Panasonic DMP-BD10 Blu-ray Disc Player

We've waited what seems like an eternity for a top performing Blu-ray Disc player to challenge the head start HD DVD seized when it hit stores this past spring. Blu-ray's launch was dampened by the format's first player being the underperforming and poorly reviewed Samsung BD-P1000, which shipped with an incorrect noise reduction chip setting that caused soft imagery but that has since been corrected by a firmware update (a UAV follow-up is pending).

It's also possible that the earliest Blu-ray Discs share some of the responsibility for the soft Blu-ray launch as well. MPEG-2 coding was used for the first releases, which were limited to single-layer 25GB discs. The full 50GB promise of Blu-ray, which requires two layers, has only recently been realized.

With the release of the Panasonic DMP-BD10 player we can at last begin to judge Blu-ray's potential. And it's considerable. So much so, in fact, that I no longer feel that the Blu-ray format itself is in question. Its ultimate marketplace success may be, as is the case with all new products. But it's now unequivocally clear that Blu-ray can provide spectacular performance.

The pricing of Blu-ray players remains an issue, but only because Toshiba managed to severely undercut the market when it priced its first HD DVD player, the HD-A1, at $500 (and, some say, chose to lose money on each unit to grab market share).

So soon we forget. The first CD player was $1,000 in 1983 dollars, and the first DVD players were priced as high as $1,000 in 1997. By that scale, the $1,299 Panasonic may be out of line with buyer's expectations, but not with history. The same holds true for all the current and upcoming Blu-ray players, apart from Sony's PlayStation3, which has two versions at $500 and $600. Lots of luck finding one of those this year!

Still, the competition for the consumer's disposable dollars is far more intense today than it was in 1983 or even in 1997, 1983, so $1,300 is by no means a trivial investment, particularly amidst the insecurity of a format war.

End of rant on the pricing of current Blu-ray hardware. The bottom line is that the DMP-BD10 produces an outstanding picture on the best discs. It is the first BD player out of the gate that legitimately deserves a rave review, at least for its main purpose: playing Blu-ray Discs.

Looking Around
Out of the box, the Panasonic player is elegant but unpretentious in appearance. Its flat black case doesn't attract fingerprints, and a manually operated drop down panel hides the disc drawer and controls when the player is not in use. This panel is translucent and allows the front panel display and blue power light to shine through. This bright blue beacon turns off when a disc is playing, and both it and the display may be dimmed.

In most situations, the front panel display shows only the current run time; other information can be obtained from the on-screen displays. Two pieces of information I'd like to have that the player does not provide are the current video data rate and the video codec used on the disc. While most studios doing BD do not provide this information on the jacket, kudos to Fox, which does.

Around back are typical connections. On the video side this includes HDMI (1.1—which carries both video and audio), component, S-Video, and composite video. For audio we have coaxial and Toslink (optical) digital, two pair of L/R analog outputs, plus a 7.1-channel analog output set. There is no Ethernet port, so future updates must be transferred to the player via a CD-R, either downloaded and burned on your computer or obtained directly from Panasonic. This also rules out any potential for web-based interactivity features being compatible with this player.

The detachable power cord is one of those small, polarized, two lead affairs. Don't lose it; while replacements are available, they aren't as easy to find as the larger, detachable IEC cords found on most high-end gear (and on all of those expensive, aftermarket power cords, if that's your thing). And while there is a cooling fan exhaust on the back panel, I never heard the fan operate, in contrast to the noisier (but not, for me, intrusive) fan on the Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player.

Most of your face time with the DMP-BD10 will be via its remote control. It's not illuminated, and its jog-shuttle wheel is annoyingly sensitive. But you can shut the wheel off, and I found that the remote was fully functional and less frustrating to use without it. While I might argue with the button layout and the lack of backlighting, most of the buttons were of a comfortable size and after a little practice I could locate those most frequently used in the dark by feel alone. A flip up drawer exposes the numeric entry keypad together with other less frequently used functions.

The remote will also operate most televisions when programmed with the correct code. It may also be used with Panasonic's EZ Sync HDAVI Control feature, which provides unified control of other Panasonic products equipped for EZ Sync HDAVI operation. I did not test this.

Two characteristics of the remote—and the player—did cause me some grief. The remote's Disc Navigator control did not provide a title search feature. This is no problem with most DVDs and BDs, which only have one user accessible title, but on Digital Video Essentials I ran into a brick wall trying to navigate to its test patterns. There does appear to be a glitch in DVE's own menu system that contributes to this, but all the other disc players I've used over the years have a functional title/chapter search feature that skirts around the problem. Not the Panasonic. For me, this is an issue as I use DVE constantly for system setup.

Remote problem two: the buffer that accepts inputs from the numeric keypad is limited to three digits. No problem on most discs, but many Sony BDs include several test patterns that are accessed by pressing 7669, followed by Enter. The Panasonic buffer would not accept the four-digit code, so I was not able to access the patterns.

The player will decode the uncompressed 5.1-channel PCM soundtracks offered on some Blu-ray discs and play them back from its analog outputs, or transmit them over its HDMI 1.1 link. Although this is extremely useful if your pre-pro or AV receiver can extract 5.1-channels from an HDMI audio/video connection—beware that not all HDMI-equipped AV receivers or pre-pros are HDMI 1.1 or later; earlier versions of HDMI lack this capability.

The Panasonic player will not yet decode either of the new lossless audio codecs—Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio. Panasonic has, however, promised a firmware update that will allow the player decode both of these formats and transcode them to multichannel PCM. Once this occurs, HDMI 1.1 is sufficient for transmitting these transcoded PCM signals to an AVR or pre-pro.

But until HDMI 1.3 becomes widely available, no player, including the Panasonic, will be able to pass Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks directly to a pre-pro or AV receiver for decoding there, rather than in the player. But no current pre-pro or receiver will decode these formats as yet, either, so this limitation will only become relevant when HDMI 1.3 processing is included in those products, too, perhaps by mid 2007. Only when we actually see and hear players, pre-pros, and AVRs with these capabilities will we know if direct-to-pre-pro TrueHD/HD Master Audio will offer any advantages vs. the transcoded PCM multichannel link from the player offered currently from HDMI 1.1.

The Panasonic will also play back discs recorded with MP3 and JPEG files. And it is the only Blu-ray player that currently offers DVD-Audio playback.

With the player powered on, its start-up time from drawer open to the display of a Blu-ray disc menu is about 50 seconds. This is not as fast as I thought initially, and it does vary slightly from disc to disc. Chapter skips take longer on the Panasonic than on either of the Toshiba HD DVD machines or the Samsung Blu-ray player. Nevertheless, the overall operation of the DMP-BD10 was smooth and trouble free.

The on-screen setup menus offer an extensive range of options. The Panasonic will output resolutions up to 1080p from its HDMI output with the exception of 480i, an HDMI resolution of interest only to those who prefer to upconvert standard definition DVDs entirely in an outboard processor or in their display.

The player's 1080p output is 1080p/60 only, not 1080p/24. The latter might offer performance benefits with film-based material, but is currently compatible with very few consumer displays. We expect this to change as movies on both BD and HD DVD are encoded at 1080p/24, and more and more players that output this format come to market.

As with all upconverting players, the Panasonic will not upconvert standard definition DVDs to a resolution higher than 480p at its component outputs. But it will play back Blu-ray Discs at 1080i in component.