Blu-ray Players

Sony BDP-N460 Networked Blu-ray Player

ARTICLE INDEX

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.