DVD Player Review - Oppo OPDV971H
As home theater fans wait for the dust to settle on the upcoming HD-DVD/Blu-Ray format war, a question we must ask ourselves is what will become of our current DVD collections? It's only logical to conclude that it will take years for any new high-definition video disc format to release even a fraction of the movie and TV catalog available now, usually in high-quality editions, on regular DVD. Even if a large chunk of titles we own now come out quickly, how many of them will be worth repurchasing? Major event titles and favorite movies, certainly, but what about the silly guilty pleasures we only watch once a year, if even? What if the old DVD has a better video transfer or special features?
It's clear that DVD is going to be around for quite a while. So the dilemma now is how to get the most out of our standard-definition discs on the fancy HDTVs we watch them on. Part of the answer involves video scaling, which is the process of filling in the spaces between pixels by borrowing parts of the existing pixels encoded in the DVD video. No, scaling will not magically turn any crummy DVD transfer into stunning high-definition, but it can make the image smoother, "fuller", and more stable on a large screen. Many HDTV sets have scaling equipment built in to do this already, but oftentimes the cheap chips installed by the manufacturer are not up to the task, and leave the image looking blocky and pixelated. A good video processor can clean this up for you, but traditionally the decent ones cost thousands of dollars. A recent trend has seen the introduction of scaling properties into the DVD players themselves. Again, usually the better players with these features have been the most expensive, while the reasonably priced models have had a host of quality problems, especially in the area of progressive scan deinterlacing, that make them unsuitable for many discerning videophiles.
Coming from seemingly out of nowhere, earlier this year a new DVD player brand called Oppo Digital (pronounced "oh-poe") made quite a stir with their entry model, the OPDV971H, priced at a very reasonable $199. Oppo's player is not the first to offer video scaling capabilities in this price range, but the high quality of the images it produces combined with top-flight Faroudja deinterlacing puts it a step or two above most of the comparable competition, and it has even been directly compared to top-end players costing several times as much. Initial buzz on the machine from the A/V community has been positively ecstatic, and right now it's one of the hottest DVD players on the market.
So, what's so special about the Oppo? While previous low-cost players from brands such as Bravo, Liteon, and Momitsu have actively courted the videophile consumer, these units are often plagued by poor build quality, glitchy playback, and (a common Achilles' heel) lousy progressive scan deinterlacing. Oppo Digital has attempted to address these problems in their player with solid components, excellent customer service, and the inclusion of Faroudja DCDi deinterlacing. Faroudja is one of the best deinterlacing solutions available today, and is renowned for its ability to properly assemble progressive frames out of complex film-based, video, and mixed-source signals without ugly combing artifacts or "jaggies". Combine this with excellent scaling quality, a direct-digital DVI connection, and as a special bonus the ability to make the player region-free, and you can see why HDTV owners might have some cause for excitement.
It must be noted that the DV971H is designed primarily for viewers using HDTV displays with a direct-digital DVI (or the compatible HDMI format) connections. Although the player also has the standard composite, S-video, and component video analog connections, its best performance comes from DVI. The unit will not output either upscaled nor even progressive scan video from its component connection. As such, if you need a progressive or upscaling component video DVD player, the DV971H is not for you. For the purposes of this review, all tests were conducted using only the DVI output.
The unit also has the usual coaxial and Toslink digital audio outputs, as well as 6-channel analog outputs for the DVD-Audio music format or for using the player's built-in Dolby Digital and DTS decoding.
The DV971H is a remarkably versatile machine in the various media formats it will support, such as DVD, DVD+R, DVD-R, DVD+RW, DVD-RW, VCD, SVCD, HDCD, CD-R, CD-RW, CD-DA, WMA, MP3 ISO, MP4 ISO, MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4 (AVI), and JPEG. All of this was copied from Oppo's press materials. To be frank, there are many other, cheaper players that can support these functions. What's interesting about the Oppo is its DVD video performance, and that is the focus of this review.
The player is compatible with both NTSC and PAL discs, and can convert PAL to NTSC and vice versa. Although set for Region 1 by default out of the box, it can also be made region-free in the service menu by hitting SETUP-9-2-1-0 on the remote and selecting Region 0, then SETUP again to exit.
As a nice perk, Oppo has included a memory buffer for seamless layer changes, and I can confirm that the player zipped right through even the most obnoxious layer change point (Monsters, Inc.) with no discernable pause.
Also a nice benefit for those viewers who own widescreen displays that automatically lock into 16:9 stretch mode on all progressive scan signals regardless of the content's actual aspect ratio, the Oppo offers a pillarbox mode (called "Wide/SQZ" in the menu) that will center 4:3 content in the middle of the 16:9 screen with black bars on the sides. A variable zoom function can additionally be activated if the disc is non-anamorphic letterbox. Ideally, however, aspect ratio should be adjusted at the display, not the DVD player. The pillarbox and zoom functions are useful inclusions if the TV locks out aspect ratio control, but unfortunately the DVD player noticeably degrades picture quality in either mode.
After putting the player through its paces, its DCDi processing did exactly as well as I expected it would. Using the demanding HQV Benchmark DVD, the Oppo received passing grades on all of the deinterlacing tests for detail and lack of jaggies on film, video, and mixed-source signals of various cadence patterns. Not every test scored flawlessly, but that disc is so punishing that a perfect score is nearly impossible. What's important is that it rated well enough to pass each test. In terms of real-world material, the DV971H flew through every torture test that I threw at it with flying colors. Even an anime trailer that turns into a big combing mess on some of the best DVD players came out rock solid here.
