August 3, 2007
Remember Phil? Maybe not, as I didn’t specifically name him last go-round, but he’s the friend of mine who purchased (and subsequently sold) the Sony BDP-S300 used in our review. Phil apparently wanted a bit more out of Blu-ray than the BDP-S300 had to offer and purchased a Pioneer Elite BDP-94HD, his financial folly is our gain here as it would have taken me even longer to procure one on my own, for review. So without further ado let’s get to the review. It’s good to get the egregious rhymes out of the way early.
The Pioneer Elite BDP-94HD ($999.00) features 1080p24 playback, internal Dolby TrueHD decoding (according to Pioneer, the product page and box clearly designate TrueHD support as well as an included addendum to the owners manual), DLNA media streaming for both audio and video, ethernet port, and 5.1 analog outs. The player is certainty attractive enough, keeping in-line with the typical Elite look, refined and sophisticated but never gimmicky or trendy.
Before we get too far along I want to make sure not to repeat certain mistakes made in the BDP-S300 review, specifically with regard to the players HDMI specifications. Semi-long story short, I wanted to remove any uncertainty as to whether the player was HDMI 1.1 or 1.3 compliant because confusion abounds surrounding this in certain circles. Regardless of what the manufacturer does/doesn’t claim about the product, screw driver in hand I was going to nip this one in the bud.
I apologize for the blurry shot (my camera just couldn’t fully focus on the tiny text) but rest assured the Silicon Image HDMI transmitter reads “VastLane SiI9030” which is HDMI 1.1 compliant. I’ll leave it to you to gauge just how important the lack of HDMI 1.3 is in this particular player, but I do have my own opinion (shocker). In all honesty if you’re looking for a 100% future proof, stand-alone BD player you’re in for quite a wait, potentially a very long wait.
With mandatory Blu-ray profile 1.1 compliance still months away, we’ll certainly see a continual stream of new players being launched in the months after the October 31st deadline. If HDMI 1.3 (not required in profile 1.1 or 1.3 for that matter), secondary audio and video decoding, and full-fledged internet capabilities are must-haves, then must wait should become your mantra. On the other hand, if you’re interested in what Blu-ray has to offer today and aren’t all that interested in interactivity and advanced content delivery/handling, the BDP-9HD is well worth a look.
Set-up and First Impressions: Once I’d connected the BDP-94HD to our JVC DLA-HD1 and powered the player up I was met with a familiar scene, the same (or at least very similar) initial set-up screen we’d seen with the Sony BDP-S300. No surprise really as it’s rumored that Pioneer built Sony’s first two BD players for them. The players appear to share much of the same internal circuitry as well, load times were similar, both in well under a minute from tray-open to video on-screen. For those keeping score, the player was connected at 1080p via a Tendon HDMI cable for both audio and video. A bit about the BDP-94HD’s remote, while the remote isn’t backlit it does feature glow-buttons; not my first choice but better than nothing.
HQV Benchmark Results: I’ll keep the HQV benchmark report short and sweet, it appears as if the Sigma Design based processors (specifically the ones used in the BDP-S300 and BDP-HD94) exhibit some anomalies with certain tests on both the SD and HD HQV test discs, yet perform just fine in real-world applications. Not sure of the exact reasons but if nothing else the test’s may help to establish predictable trends and expectations with regard to how the individual chipsets perform.
Standard Definition Benchmarks
•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) 35 of 40
•Mixed 3:2 Film, Horizontal Text Crawl: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Mixed 3:2 Film, Vertical Text Crawl: Pass – Score 5 of 10
•Total Score:118 out of a possible 130
HQV High Definition Benchmarks
•Noise Reduction: Pass – Score 25 of 25
•Video Resolution Loss Test: Pass – Score 20 of 20
•Video Reconstruction Test (Jaggies): Pass – Score 20 of 20
•Film Resolution Loss Test: Fail – Score 0 of 25
•Film Resolution Loss Test – Stadium: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Total Score: 100 out of a possible 75.
