When we first took Sony's HTP-BD3IS Blu-ray home-cinema system out of the box, we sniggered. One glimpse of the ridiculously tiny speakers -- they look like Ping-Pong balls with a chunk sawn out -- was enough to convince us that we were about to review an expensive AV gimmick. But this £550 kit soon wiped the smiles off our faces.
Beauty before performance?
The insanely tiny speakers seem to suggest that this is a 5.1-channel surround-sound package aimed squarely at those who put -- or are forced to put -- decorative concerns before uncompromised audio excellence. At first sight, we experienced feelings of ambivalence. The gadget lover in us could but marvel at how any sound worth a damn could ever emerge from such puny devices, while the audiophile in us feared that the system's sound might actually be something akin to that you'd get from two tin cans and a piece of string. There's no denying, though, that, as well as being unfeasibly small, the HTP-BD3IS' five satellite speakers are also very cute.
'Cute' and 'unfeasibly small' are most certainly not words that could be used to describe the HTP-BD3IS' subwoofer. It's one of the largest we've seen with any home-cinema system, and its size is merely exaggerated by the minuteness of the other speakers that feed off it.
The subwoofer, as is commonly the case with all-in-one speaker packages, also houses the audio processing and multi-channel amplification for the other speakers. With this in mind, it's handy that the subwoofer sports a little LED screen to keep you appraised of basic operational information. We'd like the display to be bigger and thus more legible, though.
That the subwoofer is really the brains of the outfit is also revealed by its connections. As well as plugs for all the other speakers and an HDMI input for the Blu-ray player, it's also got two other HDMI sockets, two component video inputs and a composite video input for adding further external sources to the system. There's even one of Sony's own DM ports, so that you can feed in files from computers, Bluetooth mobiles and portable music players.
The HTP-BD3IS is also compatible with Sony's S-Air technology, which allows audio data to be sent wirelessly to the rear speakers if you cough up extra for the necessary optional kit. We were pleased to find, too, that the package ships with a microphone so that the system can calibrate its speaker balances automatically.
Also, partnering a stand-alone Blu-ray deck -- complete with its own remote -- with a separate, subwoofer-based sound system clearly isn't going to make for the most integrated home-cinema package in the world. Indeed, we frequently found ourselves juggling the two remotes and wondering how to access a particular feature.
The BDP-S350 doesn't include any analogue 7.1-channel outputs, and the subwoofer can't decode the Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD next-gen sound formats. These are key audio failings in the Blu-ray world, although it seems unlikely that speakers as small as these could reveal the difference between Dolby True HD, DTS-HD and their non-HD counterparts anyway.
The HTP-BD3IS' performance largely compensates for the quibbles we've mentioned, though. The speakers, in particular, confound all expectations by producing a loud, clear sound stage that's able to fill even quite a large room. Even more surprisingly, their audio is very immersive, washing over you in an organic whole, rather than sounding like a disparate set of noises coming from five different points around the room. How Sony has managed to overcome the laws of physics in this way is beyond us. But we're not complaining.
The picture quality delivered by the BDP-S350 is outstanding too. In fact, it's among the best we've seen from an all-in-one package, offering terrific sharpness, rich colours and minimal motion artefacts.
Our main complaint in terms of performance would be that, although the subwoofer is powerful, it sounds rather disconnected from the tiny satellite speakers, and slightly imprecise at times. The bass also leaves some male voices sounding rather unnatural. But there are far fewer problems than we'd expected to find.
We'd fully expected the Sony HTP-BD3IS to be all style and no substance. But, although it's not perfect by any means, its performance is far less compromised by the tiny size of its speakers than we'd thought possible.
Edited by Charles Kloet