Sony BDP-S1 Blu-ray Disc Player: Short Take

In one significant way, the Blu-ray Disc format got off to an even more inauspicious start than the rival HD DVD format. Samsung's BD-P1000 player was the first, and for months, the only BD player on the market. It had shipped with a Noise Reduction circuit cranked up to 11, softening the picture substantially and actually increasing the noise in the image by several orders of magnitude. On top of that, many BD titles released over the last several months have been surprisingly variable in image quality, even compared with broadcast HD. In short, a lot of the BD titles released so far just don't look very good.

HD DVD had, on the other hand, launched with two Toshiba players with considerable ergonomic issues. These first-gen players are still afflicted with slow startup times and disc access, and playback glitches that would embarrass a $79 DVD player. But the image quality was simply stunning right out of the gate, with HD that was noticeably far superior to anything we'd seen or heard from broadcast HD. And as more titles trickled out over the months, movies new and old alike continued to provide sparkling image quality.

But the Blu-ray Empire is starting to strike back. The Samsung player's firmware update improved its image quality substantially, and Panasonic's DMP-BD10 player and Sony's PlayStation3, along with some recently released BD titles that really shine have started to unleash the format's potential.

Still, many of us have been waiting eagerly for the standalone players from Pioneer Elite and Sony to settle the score and deliver all of the Blu-ray format's potential, and Sony's $999 BDP-S1 is finally here.

The BDP-S1 is apparently in such demand that Sony told us not to look for review samples until after CES, but as I'm finishing up reviews on Sony's PlayStation3 (review coming soon) and awaiting Pioneer Elite's BDP-HD1 I felt I needed a reference point and bought one at retail. A full review will appear on UAV at some point, before or after CES, but here are my impressions after spending a few days comparing the BDP-S1 to the Samsung BD-P1000 and the PS3.

The BDP-S1 is a substantial and attractive unit with silver casing and a Blu(e) facia covering half of the face plate. The power up and tray open/close buttons are soft touch jobs on the upper right corner of the unit, and they glow a soft white when the unit is powered up.

The BDP-S1 is equipped with an HDMI output, but not HDMI 1.3. This is a hardware thing, and what this means to you is that this player won't ever be capable delivering lossless audio from Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio as native digital streams once compatible AV receiver and pre/pros are on the market.

That in and of itself is not a deal breaker for me. It's possible that, as is apparently the case with the Panasonic DMP-BD10, the Sony could receive a future firmware update that would allow it to recognize the new Dolby and DTS codecs and convert the streams to multichannel PCM. Multichannel PCM is spec'd to go out over HDMI 1.1 or later, and there are a number of AVRs and pre/pros already on the market that are HDMI 1.1, such as the Anthem AVM 50 controller I'm using now in that fashion right now.

However, making even this scenario just a little more complicated is that the BDP-S1 lacks an Ethernet port, which would make such upgrades far easier. Instead, it's likely that you'd have to go to the web and burn an update file onto a CD or DVD disc and the load that into the player. Not as easy as it could be, but serviceable.

What's more disturbing to me about the lack of any Ethernet port is the obvious potential that Blu-ray might someday feature interactivity that requires web connectivity. According to the HD DVD group, studios are already cooking up some features that will download new features, HD trailers, and more right into an HD DVD disc's on-screen menus, allowing them to be selected. Sony's PS3 not only has Ethernet, the $600 version has Wi-Fi and a 60GB hard drive. Lots of features could be pulled from the Net and stored there. Nevertheless, the BDP-S1, like the other standalone BD players released so far, has eschewed the Ethernet connection and you'll be out in the cold if (or when) networked features make it to Blu-ray.

The BDP-S1 has two other shortcomings you should be aware of. First, and this is for real, while it's backward compatible with DVDs, the thing won't play CDs. No joke. So, if you still play CDs and dream of having a single optical disc player, sorry Charlie. Second, while there are analog outputs, they are 5.1-channel only. I think 7.1-channel playback is something very few people need let alone have, but for what it's worth 7.1-channel soundtracks will undoubtedly make it to BD one day and when it comes you better have a least HDMI 1.1 in your AVR or pre/pro if you plan on trying it out.

