Pity the manufacturer of DVD players circa 2003. Only last month, I walked into a large pharmacy and there, next to the shaving cream, was a chest-high stack of no-name players selling for £64. Sixty-four quid! Hell, I paid more than that for the Ed Sullivan DVD box set. DVD players have, even more quickly than did CD players, plummeted in price. And though it hurts to say it, the quality of these Pacific Rim-jobs is acceptable by most standards. So where does that leave players costing 47 times as much? Will TAG McLaren Audio's £2995 DVD32FLR yield 47 times the pleasure?
• Read more source component reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Explore receivers to pair with the DVD32FLR in our AV Receiver Review section.
Let's accept, if you'll allow, that there are people - and we must consider Hi-Fi News readers among them - who appreciate the difference between a 69p ballpoint and a Montegrappa fountain pen, between own-brand supermarket pasta and pasta from DeCecco. If not, then we're all doomed, quality no longer matters, and striving to better one's self is utterly futile. In which case, stop reading this magazine and switch on Men & Motors. Why? Because TAG's DVD player is so blatantly, so definitively the antithesis of the DVD players conceived to bring the format to the masses that it almost beggars belief. It was designed by anally-retentive types obsessed with extracting the maximum from DVD, rather than merely conveying the minimum.
To be frank, it's not much to look at if you're expecting a simpler version of the costlier (£4250) DVD32R top-loader. Rather, the 'FLR' suffix appears to mean 'front loader', so that is what you get: a prosaic, front-loading DVD32R, but - crucially - minus the superior transport and its means of ingress. The electronic circuitry, digital conversion, A/V processing and other internal concerns are the same as the in DVD32R, bar the casework. Even so, the FLR can, like its dearer sibling, be returned to TAG for conversion for DVD-A when that facility is offered, and download the same software upgrades from the internet. Also, like the DVD32R, there's a £1095 optional progressive scan module. (This was fitted to the review sample, but the Marantz FL4200 plasma screen I use could not exploit it.)
While the front is minimalist - a comprehensive display with variable brightness flanked by two groups of tiny press buttons for the basic transport functions - the back panel and the remote control tell you just how complex a machine this is. The illuminated remote covers all of the basics, plus programming facilities, learning capability and integration with full TAG systems, resulting in a necessary 55 buttons. (But I wish there were four more; see sidebar...) The back contains facilities for integration with an all-TAG or custom installation via the TAGtronic Communication Bus, currently blanked-off sockets for multi-channel analogue output from the eventual DVD-A option, and digital audio outputs via two coaxial or one TOSlink optical socket. Video outputs include composite and S-video, plus RCA and BNC for component and - with the PSM192 option - full progressive scan, plus a multi-pin socket for DVI.
As mentioned above, I couldn't try the progscan feature, but I wasn't too worried. You lot hate video, anyway, so I focussed on the sound quality. That aside, even using this machine with S-video into the 42in Marantz screen, I was treated to some of the very best images I've seen yet in my home. Jet black from a plasma? I couldn't believe it either. But what impressed me most was the lack of digital artefacts, especially a reduction in the odd halos around moving figures and a seeming lessening of the banding effects endemic in plasma screens, noticeable especially with sunsets, sky, flames and the like.
As it's so capable of knock-out visuals, the TAG allows you to revel in the recovery of fine detail, it possesses a wonderful way with image depth - check out the vistas in mountainous scenes in - and even seems to minimise plasma's smearing of complex movement. Probably the most remarkable discs for exploiting the TAG, though, weren't the ones with lifelike colours and an absence of trickery, but films with heavy filtering, extreme contrasts and lots of CGI trickery, such as . Side-by-side comparisons with other DVD players showed that the TAG was better at retaining and in some cases improving on subtle shadings that were washed out by other machines.
This really came into play with one of my obsessions: silent movie classics. (Yes, I do appreciate the irony of using 4:3, silent or monophonic black-and-white movies for reviewing a DVD player...) With Fritz Lang's from 1924, but with a newly recorded Dolby Stereo orchestral soundtrack, it was possible to see skin textures and make-up details on close-ups, factors which eluded other players. But sometimes it was too good, and you could make out the weaknesses of 80-year-old production techniques which might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Expect the worst if you love pre-CGI classics such as the Sabu-starring : you see the wires on the magic carpet.
