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Natural Progression

If you are a typical consumer, you have 1.3 automobiles, 1.7 children, one dog, two-thirds of a cat and a DVD player or two. According to Joe Stinziano, director of marketing for Sony’s Home Entertainment Products division in the United States, “DVD players represent the fastest-growing consumer electronics product of all time, with a market of about 18.5 million players sold in 2002 that should grow to around 20 million units sold in 2003.”

That’s nearly 40 million players in just two years-and an awful lot of newly lost remotes in sofa cushions around the world-but it also means millions more consumers are getting video quality far improved over the now seemingly crude VHS technology we all embraced with such awe only a few short years ago.

But the transition from clunky tape to shiny disc did not begin so brightly and is still, to many, a confusion of formats, acronyms and quality levels.

“Hollywood came into DVD kicking and screaming,” says the passionate and jovial Mike Bartlett, vice president and general manager of Rotel in North America. “Now they are wanting a buck or so for every DVD player sold claiming, ‘Without us, your players would be no good.’ They are overlooking the fact that, in the beginning, they wanted to stamp out DVD altogether, claiming it would be a destructive element to their revenues. I’d have to say they’ve all done very well, thank you very much.”

That desire for royalties and licensing fees for each machine as well as every disc sold helps explain why there are so many different competing formats, particularly in the audio segment of the technology-to wit, DTS, Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic, THX and others. “Only by consumers rebelling would the software industry get its act together and probably release only one standard format,” explains Bartlett, whose speech reveals only slightly more than a trace of his British roots. “But it’s all about royalties today, and that is the underlying problem with the whole of the DVD industry. Everyone wants a nickel-or a dollar-on everything that’s sold.”

The continuous upgrading of audio and video encoding on the disc has even made many older machines more or less obsolete. “If you have one of the original Sony machines, it probably won’t play 50 percent of today’s DVD discs because the discs have evolved so much,” Bartlett says. “A DVD is not a CD. When CDs were introduced every disc was the same and would play on any machine. There was a standard set forth. With DVD, it’s a great deal more complicated. DVD, the Digital Versatile Disc, was developed originally for cross-platform use between computers and home players and so the technology is updated weekly, not yearly, and that tie to the constantly shifting computer universe is why not all players can display all the content of every DVD.”

Then there is the issue of interlaced video machines versus progressive-scan video players. Interlaced video is the method by which older DVD players and TVs display an image. The picture is divided into a number of lines-say, 480-and the screen projects the even-numbered lines for 1/60th of a second and then the odd-numbered lines for 1/60th of a second. The brain is fooled into merging these two incomplete images, thinking it is seeing one full “frame” every 1/30th of a second, and as the frames progress, we see motion. In progressive-scan video, the entire frame is presented in one “scan” of the screen every 1/60th of a second-the resulting motion is smoother, the scan lines are less visible and the picture is sharper. “At Sony, we’ve taken that to the next level,” Stinziano says, “with what we call Precision Cinema Progressive technology, which gives a fuller, richer picture with more detail. But, of course, you need a high-definition-television-compatible product to get that higher resolution.” The need for an HDTV to take advantage of increased quality is true of any progressive-scan player.

And just to add to the confusion, when it comes to setting up a DVD player or a home theater system, there are layers and layers of menus to navigate during the initial installation, in addition to the miles of cables. Bartlett elaborates: “The poor consumer often doesn’t realize there are several menus they must deal with-the menu on the disc, the menu on the DVD player and there is a menu in the audio-video processor or receiver you connect them to. When you first plug in the DVD player, it is absolutely imperative to go into that player’s menu to specify whether you want to output a two-channel audio signal, a 5.1 multichannel signal or a PCM digital signal. These instructions are often ignored, and people wonder why things don’t sound the way they should.

“People don’t always get the best from what they’ve bought,” Bartlett insists, repeating a caveat heard in this column in previous home-theater discussions.

When it comes to shopping, Bartlett and Stinziano each have a few words of advice.

“First look at your TV: If you want progressive-scan technology, you will have to upgrade your set to an HDTV,” Stinziano says. “Then decide if you want a single-disc player, a five-disc player or one of the new megachanger products, which can manage 400 or more discs. And you have to decide just how high in quality you want to go with both audio and video.”

Advises Bartlett, “If you want to watch a movie like you did with a VHS tape, then any basic machine will do. And you can’t go wrong buying from one of the major Japanese brands. But if it has a funny-sounding, unknown name on the front, you want to stay away from it. As far as features go, a good display is important, and look for an intuitive remote control. The machine itself should be relatively noise-free-you should be able to open and close the drawer without too much drama. Some drawers rattle and shake as if they’re about to fall apart. Also arguable is how important some of the things are that they claim these machines can do. It’s like buying a cell phone when all you want to do is make a phone call. The phone companies want you to send pictures, play games and so on. Frankly, I use a cell phone to make a phone call, and I use a DVD player to play a movie.”

And referring to the current trend of using one machine for both home theater and music playback, Bartlett echoes himself with this advice: “My mantra to the consumer is, buy a CD player and CDs for listening to music and a DVD player for watching movies and home theater-but expect to change DVD players fairly regularly” because of the ever-evolving software side.

