(Photo Illustration by Tony Cordoza)
Ever since Sean Connery shot a bad guy out of his Aston Martin's ejector seat in Goldfinger, James Bond's gadgets have become a staple of the franchise. In each Bond flick, the cantankerous Q outfits 007 with a few ordinary-looking items that can do much more than meets the eye. And just like Bond's watch that doubles as a laser, or his ring that can shatter bulletproof glass, many of the latest DVD players can do a lot more than just play DVDs and CDs.
Today, a growing number of these familiar machines can also play high-resolution Super Audio CDs (SACDs) or DVD-Audio discs, most of which present new and old music in multichannel surround sound. Many can even play compressed MP3 or Windows Media Audio (WMA) music files. On the video side, more players than ever before feature a high-quality progressive-scan output. Then there are those sexy portable DVD players and DVD recorders, both of which are becoming more affordable. No single player does everything, but the accompanying listings will help you find one that fits your idea of DVD Cool.
No Connection Does It Better
When DVD was new, we were just grateful to have movies on 5-inch discs. To those who had gotten used to VHS, even a DVD played through a plain old composite-video connection looked great. But now, with the average-size TV getting larger and larger, we're a little more picky. We want the best picture quality DVD can provide, which means we need a player with progressive-scan video capability.
Why is progressive-scan video so desirable? Images from a regular DVD player contain 480 horizontal scan lines, but they're displayed on your TV in an interlaced format. Interlaced means a frame is divided into two video "fields" containing odd- and even-numbered scan lines, which are alternately "drawn" on the screen. On bigger screens, this can sometimes result in rough diagonal edges in the image or visible gaps between lines.
With progressive-scan images, instead of dividing the 480 lines into two fields, they're drawn sequentially, effectively doubling the number of scan lines, which creates a smoother-looking image. For some players, the process stops there, but most progressive-scan players also perform 2:3 pulldown processing. This cryptic-sounding feature compensates for the different frame rates of video (30 frames per second, or fps) and film (24 fps), producing a more solid and filmlike image from the interlaced video stored on a DVD.
To reap the benefits of progressive-scan video, however, you'll need a digital TV (DTV) that has a set of component-video jacks (three standard RCA connectors color-coded green, blue, and red) and is equipped to display signals in the 480p (progressive) format. Normal analog TVs can't display progressive-scan video. But if you intend to upgrade to a digital TV soon, you should seriously consider a progressive-scan player-even the regular inter- laced video you'll be watching in the meantime beats the pants off those old videotapes.
One Format Is Not Enough
It's taken manufacturers a little while, but they're finally getting close to creating a player that can handle any optical disc you might throw at it. Besides playing DVDs and CDs, many DVD players can also play one of the two kinds of high-resolution music discs as well. Some even play both kinds-the closest thing to a "universal" player you can get.
A DVD-Audio or SACD player opens you up to the exciting world of surround sound music (although some SACDs are stereo only) with a potential sound quality that surpasses CD. If you haven't heard one of the new multichannel DVD-Audio or SACD recordings, ask for a demo the next time you're in an A/V store equipped for it (many aren't). Some DVD-Audio discs also include extras like song lyrics or album art that are displayed on your TV.
To address music-industry concerns about copy protection, high-resolution SACD or DVD-A signals are decoded within the player. This means that instead of a simple one-wire digital hookup, you have to make a six-cable analog connection between the player and your receiver or preamp. However, a few manufacturers have begun using proprietary single-cable digital connections that work only with their own compatible components. Of course, those players also have multichannel analog outputs. The best news is that a new industry-standard digital FireWire connection has just started appearing in players (see page 69 of the February/March S&V).
To get the most bang from high-res audio, look for players that feature analog or digital bass management, which redirects low frequencies away from small satellite speakers that can't handle deep bass, sending them to a subwoofer. Unfortunately, such processing is usually offered only in higher-price players. As an alternative, companies like Outlaw Audio and M&K Sound sell outboard bass-management controllers that connect between your player and receiver or preamp. Of course, if all of your speakers are large, full-range models, you won't have to worry about any of this.
