Choosing a DVD Player

DVD technology has advanced incredibly in the few years that DVD players have been on the market, and the price drops have been stupendous. Like every single piece of A/V gear, you can spend a fortune on a DVD player if you want to. And you may want to if you're building a really fancy, no-holds-barred, high-end home theater. Although you can get a great picture from a $129 model, if you have a high-end video projector and a top-of-the-line surround sound audio system, you may want to buy a fancier model. Such a system yearns for higher-quality electronic components and more powerful chips to convert the digital data on the DVD disc into video and sound.

So what features should you look for? The following items are the key things to put on your mental checklist as you start shopping:

  • Connections on the back: For video, the best connection for DVD players is the component video connection, and not all DVD players have these connections (nor do all TVs). If you have a TV that can accept these connections, make sure that you get a DVD player that can also use them. On the audio side of things, you'll find two kinds of digital connectors (for Dolby Digital and DTS digital surround sound) — the coaxial and optical (or Toslink) connections. The key thing here is to make sure that the connectors on your DVD player match up with those on your A/V receiver.
  • Single or multidisc capability: DVD players come in single and multiple disc models. For just watching movies, a single disc player is fine, but if you plan to use your DVD player as your only CD player, you may want to pay a bit more for a multidisc player that lets you provide hours of background music during, for example, a party.
  • Progressive or interlaced: Progressive scan is becoming a really big deal because the video industry is gradually moving from interlaced video toward a progressive video future. Bottom line: If you have an HDTV or other progressive scan monitor, you want a DVD player that offers progressive scan capabilities. Although most progressive scan TVs have a built-in deinterlacer for playing interlaced material (DVDs are still interlaced), the deinterlacers in most progressive scan DVD players (not all, but most) are better. Even if you don't have a progressive scan TV but may someday, consider a progressive scan DVD player as well, especially because prices on these DVD players have dropped so much that they're hardly more expensive than a regular DVD player.
  • Adjustability: To get the best out of a home theater, you need to do more than just plug everything in properly. You also need to spend some time tweaking the audio and video settings to get the best picture in your room. Most of these adjustments are done on the TV or projector itself, not on the DVD player. But some DVD players allow you to adjust things such as brightness (or black level) in the DVD player.
  • Surround sound decoder: If you're starting your home theater from scratch, buy a home theater receiver (or separate components decoder) that is capable of decoding (at a minimum) Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS Digital surround sound signals. If, however, you're adding a DVD player into an existing home theater with an older receiver that doesn't support digital surround sound, you can buy a DVD player with a built-in surround sound decoder. The downside of this type of player is that you need to use six analog audio cables to connect the DVD player to your receiver, instead of a single digital interconnect. Some of the older receivers were marketed as "Digital ready" with six preamp jacks on the back for just this purpose; if your receiver doesn't have these six inputs (or its own Dolby Digital decoder), you can't play back digital 5.1 channel surround sound with it!
  • Audio disc support: All DVD players can play back store-bought, prerecorded CDs. Not all, however, can play back homemade CD-R or CD-RW discs, nor can many DVD players play back CDs containing MP3 music files. If these features are important to you (and you don't have a CD player that can handle this task for you), make sure that your DVD player can handle all these formats before you buy.
  • Recording capability: Just as the CD has moved from a factory produced, read-only CD to a "make your own" medium (such as CD-Rs and CD-RWs), so has DVD recording started to become a truly consumer-friendly technology.
  • Remote control: Most people have too many remote controls when they get into home theater. To avoid remote overload, look at how other systems in your home theater can control your DVD player. For example, many A/V equipment vendors have special "system link" cables that let the receiver control the DVD player and other components. The downside of such systems is that you must buy all your equipment from the same vendor to take advantage of them. The alternative is to use a universal remote control to control everything. If you're going down this route, ask your dealer whether there are any special codes or other things you need to consider before buying a specific DVD player.
  • DVD extras: Many DVDs include extra features that you'd never get on a VHS tape, laserdisc, or other (older) video source. You can also find DVD players that have special features, such as a digital zoom that lets you enlarge part of the picture on your screen, or a frame-by-frame fast forward, so that you can watch that starship explode in excruciating detail. You can even buy DVD players that display pictures on your TV from Kodak's PictureCDs or your own homemade CD-R with standard PC or Mac JPEG picture files.
  • All-in-one functionality: The DVD players with built-in surround sound decoding are a first step in this direction, but if space is limited in your home theater, you may want to take the full leap — DVD players and A/V receivers all in one slim chassis. Lots of these models are part of lower-priced "home theater in a box" systems, but you can also find very high-quality (and expensive) all-in-ones.

If you're buying an inexpensive DVD player, it's probably okay to choose one based on features and reviews. But if you plan to spend $1,000 or more on a DVD player and are lucky enough to have a good home theater shop or dealer nearby, take the time to get a good audition of the DVD player.

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