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A Review of Sony's BDP-S1 Blu-ray Disc™ Player

A quick take on Sony's first high-definition player

Sony BDP-S1, High Definition Blu-Ray DVD Player

The BDP-S1 is Sony's first high-definition player. Playing Blu-ray discs, picture quality is stunning, and standard DVDs look exceptional.

I spend most of my time researching and writing about HDTVs. But since a TV can only look as good as the signals you feed it, I'm always on the lookout for high-quality content. The best-looking picture quality I've seen in my home has come from high-definition disc players. So I was more than happy to spend a few weeks with Sony's first high-definition player, the BDP-S1.

The BDP-S1 is a Blu-ray Disc player. As most home theater fans know, there's a high-definition "format war" being quietly waged between two incompatible contenders: Blu-ray Disc, which is primarily backed by Sony, and HD DVD, which is backed by Toshiba. Last year, I reviewed Toshiba's first-generation HD-XA1 HD DVD player and was knocked out by its performance, though its bleeding-edge design included some operational and compatibility quirks.

Sony wasn't the first to market with a Blu-ray player, but many videophiles chose to wait for the BDP-S1, which finally made it to stores in December after several delays. In addition to Sony's well-earned reputation for innovation and excellence, many enthusiasts remember the way Sony pulled out all the stops when they launched the DVD and SACD formats. In both cases, their first players were sturdily-built, high-end machines that established the performance benchmark.

Would history repeat itself with this Blu-ray player?

First things first

The BDP-S1 is a beautiful player — photos really don't do it justice. Most of the front panel is finished in reflective blue Plexiglass, with a muted blue illuminated display behind it. Basic disc controls are located above. The top of the unit is brushed aluminum — very cool. The remote control is solid and well-designed, but I wish Sony had included backlighting.

One reason I'd been eager to try this player is that my current Sony DVD changer is several years old and due for replacement. I bought an HDTV about six months ago, and the Sony changer, which is progressive scan, just doesn't deliver the picture quality I've seen from recent "upconverting" players. A side benefit of high-definition players is that they are typically superb at upconverting standard DVDs.

Getting started

I connected the BDP-S1 to my KDS-55A2000 (recently replaced in Sony's lineup by the KDS-55A2020), a 55-inch rear-projection 1080p TV based on Sony's SXRD technology. Hooking up the BDP-S1 couldn't have been simpler: a single HDMI cable from the player to the TV. My TV not only has 1080p screen resolution, but can also accept 1080p video signals via its HDMI inputs. That allowed me to set the player's resolution at its highest setting, 1080p — a perfect match. Then I settled in to watch some movies.

I don't own any Blu-ray movies yet, so I raided Crutchfield's high-def disc library, and supplemented those titles with rentals from Netflix and a local independent video store. Movies ranged from blockbuster action pictures like Mission Impossible: III and Superman Returns, to more thoughtful fare like The House of Flying Daggers, Crash, and The Prestige. I also watched all or parts of several standard DVDs. My focus was entirely on picture quality; although high-definition discs include high-res multichannel soundtracks, I don't yet own a surround sound system.

The main event

As anyone who has seen a Blu-ray demonstration can attest, the picture quality is stunning. Every Blu-ray movie I watched looked sharper and more detailed than standard DVDs. But I was surprised by the range of picture quality among the discs I viewed. One pattern that emerged was that titles that were among the first to be released didn't look as clean and sharp as more recent releases, as though the technicians had honed their technique with each transfer.

The Prestige was the best-looking title I watched, and currently ranks as the finest HD picture I've seen. It looked so good that I found myself actually pulled out of the movie a couple times, thinking, "Man, what a great picture." The best HD discs go beyond just sharpness and detail. There's a clarity and sense of three-dimensionality to the picture that creates the feeling that you could walk into it. By comparison, The House of Flying Daggers looked noticeably softer, and The Fifth Element was just underwhelming overall — not really a significant improvement over my Superbit DVD version. Here's a link to a handy AVS Forum list ranking Blu-ray titles by picture quality.

Operationally, the BDP-S1 was a step forward compared to the Toshiba HD DVD player I auditioned last year. Startup and load times were quicker, though still much slower than a standard DVD player. The BDP-S1 also didn't respond to remote commands as quickly as I'm used to with typical DVD players, but overall was consistent and reliable. I didn't run into any connection issues or quirks, and the player's on-screen menus were easy to navigate and use.

The on-screen bit-rate meter is a cool touch that provided some geeky fun. You bring it up by pressing the remote's "Display" button twice. Standard DVDs had typical bitrates of 5-6 Mbps (Megabits-per-second) while Superbit DVDs were in the 7-10 Mbps range. Blu-ray discs jumped to 25-30 Mbps. The numbers tell the story of how much more picture information is on screen at any given instant, and why the more impressive Blu-ray titles looked so sharp, clean, and free of digital artifacts.

For me, the one glaring drawback of the BDP-S1 is its inability to play music CDs. It's even more surprising when you consider that Sony's PlayStation® 3 video game console, which is outfitted with a newer Blu-ray drive mechanism, not only plays CDs, but also SACDs. Lack of CD support is pretty much a deal breaker for me because I only have room in my equipment rack for one disc player.

Conclusion

It's hard to imagine any HDTV owner being disappointed by this player's performance. Videophiles who value superb picture quality as well as the satisfaction of owning a reference-quality component should definitely audition Sony's BDP-S1. Of course, if you're like me and want a player that handles music as well as movies, you may want to wait a few months. Sony has announced a second-generation Blu-ray player, the BDP-S300, scheduled for release this summer and priced at $600. In addition to CD playback, the BDP-S300 will also be even more versatile when it comes to decoding the latest surround sound formats.

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