Pioneer BDP-320 Blu-ray Player Review 
Home Theater Video Players Blu-ray Players
Written by Thomas Spurlin   
Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Pioneer made a nice-sized splash at the 2009 CEDIA conference in Atlanta, touting several high-quality Blu-ray players with a slate of appealing hardware underneath the hood.  One of those players was the BDP-320 (released earlier this year), their second-tier model currently priced at $399.99 list.  With versatility and quality in mind with this 1080p/24, Profile 2.0 machine, it delivers a ravishing high-definition experience – though you’ll likely be waiting for prolonged gaps in between load times for the content to appear.  You’ll discover that it’s a player inadvertently designed for the patient once you’ve grown accustomed to some of its slights, and persistence will eventually pay off once this Pioneer gets on the move.

Out of the Box:

At first glance, the BDP-320 is a sleek unit with a very appealing aesthetic.  It’s pitch-black with a glossy sheen and somewhat prone to fingerprints, yet the attractiveness certainly trumps the potential for smudges.  At the front are two circular buttons, one for Power and one for Play, that also mesh into the solid black design for a streamlined look.  Its dimensions place the width at a hair under 17 inches, the height right at 3 inches, and the depth pretty much at a solid foot back, so it’s fairly standard in girth – if a little slimmer across than other players.  Size and curvature of the unit largely resembles a Motorola cable box, with a groove straight down the middle separating the top and bottom.   It helps to hide the slim Stop/FF/Eject buttons, which are standard, thin plastic push buttons that underwhelm a bit with their solidity.  Included alongside the unit itself are a set of composite A/V cables, a generic AC power cable, a set of batteries, Pioneer’s stock remote and the Operations Manual.


Next to the disc tray is a very small, circular protruding Eject button, which causes the tray to react quickly after being pushed.  It also serves as a quick-jump remote start button, as pushing the Eject button boots up the player as normal. The tray itself reminds me more of a stable computer drive instead of a traditional, less flimsy variety; it comfortably slides in and out, staying stable both back and forth.  Just above the Blu-ray logo lays a blue light that toggles on and off for different purposes.  Using the remote’s dimmer can remove it (discussed later).The LED display right next to the disc tray contains time and Pause/Play markings, along with indicators that show whether a signal is in HD, 24/50/60hz, and both PQLS and LAN indicators.

To the rear, we’ve got a robust offering of inputs to fit just about every need.  Aside from the expected HDMI port, Ethernet input, and Toslink option, we’ve also got outputs for 7.1 channels of analog sound – a step-up from Pioneer’s introductory model, the 120.  Also to the rear is a USB port that works as a storage port for photographs and MP3s, as well as a BD-Live storage and system updates.   Sadly, an internal wireless device isn’t available, so you’ll have to run a LAN-line Ethernet cord to get online with BD-Live.  Components jacks are also available to the rear for those without HDMI receivers / televisions.  For the purpose of this review, however, we’ll be running an HDMI player to a bitstream-capable receiver, Onkyo’s TX-SR605.

Setup:

Pioneer’s initial on-screen setup offers a very sturdy, step-by-step “Initial Setup” process that takes us through a systematic fail-safe process in getting the BDP-320 up and running.  With an easy-to-view gray/black interface, we’re given options to adjust Video Out, Audio Out, Speakers, HDMI, Network, Language, Date, Navigator, Playback, Parental Lock, and additional Options.  Video Out offers a limited range of adjustment, merely to set screen size, while Audio Out tinkers with the Dolby Digital/DTS/AAC Out.  Speaker setup can alow for different Audio Output modes, Speaker size/distance attenuating, and Channel level.

When playing a disc, pressing the Video Adjust button brings up Pioneer’s picture adjustment options.  Selecting one of the “Memory” slots opens up a scaled adjustment menu, which happens to be rather robust.  Within this window, we’re given the option to adjust Progressive Motion (480i/p), Pure Cinema (480i/p), noise reduction for Y (luminance), C (chroma), and B (block noise) , Mosquito Noise Reduction, Detail, White Level, Black Level, Hue, Chroma Level, and so on.  The noise reduction cannot be adjusted over HDMI 1080p/24 signals, however.  These options were left along, with “Pioneer PDP” as the selected display function.

pioneer back

Most of these sections are self-explanatory, but there are a few points to clarify: under Video Out, it gives two options on how to send 4:3 material – either by Full or Normal.  To ensure that you’ll be able to do a manual zoom with your television, you’ll want to select “Normal” to get the non-anamorphic image up.  Under HDMI, we’ve got a smorgasbord of functions, including High-Speed Transmission (On/Off), HDMI Color Space (including Deep Color at YcbCr 4:4:4, along the standard array RGB/YCbCr options) , Audio Out (which selects whether to decode or bitstream audio -- Auto, PMC, Off), Kuro Link, Display Power On, Display Power Off, and PQLS (Precision Quarts Locking System) for links to other Pioneer A/V receivers.  Sadly, there’s not a toggle for screen saver time, which will be a burden later once you’ve discovered the horribly quick speed in shifting to the standby screen.

