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Product Review - Panasonic A-310 DVD Player - June, 1998

Ralph Calabria

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Panasonic A-310 DVD Player

Digital Output Delivers DD and DTS Signal

Coaxial, Optical, and Component Video Outputs

Virtual Surround Sound Feature

Size: 3 1/2"H x 16 7/8"W x 11 3/8"D

Weight: 8 pounds

Price: $699.95 USA

 

 

Panasonic Corporation, One Panasonic Way, Secaucus, New Jersey 07094; Phone 800-222-4213; Web http://www.panasonic.com.

Introduction

The second generation DVD players are upon us in full force. Panasonic has managed to come out with several new models, all better than their predecessors. For one thing, they have changed to 10-bit video D/A conversion, something all companies are doing on their new players. The A-310 is no exception. Increased bits in the video D/A conversion allow for more dynamic range in the picture, which means deeper blacks. The A-310 also has 96 kHz, 24-bit D/A conversion capability for the audio (so it will play the new DADs using all the available bits), and the player is compatible will standard CD and Video CD formats as well.

Ins and Outs

There is a large array of connections available on the rear panel, which makes this player a very flexible one indeed. But what's this?! dts? Yes, the A310 is one of the first players to be compatible with dts DVD movies (when they finally get released). Outputs include both coaxial and optical digital, one S-Video, two composite video, and the trio of component video outputs. There is also a built-in Dolby Digital (DD) decoder on board, so the panel has the 6-channel outputs, and you can connect it to a DD-ready receiver or processor/amp. Lastly, a pair of analog outputs lets you connect it directly to a TV or stereo analog audio inputs of a receiver for Pro Logic decoding.

The front panel is very simple and to the point. Buttons are provided to operate power on/off, the usual transport functions (forward, reverse), a headphone jack with volume control, Virtual Surround Sound (VSS - more on that later), open/close tray function, scrolling text, and a shuttle dial.

OK, now to VSS. This is a surround mode that is supposed to be used when you just have one pair of speakers. Virtual surround is a very sophisticated type of DSP that "fools" your ears into thinking you have the complete array of speakers all around the room. Panasonic figures that you might get your DVD player before you plunk down the money for a full home theater, so you can get a reasonable facsimile using this feature through your two channel hi-fi. It does a pretty good job of simulating surround effects (the illusion of having rear speakers) as long as you sit equal distance from the two speakers.

The A-310's remote has a slide down cover that hides the infrequently used keys such as the numeric keypad, VSS function and programming keys. This cover makes the remote very comfortable to handle. I could easily reach all the upper keys of the remote with the same hand I was holding it. The remote can be programmed to operate 15 different brands of TVs (I didn't know there were that many brands!), controlling power on/off, volume and channel up/down (for the TV). The remote also has a unique mini joystick that lets you move the on-screen cursor up/down/left/right by moving the joystick. Take note that this is not the type of joystick found on video games. It is short. I had no problem maneuvering the "stick", however, and got used to its operation rather quickly. (Be forwarned if you have long fingernails!) To activate the selected menu item, just push down on the joystick. The rest of the remote is pretty routine, offering title, menu, angle (a red light is illuminated on the player's front display when a disc offers an angle option), marker, return, subtitle, audio, and the array of transport and search commands. Also included are power on/off and disc tray open/close buttons (for the DVD player). I would like to have seen an illuminated keypad for better viewing in the dark.

