The following articles were previously written for publication either in print or in sources no longer available on the internet. They should be read in context of the time they were originally written. Technical standards may have risen in the meantime. Writing styles and tastes also may have evolved as the author matured.
- JFK Review Was Off the Mark
- The Clock Keeps Ticking: More on 24
- Eraserhead DVD Review
- High-Definition DVD Available Now
JFK Review Was Off the Mark
Note: My first published piece of writing was a letter to the editor submitted to the St. Petersburg Times in January 1993, in response to two negative reviews the newspaper had printed about Oliver Stone’s JFK (one by the paper’s regular film critic and another as part of a column called “Teens on Screen”). I was 18-years-old. Please go easy on me.
The Clock Keeps Ticking: More on 24
Written by John Thorne and Joshua Zyber. Published February 2003 in Wrapped in Plastic magazine.
Eraserhead DVD Review
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published April 2003 in Wrapped in Plastic magazine.
After a long drought where few of his films were available in the early days of the format, a deluge of David Lynch movies have hit DVD recently, surprisingly all high quality editions from a variety of different studios. The Elephant Man (Paramount), Blue Velvet (MGM), Twin Peaks: Season 1 (Artisan), Fire Walk with Me (New Line), and Mulholland Drive (Universal) are all excellent discs, but the real capper came when Lynch himself released a collection of his early Short Films, sold only through the store on his personal web site (davidlynch.com). And now he has gone one step further to grace us with this remarkable little jewel, a personally-supervised, frame-by-frame restoration of his legendary first feature film, the sublimely weird Eraserhead.
Lynch has been promising us this disc for some time now. A series of technical snafus in the mastering and authoring phases of disc production caused delay after delay, to the point where it seemed the disc would never really come out. The “DVD 2000” banner on the packaging attests to how long this project has been in the works. There are those of us, of course, who couldn’t wait, who have been snatching up video copies of the film wherever they’ve appeared throughout the world. Here in the United States, choices have been pretty slim. The VHS and Laserdisc editions went out of print in the mid-’80s, and both came from dank, unwatchable cropped transfers. Those with region-free DVD players were excited to hear word of recent PAL DVD editions in Regions 2 (Europe) and 4 (Australia). But no, these also were sourced from lousy full-frame video transfers of poor quality.
Until now, the best home video editions of the movie came from Japan (DVD Region 2, NTSC). In the mid-’90s, Comstock Ltd. released a very nice letterboxed Laserdisc, and followed up a few years ago with a DVD from the same transfer. The non-anamorphic widescreen image was mastered from a very clean print that looked better than some theatrical showings I’d seen. It was flawed mostly by the fact that the black level was set too high (requiring you to pull down your Brightness setting), and of course by the lack of anamorphic enhancement, a bane to viewers with widescreen or anamorphic-capable displays. But, not to rest on their laurels, Comstock also put out a new anamorphic remaster in 2002.
Yet none of that really matters anymore except from a collectible perspective, because Lynch has taken matters into his own hands with the extensive restoration effort for this officially authorized, 100% David Lynch-approved DVD release. As described in the accompanying booklet, a fine-grain interpositive was transferred to the high-definition master tape and then digitally cleansed frame-by-frame of all dirt, scratches, and other unseemly age-related blemishes. Realize that the film has 130,000 frames and you start to comprehend the amount of effort involved.
So, how does it look? Quite extraordinary, in fact. The Japanese discs look quite good on their own, but in direct comparison don’t have a knock on Lynch’s efforts. The 1.85:1 anamorphically-enhanced picture is spotlessly clean and extremely sharp with no detectable edge enhancement artifacts. Textures in the imagery, such as the wrinkles in the X family home’s wallpaper, are strikingly visible in ways I had never picked up on even in theatrical viewings. Black level, the failing of the Japanese copies, is completely solid throughout with excellent shadow detail. There’s no more straining to make out objects in the murky darkness. Now everything is unambiguously clear. The photography’s beautiful hard lighting is wonderfully rendered, its perfectly sculpted pools of light and shadow clearly defined.
If I had to complain (and, as a critic, it’s my job), the picture is almost too clean. The film has almost no grain at all, and to be honest, I find this a little disturbing. The strong contrasts, absolute black against absolute white, also seem toned down a bit to make them less harsh and easier on the eyes. It makes for a lovely image, but one with less three-dimensional depth than I was expecting. The enhanced shadow detail at times exposes some things that weren’t meant to be exposed, such as the wire pulling the spermie puppet in the opening scene. Still, these are incredibly minor nits to be picked, and frankly I can’t fault this transfer for any significant problems. This is a splendid viewing experience, and certainly the best the film has ever looked on home video.
