Shootout: 3 Blu-ray Disc Players

As new formats go, Blu-ray Disc got off to a shaky start. First, there were repeated production delays with Sony's PlayStation 3, an overhauled version of the company's popular game console that features a Blu-ray Disc drive for high-definition movie playback. And then came Samsung's bungled launch of the BD-P1000, the first standalone Blu-ray Disc player to hit the market - and one that incorporated a nondefeatable noise-reduction circuit that softened the picture. Along with these snags, picture quality on the initial batch of Blu-ray movie discs was surprisingly spotty, with some looking grainy and only barely sharper than regular DVDs of the same movie. While all this was happening, HD DVD, the competing high-def disc format, was nibbling away at Blu-ray's lunch with fully functional HD DVD players and uniformly great-looking movie discs garnering rave reviews in these pages and elsewhere.

But if anyone expects Blu-ray to go down easy, he's wrong. A fresh batch of Blu-ray Disc players, including a firmware-fixed Samsung BD-P1000, have hit the streets, and Sony managed to launch the PlayStation 3 in time for the holiday shopping season (not that there will be any left after the hordes of gamers and eBay entrepreneurs scoop up the limited first production run). More important, the picture quality of Blu-ray movie discs has improved. Whereas the first releases were mostly created using the MPEG-2 compression format employed in regular DVD production and HDTV broadcasting, many recent releases take advantage of newer, more efficient codecs like MPEG-4 AVC and VC-1. And the arrival of dual-layer BD-50 discs with 50-gigabyte storage capacity allows for those movies encoded with MPEG-2 to be transferred at higher bit rates than was initially possible with 25-GB single-layer discs.

To gauge Blu-ray's progress since my first run-in with the format, I gathered a mound of movie discs (and a few games, too) and the three available players: Sony's PlayStation 3 ($599 retail for the deluxe version, or $3k on eBay), Panasonic's new DMP-BD10 ($1,300), and the Samsung BD-P1000 ($999, originally reviewed in our September issue) with a new firmware upgrade. My review system included a Sony VPL-VW50 1080p SXRD front projector, an 87-inch wide Stewart Firehawk SST screen, and an Anthem AVM-50 preamp for audio and video switching and audio processing.

Ready for Blu-ray Round 2? I know I am, so let's power up the projector and get rolling.