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Dick De Jong
April 17, 2007
HDTV Solutions

OPPO has gained a well-earned reputation for designing and producing DVD players that upconvert standard definition (480i) DVDs to high definition (720p and 1080i) resolutions that playback on HDTVs. With the DV-981HD, OPPO has reached the current pinnacle of upconversion, 1080p.

To take SD programs that have a native resolution of 720 x 480 interlaced and expand that limited information into a 1920 x 1080 progressive, good looking image requires a little alchemy and a lot of muscle. The DCDi by Faroudja video processing technology provides the brawn and the results are quite remarkable.

Before we go any farther, even though the DV-981HD produces 1080p signals, it is not one of the high definition DVD players, Blu-ray or HD-DVD. It can be a little confusing because both Blu-ray and HD-DVD players can read SD DVDs and upconvert them like the OPPO. The difference is that the OPPO cannot play either Blu-ray or HD-DVD discs.

Upconversion can look great. But from our experience, it cannot match the detail and richness of an HD disc played back on a HD-DVD or Blu-ray player. No matter how good the video processor, and OPPO's Faroudja is exemplary, you need to fill in too much picture information to upconvert a 480i image to 1080p. And that synthetic image will always fall a bit short of a native 1080p source.

With that said, an overwhelming majority of DVDs in the marketplace and in your collections are still standard def and probably will be for at least a few years. Until you are ready to jump into the pricier high definition DVD players, the $229 OPPO DV-981HD provides a perfect stepping stone for upconverting SD DVDs. Beyond that, the DV-981HD is extremely flexible in its ability to playback all sorts of CD and DVD formats like PAL, DivX, DVD-Audio, Super Audio CD (SACD), HDCD, WMA, and Kodak Picture CD.

Editor's Note: Oppo's Nathaniel Plain says "We generally do not recommend the use of the DV-981HD for displays which are RPTV DLP based. These displays generally suffer from macroblock enhancement errors. However, front projection DLP does not suffer from these same visual errors. We recommend the DV-981HD to all front projection technologies, as the superior de-interlacing and scaling of the Faroudja chipset on large screen sizes far outweighs minor macroblocking that the Faroudja chipset inherently enhances."

If you are mating this player with a DLP based microdisplay, you should look at the Oppo DV-980H, which does not employ a Farouda chipset.

Out of the Box
The DV-981HD is a low profile, (1 5/8" high), black, brushed metallic player with a blue LED readout, which can be dimmed or turned off. One of the surprises in the packing box is a black cloth fitted bag that you can use to store or transport the unit. More importantly, the OPPO box contains two items that are often sorely missing from many of the more expensive products we review, an HDMI cable and an informative manual.

Oppo DV-981HD DVD Player

Why manufacturers decide not to treat us to an HDMI cable is still a mystery. But with the DV-981HD, providing an HDMI cable is also indicative of a crucial characteristic of the player. The DV-981HD, unlike earlier OPPO models, is really focused on outputting an HDMI signal. So much so, that it doesn't include Component video outputs.

Oppo DV-981HD Connectors
Oppo DV-981HD Connectors

Let's say that one more time, no Component Outs. If you look at the photo of the connection panel at the back, you will notice the HDMI connector but no Components. As for the S-Video and a Composite Outs, the manual recommends using them for trouble shooting purposes only. They will not transmit an upconverted signal anyway. So this player really demands an HDMI pipeline, or at least an HDMI to DVI connection.

Luckily all new HDTVs come with at least a DVI connection. If yours doesn't have one, then you should turn your attention to DVD players that have Component Outs, like the highly rated OPPO DV971H. And to make an obvious, but perhaps necessary point, upconverting DVD players are overkill for standard definition TVs. If you own an SD TV and don't plan on buying an HDTV in the near future, the DV-981HD is not for you.

