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Denon LA-3500

Thanks to Hartmut Hackl for the details.

Although virtually all laserdisc players look and sound better than even the best VHS VCRs, there are two features that help define top-of-the-line models. The first is two-sided play, which automatically switches to the B. side of the disc so you don't have flip it over yourself. The second is digital effects. Although some may find them useful, I would dismiss digital effects as a gimmick, except for one important thing: when scrolling back and forth to review a scene you just missed, the picture on players without digital effects jumps around in a particularly aggravating way. This makes it very difficult to accurately locate a specific point. On the other hand, players with digital effects smoothly scroll frame by frame, if you so desire to the precise point you're looking for. 

As befits a unit that carries a premium price tag, Denon's LA-3500 has both two-sided play and a full panoply of digital effects. The front panel is clean and nicely sculpted, with the usual jog wheel/shuttle dial and transport controls located to the right of the disc tray door. The large fluorescent display is easy to read, even from across the room, and it can be dimmed or turned off entirely. The disc tray opens and closes quickly, and it feels solid and tight. I mention this because other players that have made their way into and out of my system over the years have felt cheap and cheesy by comparison. Once the drawer closes, the unit quickly spins the disc up to speed, reads its table of contents, and automatically begins playing. (This can be annoying if you're not ready to watch immediately. The unit should simply close the door, and wait for you to hit Play when you're good 'n' ready.) 

This process seems exceedingly slow in all LDPs, but keep in mind that a laserdisc weighs more than 10 times as much as a CD and rotates at speeds of up to 1800 RPM. In fact, the Denon's fast-moving drawer and crisp transport make this unit more suitable than most for use as a CD player, which, as we'll see, is a good thing. Whether rendering the subtle visual splendours of Orlando, the majestic mountains and gushing gore of Cliffhanger, or the wild colours of Jim Carrey's clothing in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, the LA-3500 turns in an excellent video performance. Colours are always vivid and natural, details sharp and three-dimensional, and there's little noticeable noise, especially when using the Video output. 

The digital video noise-reduction system incorporates three levels. Each level progressively quiets a little more of the "shimmer," or noise, that all discs display to some extent while taking a progressively bigger bite out of the overall picture detail. "Art" mode processes colours to produce some rather psychedelic effects; don't ask me why you'd want to. Finally, the LA-3500 is one of the few LDPs capable of playing CD-G karaoke discs. However, it is the audio performance that I find most impressive about the LA-3500. With my Fosgate Model 3a processor switched from Dolby Pro Logic to Stereo Bypass, the Denon proved to be a superbly musical CD player, shedding new light on disc after disc. For example, one of my all-time favourite CDs; the John Eliot Gardiner performance of Monteverdi's Vespro Della Beata Vergine (Archiv 429 56S2J; was recorded in the Basilica di San Marco in Venice using audiophile-approved minimalist Viking techniques. The LA-3500's rendition of this recording is stunning. The positioning of the multiple choirs, the power of the brass section, and the remarkable ambience of St. Mark's are tangible in a way that I have only experienced previously with a high-end, two-piece CD player that costs in excess of $6,000. 

In fact, the Denon works so well as a CD player, it has taken over as the primary CD spinner in my system. No other laserdisc player; including one with a separate little drawer for CDs; has even tempted me to do that. Operationally speaking, there is one problem: Rotating the jog wheel while a CD is playing causes the unit to "crash," producing an unpleasant digital stuttering sound until you hit Stop. This only happens when playing a CD; on laserdiscs, the wheel works perfectly. And the shuttle dial works as expected with whatever size silver disc you happen to be playing. 

A laserdisc player is a must for any serious home-theatre enthusiast. If you don't already have one, or if you are considering upgrading to a more modern unit with two-sided play and digital effects, the Denon LA-3500 should be on your short list. 

Denon LA-3500