Remote:

The remote included with the BDP-320 mirrors that of other current-model Pioneer players.  It’s a streamlined, unaffectionate remote that’s a bit on the long and heavy side, yet it packs in most of the options you’d want.  Along with the typical assortment of Start/Stop, Skip, Fast Forward (containing four different speeds) and Top Menu buttons, it also contains a side Pop-up Menu to access the on-screen JAVA-based menus available during the Blu-ray presentations.  Near the bottom, the four-color options for Bookmarks are available, along with the aforementioned “Video Adjust” button   

At the center is the main directional hub, made of a ridged texture that might cause a shiver or two down the spine if fingernails are run along the ridges.  As per usual, four central menu buttons are available at different corners of the circle: Top Menu, Home Menu, Return, and Tools, which  brings up the GUI during the program being watched.  In addition, a Display button is available to monitor the types of files, bitrate flow, and codecs used for Blu-ray media.


Also, we’ve got two other appealing features: a Resolution Toggle button to select between 480i/p to 1080p/24 (no 720p option available), as well as a Secondary Audio/Video toggle.  Furthermore, a well-tuned FL dimmer can toggle the brightness of the LED display all the way down to black.  The remote certainly lacks a few functions that we’d like to see, including a backlight for the buttons and a manual zoom for non-anamorphic discs, but it serves the purpose well and appears to be a one that’ll withstand the test of time.  It’s simple and frill-free, yet comfortable and versatile enough to do the job.  

Blu-ray Performance:


Pioneer RemoteAfter running Spears and Munsil’s Blu-ray demo disc to satisfactory standards in regards to deinterlacing, jaggedness, and color correctness, it was time to give Paramount’s 2.35:1 AVC Blu-ray presentation of Braveheart a spin on the BDP-320, and the results were pretty astonishing.  Depth and dimensionality were exceedingly pleasant, etching out details through fabric, skin texture, and the Scottish landscape splendidly.  As to be expected, many varietals of the color green can be seen everywhere, from lush exuberance in the landscape throughout the costume design.  It all looks splendid and extremely stable, retaining a very pleasant contrast ratio and naturalness about the film.  Braveheart also tests the Dolby TrueHD capabilities of the player, which sounded extremely good.  Separation was exceptional, while the lower-frequency channel billowed in all the right spots.

To test a different style of disc, next up was Criterion’s recent release of the 1.85:1-framed, AVC-encoded Monsoon Wedding Blu-ray.  It’s a colorful film with plenty of visual poetry, but it’s also a “difficult” disc in that there’s a plethora of grain and structure within the 16mm print.  Considering the source, though a high-quality presentation, the BDP-320 did a spectacular job of retaining vivid colors and tight detail when available.  The largely front-focused DTS HD Master Audio sounded robust and natural, carrying sound elements across the soundstage in all the right moments.  It’s worth noting that the Java menus on Criterion’s disc were rather slow and choppy to react in Pioneer’s player, rendering an unsmooth movement to and fro.

Rounding things up, it was time to give Disney’s Pinocchio, presented in 1.33:1 in an AVC encode, a spin to see how full-frame HD content looked.  The results were naturally staggering, with Pioneer’s player immaculately rendering the hand-drawn lines and lurid colors.   Pinocchio is one of the more striking Blu-rays on the market, sporting an amazingly clean print and bold color palette – each of which really shimmered with the BDP-320.  Alongside that, the DTS HD Master Audio filled the speakers with plenty of sound, showcasing a delicate handling of the aged soundtrack.  Each of the bars to the sides of the 1.33:1 framing look balanced and pitch black when rendered with the image.

