These days, it’s hard justifying spending more than $200 on a Blu-ray player, given that so many at that price point and below do so many things so very well. But Pioneer makes a pretty solid case for spending the extra pennies (19,999 extra pennies, if you’re counting) on its BDP-52FD Elite 3D-Compatible Streaming Blu-ray Disc Player if you’re looking for a little more. For one thing, it offers both DVD-Audio and SACD playback (and yes, some of us still collect and enjoy both dead formats), it’s built like a tank (despite not being very heavy), and if you’re building a home theater around Pioneer Elite gear, it’s shared aesthetic with other pieces in that line is a no-brainer.
Its disc tray feels incredibly substantial (if a little noisy), and the BDP-52FD is a wonderfully quick machine, loading even the most Java-burdened Blu-ray discs in a (relative) snap. It’s also, as its name implies, fully 3D capable.
In talking about what it does do, though, it’s important not to overlook the things that the BDP-52FD doesn’t do. Its back panel is… I supposed “minimalist” would be the nice way to put it. It offers only one HDMI output, whereas I’m of the opinion that a BD player at this level should offer two. The logic behind said opinion is as follows: if you’re dropping in the neighborhood of $400 on a Blu-ray player, chances are you’ve spent a decent chunk of change on your other gear, as well. Perhaps a high end audio processor or receiver that boasts all the features you want or need — except for 3D passthrough. Having two HDMI outputs allows you to route the video signal straight to your display, and still send high-resolution audio to your non-3D-capable sound processor or receiver.
For Pioneer, though, the assumption is that you’ll be pairing the BDP-52FD with one of its new 3D-capable receivers, and has integrated a few key technologies to make such a match more enticing. PQLS (Precision QUartz Lock System), a digital audio transfer control technology which gives Pioneer Elite receivers control of the player’s audio output signal, and promises to eliminate jitter. In theory, this doesn’t set off my spooky audio voodoo alarm bells, and for CDs, especially, I’m thinking it could have a not-insignificant impact on audio quality. Unfortunately I don’t have a compatible Pioneer Elite receiver on hand with which to test this feature.
Another benefit of connecting the BDP-52FD directly to a Pioneer Elite receiver is the enabling of a feature dubbed Stream Smoother Link, which promises to improve the image quality of network- and internet-based video material — again, very handy given that the player features DLNA, YouTube, and Netflix access. But again, I couldn’t test it.
I also couldn’t test out the DLNA functionality too much, since turning it on led to all sorts of shenanigans with my network connection. But with DLNA turned off and after assigning the player its own dedicated IP address (automatic IP address assignment led to a wholly different set of shenanigans), I was able to play around with YouTube (Parental warning: when you launch the app, it starts a random featured video playing immediately; the first video it graced me with was Shit Asian Dads Say), as well as Netflix (kudos to Pioneer for including a fully featured Netflix app with search and add-to-queue functions; it’s amongstthe best I’ve seen).
When it comes to the more important considerations of Blu-ray and DVD performance, the BDP-52FD does a wonderful job, even without the benefit of the Marvell QDEO Video Processing included in the step-up BDP-53FD, which also includes the second HDMI output the BDP-52FD ought to have, along with RS-232 control. While the BDP-52FD does feature an RS-232 port on its otherwise pretty sparse back panel, it’s disabled for some reason. Both models support Pioneer’s iControlAV2 iOS app, which is slick, responsive, and includes most of the controls you’ll need during normal viewing.
It doesn’t give you access to more advanced control options or setup, but on the iPad especially (which makes good use of the additional screen real estate to include more functions on one screen at a time), the iOS control experience goes a long way toward making up for the BDP-52FD’s skinny, cramped, non-backlit remote.
Getting back to video performance, though: the BDP-52F passes all of HQV’s benchmark tests with flying colors, nipping jaggies in the bud, doing an impressive job with motion adaptive noise elimination, and nailing all of the motion tests admirably. If there’s a way to turn off its video processing to allow for external processing, I haven’t been able to locate it in the player’s sometimes-vague setup menus, but in terms of DVD upscaling, I would put it, not necessarily halfway, but somewhere on the road between the straightforward upscaling capabilities of Anthem’s MRX 700 receiver and the full-blown video processing of the Anthem Statement D2v, both of which I tested the BDP-52F with.
It will output a 1080p24 signal from Blu-rays, but not from upconverted DVDs (not a huge issue for me, since I’ve always found 24fps playback from DVDs to be problematic even with advanced video processors, but I know it’s a sticking point for some cinephiles). And performance with 3D Blu-ray discs is unproblematic.
I have to say, though, after reflecting on all the ups and downs, the BDP-52F probably isn’t the Blu-ray player for me. Network connectivity hassles and inconsistencies, a lack of internal storage for BD-Live downloads, and often-confusing setup menu options sort of outweigh a lot of the good things the player has to offer. At least for me. The network issues might be ameliorated by Pioneer’s sold-separately Wi-Fi dongle, though I didn’t have that for testing, and you can add your own external 1Gig flash drive for use with BD-Live content, but if you’re using the sole USB port on the back of the player for Wi-Fi connectivity, that means you’ll also have a USB drive sticking awkwardly out of the front of your player. For a $400 Blu-ray player, that’s not an attractive option.
If, on the other hand, you’re building a complete Pioneer Elite AV system, the BDP-52F is worth a look, if you’re not sold on the more advanced options of the BDP-53F. The interoperability between Elite players and Elite receivers is certainly tantalizing, the excellent build quality and super-speedy load times of the BDP-52F are much appreciated, and the appeal of the unified aesthetic across the line is hard to deny.