SMR logoPanasonic DVD-A320 DVD-Video Player Review
Panasonic has now released their third generation of DVD players, so its time for our resident DVD expert Robert A. George (Obi) to cast his critical eye upon the DVD-A320.  Will this Panasonic live up to the reputation of its predecessors?

Thanks to Crystal Jenisch at Panasonic for her help and for providing the review sample

Panasonic DVD-A320 Specifications
1 Component Video Output
DTS/Dolby Digital bitstream output
Internal DTS/Dolby Digital 5.1 decoder
1 S-Video (Y/C) output
2 Composite outputs
Chapter Preview
100 Scan
10-bit video D/A converter
96kHz/24-bit audio D/A converter
Dual-focus laser pickup
5-speed Smooth Motion Scan & Slow
Headphone jack with volume control
Auto switching field/frame still
Ergonomic remote control
Plays DVDs, CDs and Video CDs
Virtual Surround Sound (from just 2 speakers)
1 Optical and 1 coaxial digital outputs for Dolby Digital, PCM and DTS
Audio S/N ratio 115 dB
16-15/16"W 3-7/16"H 11-5/8"D
Warranty: 1 year parts, 90 days labour
RRP: $549.00
Panasonic_Dolby_logo.jpg (7138 bytes) DTS Digital Output
(All specifications as per manufacturer)

Panasonic DVD-A320 DVD/CD/Video-CD Player

 

Panasonic DVD-A320     Panasonic is now in their third generation of DVD players.   Following up their hugely successful DVD-A110/A310 models would not be an easy task as these were among the most highly regarded players in their price categories, despite some reliability issues that surfaced late in that model year.  The A110 was the first to be replaced with the introduction of the DVD-A120 in late February '99.  In an unusually long delay between models, the successor to the excellent DVD-A310, the DVD-A320 was not released until September.  I was particularly interested in getting my hands on an A320 as the previous A310 still ranks as my favorite DVD player ever.   I am more than pleased with what I have found.

     Cosmetically, the A320 is identical to the A120.  In a word, ugly.  Okay, maybe ugly is a little harsh, but if this player were a blind date, your best friend that set you up would say, "it has a great personality".  No lie there.  With the previous models, the differences between the A110 and the A310 were essentially limited to an internal Dolby Digital" 5.1 decoder, a (not very good) 3-step adjustable sharpness control, and a way better remote for the A310.  It would seem the engineers spent the months between the introduction of the A120 and the A320 further refining the design.  The differences between the A120 and the A320 are somewhat greater than the previous models and I even found some of the features useful.

     The back panel of the A320 is fairly standard for DVD players with similar features.  Digital audio output is available in either coaxial (electrical) or optical (Tos-link).  Separate analog audio outputs for the internal 6-channel decoder and 2-channel stereo are also provided.  Video output options are two (2) composite video jacks, one (1) s-video jack, as well as a set of component (Pr Pb Y) video jacks.  Like previous Panasonic models, the AC power cord is detachable.

     Basic operation is simple and straightforward.  The drawer mechanism is quick and smooth and closes with a surprisingly solid "click".  Although there is obviously not much to the physical construction of the player, it does have 'Saving Private Ryan' (DTS)a more substantial feel than one might expect.  As with the A120, this player also features Panasonic's "quick start" drive, which loads and begins playing a disc in roughly half the time of the previous model.

     The most obvious new feature of the A320 is the addition of an internal DTS" decoder to go along with the Dolby Digital 5.1 decoder.  The A320 is the first DVD player to incorporate DTS decoding and I must admit, I was curious how this decoder would perform, even though my receiver does DTS decoding and I didn't expect to actually use the player's internal decoder.   After rummaging around in the closet for some RCA terminated audio cables that I haven't been using for several years now, I was able to connect the A320 to the 5.1 channel analog input of my receiver.  My first concern was compatibility.  DTS has gone through something of an evolution since entering the consumer market and I wanted to find out if there was anything in the DTS universe that might give this decoder a problem.  Test software included the DTS Demo #3 for "early" DTS encoding, 'Dances With Wolves', several newer titles such as 'Daylight' and 'Waterworld', and of course, 'Saving Private Ryan'.  I also spun up several DTS music discs, which encode the DTS stream so that it is flagged as valid PCM.  All played flawlessly, I am pleased to report.  How they actually sounded is another matter altogether.

