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Together with Samsung units like the BD-P1400, Sony BDP-S300 is one of the cheapest Blu-Ray player available on the market, being sold by 299.99 at Best Buy. With the selection of Blu-Ray discs increasing every day, with Blu-Ray Association giving five movies for free and prices dropping a lot this holiday season, many users are wondering if time for upgrading to Blu-Ray has finally arrived, and for the average user the cheapest units are the most natural choice. Let’s see how Sony BDP-S300 looks like and its weak and strong points.
In Figure 2, you can see all the connectors available on BDP-S300. It offers HDMI, component video, S-video and composite video outputs. We wonder why someone would connect a Blu-Ray player to a TV using composite video or S-video, but the option is there (maybe for users willing to watch DVDs on CRT-based TV sets). Of course you need to use HDMI for being able to watch movies in high def format. Its HDMI connector also carries digital audio (more on this later). This unit also has a coaxial and an optical digital audio (SPDIF) outputs and a full set of analog audio outputs. Usually players have only two analog audio outputs (left and right channels) to allow you to connect the player to CRT-based TVs, but this unit from Sony offers full 5.1 analog channels. We also wonder why this unit offers this option, since all home theater receivers, even the oldest ones, has at least one coaxial digital audio input. The only thing we missed here was an Ethernet port. This feature – present on Samsung BD-P1400 and other players – is really handy for firmware upgrade, allowing you to upgrade the firmware by just connecting your player to the internet and selecting an option from its menu. We will talk more about upgrading the firmware later.
In Figure 3, you can see the cables that come with this unit: composite video and two-channel analog audio, plus the power cord. We wonder why Sony ships this unit with these cables, as they are completely useless – unless you have a CRT-based TV without an S-Video input and don’t have a home theater receiver; we don’t think someone buying a Blu-Ray player will have less that a LCD TV and a 5.1 home theater receiver. All Blu-Ray and HD-DVD players should come with one HDMI cable, especially because stores like Best Buy, Circuit City and even Wal-Mart charges a lot for HDMI cables (over USD 40), and this cable can be bought on-line at Newegg.com for less than USD 10. It seems that a lot of people research for prices on the player, but forget about researching for prices on the HDMI cable.
You can see this unit’s remote control in Figure 4. It is capable of controlling TVs from 18 other brands, like LG, Panasonic, Phillips, Pioneer, Samsung, Sharp and Toshiba.
We installed Sony BDP-S300 to a 47” 1080p HDTV set from LG (47LC7DF) and to a Sony STR-DG510 5.1 receiver.
As we mentioned briefly, this unit sends audio signal through the HDMI connector, which is really convenient if you receiver has an embedded video switcher, as you will need just one cable for connecting the player to your home theater system. This video switcher feature, present on several home theater receivers, allows you to simultaneously switch your audio and video by the press of a button. For example, when you press “DVD” on the receiver, it will automatically play the audio being sent by your DVD player (in our case, the Blu-Ray player) and send the DVD video (Blu-Ray video, in our case) signal to your TV, at the same time. By selecting “Video 2,” for instance, it will switch both audio and video to whatever equipment is connected to that input (your cable decoder, for example). On receivers without this feature you can only select the audio input, not the video, so you have to switch the audio input on the receiver and the video input on your TV.
If you don’t have a receiver with a video switcher then you will need an extra audio cable, since you will need to connect the player to your TV using a HDMI cable and then use an audio cable to connect the player to the receiver, preferably an optical SPDIF cable (a.k.a. Toslink cable), if your receiver has an optical SPDIF input available. Otherwise you will need to use a coaxial SPDIF cable (a.k.a. RCA mono cable). You will also to select the correct video input on your TV and the correct audio input on your receiver.
Our problem here, however, wasn’t with the player but with our receiver. Even though Sony STR-DG510 has a video switcher, it is not capable of extracting audio from the HDMI inputs (which is a shame, by the way), so the audio was routed to the TV instead of being played on the receiver. Since our TV was with its audio outputs disabled – as it is the normal procedure if you have a home theater receiver – we couldn’t hear anything BDP-S300 was playing. The solution was to connect a digital audio cable from the player to the receiver – one extra cable and one extra cost. One again, this was a limitation of our receiver and had nothing to do with the player itself.
As we mentioned, this unit doesn’t come with the cables you’ll need. If your receiver has an embedded video switcher you will need to buy two HDMI cables, one to connect your player to your receiver and another to connect your receiver to your TV – plus a digital audio cable (optical or coaxial SPDIF, depending on what you have available on your receiver) if your receiver, like ours, is incapable of extracting audio from the HDMI connector. If it doesn’t have a video switcher, then you will need to buy one HDMI cable to connect your player to your TV and one audio cable (optical or coaxial SPDIF, depending on what you have available on your receiver) to connect your player to your receiver.
