One of the things that originally tantalized me about writing for CANADA HiFi was the prospect of reviewing products. For a 100% confirmed technology junkie, nothing could be more fun than receiving a brand new piece of gear, living with it for a few weeks to put it through its paces, and then being able to share what you’ve experienced with others who share your passion. As such, it was with great excitement that I learned that my first official review for CANADA HiFi would be of the brand new, top of the line Pioneer Elite BDP-09FD Blu-ray disc player. With an MSRP of $2199, the BDP-09FD exists in rarified air, a level of home theatre gear many of us would never consider delving into. Considering that name brand Blu-ray players can now be had for around the $300 mark, I was really looking forward to seeing what would set the BDP-09FD apart from the lower priced guys.
When I first received the BDP-09FD my initial impression was of incredulity at its weight. I would have sworn in a court of law that there was some sort of dense packing material in the box with the player, as it was almost impossible to believe that a single disc player could weigh so much. Tipping the scales at just over 30 pounds, the BDP-09FD weighs over 3 times as much as your typical BD player. “Tank-like” is thrown around a lot as a description when discussing well-built A/V gear, and this is definitely one time when using it wouldn’t be an exaggeration. Everything about the BDP-09FD oozes solidity and quality. A stainless steel bottom plate, aluminum frame and a double-layered aluminum top plate all supported by internal steel cross braces add up to create an incredibly solid and rigid package, all the better to give smoother, more error-free playback of both video and audio. The internals of the unit are lumped into separate chambers, with video, audio and power supplies all separated from one another to maximize performance by minimizing interference. Interference is also minimized by the use of a toroidal transformer design in the power stage, which is a sealed design that produces less stray magnetic fields.
Visually, the BDP-09FD isn’t much different from other Pioneer players that I have seen. A gorgeous glossy piano black finish coats the front of the unit and it features a simple orange LCD display that is not only dimmable, but can be turned off completely so as not to distract the viewer when watching a film. The player is quite large, measuring approximately 6″ high by 17″ wide by 15″ deep. An imposing sight in a rack for sure, the BDP-09FD is larger than some AV receivers! Unlike any other BD player, the BDP-09FD sits on three carbon composite vibration-absorbing feet made by a company called TAOC. TAOC is an aftermarket Japanese company that has been in the business of making vibration-absorbing materials for high-end audio since 1983. This is but one example of how no expense was spared and no detail overlooked in the construction of the BDP-09FD.
Controls on the unit itself are minimal, with basic transport controls, large blue-backlit eject and power buttons, a small button to toggle through the various resolutions the player can output and another small button to engage and disengage the player’s “Pure Audio” mode, which shuts off the video processing in order to provide cleaner sound. Everything on the player looks and feels like it should on a unit of this caliber. The front-loading disc tray slides out smoothly and glides home with a satisfying “thunk”. Anecdotally, I have heard that the drive unit on these players is in fact a BD recorder, rather than a simple playback device as is usually used. The recordable BD units have lasers that are more precise and are manufactured to tighter tolerances than the playback only units. This is just another little example of the level of care taken in the design of this machine.
As expected of a Blu-ray player, the BDP-09FD allows playback of Blu-ray discs, DVDs and music CDs. The BDP-09FD is BD-Live ready and is the first Blu-ray player in the market (to my knowledge) to include 4GB of internal memory for storage of BD-Live content. On-board decoding of the latest audio formats is provided, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, and the audio can also be bitstreamed to a compatible AV receiver. The BDP-09FD includes not one, but two HDMI 1.3a outputs. Other technical highlights include a Pioneer developed 16-Bit Video Processing LSI, three noise reduction circuits and eight Wolfson Audio DACS.
The one area where my initial impression fell slightly short was the remote control. It’s fairly similar to that issued with other Pioneer components, with glow in the dark buttons lumped around a central directional pad. Granted, most enthusiasts willing to shell out $2200 for a Blu-ray player probably have extensive AV systems and, as such, a universal remote, but I still find the lack of backlit buttons to be an omission. Owning a universal remote myself, I still find myself sometimes reaching for the factory remote for a component, as some feature I want to use is often buried on page seven of the universal’s menu. I just feel that a player at this price point should have every option available, and backlit buttons are almost a necessity when talking about a unit that will almost always be used in a dedicated, darkened home theatre room.