     I don't want to dwell on this aspect of the player, mainly because I consider this feature to be of less and less value as time goes on with even lower priced receivers now including Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 decoding.  However, if you are considering this player for this feature, you should know what you are getting.  What you are getting is a very mediocre 5.1 decoder.  The design of my receiver allows for near-instant switching between the analog 5.1 input and the internal decoder so comparing the player's decoder performance with the receiver was very easy.  You might say comparing the decoder and audio D/A converters in a $500 DVD player to a $2,400 top-of-line THX receiver is not fair.   I'd agree, but it was a useful test to determine how the player's analog audio section stacked up.  I didn't expect the A320 decoder to sound better than the decoder and D/A section of the Pioneer receiver, but I did expect it to sound better than it did.

Panasonic DVD-A320     Using both the DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 version of 'Saving Private Ryan', the Dolby Digital 5.1 track of 'A Bug's Life', and the DTS music disc 'Toy Matinee', I compared several passages of each disc switching between the player's decoder and the receiver's.   Channel separation and low level detail seem fine, but most of the lower frequency fundamentals were simply gone when using the player's decoder.  The resultant sound was thin and edgy and lacking in depth.  The difference was so noticeable, I at first though I had missed something in the setup.  After rechecking the cabling, I went through the player's internal setup to verify there was no dynamic range compression at work.  The decoder in the A320 does offer a relatively high degree of flexibility, as these things go.  An internal crossover let's the user select between large or small speakers on any combination of the left/right mains, the center channel, and the surround channels.  Individual channel level controls, including the subwoofer, allow precise calibration of all the channels.  There is even an adjustable channel delay on the center and surround channels.  Offering an internal 5.1 decoder in a DVD player does allow someone on a limited budget to get decent 5.1 decoding into their system for not a lot of money.  The addition of DTS decoding in the A320 makes this player an even better deal if this feature is needed.  But, I have found one will get better audio performance from even modestly priced Dolby Digital/DTS receivers than from the A320's internal decoder.

     For 2-channel stereo, the A320 offers 96kHz/24bit DACs for that small handful of music programs available in that format.   I don't have any 96/24 material so I cannot offer any comments on the player's performance in that area.

     Now I've already spent too much time on the only negative feature of the DVD player.  For most people, the main thing they look for in a DVD player is video performance and the DVD-A320 has that in spades.   Since Panasonic rolled the second generation DVD-A110/A310 off the line with a redesigned video section, including 10-bit video DACs, 'A Bugs Life'these players have been known for sharp, detailed images and about the best color reproduction of anything in their class.   The A320 takes a good design and takes it a step further with two digital video enhancements that truly are enhancements.

     The nearly useless 3-step adjustable sharpness control on the previous A310 has been replaced by a 5-setting digital picture control.  Where the "fine" setting on the A310 introduced visible grain in the picture, the new circuit seems to be somewhat subtler in its affect.   One all but the grainiest transfers, the "fine" setting does noticeably increase sharpness and fine detail without introducing excessive noise or grain.  The "soft" setting is still just that, but there are a few very grainy transfers that are helped by this setting.  New modes are a "cinema" mode that decreases overall contrast for a more film-like look (or what Panasonic considers a more film-like look) and a "user" mode that allows for additional user settings for contrast, brightness, tint, and a video equalizer (whatever that is).  I suppose some will find these last two settings useful, and they certainly do add flexibility in picture adjustment, but videophiles will not want to screw around with their own image calibration.  Another picture adjustment feature that has a fairly subtle, but still noticeable effect is a monitor type selection feature in the initial setup menu.   Four setting, one each for direct-view, rear projection, front projection, and LCD projection, are said to optimize the player's picture controls for the type of monitor one is using.  After experimenting with several setting combinations, I have found a combination of the "rear projection" setting with the "fine" setting on the digital picture control yields a noticeably improved picture on my 62" Pioneer RPTV.  So impressed am I with this player's video performance and flexibility, I consider this alone worth the extra cost over the A120.

