Sony Blu-ray Player - Great Pic, but....
By Jim Bray
If there's life after DVD, Sony wants it to be Blu-ray.
That's understandable. Heck, if anyone's going to be Emperor of all that is, I think it should be me. So I can see why Sony wants to rule the post-DVD roost with its Blu-ray format.
But it may not be a matter of wanting. Blu-ray is one of two competing high definition disc formats that are the next generation of DVD. The other, HD DVD, is being pushed by Toshiba (and others), creating what at this writing is a format war similar to what consumers had to suffer through in the days when VHS was duking it out with beta for supremacy in the VCR world. This is ridiculous and I can't blame anyone for sitting out the format war.
Blu-ray and HD DVD accomplish their high definition tasks in similar ways, but Blu-ray discs can hold more information, which makes them better potentially, depending upon whether or not that storage is needed (and, given history, it very well could be).
Sony's first Blu-ray player is the BDP-S1, a handsome if largish unit that works well and offers exquisite picture quality. But it isn't without flaws, including a high retail price that reflects its "first generation" status in the marketplace.
The player features a silver top, black sides and a black and blue front panel with recessed buttons at each side of the top, one for power and one for open/close. A row of five small buttons on the right side of the disc tray operates basic play functions and there's a soft "bluish" display on the left of the front panel.
The rear panel includes outputs for HDMI and component video, which are the only ways to get high definition signals to your TV. You also get outputs for S-Video and composite video, which are useless for HD and I can only assume they're there for people who are planning to upgrade to an HDTV later but who want a Blu-ray player now.
This seems like putting the cart before the horse, but so be it.
Audio outputs include coaxial and optical digital, stereo analog, and the 5.1 analog jacks used for the new "high resolution" audio streams available (sometimes) on high definition DVD discs: Dolby True HD and dts HD. Those 5.1 jacks are also used for DVD-Audio discs, which Sony has never supported, and SACD discs, which Sony did.
But not now. Despite the "state-of-the-art" video aspect of the BDP-S1, its audio performance is far from perfect: it doesn't even play back CD's! Can you believe that? So if you're looking to replace your DVD player and you currently use it to play your audio CD's, you're screwed. Ditto if you were hoping to put that old CD player to rest, finally.
The BDP-S1 will play regular DVD's, fortunately, and will even up convert them to 1080p so they approach (but don't equal) high definition quality. This means you don't have to throw away your existing DVD collection, which is nice – and you can still rent and play back DVD's until there are enough Blu-ray titles to make the format worthwhile.
Hooking the unit up is straightforward, as is using it – though you may notice upon first firing it up that it seems to take forever before it deigns to operate for you. It never works quickly, but after that initial start up it's much better. Sony includes some cheap generic RCA audio/video cables in the box, but no HDMI. I guess they're determined not to give the consumer any kind of break, even in a $1000 player.
The remote control is well laid out and pretty straightforward, with buttons that are large enough but not back lit. It also features a row of "color buttons" (red, green, blue, yellow) that are shortcuts to items on some Blu-ray disc menus.
The player's menus are straightforward, and the setup routine works well. You can select video output formats (everything from 480i up to 1080p, including "direct" for HDMI output). You can also select your TV's aspect ratio (4:3 or 16:9).
Once you play a disc you'll be right at home with the Blu-ray format. You may even enjoy the "pop up menu" which, if a particular disc has it, appears on screen over the movie without your having to exit the movie to get at it. It's kind of slick.
There are also some features that let you fine tune your picture, though you'd be best served getting a copy of a disc like "The Digital Video Essentials" and using that if you're going to do any tweaking.
I watched a few Blu-ray discs on the player, including X-Men III, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Superman Returns and Dreamgirls. Overall, I came away very impressed, though just as with CD's and DVD's, the final quality depends on the disc itself as much as it does the player.
X3 looked magnificent, razor sharp with really deep blacks and gorgeously rich and vibrant colors. And no artifacts or edge enhancement. The detail was first rate; for example, you could see clearly the grain on Cyclops' leather jacket and Beast's blue face was remarkable.
Superman Returns wasn't nearly as good. The color was fine, but the picture was soft. On the other hand, the picture on the regular DVD was soft was well.
Out of curiosity, I played the regular DVD of X3 right after the Blu-ray version, up converted to 1080p. The Sony did a good job of this, and the lack of the pixelization you can see with 480p was noticeable. The detail and the colors were softer, more muted than the Blu-ray version (which is understandable: why bother with Blu-ray otherwise?), and some of the depth was lacking, but overall it was quite satisfying.
Audio quality was also excellent, though we didn't have a chance to try the HD audio formats and so our tests came off much as if we were listening to regular DVD's. And that's fine: many regular DVD's sound superb.
Unfortunately, $999 is a lot of money for a player in these days of DVD players piled as impulse items on store floors, but it's not as expensive as some "conventional" DVD players that are on the market. My reference DVD player, for example, is a $1500 Rotel that, while it does a better job of up converting regular DVD's than the Sony Blu-ray does, doesn't even pretend to handle the new high definition discs. So everything's relative. Besides, first generation players are always more expensive than subsequent models.
The real drawback to Blu-ray has nothing to do with this player, which works well other than some silly oversights such as no CD playback. No, it's the format war, which could mean that you may end up with an expensive white elephant on your hands if either format dies out.
This is definitely something to keep in mind if you're thinking about jumping into the wonderful world of Blu-ray. With luck, Blockbuster's recent announcement that it's going to support only Blu-ray in its stores will help push the war to a conclusion. Time will tell.
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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