When I was one of the first people to get my hands on an Outlaw Model 950 in early April 2002, I felt obligated to my fellow online HT enthusiasts (many of whom were either still waiting for their 950's or were trying to decide whether or not to get one) to provide some sort of review of it. The result was this review, and in the tradition of that review I am going to try to provide a review of another new piece of gear in my system -- the Panasonic DVD-RA60. This player is one of a small number of players available that offers DVD-Audio without progressive scan, and as one of a large group of people with older 4:3 sets that don't allow for progressive scan video I was interested in a low-cost player that could provide good interlaced performance and DVD-Audio. While investigating the options currently available, I put together a chart comparing some of the players on the market right now (including the Panasonic DVD-A310 that I was using at the time). The RA60 offered what I felt was the best feature set for an interim player, while I wait for an affordable, high quality "universal" player to arrive (progressive scan, DVD-Audio, and SACD).
The RA60 replaced a Panasonic DVD-A310 that I purchased in November 1998. The A310 still works well (unlike many of its kind -- the A310 earned a very poor reputation, and even led to a class-action lawsuit), but has had trouble with a couple discs (skipping one scene in The Matrix sometimes and hanging up a lot in parts of Princess Mononoke, for exampe). I have also used a Toshiba SD-1600 (the DVD player we have in the bedroom), but didn't like the interface (OSD, etc.) as much as the Panasonic interface. I've included an equipment list at the end of this review as a reference.
Because I was so familiar with Panasonic DVD players after using my A310 for three and a half years, it took me very little time to get the RA60 up and running fairly satisfactorily. As with many DVD players, DTS digital output was "off" by default, but it took only a minute to track down and change that setting. For the first hour or two that I had the unit in place, I threw every disc I had at it -- DVD-Audio, DVD-Video (Dolby Digital and DTS), audio CD, Video CD (on CD-R, produced using Nero with an assortment of downloaded movie trailers), and MP3 CD-R's. It played all of it without a hitch. The MP3 playback interface is weak if you want to actually find a specific track on a disc or you want to play the tracks randomly, as all the RA60 does is number the tracks from 1 through the end of the disc (grouped by directory, thankfully, but in almost no logical order beyond that). Video and audio performance were satisfying, but neither qualified as a startling revelation from other DVD players I've used. Video seemed superior to the Toshiba SD-1600 we have, but only marginally better than the A310 it has replaced. It did play my "problem" discs without fault, which was an important part of my buying decision. Audio on DVD's was no different as far as I could tell, but I'm not using the onboard decoders (the RA60 has both Dolby Digital and DTS decoders) so the burden of the work on audio for DVD's and CD's remains on the pre/pro. For a sub-$200 interlaced DVD player with DVD-Audio, I thought it did just fine.
I'd listened to a couple of DVD-Audio discs (Toy Matinee and Blue Man Group's Audio) using my old DVD-Video player (the A310), and was pretty impressed. I picked up The Corrs' In Blue and Barenaked Ladies' Maroon when I got the RA60, and have briefly listened to all four discs. As with any format, the quality of the source is critical -- a badly mixed DVD-A is just as capable of disappointing as a badly recorded CD or a badly compressed DVD video. When it's done right, though, the results are very pleasing. Blue Man Group is a really fun disc, but the change from the Dolby Digital 5.1 track (with bass management on my pre/pro) to the DVD-Audio track (with no bass management, leaving the entire .1 track MIA) confirmed my need for a sub. Of the other discs, The Corrs is probably the best sounding. Until I get a sub, though, I'm afraid that I'll be hard pressed to fully appreciate the format. The absence of bass management in the current DVD-Audio player market is a central problem, and the RA60 is no exception. I'll re-visit this section in greater detail later, when I have a subwoofer in the system and am actually hearing everything on the disc.
