Shopping Made Simple: One Player Fits All

Listings compiled by Peter Pachal Photo by Tony Cordoza Nothing's more frustrating than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole - except possibly trying to play a multichannel Super Audio CD on a DVD-Video player. Fortunately, the technology gulf between SACD and DVD-Video - or, for that matter, between DVD-Video and DVD-Audio - has been bridged by "universal" players that can handle both high-resolution music formats along with most other disc types.

DVD-Audio and SACD can bring music listening to the next level of realism. You can play most DVD-Audio discs on a regular DVD-Video player since they also have Dolby Digital or DTS versions of the mix. But Dolby Digital and DTS, as excellent as they are, can't provide the transparent quality of DVD-Audio's linear PCM encoding - the same used for CDs, except with a much higher maximum sampling rate and digital "word" length. SACDs use a different but equally effective kind of encoding called Direct Stream Digital (DSD). So if you want to experience both formats in their full glory - and to access all of the bonus material on DVD-A discs - a universal player is the way to go.

First, decide what features you want, starting with the video processing. The best players let you adjust the color, hue, gamma, contrast, and black level (brightness). All have composite-, component, and S-video outputs, and almost all let you switch the component-video output between interlaced and progressive-scan formats. Even if your current TV won't accept a progressive-scan signal (via component-video jacks), get a player that provides one - especially if you plan to buy a new TV anytime soon.

While you should be concerned about the quality of the video, you're really buying a universal player for the surround sound, right? Most models can decode Dolby Digital and DTS, and all have six-channel analog outputs to send high-resolution audio from DVD-As and SACDs to your receiver. You might also want an extra pair of stereo outputs for feeding CD audio to the receiver.

Only a few high-end receivers provide any bass management for their multichannel analog inputs, so pay attention to whether the player can handle this. Bass management isn't an issue if you have six full-range speakers, but if you have five (or six) small satellite speakers and a subwoofer, you'll want to redirect deep bass from the satellites to the sub.

You'll also want speaker-distance compensation, or time delays, to synchronize the sound if your speakers aren't all the same distance from the listening position. And for total audio control, the player should be able to set the levels individually for each channel. The ideal player will handle bass management, distance compensation, and level control for both formats, though distance compensation for SACDs is still rare.

You can avoid all this by getting a player that can send digital DVD-Audio and SACD signals to the receiver, which will perform all the processing. The Pioneer Elite DV-47Ai ($1,200), for instance, has a FireWire port for digital transmission to receivers with a compatible FireWire input. And Denon's $2,000 DVD-5900 player has a proprietary output for connection with a compatible Denon receiver. Hopefully, digital connectors for DVD-A and SACD will begin to appear in lower-priced players.

One gap universal players can't bridge is the one between the recordable DVD formats.

Some models, for example, can play DVD-RW but not DVD+RW. So take into account what type of DVD recorder you have or are thinking of getting when choosing a player.

The final item on your checklist is the remote control. You'll want to make sure it's comfortable to hold and easy to use because you'll need it to navigate your way through both the player's and the disc's onscreen menus. So pay attention to how the remote's buttons are laid out. Also note if they're backlit or glow in the dark and if you can read their labels in a dimly lit room. Finally, if you're looking to get rid of some of the remotes cluttering your coffee table, see if the one that comes with the player can operate other gear - and other brands - as well.

Sure, most DVD-Video players make movies look great, but if you want to get the best possible surround sound action going with your music, a universal player is the ticket. And you won't have to worry about which format your favorite performers are on. Although many of the players listed above carry hefty price tags, several manufacturers plan to introduce more lower-cost models later this year. With a universal player, you can buy all the pegs you want, whether they're square or round.

PDF: Universal DVD/SACD Players listings