Sony BDP-S1 Blu-ray Player 
Home Theater Video Players Blu-ray Players
Written by Ken Taraszka, MD   
Thursday, 01 February 2007

This early in the development of the Blu-ray format, amidst a format war with rival HD DVD, Sony’s first player hits the market as one of the few real-world options for people looking to play back 1080p video on their HDTVs. Priced at $999, the Sony BDP-S1 competes with offerings from Samsung and Panasonic, as well as the hard-to-get Sony Playstation 3 game console. Included with the player is a copy of The Fifth Element (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment) on Blu-ray. A free Blu-ray movie, Talledega Nights, also accompanies Sony’s Playstation 3 game console.

The Sony BDP-S1 came to my house the same day as Sony’s new 70-inch SXRD rear-projection TV, the KDS-R70XBR2, so all at once I was fully up for 1080p. I quickly unpacked the Sony player from its box and Styrofoam packing, unwrapped it, placed it in my rack and swapped its digital connection with that of another of my DVD players. Inside the box were the player, remote, manual, a rebate card for several Sony Blu-ray discs and, surprisingly, a pair of stereo analog interconnects and a composite video cable. This is laughable, as the player doesn’t output 1080p without an HDMI output, so you would be crazy not to consider that connection as your first choice. Component video can pass 1080i, but I didn’t get into Blu-ray and buck up for a new rear-projection 1080 HDTV for anything less than 1080p video. When you buy a BDP-S1, be sure to bring home a nice HDMI cable as well, or you will be seriously handicapping the player’s performance.

This first Sony Blu-ray player has a solid feel to it, which is in direct contrast to the very light, somewhat flimsy and more expensive Panasonic Blu-ray player. Measuring 16.9 inches wide by four-and-one-tenth inches tall by 13.9 inches deep and weighing 16.5 pounds, the player has a sleek look to it that is distinctively Sony. The unit sports a brushed aluminum top plate that transitions to a metallic flecked flat black side that goes about halfway down the height of the player, which changes to a ridged effect for the lower half of the side. The power and eject buttons are on the far right and left of the top panel edge, and they offer virtually no tactile feedback to you when they have been pressed. Frequently, I hit the eject button twice, not sure I had gotten it the first time. The disc would eject and then quickly reload. The front of the player is strangely laid out. The drive tray lies in the center of the upper third of the faceplate; to the right are the transport buttons. They flow, in left to right order, as play, pause, stop, and chapter section buttons. These buttons are small and non-illuminated, so if you need to use them while watching a movie, you might need a flashlight. The main front panel display is housed in the left lower two-thirds of the front panel, which has an iridescent blue metallic hue to it; on the right are the HDMI and HD indicators. The back panel of the BDP-S1 has an interesting assortment of connections. On the left side are the fan and the IEC two-prong power cord receptacle. In the center of the back panel are the IR controls, HDMI output and the composite and S-Video outputs. Progressing further to the right, you’ll find the component video outs, optical and coaxial digital outs, then the 5.1 analog and a pair of stereo analog outputs. The very first time you power up the Sony player, it takes about a minute and a half, but after that, it powers up and will eject the disc tray in about 40 seconds, which is much faster that the Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD player, even after their latest firmware update. Successive disc swaps take 28 seconds to the first screen image, a little slower than I’d like, but something I can live with.

The remote is similar to many other current Sony remotes, with a joystick in the middle, transport keys below that and the volume, channel and mute buttons at the bottom. On the top of the remote, the power and eject buttons are above the dimmer, display and TV/Video controls. A numeric keypad and audio, subtitle, and angle buttons follow. Lastly is a row of “color” buttons for use with some Blu-ray discs’ interactive menus. The non-backlit remote is pretty long, with a single groove in the rear to give the user something to grip. The buttons that do have markers are so subtly marked they are difficult to feel at times. On the radius around the joystick are the menus and return buttons. I didn’t like the remote when I got the player, and I still feel the same way. Fortunately for me, I use a universal remote for my home theater and only needed this remote for the initial set-up, so I can now put the unit’s remote into the closet for storage.

In the end, I connected the BDP-S1 a coaxial digital cable to my Meridian 861v4 AV preamp, using an HDMI cable to a Meridian HDMax 421 HDMI switcher, which in turn fed the new Sony XBR2 HDTV. I performed a quick modification of my Harmony remote programming and was up and running in literally 30 minutes. HDMI has really helped improve the ease of connection for home theaters, despite some pretty ugly bumps in the road in the early days. When HDMI 1.3 comes around, connections should be even easier, but HDMI 1.3 isn’t a reason to hold off on buying a player now. My connection worked flawlessly without any handshake issues and HDMI 1.2 can pass 1080p video with ease.

