As new formats go, Blu-ray Disc got off to a shaky start. First, there were repeated production delays with Sony's PlayStation 3, an overhauled version of the company's popular game console that features a Blu-ray Disc drive for high-definition movie playback. And then came Samsung's bungled launch of the BD-P1000, the first standalone Blu-ray Disc player to hit the market and one that incorporated a nondefeatable noise-reduction circuit that softened the picture. Along with these snags, picture quality on the initial batch of Blu-ray movie discs was surprisingly spotty, with some looking grainy and only barely sharper than regular DVDs of the same movie. While all this was happening, HD DVD, the competing high-def disc format, was nibbling away at Blu-ray's lunch with fully functional HD DVD players and uniformly great-looking movie discs garnering rave reviews in these pages and elsewhere.
But if anyone expects Blu-ray to go down easy, he's wrong. A fresh batch of Blu-ray Disc players, including a firmware-fixed Samsung BD-P1000, have hit the streets, and Sony managed to launch the PlayStation 3 in time for the holiday shopping season (not that there will be any left after the hordes of gamers and eBay entrepreneurs scoop up the limited first production run). More important, the picture quality of Blu-ray movie discs has improved. Whereas the first releases were mostly created using the MPEG-2 compression format employed in regular DVD production and HDTV broadcasting, many recent releases take advantage of newer, more efficient codecs like MPEG-4 AVC and VC-1. And the arrival of dual-layer BD-50 discs with 50-gigabyte storage capacity allows for those movies encoded with MPEG-2 to be transferred at higher bit rates than was initially possible with 25-GB single-layer discs.
To gauge Blu-ray's progress since my first run-in with the format, I gathered a mound of movie discs (and a few games, too) and the three available players: Sony's PlayStation 3 ($599 retail for the deluxe version, or $3k on eBay), Panasonic's new DMP-BD10 ($1,300), and the Samsung BD-P1000 ($999, originally reviewed in our September issue) with a new firmware upgrade. My review system included a Sony VPL-VW50 1080p SXRD front projector, an 87-inch wide Stewart Firehawk SST screen, and an Anthem AVM-50 preamp for audio and video switching and audio processing.
Ready for Blu-ray Round 2? I know I am, so let's power up the projector and get rolling.Sony Playstation 3
For that subspecies of human that plays videogames, the arrival of the Sony PlayStation 3 console is the electronic equivalent of the Second Coming or, in the PlayStation's case, the third. Unfortunately, I don't play videogames (spoken in my best grumpy-old-man voice), so you'll have to go read John Sciacca's additional report (coming soon) to get the authoritative take.
One thing I have been known to do is watch movies, an activity that the PS3's built-in Blu-ray Disc drive, which also plays DVDs, CDs, and even multichannel SACDs, readily facilitates. And when you consider that its $599 cost is $400 less than the least expensive standalone Blu-ray player on the market, the PS3 seems well worth checking out, even for a non-gaming geezer like me.
But before we get to into the movie-playing portion of this review, let's look at what else this system gives you for your 600 bucks. The unit I tested came with a 60-GB internal hard drive and built-in 802.11 b/g wireless networking capability, as well as an Ethernet port for plugging into a wired network. The system's network connections are mainly intended for online gaming, or to download data to specific titles such as NBA 07, which can be updated with team and player statistics reflecting the real world.
But beyond that, you can surf the Web using the PS3's onscreen browser or download music, photos, and video clips to the hard disk. You can also rip your CDs to the drive and the system will automatically fetch artist, album, and song title data from the All Music Guide for viewing onscreen. The PS3 displays digital photos (or MPEG-4 video clips) downloaded to its drive or from Compact Flash, SD, or Memory Stick cards plugged into its front-panel card-reader slots. Or you can plug any USB mass-storage device into one of the PS3's four front-panel USB slots and achieve the same end.
