Review: Arcam BDP – 100 Blu-ray Disc Player
Arcam’s roots go back to Cambridge, England in 1972, originally targeting amplification and recording gear. Over time, the scope and price ranges of products expanded significantly. Today, Arcam makes disc players, integrated amplifiers, AVRs, power amplifiers, complete music systems, a DAC, a couple of loudspeakers, an iPod dock, and a self-contained iPod playback system with loudspeakers. Arcam has a longstanding tradition of extremely positive reviews from the press and customers. The BDP-100 is one of Arcam’s FMJ (Faithful Musical Joy) products. The FMJ series is where you find Arcam’s high performance components.
The BDP-100 is physically huge compared to, say, the $200 Sony BDP-S470 Blu-ray Disc™ player. The BDP-100 is so large, it looks like four of the Sony players would fit inside with the Arcam’s guts removed. The space inside allows functions to be separated onto three separate circuit boards. And there’s nothing but space to the left and right of the center-mounted disc transport mechanism. The BDP-100 is also heavy compared to most Blu-ray Disc players. Much of the weight comes from the heavy gauge metal cover and chassis. Arcam believes this stiffer, heavier chassis’ mechanical stability improves performance. Digital audio in I²S format passes through a sample rate converter before leaving the BDP-100 as digital audio (HDMI, coax, or TosLink). If the stereo analog output is used, a Wolfson DAC does the decoding to analog. The sample rate converter re-clocks the digital audio bitstream with a high-precision clock to reduce jitter (time-based displacement of bits within the bitstream), and lower jitter reduces distortion in the analog output waveform. The digital audio board also has its own low-noise linear power-supply regulation, isolating the digital audio power supply from the rest of the player. During the design phase, Arcam found that cramming everything into the smallest space possible never sounded as good as prototypes where individual boards were used and where there was simply more space inside the chassis. Arcam offers the BDP-100 in satin silver or black finishes.
This is a gem. It is lucid, well-laid-out, and gives real information that helps you select the best settings for your system. The total absence of double-talk, nonsense, and marketing-driven misinformation found in so many other manuals is commendable. Not much else to say or add. I think you’ll be very satisfied with the BDP-100 owner’s manual.
The remote has a nice satin silver finish, but the smooth rounded shape on the bottom makes it difficult to hold in your hand to operate. It wants to spin in your hand when you press buttons on the left or right sides of the remote unless you get a good grip on it, which isn’t usually necessary with more angular remotes or on remotes with some sort of gripping surface on the palm-side of the remote. There are 42 buttons, all the same size and shape, plus a navigation control. Varying size and shape of buttons does help with using the remote in dark theatre rooms. Arcam did use some variations in layout to help with a few buttons, but most buttons are in parallel rows with three or four buttons per row.
There is a blue backlight, but it is so dim, to even realize it was working, I had to take the remote into a window-less bathroom and turn the lights off to make the room totally dark. I couldn’t see the backlight in a dark theatre room with a 55- or 60-inch video display turned on. The buttons are “solid,” so the backlight (if you can see it) shines around the perimeter of each button, but you cannot read what is written on the buttons. Other than that, the remote works well. At this price point, it’s likely that most owners will be using a universal remote or perhaps an automation system that controls components via the RS-232 port, so the remote may not be too critical for many owners.
Settings And Setup
The Arcam’s menu is well thought out and very easy to navigate. When you select a group of settings, you automatically get a preview of what the included settings are in that particular group. Navigation speed is OK, though not quite as fast/responsive as you might like. Being deliberate and not pressing buttons too quickly is the only adjustment you might need to make it navigate smoothly. I wouldn’t call the navigation “slow”––it’s just not quite as fast as you might expect. A 10-year-old DVD player navigates faster, but that menu system is very basic (text against a solid color background). The nicer-looking menus and the larger number of setting choices in the Arcam player are a welcome improvement. If you set the BDP-100 to output 480i or 480p, the menu text looks decidedly choppy but is still readable.