During its original midnight-circuit release in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the film’s soundtrack was monaural. For the theatrical re-release in the early ’90s, Lynch remastered the sound mix to stereo surround, and it’s this track that the Japanese video editions were taken from. For his DVD, Lynch has sweetened the track once again, running the audio through all sorts of digital processing tools to cleanse it of analog tape hiss and extend the dynamic range. The original audio stems were not available to create a full-blown 5.1 remix, but the Dolby Surround soundtrack is nonetheless excellent. Despite the amount of digital tinkering, it never feels artificially processed. The flavor of the original sound design hasn’t been lost at all. This is still a weird, unnerving aural soundscape, filled with omnipresent hissing steam in the background and surreal, heightened sound effects throughout. The audio is sharp and clear, with great fidelity and detail in the individual sounds. The surround channel is used almost exclusively for ambience, rarely featuring a distinct directional effect, but the oppressive atmosphere of Henry’s bizarre little world certainly fills the room.
Contrary to what the booklet may claim, the audio is not encoded on the disc in PCM format. I’m sure that the original intention may have been to use PCM, but somewhere along the way it was decided to conserve disc space with a Dolby Digital 2.0 track instead. Unfortunately, the packaging, which was clearly finalized and printed long before the disc was actually ready (judging by that “DVD 2000” label), wasn’t updated with the new specs. Regardless, you’d hardly have grounds to complain. The sound is just as rich and full as the PCM tracks on the Japanese Laserdisc, if not a little cleaner.
And why, pray tell, were they trying to conserve disc space? Obviously, so that Lynch could include one hell of a supplemental bonus feature. Lynch has never been a fan of the “value added content” attitude of most DVD studios, loading up their discs with publicity materials and promotional featurettes. He has preferred to let most of his movies speak for themselves without supplements. Yet when he does want to provide something for fans, he goes all the way. Such is the case with the terrific “Stories” documentary found on this disc. Running 1 hour 24 minutes, almost as long as Eraserhead itself, this is as close to an audio commentary as we’ll likely ever get out of the man. In many ways, it’s better, as we can see Lynch speaking to the camera and he inserts plenty of great photos and on-set home movie footage never seen before by the public. The documentary is a complete chronicle of Eraserhead‘s development and lengthy five-year production, starting with Lynch’s short film work and culminating in the midnight movie theatrical run that earned the film its long-standing cult following. Lynch is joined on the telephone by Catherine Coulson, and together they reminisce about the family dynamic that developed on set and share many fascinating anecdotes. I wasn’t aware, for example, that sound designer Alan Splet was legally blind. Some of the movie’s deleted scenes are discussed, and Lynch regrets the fact that most of the footage has been lost in the years since.
One area the documentary never broaches, at Lynch’s insistence, is any analysis of the movie’s symbolism or meaning. He doesn’t talk about such things, ever, other than to say that in the decades since its first release, he hasn’t yet read a review or criticism that correctly ascribed to the film the same meaning that he sees in it. If you ask me, he’s just being deliberately obtuse, but so it goes.
The theatrical trailer found on the disc is the same one that came with the Japanese Laserdisc and DVD, but here has been anamorphically enhanced to match the movie. That’s it for bonus features, unless you want to count the disc menu, which includes a brief snippet of footage from one of those legendary deleted scenes that did manage to get saved. It involves Henry playing with a dead cat, wouldn’t you know. If you pay attention to the menu long enough and then watch the movie closely, you can actually spot the cat in the background of a shot during one of Henry’s walking scenes. No previous video transfer has been sharp enough to resolve detail that finely.
The disc has no chapter stops, because Lynch hates them and likes to piss off his fans. (The Japanese DVD has them, if this is a crucial selling point.) Despite the many delays to get the disc mastering perfect, it still has an authoring glitch of some sort that makes it completely incompatible with my Denon DVD-1600 player. I was forced to use my backup machine instead. The DVD-1600 uses a Panasonic MPEG decoder. I must warn potential buyers that other Panasonic or Panasonic-based machines may possibly experience playback problems.
Lynch has packaged the disc up in the exact same sort of art-box that his Short Films collection came in, right down to the ridiculous cardboard contraption that’s supposed to hold the disc but really will just scratch the hell out of it. I strongly recommend placing the disc inside a plastic CD/DVD sleeve before slipping it into place in the box. Also included is a glossy 18-page photo book with a brief essay explaining the restoration process.
