Finding a way into in-crowd means getting a DVD player

October 07, 2002

IT'S NOT easy being the last person on Earth without a DVD player.

At cocktail parties, when people go on and on about the director's cut of Saving Private Ryan and turn to me for a comment and I murmur, "Uh, I don't have a DVD player," a sickly silence descends upon the room.

Finally someone will say "Oh," and someone else will pat me on the arm, as if they'd just learned I have a fast-growing tumor that's worrying my doctors.

When visitors come over to my house and see my old VCR perched above the TV, they gaze at it in wonder, as if studying a butter churn or an old gramophone or some other relic from long ago.

Meanwhile, the VHS section of my video store keeps shrinking, until soon it will be a tiny, cobwebbed, carpet-stained ghetto where only losers with bad hairpieces and "I'm With Stupid" T-shirts and eyeglasses held together by masking tape congregate.

Life is passing me by, at least the kind of life where you slouch on a couch night after night in your own darkened "home theater," eating salty snacks and watching incredibly clear, high-resolution images with killer sound.

So to see what I was missing, I took a ride to the Towson store of Tweeter, the national chain that sells hip audio and video equipment, even to the relentlessly unhip like me.

Store manager Todd Petrik and in-home sales consultant Matt Smith took me into the Ultimate Audio Room, a sealed-off area with dim lighting, plush carpeting and a half-dozen Scandinavian supermodels lounging around the polished mahogany bar sipping vodka stingers.

OK, I'm only kidding about the supermodels and the bar.

But there were two big TVs in the room and a bunch of DVD players and a VCR and lots of cool speakers. Smith popped in the DVD and VHS versions of Monsters, Inc. so I could compare the two and see how pathetic my home video-watching experience had been to date.

The Tweeter guys chose Monsters because it has great visual and sound effects. Smith cued the opening scene, where the little kid wakes up to a big, scary monster hovering over her bed.

The kid freaks out and screams, and then the monster freaks out and screams and runs around the room and hurts himself, and then you find out it's really a simulation because ... well, let's not get into all that. It's a pretty funny scene, though.

More importantly for our comparison test, the scene incorporates a lot of subtle shading in the animation and delicate background sounds: the croaking of a bullfrog, the chirping of crickets, the rustling of a breeze, a door creaking open, etc.

Right away, you could see that the DVD picture was far superior to the VHS one. It was way clearer, the colors much more vivid.

"It's easily twice the picture quality of VHS," Smith said.

"But the real benefit to DVD is not the video; it's the sound," Petrik said. "It's like night and day when you compare it to VHS."

So we listened carefully to the sound on both versions. To be honest, I didn't hear night and day. I didn't hear a whole lot of difference between the two until Smith jacked up the volume. Then, sure enough, all the background sounds on the DVD version really came to life.

But here's the thing: I may be a hick when it comes to sophisticated audio and video equipment. But even I knew the quality of this DVD experience was being greatly enhanced by the fact that we were watching Monsters on a new 42-inch Mitsubishi widescreen TV with a Dolby digital surround-sound system.

This, you may be surprised to hear, is slightly different than my setup at home, which contains:

a) no new Mitsubishi 42-inch widescreen TV, and

b) no Dolby digital surround-sound system.

Instead, my, ahem, home theater consists of an old 33-inch GE TV made around the time Lincoln was penning the Gettysburg Address.

Meaning that even with a new, quality DVD player - which you can get for around 200 bucks - I wouldn't be getting the same awesome picture and sound as we got in the Ultimate Audio Room.

Still, it looks like it's time to ditch my VCR and move up to the big leagues of DVD.

Petrik says his store only carries a few VCRs these days, due to the fact that absolutely no one wants them anymore. Actually, to hear the Tweeter guys tell it, the only thing they'd use a VCR for is if they needed a doorstop, or something to weigh down a garbage can lid on a windy day.

Besides, with my new DVD player, I'll be able to see all the things I've been missing on DVD movies: "sneak peeks" at upcoming films, actor and director biographies, scenes deleted from the finished product, alternate endings that had been considered.

Not that I care about any of that stuff.

But you need something to talk about at parties.

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