Oppo Digital DV-981HD (UK - DVD)
Chris Gould squeezes the last drops of life from his old collection with the Oppo
Californian-based Oppo Digital have made quite a name for themselves over the last couple of years with their range of feature-packed, yet affordable DVD players. I was first introduced to Oppo Digital when my colleague, David Beamish, reviewed their previous flagship model, the DV-971H, and ever since then I’ve had one eye on their website with a view to upgrading my player.
I first saw the DV-981HD back in November 2006, but at the time I lacked the display technology to take advantage of its advanced feature set. Now, one year and a 1080p LCD TV later, I finally have my hands on one of these little beauties courtesy of Oppo Digital’s authorised UK reseller, CRT Projectors. Yes, that’s right; those of you looking to buy an Oppo can now do so without the hassle of importing, for the very reasonable price of £179.00 including VAT and UK mainland delivery.
Okay, so the first thing you’ll probably want to know is just what you can expect to find inside of the box. Along with the DVD player itself (which comes in its own cloth carry-pouch) you’ll find a remote control (with batteries), a set of analogue stereo cables, a composite video cable, an HDMI cable, a mains cable and a comprehensive instruction manual. The HDMI cable is around six feet in length, which should be long enough to accommodate most set-ups, and one of the benefits of buying from a UK reseller is that the included mains cable is fitted with a UK mains plug.
The DV-981HD is a slim-line player with a black metal chassis and a brushed aluminium finish on the front panel. The panel itself is free from clutter, with only power, eject, play/pause and stop buttons sitting alongside the DVD tray. The tray appears sturdy enough as it travels and blue LEDs are used for power, eject and the LCD display itself. All things considered, the DV-981HD is very attractive.
The rear of the unit is where most of the action is. It is there that you will find the following inputs/outputs:
- HDMI (1.1) - High Definition Multimedia Interface: 1
- S-Video: 1
- Composite Video: 1
- S/PDIF (IEC-958) Coaxial Digital Audio: 1
- S/PDIF (IEC-958) Optical Digital Audio: 1
- Analogue Stereo Audio (Mixed 2-Channel Left/Right): 1 Group (2 Connectors)
- Analogue 5.1 Channel Audio: 1 Group (6 Connectors)
You’ll probably notice the lack of analogue component outputs. This is because the player is aimed squarely at those using HDMI/DVI. It’s true that the previous model included component out, but the impressive DCDi technology (more of which later) was disabled when connecting in this manner so it’s not such a huge loss.
The included remote control is reasonably well laid out and packed with buttons that control almost all of the unit’s functions, but the size is such that it is difficult to reach the uppermost buttons with your thumb without repositioning your hand. This is slightly irksome, but it’s a problem with many remotes. I also found the placement of the play/pause, shuttle and skip buttons a little awkward as they are further down towards the base of the remote. I would have preferred it if they had been grouped just below the directional pad, as this is the natural resting point for the user’s thumb. On the plus side, the buttons are responsive and they glow in the dark!
Now we get to the good stuff; the reason that I wanted a DV-981HD to begin with: DCDi by Faroudja (a Genesis company). DCDi performs a number of functions, including film mode detection, TrueLife enhancement, motion adaptive noise reduction, cross colour separation and deinterlacing, the last of which is essential when viewing standard definition video on modern high definition displays. Have you ever watched a film and noticed strange horizontal lines or jagged edges? Without getting too technical, this is an unfortunate side-effect of the interlaced video standards (NTSC and PAL) used in broadcast television and DVD video.
While most CRT sets display interlaced images, LCD and plasma displays are progressive in nature and must therefore deinterlace video before it can be displayed. Unfortunately they do not always make a good job of deinterlacing (especially the cheaper models), and while there are plenty of budget DVD players that offer ‘progressive scan’ output they are often unable to handle the improperly flagged and mixed-mode content found on some poorly authored DVDs. DCDi, on the other hand, is renowned for producing superior results at an attractive price-point.
