Published On: January 11, 2004

Denon DVD-500 DVD-Video Player Reviewed

Published On: January 11, 2004

Denon DVD-500 DVD-Video Player Reviewed

With an upper limit of 96/24 this otherwise very fine DVD and CD player shows its age. Fine sound for its time; if you see one around don't hesitate to pick it up for the right price.

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Whatever qualms some of us might have about DVD and its (still-) painful birth, there are enough tempting machines out there to make you forget all about regional coding. But Denon, ever mindful of the political ramifications of being rebellious, might seem to have ham-strung what could be one of the best DVD players yet by adhering so precisely to the other rules.

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Not only is the awesome new DVD-5000 'unchippable'*, it won't even let you play 96kHz/24-bit discs which - technically - break no rules beyond winding up the RIAA. Instead, those delicious titles from Chesky, Classic, et al, are 'down-sampled' to 48kHz. Sure, so they still blow away normal CDs, but oh! to hear what this player could do with an full 96kHz signal! But that's jumping the gun with a groan and a gripe. Even without zone-changing and 96kHz capability, the Denon sails as close to the cutting edge as possible...like allowing DTS capability in a Region 2 player when no discs exist for it. (Ironic or what?)

Has Denon managed to justify the lofty nomenclature with which it endowed this machine? According to one of the blurbs, it's a 'Reference Class DVD Player'; if so, then it's cheap at £1599.99. But before you sample the performance, you know you're in the presence of something very special. If any conventionally-sized (434x135x374mm WHD), Pioneer/Marantz lookalike has the juice to do it, this is it. And without you having to lift it to confirm its 16.5kg weight.

Champagne finish and sheer mass aside, the DVD-5000 reminded me of the cherished Marantz CD-12/DA-12 because of its peerless build quality, slick operation, the action of every press-button, the alloy laser sled, the chunky 15mm alloy faceplate, the feel of the line out/headphone volume control. And it embarrassed me because it reminded me of how long it's been since I drooled over a product from one of the very few large-ish Japanese brands, along with Lux and Accuphase, able to make some truly alluring gear. So maybe I shouldn't be surprised that the DVD-5000 is so utterly desirable, given its heritage.

It's all in the details because CD/DVD players suffer an even greater identity crisis than did turntables; there are only so many ways you can dress up a box with a slot in the front. The comprehensive display is positioned above the tray aperture, centrally positioned for a nearly-symmetrical look. To the left are the on/off/standby button, the selector for DVD of either the unit's optical or coaxial digital inputs and three LEDs to indicate power on, HDCD and AL24. I hope the previous sentence didn't go past you too quickly or you might have missed the fact that this is one of those rare single-box CD/DVD players which also serves as D/A converter.

To the right are the basic transport controls of play, stop, track skip and open/close, plus a 1/4in headphone socket and the volume control to set the levels for the headphones or the overall output if you use the variable outputs. All of the minor operations, the numerical keypad, the programming facilities, the DVD-specific commands (e.g. menu access) and other features are accessed through the large, nicely-shaped remote control, complete with illuminated buttons.

Socket jockeys will adore the posterior view, an eyeful of gilded connecting possibilities including variable and audibly superior fixed phono-type outputs, two S-video and two coaxial video outputs, TOSLINK optical and coaxial digital outputs, TOSLINK optical and coaxial digital inputs, socketry for Denon-specific system remote control operation, an IEC mains input and a trio of sockets I wasn't - alas - able to try: component video, said to be the best way to get those pictures to the screen. [Note: Whatever I accomplish in '99, I acquire a monitor with component video inputs...]

All in all, this is one feature-laden box of tricks, but they're not enough to account for the heft. Inside, it's copper plated, there are three separate transformers, everything has been fitted and sited to avoid vibration - there seems to be no unused real estate, so cynics can forget any suggestion that the mass is due to mere ballast.

According to what I suppose is a mission statement, Denon 'identified three ways to improve performance'. The first was to deliver a better digital data stream from the transport through an improved transport mechanism and its Advanced Digital Servo. This features a DSP IC with a learning algorithm to fine-tune the performance, aided by the aforementioned extensive anti-vibration features, such as a four-layer 'Hybrid Insulating Base Chassis' and the unit's intrinsic mass.

Secondly, the company felt it could deliver a better picture through improvements afforded by the superior transport and new analogue video stages (as well as component video capability). Part of this attack included the physical separation of the audio, video and digital control circuitry, each with its own dedicated power transformer and isolating screening to avoid cross interference.

Finally, Denon acknowledged what industry voices as disparate as Paul Miller and Linn have been arguing since DVD's launch: that conventional CDs demand more than piggy-backing on a DVD's circuitry if they're to sound as good as they do on stand-alone CD players. To this end, Denon fitted audiophile components such as Silmic Audiophile Caps throughout, four separate 24-bit/96kHz DACs, HDCD and the new AL24 processing.

Read more about the DVD-500 on Page 2.
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Based on the company's familiar ALPHA processing, the new
nomenclature reflects the omnipresence of 24-bit technology circa 1999.
AL24 is said to improve resolution, reduce quantisation distortion,
improve the analogue waveform and support 16-to-24 bit data at sampling
frequencies up to 96kHz. Which kinda makes the down-sampling to 48kHz
all the more upsetting.

When asked why - given that 96kHZ/24-bit DVDs break no rules - I was
told quite clearly that Denon bowed to the establishment (read: RIAA)
because it is also a record company. And we all know that what record
companies want and what music lovers deserve are not the same. I've
been told on good authority that the record industry loathes
96kHz/24-bit because the better performance mans better harvesting for
pirates and bootleggers. Think about it: we're being denied better
quality because of piracy potential. (Uh, did someone say
'Copy-Protection Circuitry'?)