There are no surprises in the settings menu. Since the only analog outputs are stereo, there aren’t any settings for loudspeaker distance, crossover frequency, loudspeaker levels and such. The Color Depth setting allows you to select 24 bits (8-bits per color), 30 bits, or 36 bits. The 24-bit setting produced results identical to the two higher settings. 24p mode can be turned off or on. The Resolution setting has an Auto mode that relies on the HDTV reporting its resolution capability to the Arcam player. There are also manual settings for 480i/p, 720p, and 1080i/p. But there’s no “Source Direct” setting that sends the HDTV (or video processor) to whatever resolution is present on the disc. “Source Direct” is especially useful if you are using a high-quality outboard video processor, like one of the Lumagen Radiance processors. Without a “Source Direct” mode you must remember to switch to 480i for DVD and back to 1080p for Blu-ray if you want to process the DVD video in a downstream processor.
Even though the BDP-100 originates in the UK, it is not a multiregion disc player. It supports US/North American discs only (or All Region discs, of course). There is an NTSC/PAL setting for TV Type. If you select PAL for the TV Type and return to the Resolution setting, 480i/p will be gone and replaced with 576i/p. Wired or wireless networking is supported, but there is no internal wireless. There is no on-board memory for BD-Live content—a 2 GB USB Memory device is recommended for those wanting to use BD-Live features. Parental control is supported via password protection.
Audio output settings include: PCM Stereo; Bitstream HD (TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio™); Bitstream Legacy (DD and DTS); Bitstream Mixed (secondary audio track mixed with core DD or DTS®. Like all BD players so far, lossless audio is not supported while secondary audio is enabled); PCM 5.1; and PCM 7.1. The BDP-100 never synthesizes new channels. So if you have a 7.1 system and select the PCM 7.1 audio mode, then play a movie with a 5.1 soundtrack, the BDP-100 will send 5.1 sound to the AVR/processor. If you have a 5.1 system and select PCM 5.1 mode, then play a disc with a 6.1 or 7.1 soundtrack, the sound will be remixed to 5.1. The Dynamic Range Control setting works only for Dolby® -encoded soundtracks. This is useful for late night listening, but if the movie has any DTSencoded soundtrack or uncompressed PCM, the Dynamic Range Control won’t do anything. Settings are On, Off, and Auto. Auto and On work the same unless you are playing a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Some TrueHD soundtracks have embedded dynamic range information and the Auto setting would comply with the encoding in the TrueHD track. PCM Downsampling controls the maximum sample rate sent via digital coax or TosLink optical connections. Settings are 48 kHz or 96 kHz. If you are using HDMI, the PCM Downsampling setting does nothing.
The BDP-100 isn’t the fastest-loading Blu-ray Disc player money can buy. Quite a few 2010 Blu-ray Disc player models priced at $500 or less will load discs 10 to 25 percent faster than the PlayStation® 3 benchmark. At one time, the PS3 loaded discs 1.5 to 2 minutes faster than the first two or three generations of Blu-ray Disc players. The BDP-100 is a little slower than the PS3 when loading discs, especially discs coded with Java. Most Java discs have some sort of animated graphic in the center of the screen spinning or filling a progress bar, or perhaps animating some object associated with the movie. I wouldn’t characterize the Arcam player as being slow, though. It loads discs much faster than the first few generations of Blu-ray Disc players (circa late 2006 to 2008), but it’s not quite as quick as a PS3 (roughly 10 to 20 seconds slower) nor as quick as any of the 2010-model Asian-brand Blu-ray Disc players I’ve evaluated so far.
Once a movie is playing, the BDP-100 responds fairly well to remote commands to open the pop-up menu or skip a chapter, or FFW or FRW. Again, not the fastest response I’ve seen from a Blu-ray player but it is reasonably good response. There are possibly too many choices for FFW and FRW speeds, but at least you’re not caught between way too slow and way too fast and no intermediate choices. Like every Blu-ray Disc player I’ve seen so far, if you try to skip all the pre-movie trailers, anti-piracy video, commercials, etc. you get nothing more than an international ø (“no” or “prohibited”) symbol––not because Arcam feels you MUST see all those things, but because code embedded in the discs themselves tells the Bluray Disc player what is permitted and what is not. So you are reduced to having to use FFW when Skip isn’t allowed. Not many discs are allowing the Menu button to take you directly to the movie menu either, bypassing all the up-front crap. So complain to the studios, not to Arcam or other BD player manufacturers.
