(CNET) -- Sony has been the public face of Blu-ray since the format's inception, and while most of the focus during the bitter Blu-ray vs. HD DVD format war was on the company's PlayStation 3, Sony has been making stand-alone Blu-ray players from the start, beginning with the $1,000 BDP-S1.
Unfortunately, that player set the mold for stand-alone players: expensive, oversize compared with standard DVD players, and poorly featured compared with the cheaper PlayStation 3.
In many ways the Sony BDP-S350 breaks the standalone Blu-ray player mold. At just 8.75 inches deep, it's almost half the size of most players we test, and its relatively low $400 list price makes up for a few missing features, such as Profile 2.0 and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding.
It also has fast bootup times in Quick Start mode, and overall we were fairly pleased with its image quality. However, even though the BDP-S350 has a lot going for it, Sony still can't come close to matching its toughest competitor: itself. The PS3 can be had for the same price, and it offers superior Blu-ray playback and features, as well as high-definition gaming and media streaming.
There are a few reasons why you may not want to use the PlayStation 3 as your Blu-ray player--and some just prefer the familiar DVD player-like experience of a standalone--but for everyone else, the PS3 continues to be a much better value.
However, if you're set on a standalone player, and don't need the advanced functionality of the Panasonic DMP-BD50, the Sony BDP-S350 is the best standalone Blu-ray player we've seen at this price level, just edging out the Samsung BD-P1500.
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 17 inches wide by 8.75 inches deep by 2.38 inches 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 included remote is pretty good. The center 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 theater.
One major design flaw is the deeply recessed USB port--used for future 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 theater 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.
The Sony BDP-S350 is currently a Profile 1.1 Blu-ray player, which means it can access picture-in-picture commentary tracks available on some Blu-ray Discs, such as Sunshine. The BDP-S350 is not, however, a Profile 2.0 player, so it cannot access the BD-Live features on certain new Blu-ray Discs.
The BD-Live features we've seen so far have been underwhelming to say the least, but they're sure to improve as disc makers get a handle on the technology. That said, Sony is referring to the BDP-S350 as "BD-Live ready," which means the company is planning to upgrade the BDP-S350 to Profile 2.0 via a firmware update. The USB port will be used for the storage requirement.
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 to take advantage of both formats.
However, keep in mind that the differences between these high-resolution soundtracks and standard Dolby Digital and DTS may be hard to hear unless you have a high-end listening environment.
Connectivity is fairly standard on the Sony BDP-S350. The main connection is the HDMI output, which 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 you should stick with the high-definition connections to take advantage of Blu-ray.
For audio, the HDMI output is the best option for those with HDMI receivers. 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-style 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.
Rounding out the rest of the connectivity is a USB port and an Ethernet port. While you might think the USB port is used for looking at some JPEGs or listening to MP3s, actually its only purpose is to serve as external memory for advanced Blu-ray features--which is why the port is labeled "EXT."
You'll need to connect a USB drive for storage to use BD-Live features, after Sony upgrades the BDP-S350 to be a Profile 2.0 player. The Ethernet port currently is only usable for firmware updates; however, it will also be used to pull content off the Internet when Sony upgrades the BDP-S350 to Profile 2.0 .
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 darkroom environment. We have, however, seen some flaws on less-expensive Blu-ray players--particularly when the players are set to output 1080p signals at 60 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 were some video-based tests, which are considerably less important, as the number of video-based Blu-ray Discs is pretty small. 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. The caveat is that to take advantage of the speedier load times you need to set the player to Quick Start mode, which means the BDP-S350 uses power even when you turn it "off."
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 started off looking at test patterns from Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on DVD. The BDP-S350 handled the initial resolution test well, depicting all the detail that DVD is capable of--although we did notice some very slight image instability.
The next two video-based jaggies tests were a mixed bag--it performed admirably on a test with a rotating white line, but it was just mediocre on a test with three shifting lines. On the other hand, we were impressed that it passed the difficult 2:3 pull-down test, as it kicked into film mode in less than a second, resulting in no moire in the grandstands as a racecar drove by. It also handled scrolling CNN ticker-style text competently, as well as a credits sequence.
The BDP-S350's performance on test patterns was pretty solid, so we expected similar results with actual program material and 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 DVD playback--and if you're one of those, you should check out the Oppo DV-983H.
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