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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 4/3/00



Apex AD-600A DVD Player

DTS Digital Out

review by Chris Maynard of The Digital Bits

Front Panel

Back Panel
Remote
Performance Ratings (Video/Audio): C+/A-
The AD-600A could use a better MPEG decoder, but for non-critical viewing it provides a adequate picture. Audio quality is surprisingly excellent - truly a mystery considering the price point.

Ease-of-Use Rating: B-
The remote probably could not have been worse if they had tried. Other than that, it's no more difficult to use this player than any other I have run across. Setup menus are nicely done and easy to navigate.

Value/Overall Rating: A+/B
While I would not recommend this as your primary DVD player, with an SRP of $189, you can add it as a second player and shouldn't have to break into any trust funds. This unit has a "Geek Toy Coolness Factor" that is simply off the scale!

Specs and Features

Performance Features: Karaoke, MP3 Playback, Screen Saver, 2 Microphone Jacks with Volume Control, Karaoke Vocal Assist Function, Basic Remote, Supports DVD/CD/VCD/SVCD/CDR/CDRW Playback

Output Terminals: (1) Coaxial (AC3)/DTS Output, (2) Analog Audio Outs, (1) S-video Out, (1) Composite Video Out

Other Features: 90 Days Labor/1 Year Parts Warranty

Review

Most of you have probably heard something by now about our new little friend - the Apex AD-600A. So what's all the hype about? Let me try to explain. What would you say if I told you that there was a player available that has component video out, passes DTS, plays CDRs, CDRWs and discs with MP3 music files... AND gives you a secret menu option to bypass Macrovision and Region Coding? If that's not enough, then how about if I tell you it costs less than $200? How does that grab you? It definitely caught my attention, so I ran down (I actually drove, I don't run very fast) to my local Circuit City and picked up one of these little imported gadgets to see for myself.

One note: this player is also rumored to be capable of playing PAL discs on NTSC monitors, however we have not tested this feature.

Out of the Box

As I opened the box in excitement and pulled out the player, all I could think was: "...and people thought the Panasonic A110 was light". This little baby weights in at just over 8 lbs wet. In all honesty, I seem to remember that the A110 weighed about the same (but since then I have grown more accustomed to beefier players which have a more substantial feel to them). The overall look of the player is somewhat pleasing, but still has the essence of the sub $300 players you see in all the standard retail outlets - lacking any special appeal or glamour that most electronic enthusiasts desire.

Front Panel

The front panel has most of the standard buttons found on today's DVD players. There is an Open/Close Door button, Stop, Play, Pause, and Chapter Skip and Chapter Reverse. You will also find two microphone inputs with separate level adjustments for the, uh... do I dare say... Karaoke feature. There will be no recitals of George Michael's Careless Whisper at my house, thank you very much.

Rear Panel Connections

On the back, you will find clearly marked inputs and outputs. There is one each of component, s-video and composite video connections. Audio connections consist of two analog outs and one coaxial digital connection. The only animal missing from this party is the old toslink optical connection. Most people seem to prefer coaxial for the digital connection, but this may be a problem for owners of certain receivers that boast more toslink connections than coaxial. An interesting side note is the sticker that indicates "Assembled in China", with a second line that states "APEX Digital Inc. USA". So while the player seems to be manufactured and assembled in China, there is a US business set up to distribute them. This is not uncommon practice in consumer electronics.

A Look Inside

I decided to look inside the Apex to see what went into a $200 DVD player. I had heard that there was just a standard DVD-ROM drive in it. They were right. The unit has a DVS DVD-ROM player that looks like it came straight out of a PC. To re-enforce that gut feeling, there's the 40-pin IDE cable connecting the player to the internal circuit board. I had read on the Home Theater Forum that somebody had actually taken the time to connect this unit up to their computer, and Windows 98 detected it without a problem. Interesting to say the least.

Inside the Apex Player

Player Performance

My first test with the video was connecting it to my Toshiba 65" widescreen television via the component video connection. I popped in my Region 2 copy of Mulholland Falls and immediately noticed that the colors were highly over-saturated to the point that they were glowing. After I tested several other discs, I found they all were having the same results. I was unable to reasonably compensate for this through my user controls on the television without compromising other source material that may play through that input. So much for component - the next stop was s-video. This is where things got much better. The color saturation looked more natural and the picture really started to surprise me with its superb sharpness and detail. As I looked through more and more DVD titles, I did notice more MPEG and motion artifacts than I have grown accustom to with my other players. I would venture to guess that if you were to use a smaller display device, these problems would be less apparent and not quite as distracting. But they will still be noticeable.

