Think all DVD players are the same? David Neiger explores the differences between budget boxes and dream machines.

Compared with a VCR, any DVD player provides a significant improvement in picture and sound quality. DVD players are now a commodity item, with some models selling for less than you’d pay for a tank of petrol, yet other models can cost you the price of a decent used car. The funny thing is that products from both ends of the scale do essentially the same thing: play DVDs. So what’s in the huge difference in price then?

Thinking about it, DVD players essentially read digital data off a disk, decode it and output the signals to a TV and speakers. Since DVDs are digital, there should, in theory be no difference between a cheap $50 unit and a premium $10,000 unit aside from features.

Surprisingly enough, there actually are noticeable improvements in the quality of the picture and sound as you spend more on a player, even though they all use the same digital information that was recorded on the disk. Although all players will play back DVDs and CDs, the more expensive players are capable of reading additional formats such as DivX, Super Audio CD (SACD), DVD-Audio, WMA (Windows Media Audio), recorded and DVD-RAM disks.

Of course whether you will actually be able to see and hear the difference between players depends upon the quality of your television, amplifiers and speakers, your own hearing and sight and the types of DVDs you like to watch. Not surprisingly, plugging an expensive DVD player into an old picture tube (CRT) television with small in-built speakers will not give you the full benefit of the player.

Conversely a mid-range player that looks fine on a medium sized plasma or rear projection TV may not come up to scratch which viewed on a big screen projection system with high-end surround speakers.