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DVD Player Buying Guide

What you must know...


article last updated on 4.7.2003 | printer-friendly format click for printer-friendly format   

Samsung DVD-L100 portable DVD player with 10-inch diagonal 16:9 widescreen LCD monitor ($750) 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 data right?"

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 theater system?  

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 DVD 
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: 

Compatible 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 DVD players, particularly if you have a good audio or home theater system.

Types of DVD players: beyond single disc and multi-disc players

Sony DAV-C770, an integrated DVD home theater system ($600)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 $200.

Video Features

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 outputs.

Video processing

Sony ES DVP-NS999ES, state-of-the-art progressive scan DVD-Video player with SACD playback ($1,200)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 processing.

Special effects: pause, fast scan, slow motion, frame-by-frame

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 this regard.

Zoom

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 Scan

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 input.

Video outputs: component video, S-Video, or composite video

component video outputIn 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 inputs.  

A progressive 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.

Audio Features

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.

Audio digital-to-analog conversion

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.

Surround sound: Dolby 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 discussion.

Dolby Digital logoAll 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 surround sound 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.

Audio 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 electrical connection.

Ease-Of-Use

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.

Remote control

An example of a well designed remote control (for the Sony DVP-CS870D), click to enlargeEvery 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").

How can 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.

Where 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 online 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 releases, 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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