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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.
The connectivity of the BDP-S300 is standard for the breed. There's an HDMI output, which can handle both 1080p high-definition video along with high resolution audio. There's also a component video output that can output video from Blu-ray discs in high-def, along with legacy standard def S-Video and composite outputs. For digital audio, there's the aforementioned HDMI output, plus both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs. Analog audio is supported by a 5.1 multichannel output. The only major omission we felt was missing was an Ethernet port for firmware updates, which is included on the Samsung BD-P1200.
The BDP-S300 also has a couple of additional enthusiast-friendly features. One is the ability to output at 24 frames per second, which some claim can minimize judder when used with a compatible display (i.e. a display with a refresh rate that's an even multiple of 24). We've tested a few players with this ability and haven't seen any increased performance with the displays we've used, but we're holding our final judgment until we've seen more displays. The other feature the BDP-S300 has is x.v.Color support, which is a new, larger color space. While it's nice from a feature-proofing perspective, it's unlikely to have much utility in the near future--you'd need an x.v.Color-compatible display and an x.v.Color-compatible Blu-ray disc, and there are no such Blu-ray discs currently released.
Blu-ray image quality performance
Overall, the Blu-ray image quality performance of the BDP-S300 is very good. For those who haven't seen Blu-ray or HD DVD discs yet, the increase in picture quality over DVD can be stunning, especially when viewed on a large HDTV that can take advantage of the increased resolution. We looked at several Blu-ray discs, including M:I III, The Wild, and Ghost Rider, and the BDP-S300 largely delivered the high-def goods. The Wild is an extremely sharp-looking disc, and the BDP-S300 was up to the task of delivering all the detail we've come to expect. While we wouldn't suggest that anyone sit through Ghost Rider, we can't deny that it can look pretty good, and the BDP-S300 did an excellent job delivering the deep blacks and saturated colors we've come to expect from good Blu-ray discs. To emphasize, the BDP-S300 isn't a better performer than other Blu-ray players, it's just that almost all high-def disc players perform very well when playing high-def discs.
While we generally find performance on Blu-ray players to be nearly identical, we did notice an issue with the 1080i deinterlacing on the BDP-S300. Using Silicon Image's HQV test suite on Blu-ray, we looked at the film resolution tests in 1080p on our Pioneer Pro-FHD1. The first test involves a shifting resolution pattern and several of the boxes had a strobe-like effect where they should have been stable. Similarly, the next test involves camera panning over Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, and we could make out moire in the grandstands, especially the upper tier. When we switched the BDP-S300 to 1080i mode, so that the Pioneer plasma was responsible for the deinterlacing, these issues went away. Note that recent high-def players we've tested since the HQV suite came out, like the Toshiba HD-XA2 and Samsung BD-P1200, have not struggled with this test.
Ghost Rider is a movie where we've seen 1080i deinterlacing issues pop up, especially with HDTVs. We took a look at the end of the sixth chapter, where the camera pans over Nicolas Cage and there's an RV in the background. The grille on the front of the RV often shows jaggies when 1080i deinterlacing is done incorrectly, but the BDP-S300 didn't have any problems with this scene. We've also seen some HDTVs struggle with some scenes in M:I III, but again, the jaggies didn't show up. So while the BDP-S300 certainly has some minor performance issues, as demonstrated by the HQV test, they're not likely to show up often.
Blu-ray operational performance
Standard operational performance has always been an issue with Blu-ray and HD DVD players, as load times on first generation players were often unbearable. While many newer players have improved on load times, new discs with interactive features have slowed down players once again, and this player is definitely in the slow lane.
Even for standard Blu-ray discs, such as M:I III, the BDP-S300 was a little on the slow side--it took 28 seconds to load the disc when it was on, and 1 minute, 4 seconds to load the disc started with the player off. However, those times seem speedy compared to how long it took to load the new Pirates of the Caribbean Blu-ray discs. Starting with the player on, for both Dead Man's Chest and The Curse of the Black Pearl, it took us 1 minute, 15 seconds just to get an image on the screen, and then a total of 3 minutes, 20 seconds before we could get to the actual beginning of the film--and that's with fast-forwarding through the previews at the fastest speed. As much as we love the image quality of Blu-ray, these kinds of wait times are just unacceptable. Comparable players were still slow, but considerably better--the BD-P1200 took 37 seconds until the loading screen came up, and 2 minutes, 12 seconds before the movie started, while the PS3 took 30 seconds until the loading image came up, and 1 minute 54 seconds until we got the movie playing.
It also was a pain trying to take advantage of the interactive features of these discs. For example, to activate the "pop-up video"-style "Scoundrels of the Sea" feature on The Curse of the Black Pearl, we had to go back to the main menu (not the pop-up menu), select the feature, and then wait several minutes before it would start. While having to go to the main menu to access that feature is the fault of disc, the load time is clearly the fault of the player. For example, the PlayStation 3 was able to load this feature in just seconds--presumably because it has a very fast internal processor, but the BD-P1200 also loaded it relatively quickly as well.
As we expect more Blu-ray discs to include these features, we feel that the sluggish performance of the BDP-S300 is a significant drawback. Sure, the vast majority of movies already released load relatively speedily, but anyone planning to use this player for several years might regret the decision.
Standard DVD performance
At this point, even early adopters will probably have more DVDs than Blu-ray discs, so the ability of the BDP-S300 to upscale standard-def DVDs is still important. To assess the BDP-S300's DVD performance, we took a look at Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on DVD. For the most part, the BDP-S300 performed well, but not quite up to the excellent standards set by the Samsung BD-P1200 and the Panasonic DMP-BD10A for upscaling Blu-ray players. It handled the initial resolution test easily, proving that it's capable of displaying all the detail of standard definition DVDs. The next tests were a little better than average, with only slight jaggies on a test rotating white line, as well as a test with three pivoting lines. Unfortunately, it didn't fair that well on a important 2:3 pulldown test, with it never kicking into film mode, which resulted in moire in the grandstands as the racecar drives by.
We were able to prove that the BDP-S300 did have 2:3 pulldown processing by watching the beginning of Star Trek: Insurrection, as the hulls of the boats and curves of the railings were rendered smoothly, without any jaggies. The BDP-S300 also did an above-average job with Seabiscuit. While the introductory montage of old photos gives many players trouble, the BDP-S300 handled it mostly without jaggies, with just a few minor jaggies spoiling the picture. The excellent looking King Kong was handled superbly, demonstrating that even standard DVDs can still provide a captivating home theater experience.
Overall, the BDP-S300 is a pretty good upscaler, but not the best we've seen. We certainly feel that high-def disc players with HQV processing offer a slightly better experience on DVDs and that the PS3 is certainly comparable. But these minute differences will only be visible to image quality enthusiasts--everyone else should be more than satisfied with its DVD performance.