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Pioneer Elite BDP-94HD Blu-ray Disc Player

I know that technology moves fast these days, but we can hardly get a review of a Blu-ray Disc player out the door before a new model that supersedes it is released. And indeed, I received this Pioneer Elite BDP-94HD in August, just ahead of the rumors that a new player from Pioneer would be making its debut at CEDIA 2007 in early September.

Pioneer tells me that the new BDP-95HD's chief distinction compared with the BDP-94HD is its ability to send Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio as native bitstreams over its HDMI 1.3 interface. But since that player will also be priced at $999 this makes the BDP-94HD a viable option for many, as it's likely there will be downward movement in its price with the intro of the new player.

And already, the BDP-94HD offers a few significant steps forward compared to Pioneer's first-gen BD player, the BDP-HD1. The BDP-94HD is 50% cheaper at $999. It also plays back more stuff on a silver disc, including the Compact Disc, and ships with the ability to decode Dolby TrueHD soundtracks—its predecessor couldn’t manage either of those feats out of the gate. Firmware updates added TrueHD decoding to the HD1, but the addition of CD playback required a new transport, so an upgrade for CD playback isn't in the cards.

What It Will And Won't Do
The BDP-94HD offers 1080p output at both 60p and 24p, and includes a "Native" output setting which is a cool thing. Blu-ray movies are encoded at 1080p/24 but there are a number of music titles appearing that are 1080i and would not display correctly at 1080p/24 if that were a forced output on the player.

The player has an Ethernet port for simplified firmware updates. It offers CEC control compatibility, which allows for HDMI connected devices in a system to be controlled by a single remote. And it's DLNA and Microsoft PlaysForSure certified (no more Plug and Pray, apparently). This means it can access and display a variety of media over a home network, functions I didn't test for this review.

The BDP-94HD will decode Dolby TrueHD, which can be experienced either by the analog multichannel outputs or as transcoded PCM over the HDMI 1.2 output. Of course, it can also transmit the uncompressed PCM tracks prevalent on Blu-ray in the same fashion. It is not HDMI 1.3 compliant and thus cannot transmit TrueHD or DTS-HD MA as a native bitstream.

Like all current players, this one cannot do anything with full resolution DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks. It can only decode or transmit the backward-compatible 1.5Mbps "core" DTS stream embedded within these tracks. The only DTS-HD MA tracks we've seen are on a few discs from Fox, but that same studio has recently announced that many more are on the way.

Why Fox is supporting an audio platform with ZERO hardware support is a mystery. Apparently there are players coming this fall that will include decoding capability and/or the ability to transmit DTS-HD MA as a native bitstream. But to be clear, this player will never be able to do either. Both are hardware issues. so it will not be upgradeable to DTS-HD MA support at any time in the future, period. Decoding DTS HD Master Audio requires more far processing power than is available in the BDP-94HD, or any other standalone player currently available, for that matter.

Also notable is that the BDP-94HD is not, nor will it ever be, compliant with the advanced interactivity features that are scheduled to start appearing on Blu-ray Disc releases late this year and in 2008. For a primer on Blu-ray interactivity read this. This player's hardware is not BD-ROM Profile 1.1 spec, and so it does not meet the 256 MB local storage spec or have secondary audio and video decoders required for streaming Picture-In-Picture interactivity. Blu-ray Discs with BD-Live network interactivity will also start to appear late this year or next, and this player doesn’t meet that hardware spec either.

To be clear, this player will certainly be able to play back the movie portions of discs with advanced interactivity. But our early experiences indicate this won't be a seamless experience. The games encoded on many BDs released so far cause the discs to load much slower, behave erratically, and even cause player lock-ups.

For many, top quality picture and sound is what is trump. And, as you'll read, that is certainly provided by this player. But for those of you that want to experience the interactivity that Blu-ray will offer down the road, this isn't the one for you. And note that there will be players released this fall by other manufacturers that have the hardware required to access at least some of these advanced interactivity features.

This Pioneer player does everything it's advertised to do, and in fact more- firmware updates have evolved even Pioneer's first-gen player. I'm not picking on it here, but I think you ought to know what you're not getting here as well as what you are.

Performance
I tested this player using its HDMI outputs for audio and video, with the player transcoding TrueHD to PCM. I watched primarily Blu-ray Disc movies, and just a few DVDs. I will continue to watch DVDs over the next several weeks and if there's anything to remark on I'll update this piece. Video and audio were switched through the Anthem AVM 50 pre/pro before going to my Marantz VP-11S1 projector on the video side. My screen is a Stewart Filmscreen Studiotek 130, white, 1.3-gain and 80" wide (16:9).

