10 things to look for in a DVD player for playback at live events.

Consumer DVD players are SO cheap now, it’s very tempting to make use of them as a playback tool for live events. Some are better suited to this application than others. Here are 10 specific features to watch out for when buying a consumer DVD player for use at live events.

You can buy professional DVD players designed specifically for use at live events. They are built to be robust and reliable over many many hours of extended use. They are also really expensive.

So the reourceful VLOBLIVE engineer is likely to say “why buy one of those, when I could buy one of these consumer ones for 1/3rd of the money and replace it three times for the same money if it breaks?” It’s a compelling argument and a route I have taken in the past, but be aware that there are some caveats to this approach that should be kept in mind.

Firstly remember that professional DVD players don’t just push robustness as their selling points. They also have the right features and the right quality for the application.

There are some features that just make things easier when doing live events. Here are some to watch out for:

1. Compatible with recordable DVD formats. Since all ‘homegrown’ DVD content will be on recordable DVD, you better make sure that the player supports them. This is becoming less of an issue, but double-check that it will play back DVD-Rs, DVD+Rs, and also DVD-RW and DVD+RWs too. The best option is to take a disk with you when buying. Ironically a lot of the cheaper DVD players have newer chipsets than the Pro ones, and will actually be MORE compatible than their expensive cousins, but it’s still worth checking.

2. The ability to turn OFF the on-screen display. Most consumer DVD players have an OSD that shows an icon for PLAY and PAUSE etc. This is really distracting, when starting playback, so try to buy one that allows you to turn OFF the OSD completely. You will probably have to read through the user manual to find out this one.

3. Menu controls on front panel. Most consumer players rely entirely on the remote control for menu operation. In the heat of the moment, you don’t want to be fumbling around looking for a remote control, or finding that the batteries are flat etc. Buy a DVD player with the 4-way UP/DOWN/LEFT/RIGHT select and Menu controls on the front panel. There are a few that have this, and it is well worth holding out for.

4. Direct Phono and miniDIN video/audio outputs The cheaper the DVD player the less comprehensive it’s output connections will be. The simplest will have a single SCART (in Europe) connection, which will need a breakout cable. You want something that you can change the connections on quickly and easily using standard cables.

I suggest you set your minimum standard as AT LEAST: – separate audio out L and R on phono (RCA) – separate composite video out on phono (RCA) – separate S-Video out on miniDIN

In addition if you have component RGB on phonos then that can we useful for ‘direct to projector’ playback, giving the best possible quality. Some even have a surround decoder built in and bring out separate L,R, C, Rear L, Rear R and sub outputs on phono (RCA). This MIGHT come in useful for ‘movie nights’ but is only a ‘nice to have’.

5. PAL AND NTSC playback. This is pretty much a given, but having the ability to play the ‘other’ format can save your neck when someone turns up with a disc they sourced from abroad. Remember however, that just because your DVD player can playback the ‘other’ format doesn’ mean the rest of your system can.

On pro machines, some of them will actually convert PAL to NTSC or NTSC to PAL which is even better, but I guess you have to weigh up how often you will need this feature, since if you get the disc in advance you can always convert it in your NLE anyway. (Compressor 2, as part of the Apple Final Cut Studio package will now do standards conversion)

6. Ability to turn OFF the screen saver Sometimes you really don’t want a screensaver kicking in on the DVD player at the wrong moment. Make sure you can turn it off (again, check the user manual, don’t just take someone’s word on this)

7. A-B loop playback This is the ability to select playback to run from one particular timecode to another and then loop automatically. Can be very useful for animated backgrounds etc. of course you can just loop up the background on the DVD to play for 30 mins or whatever, but it’s nice to have the option.

8. Time readout on the player NOT the screen. Again this is a ‘nice to have’ but having an LED, or LCD time display on the player itself, can sometimes be very useful, especially if it has a ‘time remaining’ mode, so you know how long is left of the current clip.

9. Gamma (brightness) adjustment Some players have a way of adjusting the ‘brightness’ although actually it’s usually the gamma that’s being adjusted. This makes darker parts of the image brighter and can really help when you are showing movie clips that are mean to be seen on a TV in a dark sitting room, on an LCD (with lower contrast ratio) in a bright hall or church. This can sometimes be called ‘movie mode’ or ‘enhanced mode’ or similar.

10. Good enough image quality for the application. My final note is on Quality. MPEG video decoding isn’t trivial to do and the better it is implemented the more expensive the chipset is, and this is reflected in the cost of the player. A cheap player will produce poorer quality video. There’s no argueing about that. This is going to be especially obvious when you are projecting it 10 feet wide on a big screen, so don’t ignore this aspect. You pretty much pay for what you get and remember your audience doesn’t care how much you paid for the machine – they care how good the video looks.

My rule of thumb (as of June 2006) is that sub $100 you are going to struggle to get good enough quality. Sub $180 you can probably do OK, and around $200 quality should no longer be an issue.

There are some very specific artefacts to watch out for in cheap DVD players (or indeed any low quality MPEG decoding) – you need to decide if the player you are auditioning is good enough for what you are doing:

– banding or contouring in flat areas. this is a BIG give-away of poor quality decoding. if you look at flat areas of colour you see what look like contour lines on a map across them.

– mosquito noise around edges. This shows up as noise around areas of high detail or along edges.

– dis-embodied heads. I just invented this term, but it refers to situations where the motion estimation in the MPEG decoder gets it wrong and you see someone’s head remain TOTALLY static while their body is moving slightly in the background. It’s almost like their head is disconnected from their body.

– blocking on fast movement. This is one of the most obvious, especially when playing back handheld video where there is a lot of movement in the image anyway. the encoder just gives up and displays a bunch of blocks instead of parts of the image.

Different people have different thresholds for these kinds of artefacts, but remember they are all going to be MUCH bigger and MUCH more obvious when projected on a big screen. Also remember that poor quality encoding (typical of a consumer DVD recorder, or DVD encoding app) gives a bigger challenge to the decoding hardware too.

So, it’s pointless to recommend specific models, as they change so quickly, but you CAN buy cheap (sub $150) consumer DVD players that meet all these criteria and work well for VLOBLIVE events. I know, I’ve got one!

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