So, what got me so interested in seeing how the BDP-S760 plays Blu-ray? The biggest selling point from my videophile standpoint is one of the features of Sony's so-called "HD Reality Enhancer" set of tools, which for once, actually does subtly enhance the image quality of certain Blu-ray movies. Keep in mind that when I say "subtly enhance", I mean that it processes compressed movies and alters the picture in a way that makes it more closely resemble the original studio master, rather than simply tinkering with the image. Sony's promotional text has never been consistently clear on what terms like "Super Bit Mapping" and "HD Reality Enhancer" mean, but in this review, I'll investigate what each control on the player does (and which controls you should avoid).
I've personally seen the benefits of the such processing before, earlier this year, on Sony's high-end BDP-S5000ES player. The BDP-S5000ES, unfortunately, introduced other artefacts into the image, and didn't handle PAL DVD playback correctly, which I found unacceptable on such an expensive machine. If Sony's cheaper player can offer the benefits of the "HD Reality Enhancer" processing without introducing other errors, then it should be an extremely attractive player, especially at a comparably low price. In this in-depth review, we'll investigate the BDP-S760 and find out what's going on under the hood and see if it really does deliver the goods.
The back panel has every worthwhile connectivity option I can think of covered. Like all players, there's an HDMI AV output port and also analogue Component video outputs for getting HD video to pre-HDMI equipment. There are also standard-def Composite and S-Video outputs, as well as analogue stereo audio output jacks. For digital audio-only outputs, there are Optical and Coaxial connectors, which will limit you to standard-def audio quality. Crucially for some, the BDP-S760 features Multichannel (7.1) analogue surround outputs, so if your AV receiver doesn't have an HDMI input, then you'll still be able to enjoy HD audio.
There is also a LAN port for connecting the player to a router, but this isn't strictly necessary, as the S760 is Wireless capable. There's also an "EXT" port, which is designed for plugging a USB storage device into. In fact, you'll have to plug in a USB Memory Drive (or similar device) if you want to access BD Live features. It's a common misconception that Profile 2.0 BD Players have to ship with internal storage of their own, but in reality, there is no such requirement. The only thing a Profile 2.0 player has to do is allow the user to pay for their own storage and plug it in!
Setup menus and Processing Adjustments
The first important settings are in the "Video Settings" section. The first control here is an aspect ratio control, which the manual and on-screen displays are very vague about. The "Screen Format" setting can be toggled between "Fixed Aspect Ratio" and "Original", and dictates how standard-def 4:3 content on BD (usually old bonus features) and DVD is displayed. The correct setting is "Fixed Aspect Ratio", which plays these clips back without video distortion (with side-bars on the left and right). The strangely named "Original" setting distorts them to 16:9.
The above control is only relevant for 4:3 standard-def material. On HD Blu-ray Disc, 4:3 (and similar) aspect ratio films are encoded with black side-bars as part of the 16:9 HD image, so the player will (thankfully) never remove these.
After this, we have a control for "DVD Aspect Ratio", which only affects old 4:3 displays, and can be toggled between Letterbox and Pan & Scan modes. In reality, almost no DVD-Video titles implemented Pan & Scan data on the disc, so if you're using this player on a 4:3 TV, you'll see everything Letterboxed, anyway. Does anyone out there still have a 4:3 display? I think not, let's move on...
"Cinema Conversion Mode" controls Film Mode Detection for DVD and 1080i Blu-ray Disc material. Leave it in "Auto" mode so the player will attempt detection of Film Mode content. There is a "Video" setting, which I don't see any need for (but could be enabled if the player was repeatedly mistaking Video content as Film - something I didn't see happening during the review process).
"Output Video Format" allows the user to choose a video output terminal and, if applicable, resolution. "BD-ROM 1080/24p Output" dictates whether the output scan-rate of 24p Blu-ray material will be in 24p, or converted to 60p for older displays which can't handle the former. "YCbCr/RGB (HDMI)" changes between Digital Component colour-difference signals in either 4:2:2 or 4:4:4 chroma resolution, as well as two RGB options. HDTV owners should choose one of the former options, and users who are connecting to a DVI device (usually a PC monitor) should select the latter.
