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Sony BDP-S350 Blu-ray Player Print E-mail
Monday, 02 February 2009
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Sony BDP-S350 Blu-ray Player
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The BDP-S350 was paired with a Sony KDL-46Z4100, 1080p, 120 Hz, 10-bit processing, 10-LCD panel via HDMI.  Full-blown HDMI audio gear was not available, so the Coax Digital Audio out was routed to a 5.1 Dolby Digital/DTS receiver.

Powering on the player and getting to the Home Menu screen takes about 25 seconds in “Quick Start” mode (activated in Easy Setup).  Normal mode doubles that time. Sony notes Quick Start consumes more power, but doesn’t indicate how much.  That shortened time getting to the player’s Home Menu does not translates into speedier disc operations.  What have become notoriously long load times for Blu-ray discs to spin-up, BD-J code being loaded and mysterious blackouts are not eliminated or reduced by Quick Start.

It took one minute and thirty eight seconds from pressing the Open/Close button to arrive at the Main Menu for Iron Man.  That’s fast compared to BD-J titles such as WALL-E or The Dark Knight, which take over twice as long getting to a point where the Top or Pop Up Menu can be accessed, avoiding some of the obligatory legal notices, studio promos, previews and such.  WALL-E even displays a stark white on black text screen advising that “... you may experience delays of 2 – 3 minutes while the content on this disc loads.”  Plenty of time to fetch the popcorn!  HDMV titles load much faster, typically in less than a minute.

Once past all that, you’re in for some great movie viewing.  The S350 puts out superb high definition pictures, especially at 1080/24p.  For a baseline reference, viewing technical fare from the Digital Video Essentials Blu-ray Disc showed accurate reproduction of a variety of Pixel Phase, Geometry, and Gray Scale and Color Bar patterns along with other demonstration material.  The Blu-ray Disc Demystified BD provided comparisons among VC-1, AVC and MPEG-2 encoding of the same content.  MPEG-2 lags behind VC-1 and AVC, but that’s the CODEC, not the performance of the Sony S350.  Shots of flowers with brilliant whites and vivid colors, subtle background shadows, extremely fine mist and steam rising from a cold water stream in a warm arboretum full of exotic plants showed how gorgeous a picture the S350 makes.

Wall-E Scan
WALL-E enhanced graphic overly for scanning.  Similar to, but not quite "Scene Search."

Watching a few of latest big name Blu-ray releases containing striking technical image quality and artistic vision like WALL-E, The Dark Knight, Iron Man plus slightly older titles such as 300, Batman Begins and CARS showed the true beauty this format brings to the viewing experience.  You certainly need a high definition panel that can faithfully display 1080p material, and it’s important to sit at the optimum viewing distance (about 5’ on a 46” set) to get the full realization, but when you do, the results are wonderful. 

The BDP-S350 delivers all the intricate detail in every visual facet of WALL-E. Some of the most telling moments are looking into the lenses WALL-E has for eyes.  Every tiny mechanical part, the multiple glass optics, their movement, and reflections of what WALL-E is looking at really show why Blu-ray is special.

Other examples of HD picture quality can be seen in the stark contrasts of nearly black Gotham City and Hong Kong night scenes punctuated with neon, building lights, the blue-lit skyscraper Batman dives from, and the shadowy lighting of his high-tech gear showing just enough subtle textures to make them look real, not like props.  Bit rates for many of the action sequences reached above 35Mbps, and the S350 handled them without a hiccup.

Bonus View (Picture-In-Picture) features primarily used to add video to commentaries during the movie is easy to use.  Although a separate Bonus View button is not on the S350 remote, the feature can be turned off and on through the Pop Up Menu selections in most titles.  The Dark Knight used an interesting technique of displaying a small gold disc on the screen during the movie, cueing you that Focus Points (Bonus View commentary) was available. 

Note:  Although “Bonus View” is the industry name for this feature, you may not find those words on packaging for the titles or in their menus even if it’s offered on that disc.   As mentioned above, Warner calls it Focus Points.  Disney uses the term Cine-Explore on WALL-E.  You really have to look closely (especially at the increasingly minuscule printing on the packaging) to see if your title has this feature.  “Bonus” is used generically so much, as in Bonus Features, Bonus Material and Bonus This or That, you might think you’re getting something you’re not.  BD-Live titles typically have the standard BD-Live logo printed near the other Blu-ray, Dolby, MPAA rating, and other logos.  Look carefully, though.  WALL-E does not have the standard BD-Live logo, opting instead for the stylized “BDisney Live Network” label under a “Bonus Features” panel on the back of the package.

Upscaling DVD-Video to 1080p looks tremendous.  Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Moulin Rouge all have new life breathed into them.  One of the very best examples was a comparison of CARS in Blu-ray and DVD.  Viewed up close, it is easy to see the extraordinary quality of Blu-ray.  The extra details and subtle gradations of color and shadows that BD brings are readily apparent.  The opening scene at the racetrack with high-speed action, motion blur, bright colors and reflections is an especially good test.  Likewise, the scenes on the drive to California at dusk and later in the dark night with the glow of lights and neon were just beautiful on Blu-ray.  CARS looked great on DVD, too, but the difference is noticeable up close. 

Backing away even a few feet diminishes Blu-ray’s perceived superiority.  I won’t bore you with the math of the relationship among source and display resolution, screen size and the calculations for optimum viewing distance in order to fully appreciate high definition.  Suffice it to say at the further-than-recommended distances the majority of people probably watch their big screen TV, it won’t be necessary to replace your DVD collection with Blu-ray discs.  But the BDP-S350 will certainly make those DVDs better looking than playing in a standard DVD player.  If you’re contemplating an upconverting DVD player, the money would be better spent towards a Blu-ray player, as it will do a better job, plus obviously be able to play new BD releases.

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