Sony BDP-S500 review

Sony's top-end Blu-ray player wows us with its control over video and audio

TechRadar Verdict

A great quality player, but with Profile 1.1 only around the corner, it's hard to recommend wholeheartedly


  • +

    Excellent images

  • +

    Solid build quality

  • +

    High resolution audio


  • -

    Not Profile 1.1

  • -

    No DTS-HD Master Audio

  • -

    No SACD

Why you can trust TechRadar We spend hours testing every product or service we review, so you can be sure you’re buying the best. Find out more about how we test.

Thanks to the PlayStation 3, the Blu-ray Disc Association is claiming minor and major victories in the HD format conflict, but while some software is shifting in significant numbers, organising a ticker-tape parade is premature.

Certain movies may well be selling by the bucket-load on both sides of the pond, but the specifications of BD hardware remain blighted by the stigma of uncertainty - as much today as when the HD disc scuffle first kicked off back in 2006.

Consider Sony's flagship BDP-S500, for instance. Undoubtedly, this is a machine that oozes class and backs up technological boasts with grit, graft and grind where it matters.

However, beyond the firework show of whizzes, bangs and pretty colours, it's only Profile 1.0. It won't even play all of the BD Java content currently found on some discs.

By now, I thought we were meant to be over this stumbling block.

Both sides of the HD format skirmish were meant to be on an even-footing, trading punch for punch, but in the Blu-corner, the contender has still to lace up one of its gloves.

It's a shame, and somewhat surprising, that I find a lack of something so irksome - a review should be about the things a product does have, rather than those it doesn't.

However, we've been promised the conformity to Profile 1.1 for some time now, and should HCC adopt a deadline policy based on the BDA's, you can expect the next issue to arrive some time in 2009.

That specific caveat aside, though, the S500 is an object of modest beauty. Everything bar tricky BD Java-duties is handled with the care and mastery of a machine built by engineers who obviously care about video and audio.

Even the exterior design has been painstakingly laboured over, with aesthetic flourishes that justify its £600 (or thereabouts) price point.
Unlike its stablemates, the S1E and S300, the front fascia is no fingerprint-attracting flap.

It's still prone to display dabs as prominently as a police case file, but it's automated - smoothly lowering when you press the tray eject button - thus negating the need for digit-specific gropings.

Size matters

The S500 is a hefty bugger, but that's more than a design choice (or down to a surplus of S1E cases left over in Sony's Shinagawa basements).

The bigger the case, the more air flows around interior components, cooling them and allowing each to run at maximum capacity.

In addition, unless spaced correctly, electrostatic build-up can affect audio and video DACs in small but perceptible ways. If having a smaller footprint is to the detriment of quality, I'm happy to have an AV rack the size of a small village.

There's an admirable simplicity to the rear. Modern entertainment kit can often be accused of over-complicating their socketry - providing more holes than the plot of Transformers - but this deck keeps things simple.

Digital audio outs, in optical and coaxial flavours, are joined by analogue 5.1 outputs, and video is catered for with a variety of choices; HDMI, component, S-video and composite are all here, though what you'd want with the last two is beyond me.

The HDMI is v1.3, providing the greater bandwidth that goes with the sexier suffix, but be aware that only a similarly-spec'ed amp and/or display will reap the benefits. And ensure your cabling or switching box are v1.3 capable too. It really makes a difference.

Feature-waving doesn't end with connectivity. Disc-compatibility is equally important to those who don't wish to cough up half-a-grand on a one-trick pony, and the S500 has the unique ability (for a Sony deck) of being able to spin recorded Blu-ray discs, BD-R/RE, from the box - although the S300 is capable after a firmware patch too.

It can also play AVCHD files, created by some HD camcorders, plus standard DVDs, audio CDs, JPEG-laden discs and MP3s. AVCHD home movies, incidentally can be played back with an extended colour gamut (aka xvColour)' provided your screen is HDMI v1.3 compliant.

However, the player isn't compatible with DivX, XviD or any other kind of internet-friendly MPEG-4-based codec. And, do you know what, I couldn't give a flying monkey's.

Playing a standard-definition, home-encoded XviD file through a video-viewer of this calibre is like giving the keys to your £750K Bugatti Veyron to a little old lady with cataracts.

This is a player designed to eke out the minutest detail in lovingly-slaved-over HD transfers, not cough out the artefact-soup of an illegally-downloaded Bulgarian-language version of Lost.

That's not to say that there's an aversion to standard-def per se. Conventional DVDs can be upscaled to 1080p, a job the player handles as well as any Faroudja-chipped equivalent.

Alternating between the settings is almost like leaping from black-and-white to colour, it's so pronounced - and a no-brainer should your display or projector be compatible.

You've been framed

The player's compatibility with 1080p/24 video is a bonus for movie-buffs. It plays BD movie discs at 24 frames-per-second (should your display allow it), allowing you to view a movie in the same frame rate as its cinematic counterpart.

This mode is rapidly becoming a standard and offers reduced judder during movie playback.

Image quality is to die for. I often use Casino Royale and Superman Returns to test BD decks, to which I've added the recent release of Queen Rock Montreal, and I have never
seen all three look so beautiful - involved and with a tangible depth.

Considering that my reference screen is a 52in 1080p LCD, not a plasma, I never expected such deep blacks, like those found in Bond's night-time airport chase sequence.

And they were delivered while picking out all the finery that the 1920 x 1080 pixel count guarantees.

The S500, then, is capable of a great video performance, one you'd think that the machine would be hard pushed to emulate with audio. However, it does. In spades.

This is Sony's only player with decoders for both 7.1 Dolby True HD and DTS-HD High Res. In addition it will stream out bitstreams for decoding by a suitably equipped receiver.

Annoyingly, it doesn't have DTS-HD Master Audio decoding, the preferred sound format of Blu-ray supporter Fox. This is sure to aggravate some die-hard enthusiasts.

If you're wondering whether or not to spend the extra £200 over the brand's S300, it's in the audio performance.

A suitably-featured amplifier is made to sing by the S500. Soundtracks and music alike are afforded control, clarity and beef in equal and applicable measure.

This player truly makes Queen, in DTS-HD High Res, rock Montreal, my living room and the entire street.

Our Tech Labs were also mightily impressed with the player, rating its video and audio jitter figures as excellent - evidence, perhaps of the benefits provided by the deck's substantial chassis.

Profile? Schmofile

It's obvious that I like this deck for what it can actually do. However, my mind keeps flitting back to what it can't. So here's the rub: if you're after a Blu-ray player which can play HD content better than any other player that I've so far come across; is capable of displaying the finest detail and can round it off with superb 7.1 audio control... Well, look no further!

However, we're now perilously close to the first wave of Profile 1.1 players and if you really want to make the most of the next wave of rather more interactive Blu-ray discs then it probably makes sense to hold fire.

Hopefully these Profile 1.1 compliant discs will offer more than just Liars Dice on the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. It's perhaps also regrettable that Sony has yet to build Super Audio CD support into its better-specified players.

This will almost certainly come at some point, and I feel SACD is a natural partner for upmarket Blu-ray. Of course, if you can't wait you could always buy one of these bad boys and upgrade at a later date.

The TechRadar hive mind. The Megazord. The Voltron. When our powers combine, we become 'TECHRADAR TEAM'. You'll usually see this author name when the entire team has collaborated on a project or an article, whether that's a run-down ranking of our favorite Marvel films, or a round-up of all the coolest things we've collectively seen at annual tech shows like CES and MWC. We are one.