With Blu-ray Disc, setting a “reference” player apart from the rest of the pack is a much taller order than in the early days of standard-def DVD. Fortunately for consumers, Sony’s Playstation 3 appears to produce an untampered-with BD image through its software player, and coupled with the BD Remote accessory, this is an incredibly attractive proposition for anyone who can tolerate its hideous aesthetics and fan noise. The Pioneer BDP-LX91, however, is an AV product through and through. It adds value through the additional video processing features which Pioneer have included inside, as well as its audiophile design sensibilities and its looks.
The machine is one which finally justifies the clichéd phrase of “built like a tank” (OK, a square, glossy tank). It’s built out of solid aluminium and uses a modular design, where each board exists solely to perform one specific function. This unique architecture should explain the cost and size of the machine: compare it to Panasonic’s current BD players which perform all of their functions using a single chip!
The front of the unit is styled in gloss black, but it’s not the same variety of gloss black that you’ll find on cheaper LCD TVs, or the PS3. It’s a little less reflective, and for once, almost entirely scratch proof. So, while it’ll collect fingerprints, you’ll actually be able to wipe them off with a soft cloth without ruining the machine’s appearance. The difference in design is stark sat next to my PS3: that machine was never going to win any beauty contests, but now looks like it’s been sandpapered.
Flip the behemoth around and on its pretty rear you’ll find an unusually large selection of audio and video outputs. For a start, there’s not one but two HDMI output terminals. The idea here is that you use one to send video (and optionally, audio) to a display device, and the other to send only audio directly to a sound system. Pioneer claims that this will reduce distortion in the audio signal, which might sound odd, but remember that HDMI actually packetises audio and video signals together. With that in mind, it makes sense to take up their offer of keeping both entirely separate, for peace of mind if for nothing else.
Moving down, there are analogue Component video outputs using the studio-style BNC connectors (Pioneer ship the player with BNC to RCA adapters, so you can still use these outputs with consumer equipment). And, there are standard-def S-Video and Composite outputs too, because it would be rude not to include these (anyone actually using these to watch discs will have the player confiscated).
Owners who’ve made significant investments in slightly older audio equipment will be happy to see that there are full analogue 7.1 surround outputs, allowing you to experience high-definition audio with your existing equipment. Better yet, each one of these 8 channels has a Wolfson DAC (Digital to Analogue converter) instead of one shared DAC. Yes, there really are EIGHT DACs in here, one for each channel! And, the analogue audio board has a dedicated power supply. All of this should result in uncompromised analogue audio output.
There’s standard definition digital audio outputs too (one Coaxial, one Optical). Then, there’s a LAN port for connecting the player to the internet, as this is a full Profile 2.0 player which supports such features. Lastly, there is a proprietary Pioneer control jack for system integration with other Pioneer products, and an RS-232C port which can be used for automation in a larger home theatre setup.
So, after hooking the LX91 up and pressing the Power button, the player took about 16 seconds to show a slick “brushed steel” Pioneer logo. From here I entered the HOME MENU and checked the various settings in the INITIAL SETUP screens. Most of the options in here are the usual common-sense settings such as Screen Type (4:3 or 16:9) and Audio Output Terminal (HDMI, Digital Coaxial, Analogue etc), but some of the more unusual ones are an option for “HDMI High-Speed Transmission” (which simply enables or disables output of 1080p/50 and 1080p/60, the most bandwidth-heavy formats which older cables may not handle reliably), and an option for “PQLS”, a feature designed to improve the quality of Audio CDs when played back with a compatible Pioneer AV receiver.
There are more options available during playback, so with that in mind I grabbed a disc and opened the tray. The disc transport on this player, by the way, glides open and then closes again with this wonderful soft “clunk”, which is just another reminder of the solid build quality. Being quite OCD with the condition of optical discs, this was a welcome break from the Playstation 3, which grabs the disc from you and sucks it past two velvety pads (which on occasion can scuff discs gently).
After a brief delay, the player’s front panel flashed up information relating to the disc format, and its contents (for example, BD-ROM BDMV, BD-R BDMV). The disc then began to load in near-silence.
BD Playback and Video Processing adjustments
Prog. Motion: this appears to adjust the motion detection threshold of the deinterlacer for Interlaced video content. Sliding it left (to “Motion”) will cause the LX91 to detect small changes in the video as moving (bias towards motion); sliding to the right (“Still”) will disregard small changes and not consider them as moving areas to be deinterlaced. Not effective for 1080p/24 BD movies.
