Blu-ray disc players have become the do-everything source components in your home entertainment system. The range of importance in what you want them to do might vary, however, so you need to make sure you get the BD player that’s right for your needs.
And that can mean stressing performance, streaming features, file format support … do you care whether it streams Vudu movie rentals if you’re never going to purchase one, or would you simply like to future-proof your system as much as possible should you ever wish to scratch certain itches?
Yamaha has covered a good deal of standard features while also adding some wrinkles as well as leaving some out with its Aventage BD-A1020 Blu-ray player. With relatively few streaming services and a higher cost ($450) relative to the glut of alternatives in the market, you would hope that the Yamaha performance is on par with an elite-type of Blu-ray player. As part of its Aventage line, the product is positioned as a step-up model (and it actually costs $50 less than the previous-gen BD-A1010).
During my time with the component, there was very little to knock on the performance side, especially in the audio realm. Video was very solid—I don’t have a frame of reference for comparing to, say, an Oppo player in my home system but I’d be confident putting the BD-A1020’s picture up against other mainstream brands. From my experience with the player, though, it is perhaps appropriate or fitting that I was more taken with the product’s audio options and performance because unlike companies such as Sony or Panasonic or Samsung there’s no video display manufacturing angle to Yamaha’s brand—but there is a strong musical instruments component, which leads me to believe audio is a more natural point of emphasis.
Speaking of audio, the BD-A1020 falls into the “universal disc” player in that along with Blu-ray discs and standard DVDs and CDs, it supports Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Audio (DVD-A) discs. Unless you’re an audiophile, chances are you don’t have too many of those latter two types stocked in your media room, but if you do the BD-A1020 will make very sweet music with them. The company enlists a 192kHz/32-bit DAC to aid the audio playback, as well as a mode it calls Pure Direct that it says “uses the shortest signal route for higher sound purity” when activated. I did some A/B listening in and out of Pure Direct mode and found the results only slightly improved—the results being tough to improve upon in the first place.
As far as audio settings and options, the rear panel has analog and digital outputs (coaxial, optical and HDMI) for playing bitstream (and DSD for SACD) or PCM, with downsampling for 48, 96 and 192kHz. Along with the disc drive, there are dual USB ports (one on the front panel, one on the rear) so you can pop in a thumb drive or storage device to play MP3, AAC, FLAC and WAV files. The player is also DLNA certified so you can access content from your computer or storage device over the network.
On the video side, streaming services have become an integrated feature set of Blu-ray players, but the BD-A1020 only incorporates the two most ubiquitous with Netflix and YouTube, and you can access photos with Picasa. It’s not uncommon to find double and triple the amount of services in other Blu-ray players with the likes of Vudu and Hulu Plus (Panasonic and Sony, for example, have their own streaming aggregator platforms that let users access a wealth of services including all of the above) for video as well as Pandora and other audio services.
For the standard video operations, there’s plenty to set up and tweak apart from what you’ve calibrated through the TV or projector. Setup options include auto/off for HDMI 1080p/24Hz; color space of ycbcr 4:4:4, ycbcr 4:2:2, full RGB, HDMI Deep Color; lip sync auto/manual/off; noise reduction; auto/film/video deinterlacing modes; and standard, vivid, cinema or custom processing. Paired with a BenQ W7000 projector and Screen Innovations Black Diamond 16:9 fixed screen and Elite Kestrel 2.35:1 motorized screen, I had the best results using standard processing with no noise reduction. It’s also a 3D Blu-ray player, and you can leave that formatting option to auto or off.
Setup is pretty simple, and you can go a few methods. I went back and forth between using HDMI for both audio and video to an Anthem D2v processor (and then the HDMI output from the Anthem to the BenQ projector); or I routed HDMI to the BenQ projector and sent the audio coaxially to the Anthem unit. That also allowed me to check out the DVD upscaling performance with and without Anthem’s processing involved (and for 3D was necessary because my D2v doesn’t support it). There’s an Ethernet port so you can hard-wire a network connection, but I tested out the built-in Wi-Fi, which connected easily and worked fine with the exception of one dropout when I tried to load Ferris Bueller’s Day Off from Netflix (which could have been a Netflix issue, as otherwise streaming went smoothly).
Between Netflix movies, standard DVDs and Blu-ray discs video performance was very solid. Colors and textures were crisp, images rendered loads of detail, and the player handled tough tasks like ocean water movement from a Discovery Channel Blu-ray and rock concert lighting on Blu-rays from Rush and The Police with little-to-no blocky artifacts. I was impressed by the amount of detail in the animals’ scales and fur, as well as the rocks and trees while my daughter and I watched the DVD of Dinosaur, while the colors of the characters in a DVD of Sesame Street’s Follow That Bird (yes, movies with my 6-year-old brings a good mix of animation and muppetry to the viewing) looked much more vibrant than I expected from an older standard-def transfer. Upscaling proved to be strong overall for DVD, with outdoor scenes and closeups tending to benefit most, so if you’ve got stacks of legacy discs the BD-A1020 would be a good fit for your system.
