Now that Blu-ray players are officially a $100 commodity, it's no surprise that manufacturers are trying to cram the technology into home theater systems at the lowest price possible. Sony's BDV-E500W ($800) takes a decidedly more high-end approach, offering Blu-ray playback in a 5.1 home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) system, with step-ups like tall-boy front speakers and wireless rear speakers. Like many Sony products, the BDV-E500W exudes style, from the glossy black speakers to the glass-like front panel of the main receiver unit.
On the other hand, we were surprised by some of the BDV-E500W's shortcomings, especially the lack of any streaming media services, such as Netflix or Pandora--both of which are found on cheaper LG and Samsung Blu-ray home theater systems. We'd be willing to look past some of the missing features if it delivered better-than-average sound, but to us the BDV-E500W sounded just plain average. On its own, we had few complaints with the Sony BDV-E500W and it's one of the more stylish systems we've seen. It's recommendable for those who put a high priority on style and looks, and are willing to pay for it. Just be aware that competing systems offer more features for your home theater dollar.
The Sony BDV-E500W consists of the 5.1 speaker package plus an AV receiver with a built-in Blu-ray player. The front speakers have a "tall-boy" design, measuring 48.9 inches high with plastic cabinets that certainly don't feel high-end to the touch, but look stylish from afar. Peak behind the speaker grille and you can see it's a two-way design, with a 0.8-inch tweeter and 2.6-inch woofer. The rear speakers are come in at 8.9 inches tall and feature a more modest matte black finish. Rounding out the speaker package is the subwoofer and a modestly-size center channel speaker.
The main unit is larger than you might expect, coming in at 17 inches wide by 3.8 inches high by 16.9 inches deep. Despite its large size, it definitely outdoes most of the competing HTIB receivers we've seen in terms of looks; the glass-like reflective faceplate is attractive and the light gray bevel toward the bottom is a nice touch.
Like many Sony products, the BDV-E500W features a version of the XMB graphical user interface. We're fans of the layout; it's visually appealing and once you get accustomed to the logic of the menus, it's easy to navigate.
The included remote features a solid button layout and is easy to use, if you're able to overlook its one bothersome flaw--there's no eject button for the Blu-ray player. That's not a unique flaw of the BDV-E500W, as all 2009 Sony home theater products we've seen have lacked a simple eject button. We found it to be an annoyance during our testing period, as we like to hit the eject button before we get off the couch to change a disc, instead of pressing the button eject button on the actual unit and waiting for it to open.
The BDV-E500W's "Easy Setup" program takes you through a series of onscreen menus, where you're presented with various options. It's pretty straightforward stuff: Menu Language, TV Type, TV Connection Method, and so on. The very last step, No. 18, is the automatic speaker calibration system.
It's simply a matter of plugging-in the supplied microphone into the receiver/Blu-ray player's rear panel mic jack. Initiating auto setup runs a series of test tones through all the speakers and subwoofer. A minute or so later the BDV-E500W will have adjusted the volume levels of the speakers and sub; and adjusted the delays for all the speakers and subwoofer. The delay settings were extremely accurate; that's a rare accomplishment for a HTIB.
Checking the other results we found the subwoofer volume was much too loud, but that's true for most autosetup systems, and the BDV-E500W's center channel speaker volume was too low. We determined that as we listened to Blu-ray movies, but unfortunately, the BDV-E500W doesn't offer an easy way to make level adjustments "on-the-fly." No, you have to stop the disc to enter the manual setup. With a lot of Blu-rays, you then have to restart the disc and make your way back through the FBI warning and movie trailers to get back to the movie.
That's why we think Sony needs to design all of its future Blu-ray HTIBs with channel volume-level adjustments, or at least subwoofer volume, via the remote. That said, we've criticized previous generations of Sony HTIBs for their lack of bass and treble controls, but the BDV-E500W has them. True, the tone controls are buried in the setup menus, but at least they're there. The "Night" mode, also easily accessible via the remote compresses soft-to-loud dynamic range for late night movie sessions. It worked reasonably well.
The BDV-E500W's built-in Blu-ray player gets you basically everything that's included on the standalone Sony BDP-S360 Blu-ray player. The player is Profile 2.0-compatible, so it's capable of accessing BD-Live features available on some Blu-ray Discs. (You'll need to connect a USB memory drive to download BD-Live features) It also has onboard decoding for both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, although the sonic benefits versus standard DVD soundtracks are likely to be slim with this system.