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Oppo Digital DV-981HD

Mar 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

Upconverting DVD player takes advantage of HD-capable displays.


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It wasn't unreasonable to hope, after another year of increasing consumer confusion and frustration over the Blu-ray/HD DVD format war, that there might have been some progress to report. Indeed, there were some promising announcements at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) — particularly LG's multiformat player that will play HD DVD and Blu-ray video, but not HD DVD interactivity, and Warner Bros.' noble, dual-sided “Total HD,” or “THD,” format. Still, despite those breakthroughs, for the most part, the war goes on.

So how do you take advantage of today's HD-capable displays? Avoiding Blu-ray and HD DVD altogether might be the smartest solution. Oppo Digital's new DV-981HD is a DVD player that outputs HD images by upconverting SD content as 480p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. Upconverting is not native HD, of course, but there is a whole lot more content available on DVD than Blu-ray and HD DVD combined. It's also a lot easier to create custom DVD content for digital signage, corporate marketing, or houses of worship, among other applications, than for one of the new formats. And sometimes, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference in quality anyway.

MAD, MAD, MAD HD WORLD

“The large majority [more than 75 percent] of televisions 30in. and above sold in 2006 had native HD resolutions of at least 720p,” says Rosemary Abowd of Pacific Media Associates.

The FCC now mandates that all new televisions sold include a digital ATSC tuner. And, because pro AV displays tend to be larger, higher-resolution models, an even higher percentage of displays for business and commercial applications are now HD-ready. Yet, without a clear consumer choice for a high-definition disc format, most mass distribution of recorded content continues to be on standard-definition DVDs.

That's where a product such as Oppo Digital's DV-981HD comes in. Like Oppo's previous models — the $149 DV-970HD and $199 DV-971H — the DV-981HD plays standard-definition DVDs, and not new-format Blu-ray or HD DVD discs. However, all three players upconvert that standard-definition material to either 720p or 1080i, and now, in the case of the DV-981HD, 1080p. The results, while not native HD, take a lot better advantage of new higher-resolution displays.

The primary quality difference between the new 981HD and the previous models is that the 981HD now supports the native 1080p resolution of many new displays, in addition to 480p, 720p, and 1080i. It also supports both SACD and DVD-Audio.

However, there are important I/O differences between the Oppo players as well. The original 970HD upconverts analog component video, but only supports de-interlacing standard definition as 480p (progressive) over HDMI output. The 971H is essentially the opposite: It upconverts content through the digital DVI (DVI-to-HDMI conversion cable included) output, but it does not upconvert via analog component.

The new 981HD upconverts HDMI out and does away with analog component output altogether, but it does have standard-resolution S-Video and composite out, as well as analog and digital audio out. That may seem like a curious choice on the surface, but the 981HD is built from the same Faroudja DCDi electronics design as the 971H, which could not upconvert analog inputs anyway. And for most purposes, direct HDMI is certainly a more elegant solution if the display has HDMI input. HDMI is a single cable that supports resolutions up to 1080p with 5.1 audio, although many users may prefer the analog 5.1-channel or digital audio out to a separate sound system.

The 981HD uses the same chassis design as the other two models. It comes in a black color scheme, rather than chrome, but offers similar design and menus features. Admittedly, that's nothing to brag about. The disc tray is still flexible plastic that doesn't feel particularly robust, although Oppo argues that its flexibility can tolerate more accidental stress. Mostly, I'd like to see the upconversion output setup more clearly placed amid the onscreen menus, rather than obscurely accessed by hitting a separate button on the remote and slowly scrolling through the options.

Oppo's setup pages are mostly composed of straightforward features such as aspect ratio, sharpness, brightness, contrast, and audio setup. However, there are on/off controls for Faroudja's Cross Color Suppression (CCS) and TrueLife filters, both of which are used to smartly process high-frequency noise to eliminate traditional artifacts without introducing unwanted side effects. And Oppo gives you helpful controls to customize audio output for a specific audio system based on size and position of speakers.

PUT UP OR SHUT UP

I tested the 981HD using several different display types, including DLP and LCD projectors and plasma and LCD panels, and I was consistently pleased with the quality of Oppo's upscaling. Indeed, most current criticism of Oppo's upconversion seems to be in combination with DLP-based devices that lack proper calibration. I experienced no such shortcomings. Admittedly, the DLP unit I used to test the 981HD was built on Texas Instruments' DarkChip3 DMD and included Gennum VXP processing.

Still, there was a visible improvement in image sharpness and noise reduction when going from identical content played on a non-Oppo DVD SD player to 480p output from the Oppo to 1080p output from Oppo. I did see rather serious problems in the detection of some of the more obscure film transfer cadences on the Silicon Optix Benchmark disc — specifically, 6:4 and 8:7. However, the 981HD's more typical image-quality results could compete quite well with the quality of broadcast HD from cable or satellite from a DVR source to the same display.

It's certainly reasonable to assume that specific results may vary depending on the display. Any display today has the ability to scale incoming video to the native pixel resolution, and some displays incorporate much more sophisticated processing than others. However, giving a display a better image to start with can almost never hurt.

In most cases, Oppo's upconversion allows you to take better advantage of the available pixels. That's particularly important in an emerging high-definition world where viewers are increasingly expecting, or drawn to, eye-catching images. And until the future of a high-definition replacement for DVD discs becomes clear, the upconverting DV-981HD is likely to be a better solution.


PRODUCT SUMMARY

Company: Oppo Digital
www.oppodigital.com

Pros: High-quality upconversion to HD, including 1080p. Far more affordable and practical for content playback than either Blu-ray or HD DVD.

Cons: Could have smarter basic electronics. Onscreen menu integration could be improved.

Applications: Anyone needing affordable, high-quality playback.

Price: $229


SPECIFICATIONS

Upconverted output resolutions: 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p

Playable disc formats: DVD, DVD-R, SACD, DVD-Audio (also supports DivX)

Output resolutions: 480p, (576p PAL), 720p, 1080i, 1080p

Video outputs: HDMI 1.1, composite video, S-Video

Audio outputs: Two RCA stereo, six RCA 5.1 channel surround, one RCA digital audio, optical audio

Included cables: HDMI-HDMI cable, HDMI-DVI conservation cable, RCA stereo audio cable, RCA composite video cable

Warranty: One year parts and labor



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