26th Nov 2007 | 00:00
A Blu-ray disc player for the masses?
Sharp is a big name in Blu-ray. Not a lot of people know that. It's not because the company is a prolific maker of BD kit: rather, the company is a mass-producer of the blue-violet laser diodes vital for Blu-ray players. Sony makes the lion's share of these, but the bulk find their way into PlayStation 3s. Sharp takes up the slack, producing up to 150,000 diodes a month. It clearly knows Blu.
At trade shows around the world, Sharp has also been touting Blu-ray hardware (including a neat all-in-one home cinema system). But as far as UK product is concerned, it's been rather quiet. Until now.
The BD-HP20H is the brand's first UK Blu-Ray player and, at £400, is pitched at the budget-end of this particular market. Dressed in the now-obligatory piano-black, the HP20 is perhaps nondescript in appearance, although the slim lines and curved fascia will find favour with those looking for an alternative to Samsung's ubiquitous BD-P1000.
There are few front-panel buttons to this understated beastie. Tray and standby - that's your lot. Everything else requires the handset - another great understatement from Sharp.
But there's logic in this (apart perhaps from the obvious desire to hit price points): because you're locked into the handset (which, funnily enough, has buttons that duplicate the ones on the front panel), your greasy fingers have less opportunity to leave ugly prints on the finish.
The single front-panel gimmick is two '0' symbols that flash when the HP20 is starting up or loading a disc. Eventually, these will settle to indicate the type of disc that's been loaded - DVD or Blu-ray. But that's it - no memory-card slots or USB ports hidden behind a flap. Even the function display is so small it can barely be seen. Along with the '0's, this can be turned off in the unlikely event that it presents a distraction.
Flip the player round to its rear, and you'll discover that the HP20 has nothing to be ashamed of. For a start, you're given both HDMI and component outputs. The HDMI v1.3 port will go all the way to 1080p, and - certainly according to the instructions - will deliver a 24p output for those lucky enough to own compatible displays (24p offers a noticeable improvement when watching film-derived material).
For this to happen, you must engage the 'auto' display mode. Here, the player interrogates the display in order to determine its capabilities, and sets itself up accordingly. Manual selection of 1080p, 1080i, 720p or 480p/576p is the alternative - the mode you want is selected from one of the set-up menus.
However, the HP20 outputs in this single mode all the time, regardless of what's being played and whether the 'auto' mode is being used. It cannot, for example, be set to deliver standard-def when you're playing a DVD (what a pity, incidentally, that there's no 480i/576i option).
In other words, if you don't want upscaling then you have to manually-change the resolution. The component output does deliver 480i/576i, but maxes out at 1080i.
Note that you cannot output HDMI and component simultaneously, which will compromise the setup options of those with both flat-panel display and projector.
This is a significant oversight by Sharp, as it will force buyers to look elsewhere. Switching between HDMI and component is possible from the remote, but it's not convenient.
Standard-def outputs are an irrelevance here, but suffice to say that the HP20 lacks a Scart output - presumably it's an 'international' product. Increasingly though, I suspect we'll see Scart connectors phased out from HD players. They have no function in an HDMI world.
Sonically, the HP20 gives you both 2-channel and 5.1 (but not 7.1) analogue outputs. Thankfully, these are active even when the HDMI output is driving a TV - good news, then, if your AV amplifier cannot be fed with multichannel audio via HDMI.
If you do have HDMI, then 7.1 becomes possible (depending on the discs and amplification you're using). Rounding up the audio terminals are coaxial and optical digital outputs, which will deliver DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks (including Blu-Ray 'downconverts') to older equipment.
The superior resolution of Blu-Ray soundtracks makes the use of a multichannel analogue connection the preferred route for those with older equipment. Note that the HP20 supports Dolby Digital True HD, but not the DTS equivalent. According to Sharp product manager Ning Ning Cheang, this was done for 'licensing' reasons. Currently, Fox is the only studio to focus on DTS Master Audio soundtracks.
Cheang also confirmed that the HP20 only supports the BD-Java 1.0 profile. It cannot be upgraded to 1.1 with firmware. Interestingly, there's a USB port on the rear panel for stick firmware upgrades. The idea is that you would download the new firmware, copy it onto a USB memory stick and select the upgrade option from the setup menu.
