Take the popular Panasonic DVD-S35S and add DVD-Audio support, updated multimedia-disc browsing, and a few other improvements--you get the DVD-S55S. It's currently available for less than $130.
This attractive silver-and-black deck has a sleek, minimalist look interrupted by only a small knob for adjusting the zoom modes in 1 percent increments. The rear panel features all the standard DVD A/V connections, plus dedicated 5.1-channel outputs, which facilitate the 6-channel analog output of DVD-Audio discs. The serviceable remote enables easy access to many functions, so you don't have to brave the menu.
While we appreciate the ability to tweak virtually every aspect of the player's interface, the Panasonic's menu is almost too detailed--beginners could really get lost. But as with the S35S, navigating and searching JPEG discs as well as MP3 and WMA CD-Rs is easy. However, we would have preferred automatic detection of photo and music files on mixed-media discs rather than the menu-based toggle. The S55S is also one of the first players compatible with the Microsoft-sponsored HighMAT (high-performance media-access technology), a system for navigating specially configured digital-photo and -music CD-Rs burned with Windows Media Player 9.0.
The S55S handled just about every format we threw at it. Like our photo and music discs, all our DVD+Rs, DVD+RWs, DVD-Rs, and DVD-RAMs played back without a hitch, as did most of our DVD-RWs. The player exhibited improved processing of video-based material; it breezed through the waving-flag test that tripped up the S35S.
What really sets the S55S apart from its inexpensive brethren, however, is its DVD-Audio capability. While audio purists will likely prefer higher-end offerings with more-elaborate bass-management options, Panasonic has given the masses a credible DVD-Audio player with a street price in the neighborhood of $115.
Folks with standard analog sets should know that the S55S, like most low-priced DVD players, introduces moving lines into anamorphic-disc images. And despite the impressive number of zoom modes, digital-TV owners should note the lack of aspect-ratio control. Those two fairly minor flaws notwithstanding, the S55S's combination of solid progressive-scan video performance, DVD-Audio support, and multimedia-disc features represents a superior value in this price range. If it hadn't been for a few design miscues, the S55S would have earned our Editors' Choice award.