Pundits debate whether Blu-ray will be as successful as DVD, but they're relatively united on one issue: the prices of the players need to drop before the format takes off. The Insignia NS-BRDVD is part of a new breed of bargain players we've seen this year, and its $300 list price is the cheapest we've seen so far. But there's certainly no free lunch with the NS-BRDVD--its low price means that you'll be giving up features like Profile 2.0 support, multichannel analog outputs, and high-resolution audio decoding. And on the performance end, videophiles will be a little disappointed with the Blu-ray image quality, although we were pleasantly surprised by its standard DVD performance.
If you're on a limited budget, but still want to get into Blu-ray, the NS-BRDVD is a perfectly capable player as long as you're aware of its limitations. However, Blu-ray is still firmly in the "early adopter" phase and we have no doubt you'll be able to get a better player for less money in as little as six months. And if you've got any flexibility in your budget, keep in mind that for $100 more you can get the best Blu-ray player on the market, that's also capable of streaming media and playing high-definition games: the Sony PlayStation 3.
Blu-ray players generally aren't the hottest looking product in your home theater system, but even with those lower standards, the Insignia's looks are uninspiring. From the front, the NS-BRDVD has a big, boxy appearance. A small strip of gray runs along the perimeter, and the rest of the face plate is black with a blue "Blu-ray" logo on the far left. Farther to the right is the disc tray and just right of center is the LCD screen, which is large enough to read comfortably from a seating distance of about 7 feet. On the far right are some playback controls, including play, stop, and pause. Beneath that is an SD card slot.
The included remote is average, and it gets the job done. The area surrounding the buttons is glossy black--a poor choice since the material proved a magnet for fingerprints. There's a nice, centrally located directional pad, surrounded by important buttons such as Setup and Menu. Playback controls are located underneath, and they are reasonably well-placed, excluding the ever-important pause button hidden in the corner. We definitely would have liked to see more button differentiation--most of the buttons are rectangular and flat--but with the money you saved by going with the NS-BRDVD, you can invest in a quality universal remote.
Like the exterior of the unit, the graphical user interface of the NS-BRDVD is pretty Spartan. The graphics may be high-definition, but they're still only a step above the barebones interface of the Panasonic DMP-BD50. Looks aside, we found the menus to be awkwardly arranged. The first icon is labeled "quick" and accesses most of the most-critical functions, and the second icon is labeled "custom," which has the same functions as "quick" plus some additional advanced functions. Since it's not immediately clear if the two sets of functions control different settings (they don't), we found ourselves confused at first. The interface is definitely one of the areas in which Insignia cut corners, so it's good that most people won't have to use the setup menus very often.
The Insignia NS-BRDVD is a Profile 1.1 Blu-ray player, which means it can access picture-in-picture commentary tracks available on some Blu-ray Discs, such as Sunshine. The NS-BRDVD is not, however, a Profile 2.0 player, so it cannot access the BD-Live features on certain new Blu-ray Discs. The BD-Live features we've seen so far have been underwhelming to say the least, but they're sure to improve as disc makers get a handle on the technology. Since the NS-BRDVD does not include an Ethernet port, it is not possible for Insignia to add Profile 2.0 functionality in the future.
High-resolution soundtrack support is pretty meager on the NS-BRDVD. It has onboard decoding for Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD High Resolution, but Dolby TrueHD onboard decoding is limited to stereo output and there's no onboard decoding for DTS-HD Master Audio. On the other hand, the NS-BRDVD 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. It's worth noting that the more expensive PS3 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.
Connectivity, as you might expect, is barebones on the NS-BRDVD. You get an HDMI output, which is capable of handling both 1080p high-definition video and high-resolution audio. A component video output is on tap, which can output Blu-ray Discs in 1080i and DVDs in 480p. There's also a legacy composite video output, but you'll want to use the other video outputs to take advantage of the NS-BRDVD's high-definition video quality. For audio, there's the aforementioned HDMI output, along with both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs. For analog audio, there is a stereo output, but not multichannel analog audio outputs that are common on more expensive players. Rounding out the connectivity is an SD card slot on the front panel, which can be used to view JPEGs or listen to MP3 and WMA files. Additionally, some Blu-ray Discs may offer Profile 1.1 content online, which you can download to an SD card and then view with the NS-BRDVD. We have not seen this functionality yet, however.
