S-video connectors have become quite common on even inexpensive DVD players and new TV sets.

Near the top of the scale are "component-video" connectors, a set of three RCA cables, usually color-coded red, green, and blue for each primary color signal that makes up the TV image. These will yield the absolute top picture quality, especially with large-screen TV sets of all types. However, your TV must have the same set of component-video inputs to benefit from the picture improvements.

At the very top are the most expensive DVD players with "progressive-scan wideband" component-video outputs. You must have a Hi-Def, HDTV-capable TV display with the same "wideband component-video inputs" in order to utilize these progressive-scan DVD images, which have no horizontal scanning lines and present a more film-like image.

All DVD players will do some kind of slow motion, fast scanning, and cueing to a particular "chapter" or scene in a movie, but it’s the aforementioned type of video outputs and connectors that have the biggest influence on picture quality and affect the player’s price. Still, you should check the remote control to see if the buttons are easily readable, especially in dim lighting, and well laid out for easy operation. Some remote's buttons are back-lighted, but those will be on more costly players. And when you rent your first DVD, don’t forget to watch all the DVD "extras" you get these days--commentaries by the director and actors on the making of the movie; cast biographies, deleted scenes. It’s fascinating stuff, and will provide you with no end of entertainment and diversion.

The relationship of a television screen's width-to-height is called the aspect ratio. The aspect ratio of a standard analog TV is 4:3, whereas a movie theater screen is 16:9. With DVD technology, there is a choice of aspect ratio. Choosing the Letterbox format presents video in a 16:9 ratio by creating black bars at the top and bottom of a standard 4:3 TV screen. Pan & Scan is 16:9 video reformatted to fit a 4:3 screen, Widescreen is 16:9 video for a 16:9 screen, and Full Frame is 4:3 video for a 4:3 display.

There are two major categories of DVD players: single tray and DVD changers. The major difference is disc capacity; whereas a single-tray player can hold only one disc, a DVD changer can store multiple discs, which mean hours of uninterrupted playback of movies and/or music.

Most of the major features of a DVD player are universal. All can play music CDs. Chapter selection, on-screen menus, and choice of screen size are all standard attributes. Also, all of today's models will produce excellent picture quality and sound. Keeping in mind that the major benefits of a DVD player are found within the technology's innate format, additional features and capabilities should be understood before a purchase decision is made.

The following are additional features to consider when shopping for a DVD Player:

  • The first consideration should be ease-of use. A DVD player's remote should be ergonomic with clearly labeled functions and a simple layout. This makes for easy navigation of a movie's features and quick control of all settings. A well-designed remote control unit will simplify operation, and make movie-watching a more enjoyable experience. An illuminated remote helps control the movie without having to turn on the lights.

  • A built-in Dolby Digital decoder allows compatible movies to be played back in six channel surround-sound. The DVD player will output six separate audio cables to a Dolby Digital ready receiver.

  • A DVD player with Dolby Digital passthrough will output coded six-channel surround sound. This means one audio cable is sent from the DVD player to a surround-sound receiver with a built-in decoder. The audio travels to the receiver through a TOS-Link digital optical cable or a coaxial digital audio cable.

  • Variable Forward/Reverse Search speeds allows for finding specific sections of a movie at the touch of a button. The speed at which the search takes place is variable, depending upon the number of speed settings found on a particular DVD player.

  • Variable Slow Forward and Slow Reverse speeds act as slow motion controls for watching specific video segments in great detail.

  • Multiple Viewing Angle Capability allows the ability to change to various camera angles on DVDs encoded with the feature.

  • Virtual Surround Sound creates a surround-sound effect by incorporating a portion of the center-surround information into the left and right stereo signals. This feature isintended for use with a two-speaker home theater configuration.

  • Component Video outputs provide the highest level of video signal quality available today when connected to televisions equipped with compatible inputs. The signal is sent through three video cables that separate the video into its components, increasing signal clarity.

  • S-Video output is found on almost all DVD players and should be used if Component Video is not an option.

  • Composite Video output is sent from a DVD player to a TV with an RCA style video input jack. All DVD players output Composite Video.

  • Display On/Off capability means the illuminated display on the front of a DVD player can be turned off during a movie to eliminate distraction.

  • The Parental Lock feature allows certain sections of objectionable material to be deleted from playback. A Parental Lock compatible DVD is required to use this feature.

Once the features have been decided upon, look for a DVD player's ease of operation. All the cutting-edge features in the world won't make using a cumbersome player any more enjoyable. A DVD player should be well designed with a simple layout and obvious control locations. The remote control unit should provide functionality and be easy to navigate.

Next, determine if the DVD player will be connected to a surround-sound receiver. If the answer is yes, how many audio channels is the receiver capable of producing? Most of today's surround-sound receivers are capable of producing four-channel Dolby Pro Logic surround sound. Every DVD player will match that capability.

If the receiver is Dolby Digital ready, purchasing a DVD player with a built-in Dolby Digital decoder is a wise choice. This combination, in addition to five surround-sound speakers and a subwoofer, will produce six-channel Dolby Digital audio.

If there is no surround-sound receiver, or if an existing receiver will be upgraded, purchasing a DVD player with Dolby Digital passthrough is the best choice. In this case, a receiver with a built-in Dolby Digital decoder should be purchased, which would allow for the connection of additional Dolby Digital sources, such as a DSS receiver or HDTV audio.

DTS (Digital Theater System) is another six-channel surround-sound format capable of producing an audio experience similar to Dolby Digital. And just like Dolby digital, DTS requires the presence of a built-in decoder in either the DVD player or the A/V receiver.







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