As you can see the HD94 failed a few of the 3:2 pull down tests yet passed others, much like the Gennum VXP processor and it’s quirks with the benchmark results. This appears to be nothing more than a product specific anomaly with the HQV test disc(s).
Standard Definition Video Performance: I was feeling a bit nostalgic so I queued up ‘The Fifth Element’ Superbit edition for the standard definition portion of the review. Immediately the Pioneer Elites color reproduction really shined through, overall detail was excellent, motion was smooth and free of any apparent cadence issues. Pretty much all the things I look for in an up-converter were in place with the BDP-94HD but in all honesty I find myself less and less inclined to sit through standard definition material lately, so with that lets get to the main event and high definition playback.
High Definition Video Performance: After a few miscellaneous preference settings I popped in the newly re-mastered, Fifth Element (again) on Blu-ray this time. I wasn’t expecting the BDP-94HD to look much, if any, different than the Sony BDP-S300 but it does. Some people will take me to task on that statement but it was easily noticeable with the players side by side, playing the same disc. It was so readily apparent as a matter of fact that it made the earlier differences I noticed between the BDP-S300 and PS3 insignificant by comparison.
We noticed a slightly different color palette, one that was, for lack of a better term, more natural; the colors were just as vivid as before but through the 94HD they just seemed more realistic. Flesh tones in particular seemed to benefit the most, during the cab scene one viewer in the room blurted out “I’ve never seen anything like that!” I turned and said, that’s a good thing I hope? He assured me it was.
Moving on from the Fifth Element; I was anxious too see if the 94HD handled discs with Java content any better than the sluggish BDP-S300, so of course Pirates of the Caribbean was first disc up to the plate. Unfortunately the 94HD didn’t fare any better than the BDP-S300. It took what seemed like an eternity to even load the disc much less begin playing. Much like what I originally said about the BDP-S300, I fully expect these sluggish load times to be fixed with future firmware updates, I just hope we see them sooner rather than later.
Once the disc was loaded however all was forgiven (well almost all), while slightly irritating I can certainly put up with it for images like these, as the ultimate testament to any playback devices merit. I (once again) forgot about the review and just got lost in the movie. This is what its all about folks, gear is a means to an end not the end itself, as soon as the gear becomes more entertaining than what it’s supposed to play-back, its time to find a new pastime.
Home Media Server: The BDP-94HD has another feature that sets it apart from every other Blu-ray player released to date, the ability to connect to your home network and stream movies, music, and photos directly to the player (the BDP-94HD’s predecessor the BDP-HD1 did this as well). The player handles MPEG-1/2, WMV and VC-1 for video files and WAV, WMA and MP3 for audio files; as well as PNG, GIF, JPEG and alike for image files.
We initially had a few firewall issues (sharing preferences to be exact) but once we got passed those hang-ups and fired up a DLNA server (TVersity in our case) running in the background, the 94HD recognized the 1080i file on my laptop and began streaming it flawlessly. I was actually quite surprised at how smooth it ran and, just as important, how good it looked. It also passed Dolby Digital which was also nice to
see hear. Having seen the original broadcast of the source file I was surprised to see that the image on-screen actually appeared to look better than I remembered the first go-round. I can only assume the BDP-HD94’s internal video processor was doing a better job than than my source device.
Summary: Once again we have a player that exhibits a few quirks with certain discs (Pirates of the Caribbean – Curse of the Black Pearl is turning out to be quite the torture test for BD players) yet this time I actually saw something above and beyond the norm in the image quality department. The Pioneer Elite BDP-94HD is thus far the best looking Blu-ray playback device I’ve tested. While not without thorns of its own (addressable again by future firmware updates) the combination of superb video quality and its intuitive media streaming functions certainly make it worth considering.
Update: Remember when I said to expect continual updates to existing Blu-ray players and new players with increased feature-sets? Well here you go. Pioneer just announced their BDP-LX80 in Japan. What’s so special about it? HDMI 1.3 (Bitstream output) and internal DTS-HD decoding for starters. No word on pricing or whether it will replace or augment the HD94 in the Elite Blu-ray player line-up.