UPDATE: I realized the other day that I had not added anything to this review to reflect my experiences with DVD-Audio using a subwoofer. In August 2002, I added an SVS 25-31PCi subwoofer to my home theater system. Prior to the addition of a subwoofer, I had been somewhat underwhelmed by most of my DVD-Audio discs; they tended to sound somewhat thin and weak. A specific example of this is the bass-laden Blue Man Group Audio disc. Unlike the Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the DVD-Video side (which had benefited from digital bass management to redirect the LFE channel), the DVD-Audio track's LFE signal could not be redirected to the main speakers, and the result was a noticeably thinner sound to Audio when there was no subwoofer present. The addition of a subwoofer (and the application of the analog bass management on the Outlaw Model 950's 5.1 analog input) restored and expanded on the full sound of Blue Man Group's unique instruments. Apparently (and reasonably) most discs currently being produced are mixed with much of the lower frequency material being delivered only to the subwoofer. If your system lacks a sub (due to either the use of full-range speakers elsewhere in the system or budget constraints that have delayed a sub), you will likely encounter something along these lines. Users of full-range speakers in place of a sub should seriously investigate some form of outboard bass management for all DVD-Audio players currently on the market, something similar to the Outlaw Audio ICBM-1, because that's the only way to get the essential material in the LFE track delivered to your speakers. If you are in the position I was for a while and have put off buying a sub, be aware that DVD-Audio will require a sub if you want to really appreciate the format.
The RA60 does include a button (both on the remote and the front of the player) to disable the video circuits and operate "audio only" -- which will allow users to play back DVD-Audio discs without worrying about picking up noise or interference from the unused video circuitry.
As I mentioned above, the video performance was very satisfactory, if not revolutionary. This is not a progressive scan player, but it's also connected to a Mitsubishi 27" direct view set from 1997 -- there's no need for progressive scan in my case, and no plans to upgrade my set until 2004 or after, by which time I will be ready to replace the RA60 with a better player that will handle DVD-A, SACD, and progressive scan.
It may sound like I'm not real impressed with the video performance, but that's not really fair to the RA60. I'm very satisfied with the performance. My video display is a limiting factor, though -- Mitsubishi makes some very good TV's, but mine is a four-year-old 27" standard-definition set without component video inputs. For anyone with a "run of the mill" TV, the RA60 would be a very good choice. Oh, by the way, it's a Panasonic, so there's no chroma bug present with the RA60.
I've watched several movies on this player now, and have found that it has handled layer changes very well and has been fast at navigating through menus. I haven't thrown any particularly slow menus at it yet to really test that, though.
DIGITAL AUDIO AND TRANSPORT PERFORMANCE:
The RA60 will provide digital output of Dolby Digital and DTS audio through the optical output (sorry, no coaxial). I can find no fault with it here, but this is really pretty much just "grunt work" for the player -- pass the bits from the disc to the output. The RA60 is a little lighter than my A310, but the transport has been solid. There is very little noise from the player when spinning a disc, and disc load times are reasonably quick. CD performance was on par with using my Yamaha CDC-775 as a transort. I grumbled a little about the MP3 interface earlier, but it's worth noting that actual sonic quality of the MP3 playback surprised me some. It's not as good as the original, but it's better than I had expected.
While setup was painless for me, some of the icons on the RA60's OSD seem somewhat cryptic to me (due in large part to the fact that they seem intended for a very large display, and become little more than blobs on even a 27" screen). The older A310 had an interface that I was able to understand very readily, with almost no need to refer to the manual to figure out what a symbol represented. On the RA60, they have made the interface's icons more detailed, but also in some cases (display, for example) the result is icons that are more difficult to identify. The manual is able to clear all of this up pretty quickly. Overall, I wasn't real fond of some of the icons used in the on-screen menus, but aside from that complaint I was very comfortable with the interface.
The remote is a fairly generic plastic slab, which is to be expected on a sub-$200 DVD player. We're not talking about a secretly bundled universal remote here, but for controlling the DVD player itself I thought it did a good job. Panasonic's larger DVD remote (which the A310 and RP91 both use) has more features, but that remote uses a stubby joystick rather than a directional keypad. The joystick (which doubles as the "select" button) is a good way to navigate menus, but takes time to get used to. The keypad that the RA60's remote uses is more intuitive for most people, even if it isn't as flashy as the little joystick. After teaching a few of the new commands to my universal remote (such as the "audio only" button to disable the video circuitry), I tossed it in the bottom of the entertainment center to keep the other remotes company.
I became interested in the Panasonic DVD-RA60 because I wanted to try to find a good quality, inexpensive non-progressive DVD player with DVD-Audio support so I could further explore that format while I waited for the arrival of a universal DVD/SACD player and some further progress in smaller HD sets. The RA60's features seemed ideally suited to my needs, which are admittedly different from many home theater hobbyists. For my needs, the RA60 has delivered exactly what it promised.
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