DVD Player Review - NeuNeo HVD2085
The search for a high quality region-free DVD player has often been frustrating for movie fans with a taste for discs released outside the United States. Although there are a great many affordable region-free options available to those interested, traditionally the quality of region-free DVD players has been inferior to dedicated Region 1 units. Many are cheaply made off-brand Chinese electronics with poor build quality, mediocre performance, and a lack of useful features for those viewers watching on high-end progressive scan or HDTV displays. Some of the worst players don't even convert PAL format discs to the NTSC standard used on American televisions correctly, leaving the picture squished or distorted. While it's possible to have a good Region 1 player modified for region-free playback, this option is usually more expensive than most would like to pay, effectively doubling the cost of the player itself. The category of reasonably priced (under $250) region-free DVD players got a shot in the arm with the Oppo OPDV971H (reviewed previously for this site), which despite a few quirks delivered high-end performance and is equipped with many useful features. Now we'll take a look at another notable entry, the NeuNeo HVD2085.
Don't let its difficult-to-pronounce name (which may in fact be rebranded at some point in the near future) scare you off just yet. Despite some quirks of its own, the NeuNeo player has some interesting features that are worth a look. The player comes region-free out of the box, will upconvert Standard Definition DVDs to higher resolutions up to 1080p over either Component video or HDMI outputs, and will even play discs from the Chinese HVD High Definition disc format.
Tired of waiting for the American and Japanese electronics companies to get their acts together and settle the next-generation High Definition video disc format war, several firms in China jumped the gun in 2004 by unveiling their own proprietary disc-based HD formats: EVD Enhanced Video Disc and HVD High-Clearness Video Disc. Of the two, EVD seemingly stagnated and has made no inroads towards exportation to Western countries. HVD hasn't done too much better, but a few players are available for interested American consumers and a small handful of 720p native movie discs can be purchased (along with this NeuNeo player) at the NeoDigits web site.
The HVD format has some potential but at this stage is primarily just a curiosity. Of the movie discs that I've seen, all have been mastered from used theatrical prints with visible dirt and reel change marks. The only HVD that has truly impressed me so far was the nature documentary The Traveling Birds (aka Winged Migration), which has fantastically detailed and vibrant picture quality, perhaps the best-looking content I've ever played on my DLP projector. On the downside, the disc has no English translation for the sporadic French narration (the movie has very little speaking and can be easily followed in any case) and occasional Chinese subtitles burned into the print. It's flawed, but as a video demo is pretty fantastic and has a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track as well.
The Chinese con artist caper A World Without Thieves has pretty decent picture quality and optional English subtitles, but looks barely better than a good DVD and isn't much of a show-off. The epic martial arts fantasy Warriors of Heaven and Earth also has English subtitles but a heavily filtered image hardly even DVD quality, and the movie is extremely tedious. I've also seen the HVDs for the two highly-regarded Zhang Yimou kung-fu movies; Hero has outright terrible picture quality and no English subtitles at all, while House of Flying Daggers has both English and Chinese subtitles burned into the print and an overly contrasted picture with muddy details and black crush during dark scenes. A few American movies with English soundtracks are also available (mostly independent or made-for-TV productions, plus one forgettable Keanu Reeves flop), though I have not yet seen those discs.
It's debatable whether the HVD feature alone is worthy of a purchase for this DVD player, but it is an interesting curiosity good for at least one show-off demo disc (The Traveling Birds) that NeoDigits usually packages as a free tag-along with a purchase of the player.
Along with the usual Composite, S-video, and Component video connections, the HVD2085 also offers an analog HD15 VGA port and a direct digital HDMI output. Unlike most upconverting DVD players, this one will allow upscaled video to be output over Component, a very attractive feature for HDTV owners without a DVI or HDMI input.
The VGA connection will output the video scaled to SVGA, XGA, or SXGA computer resolutions. Those choices are only available with that output. Component will carry video at 480i or 480p NTSC, 576i or 576p PAL, 720p, 1080i, or even 1080p resolutions. The HDMI output is good for all of those same options except for 480i and 576i (1080p was recently enabled for HDMI via a firmware upgrade).
Audio connections include both Toslink and coaxial digital, as well as 6-channel analog audio for use with the player's internal Dolby Digital and DTS decoders should you choose to use them.
The included remote control has nice large buttons, but also has some ergonomic design issues with the button layout. It's very easy to confuse the location of critical functions (Stop, Play, Pause), and the Menu button is in a place you'd never think to look for it.