Network And Media Capabilities
Most recent Blu-ray Disc disc players support firmware updates via wireless or wired Internet connections, but the BDP-100 doesn’t. It does have a 10/100 Ethernet port, but firmware updates have to be done via USB. You download the update to your computer, then copy the downloaded update file to a USB memory stick that has nothing else on it. Most other Blu-ray players seem to need regular firmware updates to remain compatible with newer Blu-ray Discs that have some new Java twist in their menu system. The BDP-100 apparently doesn’t need those sorts of regular updates, so Arcam didn’t spend a lot of energy on enabling online firmware updates. The one update I did (to stop occasional skipping forward while playing some Blu-ray Discs) went smoothly and fairly quickly, and the problem stopped happening immediately after re-starting the Arcam player.
The BDP-100 has no online or streaming services like Netflix or Pandora. You use the Ethernet connection only if you want to use the BD-Live or Bonusview features. So you can’t send music, photos, or video from your server to the BDP-100 over Ethernet. The BDP-100 will read some of the common media formats from a USB memory device, but that’s about all it can do beyond playing Blu-ray and CD discs.
Handshake And Compatibility Issues
Just when you think HDMI is getting stable and reliable, a new version appears, and you begin to experience random issues with handshaking and perhaps some features or modes that don’t always work or may require powering off/on of one or more system components to get everything working together. I’m happy to report that Arcam’s player did not introduce any issues of its own with either HDMI 1.3 or 1.4 components in the playback path. Some of the other components (video displays, AVRs, primarily) had issues with one or more products, and occasionally the BDP-100 would need to be power-cycled to work right with one of those already-picky components. But the BDP-100 always worked with everything that came and went in the system while the Arcam player was being evaluated.
This is probably the biggest area of performance that sets the BDP-100 apart from lower-cost Asian-brand BD players. The BDP- 100 sounds really good playing CDs via either HDMI or digital coax. In fact, playback quality was similar in quality to the roughly $4,000 worth of separate components I normally use for playing physical discs in my stereo setup. Those components include a DVD-based disc transport with no active video circuitry and a high-precision master clock along with internal EMI/RFI shielding and mechanical resonance damping; an external device that upconverts to 88.2 or 96 kHz, interpolates 16-bit CD data to 24 bits, and removes jitter—a second external device is a 24/96 DAC—and an upgraded external power supply that operates the two external processors.
There were four Asian-brand BD players (Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, Sharp) here while I had the BDP-100, and none of them sounded as good as the BDP-100 when playing CDs and using an HDMI connection. In fact, those less-expensive and much smaller players all sounded better when using their digital coax connections (if they had one) for CD playback than using their HDMI connection. Their HDMI performance was, compared to the BDP-100’s HDMI CD sound quality, thick, listless, dark, lacking detail and sparkle, flat, gray, and cold. It was very difficult to enjoy music over HDMI through those other players. All the life was drained right out of the music. But the BDP-100 sounded like a high-end digital playback front-end all the time, even when using HDMI. For that reason alone, it’s going to be difficult to say goodbye to the Arcam player. If you’ve never heard playback over HDMI at the level the Arcam player can deliver, you probably wouldn’t know what you were missing. But once you’ve done the back-to-back comparison, the difference is obvious.
Results using the digital coax connection are not quite as obviously better than the other disc players that had digital coax outputs. Yet, the BDP-100 still clearly bested the other players in the same ways as the HDMI connection. The main difference is in degree. If HDMI CD playback was a “4” with the other players and the BDP-100 was a “9,” then the relative difference between digital coax between the other players and the Arcam was more like a “6” versus a “9.” The other players that had coax sounded remarkably similar to one another, but the BDP-100 was clearly better than any of them.
The title track from Ambrosia’s 1970s album (re-issued on CD), Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled sounds fabulous when played through the BDP-100. The clarity, transparency, detail, and beauty of the music is really spectacular. The background, the silences between notes, is very clean—some call it the “black background” effect. The darker/blacker/more silent the background is, the easier it is to accept the performance as real and the easier it is to hear fine detail. The other players make this track sound relatively mundane. You’d never realize how well recorded it is. The Arcam player floats each instrument in a large 3-D space. The other players compress the whole presentation into a fuzzy flat oval that fills the space between the loudspeakers. The BDP-100 makes it impossible to tell exactly where the loudspeakers are located.