(An unexpected bonus of the TAG's high-resolution playback addresses a new DVD phenomenon. With the DVD labels exploiting suckers like me with 'special editions', it's now possible to compare so-called 'remasterings', like four editions of , a brace of , three and so on. If you thought four generations of Led Zeppelin or the Doors CDs was irritating, DVD will show with even greater force the venality of the software giants.)
With broadcast-grade componentry in the video sections, such finesse shouldn't have surprised me. Furthermore, TAG has been one of the most far-seeing companies of all when it comes to understanding and embracing whatever standards the industry concocts and forces on players, including THX compliance. While you may feel that these rigorous criteria seem mainly to address visual concerns, many affect sonic behaviour. TAG employs zero-compromise components and the construction is probably about as good as any found in consumer electronics. The MPEG decoder is Mediamatics' best, the Pantera-DVD, which integrates a 32-bit RISC processor, MPEG-specific hardware, 10-bit video DACs and the PAL and NTSC decoders.
More specifically for audio needs, the DVD32FLR features a dozen power supplies with a massive toroidal at it heart, multi-layer PCBs, dual-wavelength laser, and premium-grade analogue components. TAG, after all, does have a resident audiophile renowned for his finicky methodology when choosing components; this is one company outside of the cottage industry which does apply hardcore audiophile techniques. As such, conventional CD playback revealed no compromises, while I will state emphatically for multi-channel users that the DTS and Dolby Digital reproduction were faultless.
Used with the Lexicon MC-12 A/V processor, Theta Intrepid amplifier, Chord cables and a MartinLogan speaker array, and the aforementioned Marantz plasma screen, the DVD32FLR stamped its mark on the system even before it was fully warmed-up and run-in. The initial benefit was a level of clarity, a gain I didn't even know I was missing. Which goes to show that you only notice certain flaws when they're removed; you can get used to almost anything (bar the TAG's remote...). The cleanliness and transparency were beneficial with every type of disc I used, including normal CDs, mono and Dolby Stereo video DVDs, the aforementioned multi-channel types and every niche format I tried, including DTS audio CDs and 96/24 DVDs, such as those from Hi-Res.
[Brief aside: Companies like TAG, Meridian and others could do audiophiles a BIG favour by showing them that there are still wondrous advances being made in two-channel sound simply by packing a Hi-Res or similar cutting-edge stereo sampler with their machines. Considering how fine Hi-Res' new version of the Ray Brown Trio's Soular Evergy sounded through the TAG - warm, natural, airy with a breathtaking sense of space - I can't wait to hear the disc's flip-side, the DVD-A version, when TAG offers that facility.]
Without any qualms, I will tell you that the TAG has much to offer...however ludicrous that sounds. No sane individual would even consider this player if he or she were shopping solely for a CD player. But it speaks volumes about the sonic capabilities of the machine when used solely for music, and there have been so many good music/concert DVDs of late - Eric Clapton's , a new Eric Bibb, the Queen anthology and more - that I beg you of the anti-DVD persuasion to reconsider the format's role in a music lover's, as opposed to a cineaste's system. The Clapton, for example, as with last year's underrated ELO concert disc, demonstrates just what DTS brings to the table. If you've ever, in your more fervent anti-home cinema bleating, argued 'til you're blue in the face that the only reference is live music, why are you denying yourself the sound of the hall to your back and sides?
Read more on Page 2
But back to the sound itself, whether via DVD movies or audio CDs. The TAG clearly aspires to accuracy and neutrality rather than romance. There are no euphonic lies, no 'tuned' colorations. It is, by any measure, a precision tool rather than a musical instrument. And for many - those who are immune to valve amps or LPs - as it should be. Given that it is a digital playback device, I have to agree. There is no scope for anything else (with apologies to those making belt-drive CD players), because the output is digital, too; there's no need for analogue chicanery here.
Perhaps it's a by-product of DVD movies, but the TAG (like one or two other 'audiophile' DVD players) excels in two key areas. Not unusually, they are even more crucial to convincing movie soundtrack playback. The DVD32FLR's bass extension, control and slam are nothing short of 'exciting', whether reproducing Kodo drums or the thuds and explosions in . The other area? Dynamic swings from soft to loud are swift and smooth, with no unnecessary overhang, no hesitation. Coloration is just about impossible to detect and the soundstage is, as you'd expect, Cinemascopic.
