Pioneer Elite BDP-95FD Blu-ray Player 
Home Theater Video Players Blu-ray Players
Written by Adrienne Maxwell   
Thursday, 01 May 2008

Introduction
Back in May 2007, Pioneer introduced their first Blu-ray player to the market. The BDP-94FD offered desirable Blu-ray traits like 1080p/24 output and onboard Dolby TrueHD decoding, and it added one distinguishing feature: Pioneer’s Home Media Gallery, which lets you stream music, photos and HD video from a PC or DLNA-compliant server. At $999, the BDP-94FD was priced competitively with many of the other Blu-ray players hitting the market at the time.

Just five months later, Pioneer released their second-generation player, the BDP-95FD, which adds one highly desirable feature: the ability to send the native bit stream of a Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD soundtrack over HDMI. While just about every other Blu-ray manufacturer has lowered prices to stay competitive, Pioneer opted to stick with $999 for the BDP-95FD. The company’s decision to remain positioned in the higher-end luxury market works in the HDTV realm, where the performance of its KURO plasmas more than merits the price premium; unfortunately, I can’t quite say the same about the BDP-95FD.

Set-up
The BDP-95FD has the look and build quality of a higher-end component.  At about 15 pounds, it is heavier and slightly larger than a standard DVD player, yet its form is in no way overbearing. The all-black chassis includes a glossy front panel with an easy-to-read LCD, plus buttons for open/close, play, stop, pause, chapter-/fast-forward, chapter-back/reverse and output resolution. Tiny red status indicators tell you when you are viewing an HD source, when you’re using HDMI, and when the player is connected to a local area network. Yes, I did say “local area network.” Are you intrigued?

Take a gander at the BDP-95FD’s backside, and you’ll find the highly coveted Ethernet port that Blu-ray fans crave. Before you get too excited, though, you should know that, at this point, the Ethernet connection is only utilized for firmware updates and for connection to your home network to use the Home Media Gallery. As for video and audio connections, the BDP-95FD has everything you would want: HDMI 1.3, component video, S-video, composite video, optical and coaxial digital audio outputs and both two- and 5.1-channel analog audio outputs. Control options include an IR receiver input and an SR+ control port for use with other Pioneer equipment.

The remote was a little bulky for my small hands, but it provides all of the desirable Blu-ray/DVD buttons, most of which glow in the dark. Backlighting is more effective, but I’ll take something over nothing. Rather than using a single Output Resolution button like the one on the front panel, the remote includes an up/down toggle to change resolutions, so you don’t have to scroll one way through all of the options. The average user may not care about this little perk, but it makes life easier for video reviewers who are constantly changing output resolutions. Another geeky videophile pleasure is the ability to see the bit rate at which a source disc is encoded, accessible through the remote’s Display button. The BDP-95FD employs HDMI-CEC, so that you can use this remote to control other devices connected to the player via HDMI.

Upon start-up, the player launches the Set-up Navigator, which lets you select language and output resolution. For HDMI, the output resolution options are auto, 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p and Source Direct, which outputs every source at its native resolution. If you want to output the native resolution of most BD films, you must first enable 1080p/24 output in the main Video set-up menu, which also contains HDMI color-space options (YCbCr, RGB 16-235, and RGB 0-255). For component video, output resolution options are 480i, 480p, 720p and 1080i; as with most players, if you choose one of the HD options, SD DVDs will be output at 480p. All in all, the BDP-95FD’s menu system is cleanly laid out and easy to navigate.

As I mentioned in the introduction, the BDP-95FD allows you to pass the native bit stream version of a Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD soundtrack over HDMI. If you own an A/V receiver that can decode these new high-resolution audio soundtracks, you don’t need to make any adjustments to the player’s audio-set-up parameters. The BDP-95FD’s “HDMI Audio” menu option is set to Auto by default, which allows the player to pass bit stream for Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD, as well as the uncompressed PCM soundtracks we find on many Blu-ray releases. If your receiver lacks Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD decoders, the Auto setting causes the player to pass these high-resolution soundtracks as basic Dolby Digital and DTS. The BDP-95FD does have its own internal Dolby TrueHD decoder (but not DTS-HD); if you switch the HDMI Audio setting to PCM, the player will use its internal Dolby TrueHD decoder and output the signal as 96-kHz PCM over HDMI. The PCM setting is also a fine choice if you plan to use the player’s analog audio outputs. If so, you can designate whether you’re using a two- or 5.1-channel set-up; unfortunately, Pioneer doesn’t give you the option to combine the two for 7.1-channel output. With the 5.1-channel set-up, there are options to set the fronts as large or small and to turn the center and surrounds on or off, but the menu lacks a subwoofer setting and test tones to help match levels.

