V, Inc. Bravo D1 DVD Player

As the age of digital television dawns, one link in the signal chain remains stubbornly analog: the video connection from the DVD player to the display. However, that is about to change. Many displays are starting to appear with a Digital Visual Interface (DVI) input. Now all we need is a DVD player with a DVI output to keep the signal entirely in the digital domain from source to screen—at least with fully digital displays.

Who would have thought that one of the first DVD players with a DVI output would carry a list price of less than $200? Normally, new technology incurs a high cost, but a company called V, Inc. has taken a different approach, introducing the Bravo D1 DVD player, with DVI output, for only $199. The D1 is by no means perfect, but it occupies a unique place in the vanguard of the digital future, and so deserves a serious look.

On the Outside
Like many DVD players these days, the Bravo D1 is quite slim, standing only 2.6 inches tall and weighing 5.5 pounds. The front panel is simple, with only nine buttons (Power, Open/Close, and seven transport buttons) and a circular control surrounded by a ring of bright blue light. At first I thought this last was a jog/shuttle wheel, but it turns out to be a 5-way cursor control for navigating the menu system.

The front-panel display is completely inadequate. When a disc is present, the large alphanumeric characters indicate total elapsed time only; I couldn't find a way to tell it to display title/chapter, track, or other information. The other indicators in the display are microscopic, barely readable even when my nose was pressed against the front panel.

The rear panel is rather spare, but has all the necessary output connectors, including DVI video, component video, S-video, composite video, coax and optical digital audio, and two pairs of analog audio. The nongrounded power cord is permanently attached.

The remote is among the worst I've ever seen; as I used it, I repeatedly muttered "Stupid remote!" à la Homer Simpson. The buttons are way too small and close together, and the labels are barely visible—very small letters that are much too dark on a dark background. I'm told that D1s shipped as of June have remotes with lighter labels, but I'm not sure how much this will help. In addition, there is no Top Menu button, the Menu and Search buttons don't work when the disc is stopped, the Skip button doesn't work across title boundaries, and the Display button seems to do nothing at all.

The menu system is simplicity itself. Three main items—Audio Settings, Video Settings, and Initial Settings—lead to their respective submenus. The Initial Settings menu lets you specify the display's aspect ratio, establish password-protected content blocking, and activate menu navigation for some Video CDs. The Audio Settings menu's single item lets you choose whether the audio signal is sent as analog and digital simultaneously from the respective outputs, or only as digital. According to V, Inc., the digital-only option provides better sync with DVDs, so that's what I used.

On the Inside
Of course, the D1's most notable feature is its DVI output, which provides a direct digital link to the display. This is more significant on a digital display than with a display that uses CRTs. A CRT is an analog device, so the DVI signal must be converted back to analog inside the set before it reaches the CRT's analog driving circuits. Whether or not you get any benefits from the DVI input on a CRT projector or television will depend on other factors, not necessarily the direct digital link.

While no DVD player can create a true high- definition source from a DVD, the D1 also provides upconversion to match its output to the native resolution of the display. You can select the various options by pressing the TV Mode button on the remote until the desired one comes around in the rotation. Our review sample provided selectable resolutions of 480p, 720p, and 1080i at both the DVI and component outputs (plus a DVI setting for the 852x480 Gateway plasma display). Macrovision-protected DVDs, however, which include virtually all commercially available discs, cannot be upconverted beyond 480p at the component output.

As I was writing this review, I learned that V, Inc. has now released a much wider variety of DVI output resolutions, as well as new firmware, which can be downloaded from their website, burned to a CD, and loaded into the D1. This provides 1:1 pixel mapping for various fixed-pixel displays, including DLP, LCD, D-ILA, LCoS, and plasma. All upconversion, deinterlacing, and other processing chores are performed by a Sigma Designs EM8500 chip.

Other interesting features include MPEG-4 decoding for downloaded movies, and possibly hi-def DVDs that might use it in the future. The D1 can also display high-resolution JPEG photo files on CD-ROM.

One feature that deserves special attention is the digital Zoom mode, which offers three levels, labeled 01, 02, and 03. Zoom 02 and 03 zoom deep into the picture, which I did not find useful at all. Zoom 01 expands non-anamorphic letterbox DVDs to fill the full width of the screen on a 16:9 display. But when you change chapters or skip around a disc while in one of the Zoom modes, the D1 drops out of zoom and returns to normal mode, with the letterbox now displayed in a smaller 4:3 window! Chapter surfing is no fun at all if you're watching an ordinary letterbox DVD in Zoom 01.

