To check out the player's video performance, I turned to the DVD of The Five Senses (New Line), an independent Canadian film with a plot that explores the realms of sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. The film's clever use of sensory input begins in Chapter 1 as a woman steps from a sensory-deprivation tank and sits on a bed, its white sheets inviting in the softly lit room with its warm, muted colors. In a darkened room in Chapter 2, a fish tank is softly illuminated from below and from a window beyond as silver fish swim in the cloudy water. The DVD-M301 displayed these tricky shots without any obvious artifacts, but its MPEG-2 decoding, or video digital-to-analog (D/A) conversion, produced images that didn't seem to be quite as crisp as those I've seen from the best players.
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is ingenious. In Chapter 2, a man listens intently through a heating vent to a conversation in an adjacent room. The sound is muffled and indistinct but becomes clearer as the camera pans through the wall, revealing a woman hugging her child in soft light. In Chapter 7, a man regards a seascape on the wall. As the camera moves into the painting, the sounds of the sea - gulls and crashing waves - increase in all the channels until they fill the room. Also in Chapter 7, a woman makes a phone call from an airport pay phone; she does not hear - but we do - the faint sound of a TV news report in the background describing a child's abduction. Of course, my receiver did all the heavy lifting to decode the Dolby Digital signal, but at least the player read it off the disc and passed it on without a glitch.
To check out the player's audio D/A converters, I played a couple of CDs including Blue by Third Eye Blind, an interesting Left Coast rocker. On songs like "The Red Summer Sun" the guitars and vocals really wail, but the DVD-M301 kept everything under control, with clean delineation of the complex musical textures in this dynamic mix. In short, there were no problems with CD sound quality. However, the transport was sluggish during CD playback - backward track skipping in particular was painfully slow.
One of the player's important perks is its dual laser, which enables it to play write-once CD-R music discs as well as the rewritable CD-RWs I tried. I also played a variety of discs on which I've recorded MP3 tracks. Although the spiffy DVD/CD menus are not operable in this mode, the player obediently displayed a rudimentary list of folder and file names onscreen and let me select files for playback. Choosing files is, as usual, like navigating a file/folder arrangement on a Windows PCor a Mac.
The owner's manual warns that MP3 files recorded at bit rates of less than 128 kilobits per second (kbps) might not play back properly (it's not clear whether it means there'll be glitches or an inherent degradation in sound quality), but I successfully played files with bit rates ranging from 32 to 320 kbps. Track navigation and decoding worked well; as always, sound quality was primarily a function of the bit rate. I also played discs with MP3 files in some folders but not in others. The player found and played the MP3 files and ignored the other data.
Sometimes you pay a lot for things you think will impress your friends. But your friends should be even more impressed when you spend less and get a good deal. The Samsung DVD-M301 isn't just a good deal - it's a terrific deal, one of the best I've seen. It offers a comprehensive but sensible feature set - including all the stuff you need and omitting stuff you probably don't - as well as CD-R and MP3 playback, and component-video output, for a low price. Your friends will be very impressed. In fact, at this price, you could probably buy players for them, too. Now, that's really impressive.
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