Since the Sony PlayStation 3 appeared on the scene, it's been CNET Australia's go-to recommendation for those interested in Blu-ray — even if they weren't interested in gaming. At AU$700, the PS3 deliversa full-service Blu-ray player, with the added value of being a top-notch digital media streamer and gaming machine as well. But as Blu-ray players get better and cheaper, the equation is no longer so cut and dry. Sony's own BDP-S350 is a good example.
With its latest firmware update in place, the S350 adds full BD-Live (Profile 2.0) compatibility to its bag of tricks. That leaves only its annoyingly recessed USB port (for added storage) and its lack of onboard DTS-HD Master Audio decoding (not a huge issue outside of audiophile circles) as the remaining red flags — and neither is a deal-killer. The Sony is in a neck-and-neck battle with such other full-featured standalone Blu-ray players as the Panasonic DMP-BD35 and the Samsung BD-P1500. And now that all of those models can be found for under AU$400, they're realistic alternatives to the PS3 (for nongamers, at least).
Nearly all standalone Blu-ray players so far have looked like oversize DVD players, requiring a lot of depth and width in your rack to make 'em fit. The BDP-S350 is radically different in this regard; it's about half as deep as every other Blu-ray player we've tested, coming in at 430 mm wide by 220 mm deep by 60 mm high. The front of the player is mostly covered by a blue-tinted, reflective faceplate, and there's an LCD screen on the right. On the far right are a couple playback controls, although there are no chapter forward/backward buttons for when you can't find the remote control. There is also a single blue indicator light, which tells you if the player is outputting at 24 frames per second. Altogether, it's a sharp-looking player — albeit not as sharp as the Samsung BD-P1500 — and its small footprint is a welcome design touch.
The BDP-S350 is easily the smallest Blu-ray player we've seen so far.
The included remote is pretty good. The centre is dominated by a directional pad, which is surrounded by important buttons such as menu, options, and home. Toward the bottom are separate rockers for volume and channel changing, for those who want to use the remote to control their TV as well. We generally liked the layout, and there's enough button differentiation to navigate by feel in a darkened home theatre.
One major design flaw is the deeply recessed USB port — used for BD-Live compatibility — on the rear of the unit. Our first problem is that it's located on the rear of the unit in the first place, as that can be a pain to get to in many home theatre cabinets and you may not want to dedicate a USB memory stick solely to the BDP-S350. Secondly, because of how deep the USB cavity is, many types of USB memory sticks won't fit — you'll need a long slim one to fit properly. The deep recess means you won't have a USB stick protruding too far from the back of your player, but since the player is already quite shallow and there will already be cables connected to the back, we can't see it being much of an advantage.
The BDP-S350 also uses a version of Sony's XMB graphical user interface, which should be familiar to anyone who has used a PlayStation 3, PSP, or a recent Sony HDTV. The high-definition graphics are a nice touch, and we found it easy enough to make tweaks in the menus. Geeks will enjoy the amount of tweakable options, including the highly desired capability to force the BDP-S350 to output 24 frames per second. A somewhat esoteric perk we enjoyed is that it's possible to access the XMB menu without stopping a disk, so you can make minor tweaks like changing the resolution without having to reload the entire movie.
Sony's XMB graphical user interface looks great in high-definition, and we liked that you could access it without stopping the movie.
Originally sold overseas as "BD-Live ready," the local version is pre-installed with necessary promised enabling these interactive features. The player is fully BD-Live/Profile 2.0 compatible, meaning that it can access the online features available on certain discs. To date, there hasn't been a lot of compelling content, but the point is that you're getting a player that's as close to state-of-the-art as possible. The feature is there when and if better BD-Live content turns up down the road.
High-resolution soundtrack support on the BDP-S350 is good, although not perfect. There's onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD — which means you can hear Dolby TrueHD on any HDMI-compatible receiver — but DTS-HD Master Audio cannot be decoded by the player. On the other hand, the BDP-S350 can output both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio in bit stream format, which means that people with newer receivers with onboard decoding can still take advantage of DTS-HD Master Audio. Of course, the similarly priced Sony PlayStation 3 can decode both formats, which means you only need a receiver with HDMI support.