The HVD2085's setup menus are English-based and extremely easy to navigate. It should be noted that the choice of output resolution does not offer an "Auto" function for those viewers who would like each disc type they watch (NTSC, PAL, or HVD) automatically output in its native resolution for your TV or external video processor to scale. If you set for 480p, everything is therefore scaled to 480p. Likewise with any other choice. This means that some viewers will choose to manually select their resolution with each disc they put in, which is a nuisance. The only exception to this is when you choose to upscale all video to the HD resolutions 720p, 1080i, or 1080p, there is an HD "Auto" refresh rate function that in theory will output NTSC (or HVD) discs at 60hz and PAL discs at 50hz. However, in my testing this function was extremely glitchy and actually caused my player to crash, requiring assistance from NeoDigits support to reset the unit's firmware back to the factory defaults.
Disappointingly, the unit does not offer aspect ratio control for the ability to pillarbox 4:3 content into the center of a 16:9 frame at any resolution. Given that most HDTVs lock into 16:9 mode on all upscaled resolutions, this makes the player essentially useless for playing 4:3 DVDs at 720p or 1080i; most viewers will be forced to switch down to 480i or 480p for those discs and let their TV do the pillarboxing or zooming.
In terms of general picture quality attributes, the unit has some faults. First off, the image is a little soft, definitely less detailed than my primary DVD player (a Denon DVD-1600) or the Oppo OPDV971H mentioned above. It's not objectionably fuzzy, but certainly not high-end performance either. Of greater concern is the player's inability to pass blacker-than-black detail. This means that shadow detail during dark scenes may be crushed, and in fact overall black level looked much lighter and washed out at standard calibration settings than either of the other two players in direct comparison. This can be compensated for by pulling down Brightness on the display when using this player, but again detail in dark scenes is likely to be lost.
The HVD2085 uses an AMLogic deinterlacing and scaling chip for its video processing (AMLogic is the only company making HVD decoders). The chip's deinterlacing quality is adequate for film-based movie content, but unfortunately rather terrible with video content such as older TV shows and anime. The unit failed almost every complex test on the HQV Benchmark DVD, including diagonal line filtering, mixed-source cadences, and the infamous waving flag and racetrack tests. For real-world content I put in an anime title I know to be a deinterlacing torture test and the picture was a giant combing nightmare, as I feared. Depending on what type of content you watch, this will be of more concern to some viewers than others (standard film-based movies seemed mostly fine), but is certainly not up to the same standard as the Faroudja deinterlacing in the competing Oppo player.
Since 720p is closest to the native resolution of my projector, I used that for my upscaling tests. I had no problems with scaling artifacts such as pixelation or macroblocking (one of the downsides of Faroudja-based scaling), but the image of an NTSC DVD did seem a little softer after upscaling than it did at 480p, which was already less sharp than other players. I tested the conversion of PAL discs to both 480p and 720p (60hz), and the HVD2085 did a decent job in both cases. Proper picture geometry was maintained without distortion and I didn't notice any glaring faults in the form of artifacts or image judder. This is good news for owners of televisions that don't support native PAL playback.
I compared the picture using both Component and HDMI outputs, and to my eye couldn't detect any difference between them, largely negating any theoretical advantages of the direct-digital connection. On the other hand, this means that either one is perfectly good depending on the needs of your display.
Overall image quality was comparable to the previous AMLogic-based HVD player I've owned, the Skyworth HVD3050, which lacks the HDMI output but can be purchased for almost $100 less (the price gap is narrowed after you factor in shipping of the Skyworth unit from Hong Kong).
The HVD2085 is NeuNeo's third generation DVD/HVD player. Their previous units (the HVD108 and HVD208) were reportedly problematic for poor build quality. Many owners have reported catastrophic playback failure after short periods of ownership. The HVD2085 is advertised as having been designed with better quality components to avoid these problems. In my testing period, the player did nonetheless crash once (mentioned above), but with assistance from NeoDigits support I was able to reset the unit without needing to ship it back. After avoiding the "Auto" refresh rate function, I have not had any other problems so far, but I have also not possessed it long enough to state definitively that the build quality problems have all been resolved.
At a price of $245, the NeuNeo HVD2085 is in my opinion about $100 overpriced judging by its overall performance. I was disappointed by its soft picture, inability to pass blacker-than-black detail, and poor video deinterlacing. I would not write it off entirely, however, as its upconversion via Component video is a desirable feature for many HDTV owners without DVI or HDMI inputs, and the HVD playback feature is something that I personally find fascinating (though its value may be limited in the greater scheme of things). Do these things justify the expense? That's a judgement call each viewer will have to make for themselves, but I am inclined to say no unless NeoDigits reconsiders their pricing structure and drops the MSRP by at least $50.