article last updated on 4.7.2003
So you're in the market for
a DVD player. Great! You may have seen a demo at a
retailer or at a friend's home. You've heard about some of the
benefits that DVD has to offer. But you may or may not know where to start, what
features to look for, what the different brands and models offer, and where
to find the best price. We can certainly help you find the right
DVD player based on your needs and for the best possible price.
Before going further, you may wish to read our DVD
Overview and DVD Tutorial if you're
not familiar with DVD already.
We realize that you probably
have a budget in mind for your DVD player. That's why after
helping you choose the right model, we'll help you find
the best deal. So remember to check our DVD
players on sale page before you make a
purchase. Buying online gives you a wider selection from which to choose, usually better prices, and sometimes you don't have to pay sales
tax (depending on your local sales tax law).
Sure, shipping charges usually apply.
Are there really
picture quality differences
among DVD players - it's all digital data right?
Let's get one tough question out
of the way shall we? Many of you may be asking the question,
"are there really picture quality differences among DVD players - it's all digital
Well, yes and no. First,
the answer to this question depends on how you plan to use the DVD
player. Specifically, we're talking about your system.
Are you connecting your new DVD player to just a TV or are you
planning to make it part of your home theater system? What size
is your TV screen? And if applicable, how elaborate is your home
Second, while the data on the
DVD-Video disc may be digital, the video outputs are all analog (more
on this later). This requires video
digital-to-analog conversion, decoding, and additional video processing by the DVD
player. The picture quality and characteristics do vary among
DVD players and the differences are more apparent when viewing on
larger TVs (screens 36-inch and larger).
Now, in trying to answer the
question, we will be bold and say that:
If you're looking for
a basic DVD player to connect to a
TV that is 27-inch or less
in size and you don't have
a home theater system, then just about any
player will provide a "good" picture.
Yes, even the budget models will
provide a "good" picture. Really. It is
difficult for most "everyday
consumers" to discern the difference in picture quality between
different DVD players on TVs 27-inch or smaller. A similar
statement can be made for
sound quality if the sound is reproduced only by the TV's speakers.
If this is all you need, you may
choose to skip to the end of this buying guide, or
you can read on to learn more about specific
features. (We think it'll be worth your while to read on.)
If you want more of
what DVD really has to offer or plan to hook up your DVD player to a
home theater system, then the rest of this buying guide should
be of great interest to you.
The remainder of this buying guide
will discuss the following topics and features:
media: DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, Video CDs, audio CDs,
CD-Rs, CD-RWs, HDCDs, SACDs
In addition to DVD-Video playback, many DVD-Video players can also
play back audio
CDs and Video CDs (a video format popular in Asia).
Some are able to playback audio CD-Rs
and CD-RWs, if you're into
recording such media. A few can even play HDCD
enhanced audio CDs. Some can play the new Super Audio
CD (SACD) format, a new high-resolution and multi-channel audio format
that supports up to six discrete channels of music. DVD-Audio/Video
players can play back
DVD-Audio discs as well as DVD-Video discs. DVD-Audio is
the other high-resolution and multi-channel audio format that is based on
the DVD physical specification. (Since the DVD-Audio market is still emerging, we will
produce another buying guide
later to cover DVD-Audio players when the time is right. Until
then, you can read our DVD-Audio
Tutorial.) If you plan
to use your DVD player for extensive audio CD playback, do realize
that the quality of audio playback can vary considerably among
players, particularly if you have a good audio or home theater
Types of DVD
players: beyond single
disc and multi-disc players
In addition to the single-disc DVD player
design, some models feature multi-disc
capacity, from two, to three, to five,
to six, to 200, to 301, and even to 403-disc DVD mega-changers. Since DVD players can also play audio CDs, some
of you may want to replace your current CD changers with a DVD/CD
changer or mega-changer/jukebox
design. There are other types of DVD players besides the
typical dedicated home-based component models. Portable DVD players
with built-in color LCD screens (up to 10-inch diagonal) allow you to take the fun
virtually anywhere. Some are transportable units that allow you
to move it from one place to another, but do not have built-in
screens. For those interested in home theater sound, but don't
want to bother with shopping for a separate receiver and surround
sound speakers, there are integrated DVD home theater systems that come with
a DVD player, built-in
amplification, and surround speakers (all in one box). There are
models that combine a TV and DVD player in an integral unit, or a VHS
