Oppo 983. ;-)
Oppo 983 is the next step up in price/performance. After Oppo, not too many units I know that play DVD and have variable volume control. The Cary DVD-6 does, but has fewer volume step in it's standard build. I think Cary offered an upgrade which provided more volume steps for greater control of output volume. But the Cary is out of your price range.
I use an Oppo 970H which was mod'd by EVS to their level 2 status. It is very good, competing with dedicated CD players which retail for up to $2K-$3k IMHO (yes, I've owned dedicated CD players in that price range).
If you're interested in mod'd units, you could check with Ric Schultz at EVS for pricing. His web site is www.tweakaudio.com.
Another possibility is adding an external DAC which has variable output. A couple of manufacturers of DACs with variable volume are Birdland and Monarchy. I think they are still above $300 used.
From my research, while the other Oppo's have better picture, the now discontinued Oppo 970 has the best CD sound of all the Oppo units, so upgrading to another Oppo unit is not a consideration.
I haven't considered modding my 970. That is an option I will look into.
I do not want to add an external Dac. If I consider adding a DAC I think I would go with a preamp and CDP down the road, or the new Benchmark DAC1-PRE, but it's to pricy for me at the present.
I was hopping Denon, Marantz, Cambridge, Pioneer, etc. had variable outputs. Do any of these or other DVD players have any?
I don'ty think that the "audiophile" level CD players benefit from the economy of scale that Universal players do. There are many with variable outputs but even used few will dip below $300. If must have a universal then I am clueless. The ones I have are a couple of years old and none have much by way of good sonics although the volume is adjustable. You can't even buy a regular CD player. I saw some NIB NOS Sony ES222s on ebay. That were priced for the money you are considering, but they don't play DVDs. They are an excellent CD players however and most likely will please you with it's sonics.
If must have a universal then I am clueless. The ones I have are a couple of years old and none have much by way of good sonics although the volume is adjustable.
What older universal player do you own that has variable volume control? I'm only familiar with the Oppos and the Carys which have this feature. Are there more manufacturers out there who provide this feature on a Universal player (CD, DVD, SACD and/or DVD-A)?
I saw the cambridge audio 540 dvd had the volume control on the remote, but I don't know more than that.
I may have to save up for a preamp or DAC/preamp but I will keep looking.
Someone emailed me an recommended the Citypulse DAC DA7.2x II. It has 24/192 DAC, one analogue input, plus remote volume. Looks interesting for $425, but I don't know much about it.
I noticed the Cambridge Audio DVD89 has volume on remote as well. It seems like I have some options.
I'm most interested in improving the CD performance, because movies seem adequate for me with 1080i, but I will take the best overall I can at my $400 price.
I also see the Panasonic dmp bd30 blu ray player has 2 channel analogue out with volume, plus BluRay, 1080P DVD, and 24/192 CD. If CD performance is good, this seems like the one. Does anyone have experience with this unit. I think I am going to start a new post concerning this player.