The latest flagship in Sony’s Blu-ray player fleet is surprisingly self-effacing. It’s priced at just over 200 notes and has a relatively generic design (slim, black, gently curved in places), yet it packs a forward-looking feature set that few players at any price point can match. After several hours of use, I found myself looking for a catch. Is the BDP-S790 player really the rock-solid, gold-plated bargain it first appears to be?

Connectivity is certainly a cut above, with a pair of HDMI outputs provided. Users can choose to use the second HDMI to deliver lossless audio only to a pre-HDMI v1.4 AV receiver, with the prime output free to carry 3D to a compatible display (Sony calls this AV Separation mode); alternatively you can opt for a mirror configuration, perhaps to feed both a TV and projector, or TV and wireless HDMI transmitter.

The player also offers two USB inputs, one on the front fascia, the other stashed away on the rear. As there’s no persistent memory onboard, you’ll need to use the latter for a 1GB USB stick if you’re planning to play with BD-Live. If this isn’t on the cards, you can turn it over to a Skype camera.

The deck’s cosmetic finish is a rather unusual streaky dark-grey, and it’s topped off with soft-touch controls on the lid. Rear connectivity includes digital and coaxial optical outputs, legacy phonos and Ethernet (although Wi-Fi is onboard).

Geek it up

Where this player really gets interesting is underneath the lid – the BDP-S790 can process a video input every which way, including up to 4K resolution, something which no other BD deck on the planet can do.

The good news is you don’t need to be a science geek to sort it all out. Just set the player on Auto and let it decide just how best to juggle the 13 parameters available.

IPTV provision is similarly generous. There’s a huge variety of streaming services available from the connected Sony Entertainment Network. The latest iteration of the BBC iPlayer looks exceptionally slick and the newest leanback YouTube API is a definite improvement over past editions – however, less glamorous services look a little tired. Unlike the jazzed-up user interface found on Sony’s 2012 TVs, the Blu-ray line-up still employs the brand’s XrossMediaBar, which is starting to wilt under the sheer weight of catch-up and VOD on offer. Not yet checked out Crackle? If you want to watch anime (such as Samurai X) and ageing films (like The China Syndrome) for free, you should do.

If, on the other hand, you prefer to view your own content, then you’re in luck. Network file support is top-class. Across a LAN, the BDP-S790 happily plays MKV and AVI files (amongst many others), and compatibility from USB is just as wide. Streamed footage looks good, too. A new processing package, IP Content Noise Reduction Pro, goes some way to smoothing the horrendous jaggies and detail deficit frequently found on low-bitrate content.

Other DLNA trickery includes Catch and Throw. Got a photo on your tablet or smartphone you want to share? Literally swipe it toward the BD deck, which will then display it full-size. Also provided is a basic web browser, but this lacks Flash support and text input – and navigation via the remote is a chore.

Performance breakdown

Disc-loading speeds are no more than average for this class of kit. My Java-heavy test disc, Goldfinger, went from tray-in to menu screen in 53 seconds; a lightweight concert platter also took a tardy 39 seconds.

However, once loaded, the player’s pictures are unrelentingly sharp and wonderfully smooth. The deck interpolates the 8-bit colour found on DVD and Blu-ray to 16-bit resolution; of course your panel can’t handle 16-bit colour, but that’s a moot point. What you see is ultra-smooth gradations courtesy of Sony’s Super Bit Mapping optimiser.

Colour fidelity is excellent. Even the candy-hued chaos of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine doesn’t seem overly amped. Images have real dynamic pop, too, thanks to some judicious contrast compensation.

The BDP-S790 tries hard to replicate the clarity of hi-def sources with standard-def content. Deinterlacing is phenomenally good, and jaggy torture discs effortlessly defeated – the fluttering flag on HQV’s SD test disc is rendered silky smooth.

Taking the credit for this is Sony’s Super Resolution enhancer, which manages to sharpen delineation without creating obvious edge enhancement. I suspect those with a bountiful legacy disc collection will not feel any screaming urgency to upgrade their software with Blu-rays once they take this puppy for a walk.

