The transformation of humble DVD players into full-scale entertainment centrepieces continues with machines like the DVD-S97.
Panasonic has made a big push to get compatible technologies into a wide range of its products. This deck will also spin recordings made on Panasonic's favoured medium, DVD-RAM, as well as compressed MPEG4 video created in its D-Snap cameras and some digital video recorders.
DVD-Audio support is included for good measure, but most importantly, the machine has a top-spec HDMI digital output, which carries pure video and multichannel digital audio to compatible equipment. Many new flatscreen TVs, projectors and surround sound receivers feature HDMI, including Panasonic's own matching SA-XR70 amplifier.
Another important feature is built-in progressive scan output for both PAL and NTSC, some basic conversion between US and European formats (in case your TV favours one over the other) and Faroudja DCDi technology for upscaling the output to high definition.
Like the similar Samsung DVD-HD945, most usual AV sockets are included - from S-video and RGB Scart to analogue component and the aforementioned HDMI. If you can't access surround sound from HDMI, you can use optical or coaxial digital ports or the 5.1 analogue phonos from the machine's internal decoder (which is the only non-HDMI alternative to get the best out of DVD-Audio). Unlike the Samsung, the built-in decoder also handles DTS.
There's a multitude of audio-visual settings to play around with, though apart from the progressive scan and upscaling video options, most of these are mere fine tuning at best. They include the audio-only music mode to disable all video circuitry and make the sound a little better. AV Enhancer and Multi-Remaster are related processes to tailor the AV output to suit the material.
Its effect is hardly drastic, but you can while away the time on a rainy day trying to see or hear the difference. The video time delay is a handy feature in case the lip-sync between your screen and speakers is off by a few milliseconds. You can also watch at up to 1.4x speed while keeping the sound intelligible. Thankfully, for normal use, the DVD-S97 is very easy to operate.
Despite what the instructions say, the DVD-S97 has no trouble playing DVD R/ RW or DVD-RW (Video mode) recordings. Direct digital connection via HDMI is the simplest and best route, as the DVD-S97 will 'handshake' with the display to ensure the correct resolution and widescreen aspect ratio are set.
The player's 576-line PAL progressive picture quality is reasonably impressive to begin with, coping with the fast-moving demands of The Return of the King or The Bourne Supremacy with ease. Contrast is especially dynamic and the colour range is broad without being unnatural.
When using HDMI, you can access the Picture menu to upscale to 750 progressive scan lines, which is well within the high definition specification, or boost the clarity to 1,125 lines with the minor trade-off of reverting to interlaced mode. How good this looks depends on your display. On a state-of-the-art screen, which might offer its own video enhancements, it will seem like icing sugar on an already refined cake, while on more normal, XGA-resolution screens, you may see an immediate benefit.
Lower, VGA-resolution displays (with 480 lines) won't show the extra detail, but the player still provides a satisfyingly clear image. Likewise, the analogue video outputs are well up to the task, though you'd miss the advantages of HDMI.
At £300, the DVD-S97 is halfway between a budget player and a higher-end luxury machine. It has many of the credentials of a top-range deck, squeezed into a stylishly small casing. However, the best quality still comes at a price, and you can tell that this player stops slightly short with its audio quality.
Though perfectly acceptable for CDs and most surround sounds movies, it's somewhat brash with DVD-Audio, even with its sonic enhancement processing and audio-only mode, but that's not a major gripe, as general performance is impressive. Overall, this is a powerful, good value player and, given the right screen, will give new life to your DVD collection. Ian Calcutt