It must be said for comparison's sake that Sony's PlayStation3, the 60GB version of which retails for $600, has Ethernet and Wi-Fi, 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD decoding and will playback CDs and obviously PlayStation games. The only key ability with Blu-ray Disc playback the BDP-S1 has that PS3 lacks is outputting 1080p/24 from Blu-ray Disc movies. However, with PS3's flexible, upgradeable architecture it's possible that a future system software update could remedy this.

On the DVD playback side, the BDP-S1 does several things the PS3 doesn't do, or doesn't do as well. The BDP-S1 can upconvert standard DVDs all the way up to 1080p (via HDMI) and in fact the picture looks by far its sharpest at 720p, 1080i or 1080p. Far sharper than the 480p DVD output of the PS3, which I'd characterize as downright soft.

In addition to being able to select these video output formats on the fly, the BDP-S1 allows you to select "Auto" for the HDMI digital audio output. It then outputs whatever soundtrack selection you make in it native form- if its PCM it goes over as PCM, if it's Dolby Digital it goes over as a native DD bitstream, and the same for DTS. The Samsung BD-P1000 and the PS3 allow you to choose bitstream or PCM for the HDMI output, but it's then fixed. If you choose PCM, DD and DTS tracks are converted to multichannel PCM. I'm not sure it matters but I kinda like that the BDP-S1 will output the native streams over HDMI.

These are the most pertinent facts about the BDP-S1 as I see them, so look for our full review to learn more detail about the ins and outs and configuration flexibility and setup of this BD player.

For these last few days I've been using the BDP-S1 with Sony's Pearl 1080p SXRD projector, and I ran it exclusively with HDMI both through Anthem's AVM 50 controller, which has transparent HDMI 1.1 switching, and directly into the projector. It was compared with BD playback to Samsung's BD-P1000 and the Sony PS3, and to Toshiba's HD-XA1 for cross-format comparisons.

Starting with starting the player, with a direct connection to the Pearl it consistently takes the BDP-S1 between 35 and 40 seconds to boot up to the player's on-screen menu. This is far better than the Toshiba HD DVD players' near minute, but way longer than PS3's ten seconds. Yes- not only can PS3 power up that fast, if it's powered down you can insert a BD or DVD into the drive and it will have the disc's menu loaded in under ten seconds.

Getting to disc loading times, the BDP-S1 again beats the awful lag times of the Toshiba players, but falls far short of the PS3 or even Samsung's BD-P1000. PS3 as I've said can boot to a 50GB BD's menu in under ten seconds. The Samsung can now load discs as fast as 20 seconds, but no more than 30. The BDP-S1 never loaded a BD faster than 35 seconds and change, and sometimes took just over 40 seconds. Lightning McQueen it ain't.

Before getting off of disc access and usability, the BDP-1 is good, but again slower than the PS3 with chapter skips and moving through the pop-up disc menus that come up with the movie running full motion. There's a moment's hesitation with the standalone player, while the PS3 just flies. Also, scanning back and forth is choppy, and the BDP-S1 pauses the image for a second or two at first, and sometimes pauses to a still during a scan forward or backward.

In these few early days, the BDP-S1 has locked up on the menus for X-Men United, requiring me to reload the disc, and several times during scanning through scenes has locked into slow motion instead of regular speed, and has sometimes skipped several chapters instead of one at a time. During the weeks I've had the PS3 it has never hiccupped even once with any kind of BD or DVD playback or navigation of any sort, and when the BDP-S1 froze on the X-Men menu I popped it into the PS3 and jumped around the chapter menus with no trouble.

As I have with the Toshiba players, I cut the BDP-S1 a lot of slack for its ergonomic foibles since its picture with BDs and DVDs is so insanely excellent. But these things are worth noting because I think we all want next-gen players that are as suave in all regards as our DVD players are, and so far, with the exception of mighty PS3, we're just not there yet.

