Finally the long wait for Sony's first dedicated Blu-ray player is over and initial appearances suggest that our patience has paid off.
Cosmetically, at least, the BDP-S1E is far removed from the Blu-ray-spinning PS3. It's huge and it's sturdy, brushed aluminium shell looks strong enough to withstand a nuclear attack. There is, of course, a practical reason for this and Sony's claims of a reduction in vibrations and noisy mechanics prove to be well founded.
Though perhaps the biggest piece of kit to sit in your AV rack (amplifier aside), the BDP-S1E is far from ugly. The silver bulk is given a much-needed touch of class, thanks to the blue-tinted glass panel on its fascia, meaning that you'll want to have it on show rather than stowed out of sight.
What goes on under the hood, however, is more of a mixed bag. Starting with the good stuff, the BDP-S1E offers the 1080p 24 True Cinema mode that impressed us so much in last month's issue on Pioneer's BDP-LX70. For the uninitiated, the '24' refers to the
24 frames per second speed of film when encoded to DVD, meaning that pictures are effectively output in the purest form possible. Upscaling for your existing DVD collection is of the 1080p variety and the socket line-up around the back features pretty much everything we could hope for bar one, but more on that in a minute. There's the all-important HDMI output, composite video outputs, S-video and component, but why anyone would want to use the latter two is a mystery to us.
Now to the bad news, which is something we've encountered on Blu-ray players in the past - the player does not comply with BD profile 1.1. In short, this means that the type of BD Java material that it can play is somewhat limited.
Interactive features like the Liars' Dice game found on the excellent Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest disc, for example, simply won't work. Which brings us rather neatly to the aforementioned absentee in the socket lineup - an Ethernet port.
Without one, system upgrades will have to be made by downloading the required software and burning it onto a DVD. And, of course, you won't be able to utilise the BD Live feature once it starts to become more popular on discs.
Ease of use
Once again, this is something of a hotch potch of unbridled delight mixed with mild frustration. As we'd expect from a Sony disc spinner, the menu pages are impeccably designed and intuitive to use, meaning that anyone that's ever come into contact with a plain old DVD deck will be able to get their head around the features with consummate ease.
Though a touch plasticky, the remote control is equally amenable and features sensibly sized buttons. But, it's the actual operation of the discs that will prove to be the ultimate test.
As per every Blu-ray and HD DVD player we've seen so far, the BDP-S1E appears to take ages to kick into action. In tests, it took a full minute to be ready to play a disc from the moment we pressed the on button. This may seem pedantic, but after the immediacy of plain old DVD, this interval feels like eons.
Admittedly, this is hardly a deal breaker and merely requires you to subtly adjust your approach to movie watching. Our advice is to turn the player on and go and make yourself a cup of tea before sitting down to watch your movie.
We should point out that this waiting time is actually quicker than most Blu-ray players we've encountered, though, and on a par with Toshiba's HD DVD posse.
Pleasingly, any quibbles about sluggish operation are quickly forgotten once the BDP-S1E reveals just what it is capable of. Pictures are, in short, breathtaking.
Fed our aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest test disc, it took us to a world where every grain of sand, exploding cannon or crashing wave is displayed in jaw-dropping detail. The colours of the exotic flora and fauna are among the most vibrant and rich we've seen from HD disc spinners, without ever veering from reality.
Dark scenes, meanwhile are handled with consummate ease with shadows revealing details rather than cloaking them, while blacks are about as deep as and profound as it's possible to get.
Finally, connecting the player to a suitably compatible TV, the 1080p 24 True Cinema mode improves things even more, giving pictures a more filmic look that is vastly superior to rival offerings lacking the feature.
Disappointingly, the BDP-S1E only supports the Dolby TrueHD audio format, meaning that movies encoded in the more common
DTS-HD format will end up being downmixed to plain old DTS 5.1. Quite how much of a loss this is very much depends on which format becomes the dominant one as time goes on, but with capable receivers limited at the moment, it isn't that big a concern.
Having said that, with BD, DVD and CD the soundstage is more than adequate, providing a pretty immersive sonic performance without ever doing enough to blow us away.
Priced at £700, the Sony BDP-S1E certainly isn't the most expensive high-definition disc spinner on the market and its picture performance is generally very impressive, offering colour rendition of a quality that is notably outstanding.
However, the fact that there is no ethernet port or compatibility with the industry-standard BD profile 1.1, which would have futureproofed it, makes it a tough player to endorse whole-heartedly.