So by now you have figured that the Oppo DV-981HD sounds brilliant in theory. It has a ton of features, and is very well designed. But what good are all these features if they don't work properly? What if it chokes on deinterlacing? Is the upscaling much better than letting the TV do the work?
To find out, we have subjected the DV-981HD to a multitude of objective tests, and then I watched hours of footage for some subjective analysis. The timing of this review couldn't have been more perfect; I have been enjoying quite a few DVDs on my new home theatre system lately, and just a few weeks ago purchased a PS3 and some Blu-Ray movies.
My display is a 32" Hitachi 32LD8800TA LCD. It supports up to 720p and 1080i, and has a native resolution of 1366x768. Therefore, all tests were done in 720p mode. Sorry I couldn't test this in full 1080p mode, but I have a very small living room so it only made sense to go up to 32" at this time for my TV. 1080i could have been tested, but would have been redundant, since the DVD material would have been deinterlaced, then interlaced again, then deinterlaced by the TV while at the same time being upsampled by the DVD player then downsampled by the TV.
First, I put it through all the test patterns found on the Digital Video Essentials DVD. This disc is a must-have for anyone with a DVD player wanting to play material that is close to reference quality as possible. For just around $15, it's totally worth picking up (when I first bought it, it cost over $40).
It passed all of the video test signal patterns (Chapter 12) without any major problems that I noticed, besides some minor banding in the main geometry pattern. The picture resolution patterns (Chapter 13) also showed some banding in the higher frequencies, but this could be the display. Aside from those minor issues, everything else that I could test passed with no problems.
Next I plugged in the HQV Benchmark DVD. This tests deinterlacing performance, noise reduction, detail enhancement, and the ability to detect wacky cadences that source material sometimes uses.
The DV-981HD breezed through most of the tests with flying colours. It scored maximum points on the Jaggies Pattern 1, and scored 3/5 on Pattern 2. It also scored perfect on the Waving Flag test. Detail was perfect, and Noise Reduction performed better than that on my TV (although for good source material, you won't need to enable it).
3:2 detection kicked in within 1/2 of a second, which is a perfect score (the test used here is from Super Speedway, where the footage in the clip does not start on the proper frame, and this can trick some DVD players into playing the wrong cadence).
The only problems the Benchmark DVD presented for the DV-981HD were the odd cadences. Almost all cadences displayed jaggies and flickering on the coffee cup in the footage, but overall the quality was good. Of course, the DV-981HD had no problem with the 3:2 Film mode cadence. This group of 5 tests are all considered one score though, so if a player fails any of them, it gets a 0/5.
Overall, the DV-981HD does an excellent job deinterlacing and producing a clear, detailed image.
I have been using the DV-981HD as my main player (switching over from using an XBOX 360 as a DVD player - god that thing is LOUD) for the past 2 months or so. Most of the DVD's I watch are rentals, but I have also burned some backups (I ripped backups of many DVDs from my extensive library before moving to Hong Kong from Canada last year).
My overall impression of the DV-981HD is that if the source material is very high quality, the results are excellent - almost reaching close to 1080i HD quality like that seen on Blu-Ray. My first 'wow' experience with the Oppo was watching Kingdom of Heaven: The Director's Cut. If you were to play this on the DV-981HD and a good TV, you almost wouldn't be able to tell whether you were watching it on DVD or Blu-Ray. The stylized palette of colours used by Ridley Scott are very evident here, with deep blues used for the 'home' sequences, a harsh red overcast in the daytime desert scenes, an a sort of 'fuzzy' warm romantic look to the indoor scenes in the Kingdom. Most of all, it had a very three-dimensional look, usually only reserved for true High Definition content. But no, this was a lowly 720x480 DVD. DVD at its best, to be sure.
However, when I watched my old Pulp Fiction DVD - which is a non-anamorphic release - I was reminded immediately that as good as the DV-981HD is, it is still DVD. Thankfully, it handles non-anamorphic material quite well (if you still have any). Plenty of zoom ranges are given, so you don't have to worry about the letterboxing on the sides of the picture. You could use your TV's zoom, and it may be better depending on the particular set, and how many zoom ranges it has.
With a poor-quality release like the original Pulp Fiction DVD, some problems are taken care of by excellent deinterlacing and noise reduction, but some seem to be made even worse watching them on a high definition display. If you want to give someone an example of why Blu-Ray and/or HD-DVD are far superior to DVD, this is a good one to show them.
