Samsung DVD-V9650 DVD Player/VHS Recorder
I recently read somewhere that DVD's install base had eclipsed that of VHS, the former king of meat-and-potatoes home entertainment. I flashed nostalgically on DVD's initial toehold in rental outlets like Blockbuster and stores such as Suncoast, as well as its relentless growth to the point where VHS was relegated to a single shelf before disappearing altogether. I'm sure that recordable DVD still remains a runner-up to the ubiquitous videocassette—even though blank DVDs cost less than blank tapes and recording decks are at all-time-low prices. Still, for reasons that escape me, VHS just won't lie down, even though the consumer electronics coroner has pronounced it dead.
Catering to tape-faithful diehards, Samsung has an entire wave of assorted DVD-player/VHS-recorder combo units. Their top-end model is the DVD-V9650, the first upconverting DVD/VHS combi player from the company that introduced the original DVD/VHS combo going on six years ago. Right here in the second paragraph, let me make a few points plain. First, this model's recording is limited to VHS, meaning it doesn't record to DVD, unlike some other decks I've reviewed, as well as some other Samsung decks. There's also no way to record from DVD—copy protected or not—to VHS, as the deck is not wired internally for this purpose. It won't work even if you feed the DVD output to the VCR input, because the disc and the tape sections will not operate at the same time. And, while the deck offers DVD upconversion over HDMI, you can only connect the VHS output via composite or RF coaxial outputs, neither of which is an enticing choice for DVD output. (Interlaced/progressive component video and S-video outputs are provided, as well.) The bottom line is, you're going to need two different video-output cables to use both sources.
Video Snobbery (Just a Bit)
The last time I watched a videotape by choice was about two years ago, and that was something absolutely necessary for work that wasn't available in any other format. So, writing about VHS now feels oddly unfamiliar. I had to program the clock, of course, but this model thankfully doesn't endlessly flash "12:00." Samsung provides an Auto Clock feature to simplify setup. Under ideal circumstances, the clock might properly set itself. Otherwise, you can use the eight-step manual process, which depends upon your knowing which TV channels carry a time signal. It also requires a reboot. Samsung has added a TiVo-like Skip feature, a 30-second forward jump that you can use up to four times at once. There's also a Repeat feature, which takes you five seconds back at SP speed (15 in SLP), so you can catch missed dialogue and so forth. This deck doesn't support LP, the "long play" mode that is good for four hours on a standard T-120 tape. With its S-VHS Quasi Playback, the DVD-V9650 will play any S-VHS tapes you've accumulated over the years, albeit at standard VHS quality, or roughly 240 lines of resolution versus the 400 lines possible with true Super-VHS. This compatibility is something of a carrot to anyone with an S-VHS-C camcorder and a backlog of home movies.
The VHS picture quality is slightly better with this deck than I remember from other VCRs. With content from both home-recorded and store-bought tapes, an unfortunate screen-door effect plagued the picture. At times, a subtle darkness also rolled down the image, which might have been attributable to poor electrical grounding and not the player. The Auto Tracking locked on after about 10 seconds, and it ably cleaned up any major shakes and streaks. You can also adjust the tracking manually. Overall, for a composite video signal, the picture was not atrocious; if you have to watch VHS, you could definitely do a lot worse. The hi-fi stereo audio output was excellent, with fine separation and improved dynamic range versus linear audio, if your recordings offer hi-fi soundtracks.
The Latest in VHS: DVD!
VHS aside (it's on the right side, actually), this inexpensive little DVD player provides the modern-industry-standard HDMI output. It will output 480p and upconverted 720p and 1080i signals. You can set the HDMI resolution with the remote control and onscreen menus, or you can use the inconspicuous HD button that's almost lost among the VCR controls on the front panel. You can also set HDMI formats to match your display. The RGB Normal/YCbCr (4:4:4) mode is ideal for most TVs that accept HDMI input—delivering enhanced contrast and enabling superior color reproduction—while RGB Expand broadens the color and contrast range for connection to a monitor. Five available brightness levels allow you to fine-tune the picture to best play to your TV's strengths. There's also black-level adjustment, but you can only negotiate said blacks when the video output is in interlaced mode. In general, the upconversion isn't awful, but the introduction of a digital haze is definitely noticeable to the sophisticated eye. Frankly, I don't think upconversion makes the picture look much better, while the side effects actually make it look a little less natural than honest 480p. When I switched between certain DVD menus or worked with the soundless Faroudja Sage test disc, the DVD-V9650 continually reminded me that "HDMI Audio [is] not supported" in big white letters on the screen, a mildly annoying but unavoidable trait.
I used the Sage disc's line-twitter pattern to evaluate the field merge of horizontal lines in the alternating odd and even fields of each frame. After a one-second acquisition, all flicker disappeared from the lines, which appeared smooth and free of artifacts. The oscillating-pendulum graphic should illustrate the elimination of jagged edges in interlaced motion on progressive displays. Surprisingly, it remained smooth at all angles without jaggies as it swung, except for the instant when it stopped at the top of each arc. The actual edges took on a weird sort of glow. The random movement of the waving-flag test had minimal jaggies on only the most unforgiving flaps of the Stars and Stripes in this first real-world-video deinterlacing demo I conducted. In the following clip, the top edge of the hockey rink's glass looked clean and smooth for the most part during the panning shot of the ice. The moving-cross-hatch pattern evaluates inverse 3:2/2:2 pulldown, the deinterlacing of film-originated material; this suffered from continuous flutter during its diagonal journey across my screen.
There was definite feathering on the first example of mixed content—video text overlaid on film—although it wasn't the worst I've seen on this demo. The second clip, on the other hand, offered text that was clear as a bell. The final chapter of the Sage disc contains the tests for bad-edit detection and correction, so as to address breaks in the 3:2 cadence, a problem that commonly occurs when film is converted to video and edited. This can also lead to the feathering of images, but, here, the results were rock solid. To gain a fuller sense of the DVD-V9650's video performance, I ran the Sage disc over both progressive-scan component video and HDMI with virtually identical results. However, I did see a slight improvement to the smoothness of the top edge of the rink glass over HDMI.
This deck imparts a characteristic softness in the image processing of all content. Perhaps this was why I noticed less color banding than I've seen from some players on the difficult opening scenes of Superman at 480p. The problem was more noticeable with upconverted content, as was the twitchiness of fine textures on Superman and Master and Commander. Blacks were rather harsh, and, even with the brightness cranked up full, little picture information was revealed in the shadows. This being a Samsung DVD deck, it also offers multiple EZ View modes, including a vertical fit for flat 4:3 content within the 16:9 frame (with black bars on the sides). There's also a Zoom Fit enlargement, which renders the blown-up image only a tad softer.
So, who should buy Samsung's DVD-V9650? The answer is VHS loyalists who have a hard time facing the future (or the present) or those slow-moving folks who are finally, grudgingly making the transition to DVD but need a crutch to ease the journey. DVD and VHS quality exceeded my expectations at this ludicrously low price point, and there's plenty of customizability and most of the features you'd ever need.
• DVD player upconverts to 720p/1080i via HDMI output
• VHS VCR tucked in there, too, all at a great low price