We also liked some of the additional options available for those that like to watch DVDs from outside of North America. The Oppo has no problem with PAL discs, and can be made into a region-free player by entering a simple remote code (See the Tips and Tricks section for more information).
Oppo has an excellent comparison between their three upscaling DVD players on its site, so you can get a good feel for the features differences in the lineup. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of the Oppo DV-981HD's performance, we'd like to quickly explain the benefits of buying an upscaling DVD player. Despite some of the marketing hype espousing that they'll make your DVDs appear in HD picture quality, the increase in picture quality will never comes close to matching that of HDTV, and the increase is also completely dependent on how good the upscaling technology in your TV already is. Every HDTV is already capable of upscaling; the only benefit an upscaling DVD player can bring to the table is to do it better. In some cases the difference is easily discernable, while in others it's much more subtle. The bottom line for every upscaling DVD player is that it might be able to make your DVDs look better, but the difference will probably be worth it only to image-quality enthusiasts.
To test the Oppo DV-981HD's video quality, we started off with Silicon Optix's HQV Test suite in 1080p mode. The first resolution test looked solid, clearly demonstrating the DV-981HD's ability to display the full resolution of DVDs. We did notice some slight shakiness on some of the horizontal green lines, but it was relatively minor on the Westinghouse LVM-47w1, slightly more noticeable on the Pioneer Pro-FHD1, and nonexistent on the Vizio GV47LF. The next two tests involved a rotating line and three shifting lines, and they were nearly perfect--sure, we could see some very slight artifacts on both of them, but it was good as we've seen with reference-level DVD players such as the aforementioned Denon. The next few tests, involving a waving flag as well as some highway footage, also looked excellent with sharp detail and very few jaggies. On the highway images, we could see some blurriness on the bottom of the steps that followed cars as they passed, but again, this is something we see on even the best DVD players. The DV-981HD also showed off its 2:3 pull-down detection capabilities on some footage of a race car speeding by a grandstand. It snapped into film mode in about a second; not the fastest we've seen, but it is still very good.
We moved on to more DVD test footage and looked at the Windows DVD Test Annex. We checked to make sure the DV-981HD didn't have the chroma bug error in every resolution, and it passed with flying colors. We also looked at some test footage from Avia Pro, and it mostly confirmed our conclusions from the other discs. One issue we noticed on the EOL Horizontal tests was that 1080p was sharper than 1080i on the Pioneer Pro-FHD1, the Westinghouse LVM-47w1 and the Vizio GV47LF. This indicates that, at least for the tests we observed, the de-interlacing capabilities of the DV-981HD are superior to those of the TVs on which we noticed this. To double-check that there wasn't a problem with the DV-981HD's 1080i output, we looked at the same pattern using the Denon DVD-3910 in 1080i mode, and the same softness was present. The fact that the Oppo's 1080i de-interlacing is superior to several modern HDTVs is important because if they were exactly the same, it would be hard to justify the extra cost for a 1080p upscaling DVD player vs. a 1080i upscaling DVD player--you could just let the TV do the de-interlacing.
Of course, DVD performance comes down to more than an HQV scorecard, so we looked at some actual program material to see how it stacked up. We started off by watching the introduction to Sea Biscuit, which causes problems on less-capable DVD players. The DV-981HD handled the intro excellently, as we could make out very few jaggies, and the black-and-white images looked very sharp for a DVD. We switched over to Star Trek: Insurrection and watched the introduction, our favorite torture test for 2:3 pull-down detection. As we suspected, the DV-981HD was solid--the arch of the bridge and the hulls of the boats were smooth, and the pan across the village was free of the excess juddering that we've seen before.
We would have loved to do a side-by-side test of the Oppo against the significantly more expensive Denon 2930CI, but unfortunately we did not have one on hand. Instead, we put the Oppo DV-981HD head to head with the older Denon DVD-3910, using the Aeon Flux DVD. This isn't an ideal test--since the Denon upscales only to 1080i, and the TV has to de-interlace to 1080p--but the processing on the Pioneer Pro is very good. We've watched this movie a lot on Blu-ray, so we have to admit we're a little spoiled. Standard-def DVD, even when upscaled by players as capable as the DVD-3910 and the DV-981HD, looks surprisingly soft when you've become accustomed to Blu-ray and HD DVD. That aside, the performance differences between these two players were very minor. We watched chapter 9, which is full of fine detail and pans, and we felt the performance was nearly identical. When you consider the price difference between these players, it's hard to justify the extra money for the Denon.
Of course, any high-end upscaling DVD player is now subject to the question: why not just get one of the increasingly affordable HD DVD players, which also are excellent upscaling DVD players? That's a good question, considering--at the time of this review--we could pickup Toshiba's new HD-A2 for less than $400 online. We didn't have the HD-A2 on hand, but we did have the HD-A1, which we praised for its upconversion abilities in its review. Head to head, we'd have to give the nod to the Oppo, which bested the A1 on several HQV tests. On the other hand, HD DVD image quality from the HD-A1 blows away DVD. Which of the two is better for you depends on your media-viewing preferences, and how long you think HD DVD will last.
The only major video-quality issue that we've heard of with the DV-981HD is that it is susceptible to macroblocking--that is, when the gradations between colors are not smooth and visible "chunks" can be seen--especially on DLP TVs. We didn't have any DLPs on hand, and Oppo's site recommends the DV-981HD with DLP TVs only with careful calibration. The DV-970HD, which we also tested, is not susceptible to this issue according to Oppo's chart, although its overall video processing is not quite as good. We didn't see any macroblocking in our tests, but eagle-eyed owners of DLP TVs should be aware that they could run into this issue.