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Introduction
One of the most popular DVD players of the past 12 months has been the Pioneer DV636. This has won many fans and plaudits for it's excellent picture and performance, at a very reasonable price. But, things move on, and Pioneer know that if they are to keep a big chunk of the mid priced DVD market they need to offer a better machine this year, but at a similar price.

"If you are expecting a DVD player with a battleship level of build, then you are going to be disappointed...."
Initially things weren't looking good. The Pioneer DV646 is the starting model in Pioneer's range that offers not only DVD Video, but also DVD Audio playback. Because of this Pioneer were originally planning to release the DV646 with a RRP of £550. At that price the Pioneer would have found it difficult to find customers willing to pay an extra £200 for the DVD Audio capabilities, especially with the lack of DVD Audio software that is currently available. But then within a few weeks of release the RRP had been dropped to £400, meaning that the usual selling price for a multiregion DV646 would be around £350. Much better.

So it would seem that Pioneer has got the pricing right for the DVD, but what is the player itself like?

Connections


With this being a step up from the starter DVD players you have a wide choice of connection options, giving a large degree of flexibility when connecting the 646 into your system. You have twin scarts, one with an RGB output, and the other with a *pass through* facility. Useful if you have a couple of RGB enabled items (such as DVD and satellite box) and only a single RGB input on your TV. Alongside these are twin S-Video outputs, and two composite video outputs.

On the Audio side you have the choice of optical or coaxial digital outputs, twin analogue audio outputs, and a 6-channel output fed from the onboard decoder. If you want to take full advantage of the DVD Audio capabilities on the DV646 this 6-channel output will need to be connected to a suitable 6-channel input on your AV receiver (For copyright protection reasons DVD Audio needs to be decoded on board the DVD player, not the amplifier).

The only connection that the DV646 is lacking is a component video output for connecting to a suitable TV or projector, but at the price, and with DVD Audio included, this is understandable. Disappointingly though this vast range of connections are only nickel-plated. Only a minor point, but when we see a nice DVD player, we also like seeing shiny gold connections. A minor point, but with a RRP of £400, something we would expect.

Aesthetics


Nothing to write home about really. The Pioneers design looks like it has been lifted directly from the beginners guide to DVD player design. The fascia is designed to look like brushed black aluminium, but is actually plastic. The tray for your discs is mounted in the middle, with the display mounted underneath. To the left is a button to dim the display (nice touch, but hardly important), and to the right are the main control buttons (play, pause, stop, fast forward, rewind, open/close).
 
Apart from the power button mounted at the left, that's your lot. Betraying its Audiophile aspirations is a small logo declaring DVD - Audio/Video just below the display, but apart from that this is your average black plastic £200 DVD player. The best way to describe the look of the Pioneer is... bland. There is very little to dislike about the way that it looks, but at the same time also very little to separate it from the 000's of other DVD players currently available.

Remote


The remote control is much the same as the aesthetics - solid, but nothing to write home about. This is a remote that has been around for a few years now, and is starting to show it's age. It has no jog shuttle or back lighting, and is the same one that is supplied with the starter models in the Pioneer range. Layout of the remote is fairly standard. You have the set up buttons at the top. Below this is a four-way cursor for navigating around your menus, and at the bottom the main playback controls. There is nothing on the remote that makes you think “Oooh, what a nice touch” but at the same time it is well thought out and easy to use.

My main gripe would be that the buttons and writing on the remote control are rather small, which can make it fiddly to operate when the lights are down, or if you have larger than average fingers.

Settings


In order to get the very best performance out of your DVD player, you need to tell it what you would like it do. Using the SETUP menu does this. By pressing the button marked setup on the remote control you are presented with a screen allowing you to adjust the DVD player settings. Here you get a number of choices that will change the performance of the DVD and also how it operates. Most of these are fairly standard, allowing to set the scart output to RGB, tell the player what TV size you are using (16:9 or 4:3) and adjust the digital outputs. For anybody who has used a DVD player before
there is nothing out of the ordinary here. Until you look a little closer that is, and then we start to see just what makes this DVD player a little bit special.