Testing, Testing . . .
With the help of SGHT editor Tom Norton, I tried the Bravo D1 on three different displays with DVI inputs: the SharpVision XV-Z10000 DLP projector (1280x720), Runco Reflection CL-710 DLP projector (1280x720), and Hitachi 51SWX20B HD-capable CRT rear-projection TV (480p, 1080i). We also tried the player's component outputs on the Sharp, the Hitachi, and the Loewe Aconda 16:9 direct-view HDTV (480p, 1080i).

First, we looked at the D1's dynamic range, which is specified as encompassing the digital values of 16 to 235 from the DVI output. (This is correct for video devices; DVI for PCs is supposed to encompass 0 to 255, the maximum range for an 8-bit value.) The low end of the DVI-for-video range corresponds to a black level of 7.5 IRE, which is fine if the display is set up for the same black level.

However, if the display is configured to expect a dynamic range down to 0 IRE, and its brightness control is disabled when using the DVI input, the player's black level is way too high and there is no way to adjust the picture to be correct. This was the situation with the Sharp XV-Z10000, on which we could clearly see the "below-black" bar in the Video Essentials PLUGE test pattern. The D1's component output has a black level of 0 IRE, which provided a much better dynamic range on the Sharp, especially since the Sharp's Brightness control is available when using its component input. (The component connection had other problems, and the Sharp exhibited other DVI anomalies, both of which I'll discuss shortly.)

On the Hitachi RPTV, the below-black bar in the PLUGE pattern was still clearly visible from the player's DVI output, but the Hitachi does provide full video controls at the DVI input, including brightness (black level), so this could be compensated for. The component output looked correct. On the Loewe, which was set up to expect a black setup of 7.5 IRE, the black level also looked correct from the D1's component output.

At about this time, we were scheduled to pay a visit to video expert Joe Kane's studio for a Q&A session on Digital Video Essentials. Since we do not currently have the ability to convert DVI to RGB for observation on a conventional waveform monitor, Joe graciously agreed to help us run some tests on the D1 using DVE and other sources and his own well-equipped test facilities. These include a Geffen DVI-to-VGA converter. These tests verified that the D1's DVI black-level setup is 7.5 IRE and its component-output black level is at 0 IRE. I can't explain why the PLUGE looked correct on the Loewe from the player's component output. During this investigation, we also discovered that the DVI output's white level is correct, but the component output's white level is low.

According to Joe Kane, the D1 has one of the best 4:2:0-to-4:2:2 MPEG decoders on the market. An explanation of this is beyond the scope of this review; suffice to say it's the process by which the encoded (4:2:0) digital luminance and chrominance data on a DVD are converted to a component form suitable for display (4:2:2). The component information is then transcoded to RGB, which is sent to the display via DVI.

Back at TJN's studio, we next turned our attention to the player's frequency response. Looking at the Luminance Sweep pattern from VE on the Sharp and Hitachi, the 480p DVI and component outputs both exhibited some serious comb filtering that looked like a ripple in the frequency response starting at 3MHz and getting increasingly worse from 4MHz up. Engaging the Zoom 01 mode eliminated this problem, probably because VE is non-anamorphic; from the DVI output, the frequency response was relatively flat up to about 5MHz, while the component output started rolling off between 2 and 3MHz. The 720p and 1080i DVI outputs looked much better with or without Zoom 01 engaged; 720p had slight rippling above 5MHz and a rolloff starting at about 4MHz, while 1080i showed no rippling and started rolling off around 5MHz.

Using the 720p DVI and 480p component outputs with the Runco projector, we also looked at the Luminance Sweep pattern on Digital Video Essentials, which we got on DVD just as I was finishing this review. The pattern did not exhibit the comb-filtering effect from the 480p component output as seen with VE, which I suspect is due to the fact that DVE is anamorphic. It still looked quite rolled-off, while the 720p DVI output looked quite flat out to 5MHz, with a very slight rolloff above that.

To test the scaler/deinterlacer, we used the Faroudja-Sage test disc (which is not commercially available) with the 720p DVI output to the Sharp projector. There was lots of cross-color distortion in the Cross-Color Suppression test pattern [not surprisingly, the only progressive-scan DVD players that have performed flawlessly on this test use Faroujda's DCDi deinterlacing—TJN], and a bit of flicker in the odd/even lines of the Line-Twitter pattern, which tests motion-adaptive deinterlacing. Apparently, the D1 does not employ true motion-adaptive deinterlacing; instead, it interpolates information between fields to construct a complete frame.