I know what you are thinking: "Jerry - you spent $2,000 on a Blu-ray player. Are you out of your mind?" Yes, I am out of my mind, for reasons other than my willingness to spend on my home theater as if there is no recession, yet the investment in a significant Blu-ray player for my main home theater rig is looking better and better each day. The common misconception about Blu-ray is that, because it is clearly superior as a format compared to DVD-Video, you can simply buy a cheapie Blu-ray player and get topnotch performance. While a lower-priced Sony BDP-S360 is a very capable unit, it doesn't come with the "Elevated Standards" (the ES in Sony ES) that come with the higher-end players. Let me tell you - they make a difference if you are a discerning enthusiast of both audio and video.
The Sony BDP-S5000ES Blu-ray player is priced with a retail of $1,999 and is a physically significant unit at three rack spaces tall. The industrial design harks back to older, high-end Sony disc players, which were always solid and reliable. Older, first-generation higher-end Blu-ray players and even some HD DVD players (sorry to bring that up) were slick as spit in terms of the faceplate and overall aesthetic, but many times developed "disc player erectile issues" (otherwise known as DPEI), causing limp drawers and poor-fitting parts. Sony's ES units are thankfully built like a tank and never suffer from DPEI. Under the hood, Sony uses what they call "Rigid Beam" technology to reduce jitter and other vibration-oriented distortions that degrade performance in any disc players, Blu-ray included. Another one of the calling cards for Sony ES products is that they go to great lengths to isolate the power supplies from many of the functioning boards in the unit. Considering how computer-like a Blu-ray player is, this important analog improvement is often overlooked in cheaper players, as it costs serious money to use the better parts. For all of us who don't shop for our gear at Wal-Mart, I would like to say thank you for the attention to detail, as I have owned easily a half a dozen Blu-ray players, ranging in price from $1,200 to the cheapie units, and they all pretty much stink in their own special way. I was more than ready for something higher-end and Sony was up to the challenge.
• Read hundreds of other top performing Blu-ray players from the likes of Sony, Sony ES, Oppo Digital, NuForce, Goldmund, Lexicon, Integra, Denon and many others.
• Check out this review of Sony ES' BDP-S-1000 high end Blu-ray player.
For those of you who haven't heard DTS Master Audio and/or Dolby True HD or are waiting to make the upgrade, you are really missing out. The HD audio bandwidth is nothing short of incredible, as it provides a surround sound experience that is genuinely jaw-dropping. Yes, you need the right AV preamp or HDMI receiver, which for most of us requires a component upgrade, but it is worth the money and effort for the incredible 7.1 HD surround sound. I recently upgraded from a Classe SSP 600 to the new Classe SSP 800 AV preamp to allow for more HDMI switching, better system control and the hot new surround sound formats. Traditional Dolby ProLogic and DTS sound uninspired in comparison to their HD brethren. The Sony BDP-S5000ES is the perfect source component to play back Blu-ray discs via HDMI or the very good 7.1 analog outputs offered as output options on the player.
The Sony BDP-S5000ES comes with IR control and, more importantly for my system, an RS-232 port so that I can control the unit via a Crestron touch panel. Custom installers need this level of connectivity to make their players work perfectly every time in larger, custom-installed systems. The BDP-S5000ES is internally loaded with a 14-bit processor, which allows the full 1080p/24 frames per second HD experience, as well as scaling of legacy content from DVD-Video at various resolutions, specifically 480i up to 1080p. The Sony BDP-S5000ES is a Blu-ray Profile 2.0 player, meaning that it can keep up with the breakneck pace at which Hollywood studios are loading discs up with player-crashing features. The Sony BDP-S5000ES will not crash and it will play every disc you can currently buy, which is something I cannot say about my outgoing Sony BDP-S1 Blu-ray player. That sucker needed constant firmware updates to play blockbusters like The Dark Knight. The Sony BDP-S5000ES is capable of all of the features of BD-Live, if you care. I know Sony and the studios love all of the games, tricks and sizzle-laden features from BD-Live. Personally, I just want the movie to play, and fast. Speaking of fast, thankfully the load time for the BDP-S5000ES is much improved over my last player.
I started out my testing of the Sony BDP-S5000ES with stereo compact discs under the theory that, at $1,999, for many consumers, this disc player should be able to replace their CD transport and/or player in their systems. Starting out with "Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)" from Electric Ladyland (MCA, Compact Disc), you could hear very good stereo separation. The bass sounded tight and the overall tone of the track was accurate, although a little dry compared to my reference Classe CDP-502 player. The onscreen menu is very nicely designed, with a sort of cityscape background, nifty sans-serif fonts and a cool track count and time-remaining element. Many people listen to their music with their TVs on these days, so the improved interface is appreciated. The lack of fast-forward and reverse buttons on the front panel of the machine is a glaring mistake for anyone looking to just spin a disc without an onscreen interface, as old-school audiophiles don't like having to turn on a monitor to play a disc.
