Blu-ray Players

Sony BDP-N460 Networked Blu-ray Player

ARTICLE INDEX


Introduction

“Convergence” is a buzz-word in the consumer electronics industry that we have heard a lot about over the last two years. The idea is that eventually, all our media and information needs will be handled by just one super-appliance in the home. Sony's PS3 was possibly the first significant step toward an off-the-shelf convergence device. Home Theater Personal Computers (HTPCs) are custom built boxes that also approach the convergence ideal.

Sony's most recent addition to their Blu-ray player lineup, the BDP-N460 is labeled by Sony as a “Networked” Blu-ray player. Well, most Blu-ray players are networked, to take advantage of the medium's “BD-Live” on-line content feature, so how is the N460 any different? Is it another stab at a convergence device by Sony? Or is the moniker just a marketing gimmick? In addition, how does it stack up as a regular Blu-ray movie player? Read on!

The N460 is the middle of Sony's three current mass-market single disc players (i.e. not including their ES products) and as such, it is priced in the middle range of most players you'll find in a big-box store at $199.95 SRP. For this you get Blu-ray and DVD (up-converted) play back, AVCHD, CD-Audio, MP3, JPEG, as well as Netflix, Slacker Internet Radio, YouTube, Amazon Video on Demand, and a slew of other Internet-based video channels.

Specifications

  • Design: Blu-ray Player
  • Supported Disc Formats: BD-R/RE, BD-ROM, DVD-ROM, DVD-/+R/W, CD, CD-R/RW.
  • Codecs: Dolby TrueHD Bitstream (via HDMI) and Internal, DTS-HD Bitstream (via HDMI) and Internal, Dolby Digital Plus, MP3 Playback (via burned disc only), LPCM Internal and Bitsream (HDMI)
  • Supported Video Resolutions from HDMI: 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p60, 1080p24
  • Dimensions: 2.2" H x 17” W x 8.1” D
  • Weight: 4.6 Pounds
  • MSRP: $199.95  USA (reduced from $249.95)

Design

The BDP-N460 is a nice-looking Blu-ray player. It has a drop-down face reminiscent of Sony's very first DVD player, the DVP-S7000. The front panel is a high-gloss black, with a few transport controls on the right, and a not-too intrusive white LED display (you can also set to dim or turn off during play back.) There is also a USB port on the front of the player, for playback of JPEG image files only. Structurally, the player is fairly light-weight, but then nearly all the players in this price range are, so I don't know that one should ding it for this, as you have to spend significantly more on an optical disc player these days to get any sort of heft. The disc tray was not too flimsy, with smooth operation synchronized with the drop-down faceplate.

Around the back side, there is another USB port. This port can only be used to for BD-Live content. You must have 1GB or more of memory attached here, in order to access BD-Live content (more on that later). In addition to the USB port, there are the requisite connections, which include an HDMI output (1080p/24 compatible), component output, digital audio output (coaxial and optical) analog A/V output, and an RJ-45 Ethernet port for connecting to your LAN and the Internet. The power cord is detachable (huzzah!) and has a fairly small plug which I found convenient for routing through one of the cable holes on my equipment shelf.

The remote is classic Sony, in other words plain and utilitarian. It gets the job done, but is far from anything you'd want to use on a regular basis. Basically it's a reference for the commands you want to program into your universal remote. I think more and more device manufacturers have just given up on remote control design, largely assuming that most people will simply use a universal remote. This one has fairly small buttons, and no backlighting or night-glow buttons. Tactile navigation of the remote is not too bad though, as the buttons are fairly well varied in shape and/or size. Range was acceptable, though not impressive. My dated Harmony H688 universal remote gets an IR signal to any device in the room, almost regardless of where or how you point it. The Sony remote definitely needed to be pointed at the n460 to be effective.

