The Pioneer BDP-51FD is currently the only non-Elite Blu-ray player that Pioneer offers, but it is far from a budget model. Pioneer has a well deserved reputation for offering high quality DVD players in the past and is certainly trying to continue that tradition with their Blu-ray lineup, even if it means that their lowest end player is priced above that of other manufacturer’s models. However, since the release of the BDP-51FD, complaints about its performance has led to multiple firmware updates being released as Pioneer tries to maintain its position as a purveyor of high end electronics. This review examines the player with the latest firmware update applied.
- Design: Blu-ray Player
- Supported Formats: BD-Rom, DVD-ROM, DVD-R DVD+R, CD, CD-R/RW.
- Supported Audio: Internal Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD Decoding, Bitstream Support for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio
- Supported Video Resolutions from HDMI: 480i, 480p, 1080i, 1080p60, 1080p24
- Dimensions: 4.9″ H x 16.5â€ W xÂ 14.18â€ D
- Weight: 12.8 Pounds
- MSRP: $599 USA
One aspect of the player that Pioneer did not have to address with a firmware upgrade was the build quality of the player. Compared to the Oppo DVD player I have been using for the last few years, or even the A2 HD-DVD player from Toshiba, the Pioneer BDP-51FD is in a totally different build class. Much larger than those units, the Pioneer features a glossy black front panel that looks very impressive sitting in my AV rack, and was much more impressive than the Oppo player that was previously in its place.
The back panel featured the common assortment of jacks that we are now used to on a Blu-ray player: HDMI, Component Video, coaxial and optical audio outputs (for legacy receivers that can’t take the new audio formats over HDMI), and a full 7.1 analog output for receivers that feature 5.1 or 7.1 audio inputs, but no HDMI inputs, so they are able to accept the newer audio formats that the Pioneer can decode internally (Fig-3).
One jack that was noticeably absent was an Ethernet jack. This means that the Pioneer 51FD is only Profile 1.1 compatible and not Profile 2.0, which requires an internet connection to download content for discs from the web, or to enable other special features that might be made available later on certain titles.
The machine also only contains 256 MB of storage, not the minimum of 1 GB that would be required for Profile 2.0. Additionally, this means that you cannot download new firmware automatically, a feature that I really liked on the Toshiba HD-DVD players as it saved me from having to burn the firmware to a CD for a single use, and then throwing away that disc after the upgrade.
While the features offered by Profile 2.0 might not be important to you (you can still watch the movie or the special features contained on the disc with Profile 1.1 just fine), it’s important to know that the future upgrade path of the Pioneer 51FD is limited by the lack of an internet connection. The Pioneer website also lists these jacks as being gold plated, but that is only the case on the Elite BDP-05FD model and not on the BDP-51FD, as someone probably copied the same page of specifications for both players.
Also present on the back panel was a reasonably sized fan and exhaust, which I worried would start to spin and add some audible noise during playback of titles, but from the time I installed the player until I took it back out of my rack, I forgot that the fan was there, so I feel comfortable saying that either the fan doesn’t spin up often, or if it does, it’s quiet enough that you won’t notice any sound coming from it.
With its updated firmware (version 1.21 upon evaluation), the Pioneer 51FD has full support for many features available on Blu-ray today. While I already touched on the lack of Profile 2.0 support due to the absence of an Ethernet jack, the Pioneer supports bitstreaming of all the new audio codecs (Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD, and DTS Master Audio).
Additionally, the player can decode Dolby TrueHD internally and then pass that signal over the 7.1 analog outputs, or as PCM over HDMI so receivers with analog inputs or HDMI revision 1.2 and below can still get the full quality of lossless PCM and TrueHD tracks without needing to upgrade to a receiver with HDMI 1.3 support. Pioneer has indicated that decoding support for DTS Master Audio internally will be added in a later firmware revision (with an estimated release in February-March of 2009), much as this was added far later to the PlayStation3 than TrueHD decoding was.
Support for both internal decoding and bitstreaming of the audio codecs (compared to, for example, the Playstation3 which can only internally decode and pass as PCM) is a wonderful feature for many reasons. For people looking to purchase a Blu-ray player that have receivers with either multichannel analog inputs or only HDMI 1.2 support, it allows them to obtain the full benefit of the new audio codecs without needing to upgrade a receiver that might otherwise work perfectly in their setup.
