A DATE WITH KYLIE MINOGUE The problem with growing up in Australia in the early 90s was that you were bound to like, love or at-the-very-least lust for Kylie Minogue at one time or another. Me? I belong in the third category. I just can’t get enough of Kylie. Since North Americans don’t seem to be as obsessed with the Aussie superstar, I was forced to order one of her latest DVDs straight from “The Land of Oz”. I went through the gruelling process of ordering and paying for shipping, the astronomical brokerage fee if you use UPS… oh, and the duties too. By the time I received the DVD, I had spent over $100. After all of that, you’d think I could start my drooling session with Ms. Minogue, wouldn’t you? Wrong. In the Land Down Under, as well as most parts of Asia and Europe, they use a different TV system. Instead of NTSC, they use PAL. This means stuff produced for their market can’t be played here. So much for “the global economy”. You can buy it but you can’t watch it… or can you? PAL vs. NTSC Most DVD players that can play PAL discs can’t output them as NTSC, which means our North American TVs can’t display them. A multi-system TV would help, but such a beast is hard to find here, and buying one would require a major swipe of your plastic. So, after having spent more than $100 for a DVD, I can’t watch it unless I spend thousands more. I guess I could settle for watching Ms. Minogue on my 19” computer screen. But, no, I want to watch her singing, dancing and prancing in all her 46” 16:9 Progressive-scan glory. …which brings me to the Yamaha DVS-5560 Multi-system Progressive-scan DVD player. According to the brochure, the player compatible with virtually any type of disc you can throw at it (including MP3 CDs and recordable DVDs). Here’s the kicker: It even converts back-and-forth between PAL and NTSC, with progressive-scan capability. SQUASHING THE CHROMA BUG What’s even better is that, even though it doesn’t use the la-dee-da Faroudja line-doubler, it does have a built-in algorithm that virtually eliminates the Chroma Bug (a chroma-upsampling error that plagues all but Faroudja-driven DVD players). This is very impressive for an entry-level box. I’m usually disappointed with the build-quality of entry-level A/V components. I’ve been using DVD players since the beginning (1997), and nothing I’ve seen under $500 has made me want to jump up and buy it. It’s not that units under $500 are necessarily bad, but my background in audio/video makes me really picky about this stuff. Most DVD players in this price range, for example, are ridden with bad menu systems, chintzy buttons, poor cosmetics, disc incompatibilities and, most annoyingly, plagued with ghastly picture quality (made worse by the infamous Chroma Bug). Since the DVS-5560 wasn’t officially out at the time of writing, I borrowed a unit directly from Yamaha (okay, I begged on my knees, but that’s off the record). I was anxious to see if it would surpass what has previously been possible at this price point. LOOK AND FEEL Before talking about the unit itself, I’d like to briefly mention the box… musical notes here and there, coloured in an extremely eye-pleasing, Yamaha-esque, purple-blue colour. You should really keep the box… maybe as a decoration. Ahem! So, yeah, out of the box… the unit itself looks classy. None of those shiny-finish-with-smaller-than-pea-sized buttons. The tray goes in and out with an authoritative elegance, and I love the “feel” of the remote. I find my fingers are always perfectly positioned to access all possible functions. Based on looks and feel, I’m already pleased. CONNECTIONS One major beef I usually have with DVD players in this price range is that they include either an optical digital connection or a coaxial one—but not both. I wouldn’t want to spend another $50 on a cable for a $200-ish player. To my surprise, the DVS-5560 comes with both connectors. Another problem with many budget players is that they have flimsy connectors at the back. They are fine with “el-cheapo” cables, but once you upgrade to higher quality cables (the ones that tend to grip connectors very tightly for better contact), they tend to bend or break. The DVS-5560 had no problems with such cables. I even tried using my Ultralink cables (ooooo! ahhhhh!), which would make a player of twice the price beg for mercy, but the DVS-5560 stood solid. PLAYBACK Finally… the moment I’d been waiting for: I popped in Kylie’s Greatest Hits, a PAL Region 0 (All Region) DVD released by PWL Records in the UK. The disc played right away, without a hitch. PAL to NTSC conversion worked extremely well. The colour was slightly off, but more than acceptable, especially considering that a decent PAL/NTSC converter alone usually costs around $400 (and that’s if you can find one that cheap in North America). Every song, from the ever-popular, ever-annoying “Loco-Motion”, to the extremely catchy “Never Too Late” played flawlessly. Every detail was perfectly reproduced. The display counter occasionally “hiccups” while a PAL disc is playing but I’m absolutely certain that it’s due to PAL/NTSC speed compensation (PAL is 24 frames per second and NTSC is 30). These “hiccups” were only in the counter (not in the video image itself) and never occurred when playing NTSC discs. Everybody repeat after me: “This is normal when you’re playing a PAL disc converted to NTSC, or vice versa!!!” More and more music videos from Europe and Australasia are being released without Region Coding, for wider sales exposure. Thanks to Yamaha, now you can play discs like these from anywhere in the world. This includes regularly-pressed DVDs and home-made recordable DVDs too. “EXTREME TWEAKABILITY” Earlier, I mentioned that the colour was “slightly off”. Not to worry, though, because this player comes with extreme tweakability in its Setup Menu. Most players, even the ones at four times the price, only give you the option of “Normal” or “Cinema” brightness (the “Cinema” setting is slightly lower than “Normal”). The DVS-5560 goes above and beyond this, allowing you to literally custom-control the brightness, just like you can with your TV. You can even change “Contrast”, “Color”, “Tint” and “Sharpness” levels right from the player! Great for a control freak like me, or even if you just want to adjust for maximum picture quality. SOUND Now for the sound. There are a couple of surprises in the Setup Menu: “Equalizer” and “3D” options. The “Equalizer” allows you to choose from several preset equalization settings such as “Rock” and “Classical”. With all of the options available, you’re bound to find a setting you’ll really like. The “3D” option gives you several soundfield effects, either from your 2-speaker setup or your surround system. Now you can listen to Charlotte Church singing in a rock-concert stadium, or Avril Lavigne “singing” in a cathedral. Sounds complicated, “so frustrated”, I know, but the Setup Menu is so intuitive you won’t even need the manual. DAVE’S TORTURE TEST What surprised me most is how this machine handled my own “Dave’s Signature” torture test. For this test, I used a special “scientifically-prepared” DVD-R (I deliberately scratched it on the asphalt outside my house). I’ve played this disc on many sub-$1,000 players which have tended to freeze, pixelize and/or spit the disc back out. Not this player. I played the disc in a continuous loop for 16 hours straight and, every time I did a spot check for picture break-ups, I saw no problem whatsoever. After 17 hours, I saw one break-up; but this was extremely impressive, considering most players would have given up right after the “Play” button was pressed. CONCLUSION When I received the unit, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from a sub-$300 player; however, the DVS-5560 is a well-constructed, exceptionally compatible performer. PAL/NTSC conversion is flawless and the ergonomic remote control is a nice touch. In the end, the DVS-5560 may very well be the next-best thing to having Ms. Minogue singing, dancing and prancing right there in my living room.