Diary of a Blu-ray virgin

John's got himself a shiny new Sony TV

As many of you know, I'm not a huge fan of (waggles fingers) "Home Cinema". Don't get me wrong, I love the movies. I used to watch three or four a week without fail, I review films for a local free rag and the only magazine I buy (now that I get WHF?S&V for free, obv) is Empire.

I was an early adopter of DVD though (or at least when it became affordable in Tescos I was), and think it's undoubtedly one of the great consumer electronic advances. I even thought I 'needed' surround sound, poring over WHF?S&V for months before settling on a Yamaha DSP-AX620 (award winner at the time) and a modest Yamaha 5.1 set.

This, however, was where the doubts started to set in. For starters, there were too many bloody wires. And then there was nowhere to put six speakers. And then the sound was no damn good (they were only a 200 quid sub/sat set, after all). And, to be honest, what was the point? The film's over there, for God's sake, not behind me!

What John really needs is a full surround sound set-up

So, feeling kind of sheepish about how much I'd banged on about it (and spent) and how quickly I'd cooled over it, what I ended up with at the time was just listening to films in stereo through a pair of Tannoy Revolution floorstanders. Even this, however, wasn't exactly fitting in well with the Duncan family lifestyle, and lack of enthusiasm on my part coupled with lack of WAFness meant that the Yamaha soon ended up in the fabled JD hifi drawer, and sound for films was relegated to the slightly weedy speakers in a 23in Philips LCD.

Movies being relegated to something of a rarity in the house, they languished thus until very recently. Needing a new, small telly for the bedroom, I struck upon the cunning ruse of getting a big telly for the sitting room, and moving the others around. Agreed upon by the Finance Director, I soon found myself returning from Richer Sounds with a Sony 32NX503, which is – and we have family consensus here – a great telly.

To a dyed-in-the-wool “discs are for wusses” streamer, of course, the network capabilities of the Sony – and especially Lovefilm – were intriguing. To get this up and running meant I had to take up a free subscription with Lovefilm to access it, which I duly did. The internet Lovefilm service is OK (though nothing special), but of course some discs arrived in the post.

In the hope that the Sony BDP-370 might once more come down below a hundred quid, thus making it an 'essential' purchase, I had chosen Blu-rays on my list, and two promptly turned up – Iron Man and The Hurt Locker.

Iron Man: spectacular on Blu-ray

Course, I still didn't have a BluRay player to play them on… Serendipitously, a day or two later Ultimate Guides Editor Andy Kerr wandered over and asked “JD, putting an article together about reference discs – what Blu-rays do you use to show off your kit?”. When I replied that I didn't have a Blu-ray player (none too loudly, this being the WHF?S&V office after all and not wanting to be seen as Amish Boy), the response was curt: “WHAT?!?!?!?!?!? Come this way young man…”.

And so it was that I found myself (for only the second time I think), in the Stock Cupboard: that fabled place where the world's best hifi and audio visual components are kept under lock and key; an audio nirvana where award winners are piled six deep; a veritable horn of plenty for the dedic……actually, it could do with a bit of a tidy up if I'm honest.

Mr K grabbed the first player that came to hand – a Sony BDP-S373, the Sony Centre-only twin to the Readers' Award-winning '370, with added backlit remote – and, together with an HDMI cable as thick as an anaconda grabbed from The Cable Box, I set off home with it underarm.

Sony BDP-S373 Blu-ray player

Just a small aside here – I think a lot of manufacturers could learn from Sony's packaging: I know the 373/370 is only waffer-theen, but they're really good at the boxes their kit comes in; my Vaio was the same – a model of effectiveness and minimal waste. And when you have as many cardboard boxes as I do in my shed, that's to be applauded.

So, cute packaging ripped open and manual discarded (cf: NaimUniti long term test), the Sony was plugged in and perched atop the other stuff hidden in the cupboard under the telly (PS2, existing Pioneer DVD player, router, Wii games, more discarded Gotham cables than I knew I had).

