Sony BDP-S350 Blu-ray Player 
Home Theater Video Players Blu-ray Players
Written by Tom Volotta   
Monday, 02 February 2009

Released in the Fall 2008, Sony’s third generation BDP-S350 Blu-ray player offers consumers Profile 2.0, BD-Live interactive features along with improved performance all around without having to pay the premium early adopters did for the first and second-generation players, or to buy a Playstation 3.  Still considered the optimum target platform for Blu-ray Java and BD-Live content because of its processing power, the PS3 was a difficult notion for many to grasp since it was primarily known as a game machine.  For customers looking for the most powerful Blu-ray player, most sales people in big box stores weren’t much help in sorting out Profile 1.0, Profile 1.1 or Profile 2 features and benefits.  Either they didn’t know one from the other or they were pushing the higher priced, typically inferior standalone Blu-ray players over the cheaper, higher performing PS3.

The BDP-S350 changes all that.  At the $300 MSRP with street, online and bundle prices sometimes cutting that in half, the S350 is a terrific value not only for entry-level Blu-ray buyers, but those looking for a machine with capabilities which compete with more expensive BD players.  

Strictly speaking, right out of box the S350 is a Profile 1.1 machine, meaning it can display Bonus View (Picture-In-Picture) content contained on the disc, but is not able to run BD-Live material in titles programmed with that feature.  However, because it does have a built-in 100 Ethernet port for connection to the Internet plus an EXT slot for inserting at least 1GB of USB Flash memory (not supplied), the BDP-S350 is rated as “BD-Live Ready.”  When the USB memory is inserted and the player’s firmware upgraded through its Internet connection, the BDP-S350 becomes fully capable of Profile 2.0 operation including all the features of BD-Live.

Design:

The BDP-S350 is a sharp looking machine, consistent with Sony’s straightforward, yet slightly understated style.   It’s a standard 17” wide, but only 2 1/2” high and 8 3/4” deep, so if you’re stacking gear directly on top of itself, the S350 will probably need to be on top.  The metal housing gives it a solid feel, and although plastic, the front panel is a sleek, glossy, almost iridescent dark blue, metallic-like in appearance.  Apropos to the Blu-ray technology.   A door in the center of the panel folds down to open the disc tray.  Buttons for power and open/close are conveniently located on the top front left and right edges respectively, with play, pause and stop positioned on the right side of the front panel.  No up, down, left, right arrow controls or an Enter button.  Neither the “Play” button on the front panel nor the remote closes the tray.  Pressing “Open/Close” on the player or remote control is the only way to load the disc and start play. 

The front panel LED display offers the standard information about the status of playback or pause, elapsed and time remaining when selected via remote. HD appears when high definition content is playing on a Blu-ray disc or a DVD is being upconverted.  Pressing the Display button on the remote will show the resolution and frame rate.  HDMI lights up when such a device is connected.  EXT shows the USB flash memory inserted is ready for use.  There’s also an indicator when the S350 is downloading software.  When playing 24p material, a tiny cobalt blue light shines.  There is also a thin, grayish slit of a light in the middle of the front panel indicating when a Blu-ray disc is playing.  A mundane indicator.  Sony could have done something more appealing.  All these displays can be run in Bright, Dark or Off by selecting Dimmer under System Settings in the on screen interface.  Unfortunately, switching to Off also douses the cool looking blue 24p light.

The back panel has the basic minimum, but certainly adequate, group of I/O connections required for a Profile 2.0 BD player:  HDMI, component, S and composite video out, analog stereo audio, both optical & coaxial digital audio out, 100Mb Ethernet, an EXT slot to insert USB Flash memory (again, sold separately) and a plug-in AC cord.  The S350 doesn’t decode the new High Definition audio formats, so there are no separate analog outputs to send those surround channels to an external receiver or amplifier.  I wouldn’t expect those sophisticated decoders for a unit at this price point, and doubt buyers of this player will be disappointed.  If so, for less than $100 they could step up to the BDP-S550, which has those outputs, plus is supplied with a 1GB USB Flash memory.

If you don’t have HDMI audio gear to handle the Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD High Resolution, DTS-HD Master and LPCM 5.1 & 7.1 audio, then regular 5.1 Dolby Digital, DTS and LPCM 2 channel can be sent through the optical and coaxial digital outputs to equipment with those inputs.  There is an Audio Output Priority setting for HDMI, Coax/Optical and Stereo Analog, but all outputs appear to be fed simultaneously regardless of what’s selected.

A note about the gatekeeper of all technology:  interface connections and cables. Seeing this device delivers the best pictures and sound through a single HDMI cable, it’s time all manufacturers did away with the archaic practice of including a composite video, analog stereo audio cable with the Blu-ray players, as one was with the S350.   They are obsolete and simply contribute to clogging landfills.