It may rock for games, but the PS3 is also equipped to deliver the best possible picture and sound from Blu-ray movie discs. Its HDMI 1.3 jack pumps out video at resolutions ranging from 480p to 1080p (with 60-Hz frame rate), while a supplied breakout cable plugs into the multi-out jack to deliver 480i-rez composite-video and stereo audio. You can buy an optional S-video/stereo audio cable or component-video cable, although the copy protection on Blu-ray Discs may limit resolution over the latter (Sony didn't send one so I wasn't able to check). The PS3 offers built-in decoding for high-rez Dolby TrueHD soundtracks, which it will convert to a multichannel linear PCM signal for output over HDMI. And since we're talking about an HDMI 1.3 connection here, it can also be used to route Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio bitstreams to an outboard receiver or processor equipped with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding, when those products become available. The PS3's optical digital output, meanwhile, conveys standard 5.1-channel Dolby Digital and DTS signals to current receivers and surround processors.
Being a game console, the PS3 comes with a game controller rather than a standard remote control, although an optional remote (shown) should be going on sale for $25 shortly. I'll tell ya, watching a non-gamer like me attempt to navigate Sony's console with the game controller was a sight not to be missed picture a confused baboon fondling a Rubik's Cube. But once I studied the manual and learned the button functions I was good to go.
The controller's button layout turned out to be fairly intuitive: Trigger buttons that you'd normally use to blow the head off of a demon during gameplay are used to skip chapters, while the ones directly below them are for forward and reverse scanning. Unlike a regular IR remote, the PS3 controller communicates with the console via the Bluetooth wireless protocol a potential problem if your home theater has an IR-based universal remote. And its battery needs to be recharged after 30 hours of use by plugging into a USB port. Since the PS3 supports up to seven separate controllers for gaming (dude, have a PS3 party with your friends!), it also needs to be "paired" with the unit by selecting a number using a set of indicator lights on its front surface. Once again, these sorts of details will at first seem alien to the non-gamer, but you'll quickly adapt.SETUP
I began my PlayStation 3 adventure by laying it out flat on a shelf in my rack (it can be placed upright as well). With its chrome-accented gloss-black case, the PS3 looked at home there, too unlike some other game consoles, the PS3 was designed as more of a serious A/V component than a toy. After hooking it up to the Anthem AVM-50 processor via HDMI, I turned it on and was confronted by the main menu interface, a scrolling horizontal row of icons that reminded me of Microsoft's forthcoming Vista interface for home theater PCs.
The first order of business was to create a User Profile, although this step applies mainly to online gaming. My second stop was at the settings submenu, where onscreen prompts helped me configure the PS3's display and audio settings. For HDMI connections, the choices included 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p video output; audio selections ranged from 2-channel/44.1-kHz PCM to 7.1-channel/192-kHz PCM.
All media entering the PS3, be they Blu-ray Discs, games, DVDs, CDs, digital photos, or downloaded music files, automatically find their way to folders labeled Video, Games, Music, and Photos. You just scroll to the folder you want, scan vertically through its contents, and hit the controller's Start or X button to launch an item. Performing these actions requires your TV to be turned on for menu access, of course you can't just shove a music CD into the PS3's front-loading slot and expect it to play.PERFORMANCE
The PS3 certainly performs like a serious A/V component. Compared to other high-def disc players I've tested, it was wonderfully fast and responsive, taking less than 10 seconds to put an image onscreen once I selected a Blu-ray Disc lodged in its slot. Pressing the controller's Select button during playback gives you a detailed display of geek stats such as video codec and data rate, audio format, and channel count. And the machine offers very smooth fast-motion playback for scanning through discs, including a 1.5x scan mode with audio. The only thing that rubbed me wrong was the PS3's fan noise, which made it much louder than any other gear in my system, including a DVR and Sony front projector. It was even noisier than my Toshiba HD DVD player, and that thing is LOUD!