So what you actually hear, and that means anything that veers from the truth, will be caused by the components in your system AFTER the TAG. If ever a DVD player suggested 'reference quality', even at a time when the format is in turmoil thanks to DVD-Audio, Blue Laser and other distractions, it's this one. (And, I grudgingly admit, its top-loading sister.) So, despite its almost clinical mien, I have to describe the TAG with a truly apt, non-technical German word: . For those of you are reading this for free in Smith's, I suggest you wander over to the dictionary department and look it up. For the rest of you, that means 'magical'.
TAG McLaren Audio 0800 783 8007 www.tagmclaren.com
SIDEBAR: TROUBLED MINDS IN HUNTINGDON
There are some minor but disturbing concerns which contradict, if not quite undermine, TAG McLaren Audio's fanatical attention to detail, inconsistencies which baffle me. I was assured that everything about the DVD32FLR was performance-related, but that doesn't explain why TAG would spend money on an enamel F1 label badge packed in every carton, or why it would colour the sorbothane feet inserts red when you'd only see them upon turning the unit upside down...and then fit a cheap'n'nasty tray.
Certainly, TAG does care about ergonomics and ease of use. The company figured that the best place to ensure that you'll find your owner's manual when you need it would be to make it CD-sized, so you can put in on your CD shelf. The set-up wizard is foolproof, with lucid instructions and a battery of useful tests via its own test pattern generator to help you to optimise colour, tint, brightness, sharpness, contrast, convergence and geometry in a manner as painless as true Plug'n'Play devices on post-USB 2.0 PCs. But why would TAG fit a superlative all-metal front panel, and then finish it so that it feels like plastic? Maybe the Mercedes-Benz connection is too close: that firm is known for using real wood in its cars and making it seem like the kind which came from a test tube.
But there are aspects of the DVD32FLR's form and behaviour which keep me from dubbing it the one I would take with me to an electrified desert isle. Keeping in mind that the only points of physical/tactile contact between a user and a DVD or CD player are the remote control, the front panel buttons and the tray, TAG blew it on two out of three. True, this has nothing to do with performance, and Herr Doctor Zucker has every right to tell me that what follows doesn't matter by his standards. But I say it does, especially if you're handing over three grand.
While the tiny buttons of the front panel are a joy to use, the tray is possibly the cheesiest I've seen on any player above 200. In my system, beneath the DVD32FLR, is a 700 Sony SACD player with a tray which feels as if it's carved from solid. Now I don't want to hear that Sony has as many factories as TAG has employees, and can afford such things thanks to economies of scale. All I know is that for 2995, a flimsy tray is an insult.
But it's the remote which really fries my arse. TAG uses a generic learning remote which - I simply can't believe this act of idiocy - combines the left/right/up/down cursor functions with stop, pause, FF and rewind. (Think about it.) I have now found discs which it can barely navigate, e.g. Paul McCartney's , and others which require much stabbing of the set-up/menu button to toggle between the functions. You try to go down the menu, you tap the down arrow. The disc stops. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
To date, I have used in excess of 50 DVD players. Never have I found one which couldn't navigate even the most poorly-conceived disc menus, nor one which was so unintuitive. It goes on and on: There's no zoom facility. There are two FF/rewind speeds, one too slow and one too fast. (A 750 Rotel gives you a nice rotary with something like eight speeds.) Yes, I agree: these are NOT performance-related details. But you do have to live with such operational vagaries, and even after two months and some 75 DVDs and countless CDs, I still hate the remote. In other words, could you learn to enjoy a Porsche or Ferrari if someone swapped the brake and clutch pedals?
Let's put it this way: if TAG replaced that shitty tray with something more substantial, and produced a bespoke remote with separate buttons for the transport and cursor functions, I would be the first to call it the 'best DVD player money can buy', even the DVD32R. How so? Because I hate top-loading even more than I loathe cheap plastic trays.
• Read more source component reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Explore receivers to pair with the DVD32FLR in our AV Receiver Review section.