JVC's least expensive progressive-scan DVD player is a serious threat to offerings from more popular brands such as Toshiba and Sony. The well-featured XV-S502SL offers the right mix of performance, style, and gee-whiz extras--including a JPEG viewer and an aspect-ratio control. The icing on the cake? Although this silver confection lists for $250, we found it online for as little as half that. Current and near-future HDTV owners on budgets should not overlook JVC's low-profile deck.
Thanks to its slightly downward-sloping nose and carved-out, intake-shaped sides, the XV-S502SL resembles an abstracted, flat-faced jet fighter. A thick swath of black, glossy plastic makes up the underside of the face and contains the blue LED display as well as a red, progressive-scan-indicator light. The unit is refreshingly short on logos and buttons, although the lack of front-panel menu access could prove annoying if you misplace the remote.
A straightforward menu system greets users who figure out that the Choice key is equivalent to other players' Setup buttons. While the disc is playing, you can check out the bit rate and access the repeat modes via an easy-to-use menu bar.
The bulbous remote won't impress the ladies, but its clutter of multilabeled keys allows you to control many brands of TVs. Major transport buttons--play, stop, fast-forward, and so on--glow in the dark, and different key shapes, elevations, colors, and locations make learning the remote by feel relatively simple. This deck doesn't have the advanced DVD-Audio capabilities of Toshiba's SD4800 and similar models, but the 502SL's spec sheet is still pretty fat. Heading the list is 480p progressive-scan playback with 3:2 pull-down to help eliminate artifacts in film-based material. For ardent video adjusters, JVC throws in two preset picture modes as well as two custom modes, which have a whopping seven adjustable parameters--including esoteric tweaks such as gamma and Y delay.
The 502SL's automatic aspect-ratio control was our favorite feature. A monitor-type selection labeled 16:9 normal causes the player to automatically detect nonanamorphic and 4:3 DVDs--as opposed to discs labeled enhanced for wide-screen TVs--and correctly size them to fill wide-screen TVs or leave window-box bars to either side. Note that this feature is useful to only wide-screen HDTV owners whose sets can't resize nonanamorphic material.
Our selection of test discs slid through the player with ease; it handled DVD-Rs, DVD+Rs, and DVD+RWs, although it rejected DVD-RWs. When dealt an MP3 CD-R, the S502SL displays a nice, big menu with folder titles on the left and up to 12 filenames--each of which can be 30 characters long--on the right. Pop in a disc filled with JPEGs, and the menu arrangement is the same. Unfortunately, it takes the 502SL 45 seconds to draw a single JPEG. We're willing to bet that most users aren't patient enough to sit through that process more than once or twice.
The S520SL's back panel includes both optical and coaxial digital-audio outputs as well as an analog audio out. You'll also find composite-video, S-Video, and component-video outputs. A switch lets you choose among progressive, interlaced, or menu-selectable modes for the component output. Overall, we were impressed by the JVC's progressive-scan video performance. We watched the new release of Reservoir Dogs (the Mr. Brown case, if you're counting) on our trusty Samsung TXM3098WHF. The initial shot of the gang walking in slow motion was squeaky clean, with minimal noise in the brick background and no trace of jagged lines from interlace-conversion errors. The picture did look a tiny bit softer than the one produced by the Toshiba SD4800, but we stress the word tiny.
We played around with the custom settings and were surprised to see the tremendous impact of the sharpness control. If set too high, it caused the typical rings around edges of text and objects, while the lowest setting made things look positively blurry. We settled on the +1 setting, which kept images sharp with no rings.
Like most current players, the S502SL didn't do a great job of converting anamorphic DVDs for display on nonwide-screen TVs; we saw telltale artifacts in interlaced mode when watching the slow pan at the beginning of Star Trek: Insurrection. The unit also introduced artifacts when converting nonfilm material to progressive-scan video, as evidenced by the stair-stepped edges of a waving flag in Video Essentials. Discs loaded quickly, and the forward and reverse scans looked smooth at 2X speed.