Harman Kardon's debut Blu-ray player, the BDP 10, appears to tick most of the boxes required for consideration – it's a full Profile 2.0 machine with BD-Live, DivX playback and 1080p upscaling, all wrapped in a sassy case in keeping with the über-cool HK house style.
The only fly in this otherwise sumptuous ointment is that, at the best part of £600, the BDP 10 is pricey in the face of the latest batch of Profile 2.0 machines to hit the shops.
What's more, you have to dig deep to find any features that justify the BDP 10's ticket. Yes, it offers onboard decoding for DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, but only to 7.1-channel LPCM over HDMI rather than to analogue outputs.
There is little in the way of picture tweaking options, and even those good looks, which not so long ago would have appeared highly contemporary, seem a little bland compared with the cosmetic charms of the latest players from LG and Pioneer.
Hooked up, plugged in, and powered on, the BDP 10 suddenly makes a whole lot more sense. The Ethernet connection is self-configuring and had plucked the IP and Mac addresses from my router even before I had found my way into the network menu. The front end interface is easy to use, opening with the simple option to play from disc, USB, or go into the set-up menu.
Like most Profile 2.0 spinners you can play an assortment of media over a USB-connected storage device including WMA, MP3 and JPEGs. It's not rocket science these days, but the ease with which the BDP 10 offers access to folders and ID3 tags is impressive. Factor in the chunky back-lit remote control and the solid build quality and perhaps the BDP 10 is ready to play with the big boys residing in the prestige market.
Confirmation comes with a silky smooth picture and immersive sound. The thumping soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire is crisper than a bag of Walkers. Using the player's own decoding to LPCM, the BDP 10 pushes the film's early chase scene through the slums with outstanding pace and gusto.
Ramp up the volume and you are treated to a three-dimensional vista of aural effects that does an outstanding job of putting you there between the shacks, stalls, and alleyways. I suspect most people willing to spend £600 on a Blu-ray player may already own a top-spec AV amp and prefer to do the decoding there – but you can't knock HK's own internal trickery.
The same scene is a little less visually impressive, falling well short of the stunning eye-candy of the leading models from Sony and Pioneer, but mixing it well with players from the middle of the market, like the Yamaha BD-S2900.
The picture is effortlessly smooth and scrolls like it's on well-oiled rails, but to my mind it's a fair bit softer than the razor sharpness of the upper-market players. Conversely, some might argue that the player does deliver a more natural picture that is easier on the eye. The trouble is, I kept finding myself searching for a sharpness control to tweak the edge definition, which the BDP 10 simply doesn't have.
Colour fidelity is on the natural side of vivid. After seeing several players in a row that were determined to redefine the rainbow with more hues, I found this rather pleasant. Rather than make Slumdog's Mumbai slums look overtly vibrant, the BDP 10 renders the whole location as an altogether more believable scene. From the black and white dog that raises a lazy eye as the brothers run past, to the multi-colour rubbish floating in the river, the picture is packed full of natural-looking components.
In a quick A/B comparison I am sure 9 out of 10 viewers will opt for a more vivid and artificial-seeming colour palate, but the BDP 10 has long-term appeal and I can't help think it probably gets closer to the look that director Danny Boyle intended.
However, switch to a film like Tarsem Singh's The Fall – a positive cornucopia of OTT colour and contrast – and the BDP 10 suffers; lacking the in-yer-face hues, contrast and black levels that make this film come alive like I know it can.
The desert island scene, for instance, is one of the most vivid and shockingly colourful sequences yet to grace a Blu-ray disc, and the Harman manages to make it look muted and shady.
Bringing up the rear
Ultimately, this Blu-ray market entrant arrives a little too late for its own good. The BDP 10 is a fine machine that, perhaps a year ago, would have earned praise for its performance.
But in today's more cutthroat and ever advancing Blu-ray player market, packed with goodies like LG's £200 BD370, the BDP 10 is going to have to fight to find an audience.
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