Even recordings like Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack that aren’t what I’d call particularly well recorded, from a high-fidelity point of view, come across as being a legitimate performance when played on the BDP-100 vs. sounding more like a copy of a copy of a copy with any of the Asian BD players. The Arcam player reveals the thickness and muddiness of the recorded sound that overlays everything, but that thick/muddy sound becomes more of a style choice than a failure to reproduce the recording well. The Arcam player makes the music interesting in spite of the lo-fi recorded quality.
Finally! A Blu-ray player that corrects DVD color properly when converting the original 480i standard-definition color to HD color at 1080p. Reds are red without a hint of orange. Yellows are clean and clear, rather than dull and tinted with green, and greens avoid going excessively lime/electric.
The quality of the DVD is a major factor in how the BDP-100 images look on the video display. DVDs with compression artifacts and obvious grain have those problems right there on the screen for all to see. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, for example, has a lot of compression artifacts that are especially visible in the disc menu and around the white text titles that appear over the picture from time to time. The halo of grain around the text characters from excessive compression is readily visible. The BDP-100 does nothing to mask or remove those artifacts. It’s not too bad during the opening Star Wars parody text crawl with yellow text on a mostly black star field, but the white text that appears over the picture at times always looks way over-compressed, as do most images in most scenes. The Spy Who Shagged Me isn’t a paragon of DVD quality, it’s rather middlin’ as DVD mastering quality goes. Put in a DVD with a superb transfer, like Robots where there’s no film involved in the transfer, digital original to digital DVD, and things look much more impressive. It’s very difficult to tell Robots is not a Blu-ray Disc. Star Wars: Revenge Of the Sith is equally excellent looking, save some crawling edges and such in the first 20th Century Fox logo (the rectangular one) before the movie starts. The image quality in the movie is fairly impressive and watchable once the movie starts.
Setting the Arcam player to 1080p, then running the HQV Benchmark DVD tests insures that the Arcam player is doing all the work… de-interlacing, up-conversion, and converting SD color to HD. The BDP-100 produced very clean-looking results on the initial test pattern with color, resolution, and gray steps on a single pattern. I had to increase the video display’s Brightness control by 4 clicks (range +/- 30) to get the digital 20 level to appear brighter than digital 16 or digital 12 levels. That was versus the Brightness setting as determined with the 1080p Black Level test pattern from the AV Foundry Video Forge signal generator. The rotating bar jaggies test easily passed. The “3 fingers” jaggies test has just a little aliasing at the left end of the lowest of the “3 fingers,” which is still a “pass” but not the most perfect performance I’ve ever seen on that test. The “waving flag” jaggies test was quite clean, with good detail in the bricks and windows behind the flag. The detail test produced good results, with the edges of the two flights of curved stairs and detail in the bridge holding up fairly well, considering the limitations of 480i resolution. As expected, following the results achieved with The Spy Who Shagged Me, the noise reduction tests revealed what appears to be 100 percent of the noise encoded in the evaluation sequences.
Players with more ambitious processing and noise reduction modes do a much better job of reducing this type of artifact. All sequences in the noise tests had all the noise (encoded on the disc) preserved. Noise reduction typically carries the price of reduced detail in images, but with no noise reduction that won’t be an issue with the BDP-100. The moiré pattern in the speedway grandstands disappeared within just a few frames of the sequence starting. That’s faster response than most disc players. Some of the oddball cadences in the cadence tests were a little jumpy, particularly the 3-2-3-2-2 cadence, but it’s unlikely something like that would be encountered on any DVD. The 2-2 (30 fps video) and 3-2 (24 fps film with 3-2 pulldown) cadences were perfect. The horizontal and vertical text crawls were also perfect.
Blu-ray™ playback looks as good as any other player, including the benchmark PS3 and OPPO Blu-ray Disc players via HDMI. I spent no time evaluating the component video output since HDMI is now offering clear and consistent image quality advantages over component connections with recent-vintage video displays. The Arcam player did a “perfect” job with every disc it was fed, including the HD version of the HQV Benchmark disc and other torture tests from Joe Kane’s Digital Video Essentials––HD Basics disc. Following the firmware update referenced above, Blu-ray Discs played flawlessly. Enabling special features that appear during movie playback produced no surprises and everything worked well. I did have problems getting the BDP-100 to respond after having paused a movie for several hours and returning to complete watching the movie. I do that habitually since so few movies enable the resume-from-paused-location feature. If the BDP-100 appeared to be locked-up after one of those long pauses, it would generally not respond to any remote control buttons, except the power button. Cycling power would restore normal operation. I never had trouble restarting from shorter pauses of 45 minutes or less.
