Editors' note (March 30, 2009): The rating of this player has been changed since its initial publication to reflect changes in the marketplace.
Since the Sony PlayStation 3 appeared on the scene, it's been CNET's go-to choice for those interested in Blu-ray--even if they weren't interested in gaming. At $400, the PS3 was delivering a full-service Blu-ray player, with the added value of being a top-notch digital media device and gaming machine as well. But as Blu-ray players get better and cheaper, the equation is no longer so cut and dry. Sony's own BDP-S350 is a good example. With its latest firmware update in place, the S350 adds full BD-Live (Profile 2.0) compatibility to its bag of tricks. That leaves only its annoyingly recessed USB port (for added storage) and its lack of onboard DTS-HD Master Audio decoding (not a huge issue outside of audiophile circles) as the remaining red flags--and neither is a deal-killer. The Sony is in a neck-and-neck battle with such other full-featured standalone Blu-ray players as the Panasonic DMP-BD35 and the Samsung BD-P1500. And now that all of those models can be found for as low as $300, they're realistic alternatives to the PS3 (for nongamers, at least).
Nearly all standalone Blu-ray players so far have looked like oversize DVD players, requiring a lot of depth and width in your rack to make 'em fit. The BDP-S350 is radically different in this regard; it's about half as deep as every other Blu-ray player we've tested, coming in at 17 inches wide by 8.75 inches deep by 2.38 inches high. The front of the player is mostly covered by a blue-tinted, reflective faceplate, and there's an LCD screen on the right. On the far right are a couple playback controls, although there are no chapter forward/backward buttons for when you can't find the remote control. There is also a single blue indicator light, which tells you if the player is outputting at 24 frames per second. Altogether, it's a sharp-looking player--albeit not as sharp as the Samsung BD-P1500--and its small footprint is a welcome design touch.
The included remote is pretty good. The center is dominated by a directional pad, which is surrounded by important buttons such as menu, options, and home. Toward the bottom are separate rockers for volume and channel changing, for those who want to use the remote to control their TV as well. We generally liked the layout, and there's enough button differentiation to navigate by feel in a darkened home theater.
One major design flaw is the deeply recessed USB port--used for BD-Live compatibility--on the rear of the unit. Our first problem is that it's located on the rear of the unit in the first place, as that can be a pain to get to in many home theater cabinets and you may not want to dedicate a USB memory stick solely to the BDP-S350. Secondly, because of how deep the USB cavity is, many types of USB memory sticks won't fit--you'll need a long slim one to fit properly. The deep recess means you won't have a USB stick protruding too far from the back of your player, but since the player is already quite shallow and there will already be cables connected to the back, we can't see it being much of an advantage.
The BDP-S350 also uses a version of Sony's XMB graphical user interface, which should be familiar to anyone who has used a PlayStation 3, PSP, or a recent Sony HDTV. The high-definition graphics are a nice touch, and we found it easy enough to make tweaks in the menus. Geeks will enjoy the amount of tweakable options, including the highly desired capability to force the BDP-S350 to output 24 frames per second. A somewhat esoteric perk we enjoyed is that it's possible to access the XMB menu without stopping a disk, so you can make minor tweaks like changing the resolution without having to reload the entire movie.
Originally sold as "BD-Live ready," Sony issued the promised firmware update for the BDP-S350 in September 2008. So long as the player is connected to your home network, the update is available at the click of a button, and automatically installs after a few minutes. Thereafter, the player becomes fully BD-Live/Profile 2.0 compatible, meaning that it can access the online features available on certain discs. To date, there hasn't been a lot of compelling content, but the point is that you're getting a player that's as close to state-of-the-art as possible. The feature is there when and if better BD-Live content turns up down the road.
High-resolution soundtrack support on the BDP-S350 is good, although not perfect. There's onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD--which means you can hear Dolby TrueHD on any HDMI-compatible receiver--but DTS-HD Master Audio cannot be decoded by the player. On the other hand, the BDP-S350 can output both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio in bit stream format, which means that people with newer receivers with onboard decoding can still take advantage of DTS-HD Master Audio. Of course, the similarly priced Sony PlayStation 3 can decode both formats, which means you only need a receiver with HDMI support to take advantage of both formats. However, keep in mind that the differences between these high-resolution soundtracks and standard Dolby Digital and DTS may be hard to hear unless you have a high-end listening environment.