Pioneer DVL-90 DVD/LD/CD Player

      Date posted: April 16, 1997

Pioneer DVL-90

Sugg. Retail: $2295
Distributor: Pioneer Electronics of Canada Inc
300 Allstate Parkway, Markham, Ont. L3R 0P2
(905) 479-4411 FAX 946-7427
(Reprinted from the Spring 1997 AudioIdeas Guide)

     Perhaps the most versatile consumer optical playback device available, the DVL-90 (along with its less expensive companion, the DVL-700) plays laserdiscs, CDs, and the new DVD format, and offers a bevy of digital outputs. As you’ll note from my Denon AVR-3600 review, there’s a certain amount of honest confusion out there in the marketplace about Dolby Digital (AC-3) inputs and outputs. That’s because to get the 5 channels of audio onto a laserdisc, one analog channel is co-opted for this use, the Dolby Digital bitstream then frequency modulated (much like an FM stereo subcarrier signal), and therefore must be demodulated in playback. The DVD digital surround signal is an integral part of the Digital VD format and doesn’t require this.

     Therefore, the DVL-90 has both RF and direct Dolby Digital 75-ohm coaxial outputs (it does no decoding or RF demodulating itself), and in addition a PCM CD audio output for an outboard DAC, and a Toslink optical output which can carry either the CD or direct DVD signals. Most DVD-only players and decoders do not deal with RF-modulated signals, as is shown in the review of the Technics DVD decoder elsewhere.

     The Elite combi player deals with the different wavelengths of these optical formats with their own “dual focus, single laser pickup assembly”, which is “able to focus to different levels, for either CD or DVD” and “enables a better `pit recognition’ and a sharper focus” with picture quality that is “measurably improved over a conventional single focus system.”

     Pioneer has also gone to 9-bit processing from the standard 8: “The extra bit is essential to enhancing picture
quality since so much digital processing is done before the picture gets converted back to analog for output.”

     The DVD system allows some new consumer benefits or toys, depending on how you perceive it. One is the ability
to alter picture aspect, and many DVDs will allow the user to select either widescreen (Letterbox) for big TVs, or TV width (Pan-and- Scan)
for smaller monitors. This can be locked out by the producers for a single aspect ratio, and in some sampler sections where it does work, the people onscreen just get thinner and taller when you switch out of widescreen.

     Other features include as many as 8 languages (though probably no more than one or two with Dolby Digital),
up to 32 subtitle languages, different viewing angles (I’ve yet to see any of these on a disc), and some others that are mostly based around picture and chapter indexes, displays, and memories.

     Technically, there’s a lot to be said about this new format, and I’ll leave most of that to Gordon Brockhouse in our Summer issue feature on DVD. Simply put, because it is a digital format using compression and a variable bitstream rate for both audio and video with MPEG-2 compression on the latter, picture quality will vary with complexity; that is, static backgrounds and any other objects will be sharper than those with much movement. There is also a direct correlation between program length and picture resolution, in that a 2-hour feature has to work with the same number of bits as a 40-minute IMAX movie like those discussed below. This situation will be ameliorated somewhat as the technology of dual-layer DVD is combined with the dual-sided discs that are already being made, like miniature laserdiscs, a sandwich. Already released are Twister and the director’s cut of Bladerunner with side 1 being pan-and-scan, and side 2 letterboxed in the film’s original theatre aspect ratio. I’ll say more about these below, too. With the sort of buffer memory technology seen first in DCC and MD, we can expect to have 2- layer/2-sided discs play seamlessly through transitions like a film when the reel transitions are perfect. Expect this in 2nd generation players.

     Getting back to the nuts and bolts of the DVL-90, 2-channel CD playback is fully provided, with an internal DAC that will also play audio encoded at 20-bit/96 kHz (though not 24-bit), opening the door for better CD sound. The Dolby Pro Logic signal also is carried by these analog outputs, and in DVD play the 5 Dolby Digital outputs are combined with the right phase shifts for Pro Logic decoding. Just getting your head around all the sonic permutations of surround sound in these formats is an exercise.

     The Elite combi player adds some refinements not found in the DVL-700. Most visible are the Urushi finish with
solid rosewood panels on either side. More important, it has copper lining of the chassis to reduce outside RF energy from everything from other digital components to cellular phones, and its motor is larger and more powerful for longer life, the power supply also beefed up to be less prone to voltage spikes, brownouts, and other AC line disturbances. Components are also more carefully selected to tighter tolerances.

