LG's "Network Blu-ray Disc Player", the BD390, is actually more of an all-in-one media playing solution than "just" a BD/DVD player. The unit's BD drive means that the machine will play all your high quality Blu-ray movies, as well as DVD and CD discs, and its network features mean that you can browse YouTube as well, in case you want to check out some "user generated content" (hey, I did say "in case").
It's a pretty logical, cost-savvy extension of the Blu-ray player as we know it. After all, a Profile 2.0 Blu-ray Disc player requires a decoder capable of turning AVC (H.264) and VC-1 (Windows Media) contents into viewable video, and also some sort of web connectivity for "BD Live" online services. Given that these video formats are in common use on the web anyway, and the player already has online potential built in, adding YouTube access and networking features makes complete sense - the hardware is already here.
With this said, it seems that outside of the United States, one of the key points of this product has been lost: the American version of the BD390 can connect to the Netflix and Cinemanow video streaming services, but you won't find any such features on the European model, for reasons beyond LG's control. Thanks to Hollywood's last-century thinking, filthy foreigners like us are blocked from accessing these, so you won't find any mention of those features on the European model. Of course, the LG BD390 can also play .MKV and Divx HD video files from a USB memory stick or networked computer, so customers who want to watch low-quality downloaded films are going to find ways of doing it anyway, whether the studios are ready to collect their share of the revenue and embrace the World Wide Web (Hollywood, read: WORLD WIDE) or not.
Additional features are one thing, but most importantly, can LG's top-end Blu-ray player deliver top-quality DVD and BD playback from serious disc-based media? Let's find out.
The BD390 is a boxy-looking unit with a chrome front panel, which lends it a sleeker appearance. The left portion of the front panel folds down to reveal a somewhat rattly disc tray, which feels like it could snap if enough pressure were applied to it. To the right of the face, there are four buttons (Play/Pause, Stop, Previous and Next), as well as a concealed USB 2.0 input, which you can connect a memory stick or other USB device to.
The back of the player features an HDMI AV port as well as Component video outputs, for the output of high definition video. There's also a LAN (ethernet) port for plugging the player into a home network, but many users won't even have to bother, as the BD390 is Wifi certified and can communicate with wireless routers easily. There are also dedicated audio outputs in the form of Digital Coaxial and Digital Optical (which are limited to slightly-better-than-DVD audio out of necessity), analogue RCA/phono stereo outputs, and also full 7.1 channel analogue surround audio outputs, which will allow owners of older AV receivers to enjoy full-quality audio from Blu-ray Discs.
Setup menus and Processing Adjustments
The "HOME" button on the remote reveals an attractive on-screen menu with six choices, the last of which is "SETUP". I selected this option after first powering on the player in order to make sure that everything was configured optimally.
In the Setup screens, the first tab is "DISPLAY", where we can select the aspect ratio of the display device ("16:9 Original" prevents any distortion/stretching on 16:9 TVs), the output resolution, and an option called "1080p Display Mode". This has two choices: 24Hz and 50Hz, the latter of which is actually a localisation mistake (it should read "50/60Hz"). If your display device supports 24p input, select the "24Hz" option. If not, select "50Hz", which will output 24p Blu-ray Discs as 60hz (not 50!), for owners of pre-24p HDTVs. Underneath this option, there's a control for "HDMI Color Setting", which allows selection of YCbCr (Digital Component) or RGB, just in case your display favours one over the other.
The "AUDIO" menu allows us to choose whether audio over the HDMI terminal is output as PCM Stereo, PCM Multichannel, re-encoded to DTS by the player, or output as-is (called "Primary Pass-Thru" here, usually referred to on other players as "Bitstream"). We can configure the standard-def digital audio ouputs ("SPDIF") in much the same way, select a Sampling Frequency (48Khz/96Khz/192Khz) compatible with our amplifier, turn off Dynamic Range Compression, and also enter a "Speaker Setup" screen which allows the user to make basic Size and Level adjustments.
Lastly, the "OTHERS" tab lets you select from one of four menu styles ("Skin"), which is a nice feature, and also provides access to the firmware update wizard ("Software Update").
1080p Disc Playback
It turns out that the "Standard" mode is processing the video on-the-fly and is altering the appearance of the content stored on the disc. To really find out what was going on, I performed measurements from every BD player I had access to at the time of review (namely a Sony PS3, Oppo BDP-83, and a Sony BDP-S760) against the LG player in both its "Standard" and "User" modes. The results showed that the LG's "Standard" mode was performing a "Dynamic Contrast" trick behind the user's back and clipping the dynamic range of the video in order to produce a superficially "punchier" image (this was borne out in measurements as irregular Gamma tracking and colours with Luminance values which were higher than they should have been).
Fortunately, enabling the "User setting" mode and leaving all of the controls at their default values gave an unadulterated image. In any case, this isn't the sort of player behaviour we like to see – if the player is to alter what's stored on the disc in any way, it should only be with the user's consent.
