Shades of Blu Panasonic DMP-BD50
Panasonic delivers its fourth Blu-ray player with all of its guns blazing. The DMP-BD50 ($700) improves upon the previous DMP-BD30 design. This is (as of press time) the only standalone player on the market that supports both Bonus View and BD-Live interactivity. It also provides full audio decoding with 7.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. If you want to cover all your bases, it’s an attractive option.
The DMP-BD50 looks strikingly similar to the DMP-BD30 in design and layout. Even the setup menus look identical. The sleek black case includes two flip-down panels, one for the disc tray and one that covers the simple user interface and SD Card slot. Like the Denon, Panasonic uses the SD Card input for additional memory. You can also play back photos, videos (including HD video in compatible formats), and music files stored on SD card media.
BD-Live lets you use an Internet connection to download additional content, like trailers and interviews. But you need a place to store the content. Since the DMP-BD50’s internal memory doesn’t meet the full 1-gigabyte spec required for BD-Live, the end user must buy an SD memory card to take advantage of the player’s BD-Live capabilities. Thankfully, SD cards are cheap.
The back panel features full digital audio support with HDMI, coaxial digital, and TosLink outputs. It also sports a 5.1-channel analog audio output. Even though the player offers full 7.1-channel internal decoding, this limits you to 5.1 if you plan to use the analog outputs for your principal audio connection. I’m surprised that Panasonic didn’t offer a 7.1-channel analog output since their original DMP-BD10 was the first on the market to include this feature.
The DMP-BD50 offers full 1080p/24 support with Blu-ray and upconverted DVD playback. The player uses Panasonic’s proprietary video processing. I was surprised at how well this player performed during my video testing.
Blu-ray playback looked excellent and in line with the best players I’ve seen. The notable exception to this is the Denon DVD-3800BDCI, which looked a tad crisper than the Panasonic. However, the DMP-BD50 resolves 1080p content’s full resolution with no obvious softening or chroma filtering. The DMP-BD50 wonderfully preserved fine object details. Thanks to the new chroma processing, color fidelity is noticeably better than Panasonic’s first-generation player. Additionally, this is one of the only players that performs proper deinterlacing of 1080i signals with both 3:2 and 2:2 cadences. Even the higher-priced Denon and Pioneer Elite models can’t make that claim. Regardless of what Blu-ray material you play, you’ll see excellent resolution.
Unfortunately, the DMP-BD50 falls short in its standard DVD playback. I ran the high-resolution wedge patterns on my WHQL DVD test discs, and the Panasonic showed a lot of breakup in vertical resolution with moving patterns. The player held the cadence but not the detail. The DMP-BD50 also provided poor deinterlacing. I hoped Panasonic would improve in this area after the DMP-BD30, but it appears to be the same. If you demand high-quality standard DVD playback, I recommend you use a separate, standalone DVD player that performs better.
One of the DMP-BD50’s selling points is its inclusion of both bitstream output and onboard decoding of all the advanced audio formats to PCM or analog. You should note that only HDMI supports full 7.1-channel playback for the few soundtracks that offer it.
The DMP-BD50 offers full bass management and time alignment when you use the analog audio outputs or HDMI. These features also go into effect when you set the player to decode to PCM or you play an uncompressed PCM soundtrack. Panasonic utilizes a fixed 100-hertz crossover for its Small setting, which is a bit higher than our ideal 80-Hz recommendation for most loudspeaker systems. You can adjust the channel levels, but only for the analog outputs. If you use the Panasonic in bitstream mode, your AVR or pre/pro must perform bass management and level adjustments.
The DMP-BD50’s audio setup is one of the easiest I’ve seen. You simply select whether you want the player to decode to PCM or transmit the signal in bitstream form. You can even set different preferences for DTS and Dolby (each selection covers all of the codecs from each company).
The onboard audio decoding quality was excellent. I didn’t notice any difference in performance or levels compared with my pre/pro. Although the DMP-BD30 had issues with the level of its LFE output with uncompressed PCM soundtracks early on, it looks like Panasonic didn’t make the same mistake twice. The player preserved the dynamic range perfectly and provided excellent bass response. I used the final battle sequence of Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End to test the low-end response with uncompressed PCM soundtracks. The DMP-BD50 delivered the range and low-end prowess I was accustomed to with my reference PS3.
One of the biggest complaints I had with the DMP-BD30 was the random audio dropouts I experienced. These occurred when I used the player to send native bitstream Dolby TrueHD soundtracks to my surround processor. This was the chief reason I stopped using the DMP-BD30 in my own home theater. It appears that Panasonic addressed this issue with the DMP-BD50. I played the recent Sony release of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which had more dropouts on my DMP-BD30 than any other release to date. But I didn’t experience any anomalies during playback on the DMP-BD50. It delivered the soundtrack without interruption. It’s great to see that Panasonic has improved in so many areas with this new design.
The DMP-BD50 reminds me of the DMP-BD30 in form and function. Although its load times and navigation aren’t nearly as fast as my PS3, this is still one of the fastest Blu-ray players on the market. Even with difficult titles like Walk Hard and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the DMP-BD50 wasn’t nearly as obnoxious as most of the other standalone players I’ve used. However, the player definitely has room for improvement. I still think manufacturers need to set their sights on the slick and fast performance that the PS3 offers.
I didn’t notice any issues with Bonus View PiP playback. I tried a few discs I had on hand, including Sony’s recent release of Untraceable, and the picture-in-picture functions worked fine. On the other hand, BD-Live slightly frustrated me. It simply wouldn’t work with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a disc that includes BD-Live interactivity. Panasonic did not send a user manual with the player, and I couldn’t find one online. The player didn’t show any error messages, but nothing was happening. Finally, I figured out that I needed to load an SD card into the player, and I was in business. Sort of.
It took a while to download content for Walk Hard, which consisted of a few new featurettes. I wasn’t thrilled with the experience. BD-Live is new, so I’m sure studios will improve the experience over time. I also hope Panasonic’s user manual informs people that they need to take this extra step with BD-Live-encoded titles.
The included remote can be a bit difficult to navigate, especially in the dark. However, it offers full control of other Panasonic products. The setup menus are easy to understand, and setup itself was a breeze. Unfortunately, the factory default settings aren’t optimum. The model comes from the factory with the dynamic range compression and PCM downconversion engaged. In a capable system, this will result in poor bass response and a lack of fine detail. You’ll have to go into the setup menu and tweak things a bit to get the most out of this player.
Wrapping It Up
I hope Panasonic offers a full 7.1-channel analog output in a future model. I would also like to see it improve in the speed department.
Nevertheless, the Panasonic DMP-BD50 is the strongest standalone player I’ve used to date. With full support for Blu-ray’s advanced audio and interactivity, it’s the current standalone to beat. Anyone shopping for a standalone Blu-ray player should put this one on their short list.
Full complement of onboard audio decoding
Exceptional HD video processing
Poor standard-definition video processing
Bonus View and BD-Live compliant