The BDP-S500 is Sony's current flagship Blu-ray player, although there is an S550 model due in the autumn that will offer lots more functionality for a similar price.
With Sony's very own PlayStation 3 and other companies' Blu-ray players boasting better specs and costing less than the S500's £500 price tag, the S500 is going to have its work cut out for it. Does it meet the challenge head-on or cower in a high-definition corner?
Why is it so big? That was the first thing we wondered about when we saw the BDP-S500. The Sony is much taller than most of the other players we've seen recently, reaching a height of nearly 100mm. This extra height really makes the player look old fashioned, and reminds us of the first generation of HD DVD and Blu-ray players.
One of the reasons it's slightly larger than Blu-ray players from Panasonic and the now redundant HD DVD players from Toshiba is its motorised front tray. From what we can tell, this is Sony attempting to justify the massive asking price of the player by adding bells and whistles. Aside from it being cool, we're unsure of the motorised tray's purpose. We forsee it being just another thing to go wrong.
There's a lot happening to the rear of the machine; most of it is good. There are plenty of output choices, mostly geared towards audio. The S500 has analogue 5.1 outputs, as well as coaxial digital and optical digital audio outputs. There is also, as you would expect, HDMI out and analogue HD support via component video connectors.
The machine responds dutifuly to commands from the remote, which is well built. The buttons are all in logical places, so therein does not lie the problem.
Let's hit the ground running with some momentum from audio codec support. The Sony can decode the vast majority of current audio found on Blu-ray discs, including Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD. It can also handle uncompressed PCM audio, and DTS-HD High Resolution.
It cannot, however, decode or pass via HDMI the top-of-the-range DTS-HD Master Audio. The relationship between the BDP-S500 and PS3 now becomes more like that of a second cousin twice removed, what with the PS3's ability to handle DTS-HD MA. We're disappointed that Sony couldn't keep this support in the immediate family.
Comparisons with the PS3 are inevitable. The PS3 offers so much in terms of Blu-ray functionality, not only for less than most other Blu-ray machines on the market, but also for a fraction of the price of this player. Primarily, there's no support for either profile 1.1 or profile 2.0 on the BDP-S500. For something that costs £500, that's unforgivable.
Of course, Sony heavily subsidises the PS3 on the understanding that it will make a fortune selling games. What puzzles us slightly is that as one of the key companies behind Blu-ray, it will also make a killing out of licensing technology and selling its own movies. If it takes a loss and regains it on games for the PS3, why doesn't that same logic apply to movies? We're scratching our heads.
Enough of the family affairs -- back to what the BDP-S500 does do. It's a 1080p player with support for 24p playback. It has HDMI 1.3 support and Sony's x.v.Colour technology for deeper, richer tones. C'est tout.
Luckily for it -- and our thinning patience -- the BDP-S500 performs very well. Popping a standard DVD in the disc tray yielded a swift response, and it wasn't very many seconds before we had our classic Bond movie on the TV. Once we got to the actual film, we were impressed by the upscaling abilities of the S500. Even though From Russia with Love is getting on in years, the picture was very compelling with decent amounts of detail and minimal MPEG-2 noise.
Audio quality from both HD and SD discs was also impressive. The downmix from 7.1 or 5.1 surround sound to two-channel stereo is handled well. We found dialogue was very clear and generally wasn't overwhelmed with loud effects or unnecessarily loud bass. It goes without saying that the HD formats offer some spectacular sound quality, but even DVD sounded great.
HD material was beautiful, too. Our Blu-ray copy of Casino Royale put a sorely missed, great big grin on our faces. The sharpness was exquisite and there was strong colour. Spider-man was also a joy to behold, with some rich greens in the grass early on in the film. All-in-all, it was an impressive result for this player.
There's plenty of room to improve on performance speed. Press the eject button when the player is off and it takes 50 seconds for the player to come on, lower its front panel and open the disc tray. Not exactly an action we'd label 'zippy'. We'd really like to see this wait reduced.
We did find some love for the menu system. Sony has managed to create an attractive and intuitive interface for the player. Setup can only be accessed in stop mode, but as the player allows you to stop the disc without exiting the menu system, that's not a problem.
Discs also resume once you've finished fiddling, which is a welcome feature. If you need to change the resolution you're outputting over HDMI you can do this from a button on the remote. This is slick; although the screen goes blank for a few seconds, it beats stopping the disc, going into the menu, making the change then hitting play again.
The BDP-S500 is a great performer. The picture quality is fantastic and the sound is amazing, too. It's almost downright funny that Sony has missed the boat on all of the cool Blu-ray interactivity, despite the company spearheading the development of this functionality in the first place. Not funny ha-ha, though, considering you won't be laughing when you get your credit card statement.
Your hard-earned £500 gets you a well-styled, sturdy machine, that's true. It doesn't get you support for lots of Blu-ray features, however. If you really needed another slap in the face, the BDP-S500 doesn't even come with an HDMI cable. A player this expensive that doesn't have an HDMI cable is totally unacceptable, in our opinion. Toshiba managed to bundle free cables with its £180 HD-E1, so we're pretty sure Sony could make the effort.
It's your money. Like Phil and Julie Neville, you can spend it as extravagantly as you want. It's just our opinion that as good as this player is, you really shouldn't buy one. You should get a PS3, a Panasonic DMP-BD30 or wait until the Sony BDP-S550 arrives.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday