Best DVD Recorders | 2002-2014 in Review: Part 1
DVD Recorders vs. Quality Video
DVD recorders first appeared in early 2002, with the release of the Panasonic DMR-E20. But that unit was flawed. So was the next one that Panasonic released. And the next one. And the next one after that. In fact, most recorder from most manufacturers had — and still have (what few are left!) — severe quality issues.
Whether it was major name brands like Sony and Toshiba, or lesser-known brands like Cyberhome and Polaroid, recorders had issues.
The entire history of DVD recorders, everything from that first recorder in 2002 to the present day, has been plagued by quality concerns. Many of the quality issues would make the units entirely unusable to pros and serious hobbyists. Even weekend hobbyists and generals consumers (video amateurs) could readily see the flaws, and they were not pleased.
The DVD was too washed out. The DVD was grainy. The DVD looked worse than the original VHS tape. In most cases, there would be digital artifacts on top of analog grain and chroma errors.
Finding a quality DVD recorder seem impossible.
Are DVD Recorders Inferior to MPEG Capture Cards?
Some consumers made an incorrect conclusion: Since “every” DVD recorder had recorded low-quality video, then it must mean that all DVD recorders were this way. Consumers — and even hobbyists and pros — suddenly thought the only way to perform high-quality MPEG transfers was to use a computer.
However, they’d not seen “every” unit out there. It was usually just whatever Best Buy and Walmart would carry, often from the same brand or manufacturer. Some choosier consumers would shop at now-defunct places like Circuit City and regional electronics chains. Or they’d buy online from places like J&R and B&H. But even then, those supposedly higher-end places would mostly stock the inferior recorders.
Even worse was the idea of “good enough”. People would act satisfied by artifact-filled DVDs, simply assuming that was the best any recorder could do.
But it was all logical fallacy.
There were excellent recorders out there — ones that would filter out noise on analog sources, and record almost artifact-free discs. These had no colors issues and no brightness issues (correct IRE and luma values). The units were excellent. But you had to know what to look for, and where to get them.
Quality and the LSI Logic Chipset (Apex)
In 2004, Apex released the DRX-9000, which features the LSI Logic DiMeNsion (later DoMiNo) image processor — the DMN-8600. It did something that no other DVD recorder or capture cards had ever done to date — – it removed the analog chroma noise. (Chroma noise is that ugly red/blue mist found on old VHS tapes, and is a distraction when you try to watch it.)
Unfortunately, that first unit was flawed, both with an exploding power supply and a switching IRE error. The company soon folded after that, when the CEO was arrested and thrown into a Chinese prison. Sadly, the Apex snafu marred the reputation for the LSI chipset for years, even though it had nothing to do with the chipset.
The Best DVD Recorders Ever (JVC)
In 2005, JVC released the first LSI recorder — the JVC DR-M10S. It not only had the LSI chipset, but added JVC’s own MPEG processing algorithms, which resulted in a near-flawless and artifact-free DVD*. It would create a DVD that looked as good as TV broadcast, and better than the tape. Yes, better than the original VHS/8mm tape it started from!
^ Assuming you choose the ideal bitrate setting. With the confine of the DVD-Video format, it only has up to 10.08 Mbps of bitrate to work with. Starving it of bitrate would still yield artifacts. And tapes with excessive chroma issues and grain would still be a problem. Of course, those two issues are a problem on pretty much any video workflow.
But again, it had a fatal flaw — capacitors. When the caps leaked or dried up, it would give a generic error message on the LCD display: “LOADING”. For several years, nobody knew what the root cause was. Between myself, digitalFAQ.com forum members, and VideoHelp.com forum members, thankfully we figured it out. Unfortunately, a lot of JVC owners trashed their “broken” decks before we’d figured it out (or they came across the info online). That’s also kept the resale value somewhat higher than normal, being that supply is low, and since JVC never really “mass” produced DVD recorders like Panasonic or Toshiba did.
For 3 years, from 2005-2007, JVC released several LSI models — everything from consumer recorders cost $200 to professional decks costing $2K. The had VHS combo decks, S-VHS combo decks, hard drive units, hard drive combo units with S-VHS, hard drive combo units with DV, as well as an upgrade for the based model (the DR-M100). They all suffered from bad caps, as do many other DVD recorders, VCRs, and computer — mostly the higher-end professional video gear.
This was, and still is, the best DVD recorder ever made.
More LSI – LiteOn, Samsung, Zenith, LG, others
By mid-2005, other manufacturer (and brands) began to use the LSI Logic DMN processors, after the niche success of the JVC.
But a good DVD recorder was more than the chipset alone. It was also because of how the chipset was used by the recorder. While these other LSI-based recorders were decent — with better quality recordings than their bigger competitors like Panasonic or Pioneer — they lacked an important feature. Unlike the JVC which allowed you to somewhat choose the bitrate (via the “FR” mode), the cheaper clone decks almost universally had only 2-hour and 4-hour recording options. There was no 3-hour option, which is the ideal setting (352×480 @ 3.5MBps).
LiteOn, Samsung, Zenith, Philips, GoVideo, LG, Insignia, Ellion and others had the right idea (LSI chips), but the wrong follow-through (lousy settings).
LiteOn had the sole distinction of being a “hackable” unit, by editing the firmware to unlock features hidden by the manufacturer. You could remove Macrovision detection, and bypass region restrictions where playing a DVD. You could even enabled a hidden 3-hour mode … that didn’t quite work. The 3-hour mode was plagued by jitter errors. Many LiteOn decks (also rebadged as the iLo brand) had luma errors, seen by way of green or red tints. Some LiteOns worked fine, but most did not.
Of all the clones, Zenith and Samsung worked the best. When it came to transferring VHS tapes, these were excellent at 1-hour mode, and decent for 2-hour or 4-hour modes. But it still wasn’t a JVC. It wasn’t the best.
Honorable Mention: Zoran Chipsets (RCA)
Even scarcer than the LSI-based decks were the Zoran-based DVD recorders. Literally one or two models per year would have this chipset, which first appeared around 2005. What it lacked in filtering abilities it made up with vibrant (but still accurate!) colors when encoding.
Most DVD recorders have a slight variance in the IRE — the black level, which affects everything from perceived brightness to the richness of colors. Even the JVC varied from unit to unit, model to model, and source to source. Video is general has IRE control issues. Just look at how much it can vary channel to channel on a digital cable or satellite system ,for example.
But the Zoran did something unique. It seemed to adjust the input when starting a recording. (No, this was not an AGC! It wasn’t automatic gain control, which is more often a bad thing that a good one.) The levels on recordings were often perfect, even if the original broadcast was not!
Since it lacked filters, it was not at all suggested for transferring video tapes. But when it came to recording something off of TV, nothing could surpass it — especially high quality sources like digital cable and digital satellite (DirecTV, DISH Network, etc).
Some of the most popular Zoran chipset units were the RCA DVD recorders, available from 2007-2008. For example, the RCA DRC-8030N with its 80GB hard drive.
Quality Still Has Limits!
Although DVD recorders can be convenient, and the right recorder can have excellent quality, it’s still just a DVD recorder.
- It’s still MPEG compression, and has 8×8 macroblock encoding
- It has limited options for bitrates.
- It uses CBR, CVBR, or maybe 1-pass VBR — not an optimal 2-pass VBR encode.
- The filter are all realtime filters, which is not as effective.
An AVI capture workflow is arguable better for creating DVDs. But it can have a steep learning curve, and takes at least 3-4 times longer. That’s the tradeoff.
Many homemade tapes converted to DVD can look excellent, when using a high-quality DVD recorder (like the JVC). And most recorded TV shows should look excellent, especially off of high-quality cable or satellite sources.
There’s nothing wrong with using DVD recorders. Just use a good one!
Continued in Part 2
In the second half of this review, we’ll look at some of the worst recorders ever made, and their fatal flaws — what makes them unusable.
Note: Testing DVD recorders for reviews like this takes hundreds of hours, and we often have to buy the hardware ourselves. If you want to see us continue testing video hardware, consider donating a few dollars to fund the site.
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