Remote Control:

Sony S350 remoteWith the controls on the machines themselves pared down to the barest minimum, and virtually every operational setting done through software, and more interactive content being developed, the remote control is an even more crucial tool.  Sony’s remote has a logical, well-designed layout.  Along with many of the common features from DVD-Video remote controls of Audio, Subtitle, Angle and Display, the S350’s remote adds special buttons for the Pop Up Menu, Options and Scene Search.  It also includes a group of Red, Green, Blue and Yellow buttons just above the navigation wheel in the center, which can be programmed for special functions by title authors.  They are also used like Shift and Control keys on a computer keyboard when using the remote to enter text and number information.  

Green has become the default for setting Book Marks, but this, Scene Search and many other features are authoring choices, not necessarily standard on all titles. The Dark Knight has Book Marks, but no Scene Search.  300 has Scene Search, but no Book Marks.  WALL-E has neither, but does have an enhanced scan function which displays a graphic timeline and thumbnail image of the scene you’re in.  Again, these are authoring, programming decisions for the respective titles.  The Options buttons calls up a graphic overlay where you can select Play from Beginning, Top (sometimes locked out) or Pop Up Menus, Stop, Title and Chapter Search.  Audio and Video settings for sync, room lighting conditions and video noise reduction can also be changed.   

The remote can control many of the functions of your TV.  Additional features through the Sony Bravia Sync HDMI connection allow powering up both devices and setting optimum viewing.  I wish Sony were more consistent in their remote designs among different product types.  Although the center navigation wheel and volume control and channel changer are in the same relative positions, the number pads and machine control buttons are the opposite positions for Sony TV and BD players.  Not a big deal, but it makes for some confusion if you switch back and forth.

The remote is not backlit nor does it glow.  I’d rather operate the remote by touch anyway to avoid having to look away from the screen.  A more distinct tactile differentiation among the Play, Pause and especially the Stop button would be great. Resume does not work on BD-J titles (yet), so mistakenly pressing Stop results in having to start over from the beginning with all the loading.  A particularly annoying drawback to say the least.

Setup:

Unless it’s something where I could easily get electrocuted, saw off my hand or poke my eye out, I tend to skim over user manuals or operating instructions. Since losing life or limb isn’t likely in firing up the BDP-S350 to watch WALL-E, it was a simple matter to connect power and an HDMI cable, do the Easy Setup and start enjoying Blu-ray movies.  The printed Quick Start Guide is simple and effective.  It uses clear graphics for an overview of the A/V connections, getting the S350 running, doing the Easy Setup, plus some useful info on a few of the remote’s functions.  If using HDMI and selecting AUTO for the Easy Setup choices, the connections to your high definition equipment and to the network will be optimized.

Quick Start
  Setting "Quick Start" in the Setup cuts initial power-up time in half.

 Easy Setup is a good thing for the majority of users, because peaking under the S350’s hood reveals an almost dizzying array of setup options and features through the on-screen display interface.  Navigating Sony’s Xross Media Bar user interface, familiar to Playstation owners and now standard on Sony’s mid and higher end displays along with Vaio laptops, works well enough, but a better job could also be done in grouping categories and the specific settings under them.  There are nine main categories, each with multiple settings - nine each for Video and Audio, eight for System and so on, totaling forty-odd parameters.  On-screen explanation of their functions is sometimes lacking, so you’ll need to refer to the Operating Instructions for the finer points if you want to manually set the HDMI output to a specific resolution such as 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480p or 480i.  Determining which of the YCbCr/RGB HDMI color space conversion settings - YCbCr (4:2:2), YCbCr (4:4:4), RGB (16-235) and RGB (0-255) - is best for you can be confusing.  So, unless you need to and know how to force particular settings, just leave things on the Easy Setup defaults.  It’s simple to go back in later to toggle individual setting to your liking.

With so many options it would be nice to have a single control panel screen that summarizes the status of all the settings and even flag possible conflicts.

As mentioned, Sony doesn’t supply the minimum 1GB USB Flash drive required for BD-Live.  They recommend their 1GB Micro Vault Tiny (USM1GH) or larger capacity USB Flash memory.  At the same length and just a little wider than a standard paperclip, and the thickness of a nickel, these are indeed “Tiny.”  They’re well suited for use in Sony’s Blu-ray players because there’s no reason to remove them as would typically be done with USB Flash memory transporting data from computer to computer.  Another reason is because the EXT slot on Sony Blu-ray players is itself narrow, and the cases on some USB Flash drives might be too large to fit properly in the slot.  

