We have been selling / modifying upsampling DVD players for years. Recently, we made the decision to look around and see what was out there in terms of a good quality Blu-ray player, as we have been very impressed with the video aspect of Blu-ray. As we have had great luck with Pioneer Elites (particularly the DV-48AV), we tested out Pioneer Blu-ray players first, hoping that we would get the same quality Burr-brown sound on CDâ€™s and standard def DVDs and excellent video we have come to expect from Pioneer from their Elite upsampling players. We tested out first the $800 retail Pioneer Elite BDP-05FD model. We were immediately struck by the difference in the character of the sound on CDs and DVDs and Blu-rays. This was not the musical, sweet, yet detailed sound we were accustomed to. There was a harsh, yet muddy top end and a noticeable imprecision to the bass. The spacial aspects to the player also seemed choked off, as we were used to very spacious highs from our DV-48. The bass went down a fair amount in terms of frequency, but was not as defined and tight as the 48AV, nor was it as quite as deep. We played recordings on both analog, digital, and HDMI outputs and all inputs had the same sound characteristics. DVDs / Blu-rays did not have the same pop, impact or spacial cues as our DV-48AV. It all sounded rather flat and unexciting and was also lacking transparency. At the same time, it had a certain harshness / thinness to the sound. The video on Blu-ray of this model was very good, having a very clear presentation, but unfortunately we could not recommend it, as the sound just was not there. The video on standard def DVDs was also noticeably degraded compared to our upsampled player. Also, load time was very slow on the Pioneer players in general. We later found out that Pioneer had switched DACS recently on these players from Burr Brown, which had excellent sounds, to a supposed hi-end Wolfson DAC, which honestly was not nearly as good. (Also, on a side note, the dealer that sold us the Pioneer BDP-05FD refused to take it back, even though it was in spotless condition and we had only had it less than 7 days. We found out when we tried to resell it on Ebay, that people are not paying $800 for them, as apparently people may know they are not worth that much. We were lucky to have sold it off for $600. )
Next, hoping that this was just a possible bad model, we tested out the less expensive Pioneer BDP-51FD. Unfortunately, this player was even worse. The top end was even harsher and less musical, with there being less low frequency output, giving the unit a tubby, harsh sound.
Our next move was to try out a different brand. Having listened to some decent sounding Sony SACD players a few years ago, we decided to test out Sonyâ€™s Blu-ray Players S-500, S-550. The S 500 (which was retail $500) was a rather interesting player. Had a lot of bass, but not quite sure about its depth compared to our DV-48. I liked the way how it processed surround information in a very involving way, but unfortunately it was rather hot on the top and still did not have the transparency that we are used to nor the warmth. The video, though, on Blu-ray was amazing, much more three-dimensional than the Pioneer Elite players when you had the right settings. Simply magical. We only wish the sound on CDs and DVDs / Blu-ray was anywhere near how good the video was on Blu-ray. Standard Def DVDs were degraded, but not as noticeably as with a Pioneer Blu-ray player.
The S-550, which is now roughly $400 retail, has quite stunning video on Blu-ray as well, with less adjustments needed to obtain that same incredibly clear, three dimensional look to it, but unfortunately suffered more in terms of sound. (One side note to the video. The S-550 looked great on modern movies on Blu-ray, but we felt it did not have a good filter for old classics such as John Wayne in â€œThe Searchers.â€ This is possibly due to it being on film.) In terms of the sound of Blu-rays, DVDs and CDs, the bass frequency level somehow was not nearly as deep in frequency as its predecessor nor was it as generous in quantity. Overall, things sounded thinner (not necessarily any clearer mind you), with a deficiency in low end presence. Load time for both Sony Blu-ray players was quite a bit faster than with the Pioneer Blu-ray players. Standard Def DVDs were about the same as the Sony S-500.
And Lastly, we tried the Samsung Blu-ray Player BD-p2500, as a friend said he had heard it was a possibly decent sounding player from a friend of his. In terms of video on Blu-ray, in our opinion, it was the best player so far after adjusting the TV, etc. Everything was very three dimensional, extremely clear (in fact we were seeing things we had not seen on the other players) and just had this really natural look to it. One caveat to the video was that the Searchers Blu-ray looked a tad bit dark, but I think this could be possibly adjusted out. It still looked so stunning that you had to keep watching it. But once again, the sound was the Achilles heel of this unit. The bass did not go down in frequency very deep nor was it very defined and the top end was a bit dull and fuzzy on every format. There was, though, a certain amount of musicality to the piece, but unfortunately it was lacking in transparency, location and general definition. Load time on the Samsung Blu-ray player was a bit slower than the Sony player, but not nearly as slow as the Pioneer Blu-ray players. Video for DVDs was degraded, but not as degraded as a Pioneer. It was about the same as the Sony players.