Anamorphic DVD down-conversion is always a hot topic for owners of standard 4:3 television screens. The shimmering and waving artifacts from line removal can be very distracting when watching your favorite movie. Again, the Apex excels in keeping a sharp and finely tuned picture performing this daunting task. I would compare its down-conversion ability with that of my Pioneer 414, which is definitely no slouch.

One of the many highlights of this player is the audio section. I was pleasantly surprised that the audio output was crystal clear and sounded just as good as my far more expensive Toshiba 5109. The Apex is very fast on switching audio tracks and I still have not heard a single digital "pop" error after the many discs I have run through it. What I found next really surprised me. The D/A converters in this unit are shockingly excellent in their performance. I played some of my favorite music CDs using the analog outputs and was simply floored by the clarity. My normal CD transport is the famous Pioneer CLD 704 laserdisc player, which is known for being a superb CD transport. The Apex hung in there with almost the same level of sound quality and soundstage reproduction. The audio section is truly amazing, all things considered.

When you are checking out DVD players, you find yourself going through all the menus and items to be found. The Apex makes this process easy with its super-fast menu access. Navigation is so fast, that it makes your other DVD players seem slow - almost like your first personal computer back in the 80s. You can zip through the menus of your favorite special edition DVDs with Ninja quickness and cat-like reflexes. Along with the speed comes the fastest layer change I have ever seen in a DVD player, regardless of price. In fact, I am unable to detect the layer switch on almost every disc I have run through it. Even the notorious layer break in The Matrix went by without a hitch. If I didn't already know the placement, I doubt I would have detected the break.

Playing MP3 Files

This is one very cool feature! More and more people are finding the many advantages of the MP3 audio compression format and it's tremendous flexibility. Now you can burn some 125 or so songs on a CDR or CDRW and play the songs right in your home theater! The player detects the MP3 files and gives you a menu list (restricted to 8 characters in length), letting you use your remote navigation keys to select and play any song on the disc. This feature alone makes the player money well spent in my eyes.

Advantages of Region Free

As I mentioned before, the Apex player lets you view discs from other regions. But why would you want to? Home Video licensing is handled differently by almost every studio. In some cases, different studios are involved in the release of a movie depending on the region in question. One example is Pulp Fiction. This Miramax film is released by Buena Vista in Region 1 and by Miramax themselves in the other regions. The Region 2 transfer of this film is not only anamorphic widescreen, but it's also an entirely superior transfer. Many DVD releases, which are 4:3 letterboxed in Region 1, can be found in other regions in full anamorphic widescreen glory. Being able to disable region coding gives the consumer alternate choices when choosing their version of a DVD investment. You can also find movies in other regions that are not released in Region 1, giving you more choices in expanding your home movie library.

And Now for the Bad...

It didn't take long for people to find a serious flaw with the Apex. I was positive that something bad would eventually show up, and indeed it has. A major drawback is the player's inability to handle any DVD using Seamless Branching technology. The player was unable to play either Stargate: SE or The Abyss without getting stuck in a repeating loop as soon as the first branch was up. It is my belief that more and more titles will start using this feature of DVD, and I don't think you'll want to be stuck out in the cold, being unable to play them.

Another travesty with this player is the horrid remote provided. There are tons of tiny, poorly labeled buttons which are impossible to read in the typical low lighting found in our home theaters. Not only is it difficult to navigate and use the remote, but it is darn ugly.

Summary

I think with an improved MPEG decoder board, this player would rival the best of them and be a real contender, even against players costing three and four times as much. All things considered, I am very impressed with Apex's initial offering to the DVD player market. But before you run down to your local electronics store to buy one, keep this in mind: it's rumored that the next batch of this player to hit the market will NOT feature the secret menu to disable Macrovision and Region Coding. There is a way to check for this by simply following these instructions:

With no disc in the tray, press "setup".
Scroll down to "Preferences".
Press "step".
Press "back chapter".
Press "forward chapter".

You should see the menu option to select a region or bypass them completely and the disabling of Macrosvision.

Naturally, the studios were not happy about this player's "unique" features, so I'm not surprised about the rumors of the removal of the secret menu. Stock around the United States right now is almost non-existent, so when stock DOES become available again, beware of these rumored firmware changes. That said, $180 for a home MP3 player still sounds darn good to me!

Chris Maynard
chrismaynard@thedigitalbits.com


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