VCR and a DVD player combination unit. If you're into game consoles, the Sony PlayStation 2
and the new Microsoft Xbox both feature DVD-Video playback capability for about
To maximize the benefits of DVD's high quality picture, pay attention to the video
processing circuitry and look for certain special
effects capability, zoom capability, progressive
scanning capability, and the array of video
For good video reproduction,
most DVD players use 10-bit video digital-to-analog converters (DAC) and video processing chips that runs at
27 MHz. The picture from a 10-bit DAC model more closely
resembles the fine light gradations and color fidelity of
the film source. The 27 MHz video processing speed allows for
detailed decoding of the compressed MPEG-2
video signal. DVD players with these features will produce
pictures that will still vary in terms of quality and characteristics,
partly due to video processing for output to a 4:3 aspect ratio
TV. The Sony ES
DVP-NS999ES reference quality progressive
scan DVD-Video player ($1,000) pushes the state-of-the-art to 14-bit DAC and
108 MHz video
effects: pause, fast scan, slow
Almost all DVD players allow you to pause playback with a crystal clear
picture. Most models have forward and reverse scan capability (with
multiple speeds) so you
can quickly search for a specific scene. Many will feature slow motion
effects and frame-by-frame advance in the forward direction.
Some will allow you to see slow motion effects and frame-by-frame in
the reverse direction as well. Sony DVD-Video players have set the industry standard for the best
and smoothest picture quality during slow motion and frame-by-frame in either forward or reverse
viewing. Panasonic DVD-Video players are equally impressive in
Some DVD players feature a picture zoom
capability, with different magnification levels, so you can study the
scene in detail. Some will even allow you to pan up/down and
left/right in order to enlarge specific areas of the screen. If you have a conventional 4:3 aspect ratio TV, some DVD
players have a 4:3 TV zoom feature that will enlarge the letterbox format picture to get rid of
the black bars at the top and bottom of your TV screen. Just like
"full screen" DVD version of widescreen movies, you lose about
33% of the picture area due to cropping of the sides, but at least you
will no longer have those black bars that can be annoying to some
viewers. This works well for DVD-Videos with 1.85:1 aspect ratio,
but the 2.35 aspect ratio still would have some black bars. The Panasonic
DVD-RV32 DVD player is one of these DVD players.
Progressive scanning is the
ability to generate a picture in one pass (as with a computer
monitor). Interlaced scanning requires two passes
to generate a picture, the first pass for the odd-numbered scan lines,
the second for the even-numbered scan lines. Conventional analog
TV is interlaced scanning with a complete picture
refresh rate of 30 times per second, while progressive scanning
is twice that at 60 times per second.
A progressive scan capable DVD
player outputs a progressive scan video signal via its component video
output, with 480 lines of
horizontal resolution (480p). (The
"p" is for progressive scan.) When
matched with a digital TV, high-definition TV (HDTV), or HDTV-monitor that is capable of progressive scanning and accepts
a 480p signal, the
resulting picture is virtually flicker-free, looks more vibrant,
and has fewer motion artifacts (e.g., jagged edges).
To reduce motion
artifacts to an absolute minimum, look for a progressive scan DVD player
with a 2:3 pulldown feature (also known as "3:2 pulldown" or
"3:2 inverse pulldown"). The 2:3 pulldown feature works on
film-based video sources (most movies) and compensates for film's 24
frames per second versus progressive scan video's 60 frames per second
refresh rate. What you get is smooth images with minimal motion
artifacts when watching film-based sources. So if you're planning to buy a
digital TV, look for 480p component video inputs, consider buying a
progressive scan DVD player, then connect them using component
video cables. A progressive scan DVD player can
output a conventional interlaced picture so you can use it today with
your current analog TV and later upgrade to a digital TV with 480p
outputs: component video, S-Video, or composite video
In order to realize the best
picture that DVD has to offer, use the best video output connection
available. Usually, this is constrained by the available video inputs
of your TV. If you
have one of the newer upscale TVs or a digital TV, chances are it has component video
inputs. If so, be sure to buy a DVD player that has component
video outputs. Fortunately, many of the newer DVD players have
this set of outputs. Component video offers the best picture
quality, with the most accurate color reproduction. If the component
video connection is not available, then look for S-Video input jacks. If that's
available, then it should be your next choice. S-Video has
excellent picture quality, but its color fidelity is not quite as good
as component video. If S-Video isn't
available then use the composite video
connection. While it is not ideal, the picture you get is still
way better than that from a VHS VCR.
