GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "How To" Archives

Published December 15, 2001


Putting Together a DVD-Based Budget System

Hey wait a minute! Isn’t GoodSound! supposed to be about affordable high-performance audio, not video? Well, note that one of the operative words here is affordable. And DVD players do basic audio, in addition to their video duties -- they all play CDs as well as DVDs. Have you seen the prices of DVD players lately? We are talking about street prices below $200 for good entry-level players. So unless you are planning on spending more for a high quality, standalone CD player, a DVD player could make a lot of sense for your stereo system.

How much do I need to spend?

For most people, one of the basic players from a reputable manufacturer is about all that you will need for an excellent budget system. Spending a few hundred dollars more will get you additional features such as built-in Dolby Digital and DTS decoding and progressive-scan video outputs, but none of these will make the DVD player sound any better when playing back CDs.

These basic players have suggested retail prices around $200, but can be purchased for even less than that if you do some shopping. In comparison, there are a few quality CD players near this price range such as the NAD C521 ($299), Cambridge Audio D300SE ($349), and the Marantz CD5000 ($249), but others such as the Arcam 7SE ($599) and Rotel RCD-961 ($499) are considerably more expensive.

Granted, budget DVD players have some weaknesses with respect to parts quality, but then again, so do most mass-market CD players. The advantage that DVD players have over most inexpensive CD players is that they all have internal digital-to-analog converters (DACs) with rated 24-bit resolution and a sampling frequency of 96kHz. This is required as part of the DVD specification to play back DVDs, which can have an optional 24/96 PCM soundtrack.

Doug Blackburn, technical editor of SoundStage!, prefers the sound of the budget Panasonic DVD players when using their analog outputs (RCA connections), but finds the inexpensive Pioneer models make superior CD transports (digital connections). The Pioneer models our writers have tested tend to have a somewhat diffuse, laid-back sound that can be a little bass -shy, while the Panasonics have a livelier sound with better-defined bass. A player like Panasonic's RV31K DVD player (below) can be purchased for under $200.

An excellent upgrade for both of these players is the addition of quality outboard digital-to analog converters (DAC). The Panasonics and Pioneers can be substantially improved in a cost-effective way using this upgrade path. Among the units tested, the Pioneers seem to function better as digital transports than the Panasonics do, but the differences between them are even less obvious than the differences when listening to them through their analog RCA outputs.

Going digital all the way

If you have recently purchased a receiver to use alongside your DVD player, chances are that it is a surround-sound receiver that has digital inputs to accept Dolby Digital and DTS signals (two-channel receivers are fairly uncommon these days). These digital inputs will also accept the stereo PCM signal of standard CDs to allow you to use the internal DACs of the receiver to perform the digital-to-analog conversion.

By using this connection method, you can bypass the analog output stage of the DVD player and avoid having to use a pair of interconnects to transfer the signal between the DVD player and the receiver. The receiver will internally convert the digital signal to analog and send it directly to its pre- and power-amplifier stages. This should result in better sound assuming that the internal DACs of the receiver are of good quality.

When making the digital connection between the DVD player and receiver, you should generally avoid optical TosLink cables and instead go with a quality coaxial digital cable (the kind with RCA connectors). Although, there are some good-sounding TosLink cables, coax cables generally provide a better connection. A composite video cable can be used in lieu of coaxial digital, as they are both 75-ohm cables terminated with RCA connectors. Note that a coaxial digital cable is different from a regular analog audio cable, although they may look the same.

A GoodSound!-approved system for under $1000

Following this advice would make it possible to piece together a musically satisfying system for a very reasonable price utilizing the DVD player as a source. For instance, by using GoodSound!-approved components such as the Outlaw 1050 surround receiver ($499, above right), Axiom M3Ti SE ($275, below right) or Paradigm Atom ($189) speakers and adding an entry-level DVD player for around $200, you can have an outstanding system for a reasonable sum of money. Throw in a digital cable for around $20 and the total system price is still under a thousand bucks!

Do you like movies?

Another advantage of using a DVD player with your audio system is that you can watch movies with it. The picture quality will be superior to that of VHS tape, and listening to movies, even in two-channel stereo on a good system, can be an enjoyable experience. This is much better than listening to the soundtrack on the speakers built into your television. If you really don’t want to listen to movies on your audio system, the choice between a DVD player and a CD player becomes harder.

And if you are using a surround-sound receiver, you can even add a center-channel speaker, surrounds and a subwoofer later on for a full-blown 5.1 digital surround-sound system if the lure of home theater ever gets the better of you.

So there you have it -- a GoodSound!-approved approach to assembling a system that utilizes an entry-level DVD player to play back CDs, and that also gives you an upgrade path and the option of being able to watch DVD movies!

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