Network enabled though it may be, this Sony's not wireless, so the positioning was fortunate – I plugged the '373 straight into the nearby router and ran the firmware update routine. Despite the scary DO NOT TURN OFF OR THE PLAYER WILL DIE warnings posted whilst the player upgrades, all seemed to go without a hitch, the latest firmware was applied and I was ready to go.

I have channels cut into my shelving (and, um, cupboarding) which allow me to pass cables between the components in the 'AV corner'. Sadly, however, they were not cut to 'Anaconda' spec, so I had to feed the cable out the front, leaving the cupboard door ajar, and into one of the side HDMI ports on the Sony telly.

Thus accommodated (and one rolling of Mrs JD's eyes later, as she retired to a girls' night out), we were away. Popcorn was microwaved, Iron Man was slapped in the disc tray, and I settled down like the man in the Maxell advert, waiting to be blown away.

Blown away by the explosions in The Hurt Locker

And I was: I had been slightly trepidatious about Blu-ray for one reason – disc access speeds. Never mind the popcorn, I had heard tell of being able to make a delicious three-course supper in the time it took to load up a feature. No such worry with the Sony – from power-up and load, the menu was up in seconds, never mind the minutes I was expecting.

This was a huge relief to me – acceptance of technology within the Duncan house is generally predicated on two things: 1) is it less ugly than the last one and 2) does it work better. As a result, while such things as depth of black, motion handling and the ability to see that Gwyneth Paltrow's skin isn't all that aren't exactly top of the agenda here, if it's more of a PITA to work than the last one (and that includes disc loading speeds), it's not gonna fly.

First worry negotiated, the next thing that struck me was sound, or rather lack of it in relative terms. This thing was so quiet (volume-wise). I had to turn up the telly to something like 80 (out of 100) for it to be loud enough. Now that's not necessarily a problem, but it struck me as odd.

A subsequent conversation with Ms Newsome which went along the lines of “Well, dur” suggests that this is par for the course, but those of us coming to HDMI-enabled kit for the first time might find this somewhat off-putting. My Sony has channel-assignable volume offsets which resolved the problem, but it's worth noting nonetheless if you're coming to the tech for the first time.

One other thing also worth noting is that, with my Sony telly at least, remote controllage of the two pieces of kit suddenly becomes unified. A good idea in principle, you might think, but trying to change the volume offsets on the telly proved impossible when the 'Options' menu on the TV remote was pressed – I got Blu-ray options instead. I ended up having to power the '373 down at the wall to change the telly settings so that I could get volume up to a reasonable level on the HDMI input.

Later I found that I could remove this interdependency so that each responded to their own remotes, but it did provide a brief “head/brick wall” moment. Once fixed, however, we were back to the point of “Popcorn was microwaved…etc”.

Next up in the Duncan household?

Now, I'm no Blu-ray or HD-in-general expert, so it's difficult for me to give objective opinion on the relative merits of my setup, but subjectively – bloody hell. I can see why Iron Man makes a good test disc – as I said to Mr Kerr afterwards, it has bright bits; it has dark bits; it has red bits; it has loud bits; it has fast-moving bits; it has technoporn; it has AC/DC; it has Gwyneth. At the risk of repeating myself, who could ask for anything mooooore.

And the Sony pair looked absolutely glorious – film-like motion, gorgeous colour, enormous amounts of detail. Stick this little baby on top of a modest matching receiver and something like a Q Acoustics 5.1 setup, and you have a system that would play music and movies to a standard that 95% of the population could live with for life, and the other 5% would be churlish to complain given the cost.

I haven't even touched on the Sony's other capabilities – DLNA streaming, SACD, free iPhone remote app and more internet content than you can shake a stick at. You could sit and watch the HD trailers on Lovefilm all day – I know, because I did (all 84 of them), but even if it didn't have all of that, it would be a no-brainer.

I have no doubt that it could be bettered further up the price-scale (and if I was spending money I might be prepared to spend some more to get more solid build quality), but to me, when the BDP-S370 is once again available at Amazon for under 100 quid, this is true democratisation of the technology. There's no reason for anyone not to buy one any more, and I'll wager that this Christmas will be the time that Blu-ray finally comes to the masses. I might even get the in-laws one.