Pure Cinema: This can be set to Off, On, Auto1 or Auto2. None of these have any effect for 1080p/24; but for interlaced content, “Off” will force the player permanently into Video deinterlacing mode, and the two Auto modes will attempt detection of the correct film cadence. “On” will force the player to consider the current content as Progressive (whether or not it actually is), and is effectively a control to override the flags stored in the encoded video stream. More on this feature later in the SD DVD section of this review.
YNR and CNR: these are Temporal noise reduction options. YNR reduces monochromatic moving patterns such as CCD noise from video cameras and most film grain patterns. If you really dislike film grain, then I suppose it’s better that you reduce it on your own player in this manner, but I could personally never entrust the aesthetic of a particular film entirely to a playback device’s video processing as a matter of principle (what I’m saying is that this option isn’t for me, because I like to watch films and still have them look like films). CNR does the same thing, but instead acts on the Cb and Cr (colour) components of the picture.
BNR is designed to smooth over the edges of blocks that result from the 8x8 macroblock structure of MPEG-2 video compression (rarely used on BD movie titles). MNR reduces the high-frequency Mosquito Noise occasionally seen in MPEG-2 video. Turning this up to its highest setting will give you a High Definition picture with a genuinely creepy glossed-over look, which doesn’t have a lot of definition left at all!
And now, for the edge enhancement options. Sharpness High and Sharpness Mid boost the sharpness of the High frequency (smallest details) and Mid frequency (middle details) respectively. Gently notching the former of these up can restore a little bit of oomph to discs that have been subjected to questionable filtering prior to encoding, but fortunately enough, there are so many high quality discs on Blu-ray that I preferred to leave these features off and watch them discs as-is. And lastly, we have the strangely labelled Detail option, which appears to detect edges in the image and enhance them. The middle setting appears to be the one which leaves the image untouched (don’t turn this all the way up thinking you’ll get more genuine picture detail - you won’t!)
We finally have a selection of much more familiar options: White Level and Black Level, and a Black Setup option, which only affects the Composite and S-Video outputs and is surprising to see on a European player. Its purpose, in case you’re wondering, is to add an American-style “pedestal” to the video signal, as American NTSC specifies black as beginning at 7.5 IRE, not 0 IRE as is the case in Japan and Europe.
And finally, we have a Gamma Correction adjustment, a subtle Hue adjustment which is almost entirely pointless considering that DVD and BD are both Component video systems, and a Chroma Level control which can be used to raise or lower Saturation.
By the way, there are three memory banks: Memory1, Memory2, and Memory3, which can store these settings individually. There are also various preset modes which aren’t editable; to compensate for the differences in different display technologies. For example, there’s an “LCD” preset which appears to lower the overall Gamma, presumably in anticipation of the entire image being lit up by an LCD’s backlight. Crucially, there’s a “Professional” setting which I used, which appears to have the same effect as leaving all of the options at their middle positions.
With this configuration and the display device calibrated to the player’s output, playback of 1080p/24 Blu-ray material was predictably flawless, as it is on other machines I’ve evaluated. There were no clipped shadow details or other issues; just a faithful reproduction of the encoded contents (something I confirmed with both Hollywood titles and also test discs I’ve created myself).
There is one more video adjustment here worth mentioning, and this is the Anamorphic Zoom mode, accessed through the Tools menu. Here, the player can be instructed to vertically stretch 2.35:1 material to remove letterboxing, so that an anamorphic lens can be placed in front of the projector to restore correct aspect ratio on a dedicated 2.35:1 projection setup. It’s great to see Pioneer include this functionality here, because some projectors don’t include it themselves.
However, there is one missed opportunity in its implementation. One of the biggest problems that 2.35:1 setup users have is when disc authors place subtitles in the black area, which then gets cut off along with the black bars, making the text unreadable: a pain for when us English speakers want to watch the occasional foreign-language film, but an absolute nightmare for non-English speakers who want to enjoy English-speaking films with subtitles on their 2.35:1 setups. If Pioneer had chosen to scale the video BEFORE Blu-ray’s Presentation Graphics layer (which contains the subtitles) was overlaid, then this would have solved this annoying problem for 2.35:1 users. Sadly, Pioneer haven’t implemented the Anamorphic Zoom feature in this way: it happens at the very end of the chain, so the problem remains. I’m sure it’s down to limitations in the way that the various components interact with each other rather than an oversight on their part.