I know this section is usually titled music and movies, but since this player oddly doesn’t recognize CDs, I’ve opted to go straight to movies. I started off with the included disc, The Fifth Element. I now own four copies of this disc, one standard DVD, one Superbit version, the Blu-ray disc version that I bought when I got the Samsung BDP-1000, and now I have a free copy with my new Sony BDP-S1. It seemed a logical first movie, as I could cue it up in multiple players simultaneously and compare them all quickly. To give the DVD its best chance, I used the Superbit version. I cued it up in my Meridian G98 and put the Blu-ray versions in my Samsung BDP-1000 and the Sony BDP-S1. Going back and forth, it quickly became apparent which one was the video winner. The Sony player had far more detail and an overall more realistic and three-dimensional image than either of the other two. The Meridian DVD player upsampling to 1080p looked almost as good as the Samsung Blu-ray player, only beaten out by some distinction of fine details, but on the Sony, the detail was inspiring. During the famed aria scene, the Sony clearly displayed each fleck of glitter on the diva’s face, and the texture of her outfit was spectacular. You could easily see the definition of the wrinkles in her lips and the sides of her face. The texture of the apparently alligator leather on the case that was supposed to house the four stones was unbelievable, and color saturation was rich and lush. You could even perceive the wood grain around the door of the diva’s room. I saw more detail on the Sony than I have ever seen before in this film, and more than I ever knew could be seen at home. I could even see the threads in the actors’ clothing, while on the Samsung Blu-ray player, I only got a hint of it. Throughout this movie, surround effects and the sound in general were excellent, easily rivaling any DVD player I’ve heard in this price range.

I have long used XXX (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment) as a demo disc. The opening scene is a favorite of mine and has a great test of surround sound as the arrow flies from the left rear to front center of your room. The first time I played this scene with the Sony BDP-S1, it made me stand at attention. I did see a bit of grain in this film, but the fine detail I noticed in The Fifth Element was present here, amazing and then some. When Xander woke up in the diner, the close-up of his arm was so detailed I could tell the tattoos are drawn on, and when Gibbons clapped, the rocks behind him were so crisp and clear they seemed to be actually in front of me, while the divots in his face where almost scary. The detail in the pans through Prague astounded me; again, they were so clear it was as though I was there, looking at them in real life. I compared this disc through both the Samsung Blu-ray player and the Sony. Again, the Sony won. In the opera house, the Sony showed each speck of dust surrounding Gibbons’ head with a three-dimensionality I’ve never witnessed in a home theater before. The Samsung was better than the DVD version, but lacked the distinction of the Sony. I tried the Superbit version of this film in the Sony to test its upconversion and it did a great job, though it lacked the finer details and was a significant step down from the Blu-ray version in the Sony, adding more grain and motion artifacts, as well as having a slight issue with edge detail. The bolts of electricity in Yorgi’s second club had an amazing flare to them on the unconverted version of the Superbit disc. Eight months ago, I would have been amazed, but I had just watched the Blu-ray version first, and though it was excellent, it now left me under-impressed. However, the Blu-ray version of this scene is truly awe-inspiring.

I wanted to see how good Blu-ray could really look. So far, it seemed I was limited by the quality of software, which ranged from good to unbelievable. I opted next for X-Men 3: The Last Stand (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment). I figured that as it was a newer film, it should have the finest image, and I was right. Gone was the grain I found in my first two films, and present was even more clarity and detail. The shots of the outside of Xavier University were absolutely stunning. I have never seen a better image than with the exterior shots, which showed rich greens, purples and whites, with fine distinction on all the plants and vines. The stones of the buildings exhibited a palpable texture. During the scene when Scott goes to the lake to meet Jean Grey, you can see every stitch in his leather jacket and every whisker on his unshaven face. The scene in Jean’s house is truly off the charts, showing lightning-fast action and unbelievable detail without falter. I cannot say enough good things about the film reproduction of this player. The image quality was stunning, from the texture of the roads and skin of the actors to ultra-fast motion, rich colors and excellent black levels with the smoothest motion I have ever seen, seeming not to suffer from any motion artifacts whatsoever.

The Downside
The lack of RS232 control is another head-scratcher. People with large-scale home theaters that are run with big control systems, like a Crestron or AMX, will need to use an IR connection which is far from perfect. The emitters fall off, leaving systems harder to work. A glaring mistake on Samsung’s player is unfortunately repeated on the Sony. CEDIA installers and hardcore system integrators will not be happy, but there is a work-around.

It was an odd omission to not have CD functionality on a Blu-ray player. PS3 works with CDs and even SACD discs. At $999, consumers will look to this player to replace their DVD player and possibly simply their systems. With no CD playback, they still need some form of transport that can play a CD. Apple iPods are popular and music servers are making it into more and more systems, but people still just want to spin a CD sometimes. The fact that this $999 player can’t is a pretty serious flaw.

When it comes down to it, the reason the Sony BDP-S1 deserves your attention and likely your investment is the video quality. Could the load time be faster or the remote be better? Unquestionably yes, but at the same time, to sit there with a 1080 HDTV and nothing to feed it the glorious video it needs is a crying shame. Beyond the native HD video playback abilities, this is also a fine scaling DVD player that can make your DVDs look better than can most traditional DVD players on the market today.

The Sony BDP-S1 is markedly better than the similarly-priced Samsung in terms of features, load time and build quality. And until the new, higher-end Toshiba HD DVD player comes out, the Sony remains one of the few ways for you to get native 1080p video content into your life. If you are serious about video and want to see just how good your display device can look, you have your answer. It is clearly the Sony BDP-S1.
Manufacturer Sony
Model BDP-S1 Blu-ray Player
Reviewer Ken Taraszka, M.D

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