Sony BDP-S490 3D Blu-ray Player Review
Sony's entry level 3D player proves a smart choice
Last year's equivalent model, the BDP-S480 proved something of a disappointment with its unnecessary manipulation of the video signal marring what was otherwise a very capable player. If Sony can keep their hands off the signal, the S490 represents an opportunity for redemption, blending a host of features along with 2D and 3D Blu-ray playback as well as providing 'upscaling' for standard definition DVDs. With prices online typically below the £100 point, there's potentially a lot on-board for your money, so let's see how Sony's latest smart Blu-ray player stacks up.
The Sony BDP-S490 is their latest product to succumb to the newly rounded PS3 look and it looks very sleek as a result. On closer inspection, the budget nature of the S490 reveals itself in its all-plastic construction and lightweight feel. We did rather like the compact remote control included which, despite its size, managed to make all the buttons easily accessible. For a budget player, connectivity is good but don’t go expecting dual HDMI output or multi-analogue audio outs.
Somehow we don’t find Sony’s XMB bar such a chore on their boxes as we do on their TVs and it was easy enough to find all the important settings in the GUI. Further video settings can be accessed during playback via the Options button on the remote, although we’d advise leaving the Picture Viewing Mode, as is, to ensure the most clean representation of the video signal. It is, however, best to turn off the noise reduction features in there.
Sony’s continued effort to bring as much VoD content as possible to their smart offerings is one we welcome. There’s over 30 pre-loaded on the XMB, including the big guns of BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Netflix and LOVEFiLM but much more besides. Sony’s Media Remote app for Android and iOS is amongst – if not the - best of the bunch and offers full control of the player through a simplified or full interface. Media streaming proved very capable once we turned to Sony’s tweaked version of Servio, Homestream, but was a bit of a disaster with every other player we tried which needs attention.
All the VoD services in all the world aren’t really worth a damn if a Blu-ray player can’t fulfil its primary purpose of showing disc based content in all its glory and the BDP-S490 didn’t disappoint here. Not only did we run through a few of our reference discs but we also got out the measuring kit to confirm that the Standard Picture mode adds almost nothing in influence to 1080p material and keeps it faithful to what the content providers intended. The S490 also handled interlaced content extremely well, in both High Definition and boring old SD, ensuring your DVDs and Blu-ray music concerts are handled with due care and attention.
There’s almost nothing to fault the Sony BDP-S490, it handles both high and standard definition discs brilliantly whilst throwing in more VoD services than you could probably ever use. Build quality could be improved and it’s not the quickest to load but these are minor complaints and overall it offers great value - a definite Best Buy.
Design and Connections
The majority of Sony boxes seem to be moving to a PlayStationesque rounded front form and the S-490 is another example of that. In fact the player looks very sleek with the 4 unit mounted buttons blending almost seamlessly in to the silver trim that runs above the fascia. The fascia itself, houses a visual display that can be dimmed or even switched off entirely – which we like – and a tray loading drive that’s encouragingly quiet in operation.
Sony have a justifiably good reputation when it comes to engineering but the S-490 feels very lightweight and plastic – largely because it is. The supplied remote is a great example of shrunken-down simplicity, however, and makes operations an absolute pleasure. We’re tempted to send it over to Toshiba, who could use a tip or two in this department, given the aberration of a controller that shipped with the BDX3300, recently reviewed here.
Connections wise, as you would expect from a player in the sub £100 category, there’s not a lot to impart although it’s nice to see both coaxial and optical digital audio out options to the rear and there’s also left and right stereo audio outputs for those that would rather. Video connections are limited to a single HDMI and, if you’ve lost your marbles, a composite video out. Connectivity options are completed by the LAN port and two USB inputs, with one at the back and one concealed under a flap on the font.
For some reason Sony’s Cross Media Bar (XMB) user interface works far better in a Blu-ray player than it does in a TV; perhaps as a result of there being less options to play with in the spinner and they’re also more responsive, which is a welcome revelation. The XMB is split in to 6 main categories – Setup, Photo, Music, Video, Network and Sony Entertainment Network - as well as there being the opt-in Recommendation option that allows uploading of your viewing habits to Sony mission control with the reciprocal suggestions for your further edification piped back. Presumably the bulk (OK, all) of those suggestions will be emanate from Sony’s own, subscription based, Music and Video services.
The majority of what we’re interested in here is found in the ‘Screen Settings’ sub-menu in the Setup tab. The first option here is 3D output, with choices of Off or Auto. During testing we left this set to Auto with no issues. Below that is a setting for TV Screen Size in order 3D images are optimised and also a TV Type option that allows aspect ratio choices of 16:9 or 4:3. Frankly, if you’re hooking up the BDP S-490 to a 4:3 aspect TV, you’re doing something wrong! Next you have the option of scaling a 4:3 DVD to a 16:9, or otherwise and we’ll leave that one for your conscience to decide. Hint – we left it on Normal to ensure we were seeing all the picture.
