|Panasonic DMP-BD30 Blu-ray Player|
|Home Theater Video Players Blu-ray Players|
|Written by Adrienne Maxwell|
|Tuesday, 01 April 2008|
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When Warner Brothers announced in early January that they are going to release future titles exclusively in the Blu-ray format, most people heralded the end of the high-def format war and all the confusion it has caused. Sure, there are bound to be a few more skirmishes, but realistically, the war is probably over. What does that mean for the consumer? Well, an end to the confusion, of course, and a guarantee that the Blu-ray player you buy now won’t go the route of Beta and become obsolete.
Not so fast. Blu-ray may soon be the only high-def disc format, but early adopters are still taking some risk if they buy a Blu-ray player now. Why? Because most of the players currently on the market don’t exploit the format’s full potential. The average consumer probably isn’t even aware that the Blu-ray player is still a work in progress. First- and second-generation players weren’t required to offer every feature that makes Blu-ray so compelling; yes, you do get a beautiful HD picture, but you may not be able to easily access the higher-resolution soundtracks, and you absolutely won’t be able to display picture-in-picture video commentaries or access any Web-based features on the disc (both of which you can already do on HD DVD, by the way).
Blu-ray players are identified by three profiles – 1.0, 1.1, and 2.0 – that indicate the minimum amount of functionality that must be built into the unit. Of course, manufacturers are free to add more functionality, but many have chosen not to do so thus far. All players released prior to November 1, 2007 were Profile 1.0, which doesn’t require Internet connectivity or the inclusion of secondary video and audio decoders to support PIP commentary. Players released after November 1, 2007 must be Profile 1.1, which means that they must have at least 256 MB of local storage (be it internal or add-in) and contain the decoders needed for PIP. Profile 1.1’s original nickname of “Final Standard Profile” is extremely misleading, since it isn’t the final profile, so you may now hear these players referred to as “Bonus View” or “Picture-in-Picture-enabled” players. Last and best endowed is Profile 2.0, also called Blu-ray-Live, which mandates the inclusion of 1 GB of local storage, secondary A/V decoders, and Internet connectivity.
I give you that brief overview so that the following sentence actually means something: Panasonic’s $499.95 DMP-BD30 is one of the first Profile 1.1 players to hit the shelf. Does the fact that it has more functionality than a Profile 1.0 player automatically make it the one to buy? That depends on how well it measures up in other areas. Let’s find out.
The DMP-BD30 is almost as slim and light as a standard DVD player. It sports a simple but attractive all-black design, with two flip-down doors on the front panel. The first hides the disc drive, which supports Blu-ray, DVD and CD playback. The second door covers the transport controls, the large front-panel display and an SD card slot. You can still see the display through the flip-down door’s window; its messages are of the basic Play, Stop, and No Disc variety. The inclusion of the SD card slot is what allows the DMP-BD30 to meet the Profile 1.1 spec for 256 MB of local storage; if your still or video camera uses SD cards, you can easily pop them into this player to view jpegs and AVCHD video. Transport controls include play, stop, pause and two buttons that pull double duty as fast-forward/chapter-forward and reverse/chapter-back. Unfortunately, there’s no front-panel button to switch the player’s output resolution. Admittedly, the average user isn’t going to change resolutions as much as a video reviewer like me will, but having a hard button provides an easy fix for anyone who encounters resolution compatibility issues with the display.
The back panel includes all of the desired video and audio connections: HDMI 1.3, component video, S-video, composite video, coaxial and optical digital audio and 7.1-channel analog audio outputs. Sadly, Panasonic has opted not to include an Ethernet port, which isn’t mandated until Profile 2.0. The supplied remote puts a lot of black buttons on a black background and offers no backlighting, but at least the important buttons have different shapes and are intuitively arranged around the jog wheel, which is placed right where my thumb naturally falls. It has Top menu and Pop-Up menu buttons, but oddly, no dedicated menu button. The Status button provides resolution output and chapter/title information, but not the bit rate at which the content is encoded (that’s a geeky pleasure of mine). The Display button pulls up audio and video sub-menus that indicate, among other things, soundtrack type and encoding method (VC-1, MPEG-4, or MPEG-2).
