Although BD is the ultimate home AV format, Sony have built some of their own proprietary processing features into the S5000ES in an attempt to refine the contents stored on the disc. Some of these are laudable attempts to patch over small shortcomings in the BD video spec, others are revisionist video processing exercises at best which should be turned off.
Spin the S5000ES around and on the back you’ll find enough ports to satisfy just about any purpose. There’s an HDMI A/V output, standard-def digital audio outputs (Coax and Optical), Analogue 7.1 surround outputs, 1080i Component video outputs, Stereo audio outputs, an Ethernet/LAN port, RS232C, a USB slot, Sony proprietary “Control S”, and Composite and S-Video outputs.
Unlike lower cost models, the S5000ES has some heat-generating processing under the hood. As a result, there’s a fan on the back of the unit, which fortunately, is almost entirely silent. It proved to be impossible to hear over a movie soundtrack in my setup. In fact, much of the time, it wasn’t even active, so don’t worry about its presence.
Firing the unit up revealed a rendition of Sony’s Xross Menu Bar (XMB) menu layout that’s only slightly less slick as the one seen on the Playstation 3. From here I navigated over to the Setup column and ensured things were configured as they should be. Most of the options here are run-of-the-mill, but two interesting ones are SBM, described as “A functional process of smooth gradation video signal output from HDMI”, and Component output compensation which is selectable in 7 different steps (it’s designed to compensate for signal loss over long runs of analogue video cable, which can appear in the image as softened details and ghosted high-frequency details).
The Audio setup section grants access to the Speaker Settings screen, which allows Analogue Surround users to configure speaker Size, Distance, and Levels. There are also Photo and Music columns in the XMB to allow users to look at JPEG images and listen to MP3 music.
Pressing the Eject button will slide the chunky yet smooth disc transport out. Sony, by the way, are eager to point out that the optical drive used herein is of their own “Precision Drive HD” type, meaning that it’s highly reliable, can correct for disc warping (although I’d hope people spending this amount of cash on a player would take better care of their discs!), and most importantly, is nice and quiet.
BD Playback and Video Processing Adjustments
For some reason, high end players are typically designed to decode this as 1080i/60 and then use additional video processing to detect the correct cadence and return the footage to 1080p/24 (or 1080p/60, if your TV doesn’t support 24p input). I’m not entirely sure what the thinking here is, but presumably it’s to give the player the chance to correct for cadence detection errors that have occurred in the studio. Disney’s early US release of “Chicago”, for example, was evidently sourced from a 1080i master and there are points in the film near the very end where combing occurs (ditto for Sony’s remastered, and presumably original releases of “The Fifth Element”).
Unfortunately, two discs I tried during the review process briefly tripped up this somewhat convoluted process. The first was the anime movie “Tekkonkinkreet”. Presumably because of the highly limited nature of the animation, the player would occasionally lose its grip and show combing. (This content is traditionally animated with less drawings to save money - “on threes” in animator-speak, compared to more fluid American animation done “on twos”). Fortunately, I only noticed this twice - but that’s still two more times than machines costing a fraction of the price, which read the video directly as 24p.
I also noticed the same problem happen, again twice, during Optimum’s UK release of “My Blueberry Nights”, during the sequences where the filmmakers have duplicated frames during the editing stage. It’s for reasons such as these that I think processing 24p as anything other than Progressive is a bad idea - when you have a high end player that shows combing more than your own games console, it may be time to rethink your hardware design or at least include some sort of “Bypass” mode.
With most standard live action film content, the player would occasionally take 4-5 seconds to detect the contents as 24p and process them accordingly, showing combing in the mean time. However, once the contents had been verified as such, the player stayed locked and no further combing was seen, meaning that the player’s performance with most 1080p/24 content was no worse than other machines.
Can you ask for more than a perfect display of the stored video? Apparently you can, because Sony has added the sort of additional processing you’d expect from a high end player. Now, normally these types of features comprise of definition-damaging noise reduction controls and other adjustments which I leave off, but for a change, one of these features is reconstructive rather than revisionist in its purpose: Super Bit Mapping. SBM attempts to compensate for the 8-bit nature of current HD video compression and restore areas of once-smooth gradation to the quality of the studio master.
