As is common for high end players, the DVD-A1 stays ahead of cheaper competitors through extended connectivity options. To start with, the machine has two HDMI outputs, which can either act independently (to power two display devices simultaneously), or be configured to send separate Video and Audio portions to the to appropriate devices (for example, Video to a projector and Audio to an amplifier). This avoids the video and audio being packetised together and it's claimed this will improve the quality, but I suspect most of its proponents use the method for peace of mind (if the option is there, it's logical enough to go ahead and use it).
We also have Component Video outputs (RCA connector type). These are limited to sending 1080i video due to Hollywood copy protection paranoia. For some reason, there are also Composite and S-Video standard-def outputs.
On the audio side, we also have 7.1 channel analogue surround outputs, which will allow owners of pre-HDMI 1.3 amplifiers to enjoy high def audio. These outputs are fed by 32-bit/192khz digital to analogue converters. There's also standard definition Optical and Coaxial audio outputs, which will be limited to transmitting high bit-rate DTS audio. More uniquely, Denon's proprietary “Denon Link 4th” interface (which curiously sends audio and clock synchronization over an ethernet-like connection) makes an appearance, as do professional-style XLR audio outputs, presumably designed for those who favour analogue output for Stereo playback to select high-end amps.
Lastly, there's an Ethernet port for connecting to the internet for firmware updates and BD Live enabled discs (a feature recently added via one such firmware update over the last few weeks), two 3.5mm jacks for Denon's remote control interface, and an RS232C port for system integrators.
The remote takes a little bit of getting used to due to its shape, but it wins points by being backlit (something I really appreciate as a projector owner) and by having logically placed buttons.
Setup menus and Processing Adjustments
Pressing SETUP on the remote will take you to Denon's slickly-designed black-and-gold setup menus. Like most things on this player, they're a little slow to react to user input. These menus are fairly exhaustive, but the most important settings concern aspect ratio (the default setting is accurate and correct), cadence detection (there's a “Video2” option which you can force for troublesome 2:2 cadences), audio output (Bitstream or PCM), control over the two HDMI terminals, as well as network and language controls. You can also choose a version of Denon Link that's compatible with your amplifier, if yours isn't the latest and greatest (I am a member of the Onkyo club, so I am left out of the party).
The remote control features two buttons relating to the operation of the HDMI output terminals: HDMI MODE and HDMI RES. The former cycles through the different modes of operation for the outputs (HDMI Off, HDMI 1 active, HDMI 2 active, both outputs active with different output resolutions on each, or split output with video from HDMI1 and audio from HDMI2). The HDMI RES button cycles between output resolutions (from 480i all the way up to 1080p). The 1080p option actually forces 1080p/60, even if a 1080p/24 disc is playing. To get 1080p/24, we have to manually select this mode, but again, this forces 24p output for everything, which will look terrible for 50i and 60i content. The solution comes in the form of the “AUTO” setting, which appears to be a combination of selecting the most appropriate refresh rate, and outputting at the maximum resolution that your display device reports that it can handle. With my 1080p/24 displays, this worked correctly at all times.
The next round of adjustments comes when you have a disc playing. Pressing the PICTURE ADJUST button will bring up a selection of 5 adjustable presets, as well as a “Standard” option, which is the default setting and leaves the video unaltered. Selecting one of the five Memory options allows you to adjust several controls.
Contrast and Brightness are implemented as they would be on a display device. I had no need to actually use them, as such adjustments are best made on the display, not the player. Puzzlingly, there are also White Level and Black Level controls later on in the list, which seem to (and ought to) fulfill the same purpose, albeit with a more limited range of control.
The next option is “Enhancer”, which is a fairly subtle edge enhancement control. With HD content, I don't usually see any need for these, but if you're running the player through a projector with a soft optical path, or you're playing a disc that's been run through damaging pre-compression processing (“Kung Fu Panda”, “Coraline”, or the UK version of “Let The Right One In” to name a few examples), then this control will superficially compensate for the reduced details.
The star attraction for some will be the 10-point adjustable Gamma control. The user is allowed to move any of the 10 points up or down to create a custom Gamma curve. Normally, these options are best made in the display device, but few displays offer this level of control over Gamma. Also, remember that the DVD-A1 can output 36-bit Deep Colour via its HDMI outputs, meaning that the calculations are both performed, and finally output, with greater precision than before. This means that the chances for banding being introduced by the Gamma control are considerably lessened.
The interface for using this control isn't too great, because like everything else on the player, it's somewhat slow to respond to commands. Additionally, the on-screen graphics take up most of the screen, so if you're calibrating a projector, you'll have to be careful and aim your measuring device at the right area to make totally sure that you aren't measuring the on-screen menus rather than the appropriate test patterns. Furthermore, there appears to be a bug (or an intended, but irritating feature) where the adjustments you've made only become visible after exiting the menu. The bottom line of all of this is that this powerful control is going to take a lot of time to adjust and many may not have the patience to get optimum results.
