Panasonic's New Blu-ray Player Steps Up to 1.1

Now that Blu-ray Disc has vanquished HD DVD after a nearly 2-year battle in the marketplace, the dust has finally settled - right into the eyes of everyone who put off buying a high-def disc player. Understandably, many of these dawdlers will be squinting first at the more affordable Blu-ray prospects in the entry-level $400-to-$500 range. At $500 list, Panasonic's DMP-BD30 comes to play in the Blu-ray budget sandbox - and brings plenty of toys along with it.

A follow-up to the company's $1,300 DMP-BD10, the BD30 is the first Blu-ray player that's fully compliant with the BD-ROM Profile 1.1 technical standard. Among the improvements over Profile 1.0 players is the inclusion of more local memory storage (a minimum 256 kilobytes vs. 64 kb in Profile 1.0) and more video and audio decoders. Translation: Out of the box, the BD30 plays the interactive picture-in-picture extras now arriving on some Profile 1.1 Blu-ray Discs. Starting this year, though, all new players carrying the Blu-ray logo have to be 1.1 compliant, so Panasonic won't be alone for long here.

The Short Form
Sleek design, solid HD video performance, and fast operation make this a good value among standalone Blu-ray Disc players.
Plus
• Sleek industrial design • Fast load times • BD Profile 1.1 for interactive features • Bitstream output of advanced audio formats
Minus
• No onboard decoding of advanced audio formats • No Ethernet connection • Less than stellar DVD upconversion
Key Features
• Meets BD Profile 1.1 standard • 1080p/24-fps video output • HDMI 1.3 output • Passes Dolby True HD and DTS-HD Master Audio bitstreams for outboard processing • SD card slot for JPEG or AVCHD playback • Outputs: HDMI, component video, S-video, composite video, optical/coaxial digital audio, 5.1-channel analog audio, stereo analog audio • 16 x 2 3/8 x 12 5/8 in; 7 3/8 lb

Along with future-readiness, Panasonic went for a futuristic look in its second-gen model. The sleek BD30 sports a low, 2 3/8-inch profile and a glossy black front completely free of clutter. A flip-down door on the right side hides transport keys and a new feature: an SD memory card slot that can be used for viewing jpeg images or high-def camcorder footage recorded in the AVCHD format. To the left of this is the disc tray, well camouflaged behind the player's facade.

Around back, the jack-pack includes the requisite HDMI and component-video outputs, along with outputs for both optical and coaxial digital audio and for 5.1-channel RCA analog audio. What you won't find is an Ethernet jack for connecting the player to the Internet for firmware upgrades and title-specific interactive features - but most Blu-ray players still don't have this jack, so Panasonic isn't alone here. Also missing is onboard decoding for the new lossless audio formats, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. However, the HDMI Version 1.3 output allows these soundtracks to pass from the disc as an unaltered bitstream for processing by one of the new receivers with advanced audio decoding. It will also pass an uncompressed PCM soundtrack to receivers with older versions of HDMI that can decode multichannel PCM audio (many do).

I liked Panasonic's straightforward remote, but it wasn't without its issues. While the Stop/Pause/Play buttons are centrally located, the critical four-way navigation pad was too low for comfortable reach by the thumb on my average-sized hand. And while there are large keys for Top Menu and Pop-Up Menu, the basic Menu key that exists on every other standard DVD-player remote is omitted here. This command is required on some regular DVDs to bypass trailers and jump to the main disc menu, but to gain access to it with the BD30, you have to hit a Sub Menu button and then navigate to the Menu option in a small onscreen menu. This is awkward and inconvenient, to say the least.

SETUP

Hooking up the BD30 was as simple as running an HDMI cable from the player to a late-generation Pioneer receiver, and another HDMI cable from the receiver to the 50-inch Pioneer plasma I used as a monitor. I set the BD30's video menu for 1080p/24-frame output, which the Pioneer plasma happily accommodated. And since the receiver could decode a Dolby TrueHD bitstream, I set the BD30's audio setup menu to its Bitstream option and its Secondary Audio option to Off. This last step is necessary because the main soundtrack and secondary audio streams (presumably from a Blu-ray Disc's extras) must all be in the PCM digital audio format to facilitate mixing for simultaneous playback. But since the player's decoder can't do onboard TrueHD-to-PCM conversion, it grabs the core Dolby Digital bitstream from within the TrueHD track and works off that. Bottom line: You can hear the highest-fidelity TrueHD audio at the sacrifice of full interactivity or you can have full interactivity with standard Dolby Digital sound.

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