Harman Kardon BDP 1 Blu-ray Player Review 
Home Theater Video Players Blu-ray Players
Written by Thomas Spurlin   
Thursday, 09 July 2009

With their signature two-tone, slick yet simple aesthetic and a penchant for quality in the audio / video spectrum, especially with a range of excellent receivers, Harman Kardon have always had a way with throwing together capable machines that also project a certain electronic sex appeal.  It’s only natural that their flagship Blu-ray player, the BDP 1, carries along the same blend of sharp looks and capableness in the quality department.   Though lighter on features when compared to other models within its price range (namely the OPPO BDP-83) and fairly skimpy on personal adjustment, Harman Kardon have justly taken their stronger qualities into consideration and built a proficient 1080p/24, Profile 2.0 Blu-ray / upscaling DVD player with an eye for streamline design.

Out of the Box:

Coming equipped in a sturdy standard cardboard box, Harman Kardon’s unit impresses out of the gate with its aesthetic looks.  Sporting clean, curved edges and a sleek two-toned design, the BDP 1 takes the rather standard framework of most common Blu-ray players on the market and gives it a nudge in the attractiveness department.  They key word to bear in mind is simplicity, as the front panel aims to mirror the minimalist appearance of HK’s other equipment.  It’s comparable in size to others on the market (2-5/8” high, 17-5/16” wide, 13-7/8” deep), while also weighing in at a healthy 8 pounds.  At the front are an array of sliver-thin buttons for ejecting the disc and navigating playback, along with a USB 2.0 port that will become essential for BD-Live functionality.  Interestingly, the power indication light is all the way to the far left corner of the unit, sloping with the player’s curved edge.  It’s a bright orange light when turned off and, oddly, very bright white when powered on.  The placement is great and the coloring of the light is very attractive, but the glaringness of the bulb is a little distracting. 

To the rear, the BDP 1 utilizes a standard array of jacks.  Along with the v1.3 HDMI port utilized primarily throughout this review, it also sports component jacks, coaxial; and optical output jacks, and an RJ-45 Ethernet port for internet connectivity.  There’s also an IR Out for a remote.  It does not have 5.1 analog plugs for non-HDMI receivers, but it does have standard Composite and Stereo Analog jacks.  Along with that, the power supply runs from a standard, removable AC power input, equipped alongside a Master Power On / Off switch.  No frills, just the bare bones that the player needs.

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Along the same lines, Harman Kardon have done a stellar job with their infrared remote for this unit.  At first glance, it has the appearance of being a little on the “Star Trek” prop side – sporting a contoured head at the top that’s wider than the bottom.  Once handled, this little remote proved to be very comfortable and weighted well.  It’s coated on the bottom with a matte rubber-like substance that creates a comfortable feel against the palm and fingertips.   After a little tinkering with the buttons, the “set phasers to stun” sensation quickly disappeared.

At the top of the remote lies the core of the playback navigation, with buttons in the shapes of their functions – triangle for Play, upright dashes for Pause, etc., all of which are a reasonable size.   The remote sports separate Power On / Off buttons instead of a singular button, with the Open / Close button sitting somewhat in between them on a lower level.  Chapter and time code information can be brought up using the Status button, yet it doesn’t offer monitoring of bitstream flow, codec status, or resolution status. Standard menu buttons are available, including the two pop-up and disc menu functions, along with a Dimmer function to toggle the brightness of the LED display’s blue lettering at the front of the unit.  The display ranges from bright blue to completely pitch black, a nice touch to limit the amount of light coming from the player itself.

Towards the bottom of the remote control, along with the numerical keypad, there’s also a standard array of secondary functions – Angle, Audio, Subtitle, A-B, Repeat, as well as the four-color function buttons.  This remote has also been built with a very attractive backlight (labeled Light), which glows a very soft whitish-blue and stays lit for a good 6-8 seconds after pressing the function. To round out the design, Harman Kardon’s typographical logo appears in raised silver writing at the button.  The remote, and the player, are missing one or two functions that make other units in the price range appealing – notably a lack of a Zoom function – but the reliability of the sensor and the comfort of use more than outweigh its initial odd appearance.  


