Ah, the $100 price point: a mythical barrier that separates cheap DVD players from the rest. Panasonic's DVD-RV32K is the company's second-least-expensive DVD player, and it sits right at the cusp of cheapness, at least as far as your pocketbook is concerned. Its feature set and performance don't seem cheap, however, and the RV32K makes a great entry-level choice--especially for heavy MP3 and WMA listeners. The RV32K isn't slim by modern DVD-player standards, but it still presents a relatively narrow face. Its look is utilitarian black, with numerous square and circular keys surrounding the central display and the drawer. Despite all those front controls--which include picture presets, repeat modes, and a multispeed shuttle dial for fast-forward and rewind--there's no way to access the menu from the front panel. That's sure to be bothersome if you end up misplacing the remote.
Packed with small buttons that feel much the same to the roving thumb, the RV32K's remote isn't as easy to learn as most but does provide plenty of functionality. For example, the useful Dialogue Enhancer, which boosts the vocal tracks of movies so that you don't disturb your neighbors late at night, has a dedicated button that saves users a trip through the menus. Most of the player's features are also accessible by using the big, central cursor control to navigate the well-designed menu system.
This Panasonic handles nicely. Forward and reverse searches work smoothly, even with MP3 CDs, and the spinning disc makes very little noise. There isn't much missing from this entry-level Panasonic. First off, it played our DVD+Rs, DVD-Rs, DVD+RWs, VCDs, and MP3 CDs but couldn't read our test DVD-RW. In addition to MP3 audio files, the RV32K can also play WMA files burned onto a CD-R. This player handled all of our MP3/WMA test discs with no problem, displaying a file-tree menu that made it easy to navigate to songs stored in different folders. The menu had room for filenames up to 42 characters long, and the RV32K can play an entire CD-R filled with MP3s and/or WMAs at random.
Many DVD players come with more versatile zoom controls than the RV32K's 4:3 Zoom, which is designed to eliminate letterbox bars on wide-screen movies by zooming into the center of the picture and cropping the edges. On the other hand, most players lack this model's nifty Quick Replay feature, a 10-second backward-skip that's useful for rechecking something that you missed. This deck doesn't have individual settings for contrast, brightness, and so on, but a pair of picture presets is provided.
Around back, you'll find the standard component-video, S-Video, and composite-video outputs, along with a pair of analog stereo outputs and an optical digital jack. The RV32K is a good performer as far as entry-level decks go. Frequency response was excellent, according to test patterns, and the player displayed the maximum resolution of the DVD format. We checked out Jurassic Park III on the 50-inch, analog, nonwide-screen Philips 50P8341 TV, and the picture was razor-sharp and accurate, with good color saturation through the component-video inputs. We did notice some MPEG noise in the red curtains behind Dr. Grant during his initial lecture, but we've seen the same type of problem in other entry-level decks.
We also noticed some down-conversion artifacts, which appeared as movement in the haystacks at the beginning of Star Trek: Insurrection. This is a major problem on only big-screen, 4:3 televisions such as the Philips that we used, and many players--with the notable exception of Sony's DVP-NS315--have similar problems converting enhanced-for-wide-screen movies for display on 4:3 TVs.
Overall, we'd give the less expensive Panasonic the edge in terms of digital-audio playback and features, but the Sony's big-screen-friendly anamorphic conversion is worth it if you have a 4:3 TV with a screen that's 32 inches or larger.