DVD PLAYERS: BUYING GUIDE
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.
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:
10 things to consider when purchasing a
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.
CONNECTIONS: In addition to the common VHS-type audio
and video connections, there are a few new connection options that should
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.
– 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.
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.
SPECIAL EFFECTS: Some DVD-players are hyped as having lots
of ‘special effects’ such as zoom, slow motion, 3-d virtual surround
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.)
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.
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
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
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.)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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.
- 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
- Multiple Viewing Angle Capability allows the ability to
change to various camera angles on DVDs encoded with the
- 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
- 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
- Display On/Off capability means the illuminated display on
the front of a DVD player can be turned off during a movie to eliminate
- 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.
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
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.