I installed a 4GB USM4GH and after uploading the current firmware from Sony, the BDP-S350 was fully Profile 2.0 compliant for BD-Live operation.  Firmware updates can also be downloaded from Sony support and installed through USB Flash memory or by CD-ROM.

Network Connection: 

Connection to the Internet offers two important features:  the ability to keep your BD player updated with the latest firmware and to use BD-Live.  Just connect an RJ-45 Ethernet cable to your home network, insert the (minimum) 1GB USB memory in the EXT slot, then run Easy Setup.  It will automatically set the cryptic the IP Address Acquisition to Use DHCP, the DNS Server Auto Acquisition to Auto (both under the Network Settings/Internet Settings menu), make sure Software Update Notification is ON (System Settings) and set BD Internet Connection to Allow (BD/DVD Viewing Settings).

The Xross Media Bar interface in the BDP-S350 could have these settings within the categories arranged in a more intuitive way.  If you needed to access those network parameters mentioned above, it’s not readily apparent through the interface where those four settings are scattered among three different categories.  As another example, Network Update is at the top of the overall category list, followed by Video, Audio, etc.  System Settings is sixth and Network Settings seventh.  Assuming you’re connected to the Internet, press Network Update and the S350 checks to see if new software is available.  If your machine is current, you see the simple message, “Already updated.”  OK, what version is installed?  To find that, you must scroll down the categories to System Settings, not Network Settings, and select System Information to see the version.  Certainly reading the Operating Instructions would be useful here, but the on screen interface could be arranged a little more clearly. 

Note:  The “BD Internet Connection” setting under the “BD/DVD Viewing Settings” main category is not referred to in the printed Operating Instructions that came with my player.  Seems like that should be under Network Settings anyway.

Coincidentally, while exploring the interface, a graphic popped up advising that a new, updated software version was ready for download.  The S350 had been running 07.4.010, but version 015 was now available.  Following the prompts (and the numerous warnings NOT to turn the power off) the nine-part download via cable modem through the 10/100 Ethernet took about four minutes, then another six or seven for the BDP-S350 to install the software.  I could easily follow progress for each step both on screen and the front panel LED display.  When complete, “FINISH” appeared and the player turned itself off.  Powering back on and checking System Settings/System Information shows the new Software Version 07.4.015 is running. 

BTW:  When the player first advised a software update was ready, I had been doing Stop/Resume testing with the movie 300.   The disc remained in the S350 during the entire upgrade process, and when powered back up, I was able to simply press Play, then resume watching the movie at the exact point I left off when selecting Home on the remote to access the Xross user interface.  Impressive.

Performance:

How well a Blu-ray player operates is not totally dependent on the machine’s specifications.  Delivering terrific high definition video and sound, which the BDP-S350 does, is of course the most important job, and frankly is expected from even low priced gear.   But, with the increased emphasis on providing engaging interactive features, the user experience takes on additional significance as what were once simple linear playback devices inch towards game machines.  Differences in processing power, decoders and the virtual machines running BD-Java code all combine with the choices made in authoring the titles themselves to determine performance.  Certainly not all BD players are equal, but what you put in them also matters.

There are two authoring techniques used to create Blu-ray titles.  The simplest method, the High Definition Movie (HDMV) format, is similar to DVD-Video in its underlying architecture.  HDMV operates quickly, but is more limited in its interactive and graphic capabilities than the more advanced authoring environment, Blu-ray Java (BD-J).  BD-J titles can have superior graphics, Picture-In-Picture (Bonus View) and the ability to access content on the Internet (BD-Live), opening the door to a seemingly endless range of possibilities.

One of the conveniences we’ve come to expect watching DVDs is resume playing at the point where leaving off after pressing Stop.  Because of programming issues, BD-J titles don’t yet allow the Blu-ray player to retain the memory of that ‘state’ so the disc restarts from the very beginning, forcing you to run the gauntlet of loading Java code (those small logo-type animations), FBI warnings, studio splash videos and finally reaching a menu where you can begin navigating back to where you were.  This is a known deficit, and may be worked out in future titles, with possible upgrades to player firmware.  Happily, the BDP-S350 does perform Stop/Resume for HDMV Blu-ray titles and DVDs. 

Unfortunately, the S350 does not have still frame forward or reverse for either BD or DVD titles.  Too bad, because that’s a favorite of mine - stepping backward or forward, looking at some detail in a cut or some tiny continuity thing.  Not exactly a replacement, but there are buttons for Replay (jumps :10 intervals backwards with each button press up to 2 minutes) and Advance (:15 jumps forward to who knows where - I stopped tapping the button at 525 seconds).  This works fine for jumping back or forward a few seconds, but if you try moving longer time spans, the player begins going in that direction, displaying a still frame at the time step increment.  Slow and choppy.  You’re better off traversing longer time frames with the scan buttons or Scene Search if available.