For Your Eyes Only
For a gadget worthy of Bond himself, feast your eyes on a portable DVD player. These sleek, sexy players are up to the task of giving you video whenever and wherever you want it. Most display DVDs on a built-in LCD screen ranging from about 5 to 10 inches-bigger is certainly better, though you get what you pay for.
Music playback is a good thing to pay attention to in a portable DVD player, as it will likely spend a lot of time doing double duty as a CD player. Be on the lookout for models that have MP3 and WMA playback capability, since being able to play discs full of compressed music files means you won't have to lug around a case full of CDs. A single CD full of MP3s can play for 10 hours, provided your player's battery pack lasts that long-another factor to consider.
License to Burn
The coolest gadget in the DVD world today is the DVD recorder. Still relatively new, this heroic product is destined to overthrow the tyranny of videotape, eventually supplanting its rewinding frustrations, fragility, and degradability with DVD's random access, compact size, and long life span. Recorders start at $700-not cheap, but certainly more accessible than Panasonic's first model (reviewed in December 2000), which cost $4,000.
A DVD recorder can do everything a VCR does and more, storing video on disc in MPEG-2 format with stereo audio. Your recordings will also look better than your videotapes, since DVD's 540 lines of (horizontal) resolution is significantly higher than VHS's 280. DVD recorders typically give you a number of quality levels, which vary from recorder to recorder, so it's possible to sacrifice some resolution for longer recording time. But if you're thinking you can connect a DVD player to a recorder and copy prerecorded movies, you'll have to dub another day-almost all DVDs are copy protected.
Depending on which recorder you go with, it will be compatible with at least one of three rewritable (erasable) DVD formats-DVD-RW, DVD+RW, or DVD-RAM. You'll also be able to edit the recordings you've made, which will come in handy when you want to archive TV shows without commercials or assemble camcorder footage, though the level of editing sophistication varies from recorder to recorder. Unfortunately, the three rewritable formats are incompatible with each other, and there's no guarantee that a recording you make on a rewritable disc will play in other DVD players.
For the most cutting-edge DVD gadget, check out a DVD recorder with a built-in hard disk. Editing is even easier on these machines, since video can first be recorded to the hard disk, then burned to DVD when the edit is complete. Great for home movies! You'll also get some of the features that have made hard-disk video recorders like TiVo and ReplayTV popular-pausing live TV, for example-but no hybrid DVD/hard-disk recorder comes with a dedicated program guide. Not yet, anyway.
If you rule your video collection with an iron hand, you can satisfy your inner megalomaniac by investing in a DVD megachanger, which holds about 300 or 400 discs-DVDs or CDs-each one accessible at the touch of a button. Since megachangers can store and play all of your DVDs, there are a couple of things to consider beyond the usual DVD feature set. For one, how long does it take to switch discs? Long delays can be annoying-especially if you're using the changer as a CD jukebox during a party. And entering disc information should be as easy as possible, while the display should be intuitive and easy to read.
Although hard drives and music servers are working feverishly to render them obsolete, megachangers still make sense to movie nuts with lots of DVDs. As noted earlier, DVDs can't be easily copied like CDs, so you won't likely be archiving your movie collection to hard disk anytime soon. And you won't have to compromise on other features, since some models include such perks as a progressive-scan video output or DVD-Audio playback.
Live and Let Buy
Now that you know what you're looking for, use the accompanying product listings as a guide to narrowing the field down to a few players that seem right for you. Remember to check out the features in the store to make sure they do what you think they do. All the information here was supplied by the manufacturers-we haven't tested all of these players. As the DVD format matures, the number of features packed into players goes up while prices go down. Things like progressive-scan video and MP3 playback are almost standard today, and you'll even find a few DVD-Audio players selling for less than $300. Even if you already have a DVD player, chances are you'll be able to find a new one that's better equipped-and less expensive. Today's machines prove that there's a lot more to DVD than just watching Bond movies.