Pioneer Bdp Lx91 (£1800)

With 4Gb of internal memory to support BD-Live downloads and the capacity to decode every HD audio bitstream, is this the best BD spinner yet?

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So you want to enjoy the best that Blu-ray has to offer but you’re loathe to part with that ‘legacy’ AV receiver, a fine-sounding and perfectly serviceable multichannel amplifier but one that pre-dates HDMI connectivity? Thanks to Pioneer’s flagship BDP-LX91, your options just got broader.
   You see this is one of the very first BD players with sufficient on-board processing power to decode both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. It’s also one of the first to offer a full 7.1 channel analogue output – perfect for direct and unencumbered connection to the multichannel analogue inputs of that treasured AV amplifier.

Drawing a full 28W from the wall directly reflects the power-hungry DSP at the LX91’s core. Not only is there the audio decoding and bass management engine (which includes adjustable crossover frequencies) but Pioneer’s own ‘adaptive bit expansion’ video processor. In addition to supporting 48-bit Deep Color (when it arrives) this interpolates 16-bit colour from BD’s native 8-bit per channel in an effort to eliminate, or at least reduce, visible banding through gradually darkening shades. The underwater shots from Superman – The Return, with its blocky rendering of the deepening blue, readily exposes this paltry 256-step greyscale.
   In addition to the 7.1 channel audio outputs, this player also offers two HDMI 1.3a connections. One marked ‘Main’ will typically deliver the full audio bitstream/decoded LPCM to a partnering AV amplifier while the other, marked ‘Sub’, pipes 1080p digital video (with or without two-channel audio) to a projector or flat panel TV.
   Pioneer has also equipped its BDP-LX91 player with PQLS (Pioneer Quartz Locking System) which enables the SC-LX81 (HFN, Feb ’09) receiver to govern the flow of digital CD data over the HDMI link. I’ll cover this in greater depth in my column, next month.
   In every respect, this heavyweight BD player is a joy to use. Boot-up is slick and I did not encounter any problems loading Java-based menus from potentially troublesome discs. It will also drive some 30m of HDMI cable at 1080p with one repeater in situ with no loss of authentication.

Despite using the same DACs that have powered Arcam’s digital products for a few generations, the sound of the BDP-LX91 is quite distinct from any of the FMJs. It has a pretty good stab at playing CDs, rendering the typically spacious and often haunting atmosphere of Hatfield’s End Concierto de Stonehenge (STS611187) with much the same transparency as the better £500 CD players.
   Good to know, but the average cineast will be more concerned about its ability to swing all 7.1 channels into action, which it does and with all the gravitas of the very best Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD Master Audio AV amps. The re-mastered Vangelis soundtrack that underpins Blade Runner: The Final Cut thunders from its sockets, the opening plumes of flame scorching you with their radiant heat. Dialogue typically sounds a little claustrophobic at times – a ‘feature’ of the original soundtrack – but the new polish of the score and incidental effects sound glorious.
   Another old favourite released on Blu-ray, The Matrix Trilogy, sounds truly awesome through the BDP-LX91 with even the most dense acoustic imaginings depicted in seemingly intricate detail.

   Assessed with a Pioneer KRF-9000 projector (HFN, Jan ’09) using Monster 1000HD HDMI cable, the native 1080/24p picture quality achieved by the ’LX91 was perceptibly superior to that experienced to date with competing players, including Denon’s DVD-2500BT BD transport. Deep black scenes still glistened with detail, fleshtones glowed with a wholly realistic warmth while the very brightest whites looked pure, free of spurious colour and any suggestion of dynamic crushing.
  The popular Black Knight movie, despite its video rate rarely peaking above 25Mbps, looked stunningly vibrant thanks, in part, to its more sophisticated VC-1 encoding. The large aspect scenes filmed on IMAX cameras were breathtaking, especially those from Hong Kong and the aerial scenes depicting the collapse of Gotham General. Massive contrast, deeply saturated colours largely free of banding and as smooth a sense of motion as you’ll currently see are all qualities within the compass of this fabulous player. With Pioneer winding-up its plasma manufacturing, the ’LX91 is proof positive that the company has not lost its taste for state-of-the-art AV.

This is by a big margin the most impressive and comprehensively-equipped BD player we’ve tested. And yet, in an ironic twist, it offers the best value to enthusiasts who have stuck with a five-year-old multichannel amp, completely devoid of HDMI connectivity and HD audio decoding. After all, that’s what you are paying for in the BDP-LX91.

Originally published in the April 2009 issue