Sony BDP-S300 Blu-ray Player

The price of machines that will play Blu-ray or HD DVD high-definition discs is coming down. The drop is faster on the HD DVD side of the battle lines, but at $499 Sony's new BDP-S300 is half the price of its (still available) first generation BDP-S1.

While the PS3 remains a top-notch Blu-ray player with video game capability thrown in as an extra feature (do I hear groans from Sony marketing?), there are plenty of us who would rather have a dedicated BD player in the house than a game console. The BDP-S300 is an important product, and gives Blu-ray some much needed traction in the affordable Blu-ray player category. Combine that with recent news from video powerhouse Blockbuster that it is expanding Blu-ray titles in its stores (exclusively in most cases), and the BDP-S300 looks like a no-brainer. Is it?

I was immediately impressed by the design of the BDP-S300. It's unpretentious, with a minimum number of controls and its (dimmable) front display recessed behind a full-width, clear plastic panel beneath the centered loading drawer. There's barely a hint of the blue (Blu-ray?) tint that the BDP-S1 sported on its front face.

The sparse front panel offers only the basic controls: Power, Open/Close drawer, Play, Stop Pause, and chapter skip (front and back). All other functions, such as menu, resolution, dimming, etc, are located only on the remote.

And the remote is a good one. It can control both the player and a television. There are more buttons here than I'd put on my personal, nonexistent "ideal remote," they are a little too close together to prevent the occasional wrong command, and they are not backlit. But it gets the job done without major annoyances. And in a unique and welcome touch, a removable sticker at the bottom of the remote provides both phone numbers and a website for Sony technical support.

The player and remote also support Sony's Theater Sync. This feature, which appears to be similar to one offered by other manufacturers under different names, provides for one-touch operation with compatible components when they are connected via HDMI cables. For example, you can turn on the player, TV, and AV receiver, set the receiver and TV inputs to the correct settings for disc play, and start the playback, all with the touch of the Play button. I did not have a compatible receiver and television on hand, so I did not test this feature.

Around back are all the usual suspects: component and HDMI (1.2) outputs, legacy composite and S-Video outputs (both of them largely useless in a high-definition player, but everyone is providing them anyway), Toslink optical and coaxial SPDIF outputs, and both two-channel and multichannel analog audio outputs. There's also a relatively quiet fan—a common sight on most HD players. But there is no Ethernet or other suitable connector for online updates or web-enabled interactivity.

The jack for a detachable power cord is not a standard IEC connector. It's one of those smaller, two pole jobs that are harder to find a replacement for if you lose it.

The player offers on-screen displays that will tell you, along with other interesting and useful information, the current instantaneous video data rate coming from the disc.

A considerable fraction of the owner's manual is devoted to special features involving playback of material you've stored on data DVDs. I did not test these, but they involve browsing through, sorting, and programming MPEG-2 movie files, music files, and photo files.

What Will It Play, and How Will It Play It?
The BDP-S300 will play standard or high-definition DVD or Blu-ray Discs recorded with any of the video compression codecs currently in use for consumer video: MPEG-2, VC-1, or AVC. It will also play JPEG images recorded on DVD recordable media.

It will pass the new x.v.Color color space over HDMI from sources that provide it—which at present are limited to discs recorded on a few camcorders. The Sony's HDMI output itself is HDMI 1.2, and we normally think of x.v.Color as a feature available only on HDMI 1.3. According to Sony, however, the player will pass x.v.Color from its HDMI 1.2 output, but will not automatically switch an x.v.Color-compatible display to the correct color space. You will have to do this manually; auto-switching apparently requires HDMI 1.3. I lacked both x.v.Color source material and an x.v.Color display, so did not test this feature.

Unlike the BDP-S1 (and Pioneer Elite's BDP-HD1) the BDP-S300 will play back CDs, either from its analog audio outputs or any of its digital audio outputs, including HDMI. But it will not play SACD, DVD-Audio, and some types of recordable DVDs (DVD-RWs and DVD-Rs in VR mode and DVD-RAMs). There is also the usual disclaimer that some recordable CDs and DVDs may not play on the BDP-S300, due to "the recording quality or physical condition of the disc, or the characteristics of the recording device and authoring software."

The player also features 24-bit/192kHz D/A audio converters. It will not, however, upconvert lower resolution audio to these higher sampling frequencies and bit depths. FYI, there is little music program material available at 24/192 or even 24/96 (excluding DVD-A which, as noted above, the Sony will not play), and film soundtracks are produced with a maximum resolution of 24/48.

What About High Resolution Audio? The Sony will play the uncompressed 5.1-channel PCM soundtracks offered on an increasing number of Blu-ray Discs (mainly from Sony and Disney). It can output them to a compatible AV receiver or pre-pro either over its HDMI 1.2 link or from its multichannel analog outputs.

Some HDMI-equipped AV receivers, and, at present, many pre-pros with HDMI inputs, are HDMI video switchers only; they cannot process audio from the HDMI link. If your receiver or pre-pro has this limitation, you will have to access these uncompressed tracks from the BDP-S300's multichannel analog outputs—assuming your receiver or pre-pro has multichannel analog inputs (most recent vintage receivers do, but some older ones do not). If neither the HDMI nor multichannel analog audio routes are available to you, you'll have to fall back on the coaxial or Toslink digital outputs, which can carry only conventional multichannel DD, DTS, and two-channel PCM.

Until HDMI 1.3 becomes widely available, and until receivers and pre-pros have the necessary capabilities, no BD player, including the Sony, which is HDMI 1.2, will be able to pass Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks directly to a pre-pro or AV receiver as an native bitstream for decoding in the receiver rather than in the player. Until then, the player must transcode these formats and send them to the receiver as multichannel PCM digital over HDMI (or decode in the player and convert to a multichannel analog feed).

The BDP-S300 as currently constituted will not, however, decode Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD, or DTS HD Master Audio at full resolution. It instead decodes the Dolby Digital or DTS "core" tracks, limited to 640kbps and 1.5Mbps, respectively. From there, depending on how the player is set up, it either converts the core DTS or DD data to multichannel PCM (for passing on to the receiver or pre-pro over the HDMI link, or D/A converted and passed through the player's multichannel analog outputs), or passes them directly on to the receiver to be decoded there as conventional DD or DTS soundtracks. While such soundtracks will generally operate at a higher data rate than the conventional DD or DTS we get on DVD, for improved sound, they will lack the full sonic benefits of the new formats.

The best film sound you'll get from the BDP-S300 at present, therefore, will be on uncompressed multichannel soundtracks (where available) passed to your AV receiver or pre-pro via an HDMI link (provided it will accept multichannel audio over HDMI).