Like the Short Film collection, Eraserhead is available for sale only on the davidlynch.com web site. The store is open to both members and non-members alike, so long as you have a fast computer and can figure out how to navigate the infuriating Flash-animated navigation system. (Really, David, nobody likes that. Could you please get rid of it?) Yes, at $39.99, the disc is expensive. Get over it. Yes, the $10 domestic shipping fee is obscene. Get over it. This is the real deal, a near-perfect DVD copy of Eraserhead personally supervised, approved, and independently released by David Lynch himself. If that isn’t worth saving up $50 for, you have no business calling yourself a David Lynch fan or reading this magazine. Everyone else should jump at the chance to own it.
High-Definition DVD Available Now: A Review of the Shinco EVD-8830 and Skyworth HVD-3050
Written by Joshua Zyber. Published June 2004 in Connected Home magazine.
“Home Theater” is an ever-evolving concept, constant in only one regard: its greatest enthusiasts are never content with what they have, never satisfied until the home movie-watching experience can effectively rival the best aspects of a true theatrical screening. Over the years, we’ve gone from poor-quality VHS to the better but cumbersome Laserdisc, until finally hitting a decent stride with DVD. Compact, convenient, affordable, and high-quality, these remarkable little discs have done more to kickstart awareness of home theater than any product before. Yet although DVDs may be the ultimate in standard-definition home video, they’re far from the end of the line for true home theater. We’re ready for High Definition. The displays are out there on the market right now. Many of us already own them. Rear-projection, front projection, plasma, LCD, DLP, D-ILA, all just waiting, no begging, for high-definition content to light up their eager little pixels. DVD is great for what it is, but so much more is possible, and it’s possible right now.
But where is the HD content? Broadcast, cable, and satellite programming may be great for catching the occasional TV show or movie if they happen to be on during your schedule (and aren’t cropped from the original aspect ratio, edited, or interrupted with commercials), but many of us prefer to actually own a movie collection to watch at our own time. When it comes to pre-recorded high-def media, the only significant option in the American marketplace is D-VHS, an awkward tape-based format whose hardware and software are both overpriced and under-supported. For those who can afford it, D-VHS will have to make do as a stopgap. At least it’s something in true 1080i HD and it’s available now. Naturally, though, what we all really want is a high-definition video disc, with all the features and convenience of DVD in a higher quality format.
Microsoft attempted to get the ball rolling with the Windows Media 9 compression codec, which allows a high-definition movie to be compressed onto a regular DVD in 720p or 1080p resolution. Examples of this include the “bonus” WM9 versions of movies on a small handful of commercially-released discs such as the Terminator 2 “Extreme DVD” and the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Although the video quality may be good, the hassles of watching it are almost not worth the effort. Only playable in the DVD-ROM drive of a computer with ridiculous hardware requirements, WM9 also forces a viewer to connect to the internet to download a licensing agreement before use. (The Terminator 2 license is only good for five days at a time.) No thanks. This leaves us waiting patiently for a real high-definition video disc standard to be finalized and released. That’s the obvious next logical progression, and we all know the technology is available, but where is it?
THE BATTLE FOR HIGH-DEFINITION DVD
The big hold-up on getting such a next-generation product to market comes down to two words: Format War. On the one hand, we have Blu-ray, the HD disc format developed by Sony that utilizes a new form of high-density, high-capacity storage disc. In the other corner, we have HD DVD from Toshiba and NEC, with big promotional enthusiasm from head cheerleader Warren Lieberfarb, the former head of Warner Home Video and one of the driving forces behind the development and introduction of DVD. The official selection of the DVD Forum, HD DVD is based on the current DVD standard but uses the more efficient MPEG4 compression codec to squeeze more information into the same amount of space.
The competition between these two developing forces has been likened to the infamous battle of VHS and Betamax. Truth be told, that’s not an accurate comparison. VHS and Beta had clear quality and functional differences, and (despite being the inferior of the two) a clear winner in VHS that the public immediately latched onto. No, the situation here is a lot more akin to the war between DVD-Audio and SACD, the two high-resolution audio formats whose quality and features are so similar that they’ve left consumers confused and disinterested. An apathetic buying public still mostly satisfied with plain old CD-quality sound hasn’t bothered to buy into either one. Such may just happen again. Any new video disc format is likely to be relegated to niche status in light of the wildly-popular DVD, and when you try to divide that niche between two separate products, both may suffer. A format war is in no one’s best interest.