For old TVs without any of the
above inputs, you may have to use a RF modulator
with the composite
video output of your DVD player and connect it to your TV's antenna
scan DVD player can only output progressive scan video signal to a digital TV (capable of 480p)
via component video output. Usually a progressive scan DVD
player can output either progressive scan or interlaced scan video through
its component video outputs, via a flip of a physical switch on the back
panel or a selection using its on-screen menu display. S-Video and composite
video connections will not support the progressive scan video signal.
One last thing to note, better-built DVD
players feature gold-plated jacks for better electrical connection.
If you have a home theater
surround sound system or thinking of putting together a system someday, be sure
to pay attention to the DVD player's audio
digital-to-analog conversion capability, surround sound
features, and audio outputs.
For good audio reproduction,
many current DVD players use 24-bit audio digital-to-analog converters
(DAC), operating at 96 kHz sampling rate (that's 96,000 times per
second). The 24-bit/96kHz DAC ensures that the maximum audio resolution from the DVD's
soundtrack has been extracted. This feature is useful only if the analog outputs
(e.g., stereo analog outputs or 5.1-channel analog output) are used to
connect the DVD player directly to a TV, a stereo/Dolby
Surround Pro-Logic receiver, or a "digital
ready"/"5.1-channel ready" receiver). This feature is
not important if an external Dolby Digital decoder (e.g., receiver or
preamplifier) is used via one of the digital audio outputs.
Digital and DTS
If you're not familiar with surround sound
and the different formats, click here to read more about
it now. If you don't plan to build a home theater system any
time soon, click here to skip this
All DVD players include
support for Dolby Digital surround sound, since Dolby Digital is part of the DVD-Video standard. At the minimum,
all players pass the "raw" digitally encoded signal out (for out-board decoding by a receiver or
preamplifier) via one (or more) of the
digital audio outputs.
Some DVD players can perform on-board decoding of the Dolby Digital signal and pass out the
5.1-channel decoded analog signals (five full frequency
channels and one low frequency effects ".1" channel). This
feature is worthwhile only if you have
a "digital ready" or "5.1-channel ready" receiver or
preamplifier. If you have a Dolby Digital receiver or preamplifier, then you should use one of the digital
audio outputs and let the receiver or
preamplifier perform the decoding. One reason is that the
digital signal is less likely to be degraded when passing between the
DVD player and the receiver or preamplifier.
Almost all new DVD players also feature DTS
compatibility. This means the unit can output the "raw" DTS
digital audio signal for outboard decoding by a DTS capable receiver
or preamplifier. A handful of DVD players can perform on-board DTS
decoding and output the 5.1-channel decoded analog signal via its
5.1-channel analog output. Again, this is useful only if you have a "digital ready"
or "5.1-channel ready" receiver or preamplifier.
Otherwise, it is better to pass the DTS digital audio signal out for
decoding by a receiver or preamplifier.
For backward compatibility,
DVD players include analog stereo outputs which can be used for stereo-only
systems (TVs and stereo receivers) or Dolby
Surround Pro-Logic receivers.