Because the Sony BDP-S760 performs internal processing (such as the optional "Smoothing" de-banding control and Gamma adjustment) in a high bit depth, connecting to a TV or Projector which can accept HDMI signals in this way will result in a picture which is less likely to display banding in areas of gradation. This has been termed "Deep Colour" by the industry, and the so-called "HDMI Deep Colour Output" option lets you select between 12-bit, 10-bit, and "Off" (8-bit) output. There's also an "Auto" option which reads the EDID data inside the TV to detect what it is (or isn't) capable of, and reacts accordingly. Remember that no DVD or Blu-ray material is encoded using "Deep Colour", only the player's internal processing uses this high a bit depth.
The next control is "SBM", a technology which Sony are clearly (and rightly) proud of. As stated, the S760 performs internal processing at a high bit depth, which is all well and good, but what happens if this processed 12-bit data has to then be output back to a display which only accepts 8-bit input? "Super Bit Mapping" happens: Sony's technology uses noise shaping on the signal so that the material gracefully degrades to 8-bit, thus concealing banding and making sure that smooth transitions are preserved as much as possible. In normal situations, the benefits of the precise processing would be lost, but Super Bit Mapping means that even older displays benefit.
The next control is for "x.v.Colour Output", which is described in a confusing way in the player's menus. Sony's official description: "Output xvYCC signal for more faithful HDMI colour reproduction". Unfortunately, DVD-Video and studio-authored Blu-ray Disc Movies have no support for this extended colour gamut. The only way you'll see the benefits of x.v.Colour are when you're playing back content that was shot on a supporting AVCHD camcorder.
Lastly, there is a "Pause Mode" control which dictates whether you will see a Full-resolution image when the player is in pause mode during playback of interlaced video, or not.
Next, Audio controls. This page lets us select which audio output terminal we'll be using; the most common options for AVForums readers will likely be for HDMI or Multichannel Analogue Output. If you're using the latter, you can also access a Speaker Settings screen which allows you to describe the capabilities of your audio system to the player, for the purposes of bass management. The other most obviously relevant controls here are for "BD Audio Setting", which can be changed between "Mix" and "Direct". "Direct" will mean that button sounds and other interactive audio won't be output, but will guarantee unprocessed audio of the main film itself. There's also control over Dynamic Range Compression (set it to "Wide Range" to disable DRC, if your neighbours are understanding).
The rest of the menus are largely self-explanatory and largely ordinary, so I won't explain them here. The most interesting tweaks are accessed when a disc is playing, by pressing the OPTIONS button on the remote and selecting "Video Settings". Here, we can select a "Picture Quality Mode" from one of four options, which alter the Gamma characteristics of the image. "Standard" and "Memory" in its unaltered are the "hands off" options (I measured them and they're consistent with every other player). If you've picked a modifiable preset, "Video Equaliser" lets you adjust Contrast, Brightness, Chroma, Hue (what for?) and also Gamma. The Gamma control is useful and if you have calibration experience and equipment (or are going to pay for the services of someone who does) then you could use this 6-point control to work around limitations in your display device. Few TVs offer this sort of advanced Gamma control, so it's good to see it on a player.
Then, we have "HD Reality Enhancer". The first setting, "Enhance", is a very selective high frequency edge enhancer which simply boosts the appearance of outlines in the image. I don't understand why anyone would want to use this feature unless they're perhaps using a projector with a poor quality lens, but even then, the filter is so selective in what it processes that better results will probably be had with the display device's own Sharpness control. There's also a totally useless "FGR" (Film Grain Reduction) control, which might as well be called "Detail Reduction", because it works by simply cutting off the highest frequencies in the image. In plain English, it essentially blurs the picture and reduces the definition. I don't understand why anyone would buy a High Def Blu-ray player and then do this to the picture, but there you go.
However, there is of course one genuinely useful control in here, called "Smoothing", which makes up for the other two duds, and then some. This feature detects false contouring (banding) in the image and removes the ridged gradation. This is useful, because the video codecs on Blu-ray Disc are limited to 8-bit depth, so when transcoding from a 10-bit studio master, such banding can appear (it may be better or worse depending on the encoder design and pre-processing used before compression). This is most likely to make a visible difference with all-digital animated content, because this type of material usually features large areas of flat colour without any sort of noise or film grain to act as a dither (although there are BD titles out there that have been pre-dithered before encoding, precisely so that banding can be avoided, in which case, you'll see no improvement because there is no banding to start with).
