Few – if any – home cinema systems raise such immediate mixed feelings as Sony’s BD3iS.
On the positive side, it’s impossible not to feel amazement at how unbelievably small the left, right, centre and rear channel speakers are for this full 5.1-channel Blu-ray system. Think golf balls cut in half, and you’ll have some idea of the dimensions we’re talking about.
But of course, such tiny speakers also raise concerns. Surely they can’t produce a convincing soundstage, can they? Especially when they’re supposed to blend in with BD3iS system’s subwoofer, which happens to be one of the biggest we’ve seen packaged with any all-in-one system.
Match made in heaven?
Also immediately troubling is the fact that the BD3iS’ components aren’t completely ‘made for each other’. For the Blu-ray player is actually one of Sony’s S350 standalone decks – it’s even packaged inside the BD3iS box within its original standalone box.
This raises concerns right away about how tricky the system might be to set up and operate – concerns that are hardly allayed by the fact that the BD3iS system comes with two remotes, one for the S350 deck and one for the audio system.
To be fair, you can actually use the audio system’s remote to control the most important/regularly used functions of the Blu-ray deck.
But even though the system uses Sony’s BraviaSync feature to deliver a little advanced HDMI communication between the system’s two main components, we routinely found ourselves struggling to recall how to achieve even some fairly basic tasks.
It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that by employing an S350 for Blu-ray duties, the BD3iS isn’t equipped with Sony’s latest Blu-ray technology; the S350 has been superceded in the standalone market by the S360.
No HD audio support
Another shortcoming that may upset Blu-ray purists is the audio element’s inability to decode the next-gen Dolby True HD or DTS-HD digital audio formats, leaving standard Dolby Digital and DTS as your only digital options, with Linear PCM 5.1/7.1 available via HDMI.
Looking now for more good news, the system’s speaker connections are colour-coded, making that part of set-up foolproof.
It’s nice, too, to find the subwoofer/audio centre carrying two HDMI inputs on top of the ‘BD’ one used to jack in the S350.
Cable haters, meanwhile, might also appreciate the BD3iS’s optional compatibility with Sony’s S-Air wireless technology, which delivers rear-channel sound without cables trailing around your room.
Last, but not least, the package ships with a mic, so the system can auto-calibrate to produce the best sound for your seating position.
Continuing to move the BD3iS in the right direction is the quality of its pictures.
The S350 Blu-ray deck has long been known to deliver excellent (definitely PS3-beating) playback of BD discs, and thankfully none of this prowess goes missing as the S350’s video signal loops through the HDMI system on the package’s audio section.
Blu-ray pictures look phenomenally sharp and detailed, exhuberantly colourful and rich, and completely devoid of video noise. The S350 is also unusually accomplished when it comes to upscaling your old DVD collection to ‘pseudo HD’ quality.
And so we get to the extraordinary speaker system – which is either little short of miraculous or a touch disappointing, depending on your point of view.
If, like us, you simply can’t believe that such small satellite speakers could ever produce a genuinely powerful, cinematic sound, then the BD3iS’s movie performance will shake your beliefs to the core.
Puny speakers, big sound
For as well as going surprisingly loud without distorting, those diddy speakers even manage to produce a fairly healthy dynamic range.
In other words, while not being shy about portraying treble details, they also manage to get low enough in the bass department to not leave too hefty and distracting a gap between their own bass capabilities and the rumbles coming from that huge subwoofer.
If you’re motivated by audio perfection rather than speaker size convenience, though, you will undoubtedly notice the system’s rather ‘baggy’, uncontrolled bass reproduction. And the way female vocals can sometimes seem dislocated from your screen, while male voices sometimes sound slightly forced.
CD playback exhibits similar traits to DVD/Blu-ray playback. And so on the upside, the sheer volume and power levels produced seem scientifically impossible from such small speakers, and detail levels are high. But bass seems rather imprecise, and vocals sometimes don’t blend perfectly with the rest of the mix.