I've saved the display button for last. This button gives on-screen displays (OSD) in three submenus. The menus are basically graphic user interface (GUI) menus for many of the menus seen on the A310's front panel, only larger . . . much larger! Submenu #1 displays Title and Chapter selection by either using the up/down joystick or numeric keys, running time of the DVD/CD, LPCM selection options, on-screen menu display options, and angle selection. Submenu #2 offers selected programming and marker options. There are some interesting menu options here that are only accessible through this on-screen display. There is a picture sharpness icon that allows you to set the picture to soft, normal or fine. Soft was WAY too blurry, the fine introduced some noise in the picture, and the normal (factory preset) was just right. After queing up the sharpness adjustment pattern on Video Essentials, my suspicions were confirmed. This adjustment increases (or decreases) the high frequencies in the video. My advice to you: keep the setting at normal. There is also a master volume for the audio output connectors of the player which lets you adjust the volume at the player from 0 dB to - 127 dB (theoretically, you could use the player as a preamplifier with five power amplifiers and a powered subwoofer). Menu #3 offers the standard transport functions such as play, stop, slow motion and rapid reverse/advance as an on-screen display. The nice thing about these displays is that they can be accessed while a movie (or CD) is playing. For example, if you've forgotten to select 5.1 ch and the default for the movie is 2 ch, no problemo. Just hit the display button and select the proper audio, all without having to stop playback (on some first generation players, you have to stop the disc first). The display menus are arranged at the very top of the TV screen, which allows unobstructed view while changing menu items.

The initial settings for the player are composed of 9 submenus that set the player's default values. They include:

Disc Language: Sets the audio, subtitle, and menus language.

Ratings: Sets parental lock of discs (with password).

Menu Language: Sets the language for on-screen displays.

On-Screen Disp.: Jogs on-screen displays on/off.

FL Display: Sets the display brightness.

TV Aspect: Sets the TV aspect ratio to either 4:3 or 16:9.

Digital Audio Output: Lets you select dts, DD, or LPCM (Linear PCM) options.

Speaker settings: Setup menu for balancing and selecting speaker size for built-in DD decoder. Sets center and rear delay.

Other settings: Allows you to select still mode, audio (on/off) during search, TV mode, and dynamic compression.

I liked the dynamic compression feature, which allows you to watch a movie late at night when the kids (or your neighbors) are asleep. This reduces the loud scene volume and increases the quiet scene volume. Nice touch. The A-310 offers auto power on/off and resume play. If you're watching a movie and press STOP once, the player stores a marker at that point of the movie. You may shut the power off, turn it back on and hit play, and the movie continues where it left off. Pressing STOP twice clears the marker.

The A-310's search and scan modes are pretty smooth, as DVD players go. The player's dedicated LSI (Large Scale Integrated Circuit) provides a very clear image in both the forward and reverse direction. The player has 5 scanning speeds ranging from 2 to 100 times normal speed, and slow motion scanning at 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, and 1/16 of normal speed. As I mentioned earlier, there is a function in the initial setup menu where you can turn the audio on/off during the frame search. There is also a frame step function that searches movies one frame at a time.

Audio and Video Performance

I connected the A-310 to my Marantz DP-870 DD decoder by way of a Nordost Flatline MoonGlo 75 Ohm video cable using the coaxial digital input, and an Audioquest S-Video cable. The monitor was a Hitachi 50" Ultravision RPTV. I then connected the mixed analog audio outputs to the CD inputs of my B&K preamp, and I was ready to roll. As the unit is powered up, the monitor displays a Panasonic DVD "ball". If the screen is idle for a short time, the screen saver is activated and the "ball" starts bouncing around the screen.

The first DVD I put it the player was Video Essentials. I used the video test patterns to adjust my TV to the proper Contrast, Tint, Color, Brightness, and Sharpness. This is very important if you want to get the best possible picture from DVD. My TV was previously adjusted using the laserdisc A Video Standard. I noticed some minor changes in the adjustments when using Video Essentials. As Secrets' own video guru, Stacey Spears, said about the DVD version of Video Essentials, "Go buy the disc..:" Enough said.



The video quality of this player is excellent. I was amazed at how clear and sharp edges were, and the colors were clearly defined, properly saturated and separated. At the end of Video Essentials, there is a section where music is playing and there are different scenes being shown (flowers blowing in the wind, ice melting off a twig into a pool of water, etc.). The A-310 showed its stuff with these scenes. The images were vivid and clean. No noise at all! I played some problematic scenes on various earlier released discs such as Twister, Goldeneye, and Jumaji. All played back very cleanly, a hint that Panasonic's MPEG-2 decoding was working quite nicely. I saw no digital artifacts from where I was sitting. Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway), crisp, clean discs such as Contact, Tomorrow Never Dies, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, all looked stunning.