Additionally, while my receiver is HDMI 1.3 compatible, I also makes use of the Audyssey EQ on it to help correct for issues with my room and provide a larger sweet spot for people watching movies or television. However, the processor in the receiver is unable to both process high resolution PCM (anything with a sampling rate above 48 KHz) and apply the Audyssey EQ at the same time, but it can process the bitstream of a high resolution source and apply the EQ to it.
Having the flexibility to support both of these setups is a big benefit for the Pioneer.
The Pioneer also features a Source Direct mode that will pass the contents of the disc inside directly without any scaling to a different resolution. This is a very nice feature if you have a display that can support 1080p24, or an external scaler, as it will allow you the best possible image quality available from the disc. My display does not support 24p but when I enabled Source Direct, I could tell that it was passing a 24p signal as my TV let me know that the format was not supported. Watching a DVD it would pass a 480i signal perfectly as well when Source Direct was enabled.
What surprised me was that when I put on the Neil Young â€“ Live at Massey Hall DVD (which contains a 24/96 PCM audio track) and turned on Source Direct mode, the Pioneer both passed along a 480i DVD signal, and passed the high resolution audio track to my receiver. With every other DVD or Blu-ray player I have used, I have had to set the output of the player to at least 720p or above to get the player to allow high resolution audio over HDMI, so this was a nice surprise.
The Pioneer can also play compressed audio off of a CD if it is in mp3 or WMA format, but it cannot play any files that use lossless compression (FLAC, Apple Lossless), and due to the lack of USB or Ethernet ports, all files have to be burned to a CD to be played.
The Pioneer also features Deep Color support, but there are currently no titles available that support this feature, and my display also does not contain support for 36-bit color, but it would ensure that if titles are released in the future, you would have full support for that feature.
When I opened up the case of the Pioneer, I found that the analog audio circuitry was kept separate from the video circuitry, which should help to prevent any interference with the signal and allow for higher quality playback than other players.
Standard DVD Benchmark Performance
The Pioneer BDP-51D was tested from HDMI outputs as well as component video outputs and varying results were observed from the different outputs. From the HDMI outpus the BDP-51D passed most of the Secrets benchmarks applying correct processing to 3-2 and 2-2 cadence material. The only real hicups the player experienced was with material with choppy edits or with incorrect progressive flags. The BDP-51d showed itself to be motion adaptive.
From the component video outputs the player exibited different results and was unable to correctly display any of the 3-2 cadence material or switch between video and film modes. HDMI would be the preferred choice of outputs with this player.
The BDP-51D did not exhibit any issues with any of Secret’s chroma upsampling error tests from either HDMI or component outputs.
HD Video Benchmark Performance
The HD performance of the BDP-51FD was respectable. On the upside, the player was able to properly convert 1080i material with both 3-2 and 2-2 cadences, there were no problems with pixel cropping, and it applies significant diagonal filtering. On the downside, the BDP-51D didn’t show enough of an amount of digital noise reduction to pass the noise reduction test. Click on the chart below to enlarge it.
The BDP-51D exhibited poor performance with sluggish operation and a very slow layer change that was greater than two seconds.
Core Video Performance
Measurements were taken at 1080i from the analog outputs using our Tektronix oscilloscope. The Pioneer BDP-51FD exhibited good performance in the core tests with a white level measured at 101 IRE, no problems with pixel cropping, and the ability to display blacker than black content. The BDP-51FD’s frequency response had a gradual rise up to the highest frequencies which translates to displaying a minor amount of ringing in fine detail.
Apparently the Secrets writers have similar taste in movies, as one of the first titles that I fired up on the Pioneer was Disc 1 of the recent Blu-ray release of Band of Brothers. Being the only person I knew that still had not seen the miniseries, I had high hopes for both the movie, and the Pioneer player, and neither disappointed me. As soon as the disc loaded, I saw the DTS Master Audio light on my receiver kick on for the first time, letting me know that the Pioneer was bitstreaming the audio from the disc correctly.
The Pioneer did detect my display as 1080i for some reason (as everything went through my receiver, it could be that the Pioneer was getting incorrect information about what video formats it supported) but I switched it to 1080p60 and had no issues after that.