     The DVL-90 also features Pioneer’s Legato Link digital interpolation system, which uses an algorithm to predict and synthesize frequencies above the 22-kHz limit of 44.1 sampling; this is said to result in greater openness in CD play. It appears this system also operates with 20/96 CDs where this information is actually in the original bitstream, which strikes me as odd; why synthesize something you’ve already got? Whatever the reason, there is so little energy up there that only your resident bats and cats will care.

     On the video side, the DVL-90 has video noise reduction identical to that in the CLD-704 LD player, which can be used automatically set or user adjusted. It also uses a digital comb filter to smooth edges and minimize dot crawl.

     I watched the few DVDs I could get my hands on in the first few weeks of release, availability being tightly controlled and confined to 7 U.S. cities for all but a few 40-minute IMAX titles: Africa, The Serengeti, Antarctica, and Tropical Rainforest. Pioneer also supplied a very interesting sampler with clips from Amadeus, Get Shorty, Goldeneye, and Twister. Additional footage of the Blue Angels aerobatic team is offered, and a sequence called Ordinary Europe of scenes of what looks like Germany and the south of France. Following this is a group of selections of classical music (orchestral, chamber, lieder, and piano) recorded in 20-bit/96-kHz audio. This is by far the best and most completely thought out sampler I’ve encountered. I also had a chance to look at the Twister and Bladerunner releases, albeit briefly, and in another home theatre system.

     First off in evaluating all this, let me say that DVD at its best is spectacular, delivering a sharper picture than laserdisc. But as I discovered when playing around with player outputs, the right one makes all the difference. Gordon Brockhouse suggested, after returning from the ISF DVD conference in Florida in March, that the best picture was possible with a component (RGB) video input, since the format does separate the colours and luminance; the closer to the actual display device these can be reunited, the sharper the picture is likely to be. Since component video is found mostly on front projection systems (data-grade ones in particular), the closest I could get with our rear-projection set was S-video, which separates chrominance and luminance.

     In a direct comparison, the S-video cable to the set was sharper, with notably less dot crawl, meaning sharper and better-defined edges between colours and objects. So, use the S-connection as a matter or course, I thought. Then I noticed playing a laserdisc that the picture seemed a little less defined than I thought it should be; able to switch inputs easily, I found the better picture to be through the composite or RCA cable rather than with the S one. Odd. But the message is that DVD looks better with S, and LD looks better with composite coax video. This may have
something to do with the relative quality of the digital comb filters between player and TV monitor, those on the set seeming to here be better.

     Returning to the particular DVD software, the first I viewed was both a paradox and a disappointment: Tropical
Rainforest is beautiful in the many closeups of nature, the picture richly coloured and detailed, but in the longer shots and pans, the canopy of the forest becomes indistinct, the trees blurring and the resolution pretty much like VHS. However, the Dolby Digital soundtrack is enveloping and marvelously atmospheric. This was also true of Africa, The Serengeti, though if you’re a bit squeamish, you may want to give this one a miss; I’ve never seen so many wildebeests eaten in just over half-an-hour: the lions get’em, the tigers get’em, the cheetahs get’em, the crocs get’em. It made me think of that scene in Jurassic Park where the two kids cowering behind a log watch a big dinosaur chew up a small one; the boy is fascinated while the girl can’t get out of there fast enough. I saw similar reactions from kids when I saw Africa at the IMAX theatre in Winnipeg last summer. If anything, the surround track is even more varied and involving, though I find the booming narration of James Earl Jones rather intrusive at front (In the Blue Planet LD you can choose to eliminate the narration by using the digital soundtrack; given that it can be done easily in DVD, I recommend that IMAX do it in future releases). What is most impressive is the use of the bass enhancement feature to make the migration and stampede sequences very powerful, underscored by the subterranean sound of thousands of thundering hooves.mostly fish. It’s also a good-looking disc, with stunning whites and blues, and an excellent surround track that’s somewhat more austere than the previous two. A historical as well as scenic exploration, this film tells of the attempts to reach the South pole, and has some wonderful underwater sequences that show the teeming life in the rigid under-ice waters. I thought the sequence with penguins doing silly walks to silly music was a bit much, and a disservice to these noble birds. I like to think of them in reference to a 70s Bruce Cockburn in-concert joke: “The Singing Penguin…Dominique, nique, nique..” Maybe you had to be there.

