A bargain universal player
The Samsung DVD-HD950 bears a strong resemblance to the DVD-HD841 tested in January. Along with the HD950's HDMI output, which replaces the DVI output on the older model, the new player and its remote are essentially identical in layout and features to the HD841, right down to the ability to play both DVD-Audio discs and Super Audio CDs, a great perk for a $200 player. Undoubtedly the most handsome of these three players, the HD950 sports a black front panel that's a distinct improvement over the earlier silver one and nicely sets off the spectacular white display.
Samsung's remote control in nicely laid out and could have been the most versatile of the three, thanks to its jog dial (for frame stepping) and surrounding shuttle ring (for various slow-motion and scan speeds). Unfortunately, frame stepping and slow motion operate only in the forward direction (even the $150 Toshiba will do reverse slow motion).
SETUP Unlike the more spartan Toshiba, the Samsung's DVD-Audio and SACD capabilities bring with it a full set of multichannel analog outputs and their accompanying setup routines. But like the HD841, the DVD-HD950 provides only for speaker "size" selection and level balancing. There's no speaker-distance compensation, which I'd have thought was required even for Dolby Digital and DTS playback. This means that sonic imaging and front/surround balance may not be optimal when using the multichannel analog outputs, depending on your speakers and how they are arranged.
As with the Toshiba, you should use a digital output for the best sound. The Samsung has both coax and optical audio outs for Dolby Digital, DTS, MP3/WMA, and CD signals, as well as the HDMI output, which can also carry multichannel DVD-Audio signals. The player won't deliver SACD signals in digital form (this is true of almost all SACD players).
MUSIC PERFORMANCE Unfortunately, when I used the multichannel analog audio outputs to play some SACD and DVD-Audio discs, the music was marred by a surprisingly high level of background noise. Put in technical terms, the Samsung delivers only 15 bits or so of dynamic range from its 24-bit converters. For example, the added hiss squelched the explosive dynamics of Paavo Jarvi's reading of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (Telarc SACD) and slackened the musical tension of the soft passages before the violence of the Sacrificial Dance erupts.
MOVIE PERFORMANCE All of my comments for the Toshiba player's video performance apply here, too. The two players looked about the same onscreen and measured almost identically on the test bench. Using the progressive-scan component-video and HDMI outputs, I observed the same falloff in vertical resolution on movies (producing the same muted star fields in Star Wars) and the same trouble with jagged diagonals on concert DVDs and other programs that originated on video. In the end, the HDMI output failed to provide a superior picture on my projector, even compared with its component output switched to interlaced mode.
Although its video quality is average, the main appeal of the DVD-HD950 is the surround sound music capabilities you get for $200. And having the HDMI output to convey DVD-Audio signals digitally is a definite plus.
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