Setup:

Once the BD 1 has been hooked up to an applicable receiver / television, connected via HDMI for the largest part of this review to an Onkyo SR605, setup proves to be a very quick and simple affair.  At the front menu, there are five core options: Language, Display, Audio, System, and Network.  Underneath each branch, the expected options are the only ones made accessible – Player Menu / Default Audio for Languages, Toggle for several 16x9 / 4:3 options under Display (set to 16:9 Pillarbox) along with Resolution (480 and 576 i/p, 720p, 1080i/p) and Color Space Options.  On the audio side, the options for Digital Output (set to Bitstream Native for film viewing, PCM 7.1 for BonusView), PCM Downsampling, and Dynamic Range Control are available, which makes the process of decoding and sending the audio tracks to applicable receivers a snap.  The System option makes some rather surface-level options available (Auto Play / Standby, Parental Control, Software Version and Settings Reset).  Flexibility isn’t really within the tree of functions for the BDP 1, so personal tweaking is limited.  

On an operational level, the BDP 1 glides along rather quietly.  The drive can be heard spinning with the initial boot-up, but it quiets down once the film or audio disc has started with its content.  However, the tray itself slides out to be supported in rather sturdy fashion, though the sound of the wheels inside can clearly be heard.  Like most other players, the BDP 1 has an automatic timer to retract the tray; however, it seems like this tray retracts quicker than other models, pulling inwards a hair over a minute after opening.  Some might see this as a positive, but it doesn’t offer as spacious of a timeframe to remove the disc, place it in its case, and open another for screening.   Along those same lines, the BDP 1 goes to Standby mode fairly rapidly as well.  That, however, leans towards more personal opinion, and it’s understandable where a quicker timeframe would be ideal.  

Performance:

Harman Kardon’s BDP 1 has been sent through a gamut of various Blu-ray discs, ranging from top-shelf clarity in film rendering to its handling of less-agreeable sources.  As a fully-functional bitstreaming player showcasing 1080p/24 resolution, this is a notably strong unit.  Whether communicating DTS HD Master Audio tracks or Dolby True HD, the player handled each of the sound options with fluid, natural sound with each disc tested.  The load times for each of the Blu-ray discs took a bit longer than desired, but the BDP 1’s reaction time when coming in and out of Pause / Standby mode was impressive.  Though it’s a little slower, the quality of high-definition output satisfies enough to struggle through the boot times.  What really surprises with the player’s capabilities was the naturalness of many sorts of audio tracks and a broad range of sound levels, as the audibility of dialogue and sound effects doesn’t falter throughout several fluctuating volume levels.  Something that occurred with this unit was sporadic “No Disc” reading issues, something that was rectified with a quick eject and reboot.
 
First, Harman Kardon’s unit had the chore of running Miramax’s Kill Bill series – both Volumes 1 and 2 with AVC encodes – in a solitary sitting.  Though only carrying a multichannel PCM track, it’s still a remarkable pair of Blu-ray discs that showcase impressive aural and visual properties.  The BDP1 handles every ounce of ultra-saturated color and detail in its 2.35:1 image, notably prevalent in the opening fight sequence between The Bride and Copperhead, with an exceptional amount of clarity and robust color.  As it pours over into the anime portion of Vol. 1 and into the black and white portions across both films, it handles the range of detail and motion with tip-top clarity and a strong concentration on preserving the slight grain.  On the audio front, the PCM tracks both sounded outstanding; the explosiveness and rapid-fire clanking of blades from the first volume fill the entire soundstage, while the second volume’s sterner concentration on ambient sound effects – especially the hollow shots against wood – sound fantastic.
 
Shifting things up a bit, it was time to test the player’s capacity to bitstream DTS HD Master Audio with the now-defunct Tartan’s Asia Extreme release of Oldboy.  It also tests the player’s capacity to replicate a source that isn’t quite as pristine as other modern films, all within a 2.35:1 AVC encode.  The source naturally has fluctuation issues in image / shading solidity, but the BDP 1 handles the color saturation and the proper contrast balance for director Park Chan-wook’s intent quite well.  Moreover, the widely varied audio track, filled with a blend of crashes and thuds from hand-to-hand combat and an infusion of voiceover narration and classical music cues, flushed through the speakers quite well.  It sounded a little lower in volume by a notch or two than average, but the clarity was pleasing once touched up a notch or two.
 