From what we’ve been seen on the market, the most common HDMI cable lengths are 3 feet, 6 feet and 12 feet. We tried them all and three feet proved to be too short to connect the player to the TV, but if you are using a receiver with an embedded video switcher and you will place the player on top of it, this length is adequate. To connect your player or receiver to your TV you will need a 6-feet cable if the player or receiver is right below or right above your TV. If they are more distant than that, then you need to buy a 12-feet cable.
Once again, buy these cables on-line at stores like Newegg.com: it makes no sense paying USD 40 or more on a HDMI cable when they cost less than half of this on-line.
After the physical installation it is time to turn on the player for the first time. This player delays a lot to come to life for the first time – 90 seconds –, as it is advertised on a flyer that comes with the product. After that the player displays a quick configuration menu, where you need to select the language, display resolutio
n and TV aspect ratio. After that your player is ready to be used.
Here we found a problem, we configured the output resolution as “auto” and the player recognized our TV as a 720p device. So we needed to change this manually. So after this initial setup, press the “Video Format” button on the remote control to double check if the player is configured with your TV maximum resolution.
After this initial setup we had to correct the audio configuration of the player. Since the player isn’t able to guess what kind of home theater you have, its default configuration disables Dolby Digital and DTS signals. Since our receiver has Dolby Digital, DTS and Dolby Pro Logic (which simulates 5.1 output when the original audio signal has only two channels) decoders, we configured Dolby Digital as “Dolby Digital” (instead of “Downmix PCM”), DTS as “DTS” (instead of “Downmix PCM”) and “DTS Downmix” as “Lt/Rt,” which enables Dolby Pro Logic (instead of “Stereo”). This configuration is accessible by pressing “System Menu” on the remote and then navigating to Setup, Audio Setup.
After this configuration we were ready to watch movies using all the power from Sony BDP-S300.
One of the main problems with this unit is that it takes ages to turn on, even after the first time. With us it took 38 seconds just to show up something on the screen and 50 seconds to show the message “no disc,” allowing you to insert a disc to be played.
Another thing we didn’t like is the fact that the play button isn’t recognized as a valid key to confirm whatever is selected on the disc menu. We wanted to insert a disc and then press the “play” key on the player frontal panel to select “play movie” from the disc menu, for example, to start watching our movie right away. Since on the player itself there is no “enter” key, you need to use the remote control “enter” key to do this selection. If your remote control batteries are dead, you won’t be able to select anything on the disc menu. We also think that the “play” key is a much more intuitive option to play a movie than “enter.” To make things even more complicated to the non-high-tech user is that the “enter” key has no label saying that it is the “enter” key. One must assume that the key in the middle of the four directional arrow keys is the “enter” key.
When a movie is playing, the player response is somewhat slow to commands like previous/next chapter and scan backwards/forward.
We first played a DVD to see if the unit would play them correctly and also to evaluate the quality of the embedded upscaler (more about this in the next page). The main problem is that we got the same problem that happened on Samsung BD-P1400: our movie was played inside a black frame, making our movie to be played inside a window (see Figure 5), not filling the entire screen. We are not talking about the traditional widescreen horizontal black bars, but both horizontal and vertical black bars. But contrary to Samsung BD-P1400 we could fix this problem, as will explain.
This problem is caused when a movie is in widescreen format but the disc is sending a message to the player saying that the movie should be played on 4:3 aspect ratio instead of 16:9. This player has an option to fix this, available by pressing System Menu on the remote control and then selecting Setup, Video Setup, 4:3 Video Out and then choosing “Full” instead of “Normal.” After changing this the player could play any DVD correctly, filling the whole screen, as you can see in Figure 6.
The problem here, however, is that the movie became disproportioned. If you compare Figures 5 and 6 you can clearly see that our female character became fatter after the problem was supposedly corrected. This happened because the player wasn’t able to recognize the aspect ratio of the movie, since the movie was saying to the player that it was a 4:3 movie, not a 16:9 one. Basically, the movie was a 1.77:1 widescreen movie while the player was guessing it was a 1.85:1 movie, as you can see by the addition of the black bands on the top and on the bottom of the screen. The solution was to use our TV zoom function that, by the way, is actually designed to solve this very particular issue. After we pressed the “ratio” button on our TV remote control to select “zoom1” ratio, the movie was playing like it was supposed to be playing. See Figure 7 how our movie is now filling up the entire screen and our female character is thin again.
We had no problem playing Blu-Ray discs but the already mentioned slow response to commands. The video and audio quality was high-end, as it supposed to be.
Some users report some slowness to load the main menu from the latest Blu-Ray discs, because they use several fancy features. Since we only played somewhat old movies, we cannot comment on that.