Looking at the best BD transfers I have, including the MPEG-2 transfers of Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down, and Mission: Impossible 3 and AVC and VC-1 transfers like X-Men: The Last Stand, Blazing Saddles and Phantom of the Opera I saw consistently eye-popping, commanding performance. These images were loaded with detail and dimension, and rock solid in their ability to hold up the finest details without artifacts of any kind. And the player was also outstanding in presenting the fine grain structure present in many of these transfers, which is fine and difficult to present without it looking like an artifact.

The BDP-S1 handily outpaces the updated Samsung player with superior resolution of the finest details, and a smoother and subtly more three-dimensional image. Keep in mind that as delivered in August, there was no contest. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who rues that the BDP-S1 couldn't have made Blu-ray's first impression for all of us.

But what about the BDP-S1's image quality compared with the outstanding PS3, which is also a cut above the Samsung? I tried the BDP-S1 at both 1080p/60 and 1080p/24, and subtly prefer the latter for being a touch sharper and very subtly smoother in motion (and I'll have more on that in a bit). The PS3 held up to the BDP-S1's challenge very, very well. I do believe that the BDP-S1 might be very subtly more detailed and might offer a bit more depth, but after going back and forth umpteen times, these differences remain elusive and perhaps the kind of thing that only a real A/B with two identical 1080p displays could resolve. In many case, differences this subtle are difficult to ferret out, and probably fade to irrelevance on smaller screens. Hell, so far they border on irrelevance on my 80" screen!

Let's talk about 24p. First, I have to admit that I'm apparently just not sensitive to judder. Running the BDP-S1 directly into the projector and switching rapidly between 60p with 3/2 pulldown and 24p output, I simply couldn't see much of a difference and when I thought I did, when I switched back it was gone. I do believe that things looked smoother overall, and less herky-jerky, but at the risk of losing my golden eye credentials I admit I could be imagining it. No matter how many scenes I looked at how many times I couldn't consistently pick up anything the judder was doing. And this is with Sony's Pearl displaying the 24p at a flicker-free 96fps.

I know intellectually that 24fps must make some difference, I'll just be damned if I can consistently zero in on exactly what it is and demonstrate it to myself or others convincingly. In any case, I'm not convinced just yet that 1080p/60 is something that should scare you away from a player or display, but having the option is a good thing too.

But one thing I am fairly certain of is that the BDP-S1's picture, as viewed on the Pearl projector, looks its sharpest at 24p. For the first time, I felt that Warner's VC-1 encoded BDs looked every bit as sharp and detailed as the HD DVD VC-1 encodes out of the Toshiba player at 1080i. Blazing Saddles and Phantom of the Opera both looked so amazing on either format that trying to pick nits between them made me feel silly. Whatever difference that may or may not be between them, the image looked so good in either case that it's not even worth noting let alone complaining about. But even with the PS3 I felt more strongly that the HD DVD versions looked a bit better. Not here.

On the DVD front the BDP-S1 is way sharper than the PS3, although its deinterlacing isn't quite as good as either the PS3 or the Pearl. The BDP-S1 is an excellent choice for a DVD/BD player, whereas the PS3 is a much better BD player than DVD player.

I know this report is already long for a Sneak Peek, but these new formats are exciting and fun to write about, and the players themselves are far more complex than we're used to. But for the full review there will be more to say about the audio and further impressions to be made on the video. Right now the PS3 and the BDP-S1 are neck and neck, with the BDP-S1 being less sophisticated ergonomically but perhaps just a bit sharper. And the PS3 is $300 cheaper and currently better outfitted for audio playback of the both CDs and next-gen audio codecs.

It's possible over more time that the BDP-S1's lead may grow, and that the 24fps output may also reveal long term benefits that short term viewing with so many quick comparisons between players couldn't reveal. But whatever the final verdict, there is no question that the BDP-S1 is an outstanding, and already bordering on being declared a reference quality performer with Blu-ray and DVD video.