- Review Price: £454.00
The BDP-S500 is Sony’s top-end Blu-ray deck, and is the bigger brother of the BDP-S300. While we were impressed by the S300’s picture quality, the lack of key features made the sub-£300 price tag seem like a false economy.
However, the BDP-S500 adds many of these missing features, including Dolby True HD and DTS HD decoding. The external design is also vastly superior to the S300, thanks mainly to the inclusion of a motorised front panel that elegantly glides down when you press open/close. The casing is also bigger, presumably to give all that high-end circuitry inside room to breathe, but despite its chunky dimensions the deck still looks classy in an understated kind of way.
The rear panel is well equipped without going overboard. Video output duties are handled by the HDMI v1.3, component, S-video and composite sockets, though anyone using the composite socket to view hi-def discs needs their head examined. On the audio side you’ll find optical and coaxial digital audio outputs and 5.1-channel analogue outputs, which allow those without an HDMI-equipped receiver to enjoy decoded HD audio soundtracks, as well as Dolby Digital and DTS.
But if you’ve snapped up a receiver with HDMI input and the relevant decoding capabilities, then you can transfer True HD, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS HD bitstreams or up to eight channels of linear PCM via the deck’s HDMI output. It doesn’t support DTS HD Master Audio however, so audiophiles who want to access these hi-res soundtracks (found mainly on Fox releases) will be left disappointed.
The digital connection also outputs video in resolutions of 720p, 1080i and 1080p, and the player will upscale DVDs to any of these formats. When playing Blu-ray discs encoded in 1080p/24, it will output them in their native frame rate, so if you have a TV with the relevant processing mode then you can view movies in the same way they were shot for the cinema. If not, then the deck also provides 1080p/60 output.
Among the S500’s other tricks is the ability to play recordable BD-R and BD-RE discs (which will come in handy one day, trust us) alongside DVD, CDs and even discs containing JPEG and MP3 files (but not compressed video formats like DivX).
It’ll also play AVCHD camcorder recordings on 8 or 12cm DVD discs, and if they were recorded using x.v.Colour (or xvYCC), then the BDP-S50 will play them back complete with an extended colour range, but you’ll need a TV with HDMI 1.3 input. This is all very nice, but we’d have traded it for SACD playback, which a high-end deck like this is tailor made for.
All of these fancy features can’t hide our disappointment at the fact that the BDP-S500 is Profile 1.0 as opposed to 1.1, which means it won’t play the advanced interactive features found on some Blu-ray discs. The significance of this depends on your level of film geekiness – if you’re one of those movie buffs who loves to devour every bonus feature on a disc, then this deck’s limitations could prove to be very frustrating. You might be better off opting for the PS3 (currently the only Profile 1.1 Blu-ray player) or waiting for the wave of Profile 1.1 standalone players to hit the shops later this year. But if you couldn’t give two hoots about extras, the S500 will still play the movie and all of the other non-BonusView features.
The S500’s menu layout is exceptionally easy to follow and is stylishly presented in crisp hi-def. A lot of care and attention has also gone into the remote’s design, which boasts thoughtful button arrangement and a fetching blue-tinged circle of direction keys in the middle. The deck responds swiftly to remote commands, making this one of the slickest Blu-ray decks around, and it copes admirably with standard BD-J menus like the one found on ”Spider-Man 3”.
That said, this disc does take a while to load, but once it does it’s most definitely worth the wait. The S500’s picture quality is phenomenal, delivering some of the most pristine 1080p/24 images we’ve laid eyes on. When spinning ”Spider-Man 3”, the deck’s picture prowess is evident right from the first few frames – the deep blacks, vivid colour reproduction and ultra-sharp detail handling give the image an irresistible three-dimensionality that draws you right into the action. Outdoor scenes look the best, particularly the broad daylight battle between Sandman and Spider-Man through the streets of New York. And during the scene in which Flint Marko first forms into Sandman, the sweeping grains of sand are so flawlessly reproduced that it emphasises just how unconvincing those CGI effects really are.
These magnificent pictures are accompanied by barnstorming audio playback. We delved into the uncompressed PCM 5.1 soundtrack on the ”Spider-Man 3” disc from the 5.1-channel analogue outputs and marvelled in the crisply voiced rear effects, strident dialogue reproduction and foundation-rumbling bass level. We can’t fault the quality of CD playback either, which sounds slick and well-balanced – though the presence of 5.1-analogue output only serves to remind us how sweet SACD playback would have been.
The BDP-S500 is an exceptionally talented Blu-ray player, delivering the sort of gob-smacking picture and sound quality that movie buffs go nuts for. And barring the disappointing omission of DTS HD Master Audio support and SACD playback, the feature list is pretty good as Profile 1.0 players go.
But that last line is the big problem. There’s no escaping the fact that this player will be outdated within months, unable to play the interactive Blu-ray features found on Profile 1.1 compliant discs. The sensible thing would be to wait for the next generation of players to come through or opt for a PS3, but if patience isn’t one of your virtues, or you simply don’t care about interactive extras, then you could do a lot worse than the BDP-S500.
Score in detail