Pioneer’s player is a Profile 2.0 machine, meaning it can handle the likes of Picture-in-Picture and additional advanced features from the Blu-ray discs.  It holds a 1GB internal memory unit to support the content, while a USB port is available to the rear for supplemental storage.  However, getting the complete BonusView picture-in-picture experience to work on the BDP-320 was a hassle, as the video on Warner Bros’ The Matrix Blu-ray would only play without an audio track to accompany the content when in “Auto” mode (read: when bitstreaming Dolby TrueHD).  Toggling the secondary audio/video labels proved to be a pointless venture.  It does, however, work when the audio is decoded internally with the “PCM” function, so a simple pull-out-and-switch maneuver makes it possible – a pain, sure, but still workable. It’s also worth noting that the menu movement with BD-Java was unappealing with most discs, with both The Matrix and Monsoon Wedding often looking choppy when the blocks slide on and off the screen.

We’re also working with a BD-Live capable machine through an Ethernet LAN port, and the connection was strong when it was functional.  Booting up Sony’s BD-Live page through the Blood: The Last Vampire disc was unsuccessful, as it stalled out and landed on a black screen; Disney’s menu screen, however, loaded up just fine.  Also, updating the firmware is a snap through the Internet connection.  This player was boosted up to 3.34a firmware from 3.25 for this review, and it happened a lot quicker than the 77 minutes that it quoted.  It was more like ~8-9 minutes from start to finish, 10 to be safe.

The BDP-320 is a Region-A locked machine, as tested by Fox’s Region-B locked edition of The Fountain.  Only the Fox red screen popped to notify of the disc’s coding.  It also doesn’t have the capacity to decode PAL special features into NTSC, as tested by Tartan’s I’m a Cyborg UK Blu-ray, so any supplements available in PAL on import discs will only play with sound running through the speakers.

DVD Quality:

Disney’s Legend of the Seeker found its way into the machine as a standard-definition test disc, which generated impressive results.  Combined with stellar, near-HD image quality in this set of episodes, everything looks exceptional through Pioneer’s BDP-320 – looking startlingly close to high-definition quality.  Details in wood, strands of hair, and other production elements looked outstanding.  Textures look extremely good, never looking flat of wrongly contrasted.  The Dolby Digital 5.1 track showcased exemplary quality of dimensionality and verbal tautness, making the lack of high-definition release for that particular program much easier to swallow.

To give a more difficult disc a spin – as well as to test the legacy capabilities of the disc – we popped in Universal’s DTS edition of Galaxy Quest, a standard-definition presentation that dates back quite a few years when separate DTS/Dolby Digital editions were offered.  All points considering, Pioneer’s scaling chip did a great job at upconverting this to highly-tangible levels, keeping elements like the leather on suits and skin textures rather well.  It also adds a bit of depth that wasn’t expected, taking it up the ranks of faux-HD quality.  The legacy DTS track also sounded extremely good, stretching crisp elements to the rear and packing quite a punch in the lower-frequency levels.  

Testing non-anamorphic discs was handled with Grosse Pointe Blank, an old MGM disc in desperate need of an upgrade.  Pioneer’s player does a decent job when blown up through the television’s internal zoom, though the grain and such looks a hair thicker than with other capable players.  You’ll only be able to toggle non-anamorphic discs with your television’s Zoom feature, as the BDP-320 doesn’t have an internal option.  With your televisions natural scaler in mind, the Pioneer’s rendering isn’t too shabby for non-anamorphic discs.

Pioneer’s BDP-320 is also a Region One DVD player without an internal PAL decoder, so region-free discs from the UK and such might not play in the unit.

Music Quality:

The Pioneer’s capacity to handle music is rather stunning, as tested by giving Nordic’ 2L Audio discs a spin.  When running Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D Major through the DTS HD Master Audio track, it provided an overwhelming surround experience filled with rich highs, delightful mid-range notes, and very clear, non-booming lows.  Toggling between the Master Audio and Uncompressed PCM tracks proved to be enlightening, as the Master Audio exhibited crispness and grace that step above.  Though it touts that SACD discs cannot be played in the machine, 2L Nordic’s SACD disc fired up fine in the BDP-320.  It can also play MP3, Windows Media Player, and JPEG files using their Home Media Gallery from a DVD-R/RW disc.  The Home Media Gallery, a simple interface, interacts with the discs in a playlist fashion and makes selecting the options a little more graphically based than simply skipping around, though that’s possible as well.

CD quality was tested with Sigur Ros’ sonically potent “Takk…” record from a few years back, a robust new wave album rich with multifaceted elements and a broad aural range.  Thumping through “Glosoli” was a potent experience, expressing the player’s competence in a broad range of lower-to-mid frequency bass.  It also showcases a wide array of higher-frequency elements that pushed the ceiling of the soundstage well.  Moving on to the more delicate “Saeglopur” offered an opportunity to indulge in the player’s limited gracefulness, which was satisfying to all ends.  When playing a CD, the “Tools” menu allows for a few very rigid alterations to the content, switching from Stereo to 1L/2R.  It’s not specifically engineered to be a walloping musical device, but the quality isn’t too shabby all points considered.