Most Blu-ray Discs that I watched with the PS3 looked stunningly good. Black Hawk Down, a movie I don't remember being impressed with on DVD, looked exceptionally crisp, with a solidity, depth, and dimensionality that easily rivaled that of the best HD DVDs out there. The film at times has a grainy look, but in this case the grain was stable, finely rendered, and well integrated with the picture. Surfaces such as a cracked wall in the market area where soldiers stage their battle showed a wide palette of subtle hues and textures. And darker films such as Mission: Impossible III had a deep, chiaroscuro-like effect, showing exceptional picture contrast.
Regular DVDs I watched on the PS3 also looked quite good, proving the player capable of clean 480p cross-conversion (since the PS3 lacks a built-in scaler to bump standard DVD pictures up to 1080i/p or 720p resolution, the best you can get is 480p). With its Automatic Cinema Conversion mode engaged, the player failed the 2:3-pulldown test on a Silicon Optix test disc, but I didn't see any jagged edges in any of the movies I watched.
My audio experiences with the PS3 were equally powerful. Watching Black Hawk Down with the disc's uncompressed 5.1-channel PCM track selected, the beating helicopter wings in a scene where the Black Hawks take off on a mission had a palpable effect, as if they were slicing around the room with my head at center-axle. And when "Voodoo Child" (Stevie Ray Vaughan's version, not Hendrix's) faded in, the music sounded full and clear despite being layered under a heap of cinema sound effects.
The PS3 also proved to be a fine player for multichannel SACDs. On "Breathe" from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, the sound quality approached that of my Denon DVD/SACD player silky-smooth yet detailed, with fluid, low-reaching bass.
Did I mention that the PS3 also plays games? I'm no authority there, so I invited Isaac George, an 11-year-old family friend and PlayStation enthusiast, to come check things out. Isaac wasn't that impressed with Genji: Days of the Blade playing it, he said, wasn't all that different than doing the same thing on PS2. But he instantly warmed to NBA 07, commenting enthusiastically on its complexity, depth, and lifelike 1080p graphics. His favorite game, however, turned out to be Resistance: Fall of Man, an ultraviolent shooter (sorry, Isaac's mom) involving foul-looking creatures called Chimera. After playing the game for a few hours, it became my favorite, too. Who needs movies when you can slaughter Chimera?BOTTOM LINE
With its crisp 1080p Blu-ray Disc playback, flexible, wide-ranging audio options, and mounds of other network and gaming features, the Sony PlayStation 3 is nothing short of awesome. From my perspective, the only reason someone would buy a standalone Blu-ray player instead of a PS3 is a complete aversion to videogames either that, or the desire for a more traditional A/V form factor (that also includes upconversion of standard-def DVDs). That said, Sony's PS3 game console is one of the most exciting, well-executed home theater products I've laid my hands on in a long time. Good luck finding one!Panasonic DMP-BD10
The second standalone Blu-ray Disc player to hit the market, the $1,300 Panasonic DMP-BD10 is also currently the priciest option for high-def disc playback. For the money, this player provides compatibility with a fairly wide range of other disc types, including DVD-Audio, DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/W, and even DVD-RAM. You also get Panasonic's promise of a firmware upgrade in early 2007 that will allow the player to decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks. Thanks in advance, Panasonic!
After my head-spinning experience with Sony's PS3, I found it comforting to plug the DMP-BD10, which is very much a traditional A/V component, into my system. The player has a sturdy, high-quality build. You flip down a heavy front-panel door to reach its disc tray and front-panel buttons. Rear-panel connections include HDMI and component-video jacks, a 7.1-channel analog output for passing signals to a compatible receiver, and both optical and coaxial digital audio connections. Unfortunately, there's no Ethernet jack, which is a feature I'd expect to see on a $1,300 player.
