The BD Player Test Part 2 - Overview

I could argue that the opening salvo of this report was delayed because I wanted the entire piece, which will appear in periodic postings over the next few weeks, to appear in 2010. Or that I figured no one would be watching during the holidays, tied up as they were with festooning the house with LEDs, pondering whether to send real cards or new e-cards (when you care enough to e-mail the very best), or spending hours lined up for Avatar.

But the real reason is that the various comparisons that will form the heart of the piece are taking longer than anticipated. And they aren't quite complete. So in this first chapter I'll discuss some general features of each player I currently have on hand.

General Overview The players under review are from three manufacturers: Pioneer, Marantz, and Oppo. They have all the usual features, including upconversion for DVDs, HDMI, component, digital (coaxial and/or optical) and multichannel analog audio outputs, Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio sent out either as bitstreams or decoded to multichannel PCM in the player, BD Live, and BD Bonus View.

All the players in this test let you switch the output video resolution on the fly. This is a welcome change from most earlier players (Pioneers excepted) that forced you to first push stop, make the change, and then start again. If you had a need to switch resolutions frequently during play (possibly a reviewer-only fetish), or simply wanted to check the results of the various options, this could be a major annoyance given the slow loading times of most BD players.

As for loading times, only the Oppo can be considered reasonably fast. Using a relatively straightforward transfer (Digital Video Essentials HD Basics), I measured loading times, from drawer close to menu on-screen, of 31 seconds for the Oppo, 51 seconds for Marantz BD7004, 54 seconds for the Pioneer BDP-23FD, and 1 minute, 3 seconds for both the Pioneer BDP-09FD and the Marantz UD8004. That's right, the cheapest player is the fastest loader and the two most expensive are the slowest! Times will vary depending on the mastering of the disc, but the trends should be roughly the same. And most of these players are not only slow on the uptake with video discs of all sorts, they take their time loading CDs as well. This takes some getting used to when you're accustomed to the near instantaneous response of a dedicated CD player—or even a conventional DVD player.

The Pioneer BDP-09FD, the Oppo, and the Marantz UD8004 offer heavy-duty IEC detachable power cord connectors, though they're all of the two-pronged variety, That is, 2-prongs on the player end, 3-prongs on the wall side—the only benefit to the third prong is to provide proper grounding polarity. The Pioneer BDP-23FD and the Marantz BD7004, however, make do with detachable cords tipped with those smaller, rinky-dink (well, I think they're rinky-dink) connectors that use round and square molded plugs on the player side for correct polarity, The power cord outlets on the latter two players cannot be used with those pricey, aftermarket audiophile power cords, for those who believe these make a difference.

While all the players have a resume function that returns to where you were when you stopped a disc, only the Oppo will return to the same spot even after you've stopped the disc, ejected it, shut down the player, played other discs, raised the kids, retired, gone on vacation, then returned home to play the original disc.

While all of these players provide an Ethernet port for a hard connection to a home network, none of them, even the priciest, provide any sort of built-in wireless functionality. Oppo does, however, offer an outboard $80 option that will let the player operate wirelessly with your home network router.

These players, with all of their features, are far more complicated than you're father's DVD spinner. The Oppo wins the prize for the most readable owner's manual, head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. It's 71 pages, all in English, but has a clean, clutter-free layout with an easily readable typeface. The Pioneers' manuals are not as straightforward, but respectable. But Marantz needs to take a hard look at their nearly impenetrable layouts, with a glut of mouse print sized footnotes, cross references, and seemingly endless qualifiers. Marantz at least deserves credit, however, for including usable indexes, which Pioneer and Oppo do not.

The Coming 3D Revolution Whether or not 3D turns out to be the Next Big Thing in video, in order to play back the expected 3D Blu-ray discs you'll need a 3D-capable Blu-ray player. Such players are not yet available. None of the players in this article are 3D compatible, and none can be upgraded to support 3D. No current Blu-ray players will be 3D upgradeable; the 3D format requires players with both new software and new hardware. If you're champing at the bit to go 3D, the players discussed here are not for you and you'll have to wait until mid or late 2010 at the earliest for 3d-compatible designs to hit the market (along with the new 3D television or projector you'll need as well!). If you can wait until the dust settles on the 3D format (and it's proven to be a commercial success), then the players being discussed here are definitely worth your consideration.

The Pioneer Players The Pioneer Elite BDP-09FD, at over 31 lbs, is the heaviest player in the group. Those who equate sheer mass with quality will be impressed even before unpacking it. The player's main claim to fame is a high-end audio section, particularly on the analog side, for all channels.

The Elite BDP-23FD ($600) is considerably more modest in weight, size, and price. It provides much the same functionality as the 09FD, with a few exceptions. The 09FD offers a Pure Audio mode that suppresses the circuits you don't require for the job at hand (for example, with playback of CDs, the video circuits are not needed). But you must stop the player to engage it, and can only engage it from the front panel, not the remote. The BDP-23FD does not have a Pure Audio mode. In any event, I did not find any sonic benefit to the Pure Audio mode and left it Off.

