Oppo DV-981HD Universal DVD Player
Latest upconverting DVD player enhances playback, approaches HDTV quality
By Charlie White
When we reviewed the Oppo DV-970 DVD universal player six months ago, we were highly impressed with the upconverting player, calling its 720p and 1080i output of standard definition DVDs the best we'd seen. Now Oppo has topped that, releasing its DV-981HD Universal DVD Player ($230) that upconverts standard DVDs to the coveted 1080p resolution as well as 720p and 1080i. We took a close look at its output on a 1080p DLP rear projection monitor, comparing it to its DV-970 brandmate and evaluating its attributes on its own as well. Here's a review.
The Oppo DV-981 presents an impressive out-of-the-box experience, reminding me of Apple's intricately-planned packing of its products. The player itself was wrapped in a special black cloth bag with the Oppo logo emblazoned on the front. Taking the player out of its swanky wrappings, I was impressed by its matte black finish, and like the other Oppo DVD players, it is improbably slim, at hardly a couple of inches tall. I was also happy to see that Oppo included a 6-foot HDMI cable with the 981HD, a $10 item whose electrically identical counterparts are selling for more than $75 at unscrupulous consumer electronics retailers such as Best Buy.
As soon as I turned on the player, I was impressed by its cool blue LED display, and it was immediately evident that many tiny details had been attended to by the products designers. For instance, even when the machine is off, there's a tiny red backlight on the on-off switch; it's easy to find even in the dark. The remote is also somewhat dark-friendly, with its buttons that glow in the dark -- but that's not as easy to see in the dark as backlit buttons. However, backlighting would introduce battery life issues, so I suppose the remote is acceptable as it is.
Looking around the back of the player, I noticed something was missing. Where were the component outputs? Oppo says this player is aimed at enthusiasts with 1080p HDTVs, and the preferred connection to those TVs is an HDMI port. You're also able to use a DVI adapter if that's the way you'd like to connect this player, and there are perfunctory S-Video and composite video outputs that are intended, as the company says, for "troubleshooting purposes." That's just fine by us, because we prefer the digital connection of the HDMI port, which carries high-resolution Dolby 5.1 audio along with its digital video.
Also in the back, if you're not using HDMI for your audio output, are separate Dolby Digital outputs for the four front and back speakers as well as a center channel speaker and subwoofer. You can also output the audio in your choice of coaxial or optical SP/DIF audio ports. I'll mention right now up front that the audio response in this unit is outstanding, with faithful reproduction of whatever program material you feed it. It sounds simply excellent.
Before I actually began testing this player, I discovered a few posts in user forums mentioning a firmware update. Apparently there were problems with the player experiencing an ?HDMI handshake problem, where brightness and color were suddenly reduced for no apparent reason. I noticed on the company's website that Oppo is aware of this problem and has issued a firmware update. Oppo's website showed me how to identify which firmware was already installed on my test machine, and to my relief, the latest firmware was already in place. Subsequently, I never noticed any of these brightness and color reduction problems.
However, I noticed a bit of quirkiness when it came to the HDMI interface. When I first connected the player and inserted a DVD, it started playing immediately, but all I saw on the screen were jagged lines. On a quick call to Oppo's excellent technical support staff, they informed me that I needed to first designate what resolution I wanted to use -- in this case, 1080p. I tried that, but it wasn't working because there was a DVD playing at the time. I needed to stop the DVD before I would be able to adjust its resolution. I also noticed a few times that when I would turn off the player and then turn it back on, I had to go through this process again. The whole thing is a bother and should be handled automatically. This is a routine that's more akin to computers than consumer electronics, and needs to be fixed.
I also noticed that out of the box, the player had brightness, contrast and saturation levels that were set at minus one and minus two. I carefully calibrated the players settings using my Spyder colorimetry equipment, and ended up with most of these levels back to their detent position at zero, and liked those settings better. For my initial testing, I also turned off the players noise reduction and any additional processing such as the Faroudja TrueLife enhancement.
At the same time, for comparison I also connected Oppos earlier DV-970 DVD player that I reviewed last June (2006) to another HDMI port on that same 1080p TV. Watching a variety of DVDs on both players, first on one and then on the other, I got a good idea of the basic differences between the two.