Now that Blu-ray has officially triumphed over its HD-DVD rival, it's only natural to begin seeing the HD disc format begin to become a bit more, well, standardised. Take the Samsung HT-BD2: it's the first home-theatre-in-a-box (HITB) system in the world to feature a built-in Blu-ray player. It's exactly the sort of gorgeously-styled system — curvy disc player, matching 7.1-channel kit — that's dominated Samsung's top-end home theatre line-up for the past years, except that this one plays Blu-ray in addition to DVDs and CDs.
The skinny speakers don't produce much bass, but the hefty powered subwoofer supplies ample low-end thunder. The Blu-ray player, meanwhile, is essentially identical to that of the Samsung BD-P1400: it offers all of the current Blu-ray niceties, including 1080p24 video over its HDMI 1.3 output, 1080p DVD upscaling and the capability to decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Of course, the BD2's emphasis on style means those skinny speakers don't quite have the oomph to fully capitalize on those high-resolution soundtracks.
Likewise, the HD player performed well, but the dearth of upgradeability to newer Profile 1.1 and 2.0 Blu-ray specs means it's already outdated. Also, the HT-BD2's scant connectivity — just two digital and one analog audio input — means your TV will need to handle the video-switching duties for your system. None of those are necessarily a deal-breaker, but to us that sounds like an unnecessarily long list of caveats on an AU$1759 system.
The Samsung HT-BD2 is a 7.1-channel Blu-ray HTIB. That translates to a nine-part system: seven speakers, a subwoofer, and a curvaceous head unit that houses all of the electronics, including the disc player and amplifier.
The high-gloss black top of the head unit slopes down to meet a protruding silver control panel that houses a row of basic controls — Volume Up/Down, Play, Stop, Previous/Next, and Function buttons. On the left side there's a disc-loading slot; on the right, a not very visible display that indicates track times and surround processing information. The unit measures 440 x 396 x 86mm — in other words, it's larger than a standard DVD or Blu-ray player, but not extraordinarily so.
The long, slender remote control is nothing fancy. Considering the HT-BD2's flagship pricing, we expected the remote to be at least backlit, but no such luck. The Volume Up/Down and cursor controls are well-placed, but the rest of the buttons are crowded together and too small. It can also be programmed to control basic functions on most brands of TVs (naturally, it works out of the box with Samsung models).
The speaker package includes four tallboy speakers — two main-front and two side-surround — that require some assembly if you intend to use them as floor-standing speakers. Your alternative is to mount the speakers on the wall using their keyhole slots. We listened to them assembled, and the 1,311mm towers were reasonably stable. The 260mm-wide centre speaker has a table stand or can be wall-mounted. That's also true for the 270mm-tall rear surround satellites. The gloss and matte-black speakers are all-plastic designs with perforated metal grilles.
They're attractive but build quality is merely average for HTIBs and well below average when compared with even sub-AU$1,500 speaker/subwoofer packages. You are, in effect, paying a premium for the convenience of buying a packaged system. A well-chosen separate Blu-ray player, A/V receiver, and speaker package will offer superior audio performance for about the same money as the AU$1759 HT-BD2.
The HT-BD2's matching medium-density fibreboard subwoofer looks and feels a lot more substantial than the speakers do. It's 310 x 380 x 443mm and weighs 16kg. It also requires its own power cord. While assembling the speaker stands can be time-consuming, set-up is straightforward: Each speaker plugs into the main unit with a colour-coded plug, so there's little chance of error.
We were a bit surprised to note that the HT-BD2's feature set doesn't include auto speaker calibration; but the sound was reasonably well-balanced without any fussing on our part. Still, chances are you'll have to navigate the onscreen setup menus to get the video squared away. So while you're there you can fine-tune the volume levels of all the speakers (the subwoofer has its own rear-mounted volume control).
