Sony BDP-S480 Blu-ray player.
Shopping for a region-free DVD or Blu-ray player? Don't expect to get a straight answer.
Over Christmas I decided to upgrade my old Sony Blu-ray player to a new model with built-in Catch Up TV, predominantly for easy access to the ABC's iView. Another prerequisite was that it be region-free in order to play DVDs purchased from outside Australia. Seems like a simple enough thing to check with the retailer, but not when Sony lies about it.
As you probably know, DVD region-coding is the system introduced by movie houses to enforce their regional price-gouging tactics -- designed to stop people from importing cheaper discs from overseas. North America lies in Region 1, while Western Europe and the Middle East are Region 2. Meanwhile Australia is in Region 4 along with South America.
If your DVD player is region-locked, it will refuse to play a disc from another region. If it's not locked, you'll often find it cheaper to order Region 2 DVDs from Amazon UK rather than buy Region 4 discs in Australia. Both Australia and the UK use the PAL video format, so it makes more sense to buy Region 2 PAL DVDs from the UK than to buy Region 1 NTSC discs from the US.
The use of PAL and NTSC is not actually region-coding, although it can have the same effect if your old television doesn't support NTSC. Many people seem to think that Nintendo Wii games are also region-coded, but in fact it's only PAL v NTSC at play and I've happily imported Wii games from the UK and played them on my Australian-bought Wii (although it still made me nervous the first time).
Unfortunately the practice of region-coding has been carried over to Blu-ray discs, although thankfully Australia and Western Europe are both in Region B so there's no problem with buying Blu-ray movies from the UK. If, like me, you own a bunch of Region 2 DVDs then you'll want to be sure that your Blu-ray player offers region-free DVD playback, and here's where things get complicated.
I knew exactly which model Blu-ray player I wanted, Sony's BDP S590, so I walked into JB Hi-Fi with one simple question; "is it region-free for DVDs?". With no hesitation the shop assistant said no it wasn't, which came as a surprise. I've heard plenty of reports of people buying unlocked Sony Blu-ray players although apparently it can be hit and miss, even varying between different batches of the same model player. With some DVD and Blu-ray players it's simply a matter of punching in a code to disable region-coding, but apparently not with this model Sony.
The shop assistant was adamant that it wasn't region-free, so I couldn't take it home to test it and then expect a refund if it didn't work. While I was still in the store I decided to ring Sony Australia to double-check. After a few minutes on hold I was told that this model was definitely region-locked, although I could take it to a service centre and pay to have it unlocked. While outraged at the idea of paying for something which should come out of the box, I took down the number of my nearest service centre and gave them a call -- still standing in JB Hi-Fi while my son happily played Fruit Ninja on the display iPads.
Another few minutes on hold with the service centre and I was told that it would cost $44 to disable the region coding, but the model I was looking at would almost certainly come unlocked -- even if Sony and the shop assistant said otherwise. So I reluctantly handed over my money, knowing that if worst came to worst I could always pay the service centre to unlock it. When I got it home it happily played my Region 1, 2 and 4 DVDs, so all that worry was for nothing.
What's really frustrating is that Sony refuses to be honest about region-coding on its players. In the past I've asked Sony PR for a straight answer on this and been told; "Sony Australia does not endorse region-free playback on DVD and BD Players". When I pointed out this wasn’t actually an answer, I was told “no” they are not region-free. Clearly this is not true. Sony knows it and I expect the sales staff in stores such as JB Hi-Fi should know it as well, although they're perhaps erring on the side of caution to avoid disappointing customers.
It's not illegal to sell region-free DVD players in Australia, even after the signing of the US Free Trade Agreement, according to the Attorney-General’s department. It's interesting that the use of such "Technological Protection Measures" is up for review in this year's revamp of Australian copyright law. Let's hope our politicians don't trade away even more of our rights to appease their great and powerful friends. Meanwhile it would be nice if Sony could actually be honest about what its players can and can't do.
Have you been burned by region-coding? How do you get around it?