|Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray Player|
|Home Theater Video Players Blu-ray Players|
|Written by Adrienne Maxwell|
|Wednesday, 01 October 2008|
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For those of you who have waited to take the Blu-ray plunge until you could buy a dedicated player that does everything the Blu-ray format is capable of – and does it right out of the box -- your wait is over. Panasonic’s DMP-BD50 ($599.95) is the first standalone Profile 2.0 player, meaning it has the necessary audio and video decoders to play picture-in-picture content, and it supports BD-Live Web features that, while scarce at the moment, should appear on more and more discs over the next year. This model also has the audio bases covered, offering both internal decoding and bitstream output of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Of course, thanks to recent firmware updates, Sony’s PlayStation3 has had the same features for a few months now, but that machine is a gaming console first, a Blu-ray player second. Some people don’t want to use a gaming console as a dedicated Blu-ray player; for them, the new DMP-BD50 is the only product that offers the same functionality in a standalone Blu-ray device…at least for now.
On the surface, the DMP-BD50 looks very similar to the Profile 1.1 DMP-BD30 we reviewed earlier this year, sporting a relatively thin, lightweight chassis with a mirrored front panel that features two flip-down doors. One door hides the disc drive, which supports playback of Blu-ray, DVD, CD, JPEG, MP3, and Divx. Behind the other door reside the transport controls and an SD memory-card slot, which supports JPEG and AVCHD video playback and serves as the download destination for BD-Live bonus content. The front-panel display is large and easy to read from across the room. Around back, you’ll find almost every connection you could want on a Blu-ray player: HDMI, component video, S-video, composite video, optical and coaxial digital audio, two- and 5.1-channel analog audio outputs, and – as mandated in a Profile 2.0 player -- an Ethernet port for BD-Live access and easy firmware updates. The only thing missing is an advanced control port, like RS-232 or IR; and, unfortunately, you can’t combine the analog audio outputs to enjoy 7.1-channel audio. All 7.1-channel PCM tracks are downconverted to 5.1 channels through the analog audio outs.
The remote is also similar to the one that accompanies the DMP-BD30. It lacks backlighting and a dedicated Menu button (you do get Top Menu and Pop-Up Menu buttons), but at least the buttons are intuitively arranged. In the bottom left corner of the remote, you’ll find a Setup button that cues up the player’s onscreen setup menu, which is also cleanly laid out and easy to navigate…although some parameters may not be located where you expect to find them. Most of the important video-setup options, like resolution and aspect ratio, are located in the TV/Device Connection menu. HDMI resolution options are auto (which outputs the highest resolution your display can accept), 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p. By default, the ability to output 1080p/24 is disabled; once you turn on this feature in the menu, the DMP-BD50 will always output 1080p/24 when that format is available on a Blu-ray disc. Other setup parameters in this menu include HDMI RGB output range (standard or enhanced), HDMI audio output (on or off), Viera Link (on or off), and Speaker settings for PCM output. You can designate two or multichannel output and set size, level, and delay for each speaker. (If you’re outputting PCM over HDMI, you can’t make level adjustments.)
The $399.95 DMP-BD30 offers Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD bitstream output via HDMI, while the DMP-BD50 adds internal decoding of these high-resolution audio formats, in case your receiver lacks high-resolution audio decoding. Panasonic has changed the Audio menu to make setup a bit easier than it was with the DMP-BD30 while still retaining a higher degree of flexibility than many players offer. There are three digital-audio setup options, which dictate how soundtracks are decoded (via your receiver or the player) and whether or not to enable the secondary audio decoder needed to hear PIP audio. The “Quality” setting outputs Dolby/DTS soundtracks as bitstream for your receiver to decode and turns off the secondary audio function. The “Secondary” setting utilizes the player’s internal decoders and turns on the secondary audio function. This allows you to hear PIP audio and the miscellaneous sound cues in some Blu-ray disc menus, but you can’t output more than 5.1 channels of PCM audio. “Custom” gives you the ability to set parameters based on your specific equipment. You can designate PCM or bitstream for the Dolby formats and the DTS formats separately, and you can enable or disable secondary audio. The player can output 7.1-channel LPCM over HDMI as long as the secondary audio function is disabled; however, as I mentioned earlier, it can only output 5.1-channel audio through the analog audio outputs.
When I first plugged in the DMP-BD50 and began to run through my video processing tests, the film-based test patterns and DVD demos were plagued with digital artifacts. I searched the setup menu to find some sort of progressive option to choose between film and video modes, but I found no such option. Only after searching the owner’s manual did I discover that, to adjust the progressive mode, you must hit the remote’s display button and pull up a separate onscreen menu. Sure enough, my review sample was incorrectly set to the video progressive mode instead of the auto mode. When a disc is playing, this onscreen menu also lets you select preset picture modes or adjust image parameters like contrast, brightness, sharpness, color, gamma, 3D NR, and integrated NR; it also provides access to sound parameters like dialog enhancer and virtual surround.
With an Ethernet port comes the necessary network setup. Happily, the DMP-BD50’s default option is to automatically obtain the needed information from a DHCP server; so, beyond simply running an Ethernet cable from the player to my DSL modem, no further action was required on my part. My review sample also had the latest firmware, so no updates were needed.