Regulars will know that insubstantial Blu-ray players are a bête noire of mine. Cheapo decks destined to become arthritic after a year or so give physical disc formats a bad name. I prefer beautifully built players, engineered to squeeze the last ounce of performance from a platter and engender pride of ownership.
So the arrival of a new machine from Arcam is a big deal. Its players tend to be hewn from Mount Olympus itself, and blessed with the ability to emotionally engage even the most mean-spirited of listeners. And while this new deck has a different lineage from what we’ve seen before – the brand is using the MediaTek platform favoured by Oppo and Cambridge Audio – these key attributes remain in evidence.
As befits its FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) prefix, the UDP411 is a substantial component. Unlike so many commodity disc spinners, it enjoys a full width 430mm fascia and is deep enough to rack with other (Arcam) gear.
The disc mechanism is centrally located, with trademark racing green status display. Tech epaulettes stress this player's rank: 'HD Ultra' upscaling, 3D, DTS and Dolby certification, etc, while dedicated transport and power buttons hunker to the right. The quality of the finish is gorgeous.
The player is nearly, but not quite, universal. There’s no DVD-Audio compatibility. While this is now very much a legacy format, there will be disc enthusiasts disappointed by the omission. The player remains compatible with Super Audio CD, though, as well as all the usual Blu-ray, DVD and CD iterations.
Backside connectivity is solid. You get phono stereo outputs, HDMI, an Ethernet jack, digital and coaxial audio outputs, USB reader and Wi-Fi antenna – the player has onboard wireless network support. There are also two balanced XLR jacks should your system be of sufficient audiophile bent.
It must be said that the wireless option didn't work that well for me. With antenna aloft it failed to find a signal being pumped out by my Asus wireless router mere metres (and two walls away). It did locate a BT Home Hub that was slightly nearer, though. Given that my media was sitting on the former not the latter, I had to opt for a wired connection instead. This is, of course, always the best option given a choice. As an aside, the deck doesn't give you the option to see a password as you type it in via the onscreen keyboard – irritating.
While this Arcam may utilise MediaTek chippery, operational similarities with other players only become apparent when you delve into the settings menus.
The main home screen features rainbow wallpaper and just two buttons: Settings and My Media. The My Media button throws up networked media sources, connected USB devices or loaded discs. Video file support covers WMV, AVI, MKV, MPEG and VOB; audio embraces WMA, MP3, FLAC and DSD – with caveats. The deck proves a little snooty when it comes to NAS compatibility. It refused to play FLAC files from a QNAP NAS, while a rival Oppo on the same network had no such calms. Yet it did play nice with an Imerge music server.
Streaming apps, both video and audio, are ignored; there's an old-school simplicity about the offering. You'll not find BBC iPlayer here, nor Spotify or internet radio.
Image quality is positively divine. The opening sequence to Pixar’s A Bug's Life (Blu-ray), is a symphony of fine detail and velvety colour gradation. The camera pans into the forest of grass to reveal ants collecting and marching food back to their nest; from the heavily textured gravel to the artfully delineated grass and leaves, everything shines. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this disc look better.
The UDP411 can upscale all sources to 4K UHD (3,840 x 2,160) if your display supports it. You can also force it to output at 1080p, 1080i, 720p or less. While it's tempting to put the output on Auto, specifying a resolution to match your display is probably the best option.
With HD sources now almost ubiquitous, some may consider a player's upscaling talents superfluous. Yet excellence in this area can be vital in maintaining the longevity of your disc collection. While the majority of movies have been remastered in HD, be it for broadcast syndication or content release, there are still plenty of titles not so readily available. War of the Colossal Beast may be a B-movie genre classic, but this 1958 schlocker is unlikely to get a BD re-release anytime soon. Thankfully, the upscaling on the UDP411 is good enough to make such a criminal oversight more bearable. When our monochrome heroes rattle across the Mexican desert in a van laced with drugged bread in search of a 60ft man mountain (as you do), jaggies are nowhere to be seen.
Disc loading speeds are refreshingly fast. A Java-lite concert Blu-ray goes from screen to menu in 28 seconds, while a more complex reference platter takes just 41 seconds.
The UDP411 proves a peerless multichannel audio source, too. The insect-strewn DTS-HD MA soundtrack of A Bug's Life is consistently enveloping, with indefatigable buzzes and chirps. When Hopper and his grasshopper band invade Flick’s anthill, the entire soundstage is alive with fluttering wings, crumbling nest and ominous beats.
Similarly, the multichannel SACD release of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust is a sumptuous listening experience, with immaculate image placement and three-dimensional instrumentation – the disparate chords of Five Years breaking through on the back left continues to catch me out, no matter how many times I've heard it, while the ping pong stereo of Soul Love is like having a sonic massage from heaven-sent balladeers.
For two-channel sources, my preference is for the Arcam’s analogue outputs, although it must be said stereo over HDMI (which supports up to 24-bit/192kHz) is entirely acceptable. Beneath the lid a TI/Burr Brown PCM1794 DAC offers a pristine two-channel performance, aided by sub-regulated power supplies for the drive, audio and DAC boards.
The UDP411 is therefore a formidable Blu-ray player, which for the most part delivers an AV performance commensurate with its hefty price tag. A shame it doesn’t play equally with all NAS devices, but image quality from native HD is jaw-droppingly good. The deck faces strong competition from the £1,000 Oppo BDP-105D, which dukes it out toe-to-toe on performance terms, and offers more feature niceties, but the Arcam faithful are unlikely to be swayed when faced with a choice.