Sony BDP-S350 Blu-ray Player Page 2

Sony included quite a bit of flexibility in the BDP-S350’s setup. I was glad to see its attention to detail in some areas. This player supports 24p playback of Blu-ray material (DVD playback is limited to 60 hertz). It also includes a “forced” 24p mode in case your display and the player don’t exchange their information correctly over HDMI. You can also choose what color space you want to output with support, including 4:2:2 and 4:4:4 Y/Cb/Cr, as well as PC and Studio RGB levels. You can select the output resolution from 480i all the way to 1080p. You can also select Auto, which uses the highest resolution that your display supports. Unlike previous Sony designs, the BDP-S350 does not include a Direct mode for its video output.

On the audio side, the BDP-S350 supports uncompressed PCM and decodes the latest Dolby codecs, including Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus. Since the player is limited to two channels for analog playback, you’ll need to use the HDMI output to take full advantage of the high-resolution multichannel playback. On the DTS side, the BDP-S350 only decodes the backwards-compatible core DTS soundtracks in the new DTS-HD suite. It doesn’t decode DTS-HD Master Audio. Thankfully, the player offers full bitstream output for both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. It passes each codec at up to 7.1 channels via its HDMI output. This makes for an attractive low-priced option if you have an A/V receiver or surround processor that offers full audio decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

This player is Bonus View compliant. To hear the audio tracks for picture-in-picture based supplements, you’ll need to set up the player to do internal audio decoding. For this to work, the film soundtrack and secondary audio stream have to be mixed together. Unfortunately, AVRs and processors can’t do this. Players that include full audio decoding for all of the audio formats get around this by converting the signals to PCM and mixing the audio internally. However, the BDP-S350 doesn’t decode the DTS-HD codecs at full resolution. To use this player via bitstream and get the most out of both the audio experience and the supplemental material on DTS-HD Master Audio encoded discs (which are steadily growing), you must switch the player between internal decoding and bitstream output as needed.

Video Performance
Most Blu-ray players are lacking in video processing performance. While most players work capably with standard 1080p/24 playback, they fall short with standard-definition DVDs and the rare Blu-ray Disc that features 1080i video. I’d like to say this is only a problem in the lower price range of the market, but that is simply not the case. I popped the cover and saw that the BDP-S350 uses a newer NEC decoder chip, which handles all of its video-processing duties. Compared with previous Sony designs, it actually did quite well with our assortment of video-processing tests.

As I mentioned before, the BDP-S350 lacks a source direct mode. This mode was standard in Sony’s previous standalone players. It provided a passthrough mode that output the encoded material’s native resolution without applying deinterlacing or scaling. This is a great solution if you use a very capable display or video processor downstream from the player. Instead, the BDP-S350 outputs the user-specified resolution up to 1080p (1080i for component). Or you can select Auto, which bases its output on the player’s exchange of information with the display over HDMI. This means your display tells the player the highest resolution it accepts, and the player then outputs that resolution, regardless of the content. That means the player’s deinterlacing and scaling capabilities need to be good enough to make the most of the material you play back, especially with DVDs.

I started my testing regimen with some HD material. The BDP-S350 is the only Sony player to date that properly deinterlaces film-based 1080i material to 1080p with a 3:2 cadence. There still isn’t a large amount of disc-based content out there that this applies to. However, it might become more of an issue as studios release pre-recorded film content at 1080i or make cable recordings onto blank disc media. The BDP-S350 does not properly deinterlace 1080i material with a 2:2 cadence. This applies to concert media or anything sourced from a 30-fps camera. A few concert videos on the market today (including some by Sony BMG) employ a 2:2 cadence.

With DVD playback, the BDP-S350 exceeded expectations for a lower-end Blu-ray player. With SD deinterlacing, the player passed my tests for film- and video-based cadences. It also demonstrated proper motion- adaptive deinterlacing. The player’s resolution was excellent from the HDMI output, with no signs of roll-off with luma or chroma information. A higher-end video processor would deliver an increase in diagonal line processing performance, but the BDP-S350 processed standard-definition material better than most of the standalone Blu-ray players I’ve tested.

The BDP-S350’s NEC multi-format decoder did a great job with my high-def video tests. The player doesn’t compromise video performance despite its lower price point. The chroma resolution wasn’t quite as impressive as the Panasonic DMP-BD50 (reviewed September 2008), but luma resolution bursts showed great resolution with no signs of ringing or roll-off. The chroma patterns only had a small amount of roll-off in the highest frequencies, but this didn’t seem to translate to playback performance.

Since Blu-ray Discs are stored as 4:2:0 Y/Cb/Cr just like DVDs, there is the potential for the dreaded chroma bug to reappear with these players. We saw this with some of the early HD DVD players, but it hasn’t been much of an issue with Blu-ray. The BDP-S350 employs a chroma filter with 4:2:0 interlaced content, but it didn’t seem to affect chroma resolution with normal content, which is a plus.

Neither the HDMI nor component outputs had an issue with clipping. The player maintained below-black and above-white information. This only changed when I set the player to output PC RGB levels. But I expected this. Pixel cropping was not an issue.

In Use
The BDP-S350’s everyday operation was great. The player features a Quick Startup mode that aims to address the issues of slow Blu-ray player startup and boot times. Although the Sony powered on quickly, its operation and load times were about the norm. This is still a disappointment in comparison to Sony’s own PS3 gaming system. Also, when I compared BD load times and general menu navigation with the Samsung BD-P1500 (which retails for the same price), the Samsung was a bit faster overall. At this price point, the Samsung is Sony’s chief competitor. Still, the BDP-S350 offers better HD and SD video processing, so it’s the player I’d lean toward overall in a direct comparison.

Aside from the standard load times, the BDP-S350 did a great job delivering the goods with Blu-ray Discs. I tried out the Bonus View features of several discs during my time with the BDP-S350, and I never had any issues with the feature. One of the best implementations I’ve seen of Bonus View is Universal’s U-Control feature. I had the chance to try out this feature with the recent releases of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. The picture-in-picture feature worked great, but I ran into a small hiccup with the audio. Since the BDP-S350 doesn’t support onboard decoding of DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, and bitstream output doesn’t support the mixing of the separate audio tracks, I had to compromise. I let the player decode the core DTS soundtrack to PCM and add in the commentary. I’m sure we’ll see more support for internal audio decoding as the market grows, but this is an issue that you should be aware of if you buy a player that lacks this support. If you set the player to bitstream output, you will not hear the secondary audio stream from Bonus View material.

Sony delivers a solid entry-level offering with the BDP-S350. We continue to see more support for advanced features from the lower-end offerings. Because of this, high-end models will need to step up their performance to justify their expense. Overall, Sony’s BDP-S350 delivers great video and audio performance. It makes a great solution if you’re looking to make the most of your Blu-ray buck.

Sony Electronics
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