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Sony MDP-650D

Sony MDP-650D - The first Sony LD/CD combi to be marketed in the UK 

Sony's first UK LD/CD combi is a welcome arrival. Sensibly, Sony has only brought a PAL/NTSC machine in, so even without local software support, owners of the player will not be short of titles. Any Japanese or US laserdisc will be usable too. Launched at £599.95, the price of the 650D has now risen to £649.95 to counter the recent devaluation of sterling. The original price was on the high side but the extra £50 does not improve its appeal. 

Exterior 

Subjective as such an assessment must be, the new machine is a step backwards from the external design of the 533D and the cham­pagne-finished MDP-740D. The 650D is just a plain square black box with a diminutive status display and no pleasant lines, regardless of which angle it is viewed from. However, its blackness will ensure colour compatibility with the rest of Sony's A/V range. Basic transport functions are on the front panel.

 A rotary dual-speed Scan control incorporates Play and Pause buttons and adjacent are Chapter/Track Skip (which Sony terms ACS/AMS), Stop and Open/Close drawer buttons. Behind a flap there is a numerical keypad and several function buttons that duplicate many of those on the remote. The remote offers the most comprehensive range of operational functions bar two, which are only to be found behind the flip down panel. One of these is the RGB switch. This operates only on the NTSC signal and re-codes it into RGB to make it suitable for non-multistandard TVs (provided they have RGB usually to be found incorporated in the scart wiring). The other is Picture Enhance for which there are three settings. Unless user-altered, on switch-on the player defaults to the standard position (i.e. un-enhanced), but there are soft or sharp options. Without the player posi­tioned in line of sight of the TV it is very difficult to assess the consequences of the enhance function. If your TV has its own sharpness control it is probably easier to use this. There are advantages in having the feature built into the player in that you might wish to have a sharpness setting on the LD player that is different from your other picture sources. Sony might have been better advised to let it be calibrated from the viewing position via the remote. The front panel also contains the headphone socket and its associated volume control. 

The rear of the player incorporates a scart socket three phonos (video and left and right audio) and an optical digital output for connection to digital amplifiers.  There is also a Control S input that works with certain Sony equip­ment control systems. The captive mains lead comes fitted with a 13amp plug but Sony declines to supply any audio/video connecting leads whatsoever. How mean can you get?

Remote 

Sony does, however, at least provide the batteries for the remote. The remote duplicates the rotary scan control on the player and has 46 other buttons as well. Three of these are for operating Sony TVs, but the rest are all disc related. The Chapter/Track and CAV buttons are sens­ibly located close to the Scan knob; within a thumb's reach. Further a field, the buttons might be better operated with the fingers on the other hand. Beyond the recently introduced LD-G type, the 650D is compatible with all the consumer PAL and NTSC laserdiscs re­leased so far and therefore the Frame/ Time, Analogue, Audio Monitor and CX controls will offer no surprises. The Audio Monitor function enables channel switch­ing on CDs as well as LDs.

 

Here is a brief run-down of the other controls: 

  • Memory Play - Player will restart a disc at the point at which you previously switched off (LD only).

  • Intro Scan - Plays first 8-to seconds of each chapter/track for preview purposes.

  • Auto Pause - Player drops into pause after current chapter/track is finished.

  • Shuffle - Plays back chapters/tracks in random order.

  • Custom Index - Enables up to 6 index points to be placed on a disc. There is no method whereby these indexes can be retained after the disc is ejected. The index function is useful for comparing still frames on a CAV disc. Pity it's only capable of marking six positions, though, given that up to 55,500 frames can be stored on one side of a disc.

  • Auto Program - Is a copy-to-tape (and Minidisc?) editing function whereby a total playing time can be automatically calculated.

  • Program and Repeat are available in all the standard modes. The program capacity is 20 chapters/tracks.

  • The little TV screen icon with a + in it is to turn on and off the screen status readouts.

  • AV Times determines which of the three methods of displaying disc status is used: elapsed, time remaining, total play­ing time.

Taking into account the number of controls, the operational ease of use of the remote is satisfactory. For chapter/track access Sony uses the 10+ key system for numbers in excess of 9. This can be cumbersome when entering numbers above the twenties and thirties.

The Chapter/Track Skip buttons unfor­tunately require a press for each advance, unlike 5ome players where just holding the button down automatically advances the entry. Such 'active' buttons are often quicker to use than entering a specific chapter/track search.

One operational convenience that is infinitely preferable to the Pioneer approach is that it is only ever necessary to make a single key press to eject a disc.

The Sony is both heavier and more solid feeling than the Pioneer CLD-1750, its main competitor. This seems to have a major advantage in that the player runs a lot quieter. It does have its own character­istic rumblings, however, but still at a comparatively low level. The illuminated status readout on the player is next to useless. It is both small and has insuffi­cient detail to represent figures clearly. For £650 it is decidedly shoddy and Sony would be better off dispensing with the drop down flap and putting a decent size display in its place. As has become a trend, the player is live all the time once the mains plug is powered up. The best reason any reader has come up with for dispensing with a proper on/off switch is that, provided you don't mind listening to or watching the same disc over and over, it saves getting up out of your seat. However, this cannot be Sony's reason for adopting the approach as in the instruction manual it advises against leaving discs in the player for any length of time.