I did, however, run into a random and usually non-repeatable problem whereby onscreen subtitles would display incorrectly with only half their fields visible for a line or two before reverting to normal. This occurred on a very rare basis, fortunately, and is so random that it's difficult to pinpoint the source of the problem.
My projector can accept NTSC or PAL natively, and using the Oppo's "Auto" setting the player will output a DVD in whatever its original format is. Both displayed perfectly. For the benefit of those with NTSC-only displays, I also tested the player's PAL-to-NTSC conversion and it did an excellent job, with proper aspect ratio conversion (some cheap players get this wrong) and free of judder in scenes that have tripped up other multi-format units I've owned. On the other hand, converting NTSC to 576p PAL progressive didn't go nearly as well, and I cannot recommend this player for viewers who require that option.
Hitting the "DVI" button on the remote will switch the output resolution from 480p (or 576p) to 540p, 720p or 1080i. These last two are of course the standard HD formats, and 540p is a resolution favored by certain rear-projection TVs such as those made by Toshiba. The player does not support scaling to custom resolutions, as may be needed with many fixed-pixel displays. The scaling results at both 720p and 1080i were very good on my screen, stable and free of artifacts. Some viewers have noted that the Faroudja scaling chip, while very good at deinterlacing, can sometimes cause an artifact known as Macroblock Enhancement when connected in combination with certain display types. This causes blockiness and pixelation, especially during high contrast scenes, subtle color gradients, and fade-in/fade-out transitions. Obviously, such a result is not desirable. This problem seems to be highly dependant on the display type being used, and I did not see it on my DLP projection screen. I cannot guarantee that it won't occur for anyone else, unfortunately. If you've had a problem with macroblocking when using other Faroudja-based DVD players, be aware that the same issue may appear here, and in that case the Oppo may not be suitable for your display. If you aren't sure but are concerned that this may be a problem, be sure to buy from a retailer with a flexible return policy.
The DV971H can produce a very pleasing, vivid and film-like image, especially when playing well-mastered DVDs, but it does have a few minor drawbacks that prevent it from being ranked with the truly top-end players on the market.
First off, from my testing it appears that the player's Mediatek MPEG decoder generates a slightly soft picture and attempts to compensate for this through artificial sharpening enhancement. In comparison, my primary DVD player, a Denon DVD-1600 (which retailed for about $400 when I bought it a few years ago), lacks the upscaling feature found in this machine but has a naturally sharper and more detailed image without artificial sharpening. This can be a subtle problem, mostly noticeable on test patterns rather than real world examples; on good discs it may not be discernable at all, but on mediocre or poor discs the artificial sharpening exaggerates flaws in the source material. At first I was inclined to say that the Oppo adds minor edge ringing to discs. Now I'm not so sure, considering that discs known to be free of edge enhancement still do not seem to be affected. What I believe is actually happening is that the player may not add its own edge halos but will accentuate existing halos present in a DVD transfer. The same can apply to other problems such as compression artifacts. If a disc is good, it will still look good, but if the disc is flawed, those flaws can be slightly magnified. Calibrating the Oppo to turn Sharpness "Off" (now available in the latest firmware) helps a great deal in removing the artificial enhancement, but does leave the picture a little softer than would be ideal.
In the category of subtle problems is an occasional delay in lip sync accuracy, probably associated with the Faroudja scaling. Lip sync is notoriously difficult to measure accurately, but when it's wrong you definitely know it's wrong. For the most part, I did not notice many lip sync errors and most movies play through without incident, but at random intervals the player may start to noticeably lose sync. This can usually be corrected by pausing and restarting the DVD. It can be a nuisance, but again Oppo Digital is working on a fix. They have already implemented a manual audio delay in increments of 10ms, 20ms, 30ms, 40ms, or 50ms, but this applies to the soundtrack globally and does not yet correct for discs that slip in and out of sync.
Finally, I have one programming annoyance to mention. The player defaults automatically to playing all discs with no subtitles, even foreign-language titles that usually default to displaying English subtitles. This usually isn't that much of a problem if you remember to turn on subtitles manually, however it becomes an issue with English-language movies that have a few scenes in a foreign language (such as Kill Bill); these also default to no subtitles at all unless you turn them on, and if you didn't know the movie was like that beforehand it can be quite aggravating. This is an issue that should be easy to correct in a future firmware upgrade, and I hope that Oppo Digital continues to work on it.
One area where Oppo Digital deserves enthusiastic praise is their excellent customer service and support. Since introducing the DV971H earlier this year, the company has been eager to work with owners to resolve quality issues, and has already made a number of improvements that are available as firmware upgrades. Each update can be downloaded from the Oppo Digital web site and burned to CD for easy installation (any player purchased now should already have the latest firmware). While its true that the player still has some outstanding issues, the company's dedication to making this the best DVD player in its price range is unprecedented.
When all is said and done, the Oppo OPDV971H is a tremendous value at its budget $199 asking price for owners of DVI-compatible HDTV displays. It still has some minor quality issues to be worked out, and it may not truly rank with the top-end players on the market (it has been somewhat unrealistically compared to the $3,500 Denon DVD-5910), but the generally excellent picture it produces is a decided step up from other players in its price range. With its DVI output, upscaling capabilities, and region-free playback, it's a real winner. Considering Oppo Digital's dedicated customer support, I expect further refinements to this player as they continue to work out the bugs, and hope to see other exciting products from this company in the future.