June 13, 2007
A good friend of mine was kind enough to drop by and allow me to check out his new Sony BDP-S300 ($499) Blu-ray player. You know me, check out turned into a five and a half hour review. Sony’s BDP-S300 at $499 has sparked a fair amount of interest among those who have, thus far, remained on the sidelines of the hi-def disc battle. The player outputs at resolutions up to 1080p/24
and handles all of the commonly used lossless audio formats, HDMI 1.3 1.1 and supports x.v.color. Of course as with any other new piece of gear, we’re just as, if not more, interested in how the unit operates as much as its specifications. So let’s get at it.
The BDP-S300 is a bit slimmer than its predecessor (the BDP-S1) and the overall design is pleasing enough, with one notable exception. Chalk it up to personal preference, an unwillingness to accept change or just downright stodginess, I don’t like function buttons on the top of equipment. The S300’s eject and power buttons are placed to the left and right top-edge of the unit’s front facade. I feel this was a mistake but the top edge does slope down a bit so while annoying (at least to me) it shouldn’t offer any real-world hurdles in day to day operation.
The back panel of the player has the usual assortment of component, HDMI, composite and s-video connections but one interface in particular is notably absent. Entry level (most to be exact) Blu-ray players typically lack Ethernet connectivity so nothing new here in that regard but I have to scratch my head every time I spin a BD player around and see a feature that’s mandatory, even on the cheapest of HD DVD players, missing from its Blu-ray counterpart.
Here’s the thing that I’ve come to realize about interactivity and networking features on hi-def disc players, it isn’t about what you can/can’t do with them today, it’s about what you can/can’t do with them tomorrow. Even Blu-ray’s new minimum 1.1 profile slated to become mandatory after October 31st, only mandates 256mb of memory and a secondary video decoder, something that HD DVD players have had since day one, but I digress.
It appears as if fully functional Ethernet connectivity will only be mandated with players conforming to profile 2.0 aka BD-Live, at the risk of beating a dead horse, no 2.0 compliant BD playback devices are currently available. It’s assumed that the PS3 could achieve profile 2.0 compliance by means of a firmware update but this remains to be seen. Either way the BDP-S300 will no doubt receive firmware updates as well, we’ll just have to burn them to a CDR and or wait for official firmware updates by mail, directly from Sony.
Setup and General Observations: One of the first things I encountered with this player was actually one of the best features/implementations I’ve seen on any HD disc player to date and all I had to do was turn the player on. The player defaults to language and resolution settings on first boot, which of course would be quite advantageous to those with odd/unusual display settings. Nice touch, simple but nice.
The player also did a good job at recognizing our display’s (JVC DLA-HD1) native resolution and adjusting its output accordingly. Load times were on par with other current generation BD/HD disc players, about 18 seconds from open tray to video on-screen, not bad at all. The remote however leaves a bit to be desired. It’s not bad per say but the smallish buttons combined with the fact it’s not back-lit doesn’t exactly make for an intuitive user experience in a darkened room, of course learning the codes into a back-lit universal remote will remedy this.
HQV Benchmark Results: The BDP-S300 scored quite nicely with the standard definition HQV benchmark disc, not only did in pass most of the tests with flying colors it was able to lock onto the 3:2 film cadence test faster than many of the DVD and BD/HD players I’ve tested recently.
•Color Bar/Vertical Detail: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Jaggies Pattern 1: Pass – Score 5 of 5
•Jaggies Pattern 2: Pass – Score 3 of 5
•Flag: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Picture Detail: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Noise Reduction: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Motion Adaptive Noise Reduction: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•3:2 Detection: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Film Cadence: Pass – Score (Combined) 40 of 40
•Mixed 3:2 Film, Horizontal Text Crawl: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Mixed 3:2 Film, Vertical Text Crawl: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Total Score: 128 out of a possible 130.
Image Quality: The display device for this review was a ISF calibrated JVC DLA-HD1 – 1080p projector with the audio being handled by a Denon AVR-4806 paired with PSB G-Design towers, center and rears and a PSB SubSeries 9 subwoofer. Right off the bat everyone in the room noticed the image quality from the S300, it’s always comforting when the results right out of the box are at least on par with expectations, surpassing them is of course a nice bonus.