The BDP-N460 is “almost” compliant with the Profile 2.0 specifications for Blu-Ray: given that the requisite 1GB of storage memory for BD-Live content is not included with the player, one can't consider the BDP-N460 “fully” compliant with Profile 2.0. Although most people have a 1GB or more USB memory stick lying around the house, it seems not only odd, but almost petty that Sony wouldn't just include a paltry 1GB of RAM, given how cheap RAM is these days. Once the 1GB of memory is attached, the player is ready for BD-Live and Bonus View content. The LAN jack is a 100Mb port, which is ample for any streaming content. The BDP-N460 supports most types of optical disc media available today, including +, -, R and RW variants. It is not a “universal” player though, since it does not support playback of either SACD or DVD-A high resolution audio formats.


Setup

Setup of the Sony BRD-N460 Networked Blu-ray player was a snap. There's a guided quick setup feature that gets you up and running in a few minutes, and a few more advanced settings which one can easily find and tweak if desired. I believe this crop of Blu-ray players represents Sony's fourth generation of BRD players. While slower than a modern snappy DVD player, I found the BDP-N460 to be quite responsive. I was never annoyed or frustrated while navigating menus or discs. Granted, when a movie disc is inserted, the main menu of the player is ready before the disc is. But once the disc is scanned and ready (which doesn't really take long either), navigation is fast & easy. The overall menu layout of the BDP-N460 is simple and easy to use, and will be very recognizable to anyone who's used a PS3 or any of Sony's other current Blu-ray players. Network setup was also straight forward. While the BDP-N460 is Wi-Fi ready (with the purchase of a USB Wi-Fi dongle) the only built-in networking solution is a physical network cable from your router to the BDP-N460.


In Use

Video

For picture quality, there are three pre-configured settings: Standard, Brighter Room, and Theater Room. Although I was watching at night with lights out, I left the BDP-N460 set to “Standard. ” The “Theater Room” setting seemed to attempt to compensate for what would be a poorly calibrated TV. The resulting image with a properly calibrated TV was too dim for my taste. Indeed, what little the owner's manual does say about these three picture modes suggests that the TV should be set to “standard” mode when using the “picture quality modes” of the BDP-N460.

The first disc I watched was the Blu-ray “High Crimes” starring Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman. This is an average courtroom drama but an above average HD picture. The quality of this disc came through well on the Sony. The transfer is AVC 1080p, and while a little dated as BRD's go, stood up well with the Sony doing the grunt work. Plenty of shady dark scenes came through with great detail on my Samsung 50” plasma, and detail (e.g. skin tones, skin texture/blemishes) came through great as well. The Sony supports 1080p/24 output for film-based content, but my plasma does not support that mode, so I was unable to try it out.

Next up was Warner's wonderful documentary “March of the Penguins” presented in 1080p using the VC-1 codec. Although not pristine, given the film source, this is a fantastic test of dynamic range for any video device. The blacks of the penguins' plumage are a little over done I think, but it looks great. The environment is prime for pushing the limits of any video system: There's the contrast of the birds' dark coat against their white front and the icy background, combined with the fine details & subtle gradations of the texture of both their feathers and the arctic background. These challenges were met quite well by the Sony: The penguins' tuxedo coats were dark while still revealing the variations in texture and shading, and the jagged cliffs of the frozen surroundings were never washed out.

For standard definition DVD, I played a couple torture-test scenes from my collection, including the grandstand bleachers in Super Speedway, and the fly-over of the Roman Coliseum in Gladiator. When the BDP-N460 was set to 480i output, the moiré and jaggies were (obviously) present. When set to 480p, the BDP-N460 did a bang-up job of clearing up the interlacing artifacts: fine details were smooth and largely free of jaggies, and the moiré pattern on the Super Speedway bleachers was virtually absent. Interestingly, the BDP-N460 has two different modes for pausing video: “auto” and “frame”. When set to “auto” mode and 480p output, a paused frame from the Super Speedway grandstand sequence showed no moiré; same as the moving picture. However, when set to “frame” pause mode, a paused frame from the same sequence showed the moiré of the interlaced image. When the movie was un-paused, the BDP-N460 took just a fraction of a second to lock back on to proper de-interlacing again. The de-interlacing performance was the same regardless of whether I used the HDMI or the component video connection to my plasma TV.