Impressions:

Pros: Phenomenal Audio / Video Quality, Quiet, Cool

Pioneer’s BDP-320 is a powerhouse in the overall audio/video quality department, standing tall up against the heavy hitters in the game right now – both against Oppo’s BDP-83 and the cost-efficient Slim Playstation 3.  It renders pleasing blacks with robust gradation in contrast, bright yet accurate colors, and very tightly-realized detail.  Audio quality also pounds with top-shelf quality, pumping the soundstage with a load of high-density resonance.  It fluidly bitstreams audio codecs without hiccups and decodes them equally as well to PCM, while also streaming legacy tracks to graceful levels.  Furthermore, the upscaling capacity of this 1080p unit is impressive, making DVDs look smashingly detailed – even for some aging discs.

Pioneer Right


On an operational level, the BDP-320 also runs particularly quiet.  It’s so silent that it’s almost confusing whether the player is powered on, especially if the dimmer has been switched all the way to pitch-black levels.  Lights on the front can indicate as such, especially the soft-blue light directly above the Blu-ray emblem, but that’s still an impressive feat for this piece of machinery. Along with being a whisper-worthy machine, it’s also a very low-temperature one at that.  Never was it hot to the touch or even hinted at generating too much warmth.  Combined with the minimal lighting on the front of the unit and the quiet, cool running, it can offer a very fluid screening experience in a mid-level sound room.  Its capacity to sneak inconspicuously into the dark makes it a very fine option.

Cons: Extremely Slow Load Times, No Wi-Fi, Quick Screen Saver Transition

However, the Pioneer BDP-320 does have a few hindrances, biggest being the mammoth load times which can be very, very cumbersome.  It all largely depends on the complexity of the Blu-ray disc you’re trying to fire up, but – for example – loading up Criterion’s Blu-ray of Monsoon Wedding took nearly two minutes from initial disc load to playing the film.   Another slight against the player is the lack of an internal wireless device in this price range, unlike some of its less expensive alternatives.  Actually, this is more of an equalizer than necessarily a negative, because this unit would be a very quick-shot recommendation if wireless internet connectivity came packaged with the device.

Also, the rate which the BDP-320 shifts to Screen Saver mode from Pause is astronomically fast, allowing less than 10 seconds for us to see the material on-screen before the shift.  Pausing material to look at detail or the like will result in a fury of pressing the directional button to keep the screen active.  Another added grievance comes from the inability to play BonusView content in bitstream mode for many discs, instead requiring the user to hop out of the interface, run Initial Setup again, and select PCM for the option. Furthermore, the inclusion of a USB port to the back of a system without one at the front isn’t appealing, as you’ll have to either pull the unit out or reach behind it to hook/unhook a device for usage – not to mention that the storage device cannot be used for non-BD-Live material.   Essentially, these points mean that the Pioneer’s overall quality in rendering content has to speak for itself – and it largely does, though we’re suffering from a few pangs rustled up by the offerings on other units.
 
Final Thoughts:

After spending some time with the Pioneer BDP-320, it’s very easy to grow fond of it.  It has a few issues with supplemental factors regarding the Blu-ray experience – namely lengthy load times and semi-argumentative BonusView functionality – but the aural and visual quality is simply spectacular.  Upscaled DVD are also handled in a fashion that takes them a healthy step closer to looking close to HD-quality, while CDs and reference DTS/PCM audio tracks sound healthy and vibrant.  At $400, it’s a little harder to give a full-blown recommendation for the unit, especially considering the less-fussy, inexpensive, wireless competition in the PS3 that’s only a shallow step below the BDP-320 in quality – as well as a lush upper-scale competitor in Oppo’s dynamic BDP-83.  Sandwiched in between the two, it’s got to justify the quality and the money by producing an outstanding Blu-ray experience – and, aside from the stalls in time, it more than accomplishes this feat.  Pioneer’s BDP-320 knows its strengths, and it’ll really impress if you’re able to look past a few mild speedbumps and see the pure aptitude of this machine.

 

Blu-rays Tested

Spears & Munsil High-Definition Benchmark Blu-ray Disc EditionBraveheartMonsoon WeddingDisney's PinocchioThe Matrix Blood: The Last Vampire

DVDs Tested

Legend of the Seeker DVDGalaxy Quest DVDGrosse Point Blank DVD

Music Tested

 2L Nordic SACDTakk CD

Manufacturer Pioneer





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