The second important function performed by the DV-981HD is high definition up-conversion. Essentially, this technology takes the 480i or 576i standard definition NTSC or PAL video from your DVD and converts it to high definition resolutions at either 720p or 1080p. While it is true that HD displays are capable of scaling standard definition video, the same rule of thumb applies here as it does with deinterlacing—some displays do a very poor job. It is generally accepted that standalone units are more capable than all but high-end displays costing thousands of pounds.
If the last few paragraphs have left you scratching your head wondering what the hell ‘interlaced’, ‘progressive’ and ‘up-conversion’ are all about, why not visit the Genesis and Oppo websites for infinitely more detailed explanations of the concepts.
The DVD-981HD’s GUI grants access to all of the settings and tweaks we’ve come to expect from our DVD players. It’s not the most attractive GUI I’ve ever seen, but it gets the job done and is far from hideous. Settings are divided into five categories: General Setup, Speaker Setup, Audio Setup, Video Setup and Preferences.
The General Setup page allows you to set your TV display type, change the brightness of the player’s LEDs during operation (handy if you like to watch in a dark room), activate the screensaver or angle mark, set DVD-Audio and SACD options, view DivX on-demand info and change DivX subtitle fonts. The TV display option has four settings, 4:3 Pan/Scan, 4:3 Letterbox, 16:9 Wide and 16:9 Wide/Auto. The last of these options is a nifty little feature that pillar-boxes 4:3 content within a 16:9 frame, which is very useful for maintaining the correct aspect ratio of Academy ratio material and non-anamorphic DVDs. One of the most annoying things about my existing player is that it will only output component video in 16:9, which leads to all sorts of distortion when watching 4:3 content.
The Speaker Setup page allows you to set the audio downmix mode (either Lt/Rt, Stereo, Virtual Surround or 5.1), define the presence of speakers and set them as either small or large, and even configure channel delay. The Audio Setup page allows you to define digital output as either RAW or PCM, change the LPCM rate (48K, 96K or 192K), change the audio tone (useful for Karaoke discs and not much else), configure Pro Logic II and Dolby Digital options, and edit the options for DRC, channel trim, audio delay and HDMI audio. This last option allows you to tell the player what kind of audio it should send over HDMI, depending on whether you are connecting to an external amplifier or directly to a TV (you can also turn HDMI audio off completely if you prefer to use either coaxial or optical).
The Video Setup page allows you to change the settings for sharpness, brightness/contrast and saturation. Of course most people will want to leave the sharpness setting well alone at the risk of introducing unnecessary artefacts, but it’s nice to have the ability to tweak the other settings to further refine the image. You can also choose to enable or disable TrueLife, but as many of the player’s more advanced functions rely on it I would advise against turning it off. You can also edit settings for CCS (useful when viewing static images, but not during normal operation) and set the level of noise reduction, but again I recommend leaving this off at the risk of ruining the image. Two video modes are also available (called, unsurprisingly, 1 and 2), which allow you to tailor the system for NTSC or PAL material. Video mode 1 is better suited to NTSC, picking up and locking onto 2-3 cadence, whereas mode 2 will also handle the 2-2 cadence of PAL material. Finally, it is possible to switch the RGB range between normal and enhanced, which is useful for restoring proper black levels on certain TVs.
Finally, the Preference page allows you to define the TV system type, with the options being NTSC, PAL or auto. I recommend setting it to auto, which will output video in the format encoded on the disc, but those without multi-standard TVs (usually people in the US) will welcome the ability to perform standards conversion. The other, run-of-the-mill options include PBC, the ability to define the preferred language for disc’s audio, subtitles and menus, and parental control options.
In order to test the quality of the DV-981HD’s playback I decided to use a variety of sources representing the most common types of video that I (and most other people) watch. Basically this meant anamorphic and non-anamorphic video in both NTSC and PAL flavours, ranging from animation to the latest digital green-screen epics. Where possible, I used a second copy of the film on my current Pioneer deck via component video, flicking between sources on the fly to see how the Oppo faired against my TV’s internal scaling and deinterlacing capabilities.