Turning the unit around to glance at the rear panel yields a host of connection options. Connectivity, as you can imagine, is second to none on this player. Legacy connections, including composite and S-video are present, although I shudder to think of the waste of potential this machine would be if it were hooked up this way. TOSLINK optical and coaxial digital audio outputs are also present, next to the player’s LAN port. The LAN port allows you to connect the player to the internet to download both firmware updates and interactive BD-Live content. Of note on the back panel is the inclusion of three BNC terminals (for use with professional grade projectors), which can be converted (with the supplied adapters) to standard component video outputs, should you choose to or want to use those inputs on your TV. Most, however, will choose HDMI as their output of choice, so as to take advantage of the player’s 1080p/24fps output for both Blu-ray discs and upscaled DVDs. Also unique about this player is the inclusion of two HDMI outputs, a main and a sub. This can be rather handy if you have, for example, a plasma display and a projector, or would like to run one output to a display and the other to a pre/pro. Of particular interest to those who don’t own an HDMI receiver are the multi-channel (eight) analog outputs, each with their own discrete Wolfson Microrelectronics Digital/Analog converter. The entire analog stage of the BDP-09FD also has its own discrete power supply, separate from the video section, again to minimize interference and provide the cleanest possible signal.
Firing up the player took, as is customary for most Blu-ray players, some time. The BDP-09FD took 25 seconds to get to the Pioneer menu screen from the time it was turned on. This is, however, a huge improvement over the older Pioneer Elite BDP-95FD player we used as a benchmark to test against, which took about 58 seconds from off to the main menu screen. The BDP-09FD’s disc load time was also greatly improved. When loading a copy of “The Dark Knight” the BDP-09FD took a second or two under 2 minutes to get to the Warner Brothers logo screen, compared to the 2 minutes and 45 seconds taken by the BDP-95FD.
Our first subjective Blu-ray comparisons were done on an ISF calibrated Pioneer Elite PDP-6010FD plasma display sitting at a distance of about 8 feet. All picture mode controls were defeated in both players and two copies of the afore-mentioned “The Dark Knight” Blu-ray disc were fired up. Results here were fairly unsurprising, as both players exhibited an absolutely stunning image at 1080p24. The IMAX sections of the disc, in particular, exhibited an enormous amount of detail and a whopping range of both colour and contrast . The BDP-09FD has a host of picture controls which are accessible from an on-screen menu. It ships with several presets, which are designed to optimize the player’s output for different types of displays. These presets include Projector, LCD, PDP, Pioneer PDP, Professional (which seems to defeat as much processing as possible) and then three empty “Memory” slots which can be programmed by the user to their liking. A host of video adjustments are on board, including several types of noise reduction, two sharpness controls, a detail adjustment, white and black level adjustments, gamma, hue and chroma adjustments. With the player in “Professional” mode, all these adjustments seem to be defeated and the player outputted what seemed to me to be the most natural, film-like image. If, however, the program material you are watching needs a little help, then all these adjustments are what separates the BDP-09FD from its competition. The possibilities for correcting picture flaws with these adjustments are almost limitless. With noise reduction turned on about halfway, what little film grain was visible in certain parts of TDK was completely eradicated. The black level control is also a very powerful tool, with only one click away from the centre in either direction it produced a noticeable shift in the gorgeous, inky blacks in this film. Slipping in the Blu-ray release of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” restoration really allowed me to play with the various picture controls offered by this player. While the copious film grain and dark, sepia hues of “The Godfather” are part of this film’s classic appeal, the BDP-09FD was able to tweak the picture in several subtle and not so subtle ways and can be adjusted to suit the taste of any individual. With all four noise reduction controls turned about three-quarters of the way up, what noise was left in the BD presentation was almost gone, while still keeping the film’s grainy and natural look. Intrigued, I went through several other older films that have been transferred to Blu-ray, and at the end of the day, I’m quite comfortable saying that the lower quality your source material is, the more you’ll appreciate the powerful processing options offered by this player.
