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Sony’s flagship Blu-ray player is a technically advanced and feature-rich beast with a widget for almost every occasion. I say ‘almost’ because Sony has gone to extraordinary lengths to make the BDP-S5000ES a defining statement in silver disc playback, yet has not enabled it to play SACDs. To paraphrase the words of Homer Simpson, d’oh!
   You see, underneath that rather lush and eminently well put together exterior is a full Profile 2.0 BD player with a long list of proprietary Sony technologies to enhance your home entertainment pleasure. In addition to a full 7.1 channel analogue output you can deliver just about any digital format you like over HDMI – except DSD of course.

BELT AND BRACES
The chassis itself is a rigid frame and beam structure and, according to a PowerPoint presentation I was subjected to in great detail, much care and attention has been lavished on the positioning of the off-centre feet to reduce chassis vibration and microphony further.
   However it is clearly the video performance of the BDP-S5000ES on which Sony has pulled out all the stops, thought about it a bit longer, then pulled them out some more. Super Bit Mapping, Scene Adaptive Analysis, Precision Cinema Upscaling, Vertical Edge Compensation, 14-bit reprocessing and an ‘HD Reality Enhancer’ (I could do with one of them most Monday mornings…) are just a few acronyms with which this machine will win any game of AV trumps. Other nice features include updateable firmware over the net, a quick-start mode and on-screen bit rate display.
   Access to Profile 2.0 features requires an internet connection, via its Ethernet port, plus some 1GB of external data storage, accommodated through its USB port. As Profile 2.0 content is still about as scarce as rocking-horse manure, only time will tell if 1GB is enough memory and whether the rear-mounted USB slot was a wise idea if you need to add extra memory or swap MircroVault cards on a regular basis. Otherwise, PS3 owners will find the BDP-S5000ES wonderfully intuitive thanks to the similar ‘X-Media Bar’ GUI.

MUSICAL CONVENTION
On a wine-fuelled Fairport Convention sort of evening the Sony showed its mettle as an accomplished CD player. While erring on the dryer and cooler side of neutral the ’S5000ES sacrifices nothing in toe-tapping rhythm or getting to the heart of a song.
   ‘A Sailor’s Life’ from Unhalfbricking builds tension over its 11-minute length, the Sony allowing the track’s early passages to hint at the urgency and pace to come. Sandy Denny’s voice is buff clean and wonderfully silky and, despite the ropey 1969 recording, is presented firmly front of stage. The Sony’s bass is more about precision than unbridled passion but this machine’s clean and even hand across the range lend it considerably more hi-fidelity credence than most other BD players to date.
   The on-board multichannel decoders are more vibrant in sound, invigorating Nine Inch Nails’ ‘The Hand That Feeds’ in Dolby True HD with wicked pace and breathtaking low frequency punch. With a diverse range of music and movie material the sound has a clean and open midrange, giving five and seven channel mixes incredible space and atmosphere. The perceived dynamic range is expansive, barely audible effects are eked out of the mix and LFE plumbs the depths as if in a very tight rubber wetsuit. Sony’s own matching SCD-XA5400ES SACD player is still more inherently musical, but this is a fine performance from a Blu-ray machine.

BREATHTAKING IMAGES
It took me a fair while to assess the sound with movies because I spent much of the first few Blu-ray test discs with my jaw flapping in the breeze. Leaping into the very top spot of any HD video source I have seen to date, the picture is simply stunning. Using the YCbCr 4:4:4 mode the image is deep, rich, three-dimensional and blessed with shadow detail and colour range I didn’t know it was possible for my projector to resolve. Blacks are obsidian, whites are true and the gamut of detail between is breathtaking. Only Pioneer’s costlier BDP-LX91 gets close.
   Across a broad spectrum of HD movie material the picture never fails to impress with its drama and natural vibrancy. With standard DVDs the results are more variable and the Sony never quite captures the same magic it manages with HD. The results with DVD are a little softer and grainier than the best upscalers manage, including the aforementioned Pioneer. Still, when HD picture quality from Blu-ray discs is this good, you’ll probably never want to watch an SD DVD again anyway.

VERDICT
Setting the reference standard for HD picture quality, the BDP-S5000ES is also an extremely competent stereo and multichannel music player. Upgradeable architecture, Profile 2.0 specification and networking support make it all but future proof and, at £1200, it’s considerably cheaper than its nearest HD rival, Pioneer’s BDP LX-91. A true performance bargain.

 

Originally published in the June 2009 issue