In an odd format torture test, I reached for one of my most beloved demo discs, the self-titled Audioslave album on DualDisc (Epic - DualDisc). This 20-bit stereo track is a killer, so I cued it right up on the Sony BDP-S5000ES. The track "Show Me How to Live" has righteous bass and the S5000ES did a faithful job reproducing it. The cymbal crashes and highs were not as liquid or warm as you hear on audiophile CD/DVD players costing many times more than this Sony Blu-ray player, so for those looking for the ultimate in audiophile reproduction, don't be so quick to dump your tricked-out, esoteric players. For 98 percent of everyone else, the Sony BDP-S5000ES is perfectly suitable for legacy formats like CD and DualDisc.
Disappointingly, the Sony BDP-S5000ES will not play any SACD discs that I own, including Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon or Peter Gabriel's So. Considering there are still many audiophile record labels out there still making music in high-definition via SACD, it's a disappointment to have a high-end disc player that won't play the format. I was pleasantly surprised that I could get beaming, hard-panning 5.1 surround sound from DVD-Audio discs like Queen's The Game (DTS Entertainment) in DTS surround, not MLP. The massively overdubbed vocal harmonies on the chorus of the attitude-riff-driven "Dragon Attack" provide a very suitable demo. The onscreen lyrics remind you how silly this song is, so I would recommend you shut your HDTV off for this one, but the surround demo is pretty damn hot. Sting's best album, ...Nothing Like the Sun on DVD-Audio (DTS Entertainment), also played flawlessly, but lacked any menus (a DTS issue, not a player issue) and automatically reverted to the cityscape backdrop, which was just perfect. The cymbals sounded a bit tinty on "Englishman in New York" compared to how they were on Meridian's $24,000 reference 800 disc player, as you might expect. However, the surround sound effects were fantastic. The alto sax at the very end of the track sounded round and very musical. Other DVD-Audio discs, including Buena Vista Social Club and Yes' Fragile, defaulted to the DVD-Video section of the disc and played in Dolby Digital, not MLP, which is an audio downgrade compared to the lossless MLP, but at least they played in 5.1 on the player.
Moving on to DVD-Video, I spun up an all-time classic comedy, Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke (Paramount Home Entertainment - DVD-Video). In Chapter 2, "Is That a Joint," you might expect the video to be pretty fuzzy for reasons having to do with the information on the actual disc, but you likely would be shocked to see how resolute the images look as the comedy duo head south on PCH from 1970s Malibu. You can see the actual texture of the plush carpet installed on the doors of Cheech's "customized" car. You can see the gleam from his chrome chain-link steering wheel as the sun beams upon it. You can see embers on the zeppelin-sized joint that they smoke while driving in the car. Overall, you can tell the age of the film stock, but the film looks exceptionally good upconverted from 480i to 1080p. There is no noticeable pixelization. The colors are as vibrant as you would expect from a movie of this age, as the internal video processing does a commendable job of making 480p look like more like native 1080p high-definition. Considering how many movies are not yet offered in Blu-ray, upscaling should not be overlooked when considering which Blu-ray player to invest in next.
Moving to the main event of playing back actual, native 1080p Blu-ray discs, I dropped in the recent Bond film Casino Royale (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Blu-ray). The player played the preview promoting the Blu-ray format nicely, although it hiccupped a few times before spinning the disc, which might have been an HDMI issue with my Classe preamp that ultimately worked itself out. The cobra-fighting scene set in Madagascar (Chapter 2) shows incredible visual detail. The target with the scars on his face looks remarkable, while the greenery in the jungle scene is lush and vibrant. There is a distinct absence of grain that makes me wonder how much better this film could look on the big screen, as opposed to at home on Blu-ray. The pop of orange and red during the crane explosion is still one of the better Blu-ray tests for color fidelity I can think of right now.
Today's reference standard for Blu-ray performance in terms of on screen or via retailers is The Dark Knight (Warner Home Video, Blu-ray), for good reason. This cost-no-object Hollywood franchise keeps outdoing itself with more and more over the top productions based around America's favorite somewhat personally flawed superhero. It took about 60 seconds to get the disc fully playing, which isn't bad by current Blu-ray standards, but it is slow by traditional DVD-Video standards that are likely how mainstream consumers will judge the player's load time. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack on the now-famous opening bank robbery scene is off-the-charts good. The thumping tightness of the bass on the track is the reason why God created subwoofers. The blasts from the shotgun of the bank executive sound palpable. Visually, the detail on the robber's masks are razor-sharp, but the pasty hues on our first look at the Joker after the school bus busts into the bank is even more impressive in terms of color and detail resolution.
In the Hollywood spoof Tropic Thunder (Paramount Home Entertainment, Blu-ray) I was able to compare the difference between my former Sony BDP-S1 player and the Sony BDP-S5000ES player. There is no question that the ES player is leaps and bounds better. The lushness of the canopy of green trees looks more emerald on the ES player, as it has a slightly grayer tone on the older player. The flesh tones look more lifelike on the BDP-S5000 than on the previous player. Sonically, the crunches of the trees as the cast marches through them sound even crisper and more believable. At every level, the Sony BDP-S5000ES is better than the previous Sony BDP-S1.
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