New DVD Player Adds DVI Connector

 
 
By Loyd Case  |  Posted 2003-08-06
 
 
 

New DVD Player Adds DVI Connector


A Digital Interface for Digital Video
The march to a fully digital experience in the living room has been glacial at times. HDTVs travails, and issues of content protection, have made both consumers and manufacturers skittish about adopting new technology for the living room. After all, who wants to go through another Betamax cycle again?

However, consumers seem to be adopting digital widescreen TVs at an increasing rate, as they discover that DVD movies look great on them. If the TV is digital, then why cant the DVD player do it too?

In fact, the content on a DVD disc is digital -- MPEG2 encoded video and Dolby AC-3 or DTS encoded audio, to be specific. If the content on the disc is digital, then its a pretty straightforward process to keep the playback in the digital domain until the image is actually rendered for the screen. However, you need two things to do this:

  • A digital display device. More and more HDTVs now ship with the DVI digital interface for video. This is the same connector used by many PC graphics cards to connect to digital LCD flat panels as well.
  • Digital output from the source device. Many of the latest high definition set-top boxes have DVI interfaces too.

DVD players, however, have all had analog output. The circuitry in the DVD player has handled the conversion from digital to analog, then the analog video is shipped to the display device, whether over composite, S-video or component video connections. Recently, though, a couple of players in the market have started shipping DVI-equipped DVD players. One is Samsung, the huge Korean conglomerate who has been aggressively moving into the US consumer electronics market. The other is V, Inc., a spin-off of Princeton Graphics.

Until now, DVI output of DVD source material to digital TVs has been limited to pricey home theater PC setups. But the Bravo D1 weighs in at $199 – $100 less than the street-price of Samsungs DVI-equipped DVD-HD931.

The Bravo D


V is now shipping the Bravo D1, which the company dubs a "media player", due to its ability to play MP3 files, DiVX-encoded video files, VCDs and standard music CDs. Of course, its main raison detre is movie playback, and if it cant do that well, then all the other bells and whistles are pointless.

The Bravo D1 comes in a slim package, with a clean front marred only by the plethora of license logos that decorate the lower left side.

Although the Bravo can play back a wide range of audio and video formats, its not capable of playing back DVD-Audio or SACD content.

The key selling feature here is the DVI interface. The D1 is capable of de-interlacing and scaling the standard 480i DVD image up to 1080i. The deinterlacing and scaling chores are handled by a Sigma Designs EM8500 DVD decoder. Interestingly, the decoder is capable of playing back WMA files, but Bravo doesnt seem to support this feature.

Also present on the Bravo D1 circuit board is a pair of ESMT 64mbit (512Kx32x4) memory chips (143MHz SDRAM), for a total of 16MB of RAM used for the frame buffer. The EM8500 decoder chip has an embedded, 32-bit RISC processor, IDE interface (for the DVD drive), plus the expected video and audio decoder chips. You can also see the Silicon Image DVI encoder chip in the lower part of the picture.

The EM8500 DVD Decoder is also interesting because its one of the growing number of such chips with built-in content protection. The EM8500 limits output of copy-protected DVDs to 480p, unless a DVI connection with HDCP content protection is available. The chip also natively supports video files encoded with the DivX encoder (versions 3.11 through 5.x).

Bravo D1 Setup


We connected the D1 directly to a Samsung HLN-507, a DLP rear projector capable of native display of 720P output. As a check, we also connected the player to the HLN-507 via component video. The unit is also capable of connecting via component, S-video and composite video connections.

Terrible Remote: Like all modern DVD players, the D1 ships with a remote control. While the remote control certainly works, its an ergonomic disaster. The buttons are tiny, almost no tactile feedback exists and the lettering is grey on a black background. Its probably one of the worst remotes we can recall using. On top of that, a delay of several seconds exists between pressing a button on the remote and the resulting response from the player. The D1 remote is as good a reason as any to invest in a universal remote.

Unfortunately, the D1 ships with the composite video output enabled by default. Theres no way to enable DVI through the front panel, so you first have to connect via composite connection, enable DVI in the setup screen, then switch to DVI.

The player worked correctly with the Samsung TV when using 480p and 720p. However, the output didnt look correct when playing 1080i through the DVI output -- significant ghosting and image duplication was apparent. The same held true if the unit was set to 852x480, which is a resolution used by some DVI-equipped projectors.

The player could also play back other media files. If you insert CD-R media with MP3, JPEG or DivX-encoded files, then youll get an alternative navigation interface.

The Audio setup screen allows you to specify the type of digital audio stream. You can either choose to have the player handle the digital decode chores, or sent out the digital stream to your receiver or preamp/processor if it supports a better quality decoder.

Test Setup and Testing


Results"> As noted above, we connected the DVD player via both component output and DVI to the Samsung HLN-507. We used the Avia Guide to Home Theater to tweak image quality of the display when connected to the Bravo D1.

