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At first glance, the $299 (list price) DVD-S520 could pass for an upper-echelon player. The front is understated and free of brightly colored logos. The display window has nicely dimmed, orange lighting, although it doesn't provide nearly as much information as the displays on other players. The drawer opens softly, and playback noise is minimal. However, the unit feels no heavier than most inexpensive players, and after you've spent a little time with the remote, the high-end illusion disappears.
Tiny and ill designed, the clicker lacks an open/close button (for the disc drawer), and you'll have to dig into the manual to figure out which buttons control forward and reverse because they're not labeled. Another gripe: when you press a button on the remote, don't expect the player to respond immediately; there's some lag.
On a more positive note, the back panel has an above-average complement of jacks. It includes a pair of analog-audio outputs and composite-video outputs, along with single-component and S-Video outputs, a subwoofer output, and both types of digital-audio output (coaxial and optical).
Compared to other players in its price range, the DVD-S520 stacks up pretty well in the features department. It can play Super VideoCDs, VideoCDs, CD-R/RWs, and MP3 CDs. Yamaha says it even has an NTSC/PAL converter, but be forewarned: the DVD-S520 can play only Region 1 (North American) DVDs. So, even if you do get your hands on a PAL disc (Europe's main video format), it's likely to be region-encoded, so it won't work on North American players. Most DVDs are region-protected and play only in the same part of the world where they're sold. If you can find the one PAL disc that isn't region-protected, great. But the remaining 99.95 percent of programs that foreign-film-loving Americans want to see are still being held at the border. Thank the MPAA for that nonsense.
We do like the menu system, though. The functions are clear, and little messages appear at the bottom of the screen to explain the icons. Unfortunately, the player hiccupped during a complex test disc, Joe Kane's Video Essentials; it wouldn't allow us to manipulate the picture settings (in addition, the display window showed the wrong chapter!). On other discs, those settings allow you to customize the saturation, the brightness, and the contrast.
Having a zoom is nice, but the DVD-S520 isn't as advanced as Toshiba's entry-level in that department. It pauses when you engage zoom, forcing you to manually restart the playback. The Yamaha does have one unique feature that we haven't seen on any other DVD player: it can shift the picture to either side, which comes in handy if your TV chops off a lot of either side of the image.
The DVD-S520's video performance was on a par with what we've seen from other entry-level decks. Watching Unbreakable on a Samsung HDTV, we noticed that the Yamaha brought out the full range of colors and good shadow detail. When Bruce Willis visits a darkened warehouse to check out a mangled train, the folds of his cloak and the shadows in his face preserved fine gradations of gray. We did notice a reduction in shadow detail when we switched to the Personal and Natural picture settings, and we confirmed with Video Essentials that those settings negate the player's ability to pass blacker-than-black picture content. Instead, users should stick with either the Rich or the Soft setting, depending on their preferences.
Like just about ever other player, this one introduces artifacts, such as moving lines, when displaying enhanced-for-wide-screen DVDs on nonwide-screen TVs. This is especially problematic when the camera itself moves. Unbreakable has a few sequences filmed with a handheld camera, and when we viewed one tense scene where Bruce's kid threatens to shoot him, the camera's motion caused the kitchen blinds to turn into a jagged mess.
In the final analysis, it's hard to recommend the DVD-S520 for the price. Pioneer's comparably priced , for example, is definitely a more polished player. There are also progressive-scan and Super Audio CD/DVD-Audio-capable units available for the same money. The bottom line is that the only reason to buy this Yamaha is that you find it selling at a significant discount or you really want your DVD deck to match your other Yamaha equipment.