On newer Blu-Ray discs you may face problems, though. The menu from some discs like Pirates of the Caribbean and Happy Feet were written using a Java version higher than the version the player is shipped with. The solution is a firmware upgrade. This upgrade must be done downloading a CD image from Sony’s website, burning this image to a CD or DVD and then loading the disc into the player. We tried it out and the upgrade process delays a lot, like 15 minutes.
We have two comments about this procedure, though. First, like we mentioned, this unit does not have an Ethernet port like Samsung BD-P1400, so you really need go to the CD burning process (you can call Sony and ask them to ship the CD for you though; they will do this free of charge).
But what we though really counter-intuitive was how you check which firmware version your player is using. You need to press System Menu on the remote control and then go to Setup, Video Setup, TV Type, press “Enter” and then press the blue button. We think an option called “System Information” or similar on the menu like other units have would make much more sense.
Another problem we ran into was with the region coding of this unit. We tried all tricks on the book to unlock this unit and make it region free with no success. Since we have a huge DVD collection with movies we bought in different countries, having a player that isn’t capable of playing them is huge problem for us.
LCD and plasma TVs have a problem: if the movie isn’t being played on the TV native resolution, you will have really bad image quality. This same problem happens with LCD monitors, for example. If you configure your PC to use a video resolution lower than your LCD monitor native resolution – usually the maximum resolution your monitor accepts – the image will be blurred. If you have a LCD monitor try decreasing the video resolution to see what happens and understand this concept.
So we have a problem with TV channels transmitted at a lower resolution than our TV native resolution and DVD movies, as their original resolution is 480i, a.k.a. SDTV. To solve this issue the latest DVD players and both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray players feature an “upconversion” or “upscale”
feature, which converts the original DVD signal to HD resolution, up to 1080p. All HD TVs also have this feature, tailored to convert channels that are being transmitted with a resolution lower than your TV’s into your TV native resolution.
To keep the cost of these units low, manufacturers use cheap video processors in their units, which do not provide the best quality possible. In fact, one of the main reasons one TV is more expensive than another with the same screen size is the quality of the video processor used. The same idea goes to players.
So we were curious to see the quality of the upscaler used on Sony BDP-S300. To check this we compared the image with the scaler disabled (selecting 480i resolution on the player) with the scaler enabled (selecting 1080p resolution on the player). After that we compared the image generated by the embedded scaler with the image generated by an iScan VP20 external scaler. This device is also known by other names, like external video processor, line doubler or de-interlacer. This unit has the same goal of the internal scaler found on the Blu-Ray player, but it provides, at least in theory, a better image quality, as it uses a high-end processor (this unit alone is three times more expensive than the reviewed player). In order to get the best quality from our external scaler we configured the player to send the movie on its original resolution (480i) to it, so all upscaling processing was done by the iScan VP20.
The upscaler from this Blu-Ray player makes a remarkable job, providing an outstanding image quality improvement for its price range. On the photos below you can compare some images. We are just showing a fragment of the scene so you can see the quality enhancement over small details. For the untrained eye, this unit will provide a quality as good as our expensive external scaler.
One more comparison below, this time using an older movie.
Sony BDP-S300 Blu-Player main features are:
- Maximum resolution: 1080p
- Upscale DVDs to 1080p: Yes
- 24p output: Yes (capable of playing movies at 24 frames per second for a better image quality if your display supports this mode).
- Plays Divx: No
- Plays MP3: Yes
- JPEG slideshow: Yes
- Composite video output: Yes
- S-video output: Yes
- Component video output: Yes
- HDMI output: Yes
- HDMI version: N/A
- Optical digital audio output: Yes
- Coaxial digital audio output: Yes
- Analog audio output: Yes, full 5.1 channels
- Ethernet port for firmware upgrade: No
- Dolby Digital: Yes
- Dolby TrueHD: No
- DTS: Yes
- Dimensions: 16 15/16″ x 3 1/8″ x 14 13/16″ (43 cm x 7.9 cm x 37.5 cm)
- Weight: 10 lbs (4.5 Kg)
- Cables that come with this unit: composite video, stereo analog audio and power cord.
- More Information: https://www.sonystyle.com
- One of the cheapest Blu-Ray players available today (299.99 at Best Buy and at Sony website)
- Excellent upscaler quality for DVD movies
- Takes an eternity to turn on.
- The player has slow response to commands like previous/next chapter and scan backwards/forward.
- We couldn’t make it region free.
- Recognized our 1080p HDTV as 720p when we set video resolution to “auto.”
This is a unit that we would buy for ourselves if it weren’t for the fact that we couldn’t make it region free, because we have a huge DVD collection with movies from regions 1 and 4. If you are going to play only region-free (“region 0”) or region 1 discs then this unit is a great pick, especially because its cost/benefit ratio: great price and excellent image quality for DVDs – if the relative slowness of this unit doesn’t bother you.