One glance at the images from high definition discs, and regular DVDs don´t look so great. The first Blu-ray and HD-DVD players were expensive and kludgy. But prices are creeping down. And after obsessively watching Mission Impossible III and Superman Returns on a bunch of new players, we found several polished models with great video quality.
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Comparing Sony’s $1,000 dedicated Blu-ray player and the $500 PlayStation 3 game console, which also plays Blu-ray discs, you might reasonably expect that the higher-priced model would deliver superior results. But in many ways, Sony’s $1,000 BDP-S1 is less impressive than the PS3. The latter offers HDMI 1.3 and support for Dolby TrueHD sound, both lacking in the BDP-S1. And Blu-ray movie quality was a toss-up, with both performing beautifully. In its favor, the BDP-S1 scales up regular DVDs to high-quality 1080p resolution, whereas the PS3 plays DVDs at their native 480p format (a software patch for high-def upscaling is reportedly in the works). And the BDP-S1 includes a sleek silver remote control, while a less elaborate remote is a $25 extra for the PS3. On the other hand, you can’t save civilization from alien invaders with the BDP-S1.
Toshiba’s HD DVD
The HD-XA2 powers on quickly (unlike its predecessor), looks and sounds excellent, and scales up standard DVDs for your HD set better than any other player we tested. Its Ethernet jack will soon let you access online extras, such as additional commentary tracks, and an HDMI 1.3 port will deliver even better color and sound when compatible TVs and discs arrive next year. Or skip HDMI 1.3 and buy the $500 HD-A2. ** $1,000
LG’s Combo Player
The BH100 was greeted as the format war’s great uniter, and it does provide top-notch audio and video for HD-DVD, Blu-ray and standard-DVD movies. But the player doesn’t support animated menus or picture-in-picture windows that let you access extra HD-DVD disc features, such as overlaid GPS maps of chase scenes in Miami Vice. We applaud the effort but suggest you wait for a more refined peace broker.
The BDP-HD1’s pinpoint sharpness and rich, film-like color surpassed even that of Toshiba’s HD-XA2. Its Ethernet jack won’t support online extras, but it lets you download firmware updates and pull audio, video and photos from networked PCs. Too bad the HD1 can’t play audio CDs, lacks HDMI 1.3, and has a no-frills remote control. Sony’s similar BDP-S1 sells for $1,000 but doesn’t have network features.** $1,500
Toshiba’s other HD DVD
If you want the pleasure of beautiful HD-DVD playback without the pain of a $1,000 price tag, skip Toshiba’s flagship HD-XA2 player and buy the HD-A2. The A2 starts up quickly and includes a logically designed remote control. Video resolution tops out at 1080i, versus1080p on the XA2, but we couldn’t see a difference. DVD upscaling was noticeably not quite as sharp as on the HD-XA2, though, and HDMI 1.3 is lacking. (Although you won’t be able to buy a TV supporting HDMI 1.3 till later this year, true videophiles may feel that the extra $500 for the XA2 is a reasonable investment in future-proofing for the superior color performance 1.3 promises.) For watching high-def movies with today’s displays, receivers and HD-DVD discs, though, pick up the HD-A2, and pocket the difference with no regrets.** $500;