DVD Deals

Photos by Tony Cordoza
Feel like some shopping? How about a brand-new Porsche 911 for $10,000? Or an Armani suit for $200? Or maybe a vacation in the Swiss Alps for $1,000? I'm sorry, but those items are not available. In fact, it would be lunacy to expect to buy them at such prices. But those are the kinds of deals routinely dished out in the fast-paced world of consumer electronics. Consider DVD players. Entry-level models today sell for a fraction of what they cost when DVD made its debut just five years ago. Moreover, many new players offer features - like MP3 playback - that weren't even available back then. The point is, you don't need a lot of money to buy a DVD player these days.
Jump ahead: Features Checklist In the Lab
To scope out DVD's bargain basement, we rounded up four players that list for under $200: the Hitachi DV-P325U ($140), Panasonic's DVD-RV32 ($180), Samsung's DVD-P421 ($199), and the Zenith DVB216 ($160). All four are nearly identical in size, and they share many other characteristics. All have a component-video output - a feature once reserved for flagship players that's become almost as universal as a play button. Two of them, the Samsung and Zenith, push the envelope further, also providing progressive-scan output with 2:3 pulldown, which can give you the best possible DVD images if your TV has a compatible input.

I should note here that in viewing DVDs with these players, I always used the best available output, whether standard component-video or progressive-scan component-video. Most of our video lab tests (see "in the lab," page 91) used the composite-video outputs, in order to give a worst-case benchmark, though we also tested the key characteristics of each player's component outputs. In a sure sign of the times, all four of these models can play recordable/rewritable CDs, and they'll decode MP3 files - the Panasonic even decodes files in Windows Media Audio (WMA) format. All four also play DVD-R/RW discs recorded in standard DVD-Video format. And it's worth noting that none of them can play high-resolution Super Audio CDs or DVD-Audio discs, nor should we really expect them to at these prices. Finally, none of the players contains a Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound decoder - hardly a drawback since virtually all A/V receivers have decoders onboard, and it's usually preferable to use them anyway. Similarities aside, let's consider the specifics.

Hitachi DV-P325U

Hitachi DV-P325U Dimensions: 17 1/8 inches wide, 3 inches high, 9 inches deep Price: $140 www.hitachi.com
At $140, the DV-P325U has the lowest list price of these budget players. Maybe the designers were going for a retro look, but the front panel looks a bit old-fashioned. On the upside, it has dedicated buttons for Surround, Subtitles, and Audio (for choosing the preferred language and audio modes). Another small plus: the silver-on-black lettering is easy to read. And one of my favorite features is a spring-loaded jog wheel for DVD scanning that lets you quickly and easily shift between forward and reverse. As far as user feedback goes, the player's blue fluorescent display shows only the barest timing and mode information.

The shiny black remote is a cut above average. Its buttons are nicely laid out, with a conveniently placed ring of cursor controls and a cluster of TV control buttons. There's also a zoom button that lets you move the area of enlargement around the screen. One bummer: there's no slow-motion playback in reverse - not even a slo-mo frame-step function.

The onscreen setup menu available in the stop mode is among the cleanest and clearest I've seen. Some player menus try to get fancy, others provide too much detail, and still others are cryptic. This bare-bones menu is concise and self-explanatory. It lets you set the player for the aspect ratio of your TV (widescreen or standard 4:3), select the language for the soundtrack and subtitles, engage dynamic-range compression, and so on. No comprehensive menu is available while you're playing a disc. Instead, individual functions simply come onscreen.

For example, you can turn SRS TruSurround virtual surround processing (for listening over a two-speaker setup) on and off, step through audio and subtitle selections, and see a display of things like the chapter number or timing - even a bit-rate meter. Because each of these functions and displays pops up in its own onscreen box, operation is simple. But I still missed the all-in-one menu that most players can provide while a disc is playing.

Some machines treat MP3 playback rather crudely, offering few control features. This Hitachi player is more accommodating. As when playing a CD, you can choose a random or programmed sequence of MP3 files, and you can also automatically repeat a whole disc or specific files.