Next up are two Sharpness controls, for both the middle and high frequencies respectively (the highest frequencies are the tiniest details in the picture). The “Medium range” control doesn't work over HDMI, but the “High range” one does, and this is a more useful adjustment, anyway. During the review process, I had a chance to try the DVD-A1 out on a Plasma display that, by design, introduces a small amount of edge enhancement to 1080p input on its own. The “High range” control can be slid into the negative figures, and setting it to -1 offset the damage being done by the display device without blurring the picture (it's an incredibly fine adjustment).
Next up is the “DNR” control. This is Denon's temporal (or “3D”) noise reduction algorithm. Readers of my reviews will know that I take a somewhat prudish view of these, but not without reason. Firstly, digital delivery systems do not have any inherent noise to begin with, so the purpose of in-player noise reduction is all but gone (unlike in the days of VHS and Laserdisc where the delivery formats themselves were responsible for adding noise). Assuming a non-meddling player and a non-meddling display, the picture you see on your screen is going to be exactly what was encoded at the studio. For that reason, I suspect people are using these controls to reduce film grain rather than any video noise that may have snuck into the chain.
Second, expensive studio-grade noise reduction algorithms can do enough damage in an environment where their output is scrutinized and fine-tuned on a scene by scene basis, so the idea of a consumer device (even an high-end one) ploughing through frames with no fine-tuning on a scene by scene basis makes me cross my legs.
However, I did try the function out to compare it to the tools I sometimes use to reduce noise for compression purposes (in bonus features that have to occupy minimal disc space) and it is probably the best NR system that I've seen in a consumer device. Rather than creating motion smears (as the crudest temporal systems do), Denon's is motion adaptive and knows when to back off. The result is that fast or unpredictable motion in amongst grain can can have a “chalky” look where the grain suddenly reappears, but this is better than having motion trails. In any case, these are the sort of artefacts you should expect from any 3D-NR system, and Denon's is certainly one of the better ones. However, I've yet to see a BD source where video noise has not been taken care of at the studio, and reducing film grain is not something I want to do.
There is also a somewhat pointless and historic “Hue” adjustment, a “Chroma Level” control for affecting Colour, an option to add 7.5 IRE setup to the Composite and S-Video outputs (a feature left over from the days of US NTSC). There are also Horizontal and Vertical positioning controls, but these would only serve to crop the picture.
There is one last menu of adjustments that you can make during playback, by pressing the MODE button. This allows you to enable a Vertical Stretch function which pre-stretches 2.35:1 movies for later un-stretching by an anamorphic lens, if you're lucky enough to own one of these. The high quality of the HQV scaler means that this step is performed with absolutely minimal degradation. There's also the "BD Audio Mode" option, which allows you to choose between Bitstream HD Audio output, or standard-def audio output from the player's mixer. The latter option is required to hear Secondary Audio sounds and Button Click noises from interactive features due to the design of the Blu-ray Disc Movie specification.
1080p Disc Playback
The DVD-A1 doesn't meddle (unless you tell it to) and as a result, its output quality at 1080p is every bit as good as other BD players I've tested. It doesn't crop any pixels from the image, so it delivers the full 1920x1080 pixels to the display.
In the interests of comparison, it's probably worthwhile to compare the Denon DVD-A1 to one interesting high-end player, the previously reviewed Sony BDP-S5000ES. This player came close to becoming a reference 1080p player thanks to its unique “Smoothing” feature, which compensates for the rough gradations which can be introduced when 10-bit HD masters are converted to 8-bit for consumer delivery on Blu-ray. This feature actually worked well and is one of the few video-altering options that I would use, since it returns the quality closer to that of the master, rather than pointlessly altering it. Unfortunately, that particular player was designed in such a way that could cause it to introduce combing/interlacing artefacts, even into a 1080p source, so it lost out on “Reference” status for 1080p playback.
Denon's player does not have any such “Smoothing” feature, which isn't surprising because the technology would appear to be Sony's own proprietary method. Still, I would like to see a similar feature on an expensive BD player from Denon in the future. Of course, the Denon machine doesn't introduce interlacing errors either, as it appears to bypass all Deinterlacing entirely when presented with a 1080p/24 source, so it still wins out overall in terms of image quality. The bottom line is that the DVD-A1 joins a host of other players in providing true-to-disc output and I can easily recommend it for playing back 1080p/24 BD titles.
1080i Disc Playback
For 1080i content on BD, which is still quite rare, there exist a few possible scenarios for how the content was originally shot. These dictate the optimal mode for converting to 1080p for display.
Scenario 1: the material was originally shot on a film camera, or on a digital cinema camera with film-like motion properties, but is “wrapped” in a 60i structure, perhaps because the material was made for TV broadcast, or is mixed in with Video Camera clips. In this case, the video processor must detect the presence of film content and use the correct fields from the interlaced source to reconstruct Progressive frames for output. This is called “film mode processing”.