Within the Video settings there is a menu called Video 2, within this, one called Video Adjust, and then by selecting Video Setup we get to something very useful. This is a menu that allows you to adjust the picture output from the DVD player. If you find the blacks are looking a bit grey, no problem, just adjust the black level. Picture too soft? - no problem, just increase the sharpness. If flesh tones are looking a bit false, no problem, you can adjust the level of hue (red and green colours).

This is a very useful facility as it allows you to match the DVD player to your TV or projector without adjusting their settings. Because of this you can adjust your DVD player to match your system, rather than compromising performance from normal TV, satellite or Video to make sure your DVD looks good. If you have a good quality TV of up to 29" or so, you'll find these extra adjustments come in very handy for tweaking the picture, but where they really come into their own is when the DV646 is connected to a normal TV 32" or larger, and especially on back projection TV's or projectors. If you are using this type of display for your picture you'll find the extra settings invaluable, and really do make a huge difference

Build Quality


If you are expecting a DVD player with a battleship level of build, then you are going to be disappointed. The whole package (box and all) weighs in at a decidedly light 4.9kg, and the DVD itself is only 2.9kg. This is not flagship build by any stretch of the imagination. Part of the reason for the lightweight is the rather basic construction. There is no metal fascia here, just black plastic. The lid is pressed steel, and internal damping is conspicuous by its absence. Build wise this DVD player, though nicely screwed together is no better than a lot of machines costing half the price. Solid and safe, but nothing to get excited about.

DVD Video playback


This is the area where the Pioneer starts to prove it's worth. The first thing that you notice when placing a disc in the tray and pressing play is just how quiet and quick it is to start playing the disc. Though this is a minor feature, if you've ever used a DVD player which takes an age to start up, move through the menus and which allows you to make a cup of tea during the layer change you'll know how important this is.

If you take the DV646 out of the box and then carry out the basic setup the picture is not bad at all. Edges are sharp, colours are natural, and the picture has a nice depth to it that its cheaper rivals would be hard pressed to match. Delve a little deeper into the setup menu though, and start tweaking the DVD to match your TV, and connections used, and things really start to look very good indeed. One disadvantage of the majority of DVD players is that they often have a best connection method, normally a RGB scart, and it can be difficult to get a good picture if you use S-Video, or a back projection TV or projector. By tweaking the advance set up menus you'll find the DV646 has enough control to get an excellent picture, regardless of what you are using to display the picture.

I always think that the measure of a good DVD player is how little you notice about the picture. On a  bad DVD player it is very easy to see what it is doing badly. If images have unnatural colours, or the edges of an image is dull then you can easily see what the DVD player is doing wrong. When a DVD player performs well you should be presented with a good picture, which it is difficult to fault. When I connected the DV646 up, and carried out the basic setup I was presented with a  picture that looked pretty good. With a small amount of adjustment (about 5 minutes worth) the picture became very good. Compared to an older, but more expensive machine (the Pioneer DV737) the differences in the picture quality were small, and only noticeable in a direct comparison.

CD and DVD Audio playback


On the audio side I was pleased to find that the DV646 is pretty good with normal audio CDs. Most DVD players sound OK with normal audio discs, but if you are looking to replace a decent CD with a DVD to do the lot, they have often left a lot to be desired. If you connect the DV646 to your AV amp via the audio outputs you'll listen to an open and detailed sound, with good seperation of instruments, and also a solid soundstage with good depth. It does lack a little warmth and bass compared to the very best £200-£300 CD
players, but as a CD player the performance was good enough to be impressive, and significantly better than the machine it replaces, the DV636, which was no slouch when it came to audio replay.