Panasonic's remote control has the same sturdy build as the player itself. The keypad isn't backlit, but the buttons are large and easy to locate in the dark. A disc on the remote's bottom half provides controls for navigating player and disc menus, and also doubles as a jog wheel for fast or slow scanning through movies. Flipping open the remote's top half, you'll find controls to adjust picture settings such as color, brightness, gamma, and noise reduction. A multicolored row of buttons at the bottom will control interactive features on future discs.SETUP
After plugging the Panasonic into my system via HDMI and visiting its setup menu, I selected the Lighter option from its Lighter/Darker black level settings, 16:9 from its TV Aspect settings, and 1080p HDMI resolution. When using a component-video connection with the DMP-BD10, you first need to switch the HDMI Video Mode to Off in the setup menu. And the available video output resolutions for that connection are standard-def 480i/p and high-def 720p and 1080i.PERFORMANCE
The Panasonic had the same painfully slow load time as most high-def disc players I've tested, clocking 32 seconds from disc insertion to picture display (DVDs loaded much faster). When fed one of the better Blu-ray Disc releases, its picture quality was also extremely good, with sharpness, color, and contrast on par with what I saw from both the PS3 and Samsung players. DVD playback on the Panasonic proved a mixed bag, however. On the one hand, regular DVDs upconverted to 1080p by the player looked solid, clean, and reasonably sharp. But I also saw a few instances of color upsampling error, or "chroma bug." Watching a DVD of the animated Japanese film Akira, for example, I noted a slight combing effect that showed up as jagged vertical stripes in bright red patches of color. No sign of the same issue on Blu-ray Discs, however.
The Panasonic may lack built-in Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding (for now, at least), but the movies I watched all sounded spectacular. As someone who happens to have a few DVD-Audio discs in his collection, I was glad to see that it offered playback for the format. Listening to Yes's classic album Fragile was an absorbing surround experience. Not as stimulating as playing Resistance: Fall of Man on the PS3, but fun nonetheless.BOTTOM LINE
The Panasonic DMP-BD10 delivers the razor-sharp 1080p pictures we anticipate from the high-def Blu-ray format. At $1,300, however, its missing Ethernet port was a disappointment, as was its chroma bug issue on upconverted DVDs something you rarely see nowadays. Still, if you're looking for a basic Blu-ray player that will also play DVD-Audio discs, this Panasonic's an easy choice.Samsug BD-P1000
As anyone who's followed the launch of the Blu-ray Disc format knows, the $1,000 Samsung BD-P1000 was the first player out of the gate. And while being a pioneer automatically confers some status, it can also have its disadvantages: The BD-P1000 underwent the kind of intense scrutiny that's normally associated with specialists working on cadavers in a forensics lab. In our September 2006 review, we reported on Samsung's disclosure that units in the BD-P1000's initial production run had shipped with noise-reduction processing turned on by default effectively softening the picture. But that was just one glitch in the Blu-ray launch. The other was the less-than-perfect picture quality of many of the first round of Blu-ray Discs, though with only one player available, it was hard to know where to lay the blame.
Over the past few months, Blu-ray Discs have kept coming, and many new releases look great most comparisons to DVD are a thing of the past. Samsung's BD-P1000 has evolved, too, with the company releasing a firmware upgrade that solves its softening issue and makes a few other changes as well. Since Sound & Vision thoroughly covered the features and ergonomics of the BD-P1000 in our earlier review, I'll limit myself to the details of the upgrade and its effect on the player's performance.
Along with shutting off that pesky noise-reduction, Samsung's upgrade improves the player's load time. I clocked around 30 seconds from the instant I loaded a Blu-ray Disc to an actual picture onscreen, which is a few seconds faster than before the upgrade. It also gives you the option to watch 4:3 movies on Blu-ray Discs in their native aspect ratio and eliminates any picture stuttering on discs with DTS soundtracks problems we didn't catch in our initial review but we're glad are now gone. Another welcome change is the colored dots that replace the hourglass indicator that originally popped up onscreen when skipping chapters. I don't know about you, but hourglass icons remind me of slow-performing computers a stress-inducing notion, to say the least.PERFORMACE
The picture quality of Blu-ray Discs viewed on the upgraded BD-P1000 was right up there with the Sony and Panasonic players. Mission: Impossible III, for example, looked wonderfully solid and clean, and every last drop of detail appeared to come through. The picture on this disc and others such as The Great Raid also displayed punchy contrast and a vivid sense of depth qualities that seemed to be absent on the initial player, which put out a somewhat flat-looking picture. Video upconversion was also very good, with regular DVDs coming through cleanly and with reasonable sharpness.