The main unit of the HT-BD2 is probably best described as the guts of a Samsung BD-P1400 paired with a built-in amplifier. The unit plays Blu-ray, DVD and CD, as well as JPEG and MP3 on recordable. Its amplifier delivers 135W per speaker and 150W to the subwoofer. Surround processing modes are comprehensive, too, including Dolby Digital and DTS for DVDs; Dolby Pro Logic IIx faux surround for stereo sources; and Dolby Digital Plus/TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio for Blu-ray. Those last items mean that this Samsung will playback any Blu-ray movie with its optimal soundtrack.
The HT-BD2 can output video up to 1080p via HDMI. It can upscale standard DVDs to this resolution as well, and supports 24-frame playback for Blu-ray — which theoretically offers smoother playback. The system is upgradeable via a network connection, but only for minor fixes such as disc compatibility issues. It doesn't support Profile 1.1 (picture-in-picture) or 2.0 (BD-Live), nor can it be upgraded to do so. That said, it will still play the movies and other extras found on 1.1 and 2.0 discs — but given the premium you're paying for the HT-BD2, we'd prefer state-of-the-art.
Aside from HDMI, video output choices are limited to component and — for non-HD televisions — composite. There are no audio outputs (which makes sense since you're buying this package to use the surround speakers). Inputs are limited to just two optical digital ports and one set of stereo analog connectors. Combined with the dearth of video inputs, that means you'll need your TV to handle video-switching duties for other A/V components such as game consoles and cable boxes. In addition to the disc player and the ability to toggle among three external audio sources, the only other built-in functionality is an FM radio.
As you can see, the feature list of the Samsung HT-BD2 is actually pretty thin. That's par for the course for "lifestyle" home theatre systems, but at this price, we are expecting more — HDMI pass-through, video-switching, or a more current Blu-ray compatibility (Profile 1.1 or 2.0 built-in, or the ability to upgrade). Also missing in action are bass and treble or any sort of tone controls. There's also no headphone jack.
For the most part, the Samsung HT-BD2's Blu-ray playback performed pretty much in line with most other players we've tested — which is to say, it's pretty slow. Disc-loading times varied — some discs were up and running in 35 seconds, but the Profile 1.1 Sunshine needed a full 2 minutes to come to life. On the other hand, DVDs rolled in 15 seconds, while CD track change took 5 seconds. Gee, we thought new technology was supposed to be not only better, but also faster.
More gripes: the rear-mounted cooling fan is noisy enough to be heard during quiet movie scenes. On the bright side, it had no trouble playing 3:10 to Yuma, a disc that's proved to glitch on other Samsung players. Otherwise, we found the BD2's HD delivery essentially in line with the Samsung BD-P1400, the standalone player upon which this model is based.
To assess the HT-BD2's sonics, we started with Dolby's The Sound of High-Definition demo disc. Switching between lossless TrueHD and standard Dolby Digital revealed little difference on the well-recorded San Francisco Symphony track; Dave Matthews' Live at Radio City tracks didn't benefit from TrueHD's technically superior encoding, either. The HT-BD2 sounded smooth and bass was full. Detail was only average for upmarket HTIBs.
With our old HTIB torture test standby now on Blu-ray, House of Flying Daggers, the HT-BD2 was unfazed by the circle of drums scene. The huge drums sounded powerful and the "thwack" sound as actress Zhang Ziyi kicked the massive drumheads was fairly well-defined. Still, the swordplay's metallic clang sounded muted and lacked detail. We were more impressed with its capability to create a seamless, wraparound sound field, even when we used only five speakers. Moving up to full 7.1 channels provided only slight improvement in surround experience, though it's loud enough to fill even moderately large rooms with sound.
We next used Sunshine to see if we could hear a difference between the regular and lossless DTS Master Audio tracks. The sci-fi flick has a great, deeply layered soundtrack, but we could not detect a sonic advantage for the studio-grade format. Also of note: we couldn't use the picture-in-picture commentary feature on the disc as that works only on newer Profile 1.1 models.
Music was a step down from movie sound; we felt the HT-BD2 blurred Radiohead's atmospheric sound mixes on its In Rainbows CD. 'Walk of Life' from Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms CD felt dynamically flat. Like most HTIB systems, the HT-BD2 was more satisfying with movies.