Overall, the Insignia's feature set is about as basic as it gets for a Blu-ray player. If you're looking for more functionality--and you have the extra budget--the Panasonic DMP-BD50 is currently the best-featured standalone player on the market. And if you don't require a standalone, the PS3 has by far the best features-to-price ratio we've seen.
We have seen some differences in Blu-ray image quality performance with cheaper players, so we were especially interested to see how the Insignia NS-BRDVD performed. We loaded up Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on Blu-ray. The first tests look pretty good, as the NS-BRDVD nicely handled the Video Resolution Loss test, as well as the subsequent jaggies-based test. But when we moved to the more important film-based tests, the NS-BRDVD's performance was disappointing. It failed the first part of the test, as the test pattern was filled with strobe-like behavior, and it didn't fare any better with a panning shot of Raymond James Stadium, as the stadium's seats were filled with moire. Considering most Blu-ray Discs are film-based, this was a bad sign.
Test patterns are one thing, but the real test is how the NS-BRDVD handles actual program material. We connected the NS-BRDVD to a Sony KDL-46Z4100, and set the NS-BRDVD to output at 1080p at 60 frames per second. First up was Chapter 8 of Mission Impossible: III and, like we've seen other budget Blu-ray players, the stairs in the background are marred with moire. Shipping ahead, we saw the same kind of processing errors in Chapter 12--the blinds in the background appear to moving, there's so much moire--and also in Chapter 16, where we saw tons of jaggies all over the limo as it approaches Tom Cruise. We saw jaggies in many scenes throughout the disc, which is pretty annoying on a high-def movie.
Next up was Ghost Rider, and the jaggies were in full effect at the end of Chapter 6, showing up in the grille of the RV as the camera pans away. We switched over to Sunshine, and the image quality defects were even more apparent. Jaggies were particularly noticeable around 4:30, both on the edges of the drinking glasses and in the stripes on Captain Kaneda's shirt. And around 17:10, we could see what looking like shifting dirt on the moon, which should look completely stable. Finally, we took a look at the video-based Tony Bennett: American Classic, which is actually on the Blu-ray Disc in 1080i. The NS-BRDVD did well with video-based test patterns, so weren't surprised to see it handle this disc competently, showing relatively few jaggies on some of the tougher sequences like Chapter 7.
The errors with film-based material are almost certainly because of faulty 1080i deinterlacing--where the player takes the 1080p/24 video on the disc, converts it to 1080i, then reconverts it to 1080p/60. The good news is that if your HDTV can accept a 1080p/24 signal, you'll bypass all of these faults, as we found 1080p/24 performance to be excellent. Similarly, if you HDTV has solid 1080i deinterlacing, you set the player to output at 1080i and let your HDTV convert it to 1080p/60.
We also tested the NS-BRDVD's load times, and they were definitely on the slow end for a Blu-ray player released in 2008. Mission Impossible: III loaded in 35 seconds with the player on, and it took about 49 seconds to load the same movie starting with the player off. For the Java-heavy Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, we finally got to the movie after 2 minutes and 16 seconds. Newer players, such Sony BDP-S350 and Panasonic DMP-BD50, have slightly faster loading times, while the PS3 still remains the champ for load times.
Standard DVD performance
There are still only about 650 Blu-ray Discs that have been released, so standard DVD performance is still very relevant in a Blu-ray player. We loaded up Silicon's Optix's HQV test suite on DVD, and the NS-BRDVD performed well with the initial resolution test, depicting the full resolution of DVD without and instability in the image. The next jaggies test were less impressive, as we saw plenty of jaggies on a rotating white line and even more on three pivoting lines. On the other hand, we were happy to see the NS-BRDVD pass the 2:3 pull-down test, as we saw no moire in the grandstands after the player kicked into film mode. The NS-BRDVD also competently handled both vertically and horizontally scrolling titles, like you'd see on CNN or the credits of a movie.
Next up we looked at some program material. The NS-BRDVD handled the introduction to Star Trek: Insurrection smoothly, as we couldn't spot any major jaggies on the hulls of the boats or railings on the bridge. Next up was the difficult opening sequence on Seabiscuit, and to our surprise the NS-BRDVD held it's own quite nicely, as we saw only the most minor jagged edges showing up on the old black-and-white photos. Sure, the NS-BRDVD isn't going to make your DVD look quite as good as an Oppo DV-983H, but it should be good enough for all but the stingiest videophile.