The player's audio performance was also equivalent to that of the other players when listening to uncompressed 5.1-channel PCM tracks on Blu-ray movies. But it lacks support for either Super Audio CD or DVD-Audio disc playback. And Samsung's current firmware upgrade doesn't equip the player with built-in Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio decoding features we can look forward to seeing eventually on the Panasonic DMP-BD10.BOTTOM LINE
The firmware upgrade for the Samsung BD-P1000 puts it on much firmer footing. Anyone buying it now can expect to experience full picture resolution from Blu-ray movies, along with all the visual punch that the best discs in the format now provide. The player's audio features come up short compared to the other two players reviewed here, however, and the lack of an Ethernet port means there's no way to experience the Web-driven extras that Blu-ray Disc producers are promising. That said, Samsung has put in the effort to make the BD-P1000 a better player, and it shows.With all the movie studio and consumer electronics muscle standing behind Blu-ray Disc, I expected to see great performance from the format, and my second round of Blu-ray Disc player testing has proved that out.
The comparisons I made of the same movies on Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD showed the competing formats to be capable of delivering equal quality in all respects, including picture sharpness, stability, and depth. Granted, the main disc that I used for that test, Mission: Impossible III, is an exemplary transfer of a recent movie. But it puts to bed the notion that the controversial decision by Sony Pictures and other studios to use MPEG-2 instead of newer video compression formats like VC-1 and MPEG-4 AVC was a fatal one.A more interesting outcome was the mild "jaggies" that I noted when watching M:I III on HD DVD a video artifact caused by the Sony projector's deinterlacing of the Toshiba HD DVD player's 1080i-format output. Not all TVs will have this problem, but it confirmed for me the advantage of using a true 1080p source like Blu-ray
(Toshibas second-generation HD DVD player will feature 1080p output over HDMI, which should bring it up to speed with the players tested here).
Getting back to our trio of Blu-ray Disc players, my personal favorite was the PlayStation 3. This machine's picture and sound quality were nothing short of stunning, and its HDMI 1.3 connection and built-in Dolby TrueHD decoding give it a layer of future-proofing that the other players currently lack. I also appreciated its multichannel Super Audio CD playback and 60-GB hard disk for storing compressed music files. And even though I don't have much use for the PS3's gaming capabilities, I definitely got a kick out of Resistance: Fall of Man. The PS3's $600 price several hundred less than the others also goes a long way toward making it the Blu-ray Disc player of choice.
As for the other players, the Panasonic DMP-BD10 and updated Samsung BD-P1000 are both solid machines capable of providing fine baseline picture and sound quality from Blu-ray Discs. But both also lack built-in decoding for advanced audio formats such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio (a situation that Panasonic has promised to fix with a firmware upgrade) and Ethernet connectivity for hooking up to a home network. These missing items make them look seriously lean-featured when compared to the PS3. On the plus side, the Panasonic does offer DVD-Audio playback, but I dont think many people other than me are stoked about that feature. And both players are currently available for purchase something we can't say about the sold-out PS3.
Blu-ray Disc may have stumbled out of the gate, but my evaluation of these three players along with a pile of current movie discs has shown me that the format is more than ready to conquer the universe or at the very least compete with HD DVD. No matter which player you choose Sony's multimedia Swiss Army knife or the more traditional Panasonic and Samsung models you'll be advancing your home theater experience to a much higher level.