Sin City. Wow... Like Kingdom of Heaven, here is a movie that portrays DVD at its very best. Sin City excels on DVD, because it was shot entirely on video rather than film. It is possible that the DVD was mastered from the original HD Video master files, because it really is the 'cleanest' looking DVD I think I've seen. Shot almost entirely in black and white, contrast is the name of the game here, and the Oppo DV-981HD brings out every bit of detail from this excellent DVD that I think is possible. However, as good as the DVD is, you can be pretty much guaranteed that the Blu-Ray release will be even better. Disney and Sony are sure to use it as a showcase disc for their format, and being shot on video it will be absolutely pristine.
Upscaled DVD vs. Blu-Ray
The first Blu-Ray movie I bought and compared directly to DVD was Reservoir Dogs. Yup, I own the 10th Anniversary Edition on DVD and now I have the 15th Anniversary Edition on Blu-Ray. I wonder what format the 20th Anniversary Edition will be on? Hologram-disc?
This is another case where you will be reminded that sometimes the source transfer matters most, and any amount of HD upscaling and enhancement won't make a huge difference if the source material is bad. The Reservoir Dogs 10th Anniversary DVD is unfortunately one of those not-so-great transfers, and suffers from a very low-contrast washed-out look, and flesh tones are not accurate at all (Steve Buscemi has never looked as ugly as he does on this DVD). Besides that though, the quality is pretty good, and seems to have more 'pop' than I recall. There is also a 15th Anniversary DVD which uses the same new HD transfer as the Blu-Ray, so perhaps that would have been better to use. Nonetheless, we have to look at the Oppo as a solution to 'turning your existing library into something worth watching on an HDTV'. In this case, an improvement is certainly made, but no miracles were performed.
The Last Samurai was the next Blu-Ray I bought. This movie was actually one of the very first HD-DVD's to be released last year, and the Blu-Ray version is a direct port of that. So really, it can be considered a first-gen optical HD movie. Compared to some of the other movies I tested, Samurai sort of falls in between... The same transfer was used for both the DVD an HD DVD, so this is probably the best way to directly compare the two formats.
While the Oppo upscaled playback of the DVD seemed really good at first, it didn't have the 'wow' factor felt with Kingdom of Heaven and Sin City. It was always one of my favourite DVDs, because of the scenic vistas and immaculate detail. But in HD, the movie looks even more detailed, and like I think I've said many times now, more 'three dimensional'. Everything just looks deeper on HD. I have to say though, the movie still benefits from upscaling!
In evaluating a product like the DV-981HD, you have to look at it from a couple different angles. First of all, does it really turn your existing DVD library into something that will fully utilize your shiny new HDTV? Secondly, how does it work as a DVD player itself?
The second question is an easy one to answer; it is possibly the best DVD player in its price range that exists on this planet. I can't say for sure of course, since I haven't tested every single other one. But in the tests I completed, it scored nearly perfect - how can that not be a surprize from a DVD player costing under $250? Playback was snappy, and there was very little to complain about, besides taking about half a minute to start loading a DVD.
The answer to the first question is a bit more obscure... Will it transform your DVD library into something that fully utilizes your shiny new HDTV? Nope. Will it make them better? Hell yeah! If you've been paying attention, you've noticed that source material is very important in a DVD. Some movies just haven't been treated to a good home release (like Reservoir Dogs, up until just very recently). Other DVDs are probably as good as DVD can possibly get (like Sin City and Kingdom of Heaven). If you have a lot of movies on DVD and want them to be shown at their absolute best, it would definitely be worth buying the Oppo DV-981HD. If you have a brand new HDTV, and plan on building a nice library to enjoy it with, you would be better off spending $500 on a PS3 and going with Blu-Ray instead. The same can be said for HD-DVD I guess, but I don't have high hopes of them winning the format war...
And that's not even considering the impressive amount of extras you get with the DV-981HD. DVD-A playback is sort of a given, but SACD is a nice bonus, especially considering they can both be played over the HDMI connection (the streams are converted from bitstream to PCM in this case). You'll also get a quite capable DivX player, but pay attention to the resolution of your material. The DV-981HD is the perfect compliment to a complete HDTV system, and a great replacement for your DVD player if you have upgraded your TV already.
Just keep in mind that while it is very good for the price, it cannot perform miracles. Someone will win the war, and when that happens you will definitely want to upgrade.
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