First off, for anyone in the Los Angeles area, the Sony Style store in the Beverly Center got these in stock yesterday and I picked one up last night.
Last November, I wrote about my thoughts of the Panasonic BD30
(which was the first stand-alone I thought was actually of value). While I still love my Panny, it is not without some faults (some which didn't exist when I wrote up the review). But it was miles better than the Sony S500 released about the same time and Sony had a lot of ground to make up with the 350. I'm pleased to report that, based on what sampling and comparisons I've done with it, Sony has caught up... mostly
All viewing was done @ 1080/60p (display can't do 24p, so I can't comment there) and audio was bitstreamed to a Denon 3808.
As for video quality, I had a hard time seeing any difference between the 350 and the BD30. There were times when I felt the 350 might be just a hair
more detailed, but it was hard to know if that was because it actually was or just because I was focusing more closely on the areas of the screen I was scrutinizing. While I'm not totally sure the 350 is any better, I can tell you that it isn't worse.
Audio quality via bitstreaming seemed identical to the BD30, although given the audio issues that the BD30 has had off and on since release, I really plan to do a lot more testing. Yes, it will internally decode TrueHD and output as PCM via HDMI. No, it won't decode DTS-MA. One of the big pluses I found for the 350 though is that it has instant bitstream pass-through, even more so than the Panny. The second the video showed up on screen, the audio was also locked in at the receiver. Nothing makes me crazier than having to wait a few seconds for the audio to kick on after the video is already on screen (Samsung and Onkyo, I’m glaring at you).
While the loading speed on the 350 is miles better than it was on the 300 or 500, it's not quite up to what I get with the BD30... but it's very close. For reference, here were the times I recorded for the BD30 last November:
A non-Java disc:
X-Men 3 - 21 seconds
Pirates 1 - 48 seconds
Pirates 2 - 45 seconds
The Fly - 49 seconds
Spiderman 3 - 48 seconds
Fantastic Four:SS - 60 seconds
Surf’s Up - 60 seconds
Day After Tomorrow - 61 seconds
Here are the times for the Sony 350 using the exact same timing method (from the closure of the door to the first screen appearance -FBI warning, studio identifier, or whatever)-
X-Men 3 - 25 seconds
Pirates 1 - 49 seconds
Pirates 2 - 47 seconds
The Fly - 49 seconds
Spiderman 3 - 54 seconds
Fantastic Four:SS - 60 seconds
Surf’s Up - 65 seconds
Day After Tomorrow - 63 seconds
So we're talking about a maximum 6 second difference. But here's something interesting... I loaded Die Hard 2 in both players and the BD30 loaded it in 57 seconds while the 350 took 55 seconds, so I would take the speed issue as a non-issue. Similarly, menu function and usability was the same on both players. Menu animations were smooth and lacked the clunky, laborious quality of the previous Sony models. The downside is that the 350 doesn’t have the access times of the BD30. Once you make a selection from the menus or skip a chapter, it takes a second or so longer for the player to make that a reality.
One other thing must be mentioned about the speed. The 350 has a setting for a Quick Start mode. What this essentially does is leave the player in a bit of a standby mode rather than completely powering down (although all outward appearances are that the player is completely off). It's maybe not as energy efficient, but it saves you some time on the start up. A complete start up in standard mode is 31 seconds from "Power off" to "Ready." Enabling Quick Start cuts that down to 19 seconds.
The design of the player interface, as others have mentioned, is that of the Sony Xross Media Bar as seen in the PS3. In fact, it's like having a little PS3 in a standalone box, only without the horsepower. The on-screen display once the disc is running is also very PS3 reminiscent with a lot of the same info. I was delighted to see a time remaining function, something lacking on the BD30, and there are also places on the display to show the audio format, number of channels and PCM bit depth (cool), the video codec used (alright), and the bitrate (uggggg).
And the 350 also allows you (on non-Java discs only) to resume playback of a Blu-ray, even if you have turned the player off in either standard or Quick Start mode. That was a really nice thing the BD30 had that all the other players lacked.
And one final thing that I was actually pretty surprised by... It's a pretty good standard DVD player. Doing comparisons with the BD30, it was no contest. The BD30 was often riddled with artifacts and junk, while the Sony was very smooth and relatively artifact free. I don't think it's a perfect DVD player and I'll be interested in what Kris has to say about it, but I couldn't be sure if some of the very minor issues I was catching on occasion were a fault of the DVD playback or something inherent in the source. Layer changes were about a second or maybe a bit under. Certainly not the fastest I've seen, but not horrible and something I could live with.
Overall, I think Sony has done a great job getting their players up to snuff after Panasonic left them in the dust last Christmas. With an upcoming 2.0 firmware update, this player will do it all. I’ll be interested in what Pioneer comes up with, but (once again) they’re building and releasing players that are outdated even before release. For BD30 owners that want to upgrade to 2.0 and don’t want to spend $700 to do it, I think this is a player that won’t make you miss your Panasonic.