While we're on the subject of audio replay we should also take a look at the playback of DVD Audio discs. This is a multi-channel format designed for music use that takes advantage of the extra capacity available on DVD discs. DVD Audio discs will generally be recorded in 5.1 channels (the same as normal DVD films) and will be played using a menu, again the same as normal DVD films. The main difference is that to take the DVD Audio signal out of the DV646 you will need to use the 6-channel output on the rear, linked into a suitable 6-channel input on your AV Amplifier. The reason for this is to stop large scale copying using the perfect quality from the digital output.

On the technical side DVD Audio offers 24-bit/96 kHz sampling compared to 16bit/48kHz for normal DVD video, and 16bit/44.1kHz sampling for normal audio CDs. What does this mean? Basically that DVD audio records an awful lot more information onto the disc than either DVD Video or CD's, and should theoretically sound much better. This though is presuming that the user will have equipment (e.g. amplifier and speakers) able to reproduce the improvements in quality that DVD Audio offers.

There is also the issue of the amount of software available, which at the moment is sadly lacking. There is not much point having the best possible Audio replay if there is nothing you like to listen to!

Anyway, I decided to have a listen to a demo disc that we had acquired, connected through a Denon AVR3802 and a 5.1 speaker package consisting of Celestion A series speakers and a REL Q150. By virtue of the 6-channel output on the DVD and the 6-channel input on the AVR3802 connecting the system up was as straightforward as connecting three pairs of QED Silver spiral cables between the amp and DVD. Then the system needs to be matched to your listening position, again adjusting the settings on the DV646 allows you to adjust the volume levels and delay putting the listener in the right position.

This was the first thing that I noticed about DVD Audio. The positioning of the speakers and the setting of the volume levels make a huge difference to the quality of the audio that you hear. Where DVD Video sound allows a certain degree of flexibility with the positioning of the speakers, DVD Audio is far less forgiving. Get it wrong, and DVD Audio sounds frankly disappointing. If on the other hand you have the luxury of setting the
system up for a single seating position, then you'll find that the soundstage and placement of instruments just seems to snap into place.

Loading up our one and only DVD audio disc on the system sound quality, compared to normal audio CDs in 2 channel is impressive. Bass is deep but with excellent control, the front three speakers gel together extremely well, and the rears tend to disappear into the soundstage and do their stuff very discretely. Until there are more DVD Audio discs on the market it will be difficult to get a good idea of just how much better DVD Audio will be than normal CD's (or DVD Video films containing music for that matter) but first impressions are very promising.

Conclusion


The Pioneer DV646 is a good safe bet for those looking for something a cut above the £200-£300 crop. Build is a little disappointing, as is the remote but the picture performance makes up for this. If you have reasonable TV (32" or above) or a back projection TV or Projector then the extra control over an already good picture will allow you to get some stunning images. On the audio side, CD replay is very good at the price, and you also have the facility to play DVD Audio discs.

Is the DV646 that much better than it's cheaper siblings, the DV444 and DV545? In all honesty, if you are looking for a straight DVD Video player, and have little interest in CD or DVD Audio replay, then you can get performance that is very close from the Pioneer DV545, which also comes with a better remote control, and at a lower price. It would only be worth spending the extra for replay of normal DVD films if you are replacing a £200 DVD player or are using a big screen. Then you will notice subtle improvements in the picture performance.

Alternatively if you have been hanging onto that 5-year-old £300 CD player for CD replay, and have a cheaper DVD Player, but are looking to replace both of them with one box that does the lot then the argument for buying the DV646 becomes a lot stronger. CD replay is above average at the price, and though there are not many DVD Audio discs available at the moment, this should change quickly. If you like your music, you will have a player which is able to take advantage of the DVD Audio discs that will start increasing in number.

In short, if you are not interested in CD or DVD Audio replay, it may be worth looking at the cheaper machines, unless you have a very good TV or a projector.

On the other hand, if DVD Video is just one of your requirements, along with normal CD replay, and the ability to replay DVD Audio discs this is a player that you can buy safe in the knowledge that it offers fine performance across a wide variety of formats with solid performance across the board. Just don't expect to be impressed by the build.


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