With most standalone Blu-ray players still costing an arm and a leg, it's a very pleasant surprise indeed to find Sharp's debut player, the BD-HP20H, selling for just £300. Perhaps rather less surprising, though, is the fact that Sharp appears to have had to cut a corner or two to make such an attractive price possible.
With most Blu-ray players taking an absolute eternity to load their discs, a definite highlight of the BD-HP20H's features list has to be its 'Quick Start' function, which can have a Blu-ray disc loaded from standby in literally just a couple of seconds. Hallelujah.
The deck's connectivity contains a couple of goodies too. The HDMI, for instance, is built to the latest v1.3a specification, meaning it can output Deep Colour (should this picture-boosting format actually ever appear on a disc) and Dolby TrueHD 7.1-channel HD audio. There's also a component video output capable of progressive and upscaled HD video feeds, and a service port for, potentially, upgrading the HP20H's firmware.
If, like the majority of people, your AV audio receiver doesn't have a 1.3 HDMI input, you'll also be pleased to note that 5.1 analogue audio line outs on the HP20H allow you to enjoy Dolby TrueHD audio decoded by the player. Though obviously this route means you can only enjoy Dolby TrueHD in a maximum 5.1 channels rather than 7.1.
Finally on the features front, the HP20H includes 1080p HD upscaling of your old DVDs, plus 1080p/24 output of Blu-rays for the purest signal transfer possible -- provided you've got a TV able to handle the format.
Accessing all the HP20H's features, meanwhile, is made really straightforward by an excellently thought-through remote control and some clear, unfussy onscreen menus.
In terms of performance, using the 1080p/24 output mode yields very impressive results. During a run-through of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, for instance, the amount of fine detail and sharpness on show is little short of stunning.
Colours, too, are both vivid and completely natural, even where tricky skin tones are concerned, and the picture's contrast range is extreme yet always tightly controlled. There's only very occasionally any sign of video noise, and the 24fps output results in some impeccably smooth movement and camera pans on 24fps-compatible screens.
As of November 2007, every Blu-ray player launched must be compliant with the new Blu-ray Profile 1.1 specification. Which is to say that it must be able to handle dual video streams to make picture-in-picture functions possible. However, those naughty Sharp people snuck the HP20H out just before that deadline, and lo and behold, it doesn't have Profile 1.1 support. And its firmware can't be upgraded to accommodate it, either. Darn.
The HP20H is also notably lacking in multimedia support, proving unable to play MP3, WMA, JPEG or even DivX files from either CD or DVD discs. The HP20H further fails to provide support for the DTS HD audio format, and doesn't even allow you to resume playback of a Blu-ray disc if you're forced to stop it for some reason -- such as changing a setting in the Setup menus.
There's even something of a flaw with the otherwise excellent Quick Start function, since it requires the player to use more power in Standby mode than would otherwise be the case.
Finally, while HD images on the HP20H might be pretty much beyond reproach, aside from the rare moments of noise we mentioned earlier, it's a rather uninspiring upscaler of standard-def DVDs. Upscaled images tend to look distractingly noisy, and if you use the 1080p upscaled mode you'll also have to put up with some pretty unpleasant judder during camera pans.
The HP20H is a good price for a standalone Blu-ray deck -- especially one with an HDMI 1.3 output and a heaven-sent Quick Start function. But its lack of DTS HD, multimedia and especially Blu-ray Profile 1.1 support, together with its drab upscaling of your existing DVD collection, stop it well short of being irresistible.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide