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Sony MDP-850D

The Sony MDP-850D is a derivation of the Japanese MDP-A1 combi. It plays both disc sides without reloading and offers full compatibility with PAL and NTSC laserdiscs as well as playing basic CD Audio discs. In the former respect, it scores over Pioneer's CLD-2850 in retaining analogue sound for PAL LD. The price is 699 95. Earlier on it was expected that Sony would continue to sell the MDP-650D alongside the new machine but there is now some doubt about this. The new machine could well end up being Sony's only LD model in the UK at this time (1994).

This new machine is considerably more stylish and the readout is now readable. Part of the improvement derives from design following function as Sony has discarded the block of controls previously situated on the front-panel, where the display would conventionally lit. Rather than dead black, the 850D bas an overall grey/black finish. The 850D has a novel loading mechanism where, instead of the drawer flap folding out, it acts inure like a portcullis, dropping straight down to clear the way for the loading tray to eject. It's fast and smooth in operation but it was noticed that it has been necessary to include a hard rubber damper along the top edge of the draw area, either to reduce impact effects or noise (or both) - which may not wear as well as the usual plastic or metal parts of the casing. But only time will tell.

This speed of operation also extends to the side change mechanism which, at 8 to 9 seconds, is very nearly half that of the Pioneer. Unlike the Pioneer, which has a separate revolving cradle to lift the laser up and over to the top of the disc, Sony employs a continuous U-shaped track. Depending on one's dexterity, manual side changing on a conventional player rarely takes less than 25 seconds.

Being able to play both sides of a disc automatically is a real plus feature with movies. But, even though 8 seconds still seems like it would be long enough to break the mood, in practice it didn't prove that way. What did seem to be of more relevance was how well the side change was chosen on the disc itself. The side change works better with PAL movies than NTSC, on account of the nature of the standby screen the player generates. With PAL one gets a black screen, in NTSC it's bright green. Sony might do well to disable the green screen between sides, or at least add a user-adjustable option to do this.

One aspect of the side change routine that could definitely do with refinement is how the player deals with single-sided discs. Regardless of whether there is anything on the other side, the machine will still attempt to play it before either giving up or, if present on the disc, playing the message telling you the side is blank. This is disruptive at the end of a 3-sided movie where one expects the player to shut down after the credits. The remedy may not be with player, though. Without the disc containing a code to indicate the limit of the total programme content (rather than just the side duration) there is no way the player can be expected to know when to stop. Going from memory, the Pioneer 2850 made a little less clutter when confronted with blank sides, despite its changeover mechanism being generally noisier than this Sony.

A new feature on the 850D is the karaoke facility for, which there is a microphone input and twin-function echo! volume control. Otherwise the functions on the new model mirror most of those of its predecessor. Karaoke and headphones excepted, all are now available on the remote control, including the picture enhance setting. However, it's hard to be any more enthusiastic about the enhance feature itself as the soft option removes as much picture detail as it does "noise" (presumably a reference to disc dropouts), whereas the sham setting gives a noticeably edge-exaggerated effect without pulling in any more real detail. The standard setting is, therefore, the recommended one at all times. The layout of the remote is similar to the 650D. It's not an ergonomic delight for use in the dark, but then few LD remotes are.

The back panel (photo top of page) sports two Scart sockets this time round, as well as the usual set of three phonos (for video and audio), an optical digital output and a socket for a Sony system remote. The captive mains lead has been discarded in favour of a more convenient, detachable socketed version, though Sony has not recessed this. Therefore the plug sticks out quite a distance, preventing the player from sitting close to the back of a shelf unit. Accordingly, it needs an extra 50mm of space behind. This is not a problem if also using bulky Scart plugs but is a deal more clearance than a phono connected system would require. No cables were supplied with the 650D but Sony has come up with a Scart lead for this machine. This might be an appropriate place to say that despite the extra clearance needed to run the laser over both sides of the disc and the room needed for the U-track, the player is not noticeably big and won't look out of place in with a shelf full of A/V components.

As with the 650D, the new machine offers NTSC output in an unadulterated state for connection to NTSC-capable TVs. For TVs lacking this feature then transcoding to RGB is effected via the Scart connector. To exploit this, though, one still needs a TV capable of dealing with an RGB signal and, as with the Pioneer LD machines, one able to lock onto the NTSC line and field frequencies. Manufacturers often glibly talk about most modem PAL TVs being capable of this but it cannot be taken for granted. However, if you are already using an NTSC-capable VCR satisfactorily then the TV will obviously handle an NTSC LD player signal too.

Performance Observations

The general characteristics of the 850D image are very similar to the 650D, but if you were considering an upgrade from the 650D you'd notice a slightly less immediate look to the pictures obtained. The obvious losses tend to be in fine hair detail and the texture of clothing or people's faces, which somehow just don't bristle with information as before.

To give some perspective to this assessment, with two matching discs synched up in each player, it took about 5 seconds switching between to determine which was the more detailed picture. That was with a title known to have a high level of picture detail. (For the record, it was the now-deleted Ruckus. Apologies for the relative obscurity of this title but, though not a perfect disc by any means, there is nothing in the current catalogue to warrant replacing it for this particular purpose.) When the same test was tried with a less detailed title like Patriot Games it took longer to detect which player was being viewed.

A comparison was also made between the 850D and a Pioneer CLD-1450 (with the Videoworld NTSC 3.58 modification) and again higher detail levels were achieved on the older machine. One by-product of this loss of detail, though, is that the RGB picture detail is now more comparable to composite. As was found to be the case with Pioneer's CLD-2850, it's beginning to look as if there is a picture detail trade-off for the general convenience of double-side play. However, the Sony machine still offers a better picture than the 2850. It is a worry, though, that if Sony does drop the 650D, there then won't be a player left on the UK market that shows the maximum resolution of laserdiscs.

The digital audio quality proved good, though. This time round Sony is employing what it calls a "Hybrid Pulse D/A converter. With analogue sound discs the player manages generally good sound quality but, as we have subsequently found with other machines, the 850D has a tendency to splutter on strong sibilants with certain PAL analogue discs and might be improved slightly in this respect.
In conclusion, the MDP-850D has lot more of the stylish appeal of a Sony product than the 650D, along with the convenience of double-side play. For those who aren't so fussy about wringing every last bit of detail out their discs (when it's there, at least!) it might suffice.

Features List

Dual-side replay, CAV mode, NTSC-to-ROB transcoding, Picture Enhance, Memory Playback, Repeat (Chapter! Track, Side, A-B sequence), Program Playback (25 selections), Auto Program Playback for tape dubbing, Intro Scan, Shuffle Playback, Karaoke function, Headphone output, Multi-lingual screen readouts (user programmable for English, French, German, Italian). Sockets: Video phono (1), audio L & R, Scan (2), Optical digital, Sony System remote.

Dimensions: 430 x 115 x 420mm (w x h x d)
Weight: 9.2kg.
Voltage: 220-240 volts
Power Consumption: 45 watts