Panasonic DMP-BD30 Blu-ray Player Page 3
The player's 480i-to-1080p (upconversion of standard DVDs over HDMI) was less pristine. Satisfactory, but only just. It was no better than fair on several tests from the HQV Benchmark standard definition DVD, including the jaggies and waving flag tests. It also stumbled badly on a mixed content (jagged lettering on a video scroll over a filmed background). But it passed the 3/2 pulldown tests on that same disc, and sailed through the Coliseum flyover test on Gladiator.
Despite this, the Panasonic proved to be a good standard DVD player on real program material. With HD players now demanding our attention, splitting hairs on standard DVD playback now seems so 2006, particularly since only the best-looking DVDs can challenge the standards set by an average Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD. But I don't think many users will be disappointed with the quality of the DMP-BD30 for DVD playback, upconverted or not.
Getting a handle on the audio playback from the Panasonic proved a little trickier. But not with respect to the audio quality itself. The best soundtracks sounded fantastic, particularly if they were uncompressed PCM, Dolby TrueHD, or DTS-HD Master Audio—the latter two, of course, decoded from bitstream in the AV receiver.
No, the tricky part was not the mostly terrific sound. It was trying to confirm just what I would get if I deviated from the Bistream/BD-Video Secondary Audio "Off" settings in the player's audio setup menu. In that configuration the player outputs all advanced formats, including Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, in bitstream form. And for the first time ever I saw those formats spelled out on the front panel of the Onkyo TX-SR875 receiver when such a soundtrack was in play.
But if you switch the BD-Video Secondary Audio to "On," still with Bitstream selected, the output is plain vanilla Dolby Digital. Oddly, you get the same result even if you play a disc with only DTS-HD Master Audio track. That's right, if the Onkyo is telling me the truth, when I played Kingdom of Heaven (DTS-HD Master Audio only) with the audio DTS playback set up for Bitstream/BD-Video Secondary Audio On, the Onkyo front indicator said Dolby Digital!
The early Toshiba players did a Dolby Digital to DTS transposition; the Panasonic now apparently performs the same trick in the opposite direction!
Seriously, though, what seems more likely is that somehow the flag that's supposed to be telling the receiver in this case that it's receiving DTS is wrong, triggering the Dolby Digital indicator instead. Or the flag is right but the receiver is reading it wrong. It seems unlikely that Panasonic would expend the resources needed to transcode the DTS bitstream to Dolby Digital for this setup, while at the same time leaving out an internal TrueHD decoder. But we can't be certain. Suppose, then, that you don't have a receiver or processor that can decode DTS-HD MA, but want to insure that you're listening to the core DTS track as DTS over HDMI. Are you out of luck? Not necessarily. If I set up the player's DTS digital output to PCM and turned the BD-Video Secondary Audio to Off, I got a "Multi Ch" indication in the receiver's window. While there's no way to be certain that this PCM is derived from the core DTS track, since neither the player nor the receiver provides this information, it appears likely that it is. Of course you can also get a core DTS track from the standard coaxial or optical digital outputs, if you prefer to go the hair shirt route.
The Java Jive
You're probably curious, as I was, how this Profile 1.1 player handles BD-J encoded BDs. Does it load faster? Does it do magic tricks with the features on the discs?
The PlayStation3 remains the current BD player champ for fast loading time, due to its powerful Cell microprocessor. Like all standalone players, the Panasonic lacks that sort of processing power. But it still equaled or exceeded the loading speed of the Samsung BD-P1200, which has in turn consistently been faster than the two first two Pioneer BD players I've used.
I checked the Panasonic' on four discs that have often been singled out for slow loading times: The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Ratatouille, and Cars. Where I could, I skipped over all the trailers and other promotional material and went directly to the main disc menu by using the remote buttons marked Top Menu (as it's called on the Panasonic) or Disc Menu (on the Samsung). This is noted (SD) next to the times shown below. If this skip-direct command did not work, I skipped the trailers individually, as fast as possible, using the forward skip button on the remotes (SI).
Here are the results in minutes:seconds from the time I pushed the drawer close button to the time the main menu appeared:
Panasonic (SI) 1:16. . .Samsung (SI) 2:11
Panasonic (SI) 1:28. . .Samsung (SI) 1:52
Panasonic (SD) 0:54. . .Samsung (SD) 0:57
Panasonic (SD) 0:59. . .Samsung (SD) 1:25
While the new Panasonic is no speed demon, it is the fastest stand-alone BD player I've yet used. It also should be noted that it arrived at the main menus consistently without glitches. The Samsung had a problem loading Cars on several tries until I unplugged it and powered it up again.
I will say that the Panasonic did play the several special features and games I tried on it, including the games on Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. But avid gamers won't be impressed. The games were still pokey and crude compared to today's dedicated games, with brief but annoying delays whenever the games jumped to sub-menus such as the bonus screens in the Cars game. And the games I've seen on Blu-ray Discs so far have clearly been designed for 8 year olds—8 year olds who may be less patient with the delays than adults.
But in the week I've lived with it, the DMP-BD30 has been more resistant to freeze-ups and other annoyances than the other Blu-ray players I've had in house. In fact, it hasn't had a single serious glitch. If my luck runs true to form, however, I'll experience one the day this review is posted—but it hasn't happened yet!
As a side note, there's a feature in the player that Panasonic calls "Virtual package." I'm unfamiliar with this term, but as Panasonic explains it, "For a disc compatible with the virtual package, data is copied to other media from the disc to use the different functions while playing the data. For this unit, data is (sic) copied to an SD card." Recall that the 256MB of local storage that a player must have to meet the standards of Profile 1.1 does not have to be inside the unit. Could it be that the local storage in the Panasonic is in the SD card (which must be provided by the user)? Panasonic does not say. But I tried the loading time and game functionality tests both with and without an SD card (512MB) with the same results either way.
An HDMI Issue?
The Panasonic may not work correctly with all displays when using an HDMI connection. I tried it on three one-piece televisions and, so far, three video projectors. It worked consistently on all of them except the Samsung LN-T5281F (review pending). On that set in all but a few tries it flickered (visibly) and sputtered (audibly) even on the opening Panasonic screen-saver logo. On two occasions I was able to watch a Blu-ray Disc all the way through without a problem (which is why the Samsung is listed in the Review System), but both before and after that time the Panasonic/Samsung combination proved unusable.
As with all such HDMI problems, it's not possible to say definitively which product is to blame, or if the problem is the lack of a mutual attraction between two otherwise perfectly fine products. But this is the first time I have had such a compatibility issue between an HD player and a display, and the Samsung set works fine with the other Blu-ray (and HD DVD) players I've tried.
While I found no compelling advantages to the Panasonic's higher Java profile level than current competing players, that may well change as more fully-featured discs hit the market. Its lack of onboard Dolby TrueHD decoding, however, will be more significant to readers who lack an AV receiver or pre/pro with this capability and, like me, value basic audio and video quality more than special features. But the latter are undoubtedly important to the wider market.
Still, the ability to get both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio off the disc and into your life is a real plus. You can expect to see this in future players, but with an appropriate AV receiver or pre-pro, it's available from the SMP-BD30 now.
And the Panasonic's video quality second to none. HD video on a packaged disc is the most important video development of the new millennium, and no player I've tested, so far, does it any better than this one.
Superb audio, superb video
Full bitstream access to Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio
Good remote and ergonomics
No onboard Dolby TrueHD decoding
Mediocre scaling when upconverting 480i to 1080p
Would not provide a good HDMI link with all displays
Dense, poorly organized manual