The only SD DVD I had on hand was ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ (pulled specifically to compare to the BD version). As an SD DVD player the BDP-S300 appeared to perform quite capably, surprisingly well as a matter of fact. I’ve always found this disc to be mediocre at best and just plain bad at worst, in all honesty much of what we viewed looked quite nice. Perhaps the disc wasn’t quite as bad as I’d first thought.
Moving on to some BD playback, it didn’t take long to start noticing something that I’ve long suspected about the PS3. (In my opinion, at least for the foreseeable future, all BD playback comparisons should at least include some cursory comparison of the PS3 as it’s undeniably the most used BD playback device in service.) While the PS3 is indeed a “good” Blu-ray player, it isn’t necessarily the end all in BD playback. I quickly noticed scenes in several discs that I had previously written off as mediocre or worse, suddenly having a tad more detail and sharpness.
After setting the unit up and taking a few minutes to get an overall feel for its performance we broke for lunch and grabbed a few BD’s on the way back. (My BD collection needed freshening up.) I picked up ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ while the BDP-S300’s owner opted for ‘Hellboy’. Back from lunch we watched a bit of Hellboy, which looked excellent sans a bit of macro-blocking in several of the scenes with explosions, overall however the image was quite nice. It actually made me want to finish the film which is more than I can say for previous viewings.
Moving on to ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ however wasn’t without incident. The player struggled loading the disc for what seemed to be an eternity, followed by yet another loading screen (presumably for the discs advanced Java menus and animations). Needless to say actually navigating the disc was also a chore, no doubt a firmware update could and likely will remedy the player’s sluggishness. I just hope that fix is already in the works, if not playing discs like POTC and other advanced Java titles will prove to be a less than ideal experience for new users.
Note: Afterwards I took my POTC disc home and tried it with my PS3, it was a night and day difference, the disc loaded immediately and the second layer of interactive feature (after the trailers) loaded up within seconds. Also once loaded, the menu commands responded crisply without any of the lag present earlier with the BDP-S300.
Later we popped in ‘Casino Royale’ and found it to look quite nice through the BDP-S300. The colors were bold and faithfully rendered while the overall image was sharp and detailed. One scene in particular, the fight pit scene between the mongoose and snake really stood out. I’d never noticed just how much detail is present in the scene, overall resolution certainly doesn’t seem to be one of the BDP-S300’s shortcomings.
Audio Performance: We used PCM audio whenever available and found the bass extension and upper frequencies all sounded great, as mentioned earlier the player supports
all the commonly used lossless audio codec’s/formats sans DTS HD Master Audio. Either way we were impressed with the S300’s audio performance and feel you will be as well.
Summary: I’m in a bit of a pickle here as to a recommendation based on the Java sluggishness alone but I’m going to go out on a limb for Sony. (Yes mark your calendars) Having seen first-hand how other hi-def disc players have been firmware updated to overcome quirky menus and other minor incompatibility issues, I’m relatively confident that once those inevitable updates reach the BDP-S300 it will warrant a full recommendation.
Given the fact that dealer discounting and further price drops will eventually soften the $499 (MSRP) blow even further, perhaps my real recommendation would go something like: the BDP-S300 is a good player now but with further incentives combined with a firmware update or two it would be even better. If you’re sure this is the player for you, the real question is when to jump in, enjoy it now quirks and all or wait a bit longer for extra incentives and firmware updates.
–Update– Folks when I’m wrong I’m wrong what can I say, the whole TrueHD thing has been eating at me since the review was posted and I just couldn’t take it anymore. Yesterday afternoon we went out and purchased ‘Ghost Rider’ on BD (One of the few BD’s with a TrueHD track) and you guessed it, the BDP-S300 in its current state doesn’t decode the track. I’ll admit the TrueHD notations in the owners manual even had your’s truly fooled. It appears as if TrueHD decoding simply hasn’t been implemented into the player as yet, without knowing the specifically hardware inside the player it would be hard to say with any certainly if its even a possibility at a later date by means of a firmware update.
Given the lack of TrueHD compatibility (in its current state) and the previous unearthing of the HDMI 1.1 transmitter chip, I’ll have to temper my recommendation even further. At this point if you’re looking for a stand-alone Blu-ray player I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the BDP-S300 quite as easily as before these issues came to light. It’s still a good player, but certainly not quite as good as our first impressions indicated. For what it’s worth; I feel I’ve paid my penance for my original oversights, ‘Ghost Rider’ was truly abysmal.