The $399 DVD99 is presently the only universal player offered by Cambridge Audio, a value-minded British firm known for building products that offer terrific performance/dollar—a reputation we think the DVD99 is sure to enhance. As we spent time with the DVD99, we found it had three defining characteristics: video performance that is a cut above the norm for this class, refined and surprisingly sophisticated sound quality, and an unusual degree of versatility (thanks to a special features set that gives the player capabilities that few other in this—or any—price class can match).
- HDMI upscaling options: 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p.
- 7.1-channel Analog Audio Outputs
- USB 2.0 Connection: Allows player to access and play material stored on USB flash/memory cards or other “mass storage devices”
- RGB/SCART A/V Connections: The DVD99 is the only player in this survey to support this distinctive combination audio/video interface, which is often used on European-spec televisions and monitors.
- PAL (European format) < - to- > NTSC conversion
- Variable Analog Outputs with Volume Control
The DVD99 provides one of the best user (and most versatile) user interfaces we’ve seen on any universal player, and the remote is quite nicely designed, too. Highlights include:
- Analog audio setup support for both 5.1 and 7.1-channel systems.
- Analog audio channel trimmers that provide a full +/- 10dB range of adjustment.
- Audio as well as (some) video settings that can be adjusted “on-the-fly;” that is, while disc are playing—a feature few players at any price provide.
- An OSD (onscreen display) button on the remote allows users to access a wide range of information on discs being played.
- A CD Mode button turns off any connected display device to minimize potential “screen burn” when playing audio-only discs.
- Direct PAL/NTSC switching from the remote control.
- Direct USB input switching from the remote control.
- A volume control on the remote regulates levels from the DVD99’s analog audio outputs. Note: This feature means the DVD99 can be connected directly to self-powered speakers to create costeffective, minimalist systems.
The DVD99’s user interface is so good that it leaves little to wish for, though two “gild-the-lily” touches we would like to see are an onscreen display that accesses SACD track titles and variable crossover frequencies for subwoofers (both are features some of the best players in this class provide).
Cambridge Audio doesn’t specify the video processor/ de-interlacer used in the DVD99, but on the basis of our benchmark tests, conducted using the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark DVD Ver. 4, we’re prepared to say it’s certainly a good one. In fact, on certain benchmark tests the DVD99 outperformed the Faroudja DCDi-equipped players tested in this survey, with results as noted below:
- Color Bar (resolution) Tests: The DVD99 looked nearly perfect, with no “banding,” even on the most finely-spaced resolution test lines.
- Jaggies Tests: The DVD99 exhibits virtually no “ripple” on most jaggies test, and only barely perceptible “ripple” on worst-case tests.
- Noise Tests: While all players did a pretty good job of minimizing noise, the DVD99 did an exceptional job of suppressing noise.
- Motion Adaptive Noise Tests: The DVD99 performed flawless on these tests and—importantly— did so while doing an exceptional job of preserving fine image details. In one part of the test a tour boat is seen passing under a bridge, and the Cambridge player made the boat’s name— “Portofino”—look sharp as a tack, which not all players we tested could do.
- Film Detail Tests (scene of a racecar passing in front of empty grandstands): Like most players we tested, the DVD 99 exhibited momentary moiré patterns visible in the grandstands before the processor intervened and the image locked in.
- Cadence Tests: The DVD99 not only performed well on the “big two” formats (2-2 30fps Video and 3-2 24fps Film) but also did well on most, though not all, of the less commonlDVCAM, Vari-Speed, and Animation cadences.
Real world DVD tests confirmed what the benchmark tests already led us to expect; namely, that the DVD99 is a very fine DVD—probably one of the top three in our survey. With the player set for 1080i upscaling, the Cambridge offered a smooth, sharp, generally film-like presentation with much better than average resolution. In House of Flying Daggers, the player did a great job of teasing out the details of intricately carved and brightly colored interior of the Peony Pavilion—an interior many players tend to make look too soft (almost as if the camera were slightly out of focus).
What is more, the DVD99 acquitted itself well on acknowledged cinematic torture tests, such the Seabiscuit scene where the camera pans over a black & white photo of a man wearing a finely patterned hound’stooth jacket. Most players exhibit noticeable moiré problems when those jacket surfaces appear, yet the Cambridge player did not. My point is that the DVD99 gives you images with greater resolution, and greater freedom from potential playback problems, than most other players do.
Audio Performance/Sonic Character
Sound quality is also a significant part of the DVD99’s appeal, though I would want to acknowledge from the outset that it does not sound equally good on CDs, SACDs, and DVD-Audio discs. I would the say the DVD99 is a good CD player, a better DVD-Audio player, and an extremely good SACD player. That said, however, I should also point on that even the Cambridge player’s baseline CD performance compares quite favorably with that of most other players in our survey. This player’s general sonic character starts out shaded ever so slightly to the bright side of neutrality, while offering good measures of detail and resolution. The only drawback, really, is that the player can sound just a touch lean or slightly “etched” on some (though not all) CDs. As you step up to DVD-Audio material, and especially to SACDs, three good things happen: first, overall resolution improves; second, three-dimensionality improves; and third, a richer, warmer, and more vibrant sound emerges. What’s not to like about that?
I put on “Mood Indigo” from the Joe Wilder/Marshal Royal Quintet’s Mostly Ellington [Blueport/NuForce CD, reviewed elsewhere in this issue], and was simply floored at how lovely and lifelike the Cambridge player made the recording sound. The DVD99 succeeded largely because it revealed, but did not exaggerate, the recording’s numerous small details, which together add up to terrific realism—realism few players in this class can match. You can hear, for example, subtle mouthpiece and reed noises from Royals’ alto sax, as well as the almost subliminal sounds of him drawing breaths between phrases, all set in contrast to stunningly beautiful timbre of the sax itself. While the record sounded perhaps a touch brighter and more lightly balanced through the Cambridge than through other more warmly balanced players, the DVD99’s strengths more than offset its weaknesses.
But on well-recorded SACDs, such as the Reiner/Chicago performance of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste [RCA Living Stereo, multichannel SACD], things get even better. Through the DVD99, this difficult-to-reproduce piece sounds clean, angular, and exciting, revealing that inherent richness of orchestral tonal colors without any stridency, edginess or glare. And, thanks to the player’s good levels of resolution, you can clearly hear the reverberant acoustic of the recording space, too.