Nonetheless, the two opposing camps each refuse to back down. Lieberfarb and Benjamin Feingold, the President of Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, even recently engaged in a pissing match at the Home Entertainment Summit in West Hollywood. In any case, we as the interested videophile public won’t know the outcome of any of this for quite a while. Current estimates place the introduction of either format at the earliest in late 2005 or early 2006. That’s a long time to go with little but speculation to tide us over.
THE STORY IN ASIA
Just when you thought all of that was confusing enough, some new players have just entered the game. Several hardware manufacturers in Asia have decided that they don’t care to wait for the Americans and Japanese to make up their minds. Eager to prove that their own countries can produce cutting-edge technology, China and Taiwan have put into development not one but three all-new HD video disc formats. From China we have the competing rivals EVD (Enhanced Video Disc) and HVD (High-Clearness Video Disc). Not to be outdone, Taiwan has jumped in with the announcement of FVD (Forward Versatile Disc). It’s a veritable alphabet soup over there! (I can only wonder why there’s no GVD in the mix.) What started as a format war between two titan opponents has degenerated into a free-for-all melee in that part of the world.
It’s safe to say that none of these new Asian formats is really intended to set a worldwide standard. Each is a blatant attention-grabbing maneuver from the countries and manufacturers supporting them, and a ploy to circumvent further royalty payments to the mostly Japanese conglomerates that monopolize the home video industry. It’s highly unlikely we will ever see many Hollywood or other foreign movies licensed for release on any of these formats. Geared for a Chinese marketplace, EVD and HVD will probably release almost exclusively Chinese movies, and likewise with FVD in Taiwan.
Will any of these formats have an impact on the American marketplace or the battle between HD DVD and Blu-ray? Not likely at all. Should Americans even care? Most probably won’t. However, this isn’t to say that they hold no interest for the early-adopter videophile consumer. In fact, there’s one key point that makes them downright fascinating. China and Taiwan aren’t waiting around until late 2005 or 2006. They’re putting their high-def product out right away. The Taiwanese FVD format (which is based on a version of Microsoft’s WM9 codec) will be available before the end of the year. Meanwhile, both Chinese formats EVD and HVD (based on MPEG2 compression with proprietary encryption schemes) have hardware available on the market right now, this very second. What’s more, the players are very cheap and easily imported.
Both the Shinco EVD-8830 and the Skyworth HVD-3050 are fully-functional region-free DVD players in addition to their high-definition capabilities. So, even if neither HD disc format takes off (and frankly it’s very possible that neither will), the machines might still be worthwhile investments for their ability to play normal DVDs from other parts of the world without region-coding restrictions. (For the record, it is not illegal to own a region-free DVD player.) And for those viewers just desperate for a high-definition fix, both machines come pre-packaged with a selection of movies for demo material. If you’ve got a high-definition screen, a hunger for more shiny HD content to light it up as soon as possible, and a couple hundred dollars in discretionary income, one of these players might be worth a look.
Hitting the market first was Shinco’s Enhanced Video Disc player, the EVD-8830. Housed in a shiny silver case with a reflective front faceplate, the machine looks an odd mix of sleekly stylish and a little bit chintzy at the same time. The player weighs about 7 pounds and, like many Chinese electronics, doesn’t exactly impress with the sturdiness of its build quality. You’d almost expect the first ever HD disc player to be a robustly-built beast with a price tag over a thousand dollars. But no, the Shinco looks pretty much like every other cheap Chinese DVD player and is priced at a mere $245. That’s actually on the high side for Chinese electronics, and apparently has not sold all that well in either China or Hong Kong, where high-definition televisions are only starting to make inroads and consumers expect to pay much less for a DVD player. Here in the United States, a quality DVD player that’s neither region-free nor has any HD output abilities will frequently cost more than that. For what you get, $245 is rather reasonable by those standards.
The Shinco is dual-voltage compatible, and will not require a currency converter to work in an American electrical outlet. However, the included power cord has a Chinese plug, so you either need to buy an adaptor or you can outright replace the cord. Radio Shack part number 61-2876 works just fine and costs only $2.99.
On the front panel, you’ll see that the player has no disc tray, rather a slot-loading mechanism. That may have been intended to make the machine look futuristic or something, but again it seems a little cheap-jack. The lack of a disc tray means that the player will not accept the 3-inch “Pocket DVD” format, but I doubt many will consider that a big deal. I know of only one Pocket DVD release, the supplement disc to the anime movie Metropolis.