Scenario 2: the material was originally shot on a film camera, but sped up to 25fps for European HDTV broadcast and delivered on BD as 50i. Contrary to popular belief, there is no 1080p/25 mode on Blu-ray, so having a player that correctly detects the 2-2 cadence is the only way of getting the best results from such discs. A small number of film titles in the UK have been encoded at 50i, which is surprising.
Scenario 3: the material is inherently video-based (shot with a video camera) and utilises the full motion fluidity possible with either 60i or 50i video. Examples include sports programming, documentaries, or any other content that strives for a realistic look rather than a filmic look.
To investigate how the Denon DVD-A1 dealt with Scenario 1, I pulled out the Spears & Munsil BD test disc and ran the source-adaptive deinterlacing patterns. Out of the 10 different cadences, 6 passed. The DVD-A1 does have an alternative “Video2” processing mode which I enabled to see if the results were different; in this case 5 cadences passed, but they were different ones. This is an above average result. The considerably cheaper Panasonic DMP-BD35 machine passes only three of the tests. However, Denon faces stiff competition from Oppo's BDP-83, which passes all ten of the cadence tests with absolutely no user intervention. This is slightly embarrassing given the differing prices for these machines, but also fairly inconsequential given the scarcity of 1080i content on BD. I don't think it's unfair to consider most of these tests pathological; there is a tiny likelihood of the player's limitations being revealed in real-world usage.
The Spears & Munsil disc is 60hz only, but I confirmed that all is well and good with Scenario 2 using a 50hz BD title: 50hz 2-2 material plays correctly on this player.
That leaves Scenario 3: how well the DVD-A1 can suppress jaggies in video material. The answer is very well indeed: the Silicon Optix HQV BD test disc's “Jaggies 2” pattern looked very clean indeed, with all three rotating bars in the test pattern appearing smooth at extreme angles.
480i/576i SD DVD Playback
The quality of the scaling is also excellent. The resolution test chart I tested was crisp and clear, with almost no ringing at all, a feat owed to the processing power of the HQV chipset and its 1024-tap scaler. Unlike Panasonic's BD players and the Playstation 3, the Denon DVD-A1 didn't exaggerate high frequency mosquito noise, so the resulting image was very clean indeed.
There are some cases where machines with edge-adaptive scaling will outperform this one, particularly with computer generated or animated content. In these cases, machines like the Sony BDP-S5000ES and the Playstation3 can produce incredibly convincing scaled images. However, a high quality linear scaler like the one in Denon's machine can look subjectively better for a lot of photorealistic content. In reality, most DVDs are so poorly mastered (with reference to what standard definition resolution is actually capable of) that the results will be equally mediocre no matter how good your player is. Of course, Denon can hardly be blamed for that.
Subjective Audio Tests
Regardless, I listened to some multichannel PCM, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA soundtracks, with the player hooked up to my Onkyo TX-SR876, driving a 5.1 setup. I made connections over HDMI, split HDMI (with only audio being sent to the amp, rather than audio and video), and with analogue multichannel cables. For the HDMI connections, I also switched between Bitstream and PCM transmission modes. I could detect no differences between any of these modes, and they all sounded fantastic. I've long been a fan of the action-packed soundtracks on discs like “Serenity” and the “Kill Bill” movies, and loved how they sounded when I watched them on this machine.
Disc Load Times
- Untampered-with 1080p output means video quality from 1080p BDs is nearly as good as we could hope for
- Some of the best DVD Video playback I've seen
- Bulletproof build quality
- 2.35:1 stretch mode will benefit Anamorphic projection users
- 10-point gamma adjustment coupled with 36-bit HDMI output potentially allows for correcting gamma problems in the display device without creating new ones
- Incredibly expensive
- 1080i film mode processing is inferior to one considerably cheaper machine
- A little slow
- Gamma control UI (one of the most useful features) is a pain to use
Denon DVD-A1UD Universal Blu-ray Disc Player Review
Other than its price and slight sluggishness, there is nothing specifically wrong with the Denon A1 after we ignore the fact that there is really very little reason for most users to spend this sort of money on a disc player - especially if their primary interest is Blu-ray Disc. Owners of large SACD and DVD-Audio collections will be more drawn to the machine, as it's one of a handful of Universal disc players available. Likewise, users (perhaps unduly) concerned about the effects of jitter will enjoy the Denon Link clock-synchronization feature with supported Denon amplifiers.
Still, at the end of the day, the Denon DVD-A1U is a feature-packed player which performs very well in the most important categories. Its slow speed of operation is not enough to stop it from receiving a Highly Recommended badge based on its extensive feature set and performance. However, users should make sure that they really need all of the features it offers before signing on the dotted line. After all - £4500 can buy you a whole lot of shiny plastic discs.
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