Watching the movie, I was completely engrossed as it went on. The Pioneer fed my display with a perfect image and no artifacts that I could detect, and the sound was absolutely fantastic. To give the player another test, I used the recently released Dark Knight BluRay, which featured a Dolby TrueHD track that should allow me to change between bitstreaming the audio, and decoding it internally to PCM and then feeding that to my receiver. One minor annoyance on the Dark Knight disc was that the default audio track was Dolby Digital instead of TrueHD, which required me to switch it with either the remote for the Pioneer, or in the movie’s menus. I do wish that the Pioneer would have an option to detect the audio tracks and automatically select a lossless track if it was available, but the Playstation3 has the same behavior, so this is more a wish from my end and not a fault of the player.
The Dark Knight disc provided a wonderful home viewing experience, with the aspect ratio opening up to full 16×9 during action sequences that were shot in IMAX (the rest of the film is in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio), and a powerful soundtrack to go along with the images on-screen. Switching between a bitstreamed TrueHD track, and an internally decoded PCM track, I could not detect a difference, nor did I expect to be able to. The Pioneer just played back the material I gave it perfectly and never provided any distraction from what was onscreen.
To test the upconversion of standard DVD’s, I went back to an old favorite and watched Amelie for the first time in a few years. With a bright color palette and some wonderful cinematography, as well as a fantastic story, it is always an enjoyable movie to go back and watch again. I switched back between Source Direct (feeding my display a 480i signal) and the 1080p60 output of the Pioneer many times. The 1080p conversion from the Pioneer seemed to offer a sharper, more detailed picture than the conversion being done by my TV internally. On a couple of scenes I could notice some jagged edges caused by poor 3:2 pull-down on the 480i image that were not present on the 1080p image. While it cannot make a regular DVD look like a Blu-ray disc, it did make my DVD’s look better than either my Oppo 970 or my Playstation 3 did on my 1080p display.
However, there were two main things about the Pioneer that I did not like in my use of it. First, there was the remote. A long, skinny remote with lots of buttons, they all seemed to have labels that were too similar to describe what they were doing (buttons labeled video select, secondary video, and video adjust, as well as audio and secondary audio, where it’s not clear what the difference is). Additionally, the playback control buttons are at the bottom of the remote and smaller than far less commonly used buttons. It seems that Pioneer could have grouped the buttons on the remote intoa more logical arrangement, and made the more commonly used buttons larger and easier to locate on the remote in the dark, since it is not backlit either. For most people, this might not be an issue as you would have a universal remote to use the player normally.
The main drawback to the Pioneer player, however, was the speed. Going from powered off to opening the disc tray took around 40 seconds in my testing. Starting up a movie took over a minute most of the time, and so if you were to power on the player with a disc already in there, and then needed to swap that disc for another one you planned to watch, it could easily take 3+ minutes to get the movie playing. My wife never really took to the HD-DVD player I purchased as it took quite a while to turn on and start playing movies, and she hasn’t taken to Blu-ray yet because the only player in the house was a Playstation 3, and she doesn’t want to bother with a video game console to watch a movie, for which I can’t really blame her. My hope was that testing out the Pioneer player would get her to come over to the side of Blu-ray (and I bought her a John Mayer concert Blu-ray in my attempt to convince her). However, as soon as she had to wait for over three minutes to start watching The Dark Knight, she gave up on Blu-ray and went back to watching movies on her 26â€ LCD in her office. If she was going to sit down and watch a 2 hour movie, she would put up with the loading times, but for watching a TV episode on DVD, it was too much for her.
The Pioneer BDP-51FD has the cosmetics of a high end Blu-ray player, and has respectable HD and SD performance from the HDMI outputs. With its ability to bitstream all the next generation audio codecs, and promised support for internal decoding of dtsMaster Audio coming soon, it can feed your AV system with a quality image and a great soundtrack. However, when compared to other current Blu-ray players, its lack of Profile 2.0 support means you may start to miss out on special features that are available via download only. Additionally, with no internet connection or USB ports, features that players are starting to offer such as Netflix streaming, support will not be possible. Aside from that, its sluggish responsiveness is its only other major negative trait. With that being said, if you just want to watch the movie and BD-Live features don’t concern you then its a worthy player to consider.