The rest of the plugs in the connection panel are for audio, including six outputs for piping 5.1 analog audio to a receiver/amplifier. If your receiver is Dolby Digital capable or has a DTS Decoder, then you could use the S/PDIF optical digital audio output. But the manual warns that both DVD-Audio and SACD playback cannot be transmitted through that output.

Perhaps, the ideal audio setup is to run the HDMI out of the OPPO into a receiver that will accept an HDMI source. Then the receiver can pass through the video portion of the HDMI signal to your HDTV and can route the digital audio segment to your home theater speakers. If you have a different audio configuration, the manual does an excellent job of explaining your options and the settings you will have to change.

Oppo DV-981HD Remote

The manual is actually one of the best we've had the pleasure to meet, which is important because the DV-981HD is feature rich. Not only are the options clearly explained, but the manual gives sensible suggestions for settings. For example, this is one of their Notes. "Sharpness (edge enhancement) is an artificial video processing function that can produce a sharper looking picture but at the same time may degrade the details of the picture or cause unwanted artifacts. We recommend leaving it off."

The DV-981HD remote is not backlit but the white buttons do glow a fluorescent green in the dark. Even though it isn't a universal remote, it's still packed full of buttons that crowd the real estate and make some of the stenciled functions hard to read in low light for aging eyes. Luckily the layout is fairly sensible with activities logically grouped together. Also, we like the ability to access specific functions directly with a button on the remote rather than digging through layers of an on screen display menu.

Initially, to test the video aspects of the DV-981HD, we hooked it directly to the VIZIO VM60P with an HDMI cable. Since the VIZIO HDTV has a 720p native resolution, we set the OPPO's output accordingly. To change resolutions on the DV-981HD, you Stop the DVD playback and punch the HDMI button on the remote. You will cycle through the choices, 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p.

Since we have been using the DV-981HD during our reviews of a number of TVs recently, we have noticed that occasionally the OPPO and the HDTV don't always automatically handshake. That means, when you first plug them into each other, they don't always synchronize. One obvious example is that the TV screen flickers, or the image is noisy or dark. We have found that if we turn the TV off and on again, the problem disappears. Occasionally, for good measure, we will turn both the OPPO and the TV off and on. (Editor's note: Jason Liao of OPPO has alerted us to a firmware upgrade that addresses the handshake issue. You can download the upgrade from www.oppodigital.com or call them and they will send you a CD. They also have posted a beta upgrade that deals with matching an HDTV's color space.)

As we reported in our review of the Gefen 2 x 4 HDMI switcher, the OPPO and the Gefen were not on speaking terms when we set the OPPO to 1080p. We finally tracked the culprit down to a short 18" HDMI cable. When we replaced it with a 6' cable, communication flowed without a hiccup. Neither the Gefen nor the OPPO were at fault.

When we are calibrating TVs, we run them through black level, white level, and color bias test patterns from the Digital Video Essentials DVD, (the SD version) played on the OPPO. The DV-981HD itself has a Video Setup menu full of controls for Brightness, Sharpness, Contrast, and Saturation. When we are testing the TVs, as a rule, we turn these settings to Off or 00.

In this review of the OPPO, we still began with them turned Off. Each of you will have your own idiosyncratic method of setting up your equipment. We have found that life is less complicated if we focus on one piece at a time. And indeed, the OPPO manual agrees. When you are setting Contrast or Brightness, begin with the controls on the TV. If you can tune in to your satisfaction, there is no reason to go tweaking the DVD player.

Only once did we find that we had to adjust the OPPO. We noticed that we could not tweak the TV's Contrast settings on the Westinghouse LVM-47w1 enough to bring our Contrast test pattern into range. So we dialed Contrast down a couple of notches in the OPPO and then we could go back to fine tune the TV. This incident convinced us the DV-981HD's controls can assert a strong influence and they shouldn't be played with willy-nilly.

One of the areas that we really wanted to investigate was how well the OPPO performed on the video processing tests on the HQV disc produced by Silicon Optix, who makes their own brand of video processing chips. Usually we use the DVD to check a TV's deinterlacing and noise reduction abilities. In that case, we insert the DVD into an old Samsung DVD player set to 480i.