Quick on the draw
Sharp is particularly vocal about the HP20's quick-start function, which is switched on from a menu. This reduces the time involved in starting up the machine, accepting a disc and playing it. The improvement is quite dramatic, cutting the wait from several minutes to a minute or so for both Blu-ray and DVD.
But there's a caveat. To ensure the improved speed, much of the player's circuitry is powered up when it's in standby mode. As a result, standby power consumption is increased from less than a watt to around 13W.
Just don't tell the 'green' brigade...
Something else you'll find in the setup menus is the ability to adjust the audio outputs. Each channel can be turned on or off or adjusted in level from -6dB to +6dB. Distances (delay) and size (elementary bass-management) can also be specified for the front, centre and surround speakers.
There's a noise sequencer, too. These settings work with the HDMI and analogue outputs, and are good for 'dovetailing' the HP20 into an existing AV installation.
Another interesting feature present on the HP20 is support Aquos Link (Sharp's version of HDMI Consumer Electronics Control, a feature of recent HDMI standards). Basically, this will allow different products to communicate with each other for the purposes of 'unified' device control.
In other words, you can use a compatible TV's remote to operate this Sharp player - regardless of whether the TV is made by Sharp or someone else.
I discovered that the handset of the Samsung LE52F968BD 52in 1080p TV could work the HP20, albeit only a few functions. Playback, searching and stop were available - but disc menu access, pause or chapter select weren't. A good idea, but why can't manufacturers agree on a common name to avoid confusion? Samsung calls the same feature AnyNet+, while Panasonic knows it as Viera Link.
Other features include PIN-operated parental controls, language (subtitle/soundtrack/disc-menu) preference choice, audio/subtitle selection and resume playback. However, the HP20 refuses to play DivX/XviD, MP3 or JPEG discs despite the fact that the advanced hardware at its core is clearly capable. I sincerely hope that future Blu-Ray players address this issue.
How ironic that frequent users of these popular formats will probably have to partner this £400 player with a £50 one that does support them! Another limitation is a shortage of trick-play options on offer, which may disappoint those who like to analyse movies. You get pause and frame-advance, but there are only three search speeds and a fixed slow-mo speed.
I configured the HP20 to deliver 1080p into the aforementioned Samsung TV - that way, you're judging the player's processing and not that of the display! DVDs were a disappointment. I've seen better pictures from far, far cheaper players.
But it has to be said that Blu-ray is the HP20's raison d'etre. The cynical observer could argue - quite legitimately, in my view - that a mediocre DVD player performance merely serves to highlight the superiority of Blu-ray.
DVDs (notably the R2 version of Hairspray) just looked grotty. Artifacts are visible, detail is lacking, colours are strangely pallid and there's an obvious murky character. Character? That's perhaps the wrong word to use, because there's little life to these pictures. Oh, apart from a certain degree of motion judder - which must surely say something about whatever deinterlacing Sharp is using here.
Switch to Blu-ray and the experience is transformed to the point where it seems like the player has been switched for another. The detail just leaps out at you. Close-up shots of Michael Caine's character in The Prestige reveal so much detail, you can clearly pick out the patterns in his tie-pin. And the colour rendition is so natural you can feel the cold as the train pulls into Colorado Springs.
But there's a caveat. Pans reveal obvious judder - just as DVD did. Switching to 'auto' mode, however, engaged the player's 24fps mode (which the Samsung TV supports) and smooth motion was restored.
Subjectively, Dolby Digital True HD soundtracks shine on my reference Miller and Kreisel active speakers, which were fed directly from the player's analogue 5.1 output. Detail and dynamics are evident when they're called for.
It's still early days for Blu-ray and the number of affordable players are limited. So, the arrival of any machine is noteworthy. While the BD-HP20 is limited as a DVD player, it makes a good fist of BD - certainly if your TV is a Full HD model equipped with a 24p-capable 1080p HDMI input.
The only things that really go against it are the lack of support for DTS's high-def soundtracks and connection limitations. But Dolby's equivalent sounds sweet to my ears.