Day oneForum member Garth Man posts a find. A multiregion Blu-ray player, selling for just £57.99.
We follow the link, have a quick look at the Foehn & Hirsch BD2101, and within an hour someone with more credit limit than sense – ie me – has bought one, splashing out an extra tenner for next day delivery.
Somewhere in the back of my brain, as I do a spot of Googling around and check out the Foehn & Hirsch website – which frankly doesn't tell anyone anything much – is the dim remembrance of having seen the brand among the multitude of unfamiliar names at one of the Hong Kong Electronics Fairs I've attended in recent years.
Not sure why – could have been the unlikely Germano-Scandinavian overtones, or the semblance of the logo to that of New Zealand-based top-end white goods manufacturer Fisher & Paykel – but somehow seeing that brand in the halls of the huge Hong Kong Convention Centre made it stick in my brain.
And besides, the kind of companies you see at shows like that will make a product with any brand you want on it – provided you're prepared to order by the container-load.
Anyway, back to the plot...
Day twoA really rather large package arrives mid-morning, containing a lot of air-cushion packing material and a fairly small box, inside which is the F&H player – after all, it's only a little more than half the width of a standard machine.
One or two of the review team are immediately surprisingly dismissive: one of our grumpier members denounces the player as 'rubbish' before it's even out of the box, and another dumps it to one side and gets on with drooling over an exotic two-box valve-powered headphone amplifier, which is apparently 'a lot more interesting'.
Me? I'm intrigued...
More after the break
Out of the packaging, the player looks OK: you're not going to strain any muscles lifting it, and the remote control feels even more featherweight, but both are finished in a reasonable gloss black, which actually looks fairly classy.
Only problem is, we're going to put the player into First Tests, and that means getting it straight down to our photographer before the thing gets covered in fingerprints. Steve's a genius – been taking pictures of hi-fi equipment for decades and still manages to find new ways of shooting a stack of speakers or a slabby AV receiver, not to mention those lovely Temptations shots – but does he not like fingerprints...
So off the player goes, and that's kind of it for another day...
Day three'Steve, have you finished with that Blu-ray player yet?'
The plan is for the reviewers to give it a once-over and form an initial opinion before they all vanish off for some kind of team-building/brainstorming thingy they're doing on Friday, then I'll spend the day giving the machine more of a user-test while they're away.
But there's been a problem. The player has swallowed one of the discs Steve keeps in the studio just to get something sensible on the display for photography, got to 00:18, frozen, and now won't do anything more. You can turn it on and off, but it's otherwise unresponsive, and won't even eject the disc.
Are we having Foehn yet? Not really – and the news of the misfortune is greeted by one of the review cynics with a sound not unlike the other half of the brand-name.
First Tests supremo Simon Lucas, who served time at the retail coal-face and has been here before, is ready to take a screwdriver to it and extract the disc, so there ensues a brief debate about whether we do just that or send it back to Ebuyer and get another.
My loyalties are divided – it's my credit card, after all – but in the end we tell Simon to go for it. That way we may still be able to get an opinion of the player up on the site before the weekend.
Disc out, player working, it's over to the review crew. When they emerge, blinking, into the daylight from the testing burrow, they report a couple more freezes, but that the player otherwise seems to be running OK. They've turned off the BD Live access, on the basis that the player may have been looking for a network and not finding one, and now it seems to be working.
And how does it look and sound? Well, the picture is... Sorry, but for the official review verdict you'll have to wait for the forthcoming First Test.
Day fourSo now I'm sitting at home with the F&H player plumbed into my AV system. It's a fine, bright, warm morning, and I'm resisting the temptation to go and sit in the garden with a book and a large cup of coffee.
Setting up the machine wasn't without hiccups: on connecting it last night it got about four minutes into The Day After Tomorrow – hey, I wanted a disc I wouldn't miss if it had to be forcibly extracted from the player – and froze.
Power off, power on, and it played through to around 25min and stopped again. This time pressing stop and then play again got things moving. Hmm...
Pursuing my theory that this may be network-related, I tried activating the BD Live feature again, and connecting the F&H to the wireless Ethernet bridge I normally use with my reference players. No dice: the player won't even acquire an IP address.
Out with the 30m Cat 5 from the router (two rooms away) to the player, and try again. This time it works straight off and – touch gloss black – it's performed perfectly since.
Now if that's the cause, it may be either a minor hassle or a major problem: I'm not sure how many buyers of a £60 Blu-ray player are going to faff around connecting it to a home network. After all, at the price, isn't it more likely to find its way into a second room system, or maybe even be destined to be used by the kids to play all those CGI animationfests?
Mind you, there is another reason why you might buy this machine as a second player, and that's the multiregion capability. If you buy a lot of Blu-ray discs from abroad, you're going to find that while many ostensibly Region A titles are in fact perfectly playable on UK-spec Region B hardware, quite a few really are region-locked, and just won't work.
And then there's the fact that while some other Blu-ray players can be hacked to give multiregion DVD, they can tend to revert to Region 2 when automatic or manual firmware upgrades occur.
With the Foehn & Hirsch player the multiregion capability is there from the start: all you have to do is key in a code and you can set it to any combination of DVD and Blu-ray region you want.
So, with the loader closed and no disc in the player, you key in '9735', then a number to represent the DVD region code, followed by another for the Blu-ray region, and press 'enter'. DVD regions are the usual 1-9, plus 0 for multiregion, while for Blu-ray 1 is Region A, 2 Region B and 3 Region C.
In other words, '973502' will get you multiregion DVD and UK/Europe Blu-ray Region B, '973501' the same with US/Japan Blu-ray Region A, and so on...
I've already said I'm not going to prejudge the First Test, but personal impressions, running the player using HDMI out into my Onkyo receiver, are that both sound and vision are very respectable, both from Blu-ray and when upscaling DVDs. Yes, the picture looks a bit oversaturated, but I was able to dial that back using the Onkyo's picture settings.
Movement could be a tad smoother, for example in the long helicopter shot over the ice-floes at the start of The Day After Tomorrow or the high-octane carnage at the end of Doomsday, but then again you have to keep reminding yourself that you've only spent around £70 on this player.
To do better you'd probably need to sling another £50 at the budget, and you wouldn't have the BD/DVD multiregion capability.
Sound? Well, the analogue output is nothing special – it's a bit thin and lacking detail, whether playing video discs or CDs – but the F&H sounds more than OK via either the HDMI or its electrical digital output.
As well as HD audio via HDMI, I also ran movie soundtracks in plain vanilla DD/DTS through the Onkyo from the digital out, and CDs in stereo through one of the inputs on the NaimUniti. In both cases the performance won't trouble much more expensive digital sources, but still sounded none too shabby.
Add in the ability to play compressed content through front and rear USB ports, a well laid-out remote control and a clear, logical menu system – even the pop-ups look pretty stylish – and you have a player that, for all our initial niggles, seems pretty well sorted and a more than reasonable buy.
On this showing, the Chinese OEM factories are getting solidly stuck into Blu-ray market, and that can only mean prices tumbling, just as they have in DVD. And for all of us, wider uptake of Blu-ray can only mean better disc availability on the high-street as well as online, rather than being consigned to 'specialist' corners, and ever-lower disc prices.
Just wish I could stop referring to it as 'the Fisher and – sorry, I mean Foehn & Hirsch – player'...