In order to put up-conversion through its paces, I began with a region one copy of The Phantom Menace. Since the transfer had come in for a lot of criticism in the past, particularly from those with larger screens, I decided it would make for a good test of the Oppo’s prowess. To say that I was impressed is an understatement. While not quite ‘high-def’ quality, the image looked extremely impressive scaled from 480i to 1080p considering how much information had to be interpolated. What’s more, the annoying edge enhancement that drew much of the criticism was barely visible on my 42” screen from ten feet.
Before moving on to the non-anamorphic test I tried a few more anamorphic titles, including Sin City, Rise of the Silver Surfer, Revenge of the Sith, The Incredibles and 300. These all looked great, with the exception of 300, which just looked too grainy when scaled to 1080p. Of course the DVD was never intended to be scaled to such a high resolution, so it’s not really fair to blame the Oppo for what is actually an element of the original source material.
I was anxious to test the non-anamorphic playback because of the aforementioned ability to pillar-box the image instead of stretching it to fit a 16:9 frame. I have a few non-anamorphic classics in my collection, such as the original Star Wars trilogy and the Criterion editions of Silence of the Lambs and RoboCop, so this function really appealed. I tested using RoboCop and the Oppo did a perfect job of maintaining the aspect ratio without me having to resort to fiddling with the television’s zoom modes. What a great little feature. I was also very impressed by the image quality of non-anamorphic video, given that there were even fewer lines of resolution to work with.
In order to test cadence detection I first played a number of titles (PAL and NTSC) on my Pioneer player, both in interlaced and progressive modes. As I expected, my TV did a reasonable job of locking onto 2-3 and 2-2 cadences from 480i/576i sources, but when I switched to 480p/576p I saw noticeable jaggies on PAL material. This is to be expected from a budget deck like the DV370, which just can’t handle 2-2 cadence properly.
Switching to the Oppo saw an immediate improvement over both the Pioneer and my television. For starters, the player locked onto both the 2-3 and 2-2 cadences of the source material and stayed there, which is exactly what one would expect given Oppo’s reputation. Although my TV did a pretty good job at both scaling and deinterlacing, the Oppo was just that bit cleaner and smoother, with less edge ringing. Another advantage of using the Oppo was the ability to enable 1:1 pixel mapping from the 1080p sources to eliminate overscan (I really hate overscan).
I don’t own much video-sourced content (television shows and the like), and what material I do possess is PAL formatted. Still, I gave an episode of Spaced the once-over an didn’t notice any glaring issues, so the Oppo appears to handle video material very well (I’ve certainly read as much in more technically in-depth reviews). Another plus point for the DV-981HD.
One of the problems sometimes associated with the Genesis chipset is the Macroblocking Error, which shows up as a blocky artefact on large areas of flat colour. I’m happy to say that I really didn’t notice it during normal viewing conditions, and even when I looked for it I couldn’t be sure if it was really there or if I was seeing it because I expected to see it. I was also happy to see that one of the problems that plagued my older Pioneer player, the Chroma Upsampling Error, was absent from the Oppo. The ‘green push’ mentioned by David Beamish in his review is also absent (as it was on the DV-971H).
When the time came to examine the audio performance of the DV-981HD I have to confess to being somewhat limited in my ability to test all of the player’s features. Although the machine is capable of playing both DVD-Audio and SACD (Super Audio CD) formats, I don’t possess any such titles. Furthermore, because I listen to my movies though an external amplifier I didn’t really test the player’s decoding capabilities to the full, but I can confirm that the machine decoded both Dolby and DTS without any audible flaws. The same can be said of bitstream output over coaxial, which didn’t exhibit any audio dropout on discs that have caused lesser players to slip up in the past.
