Samsung DVD-HD950 HDTV-Compatible DVD Player
The war between competing next-generation, high-definition-quality DVD formats is still unfolding, a saga with more twists than an entire season of Lost. As I write this, manufacturers are still not offering specific product announcements or firm release dates. The problem is, HDTV is a reality right now. While the current over-the-air, cable, and satellite content is compelling and continuing to grow, I for one put the enjoyment of packaged media above all others, and I hate the thought that my HDTV's capabilities are often going to waste. What then to feed it?
One of the crop of 720p/1080i upscaling/upconverting DVD players might seem like an attractive solution. Additional video processing inside the player increases the output resolution to beyond even what's possible with progressive-scan players, bringing it to a level compliant with HDTV standards. Designed specifically to make the most of today's prevalent prerecorded home video format, these decks play standard DVDs, so you can continue to enjoy the vast selection of presently available titles without the need to buy any new software.
Such upconverting players have never been particularly expensive, but the DVD-HD950—at the top end of Samsung's recent wave of upscalers—struck me as a special value. It generously offers both HDMI cable (to deliver an uncompressed video signal plus audio to an HDTV) and an HDMI-to-DVI adapter cable for HDTVs with a DVI input (uncompressed video only). It is also a universal disc player, meaning that it plays SACDs and DVD-Audios and outputs them as six analog channels. This deck does not include bass management. This review was a wonderful chance to rediscover my modest but coveted high-resolution audio collection, including my copies of Steely Dan's Gaucho and Donald Fagen's Kamakiriad, recently bestowed upon me by multichannel maven Elliot Scheiner. For DVD-Audio, the deck uses the disc's own interactive menus; for SACD, it relies upon player-generated menus. It offers on-the-fly toggling between stereo and multichannel (as available) and switching between the SACD and CD layers with a touch of the remote's SACD/CD button. I'm glad to see that 5.1-channel music is alive and well and that hardware manufacturers are supporting it, especially at such a competitive price point.
The attractive hardware features a brushed black face with a bright, off-white LCD situated among the shiny silver controls. The setup procedure is quick and easy, although I found one line for a black-level-expansion option but no way to turn it on. The DVD-HD950 is one of several new components supporting the Samsung Anynet System Control. This technology allows interoperability of all compatible, connected Samsung audio/video gear with one TV remote control, using onscreen menus. Alas, the Samsung HL-P5063W HDTV I've been using does not offer Anynet connectivity. The DVD-HD950's masterful remote has nice bonuses like Instant Replay and Instant Skip buttons, perfect for modern viewers who want TiVo-like control over their DVDs. The jump is virtually instantaneous, but the backward-skip function shifted me anywhere from 8 to 14 seconds and forward 8 or 9. The remote also includes interlocked jog (step) and shuttle (search) dials, remote control adornments I haven't seen in quite some time.
DVD Via HDMI
The DVD-HD950's HDMI and component outputs are active at the same time, and you can toggle between the two via the onscreen menus. You can set the default resolution for the HDMI output in the onscreen setup menu, and you can also easily change it during playback using the elegant single-button access on the remote. Superman was first in the tray, and, at the upconverted 1080i resolution, it showed hard gradations instead of subtle transitions from light to dark. It was also very twitchy and tainted by digital noise and flicker almost to the point of distraction. Although these problems were less pronounced at an upconverted 720p, they were still unacceptable, as images were rendered with an unnatural quality, the textures robbed of their original character. Flaws were less prominent again at 480p, but the video still suffered from a noticeably processed look.
The quality of Finding Nemo was acceptable at 480p, but the DVD-HD950 accentuated all of the compression secrets in what should be a clean, pristine presentation. I saw more severe geometric issues at 720p, with artificial-looking edges and stairstepping. More of the processing was evident at 1080i. The player appeared to work too hard on what should be fine, effortless details. At 1080i, though, the 720p edge problem was much improved. The waves and clouds in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World were very busy at 1080i, although it's difficult for any player to effectively recreate rapidly changing nature scenes. Shadow detail was outstanding, however, with realistic blacks for a movie that absolutely demands them. At 480p, water, fog, and skies looked more like they should. The edges of onscreen text were improved, although there appeared to be less life in the blacks. 720p was a happy compromise: sharp on text, as impressive as 1080i on the blacks, with 480p's steadiness on the waves. In short, the resolution you choose for the HDMI output might vary depending upon the movie you're watching.
Our Old Friend, Component Video
When I used the component video output, I saw a huge decline in Master and Commander's shadow detail, as well as the overall brightness and accuracy. Yet, at the same time, component video delivered a much more natural, more filmlike image, with very inky blacks. Superman also looked better via component video for this reason, although it wasn't perfect. The image was still somewhat twitchy on fine textures and busy on what should be subtly defined edges. Finding Nemo's colors also appeared livelier via HDMI. The image is generally softer via component output, but this is not necessarily a bad thing: Instances of visible compression artifacting are less obvious, for example. Flaws are lessened, yet the picture is still plenty crisp for viewing most recent movies.
Working with Faroudja's Sage demonstration disc via the component output, I noticed poor luma and chroma separation, lots of rainbows on fine black-and-white lines, and evidence of false color. The DVD-HD950's motion-adaptive deinterlacing provided a clean, flicker-free image, but it still produced jagged stairstep edges on moving objects. Subpar 3:2-pulldown correction left serious flicker on moving vertical and horizontal lines and severe feathering on video text at times. The results of these Sage tests were virtually identical via HDMI, at all resolution levels.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to review a progressive-scan, universal deck, with a price tag $100 higher. People lapped it up despite some criticisms made by yours truly. How far we've come. Although its picture quality is not without its faults, the DVD-HD950 is affordable yet well stocked with features. It can deliver an improved picture that you and your HDTV can appreciate as we sort out the whole next-generation DVD debacle. Of course, upconversion raises the whole "Should man tamper in God's domain?" argument. We're trying to transform current 480p video into something it's not—namely, 720p/1080i—and getting unwanted side effects. But, for $249, impatient videophiles should find this to be a tolerable stopgap until the real thing arrives.
• HD-ready DVD output. . . today!
• Many thoughtful design details
• Digital video upsampling is good in some respects and not so good in others
• DVD-Audio and SACD playback