UPDATE: AS OF 27.10.09, OPPO HAS ANNOUNCED THAT THE EUROPEAN LAUNCH OF THE BDP-831 HAS BEEN 'POSTPONED INDEFINITELY'

Not so long ago, buying a do-it-all disc player was simple: you picked up a ‘universal’ DVD machine, also able to play Super Audio CD, DVD-A and standard CDs, and you were happy.

Blu-ray Disc has complicated things a bit, especially if you want to move up to the latest movie format but still enjoy SA-CD, as I do. Yes, there are ‘universal’ BD/DVD-V/DVD-A/SA-CD/CD machines either available or on the way, but they tend to be a tad pricey, to say the very least.

Denon’s DVD-A1UD won’t leave you much change from £5000, and the Marantz UD9004, which broke cover at the Munich High End Show back in May, costs the same. Hmmm…

So to say that I was excited when the first news broke of Oppo’s entry into this arena is something of an understatement. Here was a player offering multiformat playback plus excellent DVD upscaling, and all for a price that looked likely to be sensibly within three figures, not well into four.

I’ve been quite an Oppo fan for a while now, having used a variety of the company’s players as SA-CD sources, transmitting DSD into my Onkyo receiver over HDMI. I’ve also explored their video capabilities in that time, and been pretty impressed with what I’ve seen, so I was obviously happy that I could look forward to some box-count reduction when I no longer needed separate players for Blu-ray and SA-CD.

It started last December...The waiting began, from the initial announcement last December until now. I’ve lost count of the number of emails to have gone back and forth between Oppo and me asking when I could get my hands on a player, and I’ve been frustrated by the arrival in the UK of parallel import US-market players.

Several times I’ve been tempted to bite the bullet, buy one from the States and enjoy; every time I’ve realised that if I did so and mentioned it online I’d be pressured for views on it, and would have to decline to offer an opinion until proper UK-spec, UK-supported hardware appeared.

Mind you, had it been decided not to make a UK model, then I would have bought a US one like a shot, and taken a flyer on support in the future, but even then that would have been a personal decision, and not something I’d suggest others do.

I wouldn’t like to be on the end of endless forum posts saying “you told me to buy it, and now I have a dead machine and I have to send it back to the States for repair.”

BDP-831 it is, then...So anyway, the long-awaited call from Oppo eventually came: the player was going to be launched officially in the UK, albeit with a slightly different model number to the US one. BDP-83 for the States, BDP-831 for the UK.

There would be an official UK online shop selling it, and official UK support. About time, too: I’ve been holding off buying a Blu-ray player waiting for this one to arrive...

And when the package arrived from Oppo it was clear this was exactly the same player the US gets, and not the much-rumoured ‘lite’ version. The relationship was confirmed by the lack of an instruction manual with this early sample, and an emailed note to just download the BDP-83 manual.

More after the break

In fact the only difference between the US and UK versions is that whereas ‘theirs’ is Region A Blu-ray and Region 1 DVD, ‘ours’ is B/2. That’s a slight problem when it comes to providing a complete solution for this household, as we tend to buy a lot of DVDs from overseas.

And whereas Japanese movies are Region 2 DVD, same as here, they’re Region A Blu-ray. Oh well, time to look at the aftermarket firmware and hardware mods to turn the player multiregion – they’re available for the BDP-83 already, so chances are they’re going to work on this version, too – but that can wait for a while.

UPDATE TO THAT: taking a flyer, I ordered the region-free modification from Bluraychip.dk. It arrived within three working days, cost just short of £50 delivered, and took all of five minutes to install.

You unplug one ribbon cable within the player, plug that cable into a small circuitboard, and plug the circuitboard into the original socket. Power comes from another socket conveniently left unused inside the player – I wonder what for?

Anyway, while you should be aware that this modification invalidates your warranty, it does make the Oppo multiregion for DVD, and region-selectable for Blu-ray. All I need now is some truly region-coded software to make sure all is working as it should: so many discs may say Region A or Region B, but in fact carry no coding, so I’m now awaiting a known-to-be-coded disc from the States to check things out.

UPDATE AGAIN: Borrowed a couple of definitely region-coded Blu-ray discs from the office, and the multiregioned Oppo plays them with no fuss at all, once you’ve selected the right region.

All you have to do, with the player in standby, is press 1 on the remote to wake it up in Region A, 2 for Region B, and 3 for Region C.

It’s also possible to set the modded player to a specific DVD region, rather than the default Region 0 the add-on delivers. That’ll help it get round those Region 1 DVDs with RCE.

I also bought a wireless bridge to connect the player into the home network, for the princely sum of £18 delivered: it’s USB-powered, and can be run off one of the two sockets on the Oppo – one on the front, one (conveniently) on the back. Since installing this, I’ve seen the Oppo do a couple of automatic firmware updates – before the product was even launched!

Fast to start, fast to loadFor now, I’ve just been getting to grips with what the BDP-831 can do, and the first thing you notice about it is that it’s exceptionally fast both to fire up from standby and to load discs. Oh, and the onscreen graphics are a long way from the functional but basic menus on the Oppo DVD players, making setting up and using the machine a pleasure; they also operate on the fly, superimposed over a dimmed-down picture.