To monitor the player’s capacity to handle 1.78 – 85:1 material, it was time to give copies of Beetlejuice and Pan’s Labyrinth a spin.  Visually, Beetlejuice has held up well over the years – and looked extremely good passing through from the BDP 1.  The Dolby TrueHD track, though not a robust showcase of the audio track’s top-shelf capacities poured the dialogue and music through without a hitch.  Interestingly, it seems like the TrueHD sound level was a little higher than with other players, but only by a notch or two.  Pan’s Labyrinth, though sporting a few slight issues with some potential noise reduction here and there, is a stunner of a Blu-ray – and both the 1.85:1 VC-1 encode and the DTS Master Audio track provided a robust high-definition experience.  The musical delicacy in Guillermo Del Toro’s film balances sumptuously with subtle ambient sound effects, all of which were handled with well—pitched clarity.  

Finally, to cap it off, it was time to test the Blu-ray player’s capacity to handle advanced special features via BD-Java, especially BonusView Picture-in-Picture functionality.  To test this, Fox’s Sunshine Blu-ray disc was tossed into the player.  It’s worth noting that the player cannot handle the functionality without switching the Audio option from “Bitstream Native” to any other option – selected here to PCM 7.1.  The audio tracks paired together without a hitch, showcasing the production crew’s implementation of many types of food to accommodate the diverse nature of the film’s broad array of characters.  Volume levels intermingle well, leaving both audible during the functionality.  The same can be said for the Picture-in-Picture functionality with Sony’s The Da Vinci Code, which operated as normal when Dan Brown’s interview time popped up on-screen and the props expert discussed the importance of authenticity to the novel’s aesthetic.

It’s worth noting that Harman Kardon’s player is, in fact, Region A locked as stated on the packaging.  A copy of Fox’s Region-B locked The Fountain failed to load up, aside from the standard “Region B” message that pops up upon loading.  Furthermore, the player also can not decode PAL-encoded features for NTSC receivers or televisions, as the interviews on Artificial Eye’s region-free Blu-ray of Ashes of Time played without the image to accompany.   

Standard Definition DVD:

HK remoteAlong with being a strong Blu-ray player, the BDP 1 also sports a rather striking capacity to handle standard-definition DVDs upscaled to 1080p.  To gather impressions, Universal’s DTS edition of Saving Private Ryan was put into action.  It sports a robust audio track and a unique visual presentation, both of which Harman Kardon’s unit upscaled to rather striking levels.  The audio track wasn’t quite as robust upon this viewing as it has been with previous players during the thunderous “beach storm” sequence at the start, but it still packed quite a punch in multidirectional spread and vocal clarity.  For reference, the player cannot handle DTS 96/24 discs.  Interestingly, it was with the Clarks II DVD that the player’s capacity to handle legacy tracks really came out of the woodwork.  Working with a soundtrack geared towards kitschy rock and Kevin Smith’s flippant dialogue, the audio quality was on an exceptional level.  Pounding of drums and percussion instruments echoed through the sound space, while the front-heavy vocal clarity poured through with nary a line missed.   

To test some rather problematic discs, it was time to pull out Lionsgate’s copy of Takashi Miike’s Audition and Tartan’s DTS presentation of Kim Ki-duk’s The Bow – both of which either showcase combing or, generally, poor DVD transfers.  Surprisingly, The Bow looked better than it has on some other players it’s been spun on, allowing the ripples of waves and intricate details against the focal boat to pour through nicely.  Audition, however, could only be handled the best that it could.  In general, the BDP 1’s ability to handle that source wasn’t too shabby, as the movement was a bit more fluid and color levels more nicely rendered.  Finally, to test the player’s capacity to handle 1.33:1 material, the third disc from Family Guy, Vol. 1 was put into motion.  If the player is set to 16:9 Full, you’ll have to flip over to 16:9 Pillarbox to get the true aspect ratio.  Overall, combing and aliasing issues – though still there -- weren’t as prevalent as has been seen on that series of discs, adding another strong plus to the unit’s upscaling capacity.   Like its Region A locked status, the BDP 1 is also limited Region 1/0 discs – that, sadly, does not include Region 0 PAL discs, which only send out sound without the image.  

BD-Live / USB / CD Playback:

After testing the cinematic waters with the BDP 1, it was high time to give the other features a gander – starting with internet connectivity.  Utilizing an RJ-45 port in the back, internet connectivity isn’t too much of a hassle.  The player can internally set diagnostics for the internet connection, but bear this in mind – a 1GB or higher storage unit is required in order to use the BD-Live features, due to the limited internal space.  Hopping online with Disney’s Pinocchio via their BD-Live site was a cinch once the update was installed.  Operating with The Da Vinci Code, however, seemed problematic, as the update could not download in order to utilize Sony’s service.  