Audio

Both music and movie sound tracks sounded excellent with the BDP-N460. I had no issues using the BDP-N460 as a transport for listening to a variety of music from my CD collection. The sound tracks to every film I watched sounded great. I never hooked up the analog audio output of the BDP-N460, so I really only ever used it as a transport. Since my receiver does all the audio processing in that case, there's not a whole lot to say about the BDP-N460's audio capabilities. As a transport, it performs well, if not quite at the reference-quality standard. If you want an audiophile quality CD transport in your Blu-ray player, you wouldn't be looking at products in the $150-$300 price range.

“Networked” Features

And so we come to those features that are essentially beyond what one would require of a basic Blu-ray player: streaming video, multimedia (home videos, photos, music) and so forth. As mentioned previously, Sony has dubbed this a “networked” Blu-ray player. The BDP-N460's smaller and bigger siblings (the BDP-N360 and the BDP-N560) lack this distinction in their product names. As a big fan of convergence products (media centers/streamers, htpc's etc. ) and given what Sony has done with the venerable PS3 (which as they claim “only does . . . everything”) I was excited to see what Sony had in store with its new “networked” Blu-ray player.

Netflix

By and large, Netflix “watch instantly” capability is the marquee feature among the “networked” features. When the BDP-N460 first hit the store shelves, there were (according to the blogosphere) several issues with the Netflix functionality that required a firmware update by Sony. My sample came to me several weeks after the product debuted, so Netflix was working fine right out of the box. Setup was easy, although there were several steps involved, including activating your product with the Sony Bravia video service, as well as entering some information about the product into your Netflix account, which was done by logging into Netflix separately on your PC. Once setup was complete, I could access my “watch instantly” cue through the BDP-N460. Browsing my cue was easy. I was a little surprised and disappointed that I could not browse all “watch instantly” titles and add them to my cue from the comfort of my couch. You must log on to netflix.com, and add titles to your watch instantly cue from there.

The first movie we watched was one of the “HD” titles available for streaming from Netflix: “Flawless” Starring Demi Moore and Michael Caine. Picture quality was surprisingly good for streaming “HD. ” I still have a hard time with sites like Netflix, Amazon, and Vudu claiming their streaming content is high-def, when we have insanely high bit-rate full 1080p movies at our disposal via Blu-ray. That said, while the picture quality was not comparable to a good Blu-ray disc, it was noticeably better than the “SD” material available. I next went searching for an HD title at Netflix that I also own on standard DVD. I found one in James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgement Day. I own the “Ultimate Edition” DVD, and this movie is also available in HD on Netflix. To make a long story short, I was hard pressed to see much difference between the “HD” version and the DVD both playing on the BDP-N460. But again, the movies available in HD on Netflix look much better than those that are not considered HD, so here's hoping they continue to add titles in this format.

As for the audio tracks from Netflix titles, none of the titles on Netflix I tried were available with 5.1 surround sound of any sort. This was a disappointment, but not really related to the Sony BDP-N460.

Amazon Video On Demand

Amazon's VOD service is also available on the Sony BDP-N460. This is an excellent compliment to Netflix, in my opinion. I say “compliment” and not alternative, because unless you watch very few movies, Netflix is a better deal. However, in my limited exploration of the streaming movie libraries of each service, Amazon has a better selection of titles. Also, Amazon's HD titles are available with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, which to me is a huge bonus. But Amazon's titles cost on average around $3.99 whereas Netflix's watch instantly titles are available to watch as many times as you like, for a flat monthly subscription rate. The unlimited watching feature of Netflix's “watch instantly” library is invaluable if you have a fan of say, “Dora the Explorer” in your household. My daughter will definitely miss the BDP-N460 when it goes back to Sony!

YouTube

I'm not a huge YouTube user, but coincidentally during the time I had the BDP-N460 in my home, I came across a few YouTube videos that I thought my wife would get a kick out of. Having easy access to the YouTube service on the BDP-N460, I just searched for the videos one evening while my wife and I were watching TV, and watched them on the big screen. Typing a YouTube search phrase on the BDP-N460 is reminiscent of composing a text message on a standard cell phone numeric keypad. No setup was required (other than proper connection of the network line) to access YouTube.