By Sony’s description, SBM accounts for gradation data lost during the encoding process (incidentally, I wasn't 100% sure whether or not "SBM" refers to this gradation smoothing process or something more, as Sony's supplied white paper didn't make it 100% clear). Although studio equipment, such as HDCAM SR and HD-D5 studio VTRs operate in 10-bit, all of the codecs in use on Blu-ray Disc are 8-bit. And, if the input to the encoder was a computer image sequence (for example, during the encoding of a Pixar CGI film that hadn’t been dumped to tape first), it could be of theoretically limitless configuration. Also, the material could have been pre-dithered in anticipation of the 8-bit degradation to start with - either by the video encoder itself, or induced by a thoughtful video technician as a manual step - so what would the effects of SBM be here? The mind boggles, but regardless, it’s some damn clever thinking and is nice to see on a high end machine. For once, we have a feature which attempts to return the picture to the quality of the studio master, rather than needlessly poke and prod it.
So, how is it controlled, and does it actually work? Finding test material to actually detect banding proved to be quite difficult. Most of my collection is comprised of 35mm-sourced material which won’t naturally show this on its own - the natural grain acts as a dither in these cases - and the CG features I own (mostly Pixar movies) fall shy of showing it up. Pixar’s "Ratatouille" was expertly pre-dithered prior to compression; meaning it looks just as good on a player that doesn’t feature additional processing such as this - take a look at the foggy scenes near the start of the film.
So, I authored a quick disc with entirely static Black to White gradient ramps myself, sourced from both a native 8-bit and a native 16-bit image file (of course, the video encoder turned both into 8-bit). After feeding it to the S5000ES and playing with the “Smoothing” control in the menu, I could see that sure enough, the functionality works as advertised and the gradient steps were smoothed over nicely in both cases.
For something closer to real-world content, the blue Celador Films logo at the beginning of “The Descent” also benefited here (although the machine couldn’t completely conceal the banding; the improvement here was more subtle). Did I see any improvement during actual film content, though? Honestly, no - but discs which will benefit from it will be out there, and these tests do indicate that the processing is present and does indeed work.
Other video controls include a Gamma adjustment screen, tucked away in the “Video Equaliser” menu (which puts it alongside controls such as Contrast, Brightness, Chroma, and a fairly pointless and historic Hue adjustment). It’s impressively in-depth and could be potentially useful for steering away from abnormalities in the display: the user is given control over six points on the gamma curve and is allowed to move them up or down. Importantly, the HDMI output on this machine supports high bit-depth output, meaning that the control won’t necessarily be destructive.
The other processing features in this player are largely irrelevant. There’s a film grain reduction algorithm, which I assume is for people who have spent a 4-figure sum on a Blu-ray player but don’t actually like the look of films (better to have the option in the player than for the material to be degrained in the studio, of course). It works spatially and temporally, removes picture definition, and looks about as good as you’d expect film grain reduction to (not good). No offense to Sony or their technicians, I’m sure that as an on-the-fly algorithm, this is decent at least; I just think that it’s just a fundamentally insane idea.
There’s also a feature labelled “Enhance” which is a very, very high frequency sharpening algorithm. The default setting is “0” (where it should ideally be left), but the user can de-emphasise these parts by sliding it all the way to -3, or sharpen by using +3. This is fairly selective in the details it boosts, so ultimately just ends up making edges look scabby and over-emphasised, and turning natural film grain into dancing pixels and digital distraction.
On top of that, there are FNR (Temporal-only noise reduction), BNR (block noise reduction), and MNR (moquito noise reduction) controls. The latter of these two will perhaps be useful for severely compressed content, but fortunately I’ve not seen any pre-recorded BD discs that make me want to use these options. I’d imagine this is a feature more for the Japanese market - remember that Japan has been using BD as a medium for recording 1080i Hi-Vision TV broadcasts since 2003, rather than mainly for pre-recorded movies like us Westerners.
