Sony has produced first-class DVD players ever since their first one, the DVP-S7000, was introduced early in 1997, just after the format was launched. At that time, the S7000 was the company's only offering. Now, of course, Sony makes a full line of DVD players, and many include the capability to play Super Audio CDs as well. While Sony's product line has grown ever more diversified in the last five years, each generation of the company's top-of-the-line player has offered more features and better performance. True to form, the new DVP-NS999ES offers numerous and significant new features, notably improved performance—and, at $1200, a 20% reduction in price. Until now, Sony's flagship player has been the DVP-S9000ES ($1500; reviewed by TJN in the January 2001 Guide). Along with first-rate DVD reproduction, the S9000ES offered 2-channel SACD capabilities. (When the player was introduced toward the end of 2000, multichannel SACD playback was not yet available.) The S9000ES's video and audio performance were top-rate. Among top-of-the-line players from mainstream manufacturers, some reviewers, including me, generally view Sony's ES and Pioneer's Elite players to be among the best. I have in-house, as reference products, the Sony DVP-S9000ES and Pioneer's DV-47A universal player, another outstanding performer. It sells for $1200—but it's truly universal, playing CD, DVD, DVD-Audio, and multichannel SACD. The Sony DVP-NS999ES doesn't play DVD-A. One of the creators of SACD, Sony is locked in a battle with DVD-A—though most consumers seem to be ignoring both formats. What if they gave a format war and nobody came? Now we know. Nonetheless, the DVP-NS999ES, unlike its predecessor, does play multichannel SACDs, 250 of which have been released so far. It also plays CD, Video CD, DVD-R/RW, DVD+RW, and MP3. (It should also work with DVD+R discs, but this could not be confirmed by press time.) It also offers all the features of the S9000ES, and Sony says each of these features has been improved. Among them are progressive output, 3:2 pulldown correction, and a panoply of sophisticated video adjustments, including multi-step gamma adjustment. But there's more. Feature City The NS999ES's digital-to-analog video converter is 14-bit/108MHz, compared to the S9000ES's 12-bit/54MHz. That increased bandwidth should produce a cleaner, more realistic picture. (The Pioneer has a 12-bit/108MHz DAC.) On the audio side, the NS999ES provides complete, sophisticated bass management for its analog SACD output—a welcome feature that obviates the need for an outboard bass manager like the Outlaw ICBM. Bass management is needed because SACD and DVD-Audio use a receiver's or processor's analog passthrough, which means the bass-management features of the receiver, in most cases available only in the digital domain, can't be used for the SACD signal. The NS999ES offers one subwoofer cross- over point: 120Hz. (None of this affects the audio tracks on DVD-Video discs, which are controlled by your receiver or preamp-processor.) The NS999ES's audio DAC runs at 24-bit/96kHz. The NS999ES has one new feature I don't like. With the S9000ES, you could place the player on Pause, change a picture-control function, and immediately see the difference onscreen. The NS999ES requires you to stop playback before making such changes. Look and Feel Visually and ergonomically, the NS999ES offers both benefits and subjective liabilities when compared to the S9000ES. As consumer-electronics products go, the older machine was unmistakably handsome, even elegant. A row of tiny buttons at the bottom right appeared to be submerged in a clear Plexiglas panel, and when the unit played a disc, a wedge set into the front panel at top center lit with a dull blue glow. The effect was quite appealing. The liability was that the labeling for the Play, Pause, Open/Close, and other buttons set into the Plexiglas was almost impossible to read unless the player was at eye level. I've owned an S9000ES since its introduction, and it's not at eye level in my theater. In all that time, I've never been entirely sure which buttons I've been pushing. The NS999ES has a wholly different front panel, and while its ergonomics are improved, it's not nearly as handsome. Instead of the S9000ES's inset blue chip, the NS999ES has a long, thin blue light just above the display panel. There are large, well-labeled control buttons—no confusion about them—and there are only four: Open/Close, Play, Pause, and Stop. Frame advance is handled with a knob that works quite well. Like the S9000ES, the NS999ES has an almost razor-thin disc drawer that holds the DVD in place with four small nubs that look as if they might damage the disc if it's not inserted correctly. Still, in two years of using the similar drawer in the S9000ES, I never encountered that problem. The NS999ES feels solid; it uses Sony's frame-and-beam chassis for rigidity and to suppress resonances, and off-center insulator feet anchor it solidly in place. It has separate power supplies for the audio and video circuits, as did the S9000ES. But the S9000ES was massive, weighing almost 28 pounds; the NS999ES weighs half that. The remote is longer and thinner than the ones Sony included just two years ago. I first encountered this remote when reviewing Sony's DVP-NS900V player for the May 2002 SGHT, and it has pluses and minuses. A backlit, orange LCD display at the top lets you control 11 options with the push of a button, including Shuffle Play, SACD/CD, and Multichannel/2-channel. But if the function you want to control is not among those, you'll have to find your own way—Sony refuses to backlight its remotes. The Play, Pause, and Stop buttons are large, but the numerical keypad, which I often use to key in chapter numbers, is behind a slide-down panel, and those keys are quite small. The remote that came with the S9000ES was much easier to use; I wound up using it for this review, since it ably controls the new machine, too. The onscreen video menus are clean, easy to navigate, quite similar to those on the S9000ES, and offer more options than most people will ever learn how to use. For example, you can press a button on the remote (behind the slide-down door) to capture a favorite scene from a movie and use it as a screen saver—the image that appears whenever the player is idle. Also, the NS999ES can display below black, which is useful for adjusting the black level, though you have to change a default memory setting for that. The following picture-control functions aren't found among the NS999ES's normal menus (a separate Video Control button on the remote calls them up in sequence): Brightness, Contrast, Color, Tint (usually not adjustable on monitors when using a component input), block-noise adjustment, luminance noise reduction, chroma noise reduction, gamma correction, and several others. Most discs don't need adjustment, and the use of these filters is generally unnecessary, though it's good to know they're there, if needed. The gamma control lets you adjust the brightness gradient from dark to light. For example, you can set it to bring up detail in darker areas while leaving brighter areas relatively untouched. The S9000ES offered a similar feature. The NS999ES has lots of memory. The S9000ES could store custom picture settings—gamma and the rest—for up to five DVDs. The 999 can store settings for 300 discs! It can also hold up to nine bookmarks—just press Bookmark on the remote—for each of 300 discs, including the ability to start the disc where you last stopped it. The Pioneer DV-47A has memory settings for 15 discs.