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Blu-ray Players: The Current Crop

Panasonic's DMP-BD30 can play back picture-in-picture features on BonusView-enabled Blu-ray discs.
Panasonic's DMP-BD30 can play back picture-in-picture features on BonusView-enabled Blu-ray discs.
For this roundup, we corralled six Blu-ray Disc players and herded them into the PC World Test Center. Three units--Pioneer's $1000 BDP-95FD, Samsung's $400 BD-P1400, and Sharp's $550 BD-HP20U--are older models that don't support the Blu-ray BonusView capabilities. Two other players--Panasonic's $500 DMP-BD30 and our Best Buy, Philips's $400 BDP7200/37--feature BonusView support, but not BD-Live. The sixth unit, the $400 Sony PlayStation 3, has undergone numerous changes since we last considered the device as a Blu-ray Disc player, including updates to add support for both BonusView and BD-Live.

We conducted our tests in the PC World Test Center using Pioneer's 50-inch PRO-FHD1 plasma display, Pioneer's Elite VSX-82TXS audio/video receiver, and NHT's Classic series 5.1-channel surround-sound system (we configured the players to handle their own audio processing). Our viewing tests included scenes from several movies: the standard-definition versions of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and The Phantom of the Opera, and the high-definition Blu-ray Disc versions of Cars, Good Night and Good Luck, Mission: Impossible III, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Searchers.

We also considered video resolution loss and jaggies test patterns from Silicon Optix's HD HQV Benchmark. We conducted our audio-quality tests with the uncompressed PCM audio track of The Last Waltz, a classic that contains some stellar acoustic tracks. (For more on audio codecs, see the discussion under "Advanced Features.")

One thing we noticed very quickly in our comparative tests: Blu-ray players are not all alike. We found a surprising amount of variation in how the six models output our selected movie test chapters to the Pioneer PRO-FHD1 plasma display.

For example, one player, the Pioneer, tended to show crisp, but slightly dark, images. Meanwhile, both the Panasonic and the Samsung generated images that looked a bit washed out, and Sony's multipurpose game console, the PlayStation 3, produced images lacking the three-dimensionality and vibrancy of some of its stand-alone competitors.

Sharp's BD-HP20U had the best image contrast of the six players we tested.
Sharp's BD-HP20U had the best image contrast of the six players we tested.
The Sharp produced the best image quality overall. It also garnered the only Superior ratings in our jury's evaluation, thanks to its superb handling of colors, brightness, and contrast (especially evident in the opening scene of the black-and-white film Good Night and Good Luck, and in a tricky-to-render day-for-night scene in The Searchers).

The sixth unit, the Philips, placed a close second to the Sharp in our image-quality tests; it produced some of the most even-keeled results across the board, with both pleasing contrast and well-balanced colors.

In audio performance, the Pioneer and the Sharp tied for top honors: Both produced crisp, full-bodied audio. The Philips and the Sony PlayStation 3 landed in a virtual tie with the frontrunners in our jury testing, though I admit that my sonically sensitive ears could hear a clear difference. The remaining two models--the Panasonic and the Samsung--trailed with mediocre audio reproduction on our test track; their sound was thin and lacked the depth and fullness of their rivals.

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