With the budget end of the DVD market getting painfully crowded and debilitatingly cut-throat, some respected manufacturers are shying away from it and thinking 'high end' instead. One of those is Marantz - and DVD players don't come much more 'high end' than the company's range topping DV9500.

Of course, £1,500 is a hefty price, but when you discover what it buys, you can understand.

Take, for instance, its build quality. The silver DV9500 auditioned (black is also an option) looks nothing short of imperious, thanks to the opulence of its metallic finish, ultra-slick disc slot and minimalist buttonry. It's also so phenomenally robust that you feel like you could run a tank over it without causing a dent. And its weight suggests all manner of premium grade components.

Connectivity hints further AV glories, too. Particularly eye-catching is an HDMI output for all-digital connection with a suitably-socketed screen. And as I would have hoped on such a top-line DVD deck, the HDMI output can be used to deliver 720p or 1080i images via onboard picture upscaling.

Accompanying this all-important HDMI jack are a set of component video outputs, an RGB-ready Scart, the usual - but in this company, eminently avoidable - composite and S-video options, coaxial and optical digital audio outputs, an RS232 port for custom installation integration, and a seriously spacious set of multichannel audio phono outputs. The space between each line out is necessary to accommodate Marantz-engineered 'HDAM' discrete circuit boards provided for each individual channel.

Universal spinner

Features beyond those already mentioned are numerous. The most significant, however, is the DV9500's universal disc playback, meaning it can handle Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio discs as well as the usual DVD-Video and CD flavours.

But also registering interest are its progressive scan output, onboard DTS and Dolby Digital decoding, serious 216MHz/14-bit video D/A conversion, full 192kHz/24-bit audio conversion, multiple picture adjustments and a lip-sync corrector. Yes, this thoughtful little beauty allows you to introduce variable delay between the picture and sound from the DV9500 to compensate for any lip-sync issues generated by your screen (a problem with some LCD, DLP and plasma devices).

It's also worth mentioning that the DV9500 carries a completely new feature - DTS 96/24 and Dolby Headphone processing. This aims to recreate a 5.1-channel soundstage from just an ordinary set of headphones, without causing 'listener fatigue'.

Thankfully, the DV9500 doesn't undermine all of its front-end finery with a slip-shod performance. Far from it. I've been reviewing DVD players - loads of them - since DVD first appeared, so it takes a lot to shock me these days. But that's precisely what the DV9500's pictures did. For the first hour of my review I was transfixed by its images.

Perhaps their most outstanding characteristic is sharpness. Using either the HDMI or component output (and surely nobody spending this much on a DVD deck would use anything less) I think you'd have to pay significantly more to see a DVD picture look more sublimely textured or finely detailed. The tiniest weave in the most subtle of suits, for instance, is immaculately rendered, faces have layers of character and scenes have tangible depth as backgrounds become clearer and richer - highly impressive.

No interference

Astoundingly, Marantz has managed to achieve the DV9500's detail levels without so much as a flicker of interference. Edges are entirely free of mosquito noise, glimmer, ghosting and jaggedness, grain is non-existent, and best of all, there's so little evidence of MPEG decoder noise that I actually almost forgot that I was supposed to be looking out for it. On a similar note, the DV9500 also avoids almost all traces of the slight twitching effect commonly generated by the MPEG decoders. In short, nothing stands between you and full and direct and enjoyment of whatever movie you're watching.

Moving on to colours, they're supremely vibrant, adding to the imperious sense of solidity created by the fine detail response and lack of noise. There's nothing forced or unnatural about this colour richness, though; thanks in part to an impeccable contrast range. Every subtle hue differentiation is immaculately rendered.

So carried away was I by the glories of the 'ordinary' resolution picture from the DV9500 that I nearly forgot this dream machine had video upscaling as well. I dutifully switched over to the deck's 720p mode, and once again had my breath snatched away from me by the even smoother looks to edges, and greater perception of resolution.

By comparison, the 1080i option isn't quite so hot; the Marantz processing makes very busy, motionpacked scenes seem a touch softer in 1080i than they do in standard progressive video mode.

Aside from this minor observation, I couldn't find a single flaw with the DV9500's pictures. Within its £1,500 price context, they are simply unbeatable.

And the DV9500's audio talents are just as profound. Movie playback is predictably secure; outstanding dynamics, massive amounts of fine detail, and perfectly painted soundstages are the order of the day.

It's with CD and especially SACD playback, though, that the DV9500 really earns its corn. With CD, the performance is easily a match for an £800-£1,000 stand-alone CD player. And with DVD-Audio, and especially SACD playback, there's an intensity, authority, emotional power and richness that belies the fact that this is a DVD/SACD/DVD-A universal player rather than simply a high-end, stand-alone music machine.

When I began this review, I had my doubts that the DV9500 could justify an awkward price point between the bargain Samsung DVD-HD945 and the hyper-end Denon DVD-A1XV, but it does, in every respect. The DV9500 is a stunning product.