A few other notes about the Blu-ray players. Most of the Blu-ray players, excluding the Pioneer, had very limited video adjustments or controls. The Sony and Samsung units were primarily reliant upon your TV to do any video adjustments. With the Samsung in particular, you would need to make sure that your TV has something to adjust black contrast levels (In my case a Black Corrector). This does make a world of difference depending on the settings of your TV, room etc. But once we did play with the TV and the few rudimentary controls on these players, the video was stunning.
Now you may ask why we used CDs and standard def DVDs to test out a Blu-ray player? It has been our experience that players that have deficiencies / shortcomings in playing CDs and DVDs have the same signature deficiencies / undesirable characteristics in playing other high resolution formats (SACD, DVD-audio, HDCD). It seems these same characteristics seem to be transferred in large part to the Blu-ray playback, as well. The high resolution formats of Blu-ray are in reality it seems an upsampled version of how the player interprets the DTS and Dolby Digital formats. So in other words, if the player has certain sound characteristics when it is playing regular Dolby / DTS, then True Dolby / DTS Master tracks will be an upsampled version of this. A player is not capable of upsampling itself out of bad sound. It may have a bit more air, and be slightly a bit more fuller as we heard, but it will not take care of many of the problems with these players, such as harshness, a shallow bass frequency depth, lack of transparency or quickness or dullness on some machines.
Also, for those people who would say â€œWhy donâ€™t people just buy two players? One for CDs / DVDs and one for Blu-ray?â€, I would argue in reality the vast majority of people (and their wives) only want one player that will do a good job at everything. I was told this by various retailers when I told them of their machines deficiencies. They even acknowledged that their machines do not do well on CDs, DVDs, or really sound in general, but that consumers should spend more money on buying a second machine for sound. Certainly, $800 may not be a lot for some people, but for your average and even above average consumer, this is probably the most they will spend on a player, and for $800 or even a $1000 or more, most people would say it had better do a better than just mediocre job on the audio. If people think that the majority of people will buy more than one player, they have their head in the clouds. Many consumers will not want to deal with the added complexity of two players, and I donâ€™t believe they should have to. We can only hope at some point the manufacturers of the players of this increasingly popular format realize that good sounding audio is important and will ultimately help sell their product.
So letâ€™s sum it all up. Basically, these major companies that have made Blu-ray players have spent quite a bit of time and money on the video, which is overall very amazing looking (particularly the Samsung), but seemed to have ignored or spent very little time on the audio portion of these players (particularly on CD and DVD playback, as well as Blu-ray audio quality). I believe when these companies cut costs on the players, the sound was the first to go (if it was there at all). The main problem in the sound is that it all seems to sound mechanical, not very musical for the most part, and very unnatural sounding. This is very disappointing particularly for Pioneer, which as we have mentioned was our preferred brand of player, as they were previously very clear, transparent, had great location and three dimensionality, and very nice bass depth and definition. This was when they used Burr Brown components. One of the reasons we are writing this post is that Pioneer has no customer feedback system. Absolutely none. If you send them any feedback through email or by letter, I was told it just gets sent to their unfortunately clueless technical support department, where it will die a meaningless death, as they had told me they have â€œnowhere to send it.â€ Their players are the most expensive of this class and are now possibly the worst off of the group.
The price reduction of Sonyâ€™s latest blu-ray S-550 seems to have correlated in even worse sound. Although, some players had some nice features (Full analog support for True Dolby / DTS for both the latest Sony player and Samsung), it really makes no difference if the sound quality characteristics are not even as good as cheaper previous model Pioneer Elite (DV-48AV). The same deficient sound characteristics that we heard on CDs and DVDs was still present in the other formats. Yes, other more expensive players could possibly sound better, but I honestly doubt it, as we have heard many very expensive players / receivers / amps that really were not that great before. It may be considered heresy by some, but just because a person spends a substantial amount of money, does not mean he will get great sound. My fear is that the major companies that make players for Blu-ray will continue to make lousy audio products and saturate the market with inferior players that soley concentrate on video, when the format could do so much more. This would lead to a vast amount of people who will not know what good sound is, as they will be used to mediocre sounding products, which would further harm the already fragile high-end sound industry.
On a side note, we also tested a new Pioneer DV-49AV player, which is the new upsampling player for Pioneer. We hoped that it had escaped the recent â€œWolfson purging,â€ and it may have, but unfortunately it does not sound nearly as good as the previous model (DV-48). I suspect this may have to do with lowering the price point and using cheaper components. Although, the DV-49AV is far more musical, transparent and has a lower bass depth it seemed than all the Blu-ray players we tested, it lacks the transparency, detail, location, depth and attention to subtleties that the DV-48AV had in abundance. It is not nearly as three dimensional and always sounds like it has a veil over it compared to the DV-48AV