After spending almost 20 hours with the best new Blu-ray players for 2014, the $90 LG BP540 came out on top after our previous pick was discontinued. The LG fits our criteria for a good player thanks to integrated Wi-Fi and the most popular streaming apps. More importantly, it has a better interface and video quality than the competition and offers the best combination of price and performance of those we looked at.
Who am I to make that claim? I’ve been handling almost all the Blu-ray reviews for Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity since 2010 and have had nearly three dozen players come through my hands. I’ve subjected them to countless objective and subjective tests. I’ve even thrown them on a $15,000 HDMI Analyzer to verify their performance. Often, as is the case with the LG, the picture from a cheap player is 100 percent identical to an $8,000 player’s.
If the LG BP540 sells out, the $90 Sony BDP-S3200 is our runner-up choice that is almost as good. The menu system is more confusing than our top pick’s and the overall interface leaves a lot to be desired, but it offers a wide selection of streaming content, and Blu-ray content does very well. Be warned, though: The Sony shows some jaggies while watching DVD content with diagonal lines.
With more expensive players, you’re usually paying for better CD playback quality or niche features. Along those lines, and if you also want the absolute best in audio and video quality, the $600 Oppo BDP-103D is the best high-end player you can buy. It has better DVD scaling than any other tested player, performs flawlessly even with foreign content and weird frame rates, and supports all audio formats as well. The integrated Darbee video processing is a favorite of most reviewers, including video purists, and Oppo has better service and support than other companies. For most people, though, the price difference isn’t justified.
Our pick from 2013, the Sony BDP-S5100, would still be our recommended pick if it were still being manufactured.
If you only want Blu-ray playback and don’t care about streaming whatsoever, the Samsung BD-H5100 is our step-down choice at $63. It does fine with Blu-ray content and the lack of Wi-Fi saves you some money, though it also means you’ll have to perform firmware updates manually or have hardwired Ethernet to do so. You’ll want to have updated firmware since it may affect your ability to play newer Blu-ray discs in the future.
Our pick from 2013, the Sony BDP-S5100, would still be our recommended pick if it were still being manufactured, but alas, it is not. It was less expensive than the LG, had the same streaming options, and loaded discs faster. If you bought our pick from last year, or you happen to find it somewhere on closeout, there is no real need to upgrade.
Who should buy this, and should I upgrade?
If you have a Blu-ray player that works, then there’s probably no need to upgrade.
If you have a Blu-ray player that works, then there’s probably no need to upgrade. Most Blu-ray players produce images that are indistinguishable from each other. If you have an older Blu-ray player without streaming features and wish to add those, you might be happier with a dedicated streamer like the Roku 3.
If you only have a DVD player, even one that upscales to 1080p, upgrading to a Blu-ray player and getting movies on Blu-ray will provide much better audio and video quality—better than streaming as well.
If you have a Blu-ray player that has stopped getting firmware updates, which a few have, then you will need to upgrade to watch the newest releases. Future Blu-ray titles can have updated encryption or features that require firmware updates to play correctly. Needing these updates is a big reason we recommend players with Wi-Fi to make the process easier, as it’s a real bummer to be stuck needing to update your firmware to watch a new Blu-ray disc without a practical way to update it. The issue of firmware updates will be discussed in more detail throughout this piece.
How we picked and tested
There are a few important features that the best Blu-ray player should have. As mentioned above, one very important feature is Wi-Fi. Most manufacturers let you save $5-15 by dropping Wi-Fi, but it is an essential feature. This is because most people don’t have Ethernet cables running to where their Blu-ray players are located, and the players need access to the Internet to download firmware updates and stream content.
Next we want to see support for all the major streaming services. Every player with Wi-Fi also supports streaming, but some offer a better selection of content than others.
A clean, simple user interface is also key. Playback quality might be identical across many players, but some models are much easier to use. Providing fast access to the most popular choices is a benefit. Responsiveness is the final key element. A slow, laggy interface is going to turn anyone off—not only is it annoying to use, it’s also confusing, since it can seem like your button presses have random results when the interface lags behind your remote. A player that loads both apps and Blu-ray disc quicker will make you happier in the long run.
Our initial cut in players eliminated those without Wi-Fi. Since Blu-ray players need to access the Internet for firmware updates in addition to apps, most people will need Wi-Fi. Only the entry-level players lack Wi-Fi, and the price difference is usually quite small anyway.
All good 4K TVs have their own scaler, and usually it’s just as good as the one inside a Blu-ray player.