To add the BDP-95FD to my home network, I simply ran an Ethernet cable from my Qwest modem to the player’s LAN port. In the player’s Network set-up menu, I selected IP Configuration and turned on the “Auto Set IP Address,” since my network uses a DHCP server that automatically assigns an IP address. My network quickly assigned an address, and I was connected without incident. If your system doesn’t use a DHCP server, you will have to manually enter an IP address, Subnet mask and default gateway. Once the player is online, you can perform software updates and access digital media from your PC using the Home Media Gallery. On the player end, no further set-up is required to access the Home Media Gallery; however, you need to make sure that you’ve properly set up the device from which you want to stream content. The BDP-95FD can communicate with your media server over one of the three platforms: Windows Media Connect, Windows Media Player 11, or DLNA. Obviously, the first two apply to a PC running Windows XP or Vista, but the player will also communicate with any server that is DLNA-certified, like an HP Media Vault. Once the BDP-95FD recognizes a compatible server on the network, you simply hit the remote’s Home Media Gallery button to surf your digital media files. If it doesn’t find a compatible server, the onscreen menus are grayed out.

During disc playback, you have the option to make additional video and audio adjustments. You can adjust the dynamic range of audio signals and choose between Standard and Cinema picture modes, or create your own profile by manually adjusting white/black level, hue and chroma. I left the player in its default Standard picture mode, since I make these kinds of adjustments directly to my video display.

Television and Movies
I spent about a week using the BDP-95FD with its out-of-the-box software version, and I found its start-up and disc-load times to be somewhat slow – on par with my Sony BDP-S300, but not nearly as speedy as the Panasonic DMP-BD30 Profile 1.1 player I just reviewed. It took about one minute to go from power-up to a “no disc” message on the front-panel LCD. The load time for standard-def DVDs was good, averaging about 30 seconds from load to studio logo. With Blu-ray discs, though, the player took over a minute to load even basic menus, and that time grew considerably when I added BD-Java-based interactive menus to the equation. I then checked for a software update and discovered that one was available. The BDP-95FD froze up the first time I tried to launch the update, requiring a hard reboot, but the second attempt was successful. The good news is, the update improved the player’s speed in several respects. Start-up time was reduced to 48 seconds, standard-definition DVD load times remained consistent, and basic Blu-ray menus – like those in The Fifth Element (Sony Home Entertainment) or Kingdom of Heaven (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) – loaded more quickly, averaging about 25-35 seconds. As for dense, Java-based menus like those in War (Lionsgate) and Sunshine (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment), the update did improve load times, but this player was still slower than the Panasonic model, both in load times and in general navigation.

The next step was to test the BDP-95FD’s processing. The player’s Source Direct mode, which outputs every disc at its native resolution through HDMI, is a nice option for those people who would prefer to let their TV, projector, or outboard video processor handle the de-interlacing and up-conversion functions. (Through component video, Source Direct will output 1080p Blu-ray films at 1080i and SD DVDs at 480i.) I began with demos of Kingdom of Heaven, Mission: Impossible III (Paramount Home Entertainment) and the Pirates of the Caribbean films (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) output at 1080p/24. The image quality was excellent, boasting great detail and good black and white reproduction. If you choose to set the player to output 1080p/60 through HDMI, it performs all of the processing internally, for both SD and HD discs. To test a player’s 1080p/60 output with real-world content, I use the opening seconds of Chapter 8 of Mission: Impossible III, in which two priests descend a long, wide staircase. A player or TV with poor processing will produce significant moiré in the steps; the Pioneer did not. The scene had a bit more shimmer than I’ve seen from the best players and TVs, but there weren’t any blatant artifacts. Its processing performance was similar when I tested the component video outputs, displaying the Mission: Impossible scene at a 720p resolution. The BDP-95FD also did a nice job de-interlacing standard-definition DVDs through both the HDMI and component video outputs. With both of my real-world test scenes – the Coliseum flyover in Chapter 12 of Gladiator (DreamWorks Home Entertainment) and the Venetian blinds in Chapter Four of The Bourne Identity (Universal Studios Home Video) – the BDP-95FD didn’t create any blatant de-interlacing artifacts and the overall level of detail was solid.

In the audio realm, I connected the BDP-95FD via HDMI to Pioneer’s VSX-91TXH receiver, which has onboard Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD decoders. Not surprisingly, the two devices played nicely with one another. There were no HDMI communication issues, and the receiver had no trouble decoding the high-resolution soundtracks I fed it: Dolby TrueHD from Dave Matthews’ Live at Radio City (RCA), DTS-HD Hi Res from Reservoir Dogs (Lionsgate), and DTS-HD Master Audio from Kingdom of Heaven and Sunshine. The sound quality of these tracks was outstanding, and the effort to get there was minimal: a win-win.

