Unboxing Samsung's HT-BD2 is much like making love to an Eskimo; there's an awful lot of unwrapping to be done before you get to the tasty bits.
It's 7.1, you see, equating to eight speakers in total, with one being a meaty subwoofer. Plus, the main unit is a combination Blu-ray player and receiver. And its massive!
You'll certainly need to reserve some considerable real estate under your TV, round the back of your sofa and, er, everywhere else really.
Seriously stylish speakers
But that's not to say the deck's a beast without a dash of beauty. Footprint aside, Samsung has exhibited its trademark design expertise.
Clean and curvy, the player/amp owes more, aesthetically, to a fancy sports car than a conventional BD box (especially those from the Samsung stable).
It's mainly gloss black, naturally, and a magnet for dust to boot, but a silver strip along the fascia makes it stand out from it's own shiny black speakers and the rest of the AV crowd - in much the same way that a chrome lip ring stands out on a Goth.
Maybe we're seeing a move away from the current piano-black trend. It may be a strip for now but that's how it starts; it'll all be silver kit next year, you mark my words... Imagine that? Silver!
The simplicity in design extends to the rear, albeit not in a good way. There's nary a socket left spare by the all-in-one's own cabling and, certainly, there's no video input in sight.
Two optical audio sockets allow you to feed its amp modules from external sources, such as a Sky/Virgin Media box and a games console, but you can forget about simplifying your life (and your set-up) by using the HT-BD2 as a video-switching device.
Also, as you can't feed HD audio through a standard TOSlink cable, you're unable to get anything more than standard 5.1 Dolby Digital or DTS from a HD DVD player (should you still own one).
Of course, that's not the point of this system. This all-in-one is essentially for those who want to upgrade their entire home entertainment system to HD in one fell swoop, or newbies to experience full-surround home cinema for the first time.
It offers integrated 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD decoding, and it can route out 1080p24 video for, theoretically, the smoothest, sharpest picture.
There's even a LAN/Ethernet port for automatic web-based updates and patches. In many ways it is 'my first Blu-ray home theatre' in one gigantic box, which is fine. But that's not to say that it's without limitations...
Keeping a low profile
The Blu-ray credentials of the kit are, for all intents and purposes, lifted from Samsung's own BD-P1400, resulting in compliance with BD Profile 1.0 only.
While it's compatible with the movie playback of every BD disc I attempted to run through the player, including the tricky new, BD-J heavy release of Men in Black, there are features that it is incapable of handling.
Profile 1.1 discs are laden with content-rich Java applets, such as picture-in-picture, and Profile 2.0 platters add live functionality (through connection to the world wide interweb) including games and chat - and these are mere fancies to the HT-BD2.
Whether they currently add extra value, though, is debatable. Certainly, none of the initial wave of so-called BD-J 'games' are anything to write home about and, in my opinion, the other touted 'live' features, to date, have been aimed unapologetically at kids.
There is a bigger caveat thrown up by the deck's Profile, however; the unplayable BD Java elements of a disc, Profile 1.1 or 2.0, slow down its operation, causing lengthy load times and the occasional stuttering of menu screens.
The effect is not as pronounced here as with the initial batch of Blu-ray players and movie playback doesn't suffer in any way, but those expecting DVD deck-style operability are likely to be gobsmacked at how long it can take to fire up a film.
To be fair, few peers, other than Sony's PlayStation 3, can offer much of an improvement (even HD DVD decks are slovenly in operation), but it's something to keep in mind.
Another foible concerns the system's set-up options. Although I've previously mentioned that this is an all-in-one primarily targeted at HD novices, there's no auto setup for the audio. After placing the speakers in the correct positions around your room, it is purely up to you to calibrate them.
There are options, in the menu, to tell the central unit the distance of each speaker to the seating position (in feet) and then it's also up to you to set the dB levels for each (fronts, centre, surrounds, etc).
To further compound matters, the sub has a physical volume knob, inviting further tweaking.
In short, unless you know what you're doing, you can expect to fiddle a fair amount before any kind of surround sound parity is achieved. I can imagine a few households up and down the country being content with the audiofield massacre that's offered from the box.
Fortunately, to most, these issues are tolerable, especially when balanced with the system's general performance.
Video playback with both Blu-ray and upscaled DVD (up to 1080p through HDMI) is above average. Colour fidelity is natural and solid.
Obviously it depends on the disc viewed, but the BD version of Men in Black requires tight control of deep blacks (naturally) and vivid hues, which fit nicely with the HT-BD2's talents.
Having an integrated audio system also allows for mastery over HD (and SD) soundtracks. Once correctly calibrated, as previously mentioned, the system provides a entertaining audioscape, with plenty of clarity up to neighbour-baiting volumes.
It's not as keen at the very top range and the sub has to take on all LFE duties, with no gruff in the floorstanders to speak of. But, when the package acts in unison, it's enough to force shivers up, if not your spine, at least your coccyx.
A contradictory system
It's obvious to see the problems with this all-in-one. Although it's clearly aimed at beginners, the system is more demanding to set-up than is really necessary.
And, while it's relatively inexpensive for a system that offers HD video and audio with a full 7.1 surround experience (I've seen it for under £800 on t'net), it's obtrusive and, I would wager, non-wife friendly.
On the other hand, it's refreshing to see an all-in-one system with such a serious AV approach. For example, with the 7.1 array here, you're guaranteed of getting the full benefit of any TrueHD or DTS-HD MA soundtrack on any Blu-ray disc you care to throw at it. For what is essentially a modern spin on the music centre of yore, it's pretty hardcore.
So, the HT-BD2 is a product of contradictions. While I struggle to visualise who's going to buy it, I admire its commitment.