Cinema Conversion Mode is the option to engage film cadence detection for standard definition video that we’ll examine the efficacy of later on and, below that, there’s Output Video Resolution for 2D pictures with choices of HDMI and Video. Very unusually, there’s an option to output 576i over HDMI which will interest those with outboard video processors, in particular. Other than that, everything else is as one would expect with other options of 480/576p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p to choose from. Naturally, if your TV is 1080p, set it at that although the Auto selection should take care of it for you in any case. The BD/DVD-ROM 1080/24p Output item is an Auto/Off option that you'll only want off if you have an older TV that doesn't support 24p playback or, for some reason, you like a bit of added judder to your movies. Next up, or in fact down, is the YCbCr/RGB (HDMI) option can be set as YCbCr 4:2:2, YCbCr 4:4:4 or RGB so you'd need to know which converts the 8 Bit 4:2:0 data on the disc better - the player or the TV and as most are very unlikely to know, we'd probably recommend Auto as the safe option. There's also a Deep Colour option that is also likely safe set at Auto but the cautious may just want to switch it off as the overwhelming likelihood is that you'll have no content that supports it barring some HD Video cameras output.
The Audio Settings are a bit more limited with the choice of Auto ot PCM output through HDMI; On or Off for DSD (Direct-Stream Digital) output for those harbouring SACD’s and the means to listen to them. The BD Audio Mix setting outputs the audio obtained by mixing interactive and secondary audio when set to on but if you’d prefer to send the primary audio, only, to your HD Audio capable AV Receiver, leave it off. Next is Dolby Digital/DTS with choices of Bitstream or Downmix PCM if your old receiver doesn’t have decoding support built in. DTS Neo:6 outputs a simulated surround effect from stereo sources and has options for both Music and Cinema. You can also choke the output for neighbour/family friendly purposes using the Audio DRC (Dynamic Range Control) setting and choose to downmix, or not, audio contacting surround effects with the Downmix option.
Everything else in the XMB is basically part of the Feature Set and dealt with below but, when playback is underway, further video options appear from a tap on the OPTIONS button on the remote. The S-490 offers up 3 Picture Quality Modes of Standard, Brighter Room and Theatre Room which thankfully defaults to Standard for reasons we’ll go in to later on.
Sony tend to concentrate their Smart efforts very much on Video on Demand (VoD) services, and rightly so; their products are devices to watch video on, or via, after all. As well as Sony’s Video Umlimited access, the XMB has over 30 VoD widgets pre-loaded with just about every major base covered, Netflix, LOVEFiLM, BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Demand 5. All that’s really missing are 4OD and ITV Player but it wouldn’t be too surprising to see them appear on the platform soon. Other items of interest include Sky News, Eurosport and Dailymotion – which is nearly as ubiquitous on Smart TV platforms as the, staple, YouTube and iPlayer apps. Also available is Sony’s streaming 3D Experience service has a decent variety of sports, video games and nature clips to see plus some music videos, Harry Potter, Travel and ‘World Heritage’ material.
The Sony Entertainment Icon allows access to Sony’s Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited services. These are subscription based and give you access to a wealth of Sony Entertainment created content. The Music Unlimited service is akin to the likes of Spotify but feels a little bit restricted given Sony doesn’t have the rights for a lot of recordings. Still, there should be enough to keep most happy. Venturing out of the Sony world, the Opera TV Store has an assortment of mostly basic games to download, including Sudoku, Chess and Backgammon but also is the place to download the videophile’s answer to YouTube, Vimeo. All of the nearly 25 apps in there appear to be free.
It’s commonplace for manufacturers to provide apps for tablets and smartphones to operate TVs and there’s increasing support for receivers, blu-ray players and assorted smart boxes happening now too. Sony’s Media Remote app for Android and iOS is amongst – if not the - best of the bunch and offers full control of the player through a simplified or full interface. Not only that, there’s also the ability to ‘catch and throw’ the built in web browser between your tablet or smartphone and the TV, which makes page navigation much easier than using the remote control. It’s not a bad browser but the lack of Flash support makes most embedded video content unwatchable on the TV.
Before attempting any media streaming with the S-490 we’d recommend owners download either Servio or the, Sony branded, Homestream version of it or they may be in for a frustrating experience. With either installed we were able to throw pretty much any divx, xvid, avi, mkv, mp4 and wma video file at it with great success; without every other media player we tried – and we have quite a few – rendered almost all files as unplayable. We know DLNA can be flaky, at times, but the lack of integration with other media players might be an issue for some.
1080p & 3D Playback
It’s very rare we see a Blu-ray player that doesn’t deliver as it should with 1080p content; in fact only the predecessor of this particular player, the S-480, has given us any real cause for concern in any of our recent reviews with its gamma shifting ways. At the time of writing it’s school half-term week around these parts and thus we’ve had plenty of juvenile accompaniment and an ensuing need to keep said juniors amused whilst getting on with some work. As every parent knows, the TV can make an effective temporary babysitter, when needed, but the opportunity of combining work with parental responsibilities presents itself here – whack on a few Blu-rays for the kids and sit and watch them yourself. Any excuse.
First up we took a look at Rio, which whilst perhaps not being the most inspiring of stories, does present an absolutely excellent AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.40:1. Initially we suspected the S-490 was ‘bending’ the luminance element of the signal in a similar manner to its forerunner, the S-480, but on closer inspection we noticed the player had been left in the ‘Theatre Room’ Picture Quality Mode by whomever had last used it. Whipping out the Klein K-10 and some test patterns confirmed our suspicions that the Theatre Mode does indeed play havoc with the gamma, taking our display’s reasonably flat 2.3 response to a very ‘bendy’ affair that saw it hit 2.8 in the mid and low scale but brightening up near white to plumb down to 1.9. Not only did that make much of the detail hard to see and tonally ‘wrong’ but it’s not a response that will suit almost any environment or display. Pictures packed plenty of punch but were clearly a long way from how calibrated images should look.
Dismayed by this, we reset the box and were happy to find the S-490 defaults to the far more transparent Standard mode, which barely coloured the 1080p signal at all. Colour luminance took a little bit of a hit so the animations were looking a little more muted than ideal but a very slight adjustment to the displays control brought everything back in to line. We would advise that the default settings for BNR (Block Noise Reduction) and MNR (Mosquito Noise Reduction) of 3 do take a little – and we mean a tiny amount – of high frequency detail from the picture so it’s best to turn them off for Blu-ray. The noise reduction processing is actually rather good and useful for less well transferred DVDs and watching internet content.
In addition to both the 2D and 3D versions of Rio, the Swiss Family Hodgkinson viewed the same for Monster House and Puss in Boots and each displayed excellently on our calibrated display, with no added judder or any other sort of artefacting. Turning to some more adult fare, running through some of our more usual test material - The Dark Knight, Boardwalk Empire and The Bourne Trilogy and we were suitably impressed by the S-490’s faithful presentation of the discs’ excellent encodes. For 3D testing, we went back to the excellent Titanic conversion and the now almost worn out Avatar and, again, we sensed no added crosstalk or unexpected surprises; played through both an active and passive display.
Our advice, leave the Sony BDP S-490 in its default playback settings – bar turning off the Noise Reduction options – and it will deliver near flawless 1080p and 3D pictures.
It’s usually with interlaced signals that Blu-ray players trip up and it’s often in this area of testing that we see the biggest difference between the brands and models. The Sony S-490 fare covered itself in glory hear by passing almost every cadence test on both our Spear & Munsil and HQV Blu-rays. We also used the HQV Blu-ray disc to check the quality of the video deinterlacing. This disc has a jaggies pattern that uses three rotating bars and with the BDP S-490 all three bars were smooth with no jaggies. The Sony also had no problems with the video resolution loss test, correctly processing the moving portion of the image and leaving the background free of artefacts. The S-490 was also able to handle discs with film content that is encoded at 1080i/50Hz without any problems and a quick watch of a Stevie Wonder concert recorded at 1080i60, showed the same excellent performance.
The Sony BDP-S490 displayed similarly excellent processing of standard definition signals, correctly scaling the full 576i/50Hz images without any loss of detail or unwanted ringing. With the video deinterlacing tests the results were also excellent, the S-490 reproduced the rotating line without producing any jaggies, even at the most extreme angles. In the motion adaptive deinterlacing test the performance remained superb with all three moving lines being reproduced correctly, even on the bottom line. In the cadence tests the player also performed flawlessly, correctly detecting the most common 2:2 cadence without any problems. The player also had no problems with the test displaying film material with scrolling video text, the text was always clearly readable without any shredding.
Disc Load Times
For the sake of saving a few pence on the electricity bill, we’d rather have our Blu-ray discs load in timely fashion and thus we enabled the Quick Start Mode in the Setup Menu of the XMB. In this mode we could go from a standing start to the main menu screen of the disc in typically around 35 seconds, which isn’t bad but a fair bit tardier than the recently reviewed Toshiba BDX3300KB and more or less the same as a first gen, Slim PS3. Blu-ray discs vary on their loading times dependent on the amount of Java content on the disc, by disabling BD Live in the Setup menu, times were reduced by around 5 seconds. DVD load times were actually quite slow, with many discs approaching 60 seconds before ready to play.
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Smart Network 3D Blu-ray Player
Suggested price: £90
Reviewed 27th October, 2012 by Mark Hodgkinson
To get the best out of your TV or projector, consider getting it calibrated.