Connectivity is fairly standard on the Sony BDP-S350. The HDMI output can handle HD video up to 1080p as well as multichannel high-resolution audio. There's also a component video output, which can output Blu-ray movies at 1080i and DVD at 480p. There are also two legacy standard-definition video outputs, S-Video and composite video, but neither give you the full advantages of Blu-ray.
For audio, the HDMI output is the best option but there are also both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, although these can't handle the full resolution of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. For analog audio, there is a stereo RCA output. The big omission is the lack of analog 5.1 outputs, which means that those with older receivers won't be able to take advantage of Dolby TrueHD decoded by the BDP-S350.
It's hard to tell from the image, but the USB port is actually recessed inside the player, so you'll need a slim USB stick to reach it.
Rounding out the rest of the connectivity is the aforementioned USB port and an Ethernet port. Like the USB port, the Ethernet port can't be used to stream files from your computer; it's dedicated to accessing firmware updates and pulling Blu-ray-specific content off the Internet.
Blu-ray playback performance from all Blu-ray players is generally excellent, providing a far superior image to DVD when viewed on a large HDTV in a theatre environment. We have, however, seen some flaws on less-expensive Blu-ray players — particularly when the players are set to output 1080p signals at 50 frames per second — so we were interested to see how the BDP-S350 measured up.
We began our high-definition tests with Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on Blu-ray. During the Film Resolution Loss Test, the BDP-S350 looked good on both the test pattern and the slow pan across Raymond James Stadium, showing none of the moire or jaggies that we often see on cheaper players. Next, we looked at the Video Resolution Loss Test, and the BDP-S350 was not able to correctly display this test pattern, as the most detailed resolution box had a strobelike effect. Next up were a pair of jaggies tests, and the BDP-S350 handled them with ease, clearly rendering both three pivoting lines and a rotating white line without excessive jaggies.
Switching from test patterns to program material, we popped in Ghost Rider on Blu-ray, and the BDP-S350 had no issues rendering the end of Chapter 6, as the grille of the RV remained perfectly detailed as the camera pulled away. We also looked at the beginning of Chapter 8 of Mission Impossible: III, and we saw no moire in the stairs in the background, which confirms what we saw in the test patterns — the BDP-S350 handles film material well. Next up we tried Tony Bennett: American Classic, and at the beginning of Chapter 7 — which includes some video-based footage — we did see some minor jaggies on the clapperboard, but not quite as many as we saw on the BD-P1500.
It's important to stress that the differences between these players is slight, and that only the most perceptive videophiles will notice the difference. Overall we found the DMP-BD50 to have slightly less jaggies on video-based titles, but you'll notice them very rarely. Also note that if you plan on using these players in 1080p/24 mode, the differences essentially disappear, as we noticed virtually no differences between the players in 1080p at 24 frames per second mode.
We also tested how quickly the BDP-S350 powers on and loads discs, and it's a step above other players released this year, but with a major caveat: to take advantage of the speedier load times you need to set the player to Quick Start mode, which uses more power in Standby. In our tests, the BDP-S350 used 16 watts while playing a Blu-ray movie, 9.3 watts when off in Quick Start mode and 0.5 watt when off in normal mode. That being said, the BDP-S350 powers on in a very speedy six seconds in Quick Start mode. Once on, the BDP-S350 also loads discs about as quickly as other new Blu-ray players, with Mission Impossible: III loading in about 27 seconds, and the BD-Java heavy Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man's Chest in 2 minutes and 6 seconds.
Standard DVD performance
The number of movies available on DVD still dwarfs the number of available Blu-ray movies, so DVD performance remains an important factor. We found the BDP-S350's performance on test patterns was pretty solid, so we expected similar results with actual program material, and we were not disappointed. We popped in Star Trek: Insurrection and the BDP-S350 did a solid job on the introduction, as the curved railings of the bridge and hulls of the boats were rendered smoothly. We switched over to Seabiscuit and took a long look at the opening sequence. While we did notice a few subtle jaggies, we were overall very impressed. The BDP-S350 handled the black-and-white photos better than most players we tested. In all, the BDP-S350 should satisfy all but those that need the absolute best in DVD playback.