And put simply, this is an excellent player: in the brief time I’ve had it I’ve tried it HDMI’d into my receiver, connected via the analogue multichannel outputs, and also hooked up using the dedicated stereo outs.

I’ve played Blu-ray discs from ZZ Top: Live From Texas to Korean ‘western’ The Good, The Bad and The Weird, a variety of DVD titles, more than a few SA-CDs from rock and pop to jazz and classical, some CDs and even a smattering of DVD-Audio discs.

In each case, the Oppo has delighted, delivering rock-solid, clear and beautifully sharp pictures, whether from Blu-ray or – using its Anchor Bay VRS video processing – from DVDs. There’s excellent shadow detail, bags of resolution and a smooth, natural look to pictures without any signs of obvious video nasties.

But – and this is the big but – even more impressive is the sound of the BDP-831, whether used for Blu-ray or DVD soundtracks, or as a pure audio player.

I’ve tried it both streaming soundtracks from Blu-ray in native form to the receiver and outputting them as LPCM, but this is also an exceptional machine via its multichannel analogue outputs, which is a tribute to the quality of the onboard audio conversion.

Living up to expectationsI’m not prejudging the results of the formal tests for the magazine, as the Oppo has to go in front of pairs of eyes and ears with a lot more experience of Blu-ray players at all levels of the market, but so far the player’s living up to everything I’d hoped it was going to be when first I saw the pre-release information.

Certainly to these eyes it leaves for dead the likes of the mid-market last-generation Panasonic I’ve been using recently, and it has an assured feel about it from the build – it’s a good deal heftier than the company’s DVD machines – to the way it displays video and plays music.

Which Dark Side?I’ve been listening to some new Linn Records SA-CD releases through it of late, using it purely as a transport, and the sound is powerful, mature and totally involving.

I even dug out my Dark Side of the Moon SACD for a quick listen and then, on a whim, hunted down a DVD-R disc I have of the (allegedly) original quadraphonic mix of the same title, in DVD-A MLP Lossless format, and that proved even more attention-grabbing than the later multichannel effort.

Sunny afternoon, cricket on the TV with the sound off and DSOTM as it was (probably) originally meant to be heard – it wasn't an entirely unpleasant way to spend part of the weekend...

And after all the experimentation with the various outputs, and a bit of a play with a set-up disc or two and the Oppo’s extensive video menus, I’ve come to the realisation that at its core this isn’t just the kind of enthusiast’s tweaky machine the tweaky enthusiasts would have you believe.

It’s actually pretty amazing straight from the box, and is as likely to please those who want a ‘fit and forget’ solution for all sorts of discs as it is those who consider themselves a cut above those of us who just want to enjoy our movies and music as well-presented as possible with the minimum of fuss.

OK, you can play with all those settings as much as you want, but you don’t have to mess around with the Oppo for ages to get it performing exceptionally well. And that explains why I’m now using it just about at the factory default settings, and with a single HDMI connection between player and AV receiver, carrying video and all flavours of audio.

As I write this I’m having one of those lost weekends, hurling endless discs at the player, trying to catch it out. Or at least that’s how I’m justifying it to myself, but in fact I’m just having a ball watching and listening to familiar stuff, and exploring some new discs – Blu-ray, BD audio and SA-CDs.

Reviewing workhorseInterestingly, I’ve just started a monthly column in Gramophone highlighting the best new releases on SA-CD and Blu-ray – if new rock and pop SA-CD releases are thin on the ground, the format is still being supported with some enthusiasm by the classical labels. So I’ve been looking for an all-in-one player for use as a reviewing workhorse, and looking with some trepidation at the prices of the ‘universal’ hardware beginning to trickle onto the market.

With the arrival of the Oppo player, that decision has just become a whole load simpler, and easy on the pocket. And that could give this remarkable player an appeal way beyond ‘those in the know’ on the web forums, as well as giving the well-known mass-market names something to live up to.

If you’ve been following the Oppo saga online on our forums, you’ll know I’ve been accused of everything from supporting the big boys in the face of the challenge from the unofficially imported BDP-83s to pouring cold water on the news of the BDP-831. And all because I decided to take my time before giving any opinion on the machine on this site, rather than rushing into HTML with half-formed views.

Truth is, I’ve been looking forward like crazy to the launch of an official UK version of this player, hoping against hope a) we actually got the machine, b) we didn’t get a watered-down specification and c) it was all it was cracked up to be.

In my opinion, the wait was all worthwhile – as far as I can see, the BDP-831 is all the universal player I’ll ever want, or need.

The Oppo BDP-831 will be available for £449 from www.OPPOstore.co.uk – the site will go live soon.The price includes a Spears and Munsil video calibration disc, and a high-definition audio demonstration/test disc from Aix Records.

You can read the What Hi-Fi? Sound Vision verdict on the player in the Awards issue, on sale October 20th and available earlier to visitors to the Manchester Sound and Vision Show on October 17th-18th.