The "User setting" menu contains some unusual options. It features White Level, Black Level, Sharpness, and Saturation controls, as well as colour controls for Red, Green, Blue, Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow, which increase or decrease the luminance (brightness) of each of these colours. Of course, there should be no need for these controls on the player if the display is already entirely accurate (as the player should be outputting untampered-with colour, anyway), but if your TV or Projector doesn't have a Colour Management System (or has one that doesn't work well), then a professional calibrator could potentially use these in-player controls to get closer to perfection.
The rest of the controls include a "Dynamic Contrast" feature (turn it off!), as well as "Block NR" and "Mosquito NR" filters. The Block NR filter targets the edges of 8x8 pixel blocks and in doing so, attempts to reduce the "tiling" effect seen in poorly compressed video. The Mosquito NR filter truncates high frequencies in the image, which can gloss over compression artefacts, but also fine details. Both of these controls are best left off with Blu-ray Discs, and I didn't like the processed appearance they gave DVD titles, either. Lastly, there's a control called "Black Level" which can be set On or Off, but it didn't seem to do anything! I found out why by reading the manual: this setting is only valid on the Composite video output, which suggests that it's LG's name for what's normally referred to as "NTSC 7.5 IRE Setup" (an option sometimes included in players to compensate for a strange design decision in the US standard-def TV system, and one which you don't have to worry about).
With all of the extraneous processing disabled, the LG BD390 put out a nice image which looked no different to any of the other Blu-ray Disc players I've tested – in other words, it looked excellent. I used the trusty Spears & Munsil Blu-ray Benchmark disc and made sure that the BD390 was not applying any unwanted sharpening (edge enhancement) to the picture, was not cropping any pixels from the edges, and also confirmed that it was reproducing the full frequency range for both the Luminance and Chrominance components that make up the picture. There were no problems during any of these tests.
1080i Disc Playback
Sometimes, a 1080i signal contains content that has a film-like cadence (a "cadence" is simply a motion pattern). This can be because the content actually was shot on film, but later edited in 1080i, or because it was shot using a digital camera trying to mimic a film-like appearance. In these cases, a capable player can "pick out" the correct parts of the 1080i signal, and deliver a picture that's as good as a native 1080p one. The LG BD390 could do this for 3 out of the 10 tests on the disc, which is around what I expected. (For those curious, the passing tests were 2-2, and both variants of 2-3-2-3).
That's all well and good for film (or film-like) 1080i content, but what about pure Video content, such as sports material? In this case, the player did a decent job of disguising jagginess, which, again, is what I expected at this price point. The worse-case-scenario "Ship" test clip looked noticeably jaggier than on the Oppo BDP-83 and also jaggier still than how it looks processed by my Realta HQV-based AV receiver.
480i/576i SD DVD Playback
With PAL DVD, I also noticed that the Chroma components of the picture would flicker very gently when they moved. This is undetectable in most real-world viewing, but you might notice it with animated content. It's not clear as to whether it's a deinterlacing issue, or just related to how the player is upsampling the chroma components of the picture (we would have to ask the designers to know for sure).
For the NTSC (US/Japanese centric) system, the 2-2 and 3-2 cadences passed. None of the other less common ones did, which may be of concern to fans of Japanese animation, which often uses unusual motion patterns.
Lastly, scaling: the player did a good job of upconverting the low-res standard definition discs to the 1920x1080 output resolution. None of the fine details of the picture were blurred over, and none of them produced unbearably large halos, either. For DVD, I often preferred to lower the Sharpness control in the player's menu, to help conceal ringing and compression artefacts.
The layer break switchover time was also very fast, to the extent that it was barely measurable: blink and you'll miss it.
Disc Load Times
LG BD390 Blu-ray Disc Player Review
Another day, another mostly excellent Blu-ray Disc player. Like almost every other player around at this price point, LG's machine plays back the common 1080p/24 discs without any issues at all (provided it's in the User picture mode), and does well enough with rarer 1080i material. As usual, it attempts to play PAL Film DVDs correctly, but doesn't do an entirely flawless job. Given the machine's other features and low price, I feel these compromises are acceptable, but obviously not ideal.
LG should make it clearer that by default, the player tampers with the video stored on the disc. Blu-ray is a premium home video format which lets us see films closer to how they were intended, and serious film fans do not take kindly at all to such meddling going on – most of all, without their consent. Luckily, the "User" picture mode on the player defeats this processing and even includes basic Colour controls, which could potentially help calibrators in getting a better image out of difficult displays.
At the time of writing, the LG BD390 can be had for around £212 from 1stAudioVisual. This price, coupled with the fault-free 1080p/24 playback, fast boot-up time, and additional networking features, make it yet another affordable Blu-ray player which offers great value for money.
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