Bartlett also offers some insight into choosing between ultracheap players and ultracostly ones. “I saw a machine the other day for $39 that plays DVDs and there’s a machine for $3,800 from Denon. Is there a difference? Absolutely yes. But there is a law of diminishing returns. Is our $900 Rotel 1060 seven or eight times better than a Sony at $129? That would be hard to measure, but there are elements to our machine that justify the price. It’s similar to comparing a basic Ford Focus with a Lincoln Continental. You get much more comfort in the Lincoln, but it gobbles gas three times faster. Which way are you going to go? That depends on your budget, your eyes and your ears.”

Pressing the fast-forward button, we can focus on a few of the hundreds of options available. As expected, Sony has an expansive line of players that covers just about every possible price point. The DVP-NS755V ($249) is a good basic machine that includes a bonus for jazz fans: It also plays stereo and multichannel SACDs, and with a growing catalog of jazz titles from Miles Davis and Weather Report to the Conga Kings with “Patato” Valdez, the ability to play these superior-sounding discs is a real plus. At the other extreme of Sony’s product spectrum is the high-end ES series, which features the DVP-NS999ES ($999), a player offering more sophisticated electronics and a sturdier chassis designed to achieve greatly improved video and audio reproduction. It can spin SACD stereo and multichannel discs and features progressive-scan video. For a peek into the future, Stinziano says, “Sony is now focusing on multidisc management features and to that end, late this summer we are unveiling the DVT-985V [$400], which is a megachanger allowing you to load up to 400 discs at one time. Plus, it offers multichannel SACD playback and our Precision Cinema Progressive technology. When I’m having a party it works great because I can program it to play a selected series of live concert segments from any number of discs.” Better keep the coffee flowing at that little gathering.

NAD has a 30-year commitment to offering real value, meaning reasonably small cash outlays for very high performance, particularly in the audio arena. In fact, one of its slogans is “Music First.” So it should come as no surprise that the audio section of NAD’s T562 ($799) creates a thrilling sonic experience from both CDs and DVDs. It will also play MP3 CDs and includes HDCD circuits, which increase performance from CDs that have been encoded with that technology. But it also sports progressive-scan video through its component-video outputs and advanced video circuitry, which allows for sharp, detailed, richly hued picture quality.

To most people, the name Rotel connotes a brand of canned tomatoes spiked with plenty of electrifying jalapenos. In the world of audio, Rotel has blazed a pretty hot trail of its own by creating affordable products that even the haughtiest of highfalutin audio critics have praised for their quality of build and sound reproduction, particularly in regard to the company’s digital products. The new RDV-1060 ($899) will inevitably garner another round of raves from the audio press. It represents the logical evolution of Rotel’s well-thought-out approach to engineering digital disc players that are more than respectably solid, mechanically speaking, but also electronically advanced for their price range. This is a single-disc machine capable of playing just about every format but SACD, including DVD-A, DVD-V, CD, CD-R, CD-RW, CD-V and MP3-encoded discs. The design team, which included Mike Bartlett, has taken great pains to design a beefy power supply that guarantees stable juice for every part of this tremendous performer which, like most quality DVD players these days, is a progressive-scan player. “The 1060 is pretty much a built-from-scratch machine,” Bartlett says. “Like almost everyone else, we buy the transport off the shelf. But unlike many, we pay great attention to the solidity of the mechanical structure of the chassis and feature a very solid, extra-thick aluminum front panel. We use a real analog board so the audio is really nice. We also build the machine the old fashioned way. It’s pretty much a hand-assembled product, certainly more hand-built than it is machine-assembled. That’s one reason we consider Rotel to be the lower-priced end of the high end and not the higher-priced end of the low end.”

Like NAD and Rotel, Arcam is a company that began in Britain. But unlike the others, Arcam has maintained all of its operations, including manufacturing of all but two products, in that country. Unlike many DVD players, which are composed of components purchased from outside suppliers, Arcam started from the ground up in the design process. And that includes hands-on design help from the company’s engineers in developing the advanced video-processing chipset used by its players, which are quite different from the off-the-shelf chips most devices use. The Arcam DV88 Plus ($1,599) is a stupendous progressive-scan machine that should please even the most finicky fan of extremely high-performance home theater and musical reproduction. Capable of playing discs of almost all varieties (again, SACDs are the major exception, though HDCDs are supported) and flexible enough for future upgrades to allow this player to stay current as technology advances, the DV88 Plus is, indeed, a premium-level product. No shortcuts have been taken, rather every effort has been made to maximize performance by including the highest quality internal components, each optimized for its specific task-for example, not forcing audio circuits to perform double duty in the video realm or vice versa. The result is one hell of a DVD player that is certainly one of the best out there. Its major competition would have to be its slightly more mature sibling, the FMJ DV27 Plus ($2,599) which was, in fact, selected as DVD player of the year by the well-informed editors of The Perfect Vision magazine. By the way, both of these fine players are now available with DVD-Audio capabilities: the DV89 ($1,999) and the FMJ DV27A ($2,999) will each allow playback of this high-resolution audio format.

After all this, your head might be spinning as fast as a shiny silver disc in a progressive-scan DVD player. When it slows back down to, say, thirty-three and one-third, it might be time to crank up the DVD version of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, that classic film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, open up 1.4 boxes of snacks and hunker down on the sofa with that two-thirds of a cat and the seven-tenths of a child who has already finished his or her homework.

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