Sampo DVE-611 DVD Player 
Home Theater Video Players DVD Players
Written by Richard Elen   
Wednesday, 01 May 2002

Introduction
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.

Installation and Setup
The unit was the easiest to plug in: I only wanted component video and digital audio out anyway, and that took moments to connect. One caveat: S-Video and component outputs share some of the same drivers so you can’t connect both at once. The remote is not very pretty, but it is clear and unambiguous and contains a good many more buttons than you would usually expect to find. This machine plays Video CDs, remember, which are very popular in China but not so well-known here.

The first thing you do is to press Setup and you enter a very clear and easily accessed on-screen menu system that allows full configuration of the machine.

The next important bit you do is to define the TV standard from the TV Setup Page. There is a button on the remote for stepping through the options, and you may need this if your unit powers up set to PAL and you can’t see anything because your TV is NTSC (or vice-versa). But assuming you can see the menus, you can set the player to output either NTSC or PAL all the time, or "multi." In the latter case, a PAL disc will output PAL and an NTSC disc will output NTSC. In the other two positions, the player will output one standard or the other at all times, irrespective of the type of disc you play. Three TV modes select 4:3 pan & scan, 4:3 letterbox, or 16:9. You also select the S-Video or component output. Audio Setup allows analog, S/PDIF/RAW or S/PDIF/PCM to be output, while a Downmix option allows either stereo or LT/RT (for Dolby Pro Logic decoding) to be output from the analog jacks. From the Dolby Digital page, you select the type of two-channel output (stereo, left, right or mono to be output from each channel) and adjust dynamic range compression if desired. The 3D audio effect can also be made available (it is engaged by a button on the remote) and you can set the digital audio output to offer a maximum of 48 or 96 kHz.

The General Setup page covers various on-screen displays, such as the appearance of a marker for multiple camera angle availability, the language for on-screen displays and captions, and you can engage a screen saver. The Preferences page lets you set up a number of defaults: subtitle language, disc menu language, parental control and password (this is replaced by a manual "region setting" menu if your unit has been modified: you use this if the player can’t work out the region setting on its own).

Operation
The player performed much more than acceptably in all the modes I was able to test it. I set it to NTSC, so that it would always talk to my TV, and played a few discs, comparing them to the performance of my reference Kenwood 4070 DVD-Audio/Video player. The first thing I noticed was that the video output level from the Sampo was driving the TV harder than the Kenwood, resulting in whites being rather too hot and bleeding into surrounding areas, and color being a bit too vivid. Setting my Sony WEGA TV to "movie" mode, which attenuates the input a little, did the trick. That done, I noticed little or no difference in picture quality between the two units, with one exception: on the Sampo, menus with graduated colors (for example "Bond Live") tended to show banding instead of smooth color gradations, suggesting that the video D/A did not have quite as many bits available as one would expect. But in normal operation, this was not evident.

I looked at my often-used reference DVD, "The Fifth Element," and found both machines performed nearly identically, with a very slight edge for the Kenwood, which seemed to have slightly smoother handling of chrominance information. The same held true for "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence". It looked very much as if the Sampo was sensing widescreen on this DVD automatically, which was a surprise, but it did not do it on all discs.

I then switched to a PAL disc, the British Film Institute release of Nigel Kneale’s impressive 1972 TV ghost story "The Stone Tape." I didn’t even have color TV when this came out, and seeing it in color for the first time was a revelation. It was difficult, however, without knowing the quality of the master, to judge playback quality as opposed to source quality, but there did not appear to be any significant digital artifacts that one might expect as a result of standards conversion. This disc is not region-coded (this is the case with all the BFI "Archive Television" series), so it will play back on an unmodified Sampo. You can get it and others in the series (all amazing) from bfi.org.uk.

Another brilliant Nigel Kneale script features in the original 1957 BBC TV version of "Quatermass and the Pit" from Revelation Films, the original upon which the Hammer movie version of 10 years later (available on DVD in the US) was based. This is black-and-white TV from the late '50s and this Region 2 PAL disc played back fine on the modified Sampo, but you really couldn’t tell a great deal about the conversion quality. However, it was entirely watchable and significantly better than VHS quality, which was the main point.

The Sampo played CD, CD-R and CD-R/W as advertised (CD-R is the difficult one here, as it ideally needs a different laser pickup, which the Sampo has). I did not have any Video CDs of any kind, but I did burn an ISO9660 CD-R of MP3 tunes and was surprised at the results. MP3 is not "near-CD quality" unless you last heard a CD in 1984, but the Sampo delivered the best sound into my system I have heard from an MP3 source other than the recently-acquired Audigy card in my computer.

The Downside
Not much, really, is the answer here, as the player did everything it was supposed to do and for very little money. The only thing you have to watch is that, when you turn the unit on for the first time, you may need to press the TV System button on the remote repeatedly until you can see anything, if it has come up in the wrong mode for a single-standard TV or you are playing a disc made to the foreign standard. If your TV only supports one TV standard, the Sampo needs to be configured to that standard before you play discs made to the other standard, or it will output the other standard. This hardly qualifies as a downside, though. Then there is the matter of the apparent lack of video bit-depth on menus, but I was not able to notice that effect in normal viewing.

Conclusion
I was expecting the software in this low-cost player to be a disappointment, as you might find with the Apex models, but in fact, it did everything it was supposed to do. If you need a multi-standard DVD player, there are several, but only a very few (the Sampo line, products from Mallata and the Toshiba 2715 are the only ones that spring to mind) include a built-in standards converter. The Sampo DVE-611 is probably the cheapest of these select few. If you look on the web, you can find these modified for region-free operation and with Macrovision disabled for a few tens of dollars more. Armed with one of those, you can play anything almost anywhere, and be happy with the results – especially at this price.
Manufacturer Sampo
Model DVE-611 DVD Player
Reviewer Richard Elen





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