Ready and waiting

The BDP-S790’s 4K upscaling talents will have to pass unjudged. We very nearly managed to get this player’s delivery to coincide with a visiting Sony 4K VPL-VW1000ES projector, but ultimately schedules conspired against us. We could have called in Toshiba’s 4K (3840 x 2160) ZL2 TV, but that screen doesn’t accept a 4K image via HDMI. All I can tell you with certainty is that native 4K digital still images are output without any conversion.

Of course, given that 4K displays upscale incoming content to fit, the value of having a 4K upscaler in a Blu-ray player is somewhat dubious. I suspect what we really have here is Sony quietly seeding the market with 4K-capable hardware, prior to a super hi-res screen launch in late 2012; at that point it will be advantageous to have a healthy number of consumers with random 4K in the wild.

Depth charge

As part of the deck’s 3D compatibility, there’s related dimensional functionality in the shape of a new universal 3D conversion algorithm. This, for those who really can’t get enough of those funny glasses, can be used to depth-convert anything. It works surprisingly well but I struggle to see the point. If something wasn’t made to be seen in 3D, why would anyone choose to watch it that way?

Sonically, the BDP-S790 is a star. Multichannel Super Audio CD played as DSD direct into a compliant AVR is epic. It may be ploughing a lonely furrow with its support of SACD in this section of the market, but I appreciate Sony’s commitment.Spatial imaging is first-class, encouraging me to rate the deck as an above-average audio source. Sony’s engineers have drafted in a beefed-up power supply IC and capacitor for the job.

With DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD sources, the player doesn’t miss a note. The DTS-HD MA soundtrack to Yellow Submarine (output as PCM) sounds positively sumptuous, with submarine musicality and depth.

The BDP-S790 ships with a simple, elegant remote control. This player’s closest rival is Panasonic’s DMP-BDT320 – a similarly adept performer, cursed with an inelegant touchpad controller. Handsets aside, choosing between the two is no easy task. Even if you bench Sony’s 4K talents (as its value is impossible to assess) the two are very evenly matched, with video performance tied. For some buyers the BDP-S790 will gain an edge through its SACD compatibility, but the Panasonic wins when it comes to the quality of its CD replay.

Value versus build quality

There’s no doubting that the BDP-S790 is ludicrously good value. Video performance with Blu-ray and DVD is peerless, and its sonic chops are not to be sniffed at. But the player does have an Achilles’ heel: build quality.

The advanced electronics deserve more than the flimsy, lightweight chassis they’ve been bundled into. The BDP-S790’s half-depth form factor may be standard for mass-market Blu-ray players, but that doesn’t excuse its lightweight, resonant façade. During my audition, the deck thrummed impolitely and the disc transport could be heard grumbling. Of course, decent bodywork would almost certainly double the cost, but it’s a point worth making.

Still, for around £240, you really can’t complain. Overall, this is an exceptionally desirable piece of kit. I expect it to sell like hot cakes.


HCC VERDICT

Sony BDP-S790
Price:
£240 Approx

Highs: Powerful AV performance, with good SD upscaling; excellent IPTV selection; wide multimedia file support
Lows: Lightweight build quality; Xross Media Bar is a clunky way to navigate the Sony Entertainment Network

Performance: 5/5
Design:  3/5
Features: 5/5
Overall: 5/5


Analysis

GUI: Owners of other Sony AV hardware will be familiar with the XMB-toting interface, which is beginning to struggle under the weight of features. Delve into the setup options to be teased by the 4K output option
Killer feature: The BDP-S790’s SD upscaling is very good, making it a great choice for those with large DVD collections


Specifications

3D: yes
Upscaling: yes to 1080p and 4K (4096 x 2048)
Multiregion: no Region B BD/R2 DVD
HDMI: yes 2 x HDMI v1.4a
Component: no
Multichannel analogue: no
Digital audio: yes optical and coaxial digital audio outputs
Ethernet: yes
Built in Wi-Fi: yes
SACD/DVD-A: yes/no
Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD decoding: yes/yes
Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD bitstream: yes/yes
Dimensions: 430(w) x 42(h) x 193(d)mm
Weight: 1.9kg
Features: Digital Cinema 4K upscaling; DSD output; USB x 2; Sony Entertainment Network,  featuring BBC iPlayer, Demand 5, Netflix, YouTube, Dailymotion, Facebook, Twitter and more; DLNA multimedia media playback (AVCHD, MPEG2, DivX, AVI, MKV, MP3, WAV, JPEG/MPO)