Next, players with high-end features that most people don’t need were cut. 4K scaling is a common new high-end feature, but it’s unnecessary. All good 4K TVs have their own scaler, and usually it’s just as good as the one inside a Blu-ray player. The only exception is the Oppo BDP-103D, which has better scaling than other 4K players and most 4K TVs.
3D is another feature that can be cut. Some players include it, some do not, but many charge an extra $10-15 for it. Since most people with 3D TVs don’t watch 3D content on them, as we see TV manufacturers and broadcasters dropping 3D support, it isn’t a feature that most people need right now. Our pick has 3D, but is inexpensive enough that the addition of this feature wasn’t an issue.
To further cull the herd, we removed players that didn’t offer the most popular streaming options. Netflix, Amazon On Demand, and YouTube tend to see more use than anything else and so are the most important to have. Since there are players available that have all of these services for the same price as, or even less than, players that don’t, this helped to reduce the number of players in our consideration.
Very few people are still reviewing Blu-ray players at this point. Sound & Vision has published just one review this year. Same with CNET. Trusted Reviews is still doing some, but they’re in the UK where models can have different features than in the U.S. Many of the reviews go into very little depth or test features (like 3:2 cadence detection) that are relics of DVD but no longer applicable to Blu-ray content. I used these reviews as a starting point but did a hands-on evaluation with four players myself for our final testing.
…for the most part, Blu-ray discs played back through any Blu-ray player are going to look identical.
For my testing, I relied more on test discs with objective test patterns than other reviewers did. Flaws in players can show up on test discs that do not show up on regular program material. It is harder to notice issues in a movie than in test patterns as well. The Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark 2nd Edition provided the majority of the test patterns. Not to focus just on test patterns, I watched a selection of DVDs and Blu-ray movies as well and tested streaming services, including how quickly they loaded.
You should know that for the most part, Blu-ray discs played back through any Blu-ray player are going to look identical. If a player is described as having “blacker blacks” or “extra sharpness” on a Blu-ray disc, then it is doing something wrong. There are examples of this out there and it did knock a couple of players out of the competition. The ideal is that the bits on the disc are sent out through the player’s HDMI output as the disc specifies, not unduly modified by the player. For the most part, though, all players can play back a Blu-ray disc correctly.
To review these players, I ran an extensive set of bench tests to see how they perform playing back DVDs and Blu-ray discs. Most of these tests were handled with the Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark 2nd Edition Blu-ray disc, but some utilized other test discs that I had on hand. The important tests that all of them needed to pass were:
Clipping: Are all 1920×1080 pixels of a Blu-ray disc visible? Some players crop a few rows of pixels but most are perfect.
1080p24 playback: Does it play back Blu-ray discs encoded at this popular cadence correctly? (99 percent of them have this encoding.)
60i pulldown: Documentary, concert, and some TV discs are interlaced, so seeing how well it handles 60i video deinterlacing is important here.
3:2 pulldown (DVD): All DVDs are interlaced, so films need to use 3:2 pulldown to get the 24p cadence correct again. Without this, DVD movies will look choppy and have artifacts.
Luma resolution: Is all the black and white detail there? Blu-ray and DVD discs actually have color overlaid on black and white data. If the luma information is incorrect, you’re losing detail.
Chroma resolution: Is the color detail there? Some players rebuild the compressed color information incorrectly, losing details.
Chroma upsampling error (CUE): Is chroma information scaled correctly? If not, you get jagged edges.
Diagonal filtering: Does it reduce jagged edges when dealing with interlaced content correctly?
Color space decoding: The bits on a Blu-ray are converted to a format your TV can handle when they are output. Does it perform this conversion correctly?
I do many, many more tests during my extensive reviews at Secrets of Home Theater, High Fidelity, and HDGuru, but these are the key ones.
The LG BP540 is the best of its peers because it includes all the essential features and streaming services (which can’t be said about most of the competition), has good image quality on Blu-ray and DVD, and has a direct, easy-to-use interface to access content. It also has an exterior design that lacks the issues that other players have, such as touch-sensitive buttons you cannot disable. It comes from a manufacturer that has a track record of keeping their firmware up to date, and it even includes 3D support if you want it.
All of the important features are covered by the LG BP540: Wi-Fi and Ethernet, a single HDMI output, and a large selection of streaming content. Netflix, YouTube, Amazon On Demand, Spotify, Vudu and more are all supported. There isn’t a major streaming service that is missing, and they all use the most recent interfaces.
