It's a funny thing about universal players.

They were all the rage a couple of years ago, but now the importance of SACD and particularly DVD-Audio seems to be waning fast.

Which, according to Arcam, makes this the perfect time to release a trio of universal players, the DV135 being the cheapest.

In fairness, there is some logic to the decision when you dig a little. SACD and DVD-Audio represent the high-water mark of music replay on disc, and although Blu-ray and HD DVD high-definition video players and discs are in the stores, it's still very early days for those formats.

So the DV135 takes the things we've already got in great numbers - DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, CD and SACD - and runs with them as best it can. These days, that means stereo replay in analogue, with digital audio outputs for PCM audio from CD or DVD.

Hi-res audio signals from SACD or DVD-Audio are locked within the player. HDMI is deployed very conservatively, with Arcam sticking to version 1.1 here. This means nothing if you use the connector to wire your player to a screen, and it allows PCM stereo and Dolby Digital multichannel to pass, but it won't support discrete digital multichannel systems. In short, there's no digital SACD multichannel output.

This is a transition product, reflecting the state of flux in the AV industry. On the audio side, we still retain the Toslink optical and coaxial digital outputs and twinned pairs of gold-plated phono sockets.

Output overload

However, things get twisty with the video inputs - there are composite, S-Video, component video and Scart sockets for analogue outputs and HDMI for digital output. Also, to suit an increasingly connected world, the DV135 has trigger and remote jacks and an RS-232 port.

True to form for Arcam, there have been no changes to this player's external appearance or its long, thin remote. It's part of the DiVA range, and shares a lot of technology with its bigger DiVA DV137 and FMJ DV139 brothers.

It retains the Wolfson 8740 24-bit, 192kHz DACs, jitter-reducing high-precision clock and toroidal transformer of the DV137 and features the same Zoran Vaddis 888 video processing as the FMJ player.

So, what's missing? The DV135 skips on the interestingly named technologies that go into higher-end Arcam kit: 'Mask of Silence', 'Stealth Mat' and the 'Acousteel' chassis.

This might make it a fraction more prone to the ill effects of vibration and electromagnetic interference, but unless you watch DVDs beneath a radio mast in an earthquake zone, we doubt you'll notice. In addition, on the video side, where the more upmarket players have a dedicated scaler and even de-interlacer, the DV135 assigns these tasks to the Zoran video chip. It'll still zap up the picture to 1080i-grade performance, but the magic 1080p figure eludes it.

The video menu suffers from no omissions, being complete and highly configurable. The booklet comes with a little blue filter you place over your eyes when running through the installation routines, which enables you to drill deep into unexplored video territories.

It's a four-way love-fest inside the DV135. No matter which format you choose to play, it turns in a remarkably consistent performance. The days of 'great DVD, shame about the CD' appear long gone if this player is anything to go by. At least, that's the initial impression.

As you delve deeper into the back catalogue of SACD, so you find the format lags behind the other three ever so slightly. The best SACD recordings can sound magnificent in structure and tonally full without seeming rich, but here some of the gloss is rubbed away and the sound appears thickset. These are observations, not shortcomings, though, and in fact, many will love the SACD performance in its own right.

The warmth of the sound shines through on all four formats, and while it's least comfortable on CD, this is a distinct advantage for CD replay. Typically, CD replay on universal players is either so soft that Megadeth sounds like easy listening, or so harsh that Mendelssohn sounds like Chas 'n' Dave.

The Arcam manages to fall between the two extremes, with the warmth of the player giving it a nod toward naturalness. Similarly, imaging: the assurance with which a player throws out a soundstage,

is often inversely proportional to the number of formats the player handles. Yet far from delivering the claustrophobic soundstage you might expect from a universal, the DV135 is adept at throwing right-sized shapes into the room.

It's only when the sound gets really complex that the limits begin to show. But Beethoven's Ninth is a tough call for any CD player, and this one fails by blurring the image instead of collapsing it down.

In many ways, what Arcam has done here is take the performance of its well-respected CD players and insert it into a universal without sacrificing the sound. From experience with other products, this isn't as easy as it seems.

DVD-Audio replay is similarly positive, more so than the outlook for said format. Naturally, the quality of the sound in two-channel will depend on the quality of the downmix made at the time the surround was encoded, and - anecdotally at least - the downmixes of DVD-Audio seem inferior to those of SACD. Regardless, the Arcam makes good, giving the sound a spacious, deep image and a pace that's often kept in check on many players.

It's a shame, but some people will reject this player purely because it lacks a 1080p upscaling facility. Well, let them go - the rest of us can bask in a picture quality so fine that we just want to play disc after disc.

If you run through the picture settings and stay down in the 720p/768p region (depending on your set), you get a picture vibrant enough to cope with shiny Technicolor and precise enough to handle all those myriad white fast-moving contrails against a black Battlestar Galactica sky.

It's not just about the picture quality or the performance of a specific music format; it's the covers-all-bases nature of the DV135 that's so alluring and hard to better for this sort of money.

Perhaps it's no wonder Arcam has done without the silly-named technologies, and perhaps it's a good thing the product designers worked on the inside of the player and not the outside.

Because this feels like four very good players rolled up into one. And that's almost a perfect definition of a universal player.