Sony has had a problem for a while now. Because it's a large company, each division operates in quite a separate environment. For Blu-ray, this has been something of a disaster. On the one hand, you have Sony's computer-entertainment division, which has been pushing the PlayStation 3, with its built-in Blu-ray player. On the other, you've got the consumer-electronics people, who have their own range of stand-alone Blu-ray players.
Sony Computer Entertainment has been able to subsidise the PS3 heavily, because it recoups money from the sale of PS3 games. Sadly for the consumer-electronics division, it has been forced to charge full price for the standalone players. This unique situation meant that it was far cheaper to buy a PS3 than a normal Blu-ray player, and most people did, indeed, buy a PS3.
Happily, this situation has abated slightly as Blu-ray technology has dropped in price, and the Sony BDP-S350 is a great example of how that trend has affected the price of players. At around just £180, it's less than half the price of its predecessor, the BDP-S300, and it does significantly more things to boot.
The first thing that we noticed about the S350 was its small size. It's a significant percentage more tiny than the S300. It takes up less vertical space, as well as having a shallower case. All of that means it's lighter, which will please people who want to carry it from Scotland to South Africa.
Not only is it compact, but it also looks very attractive indeed. The blue and black finish make it look unlike any DVD players you might have, and the Blu-ray logo sits in bold on the front of the machine. The remote control also feels good in your hand. The navigation controls fit well with the on-screen menu system, making for a complete and enjoyable user experience.
There is no analogue 7.1 audio out on the Sony. That's fine for people who have HDMI sockets on their AV receivers, but, if you don't, you're going to be stuck with down-mixed audio from the coaxial or optical digital outputs. That would be a shame, because one of the glorious things about Blu-ray is its high-end, lossless audio.
If you need 7.1 audio outputs, the Sony BDP-S550 is the machine for you. It also has the advantage of being able to decode DTS-HD MA internally too, which is good news.
The S350 has one good feature that distinguishes it from other Blu-ray players: Sony's new XrossMediaBar (XMB). Although XMB sounds like it was named by a committee of concrete specialists, it's actually a very sensible way of handling menus. If you've seen the PS3, you'll understand how it works.
Menu options are laid out, in a horizontal line; when you select something from the menu, sub-menus and options are laid out vertically. It's very logical and easy to understand, although the XrossMediaBar name is still thoroughly awful.
Surprisingly, there is no support for DivX in the S350. We were disappointed by this, but it's far from a deal-breaker. Much as we like DivX support and applaud it when present, we do have media streamers and games consoles to do this for us now.
Let's kick off our detailed look at this player by bunging in our tried and tested DVD, Jurassic Park. It's fair to say if you want to watch your old movie collection in standard definition, the Sony won't disappoint. We hooked the S350 up to a Pioneer 50-inch plasma and were amazed by the quality. Our favourite scenes in this fantastic dinosaur action flick were brought to life with impressive detail.
It feels redundant to say that the S350 also does a great job with Blu-ray discs. But it does. That high level of performance starts when you put a disc in. Our usual test is to load the movie Vantage Point, which we did here, returning a time of 1 minute and 9 seconds. That means this is the joint-second-fastest player, bettered only by the Sony PS3. Impressive.
Picture quality too, is excellent. We tested Casino Royale, xXx 2 and Walk Hard, and the results were brilliant. Interactive features load quickly (after the initial wait) and the Java-based menus on most Blu-ray discs were swift and pleasant to use.
Sound -- when routed to our Onkyo AV receiver and Klipsch 5.1 speakers -- was phenomenal. The S350 can internally decode Dolby TrueHD, but we think most people will want to send audio to home cinema systems via HDMI.
Because the S350 is a profile 2.0 player, you can access online content, as well as use the interactive features found on some discs. This sort of thing varies in value from disc to disc, but if you like DVD extras, we're sure you'll get a kick out of this sort of thing.
We really don't have any complaints about this player at all. The price is fair -- although we're a long way off hardware for less than £100 -- and it's got as many features as you could possibly hope for. The main competition comes from Samsung's BD-P1500, which is similarly priced and features profile 2.0 via a firmware upgrade.
It's good that the PS3 is no longer the cheapest Blu-ray player on the market. It's also good to say that the PS3 is no longer the most competent. The S350 is how things should have been from the start, and the very thing we used to love about HD DVD.
Edited by Charles Kloet