One of the best examples of the "Smoothing" feature working its magic that I could find was with the opening studio logos on Momentum's UK BD release of "District B13: Ultimatum". One of the logos at the start is a 100% digital CG composition which features a yellow circle with a gradient effect. There is visible stair-stepping on the actual encode on the disc itself, but engaging the "Smoothing" feature, especially at "High", almost completely cleans it up (at least until the image fades out).
Like any sort of video processing feature, "Smoothing" can introduce side-effects, but these were incredibly rare. A good example of this is at the start of Chapter 5 of the same disc, which features a fade-in from black of the Parisian skyline. Because this is a modern Digital Intermediate-sourced film, the fade from black has been applied digitally (rather than as an optical effect like in the older days of film production). This produces visible banding, which the Smoothing control again conceals at the single-frame level. However, in the the darker part of the sky, the control on its Highest setting will also smudge the top of the Eiffel Tower into the surrounding darkness on a few frames, presumably because it mistakes the similarly grey shapes to be in need of smoothing over. In any case, I preferred to leave the control on, because a small loss of detail in black areas (unnoticeable during playback and incredibly rare in the first place) is better than visible banding.
So yes, we finally have a processing feature on a Blu-ray Disc player that makes a real improvement to the picture quality! By "real improvement", I mean that the process delivers quality more similar to that of the original studio master, rather than creating an abstracted version to satisfy the whims of the remote-wielding user. OK, so the improvement is very subtle and will, in all honesty, be rarely visible, but the point is that for once, the improvement actually exists in the real world and can be seen with the user's own eyes, which is more than I can say for some of the fantasy improvements touted by manufacturers of 4-figure "luxury" players.
There is also a menu called "NR", which includes FNR, BNR and MNR controls. These are Frame Noise Reduction (temporal averaging, usually called "3D-NR"), Block Noise Reduction (which smooths edges of 8x8 pixel compression blocks), and Mosquito Noise Reduction (a thresholded high-frequency cut-off feature which is designed to remove the "busyness" that can appear around sharp edges with overcompressed video). With HD sources, I never saw the latter two controls doing anything. The controls are implemented as choices between "Off" or "Auto", meaning that the player analyses the video and decides whether or not it should be applying further processing. Using a badly compressed SD DVD disc (take your pick out of the possible hundreds!), I managed to make this processing reveal itself, and as usual, I preferred leaving the controls Off.
There are also Audio Settings tucked away in a similar menu. We can control the AV SYNC from 0-120ms in 10ms increments, and also control an audio output filter, which only affects the Analogue outputs. It can be changed from "Sharp" to "Slow"; Sony's manual describes this as providing "a wide frequency range and spatial feeling" (Sharp) or "smooth and warm sound" (Slow).
1080p Disc Playback
Finally, the Chroma Multiburst test card showed that the player could resolve the tiniest coloured details correctly, without smudging the thinnest red and blue lines on the card into a purple blur (there are a few TVs which can't reproduce these finest details, though, so your display device may be the limiting factor here). One thing worth mentioning for the most die-hard videophiles is that there is some ringing on the edges of coloured transitions, which appears to be a side-effect of whatever chroma upsampling processing the player is doing. This will almost never be visible in real-world usage, though.
As noted, the BDP-S760 is a rare example of a Blu-ray Disc player which actually does improve upon the video stored on the disc, if the "Smoothing" feature is turned on. Don't expect to look at the screen and be bowled over by the difference, though – the banding concealment effect is only visible with certain content. After all, when was the last time you watched a Blu-ray Disc and were upset by the amount of banding visible? Remember that here has to be a real problem in the first place before the player can fix it! Only titles that have visible banding will benefit from the "Smoothing" and Super Bit Mapping features, and titles that have already been treated during the encoding stages to specifically avoid this problem will look just as good on any player.
Unlike Sony's high-end BDP-S5000ES player, the S760 keeps 1080p/24 content as 1080p/24 all the way through the signal path. The high-end player appeared to use a 1080i/60 centric design, which meant that even pure 1080p content ran the risk of combing (and I witnessed it doing just that a couple of times during the review). This was one reason why my opinion of Sony's high-end player was so lukewarm. The cheaper BDP-S760 keeps 1080p content in the 1080p domain at all times, which is the way it should be.
1080i Disc Playback
Sadly, the 2-2 cadence is not successfully detected and compensated for if the material is 50hz-based (in other words, European or Australian TV material that uses a film-like motion pattern). Fortunately, there is not a lot of this content on Blu-ray.
The player also did a good job with pure video material. The Diagonal Filtering test on the HQV test disc (Blu-ray version) produced smooth diagonals on the two topmost bars, and somewhat smooth diagonals on the toughest bottom bar. In real-world usage, this results in effective suppression of jaggies on pure video content.
480i/576i SD DVD Playback
The diagonal interpolation tests produced the same results as their 1080i counterparts, which is not too surprising: the player did a good, but not top-tier job of disguising jaggies in video material.
I fed the S760 a SMPTE RP133 resolution test chart to see how well it was upconverting the deinterlaced SD video to 1080p output resolution. There was a moderate amount of ringing around edges in the image, which I noticed immediately after being used to the highly crisp, clean output of HQV-based scaling products. Fortunately, entering the Video menu and changing the "Enhance" setting to -1 cleaned edges up a little (but still didn't make them as clean as the best of DVD players). Again, this is a somewhat pathological test, because almost no DVD titles are good enough in terms of effective resolution to actually highlight blatantly clear differences between different scaling solutions.
One issue did arise with the S760's DVD playback during testing. When the player hasn't locked onto a film cadence (that is, when it's in Video deinterlacing mode), the Coloured portion of the image flickers. The most obvious manifestation of this issue is with interlaced, animated content, or any other colourful interlaced material. This will potentially be an issue if you still watch a lot of this sort of material, but personally, most of my viewing is on BD now, so I wasn't too upset, and the issue is subtle anyway (unless you have a screenful of red objects). All the same, I hope Sony will fix this with a firmware update.
Disc Load Times
Sony BDP-S760 Blu-ray Disc Player Review
There are so many affordable BD players floating around this Christmas, and there isn't a single one of them that I'd advise buyers to actually stay away from. For the most part, the Sony BDP-S760 produces 1080p video that, like all other players I've tested recently, is flawless in relation to the content stored on the disc. However, with more subtly problematic material, the player's "Smoothing" feature (which is the single useful control from the "HD Reality Enhancer" suite) really does make a visible, albeit subtle, improvement to rough gradations in the picture, if any exist in the first place. This fact alone gives Sony's machine an actual edge over the competition in the sea of otherwise very similar BD players. Other manufacturers haven't, as of yet, come up with a similar feature to Sony's (perhaps because they haven't seen the need).
Due to the inclusion of this feature, which marks the first time I've seen a BD player make a visible, commendable improvement to picture quality without sacrificing quality in other areas, the BDP-S760 receives a "Reference" score for HD Video Quality. This score comes in spite of the fact that the BDP-S760 failed four out of the ten 1080i/60 film cadence tests, but I feel this is acceptable given that almost all BD content is either 1080p/24 or video-centric 1080i/60. In other words, this limitation will almost never be revealed in real world usage.
The S760 is also a very nice DVD player. Like many, it can occasionally be tripped up by 2-2 PAL Film material, but this is true even of some high end devices. In fact, much of the time, the S760's PAL Film DVD playback is just about perfect (even although its scaling isn't the cleanest around), something that can't be said for Sony's 4-figure BDP-S5000ES player. It also delivered perfect results on every single one of the film cadence tests on the NTSC (US/Japanese standard) HQV test disc, a fact that should be impressed upon owners of large Region 1 DVD collections (assuming they can find a multi-region version of the machine).
Users who already have a Blu-ray player shouldn't rush out en masse to ditch their old machines in favour of a BDP-S760. Please remember that Blu-ray Disc is the best quality delivery format we have ever had in the home, and users should enjoy their player rather than convincing themselves that they can have a better one (because they often can't). However, if you're perhaps relegating an old player to a second room, or are looking for a BD player for the first time, then it comes highly recommended.
The BDP-S760 is currently available from Amazon for just under £312 delivered.
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