Blu-ray discs on the whole looked pretty stunning. It’s remarkable how animated films like Sleeping Beauty and Wall-E burst in color and detail and just complete immersion when they’re filling a 2.35:1 super-wide screen (Sleeping Beauty actually still leaves some empty space on the top and bottom in its even wider 2.55:1), and though I accomplished this using the “zoom method” rather than an anamorphic lens solution the images maintained great clarity and sharpness. Black levels and shadow detail came across nicely through the BenQ when I was viewing some darker scenes from Star Wars and in shots that featured Vader, as well as night-time action sequences in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Surface materials like stonework and clothing textures and creases were readily apparent in standard video mode, so don’t worry about having to bump to vivid mode during a movie.
As far as 3D goes, I didn’t spend too much time with the feature, but Blu-rays such as Tangled and Despicable Me offered nice depth with little noticeable crosstalk or “ghosting” on the projection screen (I did not have a 3D-ready flat-panel TV to compare to, but at 92 diagonal inches the technology worked well via the Yamaha unit). Images maintained very good clarity when switching from 2D to 3D.
HD content from Netflix was impressive as well (the color palette on both Disney’s Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure and AMC’s Mad Men dazzled), and I appreciated a couple of other Netflix-related features: a “just for kids” filter for browsing selections and your instant queue, and the ability to add titles directly from the Blu-ray’s Netflix interface. The downside is that searching for content on Netflix and YouTube via the included remote, which is a straightforward handheld sans QWERTY keyboard, is a relative pain in the backside as you navigate a multi-line alphabet box using up/down and left/right arrows.
The audio performance of the BD-A1020, as I’ve alluded to, really delivered for a Blu-ray player. Plain ol’ stereo music I played through CDs like String Cheese Incident’s live Carnival ’99 release offered vivid and lively imaging and articulation, especially with percussion, electric mandolin and keyboard prominence. From Green Day to Paul Simon to Joss Stone, whatever I threw at it revealed subtleties on the low and high ends, and generous, weighty midrange for realistic vocals.
Multi-channel audio was even better. Movie effects in 5.1-channel surround sound through a Paradigm bookshelf-speaker system provided enveloping drama, like the chase and fight scenes of Crouching Tiger, while SACD and DVD-A tracks were a treat to hear. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon SACD and a Telarc Celebrating the Music of Weather Report DVD-A produced an enormous soundstage that seemed to fill every inch of my theater. “Time” from Dark Side is a must-hear on SACD if you get the opportunity, and the alarms, chimes and tick-tocking introduction were as intense through the BD-A1020 as I’ve experienced, while the reverberant “Us and Them” underscores the surround atmosphere. An a cappella version of Weather Report’s “Birdland” on the Telarc disc teemed with energy as the richly layered vocals were rendered effortlessly and well defined.
So the BD-A1020’s value might be a matter of how you view a Blu-ray disc player. If you’re looking to pare down your entertainment system and want a jam-packed streaming device, it’s probably not for you. If you have a large Blu-ray and DVD collection, or stream Netflix for most of your movies and TVs (or use the streaming platform of your TV), you’ll be happy adding it. If you’re a music nut with some multi-channel discs, lots of CDs or USB drives full of digital files, then the BD-A1020 might be a bargain universal player compared with audiophile alternatives. Either way, if it’s quality audio and video you’re after, this component does not disappoint.
Blu-ray Disc, Super Audio CD, DVD-Audio, DVD, CD playback
Supports Blu-ray 3D, BD-Live
Wi-Fi support, Netflix, YouTube, Picasa services
iPhone/iPad, Android and Kindle Fire compatible Controller app
Supports DivX, MKV with DivX and H.264, MPEG PS, MPEG TS, MPEG-4, VOB, AVI, ASF,AVCHD, WMV, MOV, JPEG (HD), MP3, MP4, WMA, WAV and AAC content, including FLAC files
192 kHz/32-bit audio DAC
1080p/24 Hz compatible HDMI video output
USB ports on front and rear for video, music and photos
Solid performance in clarity and detail for both audio and video
Multi-channel SACD, DVD-A compatibility
Supports adding Netflix titles to queue, includes kids’ filter
Limited streaming service options
Remote makes Netflix/YouTube search clunky