Speaking of the USB port, it gives the user two separate options when the device is plugged in – a) usage for Playback, and b) usage for BD-Live Storage.  When the Playback function is selected, all video, music, and image files available on the disc are able to be browsed via a simple yet streamlined media browser.  It loads album artwork for Mp3s and enables a slideshow for JPEG files, making the navigation process attractive and functional.  Audio files sound fine on the BDP 1, all depending on the quality of t eMP3 being used.  This was tested here with Coldplay’s Violet Hill.  The JPEG image viewer is slightly more limited than others, as there’s no zoom function available.  However, it does carry a rather nice function – accompanying a user-created slideshow with an audio file.  

Along with audio file playback, the BDP 1 also supports CD and Blu-ray Audio playback.  Spinning Mum’s Finally We Are No One CD offers a broad range of minute effects, fluctuating bass notes, and an odd array of vocals.  The BDP 1 handled the complex highs and mid-range notes well, if a little on the booming side with the lower-frequency bass channel.  Alongside this, the Harman Kardon unit also played Incubus’ Morning View CD excellently.  It handled the disc’s robust midrange tones and various drum throbs to a highly pleasing degree.  To top of the musical tests, 2L Nordic’s Blu-ray disc was pulled out for a sampling of high-definition audio tracks.  Between the density in Mozart: Violin Concerto in D Major to the rise-and-falls in Crux Fidelis, it handles both the DTS HD Master Audio and PCM mixes with outstanding breadth – sitting more robust with the DTS Master Audio.   

Impressions:

First and foremost, the Harman Kardon BDP 1 is a healthy, fully-functioning Blu-ray player with an exceptional eye for design.  Right out of the box, it impresses with the elegance put into making it an attractive option.  It’s one the sleeker and more unique aesthetic models available currently, sporting a unique framework that adds to the prestige of the branding.  Underneath the hood, however, it’s a streamlined and easy-to-rig unit with very little tweaking necessary.  The player renders a sharp and colorful image out of the box, with the capacity to bitstream native TrueHD and Master Audio tracks flawlessly. Sounds might actually be its strongest suit, as each of the audio portions tested through the Blu-ray side of the technology were extremely impressive.  Barreling through a slew of different discs provided a very strong high-definition viewing experience, from Burton creativity to Tarantino bloodshed.  Visual rendering is handled crisply, while the audio streaming and internal decoding work great.

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As far as features go, the BD-Java operates well – though the discs themselves take a while to load – while the availability to downmix and internally decode the audio tracks helps those with PCM-only receivers. On top of that, the player’s ability to upscale DVDs to 1080p is rather impressive.  Detail, color, and clarity all receive a healthy treatment when boosted, while disagreeable sources from interlaced discs are handled well.  Its merit as a 1080p upconverter stands well against the competition, though it’s not quite as pristine as other players in its price range.  Along with that, the BDP 1 handles itself with distinction as a CD player and mini-media hub, showcasing images and audio files with a simple yet functional navigation system for arranging and viewing the files.

However, there are a few caveats to consider.  For one, the BDP 1 sits in a price range with one or two equally impressive models that carry a few additional features.  Its quality also stands toe-to-toe with these other models in that particular price range, namely the OPPO BDP-83.  However, a few additional issues – namely the necessity for an external storage space to get online with the player, the lack of user-defined adjustments, and the lack of a on-board PAL decoder – make the purchase towards a quiet and attractive unit a little more difficult to muster.  

Final Thoughts:

Within the price range, currently at the $500 point, the Harman Kardon BDP 1 comes out of the gate as a strong option on the Blu-ray front.  It plays on a fairly inconspicuously level with low-sound components inside, while also working as a fully-functional Profile 2.0 player with BD-Live capabilities up and performing.  Most of all, the visual and audio qualities in Blu-ray mode are both excellent, while the standard-definition upscaling stands impressively with others of its ilk.  It’s a great unit, without question, and fantastically simple to set up once the box has been cracked open.  Though a little rigid with options outside of normal playing modes, the BDP 1 is an attractive, high-quality player that’s worth consideration for those shopping in the market.    It’s still a little pricy and fairly limited in options when compared to other, less expensive Blu-ray players, but Harman Kardon have made the investment worth the jump with terrific high-definition quality and its own stylish panache.





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