The DMP-BD30’s menu design is clean and straightforward, and the remote’s Return button makes navigating those menus a bit easier. When you first power up the player, the Easy Setting process lets you select onscreen language and TV aspect ratio (16:9 is the default option). More advanced set-up options are accessible via the Set-up button at the bottom left corner of the remote. The TV/Device Connection menu is where you’ll find options to set output resolution for HDMI and component video and, oddly, to choose between two- and multi-channel audio output for the analog audio connections. For HDMI, the output resolution options are auto (default), 480p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p. There’s no Source Direct option to automatically output the disc’s native resolution, but there is a separate menu choice to enable the player to output 1080p/24, the native resolution of most Blu-ray films. Other HDMI set-up parameters include the ability to change between a standard and enhanced RGB output range, the option to turn on EZ-Sync (Panasonic’s name for HDMI-CEC, which allows one remote to control devices connected via HDMI), and the ability to turn HDMI audio on or off (wisely, it’s on by default). For component video, output resolution options are 480i, 480p, 720p and 1080i. As with most players, the resolution of SD DVDs is limited to 480i or 480p. For the analog audio set-up, if you choose multi-channel output, the player allows you to set level and delay for all 7.1 speakers.
The rest of the audio settings are more logically located in the Audio menu. The DMP-BD3030 doesn’t have its own internal Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD decoders, so if you don’t have a new A/V receiver capable of decoding these formats, the best you’re going to get out of the DMP-BD30 is multi-channel PCM or basic DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1. If you do have a receiver with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD decoding, the player will pass these formats in their native bit stream over HDMI so that the receiver can decode them. I had Pioneer’s new VSX-91TXH on hand to test this very process. The DMP-BD30’s audio-set-up options are slightly more advanced than those of other Blu-ray players I’ve used, which require some knowledge and effort on your part to configure them properly. You can designate either PCM or bit stream output for each of the four major soundtrack options – Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus/TrueHD, DTS and DTS-HD – so you can configure each one based on your receiver’s capabilities. By default, all four formats are set to be output as PCM. If you plan to use the analog audio outputs or to connect this player directly to your TV, these settings are fine. However, if you plan to mate the player with a receiver, you’ll probably at least want to set Dolby Digital and DTS for bit stream. Because I had a compatible receiver on hand, I set all four options for bit stream to let the Pioneer handle all of the decoding. If you plan to use the DMP-BD30’s optical or coaxial digital audio output, you should change all four options to bit stream, which allows you to listen to both standard- and high-resolution Dolby/DTS soundtracks as basic Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS. In a nutshell, if you want to exploit the full audio capabilities of this player and the Blu-ray format, you should upgrade to a Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HS receiver.
Because this is a Profile 1.1 player with secondary decoders, the Audio menu also includes an option labeled Blu-ray Video Secondary Audio, with on/off options. Secondary audio can sometimes refer to the sound cues in a disc’s interactive menus, or to the audio soundtrack in a PIP feature or commentary. When Blu-ray Video Secondary Audio is turned off, you won’t hear these audio cues, but the soundtrack will be output at its maximum resolution. If you turn this option on, the player mixes in the secondary audio cues, but converts high-resolution audio tracks to Dolby Digital. The new Sunshine Blu-ray (20th Century Fox) has a DTS HD soundtrack and several PIP features. With the secondary audio function turned on, I could hear the PIP audio, but the soundtrack came through as Dolby Digital. Even with a Blu-ray that doesn’t have PIP features, like Reservoir Dogs (Lionsgate Home Entertainment), the player output the DTS-HD track as Dolby Digital when I enabled the secondary audio feature.
The DMP-BD30 includes a number of additional A/V set-up features, such as picture settings (brightness, contrast, etc), black-level control, dynamic range compression and PCM down-conversion. I left all of these at their default settings. The menu also gives you the option to dim (but not turn off) the large front-panel display, and you can decide if you want the blue SD card light on the front face to be on, off, or illuminate only when a card is inserted.