     With all three IMAX films I was a little concerned that there were some digital artifacts to be seen here and there, some jerkiness in pans on object edges, and dissolution of areas of the pictures into a kind of pixelization; if these happen in a film of only 40 minutes, what will happen in one that’s 2 hours or more? Unfortunately, without any to scrutinize, I can’t yet answer the question. More on this shortly.

     By the way, I used the DVL-90 with the matching PR-99D audio decoder (Smr 96), which does both forms of Dolby Digital and Pro Logic, as well as with the Denon AVR-3600 and the Technics SH-AC300. All worked very well, and I didn’t note any real sonic differences, though the Technics happily ignored RF Dolby Digital from LDs.

     Looking at the sampler yielded a few surprises. The Amadeus clip proved to be the best looking of the lot, with richly saturated Technicolor and a great surround track with superb orchestral and vocal clarity. The picture looked like film in a way video seldom does, and the sound was superb 35mm analog of the sort heard from re-released Mercury and Everest recordings. Though I wouldn’t have bought this film in the new format, I will now.

     The Get Shorty clip is largely a waste, with no particular visual or sonic interest, just lots of subtitles to scroll through, while the Goldeneye excerpt takes the least plausible segment, where Bond skydives on a motorcycle into a plane and successfully brings it out of a steep dive into a canyon. I would have preferred the scene where he wrecks St. Petersburg with a tank, but no matter. The sequence does not offer my eyes anything that the laserdisc didn’t visually.

     However, the cows scene from Twister is fun, and better than the LD in both colour and resolution. The soundtrack is equally fabulous, moohs in all quarters, with a quite distinct cowbell at left rear at one point.

     Intriguingly (and perhaps tellingly), the full release version of this same group of scenes in pan-and-scan is darker, with a much redder cast, inferior resolution, and notable pixelization effects in fast motion sections. But upon turning the disc over for the letterbox version, things were very similar to the demo on the sampler. The scene from Bladerunner had similar difference between full and wide screen; there was more video noise and less resolution on the full screen one, and here blacks were more washed out in pan-and-scan.

     There are some implications here, or at least inferences to be drawn, about the relationship between picture size and bitstream capacity. First, if the letterbox has better resolution, it may be that in its present stage, DVD mastering is not advanced enough yet to conceal the artifacts of MPEG2, the compression system used; it is better able to do so with letterbox because the black screen bars do not require many bits. Second, DVD, like earlier digital formats, including CD, and MD, has a substantial amount of room for improvement (which will most certainly come, as it has with the other formats; remember early CDs?); it may become visually transparent in NTSC just as we get ready to convert to HDTV. That said, it is at its best a long way ahead of VHS, and a welcome lower-cost alternative to laserdisc. I think it is going to be very successful, the way we watch movies until well into the next century.

     In this context, the DVL-90 is an excellent player, as is the DVL-700. I couldn’t really discern much picture quality difference, software variations much more evident. I did find the mechanical motor noise of the 700 somewhat intrusive,
the 90 quite a bit quieter in operation. All the features on both worked well, the identical remote controls quite easy to figure out.

     On the audio side again, the selections recorded in 20-bit/96-kHz audio didn’t really tell me what I wanted to know: how good is this format? The sound quality was not consistently better than what I’ve heard from CDs, and inferior in some ways to many, including our own recordings. Some of this was due to microphone placement and general acoustic conditions, the rest perhaps to less than ideal mastering; if our Sonic Solutions editing system needs 24 bits to maintain 16-bit resolution or better, then a 96-kHz CD editing system will require something like the 72-bit architecture in the Meridian 518.

     The majority of the DVD market will probably go to players that do not have to deal with laserdiscs, and one aspect of both types is the fact that the DACs in all are 20-bit. In listening to ordinary CDs (that is good ones at 16/44.1) I noted the superiority of the sound over what I’d heard from most laserdisc 1-bit, MASH or Pulseflow DACS found in many LD players and lower-priced CD players. Clearly, the 20-bit DAC does better in resolving the 16 bits of a CD. Therefore, not only does DVD have the potential to change the way most of us watch movies, but bring a new level of sound quality to the lower player price ranges. And I think most people will appreciate a device that plays audio better in addition to offering a new video frontier at less than $1000.

Andrew Marshall

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