On top of this mess, the typically sub-par encoding quality and low level of detail that have become the accepted standard on all but a handful of DVD titles are also considerations. With this in mind, any machine designed to be connected to a high-definition progressive display device has its work cut out for it!
The good news is that the BDP-LX91 runs in with guns blazing. When I fed it the PAL and NTSC versions of the Silicon Optix HQV test discs, it tackled the Diagonal Interpolation tests as well as the best of players, making it a good choice for watching video-based material. And, not surprisingly, most of the NTSC Film Cadence tests passed (the only ones failing were a handful of essentially irrelevant ones). The 2:2 PAL Cadence test also passed successfully in its first variant, with the second one failing. (The second test, by the way, is a bizarre variant which I have never seen used on an actual disc, and have never seen a player pass, so it’s safe to ignore).
Speaking of Film Mode detection, I should elaborate on that promised discussion of the PureCinema setting further. Enabling PureCinema essentially tells the player, “This is 100% progressive content. Turn off any deinterlacing”. This is great for most PAL film DVDs, where both fields contain the same information most of the time (bad edits and other freak scenarios not withstanding). But for NTSC film discs, which are converted to 480i/60hz by the video decoder and THEN processed, turning on PureCinema will create visible combing. Interestingly, this is different to how Pioneer’s PureCinema processing was implemented in older players (such as 2004’s DV-668AV). Regardless, in the entire review I had no reason to enable PureCinema anyway. The “Auto1” setting served me perfectly in all cases: it’s a case of “set and forget”, with a manual override included for peace of mind.
Something which irritated me a little was the length of time that the BDP-LX91 took to transition to the second layer when playing back Dual Layer DVDs: a full 3 seconds, making it one of the slower players I’ve looked at lately. It’s only three seconds out of a feature-length film, but I know that it irritates a few people much more than me, and it’s three seconds longer than an OEM Tesco supermarket player which I have around here (for testing disc authoring, by the way!) takes. Of course, I doubt that the Tesco supermarket player would pass all of the same video deinterlacing tests, even if it DID have a Progressive output in the first place, so it’s not exactly a like-for-like comparison!
By the way, the LX91 can also output NTSC DVDs at 1080p/24. Just a warning if you enable this option: it also outputs NTSC VIDEO titles (60i) at 24p, with all the dropped frames and juddering you’d expect from such a mismatched conversion. Of course, you can change resolution on the fly with the BDP-LX91, from an easy to access remote button, so this isn’t really a problem. In any case, most of the DVDs in my own collection are of films, not video shows, so the 24p mode is wholly appropriate and welcome in these cases.
To test the speed of the player’s load times, I grabbed discs authored in both of Blu-ray’s main delivery modes: HDMV, a mode designed for basic interactivity and a DVD-like authoring process, and BD-Java, the no-holds-barred “program everything yourself” mode which offers disc creators theoretically limitless potential. The latter of these two formats can be notoriously slow in some players. For the test, the discs were loaded into both players and the power turned off. The power was then turned on, and the stopwatch began, meaning that these times take player startup into account. The stopwatch was halted after any loading screens had disappeared and the first frame of video appeared (typically a studio logo, warning screen, etc).
Pioneer BDP-LX91:LA Confidential (USA, Warner) - HDMV: 38 seconds
American Psycho (Australia, Sony) - BD Java: 1 minute, 46 seconds
Sony PS3:LA Confidential (USA, Warner) - HDMV: 42 seconds
American Psycho (Australia, Sony) - BD Java: 51 seconds
Pioneer BDP-LX91 Blu-ray Disc Player Review
Pioneer’s BDP-LX91 is a brilliantly constructed machine which plays 1080p/24 Blu-ray Disc as well as the best of them via HDMI. It’s an incredibly expensive machine, but adds value through its build, reference-quality analogue outputs, deinterlacing which results in rock-solid DVD playback, and a wide array of video post-processing features.
It’s one seriously expensive machine, but keep in mind that the LX91 was designed to be a high-end CD player, DVD player, and BD player all in one. If you’re just making your way into high definition and already have the other bases covered, a player such as this one is almost certain to be overkill, especially when you consider that there is really nothing wrong with the offerings from the other big-name brands. However, if you want a disc player built to exacting audiophile standards or want to take advantage of the advanced system integration opportunities it brings, the LX91 won’t disappoint you in the slightest, and depending on your point of view, the amount of high quality components under the hood - and the engineering experience that’s brought them all together - may well seal the deal on their own.
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