Standard DVD playback was also a treat, as the BDP-09FD is, hands down, the best performing DVD player I have ever seen. Even in “Professional” mode, with minimal processing engaged, the picture was noticeably cleaner of noise and had more detail than either the BDP-95FD or my reference PS3, which I normally use for Blu-ray and DVD playback. Even a film with loads of grain like “Saving Private Ryan” maintained its natural, film-like look while being considerably clearer of distracting noise. One chapter on the DVD that really highlighted the outstanding job done by the BDP-09FD was chapter 7, when the rainstorm starts. The close up on the big green leaf really drove home just how much the BDP-09FD cleans up the picture, all while retaining and increasing detail. Indeed when comparing the BDP-09FD outputting at 1080p24 and when engaging “source direct” mode (which outputs the 480i that is on the disc) and letting the display do the scaling, the difference was shocking. The image provided by the player was superior in every way, shape and form. Contrast, resolution and noise reduction were all in a completely different ballpark. Naturally the extensive picture controls also work during standard DVD playback, and from my testing I would say they are even more useful here than with most Blu-ray discs. A word of caution though, as these powerful tools can quite easily be overdone with DVD material. A few notches too high on the noise reduction and the actor’s faces quickly turned blotchy and unnatural, taking on the look of a low-end LCD display. One small quibble with DVD playback with this unit was the on screen display when toggling between resolutions and such. During BD playback the menu looked crisp and sharp. During DVD (and audio CD) playback it was quite jagged and low-rez. Perhaps this is due to the relatively new build of the player I had and is something that can be fixed by a firmware update in the future.
The audio performance of the BDP-09FD was, as you’d expect, also first rate. I sent Dolby TrueHD via bitstream to my reference Pioneer VSX-9120TXH and was impressed by the wide, airy soundstage and deep, low bass. Several Blu-ray discs authored with different lossless codecs confirmed these initial findings. Even though it shouldn’t make a difference whether the codec is decoded in the player or in the receiver, it seemed to me that, for some reason, bitstreaming produced a more spacious and open soundstage with more realistic sounding dialog, even after level matching the volume on the AVR. Regrettably, this review unit came as a last minute surprise to me and I wasn’t equipped with a proper pre/pro with the necessary EQ and delays and such to test the player’s multichannel outputs. However, the inclusion of the Wolfson Microelectronics D/A converters would certainly be of interest to those who choose to (or have to) send analog to a non-HDMI pre/pro or receiver.
As well as these “real world” tests, we also ran the BDP-09FD through the gauntlet of the Silicon Optics HQV Benchmark Blu-ray disc tests. Unsurprisingly, the player passed everything we threw at it with flying colours. The video resolution loss test was breezed through perfectly, as were both jaggies tests. What did come as a surprise to us was that the player did a better job with the jaggies test than even the PDP-6010FD plasma display, which is universally regarded as having some of the best video processing known to man. The synthetic film resolution test was handily passed, and the “bleacher” test was also handled with aplomb by the BDP-09FD, with a rock-solid image displayed all the way through the pan.
Collecting A/V gear can be a very exasperating and, over time, expensive hobby to get into. It’s easy to achieve a certain, quite respectable, level of quality at a reasonable price but subsequent jumps in quality tend to get smaller and smaller as prices get exponentially higher. A $300 Blu-ray player may look and sound great to most consumers. Does the $2199 BDP-09FD really perform seven times better? Chances are, the more high-end the rest of the gear in your home theatre is, the more of a difference you will see and hear. The BDP-09FD is aimed squarely at that top percentile of enthusiasts, those who have the means and the desire to have only the absolute best in their gear racks. While its merits might be lost on some, rest assured that for those who are looking for it, this player truly is at the pinnacle of modern DVD and Blu-ray playback technology.
Pioneer Elite BDP-09FD Blu-ray Disc Player
Price: $2199 CDN