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If CES 2008 sounded a warning shot across, if not into the bows of the HD DVD fleet then there was always the consolation that its players were, on the whole, far cheaper than their Blu-ray competition while boasting full compatibility with both the software-driven and web-enabled functionality of its discs. Not all Blu-ray players can currently promise that.
   Sony’s BDP-S300 is one of those players that neither fully conforms to the BD1.1 video profile (which means that picture-in-picture, ‘Blu-Scape’ games and other bonus features may not function wholly as intended) nor deliver Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio bitstreams over its HDMI 1.2 interface. Neither is there a LAN/Ethernet connection for use with movies and pictures on a home network.
   So why is it here? Because the BDP-S300 still offers full HD 1080p/24 and 1080p/60 digital video plus multichannel LPCM audio through HDMI, and is significantly more affordable than many Blu-ray cousins at £349. Which means the BDP-S300 could be just the ticket for a minimalist HD home cinema that places raw performance over features. And, yes, it scales DVD to 1080p while making an impressive fist of stereo CD.

LOCK AND LOAD
Driving the BDP-S300 is as simple as our pictures would suggest – the operating system takes 20-30 seconds to boot-up while both Blu-ray and DVD media load as swiftly as the content allows. Disney is a prime mover behind Blu-ray but its titles are typically littered with trailers or Java-based menus that take an age to skip through. You’ll have time to redecorate the room before Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is ready to view. By contrast, 20th Century Fox’s Planet of the Apes (the Tim Burton remake) loads and plays in a trice.
    Like Pioneer, Sony also offers a selection of white/black enhancement, hue and chroma level adjustments from its AV control menu but these are best left in their default state with all colour temperature, contrast and/or greyscale settings left to the final display device. This was certainly the preferable route with both the Pioneer PDP-LX608 full HD plasma [HFN, Feb ’08] and SIM2 HT3000E projector used for my viewing.
   Most of the Blu-ray titles in my collection carry a DTS-HD Master Audio bitstream but this is not decoded by the BDP-S300. Instead it uses the core DTS stream to deliver DTS 5.1 at up to 1.5Mb/s via the S/PDIF outputs, an LPCM downmix via HDMI or 5.1 channels of audio through its analogue connections. The player does handle the native, multichannel LPCM soundtrack carried by most Blu-ray discs, however, piping it through HDMI to almost any legacy AV receiver. These tracks are typically encoded at 48kHz/16-bit instead of the 48kHz/24-bit available to the DTS/Dolby HD bitstreams, but this will still be the audio of choice.

MONKEYING AROUND
As a format, Blu-ray stretches the law of diminishing returns out to a new level for home cinema systems. Even favourite £400 CD players reach their potential long before they are partnered with the best £4k or £5k amp/speaker combinations available but BD players like the ’S300 can be partnered with a £10k projector like the HT3000E and they just keep on giving. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen criticism of BD picture quality when the description has informed more about the performance of the display than the source!
   The BDP-S300 is more than capable of resolving the extra detail, the smoother horizontal panning and improved black-level rendition of the highest bit-rate movies including Pirates... 3 while exposing the horizontal stutter of MPEG2-encoded titles such as Planets of the Apes. Check out the loss of fine structure in the trees, foliage and textured rock surfaces during the first scenes in ape village. Think you can’t see the difference between 30Mb/s and 45Mb/s 1080p digital video? Well, the BDP-S300 certainly can and undoubtedly benefits from higher bit-rate material on dual-layer BD media.
   The performance of the scaler is also very impressive when upconverting DVD media to 1080p or, conversely, downconverting BD media to 720p to address a standard ‘HD Ready’ plasma like the Pioneer PDP-508XD [HD Guide, Sept ’07]. Colours are strong, deeply saturated, and noise is gratifyingly absent from upscaled Superbit DVDs like A Knight’s Tale. The stability and security of highly complex images – including the staged crowds either side of the jousting field – makes viewing a real pleasure, free of distracting blocking artefacts, any serious motion-blur and the presence of ‘jaggies’ along diagonal edge detail. But it’s BD-sourced movies and sound that find the BDP-S300 at its peak.

NO MORE TEACHERS
It’s still possible to realise multichannel audio from the new Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds Live at Radio City release as the player decodes the Dolby Digital 5.1 bitstream, bringing the performance and audience surging into your own personal venue. Heard via the Pioneer BDP-LX70A, the TrueHD soundtrack has more punch, more edge and transparency but the atmosphere created by the ’S300 was still mightily impressive alongside the 1080p imagery.
   Alice Cooper’s trademark ‘School’s Out’ from Live at Montreux 2005 (a DTS encode) was revealed with a little less clarity, his voice lacking the cut and thrust of old, but even the Pioneer BDP-LX70A makes no better fist of this charged musical event. So the BDP-S300 finds itself in good company, if you can live without the promise of ‘Blu-Scape’ features. 

VERDICT
Offering all the functionality of the first generation BD1.0 profile Blu-ray players, but at a fraction of the price and with more robust software, this BDP-S300 from Sony is, as hoped, Hobson’s choice for the aspiring full-HD movie fan. Coupled with a capable 50in 1080p display or, preferably, a budget, single-chip DLP projector, this player takes the sting out of the HD DVD/Blu-ray conundrum.

 

Originally published in the March 2008 issue