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Looks-wise, the RP91 is pretty standard fare (it comes in a champagne or black finish), but that's the only humdrum thing about it. For starters, it comes loaded with connectivity options. On the video side, there's one set of outputs for component video, one for S-Video, and two for composite video. It's equally well connected from an audio standpoint, but we'll get to that later.
Because this player's so flexible, we felt obligated to try it out on a couple of different display types. The big test for progressive-scan players is whether they can outperform a TV's internal line-doubler. What does that mean exactly? Well, if you were to hook up a standard (interlaced) player to a high-end TV such as Toshiba's CW34X92 34-inch, direct-view HDTV, the set's internal line-doubler would kick in and sharpen the picture. On the other hand, when you hook up a progressive-scan player to the same set, it overrides the line-doubler. Some progressive-scan players do a better job than the line-doubler; some don't.
Needless to say, the DVD-RP91 handily outperformed the Toshiba's line-doubler, delivering a much sharper image with virtually no artifacts. The colors in Shakespeare in Love, for example, appeared extremely rich and saturated.
How does the Panasonic perform on standard 4:3 analog TVs? Well, when you play an anamorphic (often referred to on the box as Enhanced for Widescreen TVs) DVD, the player does create some artifacts, due to this player's anamorphic down-conversion process. Therefore, it's not a good match for lower-end, standard 4:3 analog sets. However, the RP91 works great with 16:9 wide-screen, HDTV-capable TVs, as well as 4:3 HDTV-capable TVs with anamorphic aspect-ratio capability, such as Sony's WEGA direct-view sets with the "enhanced for 16:9" feature.
As far as the remote goes, we had no major complaints: The buttons are well laid out, and the most often-used ones are illuminated in the dark. However, we took issue with the player's interface, particularly when it came to accessing the setup menu. It's not all that intuitive, so expect some frustrating moments when you're configuring the player for your TV.
Big audio dynamite
While we've extolled the player's video strengths, its audio prowess shouldn't be overlooked. The standard connectivity options are here, including optical and coaxial digital-audio outputs (one of each) for Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 audio. But as noted, the big news is that the RP91 has full 5.1-channel DVD-Audio support, which means you can play DVD-A discs.
Listening to a DVD-A of the Doors' "Riders on the Storm" through a midline Yamaha receiver/Paradigm speaker system, we were impressed by how startlingly realistic and enveloping the performance sounded. With thunderclaps emanating from the rear-channel speakers and Jim Morrison singing through the front, it sounded as if he were standing center stage, right in front of us. It even has workable support for CD-Rs encoded with MP3 tracks.
In the final analysis, Panasonic's DVD-RP91 is a state-of-the-art, reference-level unit. Its $699 list price also makes it one of the better values in the progressive-scan class, though Panasonic's step-down progressive-scan model, the DVD-RP56D-N, which lacks DVD-Audio support, also delivers a lot of bang for the buck and should appeal to those on a tight budget. Still, we highly recommend the RP91, particularly to those with high-end TVs.