My home theater is my little oasis from the real world, where I can sink into a comfortable leather recliner and become fully immersed in a good (or sometimes not so good) movie via a dedicated, totally dark room and a setup of pretty high end audio visual equipment. Since the last time I wrote about my theater, I have upgraded my projector from a 720p Sim2 to the Marantz VP-15S1 1080p DLP projector, my pre/pro and video scaler from the Sunfire Theater Grand VI and a DVDO iScan VP-50 respectively to the awesome Anthem Statement D2 integrated Pre/Pro and scaler. Coupled with a 103″ screen and 7.1 James loudspeakers, the experience is as close to a real movie theater as you can get… minus the sticky floors and the smell.
Another recent acquisition for the theater is the Panasonic BD-50 Blu-Ray player. While I am still mourning the death of HD-DVD, which in my opinion was the most suited of the two high def formats to win over the general public is a short enough time to beat out downloaded media for the next generation of home media delivery, Blu-Ray has finally made it to the big leagues with players capable of all the features they promised home theater enthusiats back when it was introduced. The BD-50 is the first stand-alone Blu-Ray player capable of internally decoding both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-MA HD sound formats, accessing the internet via an Ethernet port for both firmware updates and BD-Live content as well as doing all the other Blu-Ray stuff like full 1080p output, 24p film-based refresh rates, etc.
It’s been frustrating that until now only the Sony Playstation 3 has been a fully Blu-Ray 2.0 (BD-Live capable) compliant player. The BD-50’s release was pushed back several times and is just now becoming available in the US, albeit on back order for more recent buyers. I got tired of waiting and actually bought a PS3 for a Blu-Ray player, and then received my BD-50 anyway. As a result, I got to compare the two directly to see which one really was the better Blu-Ray player. Reviews are always distorted by obvious bias either for or against Sony. With a cold eye, I compared the two using an equal setup. Here are my results:
Picture Quality- Blu-Ray: Both units hooked to my Marantz projector yielded excellent picture quality from Blu-Ray disks. Personally I thought the only difference to be the detail in the darkest blacks, which were a bit lost with the PS3 compared to the BD-50. However, as my projector was originally calibrated to the Panasonic DB-30 Blu-Ray player, I am going to call this a draw. In fact, it’s likely that the calibration of any blu-ray player to your specific display/projector makes far more difference to your picture quality that the actual player does. Only in high motion or pans and scans across a scene does a difference appear between cheaper BD players and more expensive, better ones. Both the BD-50 and the PS3 are top notch for PQ.
Picture Quality- DVD: “Upscaling” is the buzzword in home theater circles, which is the process by which a player takes a DVD, which is recorded in 480i resolution and “upscales” it to higher resolutions like 720p or 1080p. Upscaling is overrated, as any HDTV automatically upscales content fed to it to it’s native resolution anyway, which in HDTV’s case is high definition in 720p or 1080p depending on the display. Most HDTVs do a pretty good job of upscaling, but really powerful chips that are incorporated into the better upscaling DVD players will do a better job and give you better results. The BD-50 does just an average job on upscaling, but in my opinion so does the PS3. I don’t care either way in my case, as my Anthem is better by far than either of these players at upscaling, and so I have a dedicated Oppo DVD player that feeds the Anthem a reference 480i signal and lets the awesome Gennum GF9350 VXP chip do the heavy lifting. Either of these players do an okay job at upscaling, so your regular DVD collection will look just fine if you want to dump your regular DVD player. You will only notice a difference on the better HDTVs or projectors, and if you have one of those spring for a good upscaling DVD player for those regular DVDs.