Movies:

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.

BD-Live:

BD-Live is the latest incarnation of connecting local disc-based content with real-time, remote and in some cases, multiple user interactivity.  WebDVD applications could do it to some extent with DVDs, but were almost exclusively confined to playback on a computer.  Profile 2.0 gives set top BD players that capability, and with today’s faster broadband, more efficient compression techniques and a new generation of users plugged in to social networking, the opportunity for this to work exists.  Content is still the key, though, and in these early stages, the pickings are slim for BD-Live.

Connecting to your title’s BD-Live network can be tedious.   Initiating it is easy:  just click on BD-Live from within the title’s menu. The Hollywood studios have their own systems to deliver this material and vary greatly in what’s offered and how to get there.

Disney (WALL-E) is by far the most sophisticated network and expansive range of features.  Paramount (Iron Man) has the least in terms of offering, but you can also access their BD-Live system easier.  Warner (The Dark Knight) is in the middle.

Disney BD-Live
The Disney BD-Live Interface

All require you to register with an email address, user name, and password and in most cases, a home address.  An on-screen keyboard allows using the player’s remote control arrow and enter keys to submit info.  Disney is the most rigorous in qualifying users, citing their family orientation and concern for security.  After the initial registration though the Blu-ray player, the studios process and send you a confirming email to then log back into BD-Live through the player.  Customer support needs some upgrading all around, as requests to have passwords resent can take days for a response.

Iron Man had only a simple, multiple choice, time-based (the quicker you select the correct answer, the more points) trivia game available.  BD-Live isn’t necessary to implement that, but apparently so many people wanted to explore Iron Man BD-Live that Paramount’s site crashed when the BDs were first released. Warner had a few more interactive features available for TDK, including downloads of movie trailers and live special events such as the one with director Christopher Nolan. But Disney is head and shoulders above them all.  The BDisney-Live Network, although not yet fully decked out, has numerous options for playing private games or against online opponents, social networking to chat with friends during a movie, promotions, Movie Rewards and more to come.  Disney has announced they will integrate the use of laptops, iPhone & iTouch and other interface devices to eliminate the cumbersome navigation and data entry via the BD player remote.

The Sony S350 operated reasonably well in BD-Live.  It’s a far cry from using the Internet from your computer, but content and performance upgrades should improve the experience.

Note:  Even though the S350 may be running its most up-to-date firmware, you will be prompted from time to time by the respective BD-Live sites to update their software.  Do that.  Considerable development is underway for BD-Live applications.  Just how much the audience for Blu-ray packaged media wants all these extra interactive - what some might call interruptive - additions to the movie experience remains to be seen. 

Conclusion:


It’s hard to knock the Sony BDP-S350.  The machine does its job, is dependable, quiet, built solid and looks good in delivering the key features for a Blu-ray player, all at a reasonable entry-level price. Spending a few bucks for a 1GB Flash drive and upgrading the player’s firmware instantly makes the S350 into a full Profile 2.0, BD-Live machine.  Some traditional features like still frame advance and reverse aren’t available, and the on screen display could reveal more information about elapsed, remaining and total time simultaneously.  I had a few quibbles with the arrangement of settings in the Xross interface, but these are minor, especially if connecting your BDP-S350 to your AV system via HDMI 1.3 and using Easy Setup to configure the defaults to get up and running with the least hassle for optimum viewing and listening pleasure.

One closing trivial nit to pick:  When you have a Blu-ray disc loaded in the player and click Home to access the S350’s menu, under Video you’ll see a graphic rectangle with a disc in the center.  It’s labeled “BD-ROM.”  That’s the movie you’re going to watch! Why so techy calling it BD-ROM?  I know, I know, it is a Blu-ray Read Only Memory disc, and the Blu-ray Disc Association doesn’t have all the format variations the DVD Forum has for DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, DVD-R, DVD+R and so on.  But I’m watching a movie here!  Just call it “Blu-ray” or “Blu-ray Disc” in the user interface.  Maybe even display the title.  The BDP-S350 is certainly smart enough to do that.

Manufacturer Sony
Model BDP-S350
Output Resolutions 1080p • 720p
HDMI Version 1.3
Audio Format Support DTS-HD Master Audio (Bitstream) • Dolby TrueHD (Bitstream)
Supported Media Formats BD-R • CD • DVD • DVD+R • DVD-R • BD-ROM • DVD-ROM • DVD-RW • DVD+RW
BD Profile 2.0
Recordable No





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