Looking for a reason to supercharge the old A/V system with high-def Blu-ray Disc playback? Sony, in dropping the price of its new BDP-S300 player a full hundred bucks to $499, seems determined to give you one. The move makes the Sony BDP-S300 Blu-ray Disc player one of the least expensive of its ilk on the market, along with the company's own PlayStation 3 game console. Question is, how does Sony's entry-level standalone model stack up in performance and features against the other contenders?
Let's take a look first at the S300's feature set. The main highlight here is 1080p/24 output - which lets the player extract progressive video, encoded at a film-friendly 24 frames per second on Blu-ray Discs, without intermediate conversion steps. (You'll need a TV capable of accepting a 1080p/24 signal and displaying it at a frame rate that's an integral multiple of 24 fps, such as 72 or 96 fps, to take full advantage of this.) And it can play back regular audio CDs, a feature that Sony's high-end $799 BDP-S1 bizarrely lacks. Another disc format that the player supports is recordable DVD loaded with AVCHD video. Several new high-def camcorders coming from Sony and other manufacturers record in this format, and the xvYCC-color-space (or "x.v.Color," in Sony parlance) recordings that they create can be played back directly on the S300 without having to first format and burn files to a new disc with a computer.
The all-black S300 has a solid look and feel, and its relatively spare front is marked by a set of basic control buttons and little else. I liked the top-mounted disc Open/Close button, which was easy to access with the player stowed on a low shelf beneath my TV. Player startup time clocked in at 45 seconds - pretty fast for a high-def disc player. And load times for most discs averaged a zippy 10 to 15 seconds. (Discs with numerous extras and interactive features took considerably longer to load.) The player's output connections include HDMI (1.2) and component-video, plus both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs and a 6-channel analog audio jack set - a potentially valuable feature if your receiver lacks HDMI switching. As it stands, the S300 doesn't provide onboard decoding for either Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks. It can decode Dolby Digital Plus soundtracks, however, and both these and the multichannel PCM soundtracks found on certain discs can be enjoyed via the player's HDMI or six-channel analog jacks.
Sony's remote control for the S300 doesn't have a backlit keypad, but the layout of buttons is clean - and the ones you'll use most often (such as the pop-up-menu and transport controls) are located in the center, where they can be easily found. One neat feature of the remote is its Video Format button, which lets you switch the player's output format with a few quick presses. Hitting the Display button lets you view a range of disc playback information, including current chapter and time as well as video data transfer rate. You can also extend the readout with video-display and audio-format information by pressing the related buttons after hitting Display.