|Sampo DVE-611 DVD Player|
|Home Theater Video Players DVD Players|
|Written by Richard Elen|
|Wednesday, 01 May 2002|
Page 1 of 2
I had a very specific purpose in mind when I bought this inexpensive ($119) DVD player, but it turns out to be even more interesting than I expected. There are plenty of low-cost DVD players on the market: these days you can even get them for less than $100. But there are few like this.
If you are a world traveler like myself (ahem), then you will probably be as frustrated as I am with the difference in standards around the world. Generally, the way it’s done in North America is quite different to the way it’s done in Europe. More than occasionally, the North American way is unlike anywhere else in the world. Take cell phones, for example. You can take your GSM phone almost anywhere in the world and use it – and keep your regular phone number. Or buy a little plug-in SIM card and suddenly you have a local number in the country you are traveling in. In the U.S., until recently, you couldn’t do that. Now you can, but even so, the phone has to have an extra band to work here.
In Europe, the voltage is 230 volts. Here it’s 110 volts. And most annoying of all (because transformers are easy), there are different TV standards. Here it’s NTSC (which we always used to say stood for "Never Twice the Same Color"), while in a lot of elsewhere, it’s PAL (Perfection At Last). When I lived in Britain, I brought a VCR back from the States and rigged up and NTSC monitor so I could watch US TV shows sent to me by friends. When I moved from Britain to the U.S., I couldn’t watch my PAL videos any more, until ultimately I borrowed a multi-standard VHS recorder to copy them to NTSC (multistandard VCRs start as low as $400 but can be as expensive as $800 if you're looking to be able to record in both the PAL and NTSC formats with stereo sound).
When they came to design the Digital Versatile Disk, or DVD, one of the things the original designers could have done was to do away with this TV standards business once and for all. The data on a DVD is just bits, after all: you could store the information in a universal format and clock it out either PAL or NTSC and never think twice about it.
But this pinnacle of common sense was not to be. You and I might think that a universal format – like the Compact Disc – was the sensible thing to do, but not so the companies that make content available. They want to stop you from buying a movie in the U.S. and playing it in Europe, for example. One way they did this was Regional Coding. The other was by perpetuating the differing TV standards.
Another interesting difference between North American hardware and items from other parts of the world is that there is generally an "American" version (110v, NTSC-only) and an "International" version (any voltage, multiple TV standards, etc). So these days, if you buy a TV in Britain, for example, it will run on 110 or 230 volts, 50 or 60 Hz, and it will decode both NTSC and PAL video sources. Buy essentially the same TV here and it will be 110v, 60 Hz, NTSC-only.
Let’s suppose you want to buy a DVD player that will work anywhere in the world, so you can take it with you if you move. Or you want to buy DVDs from France and watch them in the U.S. Or, in my case, you want to buy DVDs from Britain and watch them here. Well, not only are they PAL and not NTSC; they are also Region 2 and not Region 1.
Regional coding was a deliberate and obvious scheme to stop you from playing one country's DVDs while you're in a different country. Actually it was to stop you doing the opposite of that, namely buying Region 1 movies in the USA and taking them back to Europe with you, where the movies hadn’t even been released yet in theaters. The movie industry has given all kinds of lame excuses as to why they need regional coding, or can’t release movies internationally all in one go, or need to charge more money for them in Europe (probably because the Region 2 market is smaller, but we know why that is…), but none of them hold water, including any of the ones you are now going to write to me and tell me about. Honest.
Of course, if you go and buy your DVD paraphernalia in the High Street electronics store in any town in Britain, they will a) sell you a TV that decodes both PAL and NTSC, and b) they will ask you if you would like your DVD player modified to be "region-free", i.e., play any region’s discs. Or they will just have done it anyway. As a result, the movie industry has introduced RCE, or Regional Coding Enhancement, which is designed to stop your "region-free" player from playing Region 1 discs, even if it’s been fixed to do so. Of course, following the Intelligence services’ axiom, "To any digital measure, there’s a digital countermeasure," there are people who have worked around that, too. In any case, most RCE discs are Region 1, so if you are bringing foreign discs into the U.S., you probably won’t encounter it.
But suppose you are in the U.S., and you want to buy such a player here. Your TV set only accepts NTSC and you want to play those amazing French movies and they are PAL. What you need is an international DVD player.
Well, they do exist, and one of them is made by someone you have never heard of, because it’s a Chinese company: Sampo. They make several different models, and even the cheapest of them, the DVE-611 (retail $119) has a built-in converter that enables the player to output NTSC or PAL, irrespective of the standard employed by the disc you’re playing. Unlike some of the players from Far East, this one actually works. And if you know the right people, you can buy one that’s been fixed to be region-free (with Macrovision turned off, so your video projector will like it), for about $200. Not only that, it works on any voltage from 100 (Japan) to 240 (Britain before EU harmonization), 50/60Hz. Just what you want.
The unit is a single-disc player, and it will handle almost any disc around, with the exception of DVD-Audio and or SACD. That leaves almost everything else: DVD-V, Video CD, Super Video CD, Audio CD… it will even play CD-R discs, by using a separate laser for CD, and you can put a disc of MP3 tunes (ISO9660 CD-ROM format, 32-320 Kbps) in the machine and play that, too. The firmware is updateable: you simply download the latest firmware from the sampoamericas.com web site, burn it on to a CD, and pop it into the machine (you probably don’t do this if your machine has been modified to be region-free). I don’t know about you, but I find all that pretty astonishing for a machine that costs a little over a hundred bucks.
The other features of this beast are fairly prodigious too. It has component outputs, for respectable video quality – plus S-Video and composite. It has two-channel downmix audio outs, plus a virtual surround system that attempts to recreate a surround effect with only two channels. There’s a coaxial digital audio output that will deliver signals up to 24-bit, 96 kHz sampling (and the built-in audio D/A converter is also 24/96 capable). There’s no surround decoder built in (what, at $119?) but it will output DTS and Dolby Digital encoded digital signals to an external decoder. The video D/A is 10-bit, 27 MHz, which, while not particularly impressive, is not bad for the price. It outputs PAL or NTSC. There a two-step video zoom capability, multi-speed forward, step and reverse play plus still-frame, and you can even mute the digital audio output from the remote.