After being totally satisfied with the video portion of the player, I moved on to the audio. I first set up the built-in DD decoder using the menu controls. This was relatively easy to accomplish using the supplied test tone generator and the on screen graphic display (are you as surprised as I am about the features on this player?!) To connect the DD decoder to my setup, I had to connect the six outputs of the A-310's DD decoder directly to my B&K AV5000 amp. If you've got a receiver that is DD ready (which is what Panasonic had in mind), this is a far better situation since volume control will be handled more easily from the receiver. Fortunately, my amp has separate volume controls for each channel, so balancing at a reasonable level was doable, albeit time consuming and labor intensive. This is where the A-310's master volume for the audio outputs came in handy. I was able to fine tune the volume of DVDs during playback using this feature, so that the volume control on the receiver operated in a convenient range. I've seen some pretty bad remarks about built-in DD decoders in DVD players, so I was surprised to hear such a great sound from the built-in DD decoder in the A-310. The sonic quality of the decoder was very good, on a par with, dare I say, my DP-870! The decoder even had a center channel delay feature that is not on the DP-870. I did notice that there was a bit of a problem with the bass management when I set the fronts, center, and surrounds to "small". The sound coming out of the speakers was surprisingly "thin". There appeared to be a "hole" in the cutoff between the mains and the sub (typically 100 Hz at 12 dB/octave high pass and 24 dB/octave low pass slopes). By raising the crossover point on my sub, the "hole" disappeared, but the low frequencies coming from the subwoofer drew my attention to it. This is most likely due to a higher than normal (above 100 Hz) cutoff/slope in the crossover frequency between the mains and sub. When the speaker settings were set to "large", where full range was sent to all speakers, everything sounded much more natural and balanced. Channel separation was very good, and noise was below audible limits. Not a bad showing for a built-in DD decoder! When using the digital coaxial output of the player routed to the DP-870, I experienced no hum or background noise. The digital bitstream coming from the player provided a clean signal, not to mention great sound.

I then concentrated on CD playback. The A-310 incorporates a dual-focus pickup that adjusts accordingly when playing DVDs or CDs. All players use dual-focus optical pickups, with the exception of the Sony players, which use two separate optical lenses for CD and DVD playback. CD playback was very natural. The 96 kHz/24-bit DACs in this player sounded really nice, although I only listened to conventional (sigh) 44.1/16 CDs. If I had to complain at all, I'd say that the sound was a bit edgy and strained, but overall I was very pleased with what I heard. Considering that the DVD-A310 was primarily designed to playback DVDs, I was pleasantly surprised with the sound coming from CDs, enough so that this player could easily double as a decent CD player. Once again, however, bass management proved to be a problem. When playing CDs, and using either the A-310's built-in DD decoder or the DP-870, no deep bass was directed to the subwoofer! Only when I set the mains to "small" did I get bass in the sub. I suppose this is the way it was meant to be, but I prefer to run my mains full bandwidth. To do that, I'd have to keep changing the setting for the main speakers to "large" when sending a DD bitstream to the decoder, and "small" when playing CDs. As I noted above, using the mixed audio outputs of the A-310 to the B&K worked fine (bass was directed to the sub, where it belongs).



(All screen shots copyright the respective studios.)

Summary

The DVD-A310 provides excellent audio and video performance at a realistic price. Taking into account all the extras this player has, like a built-in DD decoder, component video outputs, and a barrage of on-screen menus, this player is both easy to use and flexible. Throw in a somewhat unique universal remote, coaxial and optical digital outputs in addition to a dts digital output, and you've got a player that will satisfy any audio/video enthusiast. At a street price of under $500, this just may be the DVD player to beat in performance, features, AND cost.

Ralph Calabria


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Copyright 1998 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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