Editors' note (March 30, 2009): The rating of this player has been changed since its initial publication to reflect changes in the marketplace.
Sony has made standalone Blu-ray players since the format's inception, but they've always been overshadowed by the company's game console, the PlayStation 3. In many ways, the Sony BDP-S550 is the company's first standalone that might be a smarter buy than the PS3 for nongamers. The BDP-S550 is Profile 2.0 compliant, has onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, and it has 7.1 analog outputs for those with older receivers. Not only that, but its image quality compares with other top-tier players and the list price is a reasonable $400. Unlike in the past, you're not sacrificing much in terms of movie watching by going with Sony's standalone instead of its game console.
That being said, we think most buyers will be more interested in the alternatives to the BDP-S550. For example, the Panasonic DMP-BD35 offers most of the same functionality minus the analog outputs for less money, and the Samsung BD-P2550 offers 7.1 outputs, HQV video processing, plus Netflix and Pandora streaming for the same price. If you don't need analog outputs or DTS-HD Master Audio decoding, the entry-level Sony BDP-S350 is a solid choice, too. Finally, anyone interested in high-def gaming would be wise to consider the PS3, which in many ways is still the best Blu-ray player on the market and sells for $400. The BDP-S550 is a very good Blu-ray player with no major flaws--just make sure it offers the right mix of features, performance, and value for your home theater.
The BDP-S550 is a sharp-looking Blu-ray player. Like its entry-level cousin, the BDP-S550 is a few inches shallower than most Blu-ray players on the market, coming in at 8.75 inches deep. From straight-on, the design is pretty basic. In the center of the unit is the disc tray, which is concealed by an automatic flip-down door. Just to the right of the center is the LCD display, which is a little on the small side, and further right are a few playback controls, although no chapter/forward buttons. Two additional buttons--power and disc open/close--are angled on the top of the unit, which makes them a little inconvenient, especially if you have other gear stacked on top of the BDP-S550. We really did appreciate the finish that covers the BDP-S550, which manages to keep a little gloss without looking tacky like many of its competitors.
The included remote is pretty good. The center of it 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 TVs, as well. We generally liked the layout, and there's enough button differentiation to navigate by feel in a darkened home theater.
Like the BDP-S350, the BDP-S550 has a deeply recessed USB port on the rear of the unit. It's a bit of a design flaw because the opening for the port means that many standard USB drives just won't fit. However, Sony does include a slim 1GB USB drive with the BDP-S550 that fits perfectly, so that deep port shouldn't be a problem.
The BDP-S550 is Profile 2.0 compliant, which means it's capable of accessing Internet-enabled features (often referred to as "BD-Live" features) available on some movies, such as Transformers and Walk Hard. To access the features, you'll need to have the BDP-S550 connected to the Internet via Ethernet and the included USB flash drive inserted. Of course, we'd still prefer these players to have built-in memory, but including a USB drive is a good compromise.
Soundtrack support is comprehensive on the Sony BDP-S550. It has onboard decoding for all high-resolution soundtrack formats, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, so you don't need a new receiver to take advantage of the improved audio quality. The player can also output high-resolution soundtracks in bit-stream format, so you can opt to let your AV receiver handle the decoding duties itself. There should be absolutely no sound-quality difference between the receiver decoding the soundtracks or the Blu-ray player doing so--and we've never heard any difference ourselves--but some people just like to see their receiver's "Dolby TrueHD" indicator light up.