Access Times 

Is the smoothness of the Sony machine in any way attributable to slower than average access times? The player seems a bit sluggish when one is trying to eject a disc but then all players seem slower than they should be at this.

It takes around 15 seconds from pushing Play for a picture to appear on screen. Unloading at the end of a side and re-starting takes 26 seconds. A chapter search on a CLV disc takes 11-12 seconds maximum. CAV searches are a much speedier 5 seconds. The slow scan time for a 60 minute side is 6'30" which is slow enough to be sure you won't miss what you are looking for, with 1 '20" being the time for a fast scan. 

Picture Quality 

The difference between the MDP-533D and the Pioneer CLD-1450 (1991) was minimal. In the two years since (1993) Sony has obviously made significant strides forward and the new machine is, as far as picture quality is concerned, clearly a grade above the Pioneer CLD-1750. One of the most encouraging aspects of this is that the player is good in all aspects of perform­ance, a very reassuring asset on an all-purpose machine. One doesn't get the feeling that either PAL or NTSC perform­ance has been compromised and both types of disc produce solid, colourful results without any undue artefacts (unnatural enhancements etc.) The composite resolu­tion gratings show good performance in the higher frequencies to support this.

The RGB performance of the 533D was not considered that outstanding; a useful compromise if one was without a multistandard TV but no more than that, lacking the bite of the standard composite picture. In the 533D instruction manual Sony suggested composite was the prefer­red output option too. The RGB on the new machine is more encouraging.  

The assessment of RGB picture quality is confused by the apparent lack of sharpness of the image: it often exhibits a slightly 'glazed' look compared to straight composite. However, composite circuits of TVs are often tweaked to provide a superficially vivid image. However there is some obscuring of the vertical detail. This might account for real viewing situations not producing the full benefits of the extended RGB resolu­tion. On colour bars, for example, the streakiness that is always in evidence on the red and violet bands was less well defined than when viewed in composite mode at a similar intensity level. It may therefore be the case that, while the black and white part of the picture is resolved well, in RGB the colour signal does not fare quite as well and this might account for the slight detail disadvantage. That said, the RGB output often proved very satisfactory to watch and, with the additional advantage of it removing all the cross colour effects around the 3.58MHz frequency, it was often the preferred method of watching specimen type laserdiscs. In RGB the suppression of cross colour was far more effective. 

The RGB image could not match the composite for colour intensity. Though the accuracy of the RGB colours was definitely better, in the main most discs looked under coloured. One must assume that the levels on a Sony LD player and Sony TV monitor would be matched, so the likeli­hood is that the level of colour provided is as much as the RGB coder can manage. But, considering that standalone RB encoders usually cost more than the price of the whole 650D, the RGB output of this player would seem to be in keeping with its price.

Another problem with RGB use (beyond that of the lack of control over its colour intensity) is that it prohibits straightforward connections to A/V amps -all of which function with composite or Y/C signals. Also, the RGB encoding only works on the NTSC signal, so even if you have to use the RGB for NTSC you will probably need to reset your TV picture controls each time you play a PAL disc. Rarely do composite and RGB inputs seem to coincide in contrast and brightness. 

Audio Performance 

Sony's publicity for the player places little emphasis on its superior picture quality, favouring comments about the improvements it has made to the audio circuits. Indeed, the reason Sony UK has been giving for not introducing an LD player sooner is that it wasn't happy with the audio performance of previous models (though one is wary of believing this to be the total reason for its reluctance to get into laserdisc here).

Improvements there may be in the 650D, but the Sony did not immediately impress as being head and shoulders above the competition. Good, yes, but then the current range of combis is fairly good anyway, though there must probably al­ways be a quality gap of some sorts between the sound of a combi and a dedicated CD player. A limited amount of time was spent listening to some analogue audio LDs. The audio quality seemed perfectly satisfactory and no compatibility problems were en­countered. The only hiccup with the player involved the clamping mechanism which would occasionally become confused by polycarbonate discs - both 20 and 30cm sizes. Sometimes the player would clamp and play them without hesitation, but on occasions the clamp would seem to be unaware there was a slimmer disc in the machine and there would be some high revving/slipping sounds from within which could only be eliminated by going through stop and re-starting the play procedure. 

Conclusions 

The 650D was expensive when Sony launched it at £599.95 and obviously can't be any more of a bargain now it is £649.95. A few years ago Sony was talking of attacking the PAL market with players at the £350 price point. The 650D is in performance terms everything that someone wanting to set up with laserdisc for the first time would want, the price most certainly isn't. In Japan the equivalent NTSC-only model lists for just under Y70,000 (below £400) which, incidentally, is the same price point Pioneer has for its CLD-1750 equivalent.

However, if we are going to have to pay over the odds for our laserdisc hardware then the slight premium for the Sony over the CLD-1750 is well worthwhile unless your TV is PAL-only and copes better with a transcoded PAL signal than an RGB one.