AL24 and HDCD operation is automatic, but I was able to hear a demo
of the '5000 with AL24 switched on and off. What it adds is a very
subtle sense of air and space, and a shade better retrieval of very
fine detail. It was hard to detect so I spent an hour just A/B'ing the
same tracks. That it is on all the time is nothing to worry about: AL24
works.

As is mandatory with any DVD player aspiring to high-end credibility,
DTS and Dolby Digital are available to feed to external decoders;
attached to the Lexicon DC-1 pre-amp/processor, playback was completely
fool-proof, even with the notorious DTS demo disc with non-standard DTS
encoding. For the video connections, I stayed with S-video, while the
audio portions were sampled with both of the fixed and variable coaxial
outputs, the digital with both coax and TOSLINK. All remarks about
sound quality refer to fixed output analogue and coaxial digital, but I
did miss XLR balanced output, XLR digital output and AT&T optical -
curious omissions in a machine at this price.

DVD operation was comprehensive and exceptionally user-friendly; I only
referred to the owner's manual a couple of times, to deal with obscure,
never-used-more-than-once facilities like sub-titling. A clear
'Graphical User Interface' allows easy operation and settings are
easily changed via remote and the on-screen display. Its DVD-ish
features include picture ratio adjustment, multi-angle, frame/field
still image, repeat marker, playback memory function and the like.

Curiously, given that there is no European/PAL spec so far, the
DVD-5000 is THX ULTRA certified. The UK DVD-5000 adheres to the same
standards as its American cousin, its video section incorporating a
24MHz, 10-bit video D/A converter, the difference being that the US
version has video adjustment capability not available on this Region 2
player. That aside, they should be identical. According to the
importer, this is the only THX DVD player on sale in the UK.

Nothing could pull me away from this delicious machine, and I lost
whole evenings feeding it Chesky 96kHz.24-bit audio discs, a host of
DTS audio CDs, Denon's audio DVDs of works by Scriabin, Chopin,
Beethoven and Mahler, Region 2 discs of , , and and - surprise, surprise! - a cluster of ostensibly Region 1 titles which
feature the lock-out! I'll be damned if I'm gonna list 'em and aid and
abet the scum who police the regional coding. But I will forever hold
dear to my heart these rebellious labels who ignored the coding and
saved me a bundle...on titles which will probably never get Region 2
release anyway.

(It was only by accident that I even tried them, having confirmed
that the DVD-5000 was 100 percent kosher Region 2 by trying 'proper'
Region 1 titles. It simply would not play , or other major-label, never-for-the-UK Region DVDs.)

Completing the surround sound set-up were three Apogee LCRS, two
Apogee Ribbon Monitors and five channels of Acurus amplification. And
the first aspect I dealt with was the CD performance. It was with great
relief that I learned that here was another DVD player an audiophile
could buy without experiencing the loss of a CD-only player. The
performance was identifiably Denonian: crystal-clear, rock-solid, yet
possessing a soupÁon of warmth. No, it did not sound quite like a Denon
m-c of the 103 era, but the soundstage was massive and '3D' enough to
remind you of the days when Denon made awesome cartridges and the best
direct-drive turntables on the planet.

Specific to the CD performance (and something of a salvation vis a
vis the compromises detected in cheap DVD machines) is a wonderful
coherence and the sort of transparency that some felt was thrown out by
lesser devices. Vocals were handled with finesse and sympathy,
transients were fast and crisp, the bass dry enough to thwack without
thudding, the ambience retained on live recordings - it was hard to
fault. But, good as this is with CD - as in 'good enough to justify its
price even if the DVD capability were removed' - the machine's is DVD playback: i.e. surround sound and/or pictures.

Let's dispense with the latter, as some of you think film is for
wussies: the playback was nothing short of photographic, with luscious,
life-like colours and ample detail. I've lost count of the times I've
seen , but I'm grateful to the Denon (and the brilliant
remastering) for showing me even more of the screw-ups during the
legendary chase. (No prizes to the first reader who tells me the number
of times the same VW Beetle appears.) Some DVD artefacts remain - it
still copes badly with flames, fast-moving water and the like - but
it's good enough to worry laserdisc campaigners.

But the sound is sumthin' else: whole truckloads of impact, slam, sizzle'n'screech. The richochet of the bullets in
provided ample proof of the confidence the Denon displays in dealing
with changes of direction, while the opening titles and the space
travel sequence in demonstrate the unit's ability to sort
out sonic layering and a surfeit of effects. With audio-only DVD
titles, the DVD-5000 has no trouble in conveying grandeur, nor does it
tamper with life-like tonal shadings. Just trying Chesky-sourced vocals
or the DTS Eagles track were enough to make me this sucker.

I hated to see it go, almost as much as I hated its lack of 96kHz
playback and regional coding. It's a dilemma, but let's play Pollyanna:
if you can tolerate the Denon's self-imposed restraint and the
inescapable limitations imposed by Hollywood, and you simply can't wait
for DVD to mature (like, uh, in 2006), you want to spend between
1000 and 4000, this is my choice as the player which fits inbetween
the Pioneers and Theta's DaViD. Indeed, it's nothing short of
magnificent.

Additional Resources
• Read more source component reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find a receiver to pair with this source.
• See more about the audiophile world at AudiophileReview.com.
• Discuss all kinds of gear at hometheaterequipment.com.

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