It didnt take long to figure out that the D1 is far superior in DVI mode than component video mode. Picture quality coming through the component video outputs was soft, and in some cases, downright blurry. This was clearly an issue with the DVD player, as we havent seen this occur with our other test DVD players, from Pioneer and Denon, when connected to the Samsung.

You wont want to buy this DVD player for component video playback. So based on that, we concentrated on DVI performance. To better gauge picture quality, we used Microsofts DVD Test Annex (version 2.0) and the test patterns on the Avia disc. We also used a variety of DVD movies to more subjectively check out image quality, including Shakespeare in Love, Spider Man, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Special Edition and Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone.

When running the Microsoft DVD Test Annex, which is used by Microsoft for WHQL testing of DVD-equipped systems, the D1 acquitted itself admirably. The D1 only had issues with the video port section, which plays back source material originally captured by video hardware (as opposed to film content). We saw noticeable jitter in the test pattern, but these problems werent apparent in actual movie playback. However, we didnt play back any content that was originally shot on video (rather than film), so the image quality in those cases may be adversely affected.

Image quality during movie playback was generally good when the unit was set to 720P mode, using the Sigma chip to scale the image. The chroma bug thats plagued many DVD players wasnt apparent in the D1, either. Feeding a 720P display a 720P signal resulted in a crisp, clean image. We noticed no scaling artifacts in any of the DVD movies.

We also tried 480P and 1080i, with mixed results. Using 480P from the unit resulted in an image with visible underscan. The image, as deinterlaced and scaled by the Samsungs circuitry, didnt seem as robust as the 720P image from the Bravo D1. This was a bit puzzling, as other 480P sources have looked quite good on the HLN-507. Still, its a testament to the quality of the scaler built into the D1. Clearly, 720P is the resolution of choice if you have a 720P display.

We also attached the unit to an NEC HT1000 home theater projector, which we reviewed back in May. The HT1000 is interesting, because it scales widescreen content to 1024x576. The native resolution of the HT1000 is 1024x768, and it does not natively support 720P. In this case, better image quality resulted when the D1 was set to 1080i than if it was set to 720P. However, we did notice minor artifacting, mostly visible as slight image jitter, at all settings in video-generated material, though not with film content (movies). Otherwise, 1080i image quality through the HT1000 was excellent.

We also checked the Bravo D1 for DVI compliance, which we recently wrote about. The resolutions supported by the D1 are not particularly challenging, and DVI compliance should be straightforward. In fact, the Bravo D1 passed all the DVI compliance tests without any issues.

In the end, the quality of the Sigma Designs EM8500 chip built into the Bravo D1 is remarkable, particularly on film material -- especially if you consider the cost.

We performed some critical audio listening tests. CD audio sounded fine, but driving DVD audio through the digital output port resulted in occasional faint crackling. MP3 audio playback also sounded quite good, although we only tested with 320kbps encoded material. We also tried playing back DivX-encoded files, with mixed results. Low resolution files played back fine, but one file we tried, which had a native resolution of 1024x768, simply wouldnt play properly, even though we did get audio output.

Finally we did encounter two lockups with the D1. The first was on the Aliens special edition DVD. The other lockup occurred with the recently released Castle in the Sky DVD. The symptoms were the same in both cases. Partway through a scene, the image froze, and the player didnt respond to the remote, except to power down. However, the behavior wasnt repeatable, so well just chalk it up to gremlins or cosmic rays. The D1 played back dozens of hours of DVD movies without any problems.

Analysis and Conclusions


The Bravo D1 represents an excellent chance for early adopters to check out the possibilities inherent in fully digital playback of DVD content. The quality of the scaling at 720P was startlingly good, and watching movies in this manner was a distinct pleasure.

However, its tough to recommend the D1 for users who lack a DVI connector. In many ways, the Bravo D1 seems like a one-trick pony. At a remarkably low price of $199, you get an excellent DVD movie experience if you have a digital display with a DVI input and can display at the native 720P resolution. We certainly cant recommend the D1 if your only input possibilities are S-Video or component video, however.

Also, there are quirks with the unit that are annoying to live with, like the unresponsive, ergonomically-impaired remote and less-than-robust playback of content generated by video sources. But its certainly far lest costly than a home theater PC (HTPC), and about a hundred bucks less expensive than the Samsung DVD-HD931.

And the image quality in the movies we viewed was simply stunning. At that price, experimentation is relatively cheap. If your main goal is to watch DVD movies with amazing clarity and visual quality, and youve got a 720P display, then the Bravo D1 is definitely worth checking out.

Product: Bravo D1 DVD player with DVI
Web Site: www.vinc.com
Pros: Excellent image quality with DVD movies played back through the DVI port to a digital display device equipped with DVI input; low cost
Cons: Pathetically bad remote; minor audio quirks; quality with video-generated source material a tad sub-optimal. Inferior analog playback
Price: $199 (direct from V, Inc).
Score:

Rocket Fuel