Over several months, I used the BDP-100 to play 40+ Blu-ray movies. The overall impression I got was that the Arcam player reproduced what was on the disc faithfully. Unstoppable was terribly grainy and blatantly stupid about the way real trains and locomotives operate. The graininess was so heavy it became a distraction rather than an element of style. The BDP-100 did nothing to mask the director’s and cinematographer’s decision to make the movie look like it does. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) was a pleasure to watch from beginning to end. The numerous night scenes and indoor artificial light scenes were all reproduced with excellent detail and well-done lighting effects. It was rather easy to become so involved in the story that the technical aspects of the presentation were easily forgotten. That’s always a sign that the playback components are doing a great job.
Movie sound is a bit of a different beast than playing digital music. Movie sound and video are interleaved, buffered, and synchronized, which doesn’t necessarily happen during music playback. But the BDP-100 still makes movies sound detectably better via HDMI than the Asian BD players. It’s more difficult to pick up exactly what’s different early on, but over time, you begin to realize that the
BDP-100’s movie sound is better in ways similar to what makes CD playback sound better. The deep background silence, the heightened clarity of complex mixes, and the ability to render the recorded sound realistically combine to raise the sense of real sounds in real spaces existing in your theatre room. There’s no one place it sticks out, and I doubt anybody could walk into an unfamiliar setting and notice anything obviously better compared to less-expensive disc players. But when you have the ability to do back-to-back comparisons using the same scenes in a system and room that’s familiar, the Arcam’s sound is definitely more enjoyable because of those characteristics, even if they aren’t as obvious as the improvement you get with music playback.
While it’s not a universal disc player, nor network streaming media player, the BDP-100 does make CDs sound better when played back through HDMI than any disc player I’ve evaluated so far. Movie soundtracks are also just a bit more lively and realistic-sounding than lower-cost BD players. BD image quality is commensurate with the most accurate Blu-ray Disc players available so far. Subjective and objective evaluation of the images produced by the BDP-100 show it to be an accurate player that doesn’t manipulate Blu-ray images in any detectable way. Those looking for ideal DVD playback will still need a video processor to make average- and lower-quality transfers look better, because the Arcam player delivers what-is-on-the-DVDis-on-the-screen image quality. This would be my current disc player of choice if I was looking for a CD/BD player that makes CDs sound great when played through an HDMI connection. Some people will pay $1,500 or more just for that sort of CD playback performance. I like the Arcam BDP-100 quite a lot, though, the suggested retail price may temper an enthusiast’s enthusiasm a bit.
- IEC AC power connector
- RS-232 control
- Remote-in (wired IR)
- 12 VDC trigger
- 10/100 Ethernet port (1)
- USB port on back panel (1)
- All video outputs can be active at the same time
- Plays Blu-ray discs, DVD-Video, DVD-R/RW, CD Audio, CD-R/RW
- Computer file support for: MP3; WMA; JPEG; AVI; WMV
- Front panel controls: stop/eject; play/pause; skip forward/back
- Blue backlight for all remote control buttons
- Low battery voltage indicator on remote
- Remote can control up to 7 other components (stored codes only
- & learning mode limited to no more than 16 learned codes)
- Supports Profile 2.0 (Bonus View and BD-Live)
- HDMI v1.3 (no support for 3D)
- Dynamic range compression for Dolby audio formats (i.e. late
- night mode)
- 24-bit/192 kHz Delta-Sigma DAC
- Frequency Response – 10-20,000 Hz +/- 0.5 dB
- Signal-To-Noise Ratio – 110 dB CCIR
- Output Impedance – 47 ohms
- Minimum recommended load – 5000 ohms
- Power consumption – 30 watts max.
- Warranty – 5 years parts and labor, disc drive mechanism is
- warranted for 2 years, parts and labor (through authorized dealers)
- Dimensions (WxDxH) – 16.9 x 3.9 x 15.75 (inch)
- Weight – 13.7 lbs
MSRP – $1,499
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