During my time with the BDP-95FD, I didn’t have a Windows PC or DLNA-compliant server on hand to test the Home Media Gallery. However, I’ve used this feature in a previous Pioneer plasma TV, and I found it to be an easy, reliable way to stream content. Of particular note for those of you who own Media Center PCs is the ability to stream HD video; so, if you record HDTV content to your Media Center PC in another room, you can stream the recordings to the BDP-95FD for viewing on your higher-end home theater system. The BDP-95FD is the only standalone HD player I know of that offers a digital media receiver; both the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox provide similar functions.

The Downside
As I described above, the BDP-95FD passed my real-world processing tests, with both high-def and standard-def DVDs. However, it did not pass all the tests on my HQV Benchmark Blu-ray test disc (Silicon Optix) through HDMI and component video. The BDP-95FD correctly de-interlaces 1080i and only produced minor jaggies in the diagonal-bar test, but it did not pick up the 3:2 sequence in film-based 1080i content. This means that if you were watching a Blu-ray disc that had a 1080i resolution, the player might introduce moiré and other artifacts when it converts the signal to 720p or 1080p/60. Of course, most Blu-ray films have a 1080p resolution anyhow, and you can bypass the player’s internal processing using the Source Direct mode, but that means your display device needs good processing. So, while this shortcoming may not affect the player’s performance with many discs, it’s worth mentioning, because other, less-expensive players on the market offer better all-around processing.

For those people who care as much about Blu-ray’s bonus content as they do about audio and video performance, this Profile 1.0 player can’t exploit all of the format’s potential.  Despite the inclusion of an Ethernet port, the BDP-95FD is not currently BD-Live-compatible, meaning you can’t access a Blu-ray disc’s Web content. Could a future firmware upgrade change that? In theory, perhaps, but Pioneer did not provide comment on the issue. What would be more frustrating: owning a Blu-ray player with no Ethernet port or owning one that has the port but not the Web functionality? Furthermore, the BDP-95FD’s Profile 1.0 nature means it doesn’t have secondary audio and video decoders to watch picture-in-picture features and commentary on discs like War and Sunshine. When I tried accessing the Sunshine disc’s PIP features, I got a message that the feature is only available on a PIP-enabled player. While the BD-Live issue could be fixed by a firmware update, the decoder issue is a hardware limitation.

The software update I performed improved load times, but it did not improve the functionality of all BD-Java features. The BDP-95FD was sluggish in moving through the dense menus of War, and it took four attempts before I was able to cue up the interactive “Yakuza Fighter Game.” The interactive “Liar’s Dice” game on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was playable without major disruption, but there were some odd stutters and jumps between video clips. By comparison, the Panasonic Profile 1.1 player moved quickly and easily through these games.

Several times, the BDP-95FD froze when I tried to open or close the disc tray, requiring me to reboot the unit by holding down the power button. It also exhibited the occasional navigational glitch; when I tried to skip chapters too quickly, it sometimes jumped forward or backward to a random chapter. (My Sony BDP-S300 has these same issues; it’s no coincidence that these two players both start with the letters BDP.) Once again, the software update improved the issues, but did not fix them entirely; perhaps a future update will.

Conclusion
For the Blu-ray fan who cares solely about audio and video quality, the BDP-95FD delivers bit stream high-resolution audio over HDMI and produces a beautiful 1080p/24 image. Mate it with a KURO plasma and a receiver like the VSX-91TXH, and you won’t be disappointed. Still, I expect a premium-priced player to deliver premium performance, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that you can get more Blu-ray functionality, better all-around processing and faster response times in players that cost half as much as the BDP-95FD. Pioneer will likely release their own Profile 1.1 player this summer; rumor has it that the player will come in at a slightly lower price point. So, if your heart is set on a Pioneer Blu-ray player, maybe you should wait.
Manufacturer Pioneer
Model Elite BDP-95FD Blu-ray Player
Reviewer Adrienne Maxwell
Output Resolutions 1080p • 1080i • 720p • 480p • 480i
HDMI Version 1.3
Audio Format Support DTS-HD Master Audio (Bitstream) • Dolby TrueHD (Bitstream) • Multi-Channel PCM
Supported Media Formats BD-R • CD • CD-R • CD-RW • DVD • BD-RE • DVD-R • BD-ROM • DVD-RW
BD Profile 1.0
Recordable No
Extras Ethernet





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