There are big changes coming to the world of Blu-ray in 2015. A new generation of 4K-capable players are expected to debut.
Given that these new HEVC-enabled models will certainly come with a hefty price premium does it make sense to invest in a top-end 1080p only player now, and watch from the sidelines?
Well, on the strength of the BD-S7200, currently Sony's top-rated player, that might be a smart strategy.
Priced around £200 this is a hugely attractive deck that for once doesn't camouflage decent electronics beneath a goofy design. This is a smart, grown-up machine that does a remarkably good job of upscaling Full HD discs to 2160p 4K resolution.
To be honest, build quality has not been a strong point of Sony players. I've owned several over the past few years and they invariably start to fail after about a year, becoming noisier and less reliable. The BDP-S7200 leaves me rather more hopeful.
While lightweight at 2.3kg, it's a traditional full-width chassis that can be stacked with other components. The finish has a nice gloss and the disc loading mechanism is located traditionally to the left, providing room for USB reader on the right.
Back panel connections include an Ethernet jack, HDMI output and coaxial digital audio output, plus a second USB reader. There's no onboard memory for use with BD Live discs, although this is hardly a concern. You can always save data to an external USB thumb drive if need be.
The BDP-S7200 also boasts something called Super Wi-Fi, although this transpires to be a high sensitivity antenna module and nothing particularly Kryptonian. There's no dual band support, just vanilla-flavoured 2.4GHz. While Ethernet is always preferable, this Sony deck performed well over Wi-Fi, exhibiting no connection issues.
The remote control is stubby little affair, dominated by a menu pad, transport keys and hot buttons for Home, SEN (Sony Entertainment Network) and Netflix. As far as zapper's go, it's not particularly intimidating.
As you would expect of any Blu-ray player these days, there's a reasonable number of network services embedded. While you won't find comprehensive catch-up, there's enough streaming choice to fill downtime between discs. In addition to Sony's own Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited subscription services, you can graze Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Demand 5, YouTube, Mubi and Sony Entertainment TV.
Sony Entertainment TV appears to have been all but dismantled. What was once an odd repository of vintage sitcoms and miscellaneous archive trimmings, is now a cul-de-sac of movie news and snippets. Music attractions include the Berliner Philharmoniker and vTuner. Additionally, there's a web browser and access to the Opera app store, where you can add yet more applications.
Sony may have dramatically overhauled its TV and PlayStation UI's, but that classic old XrossMediaBar layout is holding firm here. It's quick to use, thanks to the player's sprightly dual core processor.
Despite the low ticket price, there's a great deal of sophistication to be found in the image processing menus. There are actually two 4K upscaling modes: Auto 1 and Auto 2. The former output maintains 1080p Full HD for video material but plays out JPEGs at 3840 x 2160; Auto 2 also upscales video to 2160p.
The player also supports Miracast screen mirroring from compatible mobile devices.
Overall performance is unquestionably premium. Picture quality is gorgeous. The player delivers sublime detail, with effortless gradation of colours and tone. What's particularly surprising is just how effective the 4K upscaling.
While I would routinely put faith in a 4K display to do the heavy lifting (provided it was from a major brand), there's no doubt that what this player offers is slightly different. The mastered in 4K Blu-ray release of The Amazing Spider-Man is full of ultra fine detail, which the player makes entirely believable. The way it handles skin tones and fabric texture is extraordinary.
Picture processing technology is impressive. IP Content NR Pro applies noise reduction to improve any low bitrate internet delivered content, with Sony's long-standing Super Bit Mapping processing which improves and smoothes gradations. The player even allows you to alter the colour space of the player, using the YCbCr/RGB switch. Choose between 4:2:2 or 4:4:4 chroma sampling.
This overarching finesse isn't just restricted to video. The player offers a range of sonic enhancements that are well worth investigating. DSEE does a great job of guestimating lost data when it comes to compressed music files; adding a little more sparkle and body.
The player will also spin Super Audio CD discs, with support for DSD over HDMI. This mode ensures the best possible audio quality, if your amplifier or AV receiver supports it.
The deck performs equally well as a multimedia player, with far reaching file support. Compatibility with codecs and wrappers is broad - MKV, MPEG, MOV, AVI and WMV were all playable across my network from a media server. Audio support is even better! Not only does this deck handle regular fare such MP3, AAC, WAV, WMA, FLAC and AIFF audio tracks, it also plays DSD64 high res files. The level of audio achievable from such an inexpensive bit of kit is truly astonishing.
The player is arguably one of the fastest on the market, when it comes to disc loading. Even my most Java heavy discs went from tray to screen in around 40 seconds, which is somewhat remarkable.
The BDP-S7200 is arguably Sony's best Blu-ray player since the way more expensive BDP-S5000ES. Cosmetically it's a big improvement on the overly quirky models of yore, and it does a spectacular job when it comes to video and audio replay. You can couple this model with components of a far higher stature, without it feeling embarrassed.
The most compelling reason to invest in the BDP-S7200 is its AV performance. It does a terrific job maximizing detail and burnishing bits - and if you plan to use it with a 4K screen then there's even more to be excited about. The upscaler in this deck actually outperforms what we've seen built into Sony's 4K UHD screens – and that's saying something! It's also built for speed, loading BDs faster than an Amazon delivery truck.
While there's a fair number of decent streaming services provided on the BDP-S7200, this is not a deck to that'll satisfy all your everyday catch-up TV needs. But for movie rentals and subscription VOD it's good enough. Of course if you're looking for a heavyweight build you'll need to shop for an Oppo or an Arcam. This player is steadfastly on the lightweight side.
The Sony BDP-S7200 punches well above its ticket price when it comes to AV performance. Offering superb image quality with highly sophisticated image processing that really pays you back when coupled to a 4K TV, as well as high-res audio support. It's a solid reason to upgrade your DVD player or an earlier BD deck. Throw in a 'Super' Wi-Fi performance and a goodly selection of streaming services and you have the best Sony BD deck since Sony's shortlived ES audiophile model. I rate this player cracking value.