Connections on the back of the player include the power input and one set each of Component video, S-video, Composite video, coaxial digital audio, Toslink optical digital audio, and 6-channel analog audio outputs. The player and manual make no mention of DTS compatibility, but in my tests, DTS came through just fine from both the digital and 6-channel analog audio connections. The analog outputs are primarily intended to be used with EVD’s proprietary EAC 5.1 surround sound format (another ploy to get out of paying licensing fees to Dolby and DTS, I imagine). Unfortunately, none of the demo discs included in the package is actually encoded with EAC 5.1, and I was unable to test this out. Until some EAC-encoded discs do get released, I expect most users will simply go with one of the two digital audio connections.
The remote control is one of the worst I’ve ever had the displeasure of using. The button layout is almost intentionally non-intuitive, with important functions not anywhere where you’d expect them to be. The button labels are fortunately in English, but several important functions such as Subtitle and Audio are labeled with ambiguous icons that you won’t understand until you look them up in the manual.
Once you’ve got everything connected and powered on, you’ll find that the on-screen user menus are thankfully in English. Setup is pretty straightforward if you’ve ever used a DVD player before, and it has most of the standard features you’d expect. Notably missing is the ability to turn off on-screen icons during movie playback. The player can pillarbox a 4:3 picture in the center of a 16:9 screen if so desired, but offers no Zoom function for non-anamorphic letterbox discs.
The settings for output resolution may be a little confusing. The player was designed for the Chinese market, which uses the PAL video format, and is geared primarily for PAL playback. The four resolution choices are labeled SD-PAL, SD-AUTO, HD-PAL, and HD-AUTO. The player will accept DVDs from either NTSC or PAL video formats. If you set the player for SD-AUTO, it will output them in their native resolutions, either 480i or 576i. If you set for SD-PAL, it will convert NTSC discs to 576i PAL. Important to note is that the player cannot convert PAL discs to NTSC. This is a key point for potential American consumers, and makes the player much less desirable.
Shinco also offers the ability to upscale a standard-definition DVD to 1080i HD resolution. Unfortunately, scaling to 1080i is not a sufficient workaround for the PAL problem because the player is unable to convert the 50Hz PAL refresh rate to the 60Hz that American televisions use. If you set for HD-AUTO and put in an NTSC disc, the player will output 1080i at 60Hz and it will work fine, but if you put in a PAL disc it will output 1080i at 50Hz, which is incompatible with most display models. Likewise, HD-PAL converts everything to 1080i at 50Hz and is basically useless. American viewers will have to set the unit for either SD-AUTO or HD-AUTO and stick to watching only NTSC discs. You will also notice that the player doesn’t offer any progressive scan output formats at all. This is an interlace display model only.
The Shinco is region-free out of the box and I had no problems playing any of my Region 3 NTSC (Hong Kong, Korea) or Region 2 NTSC (Japan) discs. There’s no need to enter a secret menu or do anything else sneaky. The player can also get around RCE-encoding without issue, and I tested this myself with a known RCE disc.
Finally getting to playback quality, I first tested the standard-def settings and everything there seemed fine. Notably, the player will downconvert the included 1080i EVD discs to standard 480i 60Hz output. Fascinating. My primary interest was in the machine’s HD functions, so I quickly set it for HD-AUTO. Using Avia test patterns, the scaling quality from 480i to 1080i measured decently on the resolution charts, perhaps a little less impressively than my primary Denon player run through an iScan-HD video scaler, but the iScan retails for $1500 so that’s not a fair fight. For a $245 DVD player doing its own scaling, the results were certainly more than adequate. I noticed no edge enhancement ringing being added to the image as a result of the scaling. However, a bit disturbing were some very blatant chroma delay problems that showed up on the color bar patterns.
Moving on to real movie content, the chroma problems I noted on the color bars were not visible in actual practice. I fed the player a barrage of movies and they all looked very pretty scaled up to 1080i. Note that scaling a DVD does not result in a true high-definition picture. Scaling doesn’t add real picture detail. What it does is fill in the empty spaces between scan lines by duplicated information from the surrounding pixels, which provides a smoother, more stable image but not real HD. Since we’re not dealing with progressive scan, there were no combing artifacts to be found. However, some minor image shimmer did appear and was disappointing.