Like with any high-end machine that allows the user to process the video, you can make some truly horrific pictures, provided you are sadistic enough. As a video compressionist and disc author myself, my view on this is probably different, and I hope readers won’t be offended when I say that I’m a little squeamish at these controls being placed into the hands of the viewer. Professionals can turn filmic images into processed distractions with the studio equivalents of these algorithms (ever watched “Dark City”?), so I’m a little uneasy at the end user being given access to cut-down versions of them which are performed in real-time by the player. Still though, if this is what you like to watch, the options are here.
So yes, the S5000ES plays most 1080p/24 content perfectly provided you haven’t told it to do otherwise. The fact that it runs even pure 24p content through a cadence detection process - and sometimes gets things wrong for a second or two - is quite disconcerting given that there are dirt-cheap players which don’t have this fault. With this quirk aside, the playback quality is perfect, with all of the texture and quality you'd expect from high quality BD encodes.
24p is one thing, but what of Video-based software? We’re seeing more and more 60i (and I assume also 50i) software appear on Blu-ray, for example, music concerts. Accordingly, I used my new copy of the Silicon Optix HQV benchmark disc to see how well the machine’s Video Deinterlacing and Film Mode Detection processing fared.
The Video Resolution Loss Test - which is designed to show how well the player can retain the full resolution of non-moving areas of Video content - was somewhat successful on this machine. Although the background retained all of its detail at all times, the spinning bar would break into combing at its most extreme angles. The Diagonal Filtering test - designed to see how well the player can smooth video jaggies - fared well initially, but only while the player was correctly identifying the content as Video. It would often mistake the content as Film, meaning that the entire screen would comb.
Finally, I checked out the machine’s DVD playback. To cut to the chase, it is sub-par and is outperformed by at least two cheaper BD machines (as well as Sony’s own Playstation 3). Whilst 3-2 NTSC Film content played correctly (as usual), 2-2 PAL Film showed 1080i-like combing at all times, which is incredibly disappointing. It’s odd that the combing is 1080i-sized, suggesting that whilst the player initially detects the cadence correctly, it then has to pass through another 1080i-centric processing stage before reaching the screen. Ideally the player would detect then scale to 1080p, but it seems that there’s an additional hoop before that. In any case, it’s a machine with a four-figure price which doesn’t play back your DVD collection optimally.
Sony BDP-S5000ES Blu-ray Disc Player Review
Although there are some great technologies under the hood (Super Bit Mapping), most of me can’t help but think that the BDP-S5000ES is a little unnecessary. I’ve always taken a conservative approach to video processing, and this player doesn’t make me want to change that stance: barring the Super Bit Mapping gradation smoothing, almost all of the video adjustments are best left untouched (unless perhaps to offset inaccuracies in your display device).
I suspect that much of this is because that, bar engineering sabotage, it seems to be somewhat difficult to construct even a cheap BD machine that doesn’t correctly send 1080p/24 Digital Component video to a display expecting the same (the fact that one other large Japanese manufacturer has a single-chip LSI which is present across all of its models, and is again focusing on genuine improvements to Deinterlacing and Chroma upsampling, is particularly telling). And, I imagine that it’s thanks to this that we’ve seen features like Super Bit Mapping, which attempt to compensate for deficiencies in the original codec specifications and create genuine improvements. Hopefully we see more thinking like this from Sony in the future.
Regardless, like with most high end BD players, one of the very credible reasons to invest in such a machine is to gain access to the Analogue 7.1 surround outputs, which will be most welcome if you’re the owner of audio equipment which can’t accept High Definition audio in any other form. Likewise, the quality of the analogue video outputs looks excellent to the eye, as you’d expect from a machine of this build. Additionally, the machine features an RS232C port, which will be a must in some tightly integrated home cinema setups.
To be brutally honest, no high end Blu-ray Disc player, to date, has made me want to shift away from the Playstation 3, which performs fantastically in my setup. Regardless, good reasons to want to invest in a pricey Blu-ray Disc player do exist. For this amount of money, though, I’d expect better reproduction of Standard-def contents and a machine which doesn’t introduce combing into 1080p content - even if that combing is incredibly rare.
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