Sharp started badly in the Blu-ray market with the BD-HP20H.
This offered a Profile 1.0 spec when others were upgrading to 1.1, and it didn't cut the mustard either when it came to DVD playback.
One year on, the company has unveiled its successor, the Sharp BD-HP21H, and we were hoping for some signs of improvement.
But this player seems to have suffered the same fate, offering Profile 1.1 capability that can't be upgraded when similarly priced players have full BD Live support.
The outside doesn't exactly get the pulse racing, either. Out goes the mirrored fascia of the HP20 and instead, there's a more sombre black finish, with a blue ring on the front, which can be turned off.
On the rear panel is a fairly standard array of sockets, including component and HDMI v1.3 outputs, but Sharp has dumped the 5.1-channel analogue outputs found on the HP20H, which means you'll need an HDMI-equipped AV receiver to get the full benefit of the HD audio formats. Sharp has also removed the coaxial digital audio and S-video outputs, no doubt to keep costs down.
Also noticeable by its absence is an ethernet port, but there is a USB port on the rear, though it's chiefly for software updates and to store Virtual Package content found on some BonusView discs.
One of the other big criticisms levelled at the HP20H was its refusal to play DiVX, MP3 and WMA and once again they're not supported.
Quick Start mode
The Sharp's most appealing feature is the Quick Start mode, which enables you to boot up the player from standby in 15secs, instead of about one minute in normal mode, and anyone who's experienced the agonisingly long loading times of the first-generation BD players will know how significant this is. On the downside Quick Start mode eats up a lot more power in standby than usual.
On the audio front, the deck can transfer Dolby True HD, DTS HD Master Audio, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS HD bitstreams to an AV receiver over HDMI, plus it can output Dolby True HD as hi-res PCM from the HDMI port.
This allows owners of receivers without HD audio decoding to enjoy the format's higher sound quality (as well as enabling the primary and secondary audio tracks to be mixed). When converting DTS HD Master Audio and DTS HD to PCM, however, it only outputs the 5.1 core at 48KHz.
The inclusion of Quick Start strips a great deal of hassle out of the disc loading process, but once you're up and running the deck continues to be co-operative and easy to use.
Its setup menu is ideal for Blu-ray novices, as it's laid out in a clear, straightforward manner and explains the settings onscreen so you don't have to consult the manual. It even outlines the consequences of changing the secondary BonusView audio settings and alters the audio output options accordingly.
The remote improves upon the HP20H's handset by simplifying the button layout, which makes it very easy to master. There are dedicated buttons for the HDMI resolution and to control a Sharp Aquos TV.
Rich Blu-ray pictures
The Sharp is a terrific purveyor of hi-def pictures. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is simply bursting with detail, with the deck effortlessly coaxing out the nuanced textures and patterns of the movie's exotic locations as well as the features on Harrison Ford's weathered face.
The player's impressive detail talents are backed up by excellent colour reproduction. It brings a richness and vitality to bright, bold shades, but handles the subtler stuff with an equally assured hand, making shading look smooth and getting skin tones spot-on.
What's more, dark scenes retain a lot of detail, blacks are profound and 24fps motion is silky smooth. While it's true the Pioneer BDP-LX71 and Panasonic DMP-BD55's pictures look fractionally cleaner and sharper, the Sharp measures up very well.
If only DVD playback was as impressive. Unfortunately, there's been very little improvement since the BD-HP20H and movies still suffer from soft edges, noise and jagged edges.
Listening to high-resolution soundtracks through a competent receiver is a sensational experience: Indiana Jones' Dolby True HD soundtrack is sharp, distinct and expansive, with forthright dialogue and crystal clear rear effects.
Music from the analogue outputs isn't bad either, delivering vocals with a smooth tone and achieving a good balance across the frequency range.
The Sharp BD-HP21H is basically its predecessor upgraded to Profile 1.1, with Sharp making no effort to improve upon the other things that bugged us the first time round – in some ways it's made worse by the stripping away of several of the HP20H's connections.
There's still no DTS HD Master Audio decoding or MP3, WMA and DiVX playback, but the biggest disappointment is the lack of BD Live support.
The Sharp's shortcomings are compounded by the fact that it costs the same as, if not more than, a handful of much better BD Live players on the market, which doesn't equate to good value in our book.
On the plus side, though, its picture quality is superb and Quick Start is really useful and welcome, but it's not quite enough to earn our unreserved recommendation