As Blu-ray continues to mature as a platform and more discs hit shelves, manufacturers start to roll out a second generation of BD players. The key feature of these new devices is price: they’re now no more expensive than the first generation of quality DVD players. But every BD player that costs less than $700 faces a strong rival: Sony’s ultra-versatile PlayStation 3.
Sharp’s top-end Aquos-family player, the HP50X, brings all the features you need for today’s Blu-ray movies, but can it survive in a market full of more flexible devices?
Shop for BD player today and you need to demand a basic set of features: HDMI output, support for 1080p24 playback, and Blu-ray Profile 1.1 (Bonus View). Fortunately, the HP50X has all of these things, and wraps them up in a piano-black box that matches the new range of Aquos TVs.
Thanks to 1.1 support, the HP50X can play back secondary video in a picture-in-picture mode. So now director’s commentaries are no longer given by a disembodied voice: the director is there in the corner of your display, gesticulating wildly. You may need to plug a USB2.0 thumbdrive in the back to get this working, and this can be a pain if the player is installed in a big AV stack.
The unit includes a component and a composite output, but you’d be mad to use anything but HDMI. Full 1.3 format is supported, allowing the player to be controlled by a Sharp Aquos TV, via the proprietary Aquos Link technology (Sharp’s implementation of HDMI’s Consumer Electronics Control). Unfortunately, this only works with Sharp devices, so a Sony TV with CEC won’t be able to control the HP50X.
Thanks to HDMI 1.3, the player also supports the full x.v.Color space, with the ability to show nearly double (actually 1.8) the number of colours as the DVD players of yesteryear – your display will need matching support though.
For audio enthusiasts, there’s also support for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Advanced, so the HP50X is definitely worthy of a serious cinema system.
A quick note here on an extremely irritating element to the otherwise straightforward setup of this player. Sensible users will of course choose HDMI, and connect the player to a display or AV receiver with a single cable. Setup done? Not quite: you need to hold down the HDMI button on the remote for five seconds to enable HDMI mode.
This is nothing new: high end DVD players used to have a switch on the back to select between composite and component output. But it was a physical switch, and both obvious and instant.
If you’re one of those people who prides themselves on not having to read a manual up to page 15, the HP50X will make you change your ways.
With such a complete feature set, video playback from the HP50X is naturally excellent. Paired with a high-end 1080p display that supports 24Hz mode, you get all the detail and incredible colour you come to expect from Blu-ray. You can also choose to send the audio out via optical or RCA digital, which might be the superior option for your audio setup.
We say again: you’re mad to use analogue outputs for Blu-ray, but if you need to save your sheckles, then the component output here is just fine. Maximum resolution is only 1080i of course, and there’s no 24Hz support, but if you’re using a TV without HDMI, then you’re not going to notice these shortcomings. Colour is good (though again, you miss out on the wide-gamut x.v.Color) so once more – use HDMI!
The machine itself is fairly quick to start up: there’s a quick-start mode which marginally speeds boot times, though we can’t quite tell why there’s an option to turn this off. The whole front of the unit folds down on a motorised hinge to reveal the disc tray, and this becomes irritating after a while, plus it’s one more bit to snap off!
Where the HP50X starts to fall behind is when you want to use it for something other than BD. DVD playback is fine: the decoder chips are cheap, so this is as good as any HDMI-equipped DVD player. But there’s a distinct lack of support for other file types.
Enjoy watching DivX movies or playing MP3 or WMA CDs? Forget about it. There’s no support for these formats. It’s commercial BD, DVD, CD-Audio and image CDs with JPEG files only. You can’t even play back DVD-Audio! This means you will still need a second optical player in your AV stack if you go with the HP50X, and here’s where it faces its biggest competition: Sony’s PlayStation 3.
With a device like the PS3 on shelves, BD players like the HP50X need to work hard to secure buyers. Consider, pay $100 extra for a PS3 (and that’s assuming you can’t get one on sale) and you’ll get a BD player that’s faster, supports the 2.0 Profile (interactive elements on a few discs so far), plays almost every video and audio format including SACD, and has a 40GB hard drive! Oh yes, and it plays games too!
To be able to firmly recommend the HP50X, it really needed to support more compressed video formats, so its slim and stylish fascia could become the centrepiece of your AV stack.
Still, if compressed content is anathema to your AV sensibilities, and you don’t want to mess around with an overly-complicated media server, the HP50X is a lean BD player, even if it is a little mean on the extra features.