With Sony's PS3 still sitting pretty as the UK's cheapest Blu-ray option -- especially with the recent launch of a £300 PS3 -- we find ourselves intrigued by Sony's first standalone Blu-ray player, the Sony BDP-S1E for £650.
Will the player really be able to justify its much higher cost and persuade us to buy it even though it doesn't also play games?
It doesn't take long in the company of quality Blu-ray discs like Casino Royale and Pirates of the Caribbean to realise that the S1E's performance totally outguns the PS3.
This is thanks in particular to greater fine detailing and much crisper, more fluid presentation of motion. This is especially the case if you make use of the deck's 1080/24fps option for outputting films in exactly the format via which they were encoded to disc.
These extra talents come on top of the ultra-rich colours and complete dearth of video noise familiar from Sony's PS3 Blu-ray efforts.
Also proving very impressive are the S1E's upscaled pictures from standard DVDs. There's definite evidence of extra sharpness and detail as the deck's processing converts standard definition into HD -- right up to 1080p if you wish. What's more, these picture improvements are introduced with seemingly no nasty side effects, such as smearing or twitching.
The S1E is a truly lovely CD player too, producing hi-fi levels of clarity, range and warmth from every CD we tried it with. And as a final strength, it's got 5.1-channel outputs allowing it to output DTS-HD and Dolby True HD audio formats to any future receiver able to handle them.
Unfortunately, we've got rather a lot to say here. First and worst, the deck isn't compatible with the new 'Profile 1.1' standard set to become mandatory on all Blu-ray players released from November. This means the S1E can't be guaranteed to play all the extra features that might appear on future Blu-ray discs -- particularly features that use picture in picture facilities. This seems a bitter pill to swallow on a £650 machine -- especially when 'fully functioning' players are imminent.
Even more surprising for £650 is the S1E's provision of only an HDMI 1.2 output, denying you the possibility of HDMI 1.3 features like automatic lip-synching, digital carriage of hi-def audio formats and compatibility with the Deep Colour system. Toshiba's HD-XE1 high-end HD DVD player does carry HDMI 1.3.
Also odd given Sony's fanatical support for the format is the fact that the S1E doesn't carry SACD playback.
Our next beef with the S1E concerns how slow it is. Switching the deck on from standby, it takes on average of one minute and 10 seconds to get to the point where Blu-ray's menu screens finally appear. Yawn.
Finally, our test sample suffered all manner of weird operating glitches during our extended tests. Failed menu screen loads, weird playback glitches, failure to HDMI 'handshake' smoothly with a few TVs, problems playing back some standard definition discs in the right aspect ratio… basically, the machine feels as buggy as the first version of Windows 98, again reinforcing our sense that the player, and possibly Blu-ray in general, just isn't quite finished.
Yes, the Sony BDP-S1E delivers sublime Blu-ray picture quality. Yes, it's got a few 'premium' features. Yes, it sounds great, too. But the twin problems of it already being out-of-date thanks to its lack of Profile 1.1 support and its multiple operational quirks and bugs conspire to make it a very difficult machine to really recommend your spending £650.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Jon Squire