Sony, the primary force behind the Blu-ray Disc format, has finally begun shipping their first standalone player to support the interactive "BD-Live" feature. The brand new BDP-S350 ($399) was demonstrated at a press event in New York City today with the announcement that the unit is now available in Sony Style stores, on the Sony Style web site and at select online and brick and mortar retailers including Amazon.com.
The announcement was not without some caveats. The BDP-S350 requires a firmware upgrade in order to add the BD-Live capability (expected to be available later this year) and it requires the use of an optional USB Flash Memory card to store any BD-Live downloaded content. The "Bonus View" (PIP) feature of Blu-ray is also supported, right out of the box.
The most obvious improvement in the BDP-S350 over its predecessor, the BDP-S300 is its faster boot-up and disc loading times. The BDP-S300, like many first and second generation Blu-ray players, was painfully slow to start-up and load discs. The BDP-S350 boots up in a mere 6 seconds (from fully powered off to the player menu being displayed) which is comparable in speed to the mighty PS3 (the perkiest Blu-ray player on the planet). Actual disc loading times vary, depending on whether the disc has a BD-Java based menu, but these appeared to be pretty close to standard DVD loading times for a standard Blu-ray Disc, and Sony reps at the event said disc load times are "also comparable to the PS3." It certainly seemed quick enough in my brief testing of the demo unit.
Other notable features include support for Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus via an on-board decoder that expands these tracks to PCM and support for DTS-HD Master Audio via bitstream output only (no on-board decoder). To take advantage of these high quality audio formats, you'll need a compatible receiver with HDMI audio support because the BDP-S350 has no multi-channel analog output (its analog audio output is stereo only). The "core" components of the Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD soundtracks can also be passed over fiberoptic or coax digital outputs to a traditional surround sound receiver (but these do not include the full uncompressed signal).
A step-up model, the BDP-S550 was also on display and is expected to be available this fall for "about $500." The S550, which looks virtually identical to the S350 from the front, will include all of the features of the S350 plus on-board DTS-HD decoding and multi-channel (7.1) analog outputs. The BDP-S550 will come with a 1GB USB flash memory card in the box to support BD-Live.
We're hoping to get a review sample of the BDP-S350 into the BPBS labs within the month so stay tuned for more information.