The image quality is also very good. Blu-ray content is correct, as it should be. DVD discs are scaled to HD resolutions better than the Sony and Samsung players I also tested. Those latter two players introduce more aliasing and jagged edges than the LG does. DVD content will never look as good as a Blu-ray, but better scaling can get it closer, and it’s better with the LG.
Instead of presenting everything at once, as most others do, it offers up the most popular options.
LG has a starting screen that makes it easy to get to all of your content. Instead of presenting everything at once, as most others do, it offers up the most popular options. You can go one level deeper and see everything, but usually the initial choices have you covered. As players offer more and more streaming choices, making it quick and easy to get to them becomes more important. LG really distinguishes itself here compared to other players.
The LG BP540 has a standard boxy design but is more versatile than most other players. The Sony BDP-S3200 has their Sense of Quartz styling, but it makes it hard to place anything on top of the player. Samsung places touch-sensitive controls on the top of the player, where you can far too easily cause the player to eject a disc or power off. The LG design is very basic, but it also provides a front panel readout that many are missing and more playback controls than some.
Because of the copy protection built into Blu-ray discs, you want to buy a player from a major manufacturer. When DVD encryption was broken, companies worked hard to make sure this would be harder to do in the future. Because of that, the encryption methods employed by Blu-ray players can change over time. A disc that comes out next week or next year might use a new method that an older player does not support yet. Manufacturers need to update the firmware of their products to support these newer features to avoid having a machine that cannot play the latest discs.
Even if you can find a player from a company that sells for less than our pick, it isn’t worth saving $5-10 now to wind up with a player that might be a useless in a year. This is another reason that Wi-Fi is important. It allows for easy firmware updates instead of requiring you to download them to a USB flash drive to update the player manually.
3D support is also included here, although we don’t think it’s necessary for a good Blu-ray player (as mentioned earlier). Our step-down choice, the LG BP340, does not have 3D support, but also lacks support for Amazon Instant Video, which we consider to be mostly required. Though most people will not use the 3D support, there is no cheaper LG option that dropped it without dropping other essential features.
The LG successfully passed all the tests on the Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark. 24pand 60i video content on Blu-ray are perfect, and 3:2 DVD content also locks on quickly. 3:2 Blu-ray testing isn’t necessary because while almost all film DVDs use that format, only 5-10 percent of Blu-ray titles do. Both YCbCr and RGB colorspaces are output correctly, and every pixel is accounted for. There is no extra sharpness enhancement added—the LG just presents the movie exactly as it is on the disc. We explain these tests in greater detail below, in the Tests section.
One uncommon but interesting feature of the LG BP540 is that it can stream audio from the player to your smartphone via LG’s free app. This is a great idea if you want to watch something without disturbing others and you don’t want to invest in wireless home theater headphones. It works okay on the BP540 but does develop a bit of lag as time goes on. It also drained the battery on my iPhone 5. However, it does work and is something most other players don’t offer.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
As good as the new LG interface is, it could use more customization. The Premium apps section lists a number of choices on the main page but you can’t edit them. Replacing the Vudu option with Amazon Instant Video or Spotify would benefit most people, but you can’t. It’s a better interface than most players, but it could still be better.
The LG BP540 is also not the fastest player out there. The higher-end Samsung BD-H6500 is much faster with app load times but virtually identical on Blu-ray titles. Saving 5-20 seconds when you load an app is nice, but not worth paying 50 percent more for. Once the app loads the speeds are virtually identical.
There are a number of reviews on Amazon in which people have expressed issues with the Wi-Fi dying on their unit. That has not happened on our end after a month of very solid use, but we will look out for it and keep testing over time to be certain. The only 2014 Wi-Fi-enabled players that have a rating of 3.5 stars (or more) on Amazon cost $175 and up and include features we think most people do not need. LG could also provide a better remote. The included one is not backlit and has mushy-feeling buttons. No one else in this price range has one that’s backlit, but that shouldn’t prevent someone from doing it.
If the LG BP540 sells out, the Sony BDP-S3200 is the next best option. It has a more confusing menu system than the LG, but it offers a large selection of content. The case design is more stylish and is smaller, but you can’t really place anything on top of it. There are only Power and Eject buttons on the outside, so you can’t start or pause a movie without the remote. Also, the power supply is a wall wart adapter that clogs a surge protector.