The 09FD is also equipped with both coaxial and optical digital outputs, while the BDP-23FD has optical only—it's the only player here without a coaxial digital output. The BDP-09FD has two HDMI ports, both of which can operate at once. No other player in the group offers this feature. Oddly, 23FD has a USB input; the BDP-09FD does not (the latter was designed and brought to market first).

Both players have Pioneer's PQLS (Precision Quartz Lock System). PQLS locks the timing of the data stream from the player's HDMI output to the receiving device, which is said to eliminate jitter generated in the signal transfer. But while HDMI outputs of both players will operate with any HDMI-equipped AV receiver or pre-pro, PQLS works only with certain Pioneer AV receivers, so was not tested for this report. (A review of a new Pioneer receiver by Fred Manteghian will appear in the March issue of Home Theater magazine. Fred used PQLS and was favorably impressed.)

The BDP-09FD also has an anamorphic Vertical Stretch aspect ratio setting for those planning to use a 2.35:1 screen and a projector with an anamorphic lens. The BDP-23FD does not.

Like all Blue-ray players, both of these Pioneers will play CDs and DVDs. But neither of them will play SACD or DVD-Audio discs.

The Marantz Players The Marantz UD8004 ($2300), the most expensive player under test here, is also one of two players in this group that will play back SACD, either two- or multi-channel, and DVD-Audio.

However, if the SACD is played back from the UD8004 over HDMI, it is downconverted to 44.1kHz, 16-bit linear PCM. In other words, apart from its multichannel capability (if applicable), SACD played back over HDMI is reduced to standard CD resolution! But if you play it back via the analog outputs you'll get full resolution SACD, converted directly from the native Direct Stream Digital (DSD) data on the disc. DVD-Audio maintains its full resolution either via HDMI or analog out.

Both the UD8004 and the less expensive Marantz BD7004 ($800) offer a Pure Direct mode that shuts off circuits not related to the source in use to eliminate any possible contamination in the audio pathway. For example, the BD7004 can shut down the video circuits, front panel display, or both. The U8004 can shut down any combination of these and the (coaxial and optical) digital outputs as well. The UD8004 manual suggests that Pure Direct must be engaged from Stop, as with the Pioneer BDP-09FD. But I was able to turn Pure Direct on and off on both players, from the remote control, during play. In neither case, however, did I find that Pure Direct made the slightest difference in the sound, so I left it Off.

Neither player has a USB input, but both provide a front panel slot for playing back audio and video material recorded on an SD memory card. The UD8004 also offers an anamorphic Vertical Stretch mode; the BD7004 does not.

Oppo BDP-83 The Oppo ($500, Internet direct only) doesn't leave out much. The full set of connections includes front and back USB ports, Ethernet, multichannel analog audio and separate 2-channel (L/R) analog audio outputs.

There's also a Pure Audio mode for a partial shutdown of the video circuits when audio alone is playing. But as with the other players here, Oppo's Pure Audio (which can be switched on and off during play from the remote) made no difference in the sound and I left it Off.

While there's a full complement of aspect ratio settings, these will normally be left alone, in the 1:1 mode, since aspect ratio alterations should normally be done by the display. The one exception is anamorphic stretch, which Oppo call Stretch Zoom. This option reverts to 1:1 whenever you eject a disc, and must be reset if you want to continue using it. While the Pioneer BDP-09FD and Marantz UD8004 also have a similar feature, they are both several times the price of the Oppo.

The BDP-83 will not only play Blu-rays, DVDs, and CDs, but SACD and DVD-Audio as well (though the manual says it can't play DVD-Audio!). An SACD data stream may be converted to multichannel (or 2-channel) high resolution PCM in the player and then output from either the HDMI port or D/A converted in the player and output from the multichannel analog outputs. Alternately, SACD data may be output in its native DSD (Direct Stream Digital) form over HDMI. (Only a few receivers or pre-pros, in my experience, can accept a bitstream DSD source.)

Oppo offers a Special Edition of the BDP-83 with updated DACs and other audio refinements. My initial report will be on the standard model, but if we are able to borrow a Special Edition version we will report on it separately toward the end of the evaluation.

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: The Results Whew. That's a load and a half, but a necessary one to establish the groundwork. The first stage of the evaluations will cover the performance of the players with full-range 2-channel CD material from their analog outputs, a subject only rarely covered in any depth in Blu-ray player reviews. While the upcoming CES (I'll be arriving there shortly after you read this) will delay the next installment by a couple of weeks, I'll just say here that while the players do not sound the same, the differences are relatively subtle. Depending on the balance and resolution of the rest of your system, however, they are not insignificant. I'll just say, for now, that I have not been disappointed by what I'm hearing.