Blu-ray Players Part IV: HD Video

With the analog audio section of this multi-part tome largely out of the way (though a listen to the audio from the Special Edition Oppo BDP-83 is still to come), I turned to video. All of the testing was done with duplicate copies of high quality Blu-ray discs. The players were compared directly, two at a time, with the disc in one of the players running roughly 12 seconds behind the other. Making allowances for a switching delay of about 5 seconds (which the players needed to re-sync with the display following the switch) this staggered cueing let me watch the same few seconds of program material first on one player and then on the other.

A 2-in, 1-out passive HDMI switcher from Accell was used for the tests. The video display was a Sony VPL-VW85 projector on a 78" wide, Stewart Studiotek 130 screen (gain 1.3). The Sony's Advanced Iris was switched Off, since the projector's gamma curve with the Advanced (dynamic) Iris engaged (by design) is not uniform. But even with the iris Off, the Sony's black level was excellent, and nearly as good as the JVC DLA-HD950, also on hand. Both projectors offer outstanding color, superior detail, dark blacks, and more than adequate brightness; the Sony's peak white level on my screen was approximately 18 foot-Lamberts in the standard lamp setting. The Sony was chosen for the tests primarily because its shorter HDMI lock-on delay—roughly half that of the JVC—reduced the blanking time when switching from one player to another.

For program material I started with King Kong but soon transitioned to Baraka. The latter's many extended shots of slow-moving images made the AB test more precise—not to mention the disc's unsurpassed image quality.

First up, the Pioneer BDP-09FD ($2200) vs. the Marantz U8004 ($2300). It was obvious right off the bat that this part of the test was not going to be easy. As expected, there were no visible differences in color, black level, or gamma. In the latter case I thought at one point that the small differences I was seeing might be the result of subtle gamma differences between the players, but measurements largely squashed that theory.

The only two differences I thought I saw between these two players was a subtly sharper and punchier image from the Pioneer. And subtle is really too strong a word. Both players were superb, and if I found myself marginally preferring the Pioneer, explaining why is next to impossible, as the two players were so close in performance that nothing short of a direct AB such as this would be likely to turn up any differences at all. The bottom line is that it took me nearly an hour of going back and forth before I thought I could distinguish between the two players, but to a degree that would not matter to 99% of even critical viewers. Neither player's HD picture quality should, in my judgment, be a deciding factor in a purchasing decision. I decided to use the Pioneer as the reference player for the remainder of the tests, due mostly to the fact that I have the most experience with it.

But those were the two most expensive players. What about the others, which all run a fraction of the cost of the big Marantz and Pioneer? I began with the Special Edition Oppo BDP-83 ($900), which arrived too late for the first analog audio tests. I did not include the standard Oppo BDP-83 ($500) in the video tests because Oppo states that the only differences between the two players are in their analog audio sections.

The result of a comparison between the Oppo and the Pioneer BDP-09FD was even closer, if that's possible. The only thing I could put a finger on—and even then it came and went—was a trace of added depth with the Pioneer. But I would not bet that I could pick this out consistently in a blind test.

At this point, to further refine the test I zoomed out the 2.35:1 image from the projector until it filled my 78" wide, 1.78:1 screen from top to bottom. This displayed the center of a picture that would be 103" wide if I had been using a true 2.35:1 screen—that is, the middle 75% of the full image was still visible. Yes, the left and right of the widescreen picture dropped off the sides of my narrower screen, but I wanted to magnify the image enough to enhance any differences, since judgments of image quality in any event are usually made near the center of the screen. And any image degradations at the spilled-off sides, if they were visible on a proper 2.35:1 screen, would be a projector issue, not a player one. The only downside in this technique was that it reduced the screen brightness to 12 foot-Lamberts (still in the standard lamp mode). But that's not an unreasonable figure—though it did take me a few minutes to adjust to it.

I left the setup this way for the rest of the video comparisons. In this particular case, I saw no further differences between the Oppo and Pioneer BDP-09FD—even on this "bigger" screen. And while what I saw, or thought I saw, would tempt me to go with the Pioneer, the price difference (even with the Oppo Special Edition in play) was a major consideration.

I moved on to the Pioneer BDP-320 ($300) vs. the BDP-09FD. Not only did the razor thin video differences between the players continue here, in this case I could see no differences in image quality at all, either real or imagined. This made the Pioneer BDP-320, up to this point, the champ of the group by a nose with respect to image quality and sheer value.

With several comparisons left to go I was reminded of that old saying that defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. But I soldiered on.

Next up was the Marantz BD7004 ($800) vs. the BDP-09FD, and things didn't get any easier. In fact, I could spot no visible differences between the Marantz and the Pioneer. They might well have been twins as far at their video performance went.

While that pretty much finished off the necessary comparisons, I decided to go back and make a few additional runs with the more popularly priced players by comparing the Pioneer BDP-320 against both the Marantz BD7004 and the Oppo. The BDP-320 and the Marantz were virtually identical. At first I thought I saw some very subtle differences, but they proved so elusive that there was little to choose from. Move along…nothing happening here.

Next, the Oppo vs. the BDP-320. Again, the differences were hardly worth mentioning, and so subtle that I can't even state categorically that they were real. As with the Oppo vs. BDP-09FD review, I thought that the Pioneer "popped" a bit more, from an almost imperceptible degree of extra detail.

I also briefly checked out the Pioneer BDP-320 vs. the Pioneer Elite BDP-23FD ($600). I thought that perhaps the BDP-320 was a trace more vivid, and enough so to make me prefer it. Again, it was a close call, but the fact that the result was no worse than a tie is significant, given the price difference between these two players. Apart from some slightly different cosmetics on the Elite (including gold trimmed logos and screws), a different finish on the remote, an RS-232C jack on the Elite but not the 320, and superior feet on the Elite, the two players appear to be identical designs. (The photo shows the innards of both players, with the Elite on the bottom. The small board at its lower left services the RS-232C connector.)

Any one of these players is likely to fully satisfy the fussiest of viewers on the biggest of screens. If I have the smallest of preferences, it would be for the Pioneers, and in particular the value that the BDP-320 offers. Indeed, while it lists for $300, this player can be had on the Internet at a substantially lower price. But the two lower cost Pioneers both lack coaxial digital outputs, opting instead for optical only. Since like many audiophiles I prefer coaxial to optical, and typically use a digital connection to my pre-pro for music playback (rather than HDMI audio, which I use only with video sources), that’s a negative. But not one that’s likely to bother too many potential buyers.

The Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition also justifies its extra cost over the Pioneer BDP-320 by a more substantial subjective build quality—a benefit that comes directly from its direct-to-buyer Internet sales. It is also the most full-featured of the players, and the one with the fastest boot-up and loading times. The latter is not only important for video, but for audio as well. As a group, all of these players are slow loaders even with CDs and DVDs, not just Blu-rays. And while the Oppo is not as fast as a dedicated CD player, or a dedicated DVD player with a CD, the difference isn’t as particularly annoying. Boot-up time is no small consideration when you're standing in front of a player for over half a minute (with some of these machines) waiting for the loading drawer to open. And once you've popped in the disc, slow loading times can add to the irritation.

But the image quality from any of the players here are likely to satisfy even the fussiest viewers. The results of this test were only disappointing in that they failed to turn up significant video differences between the players. But they were enlightening just the same, suggesting that paying more for a player—or a lot more—is unlikely to give you a better high definition picture. Even on a big screen. I