The Sony also does very well with Blu-ray content, though has more jaggies when watching DVD content with diagonal lines. The remote is on par with the LG but not my favorite. The BDP-S3200 doesn’t have any major flaws, and is cheaper than the LG, but it isn’t as simple to use in comparison.
CNET has reviewed the BDP-S3200 and Ty Pendlebury found that it “offers a high number of streaming services and will play most forms of physical disk.” He shared my same issues with the interface, noting that the XMB (Cross Media Bar) interface is “looking tired in the face of streamlined offerings from competitors” and “navigating long lists of streaming services is very slow.” He still found that the “performance is mostly good” but due to the interface and usability it “is probably not going to be the go-to player of 2014.”
A step up
If you want the best Blu-ray player out there, the Oppo BDP-103D is your choice. Compared to most players it lacks the wide variety of streaming options but instead places all the emphasis on picture quality. Scaling of DVDs is superior to other players, with no artificial ringing around edges and no jaggies thanks to superior anti-aliasing. The 4K scaling is also top-notch and better than the scaling built into almost all UltraHD TVs. It is the only Blu-ray player on the market (for now) that can upscale 4K content at 60 Hz as well.
There is a reason that Oppo players are usually the benchmark units of AV reviewers.
The specialist functions go on, including HDMIinputs to apply its scaling to your cable box or streaming device, analog audio outputs for use with a sound bar or speakers, dual HDMI outputs, and support for the more obscure film cadences found in anime and other foreign films. The integratedDarbee video processing, which you can enable or disable, enhances the contrast to provide more pop and apparent detail to an image without the usual drawbacks like halos around objects. There is a reason that Oppo players are usually the benchmark units of AV reviewers.
Those same reviewers agree that the Oppo BDP-103D is the best player out there. In his review for Sound & Vision, Kris Deering declared that “Oppo once again raises the bar for what we expect from a Blu-ray player in today’s landscape.” The Darbee processing is one feature that really sold him as it “increases not only perceptual resolution but also perceived contrast” which “creates what looks like a more defined image.”
Adrienne Maxwell of Home Theater Review agreed that the Darbee processing is something for “the serious videophile who is looking to eke out that last bit of depth and detail from the image.”
As a high-end, more niche product, it also runs $600 where our picks can be had for $80-100. It offers features no other player does, but it costs a lot more for them. So for most people, the LG BP540 is plenty, but for those looking for the ultimate, check out the Oppo.
A step down
For those that only want Blu-ray playback and don’t care about streaming, the Samsung BD-H5100 is your choice. Dropping Wi-Fi saves you a few bucks, as it sells for $63. Based on our testing the BD-H6500 model, which has a faster CPU but the same video processing, it will do just fine with Blu-ray movies as well. If you only care about movies, and you’re fine with doing firmware updates manually or have hardwired Ethernet, this Samsung will work fine. You will need to set the video output to YCbCr on it instead of Auto or RGB, as RGB has issues on Samsung players.
For most people though, the LG will be easier to live with.
More companies are dropping out of the Blu-ray player market so the competition is getting smaller.
The $150 Samsung BD-H6500 is very fast with a decent interface, but has firmware that would not work correctly for me. Many of their special features didn’t work at all on my unit, even after updates and resets. The DVD scaling and Blu-ray video content showed flaws on the objective tests as well. The touch-sensitive keys on top are something I am not a fan of. It also performs incorrect color decoding to RGB which the other picks did correctly.
Panasonic did not refresh their mid-range players this year and their $90 DMP-BD89 lacks support for Amazon Instant Video. Since other companies offer more streaming services for the same price, it is too expensive to be a disc-only player.
The $80 Toshiba BDX3500 also lacks Amazon Instant Video and has a poor overall rating at Amazon. Reviewing their high-end BDX6400 last year, I found the Toshiba interface is poor and feels unfinished. It is also slow in use and only fair on video tests.
The cheapest Pioneer player is the BDP-62FD. It is a universal player, like the Oppo, but sells for $320. It lacks the analog outputs of the Oppo and it lacks the high-end video processing that Oppo offers. It also has issues with high-resolution chroma details that other players do not, lacks much streaming content, and doesn’t offer enough to justify the price tag.
Wrapping it up
The LG BP540 offers a full array of streaming services, very good disc playback, and an up-to-date user interface that makes it easy to access content. The design is simple but very usable, the speed is decent, and the image is very good overall. Integrated Wi-Fi makes it easy to get online and get updates, and it provides a better day-to-day experience than other players out there. It’s our pick for best Blu-ray player.
This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 7/21/14 and is republished here with permission.