     There are a number of other smaller features, many of which I'll never use, such as "dialogue enhancer" that increases the center channel level of Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks by 6dB.   "VSS" (Virtual Surround Sound) is an enhancement to 2-channel audio that I have not yet found a use for.  The on-screen graphics are changed little from the A120, except for the additional features, with the exception of the channel indication for audio.  For instance, a 5.1 channel soundtrack is now displayed as "3/2.1".   This gives the viewer more detail as to how the soundtrack was encoded.  The first number is the front channels and the second number is the surrounds followed by the LFE.  There is also a black level control that should only be used if one uses the component video output.  The default setting of "lighter" is intended for composite and s-video outputs with "darker" for the component outputs.  As with the A120, black level setup in this player is "0" IRE so the A320 will display the "below black" bar in a PLUGE pattern making black level calibration a bit easier.  The remote for the A320 is essentially the same as the A310 except most of the "uncovered" buttons now glow in the dark.  Not backlit, mind you, just phosphorescent.  The afterglow fades fairly quickly, but lasts plenty long enough to get a movie started after the lights go out, even those with the interminable menus one sometimes has to wade through.  I must add that I find the remote for this player, like the previous A310, to be the best I have used.  For DVD, the importance of an ergonomic remote control cannot be overstated.  The A320 has the competition beat, hands down.

     Video performance of the A320 is exemplary.  This player produces about the sharpest, most detailed image of any player I've tested and the color rendition is second to none.  The video DACs do an excellent job.  My favorite shot 'The Exorcist'for testing this is the opening shot of 'The Exorcist'.  The fade-in of the sun in the opening frames is rarely as smooth as it should be with most players exhibiting "banding" on this shot.  The A320 renders this sequence very smoothly with only the slightest banding visible.   Downconversion of 16:9 enhanced transfers for viewing on 4:3 monitors is only average.  Better than some, such as Toshiba and JVC, but not as smooth as either Sony or Proscan players.  On the other hand, neither the Sony nor the Proscan can touch the Panasonic for sharpness and detail on downconverted images.  With the ever-increasing level of interactivity of DVD software, menu access speed becomes an important consideration and the Panasonic is among the quickest at accessing various disc menus as any player I've seen.  Layer transitions on dual layer discs are quick and smooth, though still visible.  I hope player manufacturers will increase the buffer size in newer models soon.  The Proscan player has proved that DVD video players do not have to have a visible pause at layer transitions on most discs.  It is past time for other manufacturers to improve performance in this area.

     In summary, Panasonic has once again become my DVD player of choice.  I consider the combination of price, features, and performance of the DVD-A320 sets it apart from all competitors.  Panasonic's web site lists retail on the A320 as $549.95, but Panasonic's press kit lists retail at $499.95.  Regardless, the street price is well below $500 and is what I consider the best deal in DVD players today.

 

Robert A. George 1999.

Correspondence with Robert should be directed through SMR Forums.

(Review system: Pioneer SD-P62A5K 62" RPTV (calibrated), Pioneer Elite VSX-29TX THX receiver, Atlantic Technology System 350THX speakers L/C/R/Surr, M&K MX100 subwoofer, video cabling Monster MVSV3 s-video, digital audio via coaxial. Audio system calibrated to THX spec.)

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More information about Panasonic Consumer Products can be found upon the offical Panasonic web site

Text Robert A. George; HTML SMR Home Theatre and Images Robert A. George & SMR Home Theatre cannot be reproduced without permission.  Dolby Digital is a registered trademark of Dolby Laboratories Licensing Corporation, THX is a registered trademark of LucasFilm, DTS is a registered trademark of Digital Theater Systems.  The images on this page are digitally watermarked: Digimarc http://www.digimarc.com/

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Last updated 28 November, 1999

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