DVD players are available for as little as $30, but anyone who's serious about image quality and performance needs to spend more, of course. But how much more? Prices can go as high as $850 (for the Denon DVD-2930CI) and even higher--that's serious overkill for all but the most devoted and deep-pocketed videophiles. At the same time, the entry-level models won't cut it for those with a discriminating eye. So where's the happy medium? Consider the Oppo DV-970HD. You might not have heard of the brand, but its earlier OPDV971H won kudos from the enthusiast crowd. The newer DV-970HD follows in tradition of its predecessor--it's stuffed with features and promises high-end performance, and it will set you back just $150.
The overall design of the DV-970HD isn't inspiring and definitely has a low-end feel. The front panel is made of plastic, and the flimsy tray that extends outward feels as if it could easily snap off. There are a few basic controls on the front, but they're very small and not clearly labeled. We also would have liked chapter forward/back controls on the front for when the remote goes missing. To the right of the button is the LCD display; it's somewhat small but easy enough to read from a distance. Further to the right is a flip-down panel that reveals the USB port and a memory card reader. One slight annoyance is that the front-panel display uses unorthodox naming conventions that can lead to confusion--for example, the display reads r00t when you're on a DVD's main menu screen.
We aren't fans of the remote either. Buttons are similarly small, which makes it hard to navigate by feel; we found ourselves constantly needing to look at the remote to visually verify the controls. Rather than a proper backlight, it has glow-in-the-dark keys--enough to see labeled buttons such as Play, but no good for those with tiny descriptions above them. On the upside, the remote is comprehensive, in that you can access many functions with just a click of the button instead of drilling through various menu levels. Our recommendation: use the money you've saved by buying the Oppo and invest in a universal remote.
Despite the design having a somewhat cheap feel, the DV-970HD does come wrapped in a black cloth that gives it the impression that it's something special. And they also manage to throw in a six-foot HDMI cable, which is a relatively uncommon treat.
The graphical user interface is a little utilitarian, but we love the level of customization it provides. It's relatively easy to make fine adjustments such as adjusting the picture controls or setting the delay for surround-sound speakers. We also give it credit for being able to handle non-anamorphic wide-screen DVDs--using a combination of the "squeeze" mode and the adjustable zoom, we were able to properly fill the screen while maintaining the correct aspect ratio, even when switched to HD outputs. That's a big plus, considering that aspect ratio flexibility is lacking on a lot of older and current HDTVs. There are even some pretty wacky options such as Audio Tone, which changes the key of the audio--supposedly useful for karaoke discs. Also, the Oppo offers the ultimate DIY option: updatable firmware. Just download to a PC, burn a disc, and install the upgrade.