To check out the player's video chops, I watched Bandits, a lackluster 2001 movie with Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton playing prison escapees who become the "Sleepover Bandits" - they abduct bank managers the evening before a robbery, spend the night in their homes, and go off with them to collect the loot the next morning. During their nonviolent crime spree, they both fall for a woman they've abducted, and during a last big heist, all their schemes fall apart. As far as I'm concerned, so did the movie, but I was still fairly impressed with the player's video performance. In Chapter 2, Willis is in a boxing ring; the bright red boxing gloves and his opponent's bright red trunks looked natural, without any color noise or bleeding. Detail was pretty good - I could see the weave of Willis's cotton shirt.

The player was slow to bring up selected chapters and equally sluggish moving between CD tracks. It also had some other playback quirks. For example, it wouldn't highlight the play button on the Bandits main menu until after I stepped through other buttons. On the other hand, if you fall asleep watching a boring movie (like Bandits, though it does have funny bits), the Hitachi will automatically turn itself off after the screen saver has been running for 35 minutes.

Since my receiver was doing all the heavy lifting on the movie's Dolby Digital soundtrack, I turned to the Vivino Brothers' Blues Band CD on the dmp label to check out the player's digital-to-analog audio converters. The recording sounded meticulously clean, in keeping with dmp's reputation. On "Pusher Man," the flute solo was clearly enunciated, with every breathy nuance audible. The snare drum sounded taut, and the wood stick on the metal high-hat was crisp. In short, the audio fidelity was A-OK.

Panasonic DVD-RV32

Panasonic DVD-RV32 Dimensions: 17 1/8 inches wide, 3 inches high, 9 3/4 inches deep Price: $180 www.panasonic.com
To my eyes, the $180 Panasonic DVD-RV32 is the best looking of the lot. Its front panel (available in silver as shown in our photo or in black) isn't fancy, but it has minimalist style. Unlike most players, it sports a fair number of controls. A spring-loaded jog wheel lets you smartly shuttle forward and back, and there are dedicated buttons for random play, repeat play, A-B repeat, and Quick Replay (skips back a few seconds to let you see something you missed - or can't believe you saw). There are also buttons to control the player's extensive audio/video processing features.

This many front-panel controls is unusual at any price, and it means that you could actually use this player if your dog eats the remote. In addition, the crisp blue fluorescent display tells you all you need to know about what's going on inside. The Panasonic is the second most expensive of the players in our gang of four, yet it's the most refined. Of course, some things had to be left out to get the price under $200, like DVD-Audio playback.

Next to the player itself, the remote is underwhelming. The styling makes it very uncomfortable to hold in your hand. (Why a designer would give a remote hard, angular edges is beyond me.) Nevertheless, it does its job, putting functions like picture zoom and an adjustable sleep timer at your fingertips. The setup menu is quite nice, with clear text and icons that are easy to identify. What's more, using it is very straightforward. When you press the setup button after you first turn the player on, it takes you through a series of choices for soundtrack/subtitle language, aspect ratio, and so on. After that, it provides access to everything else in the player's feature set, including a demo mode. The display menu can be called up during playback to see timings and mode settings or to do things like search a disc or set bookmarks. A progress bar even shows where you are in a DVD movie or one of its extras.

The processing includes a number of special settings. Cinema 1 and Cinema 2 are said to yield more lifelike colors and improve the rendering of details in darkly lit scenes. Dialogue Enhancer boosts the center channel relative to the others. Bass Plus, for listening to 5.1-channel soundtracks over a pair of stereo speakers and a subwoofer, sends the ".1" channel, along with low frequencies from the other channels, to the player's analog subwoofer output while the other channels are mixed down to stereo. Advanced Surround is a virtual surround mode for listening to multichannel soundtracks over just two speakers. Finally, a one-touch cinema memory lets you enter a specific combination of these settings into one preset.

Although the Panasonic is one of the first players on the market to play WMA files, it won't play WMA tracks that are copy protected. And unlike some players, it lets you select repeat or programmed play for MP3/WMA files. Here's something interesting for you multitaskers: a position memory lets you restart play from where you stopped even after switching the player off or changing discs. Most players clear this information when the tray is opened, but the Panasonic remembers it for up to five discs.

The player provided very good audio and video performance. In Chapter 5 of Bandits, incense smoke fills a room with backlit haze. The fog looked natural, and so did the duo's condensed breaths when they go outside into the cold air. The fabric weave and wrinkles in the bandits' prison denim jackets were plainly visible.