Of course, this time to test the OPPO deinterlacing, we set the DV-981HD's output to 720p. The unit scored Excellent on the Jaggies test and Good on the Detail. On the Noise Reduction tests, we tried the different settings on the OPPO. Low helped, Medium was even better. But we found that as you turn on Noise Reduction, you start to introduce blocking artifacts, especially in real world cases like flesh tones. Again, we suggest that you begin by adjusting Noise Reduction controls on your TV and then play with the OPPO's on a DVD by DVD basis.

Overall, the Faroudja video processor acquitted itself quite well without having to turn on any of the Video Setup controls. Though they do suggest leaving the TrueLife option to its default of On, which we did.

As we mentioned, we have been using the DV-981HD as our reference DVD player for testing a number of HDTVs. Ignoring the minor handshake incidents, it has been working reliably - so much so, that we have been taking it for granted. Only when we put it under the review spotlight, did we come to appreciate its range of features and quality of performance.

For comparison's sake, we have been running a couple of SD DVDs every time we test a new TV. Let's just say that we have become awfully familiar with Arwen, (the lovely Liv Tyler), viewing her future with king-to-be Aragorn and yet to be born son in the Return of the King. And we are starting to see flowing green numbers and letters instead of Agent Smith, (the ubiquitous Hugo Weaving), in the Matrix. The Wachowski brothers surreal mind bender offers a particular challenge to those hard working video processing chips (perhaps their revenge on the digital).

Every once in a while, you need to remind yourself of the algorithmic alchemy churning away inside those Faroudja chips that takes a anemic SD source and enhances it to hale and hearty high definition. Again, you can only spin so much silk out of a sow's ear, so don't expect miracles from the OPPO. But considering that we were displaying the output on a 60" TV, the display was remarkable.

As a test, we loaded an SD Seabiscuit in to the OPPO and the HD-DVD in our Xbox 360 HD-DVD player. The OPPO was connected to the VIZIO via HDMI, the Xbox through its Component cable. Since the VIZIO is a 720p TV, we set both the OPPO and the Xbox to output a 720p signal. As much as we strained our eyes, it was almost impossible to notice a qualitative difference between the two. Again, we believe we would see more separation if we were comparing 1080p output, but we did not test that supposition.

After we viewed the direct video connection between the OPPO and VIZIO, we moved on to see how well the audio portion performed. Most HDTVs cannot compete with a separate home theater sound system and the VIZIO is no different with its stereo 20W speakers. Luckily we have a Pioneer VSX-82TXS receiver that can switch between three HDMI inputs. The unit can capture the digital audio and route it to a 5.1 speaker system while sending the video signal through an HDMI out to the TV.

In this configuration, you really can appreciate the full impact that audio has on a movie viewing experience. If you don't have an HDMI equipped receiver, you can still amp up your listening pleasure by connecting the separate analog or digital audio outputs on the OPPO to your receiver. Depending on your setup, the OPPO has different Equalizer modes like Rock, Pop and Techno; and Sound Fields like Concert, Living Room, Cave and Bathroom.

Listening to audio CDs - like the Kronos Quartet's Pieces of Africa - can be a soothing pleasure when wrangling a review in to the corral. After one short tour of the Audio Setup and Speaker Setup menus, you appreciate that not all the attention was given to video processing. The OPPO designers did not skimp on audio enhancement features. And once again, the manual gives helpful information on navigating your way through all the choices.

As the current king of OPPO's well respected line of upconverting DVD players, the DV-981HD honors the crown with superb video and audio processing. The DV-981HD can expand a standard definition DVD to HD 1080p resolution, but it cannot playback high definition DVDs. For those of you who still own a lot of SD DVDs or are not ready to make the commitment to either the Blu-ray or HD-DVD formats, the DV-981HD is a great option.

Where to Buy
Buy Direct from Oppo

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