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How to Connect a DVD Player

Your new gear is home and out of the box — NOW WHAT?

DVD players produce a cleaner and sharper picture than VCRs. And digital surround sound makes the show even more dramatic. But to get the best out of your new DVD player, you must pay attention to how it's linked to the rest of your system, and make sure the player, disc, TV, and receiver are all talking to one another in the right way. Don't worry — this isn't rocket science. It's just a matter of connecting the right cables and punching through a few menus. Following is a cheat sheet that'll save you some time and hassle.

Getting started. As with any new product, spend a few minutes thumbing through the manual. You needn't read it word for word, but if you give it a quick skim now, you'll know where to find answers later.

Where will it live? Your DVD player doesn't contain amplifiers, so it won't run as hot as your receiver, but it still contains a motor. Give it an inch or two of overhead ventilation space to prevent overheating. Position it where the necessary cables will easily reach other components in the system such as the television set or receiver.

Make some preliminary decisions. Will you connect your DVD player's audio/video outputs connect directly to the television set, or would you prefer to route the audio/video signals through your surround receiver? Linking directly to the TV will prevent any degradation of the video signal and you won't have to turn on your receiver to enjoy a DVD. But going through the receiver will give movie soundtracks the benefit of your surround sound system.

Tips for advanced users only: If you've got the stomach for two connections, you can connect video to the TV and audio to the receiver. Then program the necessary two-step video/audio switching into a programmable remote control as a macro command sequence. This will give you the cleanest video and the most powerful surround sound. Also, a tiny handful of DVD players are starting to come with digital video interfaces such as IEEE 1394-DTCP and DVI-HDCP. These are the highest-quality connections, but most receivers don't have them, so you'll have to connect the player directly to a 1394- or DVI-equipped digital TV.

Video connector types: 1. Composite video; 2. 3-jack component video; 3. S-video; 4. DVI; 5. IEEE 1394.

Use the highest-quality video connections. Aside from 1394 and DVI, the best video connection is component video. This trio of color-coded red/green/blue jacks is found on most DVD players, newer TVs (especially DTVs), and some receivers. It splits video into brightness and two color-related signals — and that makes it a precise way for your DVD player to feed a TV set. Second best is the multi-pin S-video jack, which also carries brightness and color separately, thus minimizing cross-color flicker. Lowest in quality is the yellow color-coded composite video jack. (It's easy to confuse the words composite and component — they sound alike, but mean different things.)

Don't mix and mismatch video connections. For example, don't connect the DVD player to the receiver with an S-video cable, and the receiver to the TV with component video cables. Most receivers won't translate one to the other. Use the same video connection all the way through the signal chain. Otherwise you probably won't get a picture.

Feed your receiver with a digital audio connection. Most players give you two choices: optical or coaxial. The optical type, also known as Toslink, uses a fiber-optic cable, and conveys digital audio signals as pulses of light. The coaxial type, which uses the familiar RCA-type plug found on most audio gear, conveys signals as pulses of electricity. Which is better? This question has been known to cause fistfights at audiophile barbecues. Optical cables may help avoid ground-loop hum, while coaxial cables are sturdier and have higher bandwidth. One thing is certain — either one is better than an analog two-channel connection.

Audio connector types: 1. Analog stereo RCA; 2. Coaxial digital audio; 3. Optical digital audio.

Feed your stereo TV with a two-channel audio connection. Use the analog jacks, color-coded white and red, only if you're feeding a stereo TV without digital audio inputs. You won't get surround sound this way. But some people don't want surround sound.

SACD players include a 5.1-channel analog output, required for enjoying high-resolution music in surround sound.

Audio connections for DVD-Audio and SACD players. Most DVD players supporting these audiophile-quality surround-capable music formats must link to your receiver through a 5.1-channel analog connection (in other words, six cables). Frustrating, isn't it? A direct digital connection for DVD-Audio and SACD has been long in coming due to fears that the digital signal might be copied. A solution is on the horizon, and already, a few players and receivers do allow secure one-wire digital audio connections for these formats — but at present they are a tiny minority.

Now the power cord. Don't plug in power cords or turn anything on until you've completed all the other connections.

Are you receiving me? When you turn everything on, are you getting picture and sound? If not, make sure you've selected the right inputs on the TV and receiver. Then check all connections. When connecting through a receiver, you may have to enable certain connections in the receiver's menu.

Go through the player's setup menu. Now that your video connection is live, you can see the player's setup menu on your TV, and it's time to give the player some necessary information. Most DVD players offer an easy method of navigating through their setup menus, step by step, when you first activate them. The setup menu tells the player what kind of TV you have (widescreen or not), how you're making your video and audio connections, etc. Dive into the manual if you're having trouble making choices.

It's showtime! Unfortunately, after loading a DVD, you usually can't just hit play, as with a CD. Each disc has its own menu. Don't feel intimidated — soon you'll be an old hand at this. Use the up/down, left/right, and enter keys on the DVD player's remote to select options from the disc menu.

Audio and other options on the disc menu. To get the highest-quality surround sound, pay careful attention to the audio options. If your system is set up for surround sound, select Dolby Digital 5.1 or (if available) DTS 5.1. If your system or TV operates only in stereo, some discs have two-channel soundtracks — sometimes labeled Dolby Surround — and your player can also automatically downmix a 5.1-channel soundtrack to stereo if you pick that option in the player setup menu. You may be able to choose different languages for soundtracks or captioning. Some discs also offer special features such as commentaries or "making of" documentaries.

The secret weapon. Shhh. Are we alone? Some players have a well-kept secret — an underground "go to movie" feature that skips the annoying ads and hectoring copyright warnings that waste our time at the start of most discs. First punch through the disc menu, then hit stop-stop-play. Bwahahahaha!

The widescreen option. Be careful when renting or buying DVDs. Some come in both a widescreen version (sometimes labeled 16:9) and a non-widescreen version (sometimes labeled 4:3 or "full frame"). The two may be on opposite sides of the same disc — or they might be rented/sold as entirely separate discs. If you have a widescreen TV, always choose the widescreen disc release.

To avoid a 4:3 aspect ratio picture on a widescreen TV, choose DVDs with widescreen versions of the movie and make sure your TV is set for widescreen sources.

Why is my picture the wrong shape? When playing a widescreen DVD on a widescreen TV, you may have to select the widescreen setting in the TV's menu. Ditto for non-widescreen DVDs and the TV's non-widescreen setting. If you have a non-widescreen TV, your player can adapt widescreen DVDs to the shape of your screen without bending the picture. In that case adjust picture shape in the player's menu — it may be labeled "aspect ratio."

Know your disc compatibilities. Any movie you rent or buy on DVD should play on any DVD-Video player. Just about all DVD players handle storebought CDs. Most also accept recordable CD-R and rewritable CD-RW discs though your player may be fussy about certain brands of blank disc. With most newer players, you can even bump your MP3 files to a blank CD and play them. But not all MP3 data rates may be supported and the onscreen display may truncate filenames. Most players support the heavily compressed VCD format which is sometimes used in file sharing. Finally, be warned that homemade DVD-RDVD-RWDVD+R, and DVD+RW discs are a crapshoot — some players accept them, others don't.

Using tech support: Some retailers, like Crutchfield, offer tech support. The manufacturer's tech support department is the resource of last resort. Before you call the manufacturer, write the serial number on the back page of the manual — you may be asked for it.

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