Sound Quality: Both players internally decode the next gen HD sound formats, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-MA HD. That’s a good thing, because a lot of folks have perfectly good recievers that don’t need to be replaced but can’t decode those sound formats themselves. While both players can decode and send the sound via PCM over HDMI cables (Toshlink and digital coax cannot handle the bitrates needed to carry these signals), the PS3 lacks analog outputs for sound (i.e. center, right, left, surround r,l, sub) which many legacy recievers and pre/pros can use. Sending the sound through HDMI to my Anthem, I have to say both sound pretty much identical… meaning they sound unbelievably fantastic. If you’ve never heard true lossless (zero loss in compression) sound or HD format sound in their full 5.1 or 7.1 splendor, then you do not know what you are missing. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is mind-blowing with the creaks and clanks of the ship surrounding you. They say that digital lossless sound is equal no matter what is feeding it to your system, and so I suppose that is why I can tell no difference. Again, the quality of your speakers and sound system is far more important in any case. One other difference… if you DO have a reciever capable of decoding the HD sound formats, the PS3 is not capable of sending the undecoded (bitstream) signals to your receiver for it to do the work. That doesn’t really matter of course unless you get a thrill seeing “Dolby TrueHD” come up on your reciever’s screen, but whatever gets you going.
BD-Live: This is an interactive feature for Blu-Ray disks that require an internet connection, resident memory and a player that is 2.0 capable. The PS3 is ahead in this game as it has built in wi-fi as well as an Ethernet port and has it’s own memory for use in BD-Live interaction. The BD-50 only has an Ethernet port, meaning you either have to use a cable to connect to your router or get a network adapter to plug it into to access your wi-fi network. The BD-50 also requires you use an SD memory card, placed in an SD slot, as memory for the feature. My verdict? WHO CARES. I’ll never use any of that crap. I don’t need to go on-line to play a game or get a ringtone based on the movie. I only use the Ethernet port to upgrade the player’s firmware, which works like a dream on either machine.
Load times: Some people get hung up by this for some reason, They are about to spend 2 hours or so watching a movie, but get upset that they have to wait for a minute for it to load up to the menu. Blu-ray players are really computers, and they have to boot up and load their software. Some newer blu-rays have a lot of Java incorporated into their menus and they take time to load. The PS3 is the fastest of the two, but the BD-50 is not far behind. Certainly the difference is much less than it was with the very early BD players. A non-factor IMO.
User Interface, Ease of Use: This is where the players part company. The PS3 is a game console first, and is designed as such. It’s ugly, and does not fit in an AV stack. It’s fan is loud and noticeable. It has no front controls for play, pause or any other functions. You can just stick a movie disk in and it will load and start up the main menu, but after that you need either the PS3 game controller and the knowledge of which button does what, or the PS3 BD remote which is not included and costs $29.99. It gets worse with the remote. Neither the controller nor the remote has any backlighting, so you have to turn up the lights to work it. No problem… just use that expensive universal remote, right? Problem solved! NOT so FAST. The PS3 remote is blue tooth, NOT infrared or radio, so universal remotes like my Harmony 880 are useless. There are 3rd party solutions to this that involve an IR dongle and more money, but many of these get broken when the PS3 updates its firmware. The BD-50’s remote also has no backlighting (boo!) but it works great with universal remotes and my Harmony controls it perfectly. The front of the unit has a fold down facing that reveals full controls if you need to use them. It also looks great in any home theater stack.
Price: At $399 for the cheapest version, the PS3 is cheaper than the BD-50, which can be had at $579.00 from many on-line retailers. No question about that.
The verdict? Well, I got rid of the PS3 and am quite pleased with the BD-50. The inconvenience of the blue tooth remote alone was enough of a deal breaker. Couple that with the poor form factor and the difficulty in doing the simplest of things like shutting the player down (you have to press three buttons to do it) and I’d rather pay $180 more for the BD-50. Don’t let anyone tell you the PS3 is “better” at anything than the BD-50 either. It isn’t… not at anything that counts.
It all comes down to whether you want to use a game console as your blu-ray player. If you want to play games as well then the PS3 is your machine. If not, then don’t bother. Get the BD-50 or wait a bit for more players to show up that are 2.0 compliant and watch the prices drop to PS3 or lower levels.
630 My cover art for the next issue of MAD, exclusive sneak peek from @entertainmentweekly website
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