Now for the good stuff, high-definition video content from the brand new EVD format. The Shinco comes packaged with five free demo discs, each stored in a plain keepcase with generic artwork that has no English text. The only way to tell what you’re watching is to put them in and find out. The first disc is a brief 8-minute demo clip to get you started. A sort of a mini version of Koyaanisqatsi, the program has some time-lapse photography, some computer graphics, and some scenery all played to music. It makes fine video wallpaper to play in a background loop during a party. Ah, high-definition bliss! The picture looks terrific. Everything shot on HD video, the image is very sharp and vivid, with pure colors and an excellent three-dimensional appearance. It’s short, but we’re off to a good start.
The other four discs are all Chinese movies: a period costume drama/comedy called The Lion Roars, a modern action comedy called Kung-Fu Girls, the action fantasy Black Mask 2, and Zhang Yimou’s martial arts epic Hero starring Jet Li. All of the movies are in either Cantonese or Mandarin language and none have any English subtitles (except for Black Mask 2, which inexplicably has one scene with hard-coded English subs, but then reverts back to having no subtitles). English-speaking viewers may enjoy the eye candy, but will probably not have as much interest in sitting through an entire untranslated movie. All of the movies were obviously transferred from theatrical film prints, not pristine sources such as an internegative or interpositive, and suffer from visible dirt on the elements. Hero is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Black Mask 2 starts at 2.35:1 but switches to a cropped 16:9 presentation after the opening credits. The other two movies are 16:9 all the way through. Picture quality is generally very good, about comparable to what I see when watching HDTV via cable. None of the discs have 5.1 soundtracks, just compressed and shrill 2-channel audio mixes that were rather unsatisfactory.
The only movie I was able to compare directly to a DVD was Hero. Run side-by-side against the Region 3 DVD, the EVD is definitely sharper and more detailed, but has a very different color balance that’s darker and bluish. Overall, I prefer the warmer look and stunning DTS 5.1 sound of the DVD. On the other hand, the EVD is the only known release of the 120-minute Director’s Cut (the theatrical release and DVD are 98 minutes), and is worth owning for that reason alone, even without subtitles.
At present, these five free discs are the only EVDs in existence. No professionally-packaged consumer releases are available. The companies supporting the EVD format have made claims that over 1,000 titles will be released by year end, but no progress has actually been made to meet that goal.
Although the picture side of both DVD and EVD may have been nice, the player I received experiences repeated audio dropouts in both Dolby Digital and DTS DVD soundtracks, as well as whatever 2-channel format the EVDs were using. The Hero EVD also froze up and pixelated during one chapter, and I was only able to get past it by skipping to the next one, missing about 15 minutes of movie. Obviously, there are some quality-control issues going on here, and the Shinco has a number of glitches to still be worked out. These are serious flaws, and coupled with the inability to convert PAL to NTSC, doesn’t even make for a great region-free player.
Shinco is reportedly working on a new model that will have added functionalities, including the ability to scale to 720p output. Hopefully it will also have better quality control and fewer glitches. When or if this new model will come out is still unknown, because EVD hasn’t exactly sparked a lot of interest in its native country. The format could already be dead in the water. As such, The EVD-8830 is an interesting curiosity, but is basically impossible to recommend for ownership.
I’ve expended a lot of words on a player that I don’t even recommend for purchase, so let’s skip ahead to one that I do. The Skyworth HVD-3050 may not win any beauty contests (it’s very plain and even more cheap-looking than the Shinco), but the quality and functionality are much better than its competition. Priced at a mere $149, it’s a significantly better value in all respects.
Like its competitor, the Skyworth will also accept American 110v voltage without needing a power converter (the back panel claims to be compatible with 85-245v), but in this case, the Chinese power cord is non-detachable. If you’re not up to opening the player and installing a new cord, an adaptor will be necessary.
Found on the back panel are a power switch and a standard bevy of output connections: Component video, S-video, Composite video, coaxial digital audio, Toslink optical digital audio, 6-channel analog audio, and separate Left/Right 2-channel analog audio. Also located here is an HD-15 connector that apparently is capable of outputting the video in either VGA (640×480) or SVGA (800×600) resolutions, though for the purposes of this article, I didn’t have the opportunity to test that one out. The front panel is black in color but sheltered behind an ugly opaque plastic cover that cannot be removed. The unit has a standard disc tray that looks potentially flimsy but is still preferable to the slot-loading type found on the Shinco.