The audio side of the equation held its own, too. On "Knockin' Myself Out" from the Blues Band CD, the lead vocals sounded very natural, although it would take a few hundred more cases of bad whiskey and a few thousand more high-tar cigarettes to lend an air of authenticity to this Vivino brother's blues singing. The bluesy guitar licks were as lyrical as they get, and I could hear every harmonic. Actually, the trouble is that a real blues recording should sound bad, and this one is just too clean. I have no such qualms about the Panasonic DVD-RV32: its audio performance was very good, and that's not bad at all.

Samsung DVD-P421

The DVD-P421 ($199) looks fairly unassuming. Samsung's gray front panel probably won't ignite a buying frenzy, but it probably won't make small children cry, either. Surprisingly, it sports a headphone jack with level control, a relative rarity in today's surround sound ("stereo is passé") world. As on the Hitachi and Panasonic players, the panel sports a jog wheel that lets you scan forward or back as well as advance frame by frame or select tracks on a CD. The blue fluorescent display is standard issue and provides all the basic information you'll need.

A prominent logo, however, reminds buyers that this player has an ace up its sleeve. Its component-video output can provide either a standard interlaced signal or a progressive-scan signal with 2:3 pulldown (which produces a smoother, more natural-looking picture by compensating for the difference between film and video frame rates). A back-panel switch selects either interlaced (I) or progressive-scan (P) mode for the component output. When you select P mode, the player's composite- and S-video outputs are blanked.

For some reason, Samsung decided to provide two remotes with this player. One is pretty typical, with clearly marked white buttons against a gray body and a tiny thumb-operated joystick. I generally like this type of control, but I found the stick to be too small and lacking in solid tactile response. The five curved buttons that surround it are also awkward to use, and some other very important buttons, such as track forward/back, are quite small. But here's a bright note: an Instant Replay button repeats the last 10 seconds or so of a scene. The other remote (not shown) is a small egg with just basic controls that apparently functions as a backup. Four of its buttons glow in the dark - and that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.

The onscreen displays are easy to use but not particularly attractive, providing simple lists of options. The setup menu is available only after you stop playback, but you can call up the display menu while a DVD is playing. The player was somewhat slow to respond to commands from either menu. The best onscreen feature is the digest display mode, which brings up nine windows showing the start of a chapter; as each window appears, the first few seconds of the scene play.

The player supplies all the usual features, of course, plus virtual surround sound, movable zoom, and others. Usefully, you can combine some functions. For example, you can perform a slo-mo A-B repeat. Videophiles will avoid this next feature like the plague, but if those black bars at the top and bottom of a widescreen (16:9) picture on your standard (4:3) screen annoy you, Screen Fit enlarges and stretches the picture to fill the entire screen. If you leave the player in the stop mode, it automatically shuts off after 30 minutes. Both random and programmed playback are supported for MP3 files, but the player recognizes files on only one level. So when you burn a disc, you must either have all the MP3 files in the root directory or else all of the folders (groups of files) at the same level.

The player has a 2x audio scan feature, which let me speed through the most boring parts of Bandits without making them unintentionally humorous. Slowing down at Chapter 10, I was impressed by the level of detail revealed through the progressive-scan output. I could see even more wrinkles in suits (didn't the wardrobe people have an iron?) and seemingly every straw in a straw hat. Moreover, the rich colors of the early morning light, the splendid-looking vista across mountains and low-hanging clouds, and convincingly wet raindrops on freshly waxed cars all testified to the filmlike quality of good progressive-scan video. On the downside, my review sample had tracking problems that caused the picture to repeatedly freeze momentarily. (A second sample used for video lab testing did not exhibit this problem.) CD track cueing was also somewhat slow.

The audio quality was good, with some reservations. On "P.D. Bop" from the Vivino Brothers' Blues Band, the organ had just the right cheesy sound, and the guitar was fine, with an almost vocal quality. But I listened to the saxophone solo many times, wondering why it seemed pulled back and somewhat muted. Later, on the test bench, I found the Samsung's CD measurements to be distinctly inferior to those of the other players.