Aside from the audio-visual performance, the Oppo also possesses a number of other fine qualities. Firstly, the unit is very responsive, skipping and scanning without incident and traversing the layer changes on some of the more difficult titles in my collection as if they weren’t there. For instance, the Criterion edition of RoboCop has always caused a little bit of trouble for my previous machines—ranging from complete lock-ups on my first player to the slightest of pauses on my current Pioneer deck—but with the DV-981HD I didn’t notice it at all.
Convenience features include auto-resume, which allows you to continue from where you left off even after ejecting the disc (provided the user doesn’t disable the feature), while the bookmark function allows you to store up to twelve user-set points. The usual zoom and pan options are also available, as are numerous slow rewind and frame skip options. I even burned an episode of Heroes to disc to see how the machine handled DivX/XviD. The answer was, unsurprisingly, very well. One other thing I’d like to praise is the inclusion of an HDMI cable in the box. Okay, so it’s not strictly a convenience feature, but I did find it extremely convenient! I’m always astounded by the way small companies such as Oppo Digital can include a high-quality HDMI cable with their modestly-priced DVD player, yet massive companies like Samsung can’t manage to do so with a Blu-ray player costing double the amount. It’s another win for the ‘little guy’.
However, lest I be accused of heaping too much praise on the DV-981HD, I do have a one minor issue with the machine, and it relates to auto resume feature. It’s great in theory, but the reality is that the player only remembers your position in the film if you stop and then eject the disc. That’s right, unlike pretty much every other DVD player I’ve used, you have to actually eject the disc for it to work. If you simply stop playback and then put the machine into standby, the auto-resume doesn’t work. Slightly odd and more than a little annoying.
All things considered, I think Oppo has a bit of a winner on their hands here. Even without the impressive up-conversion and deinterlacing features, the DV-981HD is still a great little machine that delivers solid performance and tasty images that easily match my current DVD player (which has served me well for a number of years). When you add the aforementioned video processing trickery into the mix, the results only improve.
£179 may seem like a lot of money to some of you, especially when you can pick up an up-converting progressive scan DVD player for around £100 elsewhere, but many of the so-called ‘budget’ decks just don’t cut the mustard when it comes to deinterlacing and scaling. Yet more of you might well be asking why you even need an up-converting player in the first place. Well, if you only own a handful of DVDs and watch on a smaller CRT set, you probably don’t. However, if you’re a movie buff with a brand new LCD TV sitting proudly in your living room, you’re really not doing it justice with the £30 DVD player that you picked up with the groceries.
The way I look at it is that the current high-def format war is still raging with no sign of a clear winner. Technology on both sides is still expensive and there’s every chance that you could end up investing in the next ‘Betamax’, so why not maximize your existing DVD collection until the dust settles? Oppo Digital’s DV-981HD offers an affordable way to make the most of your DVD existing collection without having to commit to either of the next-gen formats before you’re really ready to do so.
Review by Chris Gould
Video Specification: Supported Formats: DVD-Video, Kodak Picture CD; Resolution: NTSC 480i/480p/720p/1080i/1080p, PAL 576i/576p/720p/1080i/1080p; Up-Conversion Features: DCDi by Faroudja with TrueLife™ Enhancement
Audio Specification: Supported Formats: Audio CD, HDCD, WMA, DVD-Audio, Super Audio CD (SACD)
DivX: Plays All Versions of DivX® Video (including DivX® 6) with Standard Playback of DivX® Media Files with Encoded Video Resolution up to 720x480 30fps and 720x576 25fps, Plays XviD and .SRT, .SMI, .IDX and .SUB Format
Connectivity: Analog Audio: Stereo/5.1Ch; Digital Audio: Coaxial, Optical, HDMI (1.1); Analog Video: Composite, S-Video (Y/C) (SD Output Only); Digital Video: HDMI (1.1) with HDCP
General Specification: Power Supply: ~ 100V – 240V, 50/60Hz AC; Power Consumption: 20W; Dimensions: 420mm x 270mm x 41mm, 16-1/2 x 10-5/8 x 1-5/8 Inches; Mass: 2.4kg / 5.20 lbs (DVD Player Unit Only)
Retail Price: £179.00
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