Product Review (June 2001) - Panasonic
DVD-A120 DVD Player
Last year Panasonic was the first to offer a reasonably priced DVD player that not only supported DTS audio on DVD, but achieved reference quality video performance that gave the high-end units a run for their money. This year, Panasonic ups the ante and includes component video with the new DVD-A120. The DVD-A120 includes the same Burr Brown 24 bit/96KHz audio DAC (PCM-1716) found in the previous model. The manual says the unit is not capable of outputting a 24/96 S/PDIF signal. However, the review sample I received seems to have this capability, at least according to the front panel of the 24/96 capable MSB Technology Link DAC. Additional features include a user selectable black level (7.5 IRE or zero) referred to as lighter and darker in the user interface. Normal viewing specifies the black level be set at 7.5 IRE. Many new DVD players are omitting a switchable black level which has raised concerns among the videophile community. High-end DVD players such as the Sony DVP-S7700 and the Pioneer Elite DV-09 should clearly have this feature, but for some reason seemed to have mistargeted their audience. Videophiles who want to properly calibrate their displays using the PLUGE (Picture Line Up Generation Equipment) test, need the ability to set the black level to zero. This test pattern is available on Joe Kane's Video Essentials DVD. This calibration DVD is highly regarded by the video community and is considered "the" reference disc for setting up any display properly. Another interesting feature that wasn't available in the previous DVD-A110, is the ability to display the type of frame used during a frame freeze. The upper right corner displays I, P or B (Intra, Predictive, or Bi-directional coded picture) depending on the type of frame used. This framing information is part of the MPEG-2 video format.

The DVD-A120 is capable of playing not only DVDs and CDs, but Video CDs as well. Although the manual does not recommend playing CD-Rs in this player, I was able to play a CD-RW without any problem. Of course your mileage may vary on recordable media. The older DVD-A110 seemed to play some CD-Rs, but I was not able to get any CD-Rs to work in this player.

The front panel of the new DVD-A120 is simple looking compared to the DVD-A110. Panasonic decided not to include a headphone jack and level adjustment on the new DVD-A120. The unit is also noticeably taller than last year's model by about 1/2 inch. The A120 has two sets of audio and two composite video outputs. In addition, one S-Video and one set of component video outputs are provided. A switch in the rear of the unit selects between S-Video and component video. Some users with only two front channels may find the VSS (Virtual Surround Sound) mode useful. This processing only works on Dolby Digital 2.0 and above. There are two different VSS modes to choose from.

Initial disc access time is considerably faster than last year's model (by a factor of 2). In fact, in a head-to-head startup race with the Sony DVP-S7000, the DVD-A120 beat the S7000 by a small margin. Most DVD players seem to take a while to spin the disc up and read the contents. This may be due to the single laser having to detect both DVD and CD formats. Track-to-track access seemed to be very similar to last year's model (still a bit slow). Picture quality was very impressive. Using 16:9 source material and bypassing the internal downconverter revealed a beautiful picture. Switching to the 4:3 TV mode revealed some noticeable artifacts during the downconversion. Scrolling text and other high frequency detail such as chain linked fences, seem to shimmer more than when the unit ran in the 16:9 mode. The downconversion process among the different DVD players varies in quality and should be checked before buying a player.

The DVD-A120 provided a very clean signal to the outboard DVDO iScan Plus line doubler used during the evaluation. The line doubled output looked beautiful with such a clean source on both the NEC 17" and ViewSonic 21" multi-sync displays. Images that showed obvious interlacing artifacts on the standard NTSC output (by no fault of the DVD-A120), disappeared with the iScan line doubler. Since DVD Video discs store the information as progressive scanned frames, next generation DVD players will have progressive outputs once the copyright issues are resolved. Many of the new models are currently waiting for this issue to be resolved.

Audio performance was excellent making use of the internal Burr Brown 24 bit/96KHz delta-sigma DACs. Listening to the Chesky Super Audio Collection & Professional Test Disc DVD revealed just how good DACs are these days. Livingston Taylor's Isn't She Lovely on track 2 makes one appreciate how well Chesky masters their software and how good they can sound on a $399 DVD player with its analog outputs. Using the lower sample rate and resolution of standard CDs, still made Rebecca Pidgeon's Spanish Harlem sound as if you were right there.

The DVD-A120 had no problem passing the Dolby Digital or DTS bitstream to the Yamaha DSP-A1 via the digital output. Alan Parson's On Air and Bonnie Raitt's Road Tested DTS encoded CDs sounded smooth and transparent in 5.1 channels. Using the reference quality Dances with Wolves DVD from DTS, both audio and video performed flawlessly. Fortunately, DTS has been effective in licensing their 5.1 digital audio format to manufacturers, thereby making it available to the masses. More and more new receivers and processors are carrying both Dolby Digital and DTS. Having both formats is not a bad idea in these changing times, especially since the cost for adding DTS is minimal. As a side note, any CD or DVD player with a digital output is capable of sending out the digital DTS bitstream from a DTS encoded CD to a processor/receiver. Playing DTS CDs on a non-DTS compatible unit using the standard analog outputs causes this data to be interpreted as standard two channel information resulting in a "hiss" or "pink noise" type sound. However, DTS DVDs have a special code in the bitstream that needs to be recognized by the DVD player in order to get the digital data out to a processor. Early DVD adopters were left without the ability to play DTS DVDs, but most current players like the DVD-A120 carry the Digital Theater Systems (dts) digital out logo which guarantees the ability to play these discs. Eagles fans will be impressed with the DTS version of Hell Freezes Over on DVD. Compared to the laserdisc version of this concert, the DTS DVD was noticeably cleaner in both the video and audio and comes highly recommended. Despite the limited number of DTS DVD titles, dozens of DTS encoded CD titles are currently available with the number growing each month.

Panasonic has once again produced a great entry level player with impressive video and audio performance while keeping the price affordable. Component video and 24/96 DACs make the DVD-A120 a full featured DVD player at a competitive price. If you are considering a player in the $300-$400 range, the Panasonic DVD-A120 is worth looking into.
- Kevin Nakano

Review System:
Panasonic CTP-31XF40 Television
DVDO iScan Pure Progressive Line Doubler
NEC XV17 Multi-sync Monitor used with the iScan
Viewsonic G810 Multi-sync Monitor used with the iScan
Yamaha DSP-A1 Processor/Amplifier
MSB Technology Link Dac 24/96
Adcom GFA-5800
Adcom GFA-555II
Spica TC-50s
NHT 1259 Subs

Review at a glance:
Panasonic DVD-A120 - DVD/Video CD/CD Player

  • 24-bit/96kHz Burr Brown Audio DAC
  • 10-bit Video DACs
  • Component Video Outputs
  • Digital Theater Systems (dts) digital output

    Company Information
    Panasonic Consumer Electronics Company
    Division of Matsushita Electric Corporation
    One Panasonic Way
    Secaucus, New Jersey

    Source: Manufacture loan
    Serial Number: B9GA02689
    MSRP: $399.99
    Street Price: $320-$350
    Size: 10-1/2" x 17" x 4" (LxWxH)
    Weight: 7 pounds
    Warranty: 1 year


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