DVD In The Fast Lane Page 5

The remote control is crowded with a fair number of buttons, most of them encircling a central joystick control on the upper half. Although the keypad isn't backlit, the buttons do glow in the dark and are nicely differentiated in shape and size. The remote can be set up to control a few functions of a TV, including power on/off, volume up/down, and channel selection.

As you might expect from a player this packed with features, setup was a bit more involved than usual. I chose the lighter, standard setting of the player's black-level control (7.5 IRE) - there's also a dark setting that delivers boosted, though inaccurate, contrast - and then selected my display type. The four options are somewhat confusingly called Direct-View, CRT Projector, LCD Projector, and Projection TV (meaning rear projection).

There's another menu to select speaker size and delay times when the player's internal Dolby Digital/ DTS decoder and 5.1-channel analog audio output are used. As in most other current DVD-Audio-compatible players, however, the Panasonic's bass-management settings don't apply to DVD-Audio playback, which in most cases generates six full-range analog signals that must be sent to a preamp or receiver's multichannel audio input.

Hitting the display button on the remote while playing a DVD calls up a number of additional menus. Some of these unlock strange and useless features, such as presets that lend the video a negative, black-and-white, or sepia look. Bizarre. Others are more useful. The video-adjustment menu allows you to make fine adjustments to contrast, brightness, sharpness, color, gamma, and three separate types of noise reduction. Additional adjustments become available when the progressive-scan output is active. The player remembers the individual settings you've made for as many as 200 discs - possibly your entire DVD collection. One especially cool feature of the RP91 is aspect ratio control when the player is in progressive-scan mode. The control lets you display a 4:3 image on a 16:9 screen with correct geometry, either at center screen for 4:3 images, or zoomed to full-screen for nonanamorphic letterboxed programs. This feature is important because many HDTV monitors with 16:9 screens lock into a widescreen display mode when fed a progressive-scan signal from a DVD player. This isn't a problem if the disc is an anamorphic widescreen transfer. But if the program is in the standard 4:3 aspect ratio - full-screen or letterboxed - the widescreen display may stretch the image, making it look distorted and unnatural.

The Panasonic produced fine-looking images from its interlaced output, but the player's outstanding feature was its progressive-scan output. Viewed on a widescreen HDTV monitor, the boardroom scene from The Avengers was rich in contrast, the colors deeply saturated without appearing soft, with loads of fine detail visible in the furry costumes. The image was solid and filmlike, and no motion artifacts accompanied vertical camera moves.

Readers who've been following the progressive-scan DVD player tests in Sound & Vision will be happy to learn that I detected none of the color-streaking artifacts that have plagued other players we've recently tested. In "Ringo's House" from the Beatles' animated Yellow Submarine, for example, the edges between the red and blue stripes of Ringo's shirt looked completely solid and straight. On a few other players I've used - including some costing more than twice as much as the RP91 - the red stripes had streaky, jagged edges that were pretty distracting.

To test DVD-Audio performance, I played the Buena Vista Social Club disc (Warner Bros.). On a five-channel mix of "De Camino a la Vereda," the lead vocal emanates from the front left/right speakers while a chorus of backing vocals spreads around to the rear and trumpet runs and percussion instruments come at you from all sides. The trumpet sounded extremely vivid, crisp, and lifelike. Listening with my eyes closed, I felt as if I was sitting among the musicians as they played.

With its all-around excellent video quality, DVD-Audio playback capability, and competitive $800 price, Panasonic's DVD-RP91 is the most impressive DVD player I've had my hands on so far. Its ability to read DVD-RAM discs helps sweeten the deal, although that feature won't be much of a factor until DVD recorders become more widely available and prices reach more affordable levels. (So far the only stand-alone DVD-RAM recorder is the $4,000 model Panasonic introduced last year, although the company plans to offer a $1,500 DVD recorder in October.) In a world where $800 won't get you a great many things, it's nice to know that it can buy a state-of-the-art DVD player.

I've been amazed at how quickly the DVD format has found acceptance with the general public. And now that I've had a chance to try out these four players, I'm also amazed how closely performance and features correspond with price - at least with DVD players, you tend to get what you pay for. With its progressive-scan output, DVD-Audio playback, and other advanced features along with its excellent video and audio performance, the Panasonic DVD-RP91 more than justifies its price. Pioneer's DV-444 also offers progressive-scan playback, but owing to its less-than-stellar image quality in that mode, I'd mainly recommend it to someone looking for a DVD player that also handles MP3 playback. The entry-level JVC XV-S45GD offers solid features and performance at a very reasonable price. Finally, Oritron's heavily discounted DVD 800 gets you into the game with a few compromises in features but little compromise in basic performance. One of these players is the right fit for you. So hurry up and go get one! What are you waiting for?