Acouple of years ago, Samsung launched the DVD-HD935. This inexpensive player was groundbreaking, because it was one of the first at any price to sport a digital video output - DVI (Digital Visual Interface), in this case.
As a result, owners of compatible displays could bypass the DVD player's digital-to-analogue conversion and the display's analogue-to-digital circuitry. The result was a significant improvement in picture quality, and we even went as far as saying the HD935 had better picture potential that high-end players selling for several times the price.
In an attempt to keep the film studios happy, the HD935's DVI output managed to make provision for HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Copy Protection). At the time of launch, though, few displays had DVI inputs that supported HDCP - any attempt at a DVI partnership with the HD935 would have yielded a blank screen. So Samsung, bless 'em, built in a hack to disable HDCP so that its player could be used with such displays.
Unfortunately, we haven't been able to find a similar hack for the DVD-HD945 - the HD935's HDMI-supporting successor. But this isn't quite the issue it might have been a couple of years ago. Today, all DVI-equipped kit with home cinema pretensions supports HDCP.
HDMI or DVI?
In fact, on many of today's displays you'll find an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) socket instead. Electronically speaking, HDMI and DVI are identical in many respects; you can buy HDMI-to-DVI adaptors and cables. Connector shape apart, the only real differences are HDMI's support for HDCP and digital audio.
An increasing number of competing DVD players are now being equipped with HDMI ports, from budget Panasonic models through Pioneer recorders to high-end sources from Meridian and Denon. Faced with such competition, Samsung has had no option but to heavily spec the HD945.
To this end, this sub-£200 player is a 'universal' type, able to play DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD titles in all their high-resolution multichannel glory. Another benefit is compatibility with CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs containing DiVX MPEG4 video - the HD945 is also happy with the XViD format. On the compressed audio front, WMA now joins MP3.
Sure is pretty...
The HD945 is a pretty little thing, with its low-profile brushed-aluminium front, control 'disc' and brightly-backlit LCD screen. Its predecessor perhaps went a bit overboard with blue LEDs, but the only blue here is the illumination surrounding the standby button.
The player may be uncluttered (basic operating controls only) but the same isn't true of the remote handset, which is decked out with controls like the cockpit of the new Airbus. An unusual feature is a VCR-style 'jog-shuttle dial' for precise trick-replay manipulation. If Samsung can build one of these into an inexpensive DVD player, then surely it can be done with DVD recorders - where such functionality would be useful for editing.
The rear panel is also better populated than other DVD recorders I've come across. In addition to the HDMI output are composite, S-video, prog scan-capable component and an RGB Scart. All bases covered, then.
On the audio front are two-channel and 5.1-channel outputs for DVD-A, SACD and Dolby Digital (but alas, not DTS) soundtracks - if you want to use your AV amp's own decoders, this is made possible by both optical and coaxial digital outputs.
Setting up the HD945 is easy, not least because there are so few menu options. The unit has an AV amp-style test-generator that fires short bursts of white-noise out of each speaker. But you can't adjust levels (you'll have to resort to any adjustments your amp gives you) while bass-management is restricted to speaker size. On the video front, you can specify NTSC or PAL, so you can watch DVDs and MPEG4 sources in their native format (ie with no standards-conversion artefacts). But it's not clever enough to automatically switch according to what's being played.
The HDMI output benefits from an inbuilt scaler. In addition to nativeprogressive modes (ie 576p for PAL, 480p for NTSC) are 1080i and 720p high-def upscale modes. There's also a 768p mode, which is optimised for the many displays (notably LCDs and plasmas) that have a widescreen-XGA native resolution. The analogue component output can be switched between progressive and interlaced, but no high-def upscaling is possible here. We would also have appreciated some kind of artefact-noise reduction facility for heavily-compressed formats like MPEG4, but sadly none have been provided.
Other useful features include the ability to switch between the high-res and CD layers of a SACD, bookmarking, a 2x/4x picture zoom, flexible aspectratio control, a JPEG slideshow and firmware upgradability (for fixing bugs and adding new features) via CD-ROM.
I hope that the latter will address an annoying bug with this player (theoretically, you can make your own upgrade discs from image files downloaded from the internet). With one of our test DVDs - The Empire Strikes Back - playback would intermittently freeze. We tried the same disc with other players, and all was fine, so it's not a disc fault. Yet the HD945 behaved impeccably with other DVDs, including self-made discs from our reference Panasonic and Philips DVD recorders.
In terms of picture quality, the DVD-HD945 is generally excellent. Fed through an Hitachi PJ-TX100 - a budget 720p LCD design that complements this Samsung player in budgetary terms - I found a broad colour palette, while detail rendition is good.
However, switch to the HDMI output and the bar is raised yet again. Complex textures stand out - particularly background ones - thanks to an obvious expansion in dynamic range. The only problem is that the picture is ruthless when it comes defects (like the blocking and edge-feathering artefacts of home-made DVDs, which become more obvious than via analogue component or RGB).
Sonically, I noticed no lip-sync errors, even with MPEG4 material (which is conveyed surprisingly well from a visual standpoint). In my view, though, the DVD-HD945 is more at home with movie soundtracks than high-res audio material. It threw up a punchy and involving soundstage with The Empire Strikes Back, but with subtle music on SACD and DVD-A I noted a lack of absolute finesse and confusing complex passages. But perhaps I'm being a little harsh here - this is a £180 player and not an audiophile product, after all!
The sub-£200 bracket has always been a fiercely competitive place for DVD players. Interestingly, it was Samsung that was largely responsible for the price war in the first place, so it's appropriate that the same brand is raising the bar once again with HDMI outputs, upscaling and universal playback. It'll be interesting to see how many manufacturers can compete at this price point. It won't be long before all entry-level DVD players will have to offer an HDMI output. Put simply, the DVD-HD945 is one hell of a bargain.