Zenith DVB216

Zenith DVB216 Dimensions: 17 1/8 inches wide, 2 3/4 inches high, 8 1/2 inches deep Price: $160 www.zenith.com
The front panel of the Zenith DVB216 ($160) is different. For starters, most of it is mirrored - even though the reflective panel looks black from the angle our photographer used. There are six mysterious round buttons whose function is revealed only after the player is powered and blue icons appear above them. The buttons are hard to push, though. That's not good for something intended to be pushed - a classic case of form-over-function design.

The blue fluorescent display provides the usual information, such as chapter/ track numbers, timings, and playback mode. The remote is well laid out, using a variety of sizes and shapes to differentiate the functions of the buttons. The center ring of buttons is for the essential transport controls, and the four cursor buttons are just above. Good news: the remote has a jog wheel, and it's certainly more useful there than on the front panel as on the other three players. Bad news: placing the jog wheel at the base of the handset makes it awkward to use.

Zenith's setup menu is clean, simple, and attractive. Some menus display a list, then make you press more buttons to see each submenu. This one shows a list (icons and text) and automatically shows the submenu associated with each entry as you step down the list. The display menu is similarly straightforward. For the most part, the Zenith player offers the same features as the others, including repeat and random playback, picture zoom, virtual surround sound, and nine (count 'em - nine!) bookmarks. It also supports repeat, random, and programmed playback of MP3 tracks on CD-Rs and CD-RWs.

Like the Samsung, however, the Zenith also has a progressive-scan component-video output - a major perk. A back-panel switch selects either component- or S-video output signals, but you turn progressive-scan processing on and off by a menu choice. I would have appreciated a simple on/off switch - but I'm not going to complain given the player's low price. There are five mode settings available to adjust the progressive-scan processing to minimize flickering and dot crawl. The manual gives zero guidance on these, and we got no response when we asked Zenith for details, but at least one of the five is clearly intended for use with video-based material, and some of the others, which involve 2:3 pulldown, are clearly for film-based material.

Even with its default settings, the Zenith player's progressive-scan output delivered a good picture. Chapter 15 of Bandits is set in a wooded area, and the innumerable leaves and branches were clearly rendered. I could make out individual strands of Cate Blanchett's red hair, but even though details in Bruce Willis's face were visible in the soft light, his hairpiece looked strangely real. However, picture detail wasn't perfect, there was occasional noise, and overall the image wasn't quite as convincing as what I saw from the Samsung, let alone from the best progressive-scan players I've used. On the upside, the Zenith player was very peppy in cueing up both DVD and CD selections.

The audio performance was fine. On "Itchin' & Scratchin'" from the Blues Band CD, the drums were terrific, with a big, rounded kick, crisp cymbals, and a perfectly natural tom-tom sound. The saxophone squealed, the piano was properly thin and harsh, the guitar wailed - and the vocals weren't bad, either. I was completely happy with the Zenith player's sound quality.

Final Reckoning

The Hitachi DV-P325U is a bare-bones player at a positively skeletal price. Its forte, frankly, is low cost. It lacks some of the features offered on other players but performs its basic audio/video duties well. If all you need is a basic player, this is a good one.

The Panasonic DVD-RV32 is a pretty amazing player. It sports an impressive number of features, and its performance was first-rate. It can also play music encoded in either the MP3 or WMA format. Its only drawback is the lack of a progressive-scan video output, which is an issue only if you have a compatible TV or plan to buy one in the near future. All in all, this is a terrific player.

The Samsung DVD-P421 does provide progressive-scan component-video output with 2:3 pulldown. That's a fine deal at its price, and its video performance overall was very good. However, its measured audio performance was lackluster. I also have a few quibbles about the ergonomic design of its big remote. Ergonomically, the small remote was fine, but since it has only a few buttons, it's not really that useful.

The Zenith DVB216 is a good little player at a low price. It provides a decent if not generous set of features, and its audio performance was just fine. Throw in its good progressive-scan video performance, and it stands out as a bargain. Whichever player you choose, all four models demonstrate how far the DVD revolution has come. In just a few years, competition has driven down prices while driving up features and performance. The bang for the buck is extremely impressive. The fact is, you don't have to spend more than $200 to get a decent entry-level player.