Editors' Note, October 10, 2008: Since this review was published, Sony has released a firmware update that adds Dolby TrueHD decoding and is said to offer improved BD Java compatibility. CNET did not have the opportunity to re-test this model with the firmware upgrade installed, but we have tested the 2008 version of the player, the Sony BDP-S330.
As one of the major players in the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD format war, we weren't surprised when Sony announced a price drop for the BDP-S300 to the relatively low list price of $500. Despite the fact that we've been wowed by Blu-ray's image quality, price has always been a serious issue, especially with HD DVD players often costing as little as half as much and offering essentially identical performance. The Sony BDP-S300 is certainly a step in the right direction in terms of price, but enthusiasts will note that sacrifices have been made. There are some minor video quality performance issues, some major load-time performance issues, no SACD playback, and no decoding for high-resolution soundtrack formats like Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio. Not to mention that there's another similarly priced Sony product currently available that does essentially everything the BDP-S300 does plus a whole lot more: the PlayStation 3. If you're dead set on getting a standard-design Blu-ray player, as opposed to a game console, and don't want to spend a lot of money, the BDP-S300 is certainly a compelling product. But most potential buyers will be more satisfied by the cheaper PlayStation 3, or the better-performing (and more expensive) alternatives like the Panasonic DMP-BD10A and Samsung BD-P1200.
While Sony may be known for the glitzy exteriors of its HDTVs, home theater systems, and yes, game consoles, the BDP-S300's design is pure understatement. The simple rectangular component sports a LED display on the bottom half of its face, and in the upper right section there are some basic playback controls, including handy chapter forward and backward buttons. On the top of the player are two critical buttons--open/close and power--which can be somewhat irksome if you're planning to stack components atop the BDP-S300. Unlike almost all Blu-ray players we've reviewed, the BDP-S300 somehow does without prominent, glowing blue front panel buttons. While those blue lights can sometimes have a cool high-tech look, they can also be distracting in a completely dark home theater. Personally, we preferred the Sony's understated style.
One complaint we've had with several high-def disc players is that their menu systems are still stuck in the standard-def era--blocky text and harsh colors shouldn't be the norm on these expensive units. Luckily, the BDP-S300 features slick high-def graphics that are descended from the Cross Media Bar found on the PSP, and later modified to be included on other products, like the STR-DA5200ES AV receiver and the Sony KDL-46S3000 HDTV. Of course, the menus on the BDP-S300 aren't nearly as involved--there just aren't that many settings on a Blu-ray player--but we still appreciated the pleasing look.
The included remote is slick-looking with its reflective directional pad in the center. Overall, the remote is usable, but there are some key missteps that keep it from earning our praise. The biggest annoyance is the design of the buttons--they're all similarly sized, the same height, and mostly adjacent to each other, which makes the clicker difficult to navigate by feel in a dark home theater. There's also no backlighting, although that's not a common feature on Blu-ray player remotes. Sure, it's not nearly as bad as the remote on the Panasonic DMP-BD10A, but you'd still be wise to pick up a nice universal remote.
The main feature of the BDP-S300, of course, is its ability to play Blu-ray discs. It can also play standard-definition DVDs and upconvert them to higher resolutions (more on that below). Unlike Sony's PlayStation 3 and Sony's older BDP-S1, the BDP-S300 doesn't support SACD, nor does it support the other niche high-resolution disc format, DVD-Audio (which the Panasonic DMP-BD10A supports). We're not sure why Sony decided to ditch SACD support, a feature that would certainly appeal to the enthusiast market. The BDP-S300 can play standard audio CDs, along with MP3 and JPEG files burned on CDs and DVDs.
The BDP-S300 has support for standard Dolby Digital and DTS surround soundtracks, and it also has support for the slightly higher quality Dolby Digital Plus format. What's more important is that the BDP-S300 lacks support for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks. While there aren't any players that can currently handle DTS-HD Master Audio, the Panasonic DMP-BD10A, Sony's PlayStation 3 and BDP-S1, plus all HD DVD players can currently decode Dolby TrueHD.