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.
Like most Blu-ray HTIBs, the BDV-E500W's connectivity is limited to audio inputs; there are no video inputs. That means with additional components, like a cable box or game console, you'll need to make separate connections to the BDV-E500W and your TV, plus you'll have to fumble with several remotes to get it all working. (Alternatively, you can avoid some of the hassle with a quality universal remote.) While most HTIBs don't have video inputs, it's worth mentioning that LG's LHB977 (street price of less than $600) includes two HDMI inputs (but no analog audio inputs), so it might be a better choice if you have other HDMI gear.
The BDV-E500W has two analog inputs and two digital inputs (one optical, one coaxial), which compares favorably with other available systems. However, note that you're limited to the three available source labels (TV, sat/cable, and audio), so realistically only three separate components can be connected. The BDV-E500W also features Sony's proprietary DM port, which can be used with the included TDM-IP20 iPod dock. (Alternatively, you can swap in one of Sony's other DM port accessories.) The included iPod dock is great, but the competing Panasonic SC-BT300 and LG LHB977 have the dock built in, offering a somewhat sleeker setup.
Sony's big differentiating feature on the BDV-E500W is the inclusion of wireless rear speakers, via Sony's S-Air wireless audio protocol. The BDV-E500W comes with a Sony WAHT-SA10 S-Air receiver; plug the WHAT-SA10 into a power outlet at the back of your home theater, run speaker wires to your surround speakers, and you'll have a "wireless" rear speaker solution that doesn't require you to run speaker wire from the from of your home theater to the back. Other manufacturers, such as Panasonic and Samsung, offer wireless systems, but it's an optional accessory that usually costs more than $100 extra. If you choose not to wirelessly connect the BDV-E500W's rear speakers, it can also be used with Sony's other S-Air speakers for multiroom playback.
Unlike the other Blu-ray home theater systems from Panasonic, Samsung, and LG, the BDV-E500W doesn't offer any streaming Internet content, such as Netflix, Amazon Video On Demand, YouTube, CinemaNow, or Pandora. That's unfortunate because those services add a lot of value to Blu-ray HTIBs, especially for people who don't feel the image quality leap from DVD to Blu-ray is that significant. With Sony's Bravia Internet Video Link already offering similar functionality, we're surprised it's not built into Sony new home theater systems, as other manufacturers are doing.
We used the "Quantum of Solace" Blu-ray to test the BDV-E500W's home theater competency. It had no trouble playing the opening car chase sequence at a fairly loud volume, but the sound lacked excitement. It was muffled and lackluster, so James Bond's (Daniel Craig) gunplay didn't punctuate the action as it does on the better HTIBs we've tested.
Turning down the volume to a more moderate level helped restore the BDV-E500W's composure, and we thought the film's quieter scenes actually sounded pretty nice. The BDV-E500W's subwoofer is capable of delivering fairly deep bass, but it's muddy and thick sounding bass. The sub's presence made its way up through the midrange, so dialog was overly warm and full sounding.
Neil Young's "Red Rocks Live" DVD sounded clear, at least with the acoustic tunes, like "Razor Love" which was gorgeous. The wrap-around surround mix of crowd applause was enveloping. But the harder rocking electric tunes sounded more abrasive than good. On the upside, the wireless surround speakers never called attention to themselves. No pops, static, or dropouts, the wireless speakers sounded like wired speakers. Nice.
CD sound was disappointing overall, the Rolling Stones newly remastered "Sticky Fingers" was aggressively bright and surprisingly bass shy. Punching up the BDV-E500W's Dynamic Bass improved matters, but in the end we preferred the BDV-E500W's sound on movies more than music.
While the DVD players included with HTIBs generally have disappointing image quality, it's much less of an issue with Blu-ray systems. Even entry-level Blu-ray players look excellent, and the differences between players are much smaller than with DVD. That being said, there are some performance differences between players, so we put the BDV-E500W through our Blu-ray test suite. We had the Sony BDV-E500W connected to the Sony KDL-52XBR9 and we had the Oppo BDP-83 on hand for comparison.
First, we took a look at HQV's HD Benchmark test suite on Blu-ray. Most Blu-ray content is film-based, so we started off with the Film Resolution Test, the BDV-E500W aced the test showing all the detail of Blu-ray without any strobing effects. Next up where a pair of video-based jaggies tests, and the Sony performed well on these as well, with virtually no jaggies on either the rotating white line or three pivoting lines. Last up was the Video Resolution Loss Test and here the BDV-E500W stumbled a bit, as the most detailed part of the test pattern suffered from strobe-like artifacts. Video-based Blu-ray content isn't too common, but it's worth pointing out that Panasonic's cheaper SC-BT300 system passes this test.
Next, we switched over to program material and our findings were consistent with what we saw on the test patterns. With film-based movies like "Mission Impossible III" and "Ghost Rider," the BDV-E500W looked solid on several scenes that often cause problems on lesser problems. On the other hand, the Sony BDV-E500W didn't fare as well on Diana Krall's segment on the video-based "Tony Bennett: American Classic," as we saw quite a few jaggies on the clapperboard at the beginning of the chapter. Considering that video-based Blu-ray titles aren't that common, only the most demanding videophiles will be bothered.
Standard DVD performance
We also put the BDV-E500W through out full standard-definition testing suite. We started off looking at Silicon Optix's HQV testing suite on DVD. The first resolution test pattern looked crisp, with all the detail of DVD cleanly resolved and only some slight image instability. Next up was a couple of jaggies tests, and the BDV-E500W did a good job with both of them, with only a few bothersome jaggies showing up on a test pattern with three pivoting white lines. The BDV-E500W also performed well on the difficult 2:3 pull-down test, as moire quickly disappeared from the grandstands as the racecar drove by. In all, we were impressed with the BDV-E500W's DVD performance, especially for an HTIB.