No mention of DTS compatibility is mentioned on the player, the packaging or in the manual, but I made sure to test this out and the player passed the DTS stream through its digital audio connections without incident. Using the 6-channel analog audio connections, only Dolby Digital comes out. The player is obviously lacking an internal DTS decoder, so a digital audio cable is the preferred connection method.
The manual that comes in the box is entirely in Chinese, so not a lot of help there. Fortunately, the remote control and all of the on-screen user menus are in English. The button layout on the remote is not terrific, but it’s a lot better than that piece of junk that came with the Shinco. Navigation through the set-up menus is pretty easy to figure out and should only take a few minutes to get everything ready. Like all DVD players, the Skyworth can be set for either 4:3 or 16:9 display types. However, unlike the Shinco, it does not offer any modes for pillarboxing a 4:3 image in the center of a 16:9 screen. Viewers with televisions that force a 16:9 stretch on all progressive scan input signals should be aware of this point.
The available output resolutions are: NTSC 480i, NTSC 480p, PAL 576i, PAL 576p, HD 720p, HD1080i, and (if using the HD-15 connection) VGA or SVGA. Any compatible disc format that’s inserted into the player can be scaled to any one of these resolutions, including downconverting the HVD discs to 480i standard-definition. The unit does PAL-to-NTSC conversion and NTSC-to-PAL, both with appropriate refresh rate conversion and accurate picture geometry, unlike many cheap region-free players.
In one minor annoyance, the player does not have any sort of “Auto” mode for automatically outputting NTSC or PAL discs in their native resolutions. You have to set your desired resolution in advance, and everything will be scaled to that. Most users will not take issue with this, but those with multi-standard displays may be slightly irritated. To offset this frustration, the player’s remote control does have convenient buttons for switching display resolutions on the fly without going through all the setup menus. Also worth noting is that the machine has no black level control setting. 480i output seems to be set automatically to the “Lighter” 7.5 IRE black level, while 480p and all of the other resolutions come out at the “Darker” 0 IRE and there’s no way to change this.
The Skyworth is region-free out of the box with no need of hidden menus, and easily circumvents RCE-encoding. I threw a multitude of discs at it from all regions and formats, and it played and converted them all to every output resolution. Conversion of PAL to NTSC seems to introduce a small amount of shimmer, but honestly that’s pretty typical of region-free players and I didn’t find it severe enough to be objectionable. I didn’t see any problems with frame rate stutter, as is often an issue when converting PAL 50Hz to NTSC 60Hz.
A few years ago, Skyworth caused a small stir with the model 1050 DVD player, one of the few region-free units available with the excellent Faroudja deinterlacing chip. For this model, Skyworth has done away with the Faroudja and gone with a new deinterlacing solution that’s not quite as good. In general, movie playback looks fine and stable, but on some of the more difficult film-based material I threw at it, minor combing artifacts did intrude into the picture at 480p, 720p, and 1080i resolutions. I found that the Faroudja chip in my other DVD player and the Silicon Image chip in my iScan video scaler both have better progressive scan deinterlacing quality than the Skyworth overall. It’s certainly not terrible, but not perfect either.
Material shot or edited on video tends to be the most difficult to deinterlace properly, and anime programs are some of the worst test cases due to their rampant improper flagging. In my worst case example (the trailer for the anime program RahXephon, found on many discs from ADV Studios), the image breaks up into combing artifacts in almost every shot in all but the very best deinterlacers. Even the Silicon Image chip in my scaler has problems with it. Basically, Faroudja is the only solution that handles it smoothly. The Skyworth didn’t do so well with this one. The trailer is a big combing mess, as I feared. It is probably not the worst I’ve seen from some flag-reading DVD players, but the chip inside is certainly not as agile as Faroudja. I’m disappointed that Skyworth chose to go another route, but I suppose at this price-point they had to make some compromises.
In other respects, the scaling quality looks very good at both 720p and 1080i resolutions. The player does not have the Chroma Upsampling Error, or if it does, it uses filters to mask it to a degree that I couldn’t see it on my worst test case discs. No edge enhancement is introduced by the scaling process, and the resolution charts acceptably on Avia test patterns. For real movie content, choosing between the two resolutions will depend as much on your particular monitor as on the player itself, but both looked fairly comparable on mine. Sometimes one particular scene would look better at one setting, while another scene would look better at the other. Both scaling options seemed slightly softer than regular 480i or 480p outputs. Likely some filtering is being employed to reduce the appearance of scaling artifacts, but the difference is minuscule. The scaling quality here may not be reference quality, but for a $149 DVD player, it can’t be beat.