With a few BD players we've tested we've had some issues with the players locking up during BD play back. I'm pleased to say that this Pioneer unit has been flawless over many of weeks of watching movies for their full duration- it has yet to lock-up during play back of any film on Blu-ray.

Player startup time was decent- 45 seconds or so with the player connected to the Internet (not having the Internet connected adds on around ten seconds to the player boot-up). Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl took 1:30 to get the spinning coin, and then another 45 seconds to get to the first disc menu. Playing the games encoded on those discs took between a minute and a minute and a half to start (hardly worth the wait, either).

This player, like all standalone players I've reviewed thus far, is not all that sure-footed with chapter skips and scans forward or back. The PS3 is much faster, and it's easier to start and stop where you wish.

The biggest plus here is perhaps the most important- this player offers the sharpest, crispest and most detailed image I've yet seen from Blu-ray. On my projection screen this player's picture was always a subtle but noticeable hair sharper than that from the Sony PlayStation3. Slight bits of film grain and other very low-level details were always just that extra bit more apparent and the image was always just a bit more three-dimensional. Looking at the PS3 by itself doesn't leave anything to be desired, but in comparison the difference was surprisingly apparent.

The Blu-ray release of the BBC's spectacular Planet Earth box set was a prime example. There are many qualitative differences in the source material throughout each disc in the series. The most detailed scenes popped that much more, and the less detailed scenes were far more obvious in not meeting the highest standards of the set.

The Pioneer was also spectacular in taking me for an unexpected trip down memory lane. Prior to its unceremonious dumping of Blu-ray, Paramount had released Walter Hill's gangland cult classic The Warriors: Ultimate Director's Cut on both formats. The AVC-encoded BD version was stunning in its bold colors, clarity and a level of textural detail that was just astonishing for a movie of its time. I watched this movie about 100 times as a teenager and it never looked remarkable in any way. The Warriors was a really pleasant surprise that was clearly elevated by the extra detail this player can convey.

Another catalog surprise was Sony's recent BD release of Immortal Beloved, the investigative Beethoven biopic starring Gary Oldman. This is a lavish production that was rather strikingly photographed, and the results are gorgeous. The details in the costumes and in every other aspect of the production's design were simply stunning. Sony's catalog titles have been hit and miss, but this one was dead on. And the music sounded nothing short of spectacular in Dolby TrueHD, and one of the most powerful examples yet of how much warmer, fuller, richer and more detailed the new codecs are compared to what he had before with lossy Dolby Digital and DTS. There's a scene that transposes the cannon fire of Napoleon's assault on Vienna with some of Beethoven's most tempestuous passages of music are breathtaking and emotionally devastating.

Switching gears, DVD resolution was preserved in full up to 1080p. While that would seem to indicate a hi-res image, looking at our battery of standard definition deinterlacing tests revealed that this Pioneer performed fairly poorly in deinterlacing when upconverting from 480i to 1080p. Not only was its deintlerlacing of video-based material suspect, it failed the Silicon Optix 3/2 pulldown recognition test with film-based material. For a $999 player you have every right to expect better DVD performance.

I also looked at the HD HQV Benchmark from Silicon Optix on Blu-ray to see how the player handled 1080i-1080p processing. 1080i is prevalent on the music video and concert titles we've seen on Blu-ray, and the player performed much better here, although the result was not as good as setting the player to 1080i output and letting the Gennum processing in the Anthem AVM 50 pre/pro handle the deinterlacing.

Conclusions
It's a slippery slope criticizing a component for what it doesn't do instead of what it does. But the fact is that there Blu-ray Discs that have already been released and announced that have soundtrack and interactivity features this player will not be able to access, and that's information I need to pass along.

And yet complicating things further is this player's video playback with Blu-ray Discs, which is not just good, but the best I've seen. This is the kind of stuff that is hard to live without once you've seen it, especially on a large, high-resolution screen.

And yet, as excited as I am about that, I'm disappointed by the deinterlacing performance with standard DVDs, which we'll all be watching for a while still. I feel like a player at a premium price needs to do better there. And heck, how high on this unit can Pioneer be since it's introduced a successor already?

So, the Pioneer Elite BDP-94HD must be commended for its superlative Blu-ray image quality, even though I can't recommended it unequivocally, at its price, on that basis alone without caveats. But hey, if you don't like what the BDP-94HD does or doesn't do, just wait a month. There will be something new out by then, maybe even from Pioneer!

Highs
Outstanding Image Quality with Blu-ray Discs
Spectacular sound from PCM and TrueHD based BDs

Lows
Not compatible with DTS-HD MA or advanced interactivity
Poor deinterlacing with DVDs

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