Sony BDP-S300 Blu-ray Player

The $499 BDP-S300 is an important product, giving Blu-ray some much needed traction in the affordable player category. Combine that with recent news from rental powerhouse Blockbuster that it is expanding Blu-ray titles in its stores (at the expense of HD DVD in most cases), and the BDP-S300 looks like a no-brainer.

The sparse front panel offers only the basic controls: Power, Open/Close drawer, Play, Stop Pause, and chapter skip (forward and back). All other functions are located only on the remote.

And the remote is a good one- it controls both the player and a television. The buttons are a little too close together to prevent the occasional wrong command, and they are not backlit. But it gets the job done without major annoyances. And in a unique and welcome touch, a removable sticker at the bottom of the remote provides both phone numbers and a website for Sony technical support.

The player and remote support Sony's Theater Sync. This feature, which appears to be similar to one offered by other manufacturers under different names, provides for one-touch operation with compatible components when they are connected via HDMI cables. For example, you can turn on the player, TV, and AV receiver, set the receiver and TV inputs to the correct settings for disc play, and start the playback, all with the touch of the Play button.

The HDMI output is spec 1.2, and there are also Toslink optical and coaxial SPDIF outputs, and both two-channel and multichannel analog audio outputs. There's also a relatively quiet fan—a common sight on most HD players. But there is no Ethernet or other suitable connector for online updates or web-enabled interactivity. The detachable power cord is one of those small, two pole jobs that are hard to find a replacement for if you lose it.

According to Sony the player will pass x.v.Color from its HDMI 1.2 output, but will not automatically switch an x.v.Color-compatible display to the correct color space. You will have to do this manually; auto-switching apparently requires HDMI 1.3. I lacked both x.v.Color source material and an x.v.Color display, so did not test this feature (at present x.v.Color source material is limited to discs recorded on a few camcorders).

Unlike Sony's first-gen BDP-S1 (and Pioneer Elite's BDP-HD1) the BDP-S300 will play back CDs, either from its analog audio outputs or any of its digital audio outputs, including HDMI.

The Sony will play the uncompressed 5.1-channel PCM soundtracks offered on an increasing number of Blu-ray Discs (mainly from Sony and Disney). It can output them to a compatible AV receiver or pre-pro either over its HDMI 1.2 link or from its multichannel analog outputs.

The BDP-S300 as currently constituted will not, however, decode Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD, or DTS HD Master Audio at full resolution. It instead decodes the Dolby Digital or DTS "core" tracks, limited to 640kbps and 1.5Mbps, respectively. From there, depending on how the player is set up, it either converts the core DTS or DD data to multichannel PCM (for passing on to the receiver or pre-pro over the HDMI link, or D/A converted and passed through the player's multichannel analog outputs), or passes them directly on to the receiver to be decoded there as conventional DD or DTS soundtracks.

A future firmware upgrade to the BDP-S300 for Dolby TrueHD playback is always possible—Sony recently provided such an upgrade for its first-gen BDP-S1 player. But until you hear an official announcement to that effect for the BDP-S300, don't assume that such an upgrade will be offered.

If you use the 5.1-channel analog audio outputs, your Speaker setup options are limited. You can set the center channel and L/R surrounds to either Yes or No, and the front speakers to Large or Small. There are no adjustments for bass management, no selection for a subwoofer or its crossover frequency. I found that the subwoofer, if connected, was in the circuit whether I selected Large or Small for the left and right speakers. There are no calibration test tones, and no level controls or delay adjustments for the individual channels. This omission is significant because not all receivers or pre-pros offer both of these adjustments for their multichannel analog inputs. If yours does not, the usefulness of the BDP-S300's analog outputs will be compromised.

It's All (Not) in the Game
Earlier Blu-ray players, apart from the PlayStation3, were crippled in their ability to play some of the Java-enhanced features on Blu-ray Discs. Unfortunately, this remains an issue with the BDP-S300.

I tried to call up one of several games and features on each of three discs: Chicken Little, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. In each case I was confronted with exasperating load-time delays, and failures of the games to load and play properly. In one instance the player locked completely and had to be unplugged at the back panel and then plugged in again to resume playback.

Watching Blu-ray At first I thought that the BDP-S300 loaded Blu-ray Discs a little faster than the earlier Blu-ray players I've checked. But this appeared to vary with the disc, and on average it wasn't all that much different. It's certainly not speed-competitive with the only Olympic sprinter in the group, the PlayStation3.

But once loaded and running, the BDP-S300 performed like a gold medalist. The best Blu-ray Discs looked sensational at either 1080p/60 or 1080p/24. And for those using 720p displays, or displays that will not accept 1080p inputs, the player also performed beautifully when set for either a 720p or 1080i output.

The new Disney release of the first two Pirates of the Caribbean films are currently the gold standard for Blu-ray picture quality. The Curse of the Black Pearl, in particular, looked nearly as good on the Sony player as I recall from seeing it projected digitally in its theatrical run a few years ago.

The black levels were pristine on The Curse of the Black Pearl, the colors were rich and true, and the detail was often startling. In fact, I couldn't help but notice that the detail was good enough to show that some of the costumes were, obviously, costumes, and not genuine period clothing. You'd never notice this on a standard definition DVD and certainly not on most theatrical film presentations. The BDP-S300 definitely proved that it has what it takes for a great high-definition presentation.

I had no issue with the player's sound on Blu-ray Discs, either. I used an HDMI connection exclusively for my tests, which delivered the full benefits of uncompressed multichannel PCM soundtracks on those discs that have them (including many of the above titles). Although a good Dolby Digital soundtrack can still sound impressive, these uncompressed tracks do deliver an extra helping of the qualities that audiophiles crave.

Watching DVD
How well does the Sony play back standard definition DVDs? Very good, I'd say. Using a 1080p/60 resolution from the Sony's HDMI output I closely compared the upconverted image on the Sony with the Pioneer Elite DV-79AVi. Here I used 1080i from both machines (the Pioneer's maximum capability). It took only a few minutes to determine that the Sony actually looked a bit punchier, but the differences were within the range of fine-tuning the video adjustments on the projector. The Pioneer is not only twice as expensive as the Sony, but will not, of course, play Blu-ray Discs.

And a Glitch or Two
Our review sample froze up on a few occasions when given a command (though never randomly while a movie was playing). Clearing the freeze usually involved ejecting the disc and reloading it.

The Sony also sometimes performs erratically if you push the chapter skip button a few times in succession. Sometimes the player landed on the chapter I was aiming for; sometimes I had to make a correction or two. The faster your chapter-skip finger, the more likely you are to see this.

Judged purely as a DVD/CD/Blu-ray player, the Sony is a sure winner. It is also a good upconverting DVD player and a respectable, if slow-to-load, CD player. While the occasional freeze-ups were only a minor nuisance, I'm still a bit concerned about them. Despite this, however, the BDP-S300 has a lot to recommend it. If you want a relatively affordable standalone Blu-ray player, it's currently the only game in town. And fortunately, it's an outstanding one.

Sony's first affordably priced standalone Blu-ray player is a good one, with superb playback quality from Blu-ray Discs, and solid upconversion of standard definition DVDs for your legacy collection.

Sony Electronics Inc.
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