And what about real High Definition? The player comes with two demo HVD discs, the action thriller Heroic Duo and a comedy called My Dream Girl. Both are in their original Cantonese language with no English subtitles (drats!). The discs are professionally packaged with slick artwork, though the packaging design is strange and awkward. The discs are held in a cheap plastic liner, which is stored in a paper sleeve inside a thicker plastic slipcover.
Unlike the EVD demo discs, the HVDs are a professional-looking product all the way. The disc authoring is easier to navigate and both movies are mastered from clean source elements, not used theatrical prints. Heroic Duo is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, while My Dream Girl is a 16:9 transfer, also with DD 5.1. Picture quality looks decent on both, but not dramatically better than regular DVD. There has been some debate about whether the discs are truly encoded at an HD resolution, or actually contain a standard-definition signal that the player upscales to HD. I’ve found it difficult to obtain hard technical data on the format, but the information I have received indicates that HVD discs are encoded natively at 720p resolution. To back this up, in my observations the discs look distinctly worse when the player is set for 480i or 480p output. Edges look jaggy and fine textural detail is lost. Set for 720p or 1080i, the details fill in and the image is more stable. Nonetheless, both HD settings lack that “through a window” feel you get with most HDTV. Whether this is due to the format’s limitations, both movies in question having soft photographic styles, or heavy filtering employed to reduce compression artifacts, I can’t say for certain. What I can say is that these two discs in particular don’t look as detailed as the EVD discs packaged with the Shinco player. Honestly, I own DVDs that look better.
Some compromise must have also been made in the audio department to compress an HD movie onto these discs, as the DD 5.1 mix on Heroic Duo sounds pretty poor. The track is very flat and lacking dynamic range. The sound just has no life to it, despite all the shooting and explosions. My Dream Girl has a less complicated mix and fares better. It would score about average compared to a standard romantic comedy on DVD. With such a small sample on offer, I have no way of knowing whether this weak audio is a flaw inherent to the HVD compression scheme or just poor mastering on the part of these two specific initial test discs.
As I think back on how badly the first run of DVDs from 1997 hold up to current standards, I’m inclined to hope that the HVD video and audio problems are disc mastering issues, and that the format will get better as it progresses.
As with EVD, there are currently no HVD discs available for sale other than those that come packaged with the player. However, owing to its low price, wealth of features, and good quality, the Skyworth HVD-3050 has been a hot-seller in Asia and it’s very possible that HVD could take off there. I would hope to see more releases in the near future. Whether any of them will ever offer accommodation for English-speaking viewers remains to be seen.
WHAT TO BUY
So, you’ve got an HDTV and want more content to play on it. You’re too anxious to wait around for Blu-ray and HD DVD to settle their differences, and will take whatever you can get in the meantime. You also wouldn’t mind getting a decent region-free DVD player while you’re at it. What to do? At just $149 plus about $65 shipping from Hong Kong, the Skyworth HVD-3050 is an excellent all-purpose region-free DVD player that also happens to come with a couple of HD movies, albeit of only mediocre quality. Maybe more HVDs will be released in the near future with better mastering that will show off the format’s true potential. And if you’re very fortunate, maybe some of them may even be English-language or include subtitles. Then again, maybe not. Frankly, for all you get, any HD content is just gravy on top of a terrific DVD player value. In fact, the Skyworth has now taken its place as my default region-free player, in favor of the venerable Malata DVD-N996 that has served me well for years.
Unfortunately, the more expensive Shinco EVD-8830 has too many quirks and glitches to recommend for purchase, even though its initial EVD discs look better than the HVD samples I’ve watched so far. The main motivating factor in this player’s favor is the inclusion of the highly-desirable director’s cut of the movie Hero, not available on any other disc format. Is that enough to spend $245 plus $80 shipping, especially when the disc has no English subtitles and a poor 2-channel audio track? I would dare say not. If Shinco (or some other manufacturer) can get their act together and release a better EVD player model with more features and higher quality, maybe the format will be worth re-evaluating in the future. If not, EVD may already be dead. At present, I see more potential in the HVD format.
For those interested, both of these players are available at the stated prices from the Hong Kong-based retailer HiViZone. Assuming the players are in stock (the Skyworth has been a popular seller), shipping takes a short 3-4 business days to the United States. Mine arrived promptly on the fourth day. In my experience with them, the site also offers courteous English-language assistance to any questions you may send by email. Have fun shopping whatever you choose.