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DVD Players

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DVD Players Buying Guide

Overview
User interface
Video performance
Video connections
Widescreen playback
Surround sound
Audio connections
CD-quality audio and beyond
Construction
Price range

What the CD did for listening to music, the DVD is doing for watching movies. With over 500 lines of horizontal picture resolution, DVD video quality is twice as good as VHS tape. What's more, the format also allows for both dual-sided and dual-layer discs, so you can get both widescreen (letterboxed) and pan and scan ("reformatted to fit your screen") versions of a film on a single disc.

When it comes to audio, DVD is a winner as well. DVD can deliver two channels of standard PCM (pulse-code modulation) CD-quality sound and several configurations of Dolby Digital, from monaural sound (one channel) to 5.1-channel surround. Most DVDs offer multiple language and subtitle options and a host of other features, including alternate sound tracks that can be used for an isolated music score (no dialog) or a forum for the director, the writer, the stars, or a noted film critic to engage in running commentary on the on-screen action.

Overview
While most DVD-Video players offer superb picture and sound quality--including outstanding playback of conventional CDs--there are many important differences in features and performance. We'll cover the gamut in this guide, exploring the relevant issues to help you locate the best match for your system. By having all of the facts at your fingertips, you can be sure of buying the DVD player that best meets your needs and budgetary constraints.

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User interface
DVD players come in single-play formats, five-disc changers, and DVD/laser disc combination players. Regardless of price and format, a DVD player should be almost effortless to use. The panel controls should be clearly labeled and neatly presented. The remote should be ergonomically pleasing; the buttons should be well-marked and easy to distinguish in the dark. The better remote controls should also be backlit. More expensive players will offer "jog/shuttle" controls on their remotes, which let you move around the disc more easily. Player set-up and configuration using the on-screen display should be easy to figure out. You should also note how quickly and easily the player navigates the menus and features programmed on discs. The manufacturer's manual should be provided in plain language, free of jargon and stilted translations.

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Video performance
When examining a DVD player's performance, it's important to look at the overall picture quality and pertinent features. While only the most expensive first-generation players offered 10-bit video processing--for better picture quality during action or other high-motion sequences--today, even modestly priced DVD players offer it. Picture-quality differences tend to be subtle on all but the largest screens, but players do show variations in color balance, brightness, portrayal of black level, color saturation, and other visual parameters. Finally, there's the subjective emotional reaction to the overall visual presentation.

You should also examine a player's searching features; note how well it's able to rapidly fast-forward and reverse-scan while providing a glitch-free picture. Some players offer special visual effects such as zoom, which allows you to examine elements of a scene in greater detail.

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Video connections
The state-of-the-art video connection at this point is component video. In this system, the video signal is divided into three separate bands: luminance, or "Y"; a modified red (minus the Y component); and a modified blue (minus the Y component). This method of video transmission, which requires a TV or monitor with component-video inputs, is about as good as it gets. If you have a TV or projection system with component-video inputs, look for a DVD player with component-video outs; only a few DVD players and televisions currently offer this system. S-Video transmission offers the next-highest quality after component video; composite transmission is the next notch down on the quality scale after S-Video. Most DVD players have both composite and S-Video outputs. Even if you have to use the much-more-common composite transmission format, you'll still see a huge improvement in picture quality over VHS and even laserdisc--just not quite the same quality as with component or S-Video transmission.

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Widescreen playback
Many DVDs come "widescreen-enhanced" or "anamorphically squeezed," which means the actual picture is squeezed into a horizontally narrower frame (making the image taller and thinner than normal). A special widescreen television with a 16:9 aspect ratio can un-squeeze the picture so it fills the screen. While being able to view anamorphically squeezed DVD video on a widescreen TV provides the ultimate in DVD picture quality, most folks have conventional 4:3 aspect-ratio (square) televisions, in which case the DVD player itself has to do the un-squeezing and create a letterboxed version to fit the screen. Some DVD players do a better job of un-squeezing anamorphically squeezed video; we'll note this performance feature in our reviews.

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Surround sound
One of the biggest advantages to the DVD format is that it can play back surround-sound audio. A surround-sound format like Dolby Digital 5.1 consists of five discrete, full-frequency-range channels plus a restricted-range, low-frequency "effects" channel. Some DVD players have "virtual" surround built in, which synthesizes a surround sound effect using only two speakers.

For the very best in surround audio, it's best to have your Dolby Digital decoder built into your home theater surround receiver. But if you only have a "Dolby Digital-ready" receiver--which might not decode the digital signal but does offer six-channel analog inputs-you should look for DVD players that have built-in Dolby Digital decoding and six-channel analog outputs.

Many discs are now available with DTS (Digital Theater Sound) surround sound as well; DTS is another 5.1-channel format that uses lower compression rates than Dolby Digital (and thus tends to sound a little better) but uses more disc space for audio. DTS is currently the only format on which you'll find surround mixes of mainstream musical releases. If you're interested in exploring DTS surround sound you'll need a player that passes the DTS bitstream.

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Audio connections
All DVD players offer some form of digital output for Dolby Digital, DTS, or conventional 2-channel PCM sound. Some players have both optical and coaxial digital outs; others may use one or the other. If you've already purchased an AV receiver, check to see whether it has optical or digital inputs and plan on buying a DVD player that uses that output format.

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CD-quality audio and beyond
One of the other benefits of DVD technology is higher-than-CD-resolution audio playback. While CDs are recorded using a sampling frequency of 44.1 kHz and 16-bit words, the DVD-Video allows for 96 kHz recording at 24 bits, offering the potential for wider frequency response and higher dynamic range, respectively. Some players down-sample the 96-k/24-bit signal to 48-k/16-bit prior to both analog and digital output; our reviews will help you find out which ones down-sample and which ones pass and decode the full high-resolution signal.

All DVD players can play CDs as well (although not usually CD-Rs); you won't be compromising much (if at all) if your DVD player is going to be doing double duty as a CD player. In fact, depending on the DVD player, you may find that your CDs have never sounded better. Our reviews will examine how each player sounds with CDs and whether or not it includes a decoding chip for HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital) discs. There are thousands of HDCD-encoded CDs, and you probably own many, perhaps without even knowing it (they all bear the HDCD emblem somewhere). HDCD-encoded discs sound great without HDCD decoding and can be played in any CD or DVD player. With the decoding, however, they offer substantial gains over standard CDs in dynamics and perceived depth. If you're an audiophile or merely someone who appreciates good sound, HDCD decoding is a feature worth checking for in both DVD and CD players.

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Construction
The quality of a DVD player's construction is also important. Some players are built better than others and simply feel more substantial. Usually, the more you spend, the better the build quality will be--but not always. Our reviews make special note of which players rise above the average.

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Price range
At this point, because the DVD format is relatively new, there isn't as wide a discrepancy in DVD player pricing as you'll find with more established products like CD players or televisions. Low-end DVD players start at approximately $250, while high-end DVD players level off at around $1,000, with a scant few in the ultra-high-end $2,000-and-up range. Expect to pay between $300 and $600 for a solid mid-level player with state-of-the-art features like component-video outputs and 96-kHz, 24-bit digital-to-analog audio converters.

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What is DVD?

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