If you have no interest in
building a surround sound system, or don't have the budget to build
one for some time, you may want to consider a DVD player with a
"virtual surround sound" feature. This feature
simulates surround sound effects with just a pair of stereo speakers
(or your TV's stereo speakers). While we think the result is a more
expansive soundstage with better ambiance, we have not heard one that comes anywhere close to
resembling a true surround sound system.
outputs: digital or analog
For utmost flexibility in a
home theater system, be sure your
DVD player includes both optical
and coaxial digital audio outputs. This allows the player to
pass the "raw" digital audio signal for outboard Dolby
Digital and/or DTS surround sound decoding by
a receiver or preamplifier. A digital audio connection is best,
as the digital audio signal is less subject to degradation and
interference than the analog counterpart. The optical digital connection uses laser (light) pulses to transmit data in a fiber optic cable (a.k.a. "Toslink"
cable). In contrast, the coaxial digital audio connection uses a
modulated radio frequency (RF) signal and a specialized cable that
looks like an RCA-type connection. Given there is a choice,
there is no clear industry agreement as to which is the better digital
audio connection. Some say that the coaxial connection has
higher frequency response and therefore movie soundtracks seem
"warmer". We have not yet seen any proof that the
claim is true. Currently, we use the optical digital audio
connection in our home theater system.
If your DVD player has
built-in Dolby Digital decoding, then it has a set of
5.1-channel analog audio outputs (RCA-type jacks). Use this
connection only if you have a "digital ready" or "5.1-channel
ready" receiver (which doesn't have any digital audio inputs). If you don't have a surround sound
system, use the analog stereo output jacks to hook up
to your TV or stereo system. As with video outputs,
better-built DVD players feature gold-plated jacks for better
An important and often
overlooked aspect of a DVD player is its ease-of-use. We are
talking about how easy it is to set-up and configure when you use it for the very
first time, and how easy it is to operate in everyday use.
Properly designed on-screen displays and menus go a long way in making
the unit user-friendly. (We realize that you can't always
evaluate this aspect of a DVD player. That's why in our DVD player reviews,
we carefully assess the DVD player's ease-of-use.) You should also look at the DVD player's
front panel and see what buttons are available and if they are
logically laid out. The next section talks about the remote
control as it plays a big part in the DVD player's ease-of-use.
Every DVD player comes with a
remote control (or at least it should). A properly designed remote control can make a
world of difference, as it serves as the primary user interface. A good remote control should be ergonomic (easy to hold
and operate). It should fit well in your hand and has buttons
that are clearly marked, logically grouped, and easy to press.
To navigate the DVD menus quickly and effectively, you should be able
to operate the cursor control and the "enter" buttons easily
and preferably with just one finger.
If you like to watch movies in a
dark room (like us), a remote control with illuminated or glow-in-the-dark
buttons would be useful. Better remote controls will operate
other components such as the TV or receiver (though some can only do
this with components made by the same manufacturer). The best
remote controls, though rarely included with DVD players, has the
ability to "learn" other remote control codes (a.k.a.
"learning remote control").
you find the right DVD player?
Now that you know what to look
for in a DVD player, you are ready to choose your DVD player. To start you
off in the right direction, we have a series of DVD
player comparison charts to help you compare features across a number of different brands and models. You
can also look at our list of recommended
DVD players. We recommend specific DVD
players after careful first-hand evaluation. You can also read
our detailed DVD player reviews
and our DVD player shopping
guide for ideas of some suggested models.
should you buy and where are the best deals?
You can buy DVD players
practically everywhere these days. They have achieved mass
market acceptance since the fall of 2000. DVD players have reached
about 40% market
penetration for U.S. and Canada by the end of 2002. Some of the best
places to buy a DVD player is online. Not only will you find a
wider selection, but you are likely to find better prices as
well. Be sure to check our DVD
players on sale page for the latest sale
prices and discounts by brand and
model of DVD players.
If you do decide to buy online, please
consider supporting this site by buying through our links as we
receive a small commission for the sale. To do this,
simply start at this site, click through one of our links to an affiliated
merchant, and complete the sale. (Thanks very much for
supporting this site!)
If you still have questions,
please check our frequently asked questions (FAQs) page. Have
fun shopping for your new DVD player. For ideas on what DVD
movie titles to rent or buy, be sure to check our DVD new
DVD upcoming releases, and DVD movie reviews pages. You can also
sign up for "unlimited"
online DVD rentals for only $19.95 per month with a free,
no obligation, two-week trial. Finally, you
can stay current with the world of DVD and home theater by signing
up for our free e-Newsletter.
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