Slacker Radio & NPR

I listen to radio a lot. Between time in my car and casual listening at home, broadcast radio is easily the number one medium I consume on a daily basis. I'm also a card-carrying NPR junkie. That means that there are more shows on NPR that I like to listen to, than I have time for. So catching “podcasts” of my favorite NPR shows on my own time has been great lately. So, I was delighted to see the NPR channel available through the BDP-n460's music tab. It worked fine, browsing for shows was easy enough, and streaming quality was acceptable. I also made good use of the Slacker Radio channel offered on the BPD-N460. Given we had the player over the holidays, it was nice to use Slacker to find several “seasonal” music channels for background music while making cookies and trimming our tree. Again, no setup required, everything worked fine right out of the box, and audio quality was acceptable, for streaming music.

Other “Bravia Internet Video” Services

There are several other streaming video channels available through the BDP-N460, too many to review individually. Suffice to say every one that I tried worked, and they all have acceptable quality (nothing better than what you get from the actual online site, mind you). For completeness the selection of channels currently (I believe it can/will change as Sony adds more partners) is: Amazon VOD, Netflix, YouTube, blip.tv, Crackle, FEAR.net, Wired, Epicurious.com, Concierge.com, Style.com, MyPlay Music Network, Inside Sony Pictures, FordModels, Dailymotion, Howcast.com, ON Networks, GolfLink.com, Livestrong.com, eHow.com, Video Detective (lots of movie previews, many in “HD”), SingingFool, Podcasts (a curiously ambiguous title. . . turns out to be a collection of several popular audio and video podcast links, e.g. CNN daily, NASACast, MTVNews, etc. ) and videocast.com (even more video podcasts from around the 'net. )

Obviously, there is a huge amount of video content to be consumed here. Nothing you can't get from your PC, but now it's all available on your big screen. For people who've never used a media center, or HTPC before, this will be a novel and fun addition to your home theater experience. If you do own or have used a media center of some sort, you've probably seen much of this before. I have a media center running the free open-source XBMC software, which is virtually limitless in the amount and kind of online content it can access and stream to your HT. Compared to something like an XBMC or Boxee based media center, what's available on the BDP-N460 seems very limited. But then when I take a step back and think about how much of these features I actually use, I'd say the BDP -N460's offering is quite adequate. And there's something to be said for buying a Blu-ray player and getting all this other content, pre-loaded and ready to browse and consume.

As big a fan of XBMC and Boxee that I am, both currently require you to not only build or buy a small computer to run them on, but there's a significant amount of setup and configuration involved with each feature. For example, if you want to watch movie trailers, on the BDP-N460 just go to the Video Detective channel and start browsing. On XBMC you need to install a plug-in for streaming content from Apple's movie trailer site. It's not difficult to do, but it is more than say, my parents or my wife would want to do. Fans of XBMC and other similar products like to say how easy they are to use, and they are, but that's from the perspective of someone who likes to tweak and likes freedom to install or un-install any feature or plug-in they may or may not want on their media center. Boxee is working hard to provide a slick, pre-configured out-of-the-box version of XBMC, and they have done a great job so far. But I still see a market for a product like the BDP-N460, that just comes with a bunch of neat features already built in and ready to go. People want to have and eat their cake: plug and play simplicity, but also lots of content to choose from. Sony's solution, while not perfect, is pretty good, and a lot of fun to browse.

What it doesn't do

So having just lauded the “networked” features of the Sony BDP-N460, I must give some e-ink to the list of things it does not do, as some of these omissions by Sony are significant, in my opinion.

First, this is not a media center by any stretch of the imagination. The BDP-N460 barely plays anything when you consider the long list of media codecs and containers out there. I've listed it earlier but just for reference (and since it's so short) here's what it can play: Blu-Ray movies, JPEG photos, DVD movies, CDs, MP3 audio files, and AVCHD video files. Okay, it can also play VCD's and SVCD's, if anyone still has or makes those. Furthermore that list is limited even more because JPEG photos can only be played from a burned disc or the front USB port (not the back one!), MP3 files can only be played from a disc (not either USB port) and AVCHD videos must be burned to a properly authored DVD or Blu-ray disc (not playable from a USB drive). There's no support for the near-ubiquitous DivX video format not to mention h.264 videos (although technically AVCHD videos use the h.264 codec, so again, the player, CAN play these files, it just won't.) The BDP-N460 is completely incapable of streaming any content whatsoever from your home LAN, a USB attached external hard drive, or any sort of NAS, etc. So in this way, I feel that calling it a “networked” Blu-ray player is a misnomer. This player obviously has the horsepower to decode just about any sort of audio or video media you'd want to throw at it, but Sony chose to lock it up and limit its potential. Granted I'm not a consumer electronics hardware or software designer, but it seems to me that it wouldn't be too hard (nor expensive) to open up some of this functionality. I can imagine some reasons why Sony may choose not to support a/v codecs and formats like DivX, as these are often used by pirates to make and distribute illegal copies of movies. To limit the n460 from playing an MP3 from the USB port (for example) not to mention from your home LAN though, just doesn't make any sense. Most people who use MP3s have a huge archive of their music collection somewhere on their home LAN. To prevent access to these features is just pointless, especially when the labels “MP3” and “Networked” are emblazoned on the n460's retail box.

Sony originally priced the n460 at an SRP of $249.95. Given that a 120GB PS3 is only $50 (msrp) more than that, and the PS3 can access and play media stored on your LAN (with built-in Wi-Fi no less), the niche that the BDP-N460 satisfies seemed to dwindle somewhat. However, the new SRP of the n460 is $199.95. At that price the jump to the PS3 is not as small, and the n460 competes better with other similarly equipped blu-ray players.


On the Bench

Video Performance

The Sony BDP-N460 had decent results in most of our benchmark tests. Measurements were taken at 1080i resolution with the Tektronix Oscilloscope from the component analog video outputs. The BDP-N460 had very good core performance with white levels measured at a respectable 101IRE, luma and chroma channels in perfect alignment with each other, and a full image without any cropped pixels. The frequency response measured from the BDP-N460 is rather smooth with only a little deviation in the higher frequencies, which translates to good picture quality.

In our HD section of the benchmark the BDP-N460 was a strong performer. The player has good diagonal filtering making images free from jaggies and stairstepping. In addition, the BDP-N460 can successfully convert both 3:2 and 2:2 cadence 1080i material properly which is a big plus. Since the BDP-N460 doesn't feature any advanced noise reduction methods the player failed that portion of our test.

Standard DVD Performance

The BDP-N460 had decent results in our standard DVD benchmarks. Using HDMI and component connections the player passed most of our film based tests but had trouble with our 3:2 cadence mixed flags test. This could result in a loss of detail in short bursts especially around chapter stops. Results on our high detail test were very good and the player displayed our Super Speedway pattern as well as the more grueling Coliseum flyover scene with precision.

On video based material the BDP-N460 had mostly good results. The player is motion adaptive and applies diagonal filtering but it fell short with a slow recovery time when switching back and forth between film and video material.

On the usability section of our benchmark, the BDP-N460 was a solid performer. Responsiveness from the player and the interface was really good and the layer change clocked in at a blazingly fast .5 seconds.

Overall, the Sony DVP-N460 scored very well in our benchmark. Of the Blu-Ray players we've tested to date with the current benchmark, the N460 has the highest HDMI score of any player under $499 ($2000 not counting the Oppo BDP-83), and the best component-video score of any player under $1,500.


Conclusions

Overall, the Sony BDP-N460 is a very solid entry- to mid-level blu-ray player. It is quick and responsive, has very respectable video performance, and comes with some nice bonus features like Netflix, Amazon VOD, and loads of free Internet video content. As a multimedia device, however, it falls short of my expectations. Even if one accepts its limited list of codecs and containers that it will play (no DivX, no mkv, not even mov or the venerable avi file), I just don't see why Sony would not include some basic LAN access functionality, if only for JPEGs and MP3s. At a minimum, they should allow supported file types to be played from all supported media (e.g. MP3 & AVCHD from a USB thumb drive). Given the new SRP of $199 however, some of my expectations may be a little high. At this price, and with its very good core Blu-Ray performance alone, the n460 is a good buy; and the bonus internet-streaming features make it an even better buy. Just don’t expect it to play nice with your myriad collection of multimedia files.

Sony