Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray Player 
Home Theater Video Players Blu-ray Players
Written by Adrienne Maxwell   
Wednesday, 01 October 2008

Introduction
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.

Set-up
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.

Blu-ray and DVD Performance
Like the DMP-BD30, this Panasonic model has quicker startup, load times, and navigation than many standalone players currently on the market, especially with discs like Ratatoille (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), War (Lionsgate Entertainment), and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) that feature dense BD-Java menus that can really bog down the user experience. Both Panasonic models are faster than any other Blu-ray player I’ve used – although, admittedly, I haven’t personally tested the PlayStation3, which is reportedly much faster than any standalone model. Beyond speed, the DMP-BD50’s performance was reliable, with no freezes, reboots, or audio dropouts. It also had no trouble playing the DVD-Rs, CD-Rs, and JPEG CDs I fed it, and it cues up JPEG thumbnails very quickly.

As is the case with most of the players that pass through my door, the DMP-BD50 did a great job displaying the native 1080p/24 signal from Blu-ray discs like Pirates of the Caribbean, Ghost Rider (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), Kingdom of Heaven (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment), and The Prestige (Buena Vista Home Entertainment). The level of detail was excellent, fine black and white detail remains intact, and colors were well saturated. Where players usually distinguish their performance is in the processing realm, when outputting 1080p/60 (or, in the case of component video, 720p or 480p) instead. In this regard, the Panasonic also did a fine job with high-definition source content, passing all of the 1080i tests on my HQV Benchmark Blu-ray disc (Silicon Optix) and cleanly rendering my real-world 1080p test from Mission Impossible III (Paramount Home Video).

For my high-resolution audio tests, I mated the DMP-BD50 with Denon’s AVR-4308 receiver, which has onboard Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD decoding. The Sunshine Blu-ray disc (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) is a nice test disc because it includes both a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack and picture-in-picture bonus content. I experimented with all three audio output options over HDMI – Quality, Secondary, and Custom – and everything worked exactly as the manual said it would. At the Quality setting, the DMP-BD50 passed the DTS-HD Master Audio bitstream for the Denon receiver to decode, but it did not play PIP and the menu’s navigational sound cues. Next, I tried the Secondary setting; here, the player passed 5.1-channel PCM and played the PIP audio track. The Panasonic remote includes handy PIP and Secondary Audio buttons that make it easy to cue up the PIP video and audio. Finally, I went with the Custom audio mode. With PCM audio selected and the secondary audio function turned off, the player passed 7.1-channel  PCM to my receiver. When I compared the internal versus external decoding, the audio quality was very similar, with the Denon’s decoder perhaps offering a bit more LFE output. Ultimately, I stuck with the Quality setting and let my receiver handle the decoding.

All in all, I was thoroughly pleased with the DMP-BD50’s handling of Blu-ray discs, but its performance with standard-definition DVDs isn’t quite as consistent. With my HQV Benchmark DVD (Silicon Optix), the player failed the jaggies and text-crawl tests, it could not handle any complex cadences beyond the traditional 3:2, and even with 3:2 it was a little slow to clean up the signal. However, real-world DVD demo scenes from Gladiator (DreamWorks Home Entertainment) and The Bourne Identity (Universal Home Video) were generally free of deinterlacing artifacts, and the player’s real-world performance with video-based signals was on par with recent players I’ve tested. Upconverted DVDs had a solid level of detail, but the picture was noisier than I’ve seen elsewhere, which lessened the overall experience. The DMP-BD50 does have internal noise-reduction settings; but, when I enabled them, it caused the player to add deinterlacing artifacts to my Gladiator test, which was an odd result. Ultimately, the DMP-BD50’s DVD performance isn’t questionable enough to land squarely in the downside category, but it could be better, especially given the player’s step-up price. If you already own a good upconverting player, you might want to hold on to it for DVD playback.

The Downside
It’s ironic that the DMP-BD50’s marquee feature – BD-Live – does land in the downside category. The Profile 2.0 spec requires that a player have 1GB of local storage, to which you can download BD-Live features from the Internet. In the case of the DMP-BD50, that storage comes from the SD card slot, but Panasonic doesn’t include an actual SD card in the package; so, you must buy one, adding to the total cost. Furthermore, there just aren’t many discs right now that offer BD-Live Web content; and, for those that do, the content isn’t terribly compelling. I had two BD-Live discs on hand. The War Blu-ray disc features a game called “Yakuza Fighter”; if you have a BD-Live player, you can register to play against others online, but the gameplay is uninspiring, to say the least. Accessing the BD-Live bonus content on Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Sony Picture Home Entertainment) was no easy feat. The first three times I tried to cue up the content, nothing happened; I simply got a black screen. The fourth time, I got a blue-and-red line, which apparently indicates that the player is cuing up content, although we get no explanation of that on the screen. Once the BD-Live menu finally appeared, I could choose between a few short featurettes (each of which needs to be downloaded) and some Sony trailers. Downloads were slow, and navigation was sluggish. When I was finally able to watch the content, it really wasn’t worth the effort. I can’t fault the DMP-BD50 for the lack or quality of BD-Live content, but it does beg the question of whether you really need to spend $600 to have BD-Live right now. There are other standalone Blu-ray players on the market that are BD-Live-ready, meaning that a future firmware update will enable Profile 2.0 ability, and cost a couple hundred dollars less than this model. Perhaps by the time those updates are offered, BD-Live content will be more abundant and more interesting.

The player lacks a physical button, either on the front panel or remote, to change the output resolution. You have to stop disc playback and go in to the setup menu any time you wish to make a change – for instance, if you’d like to compare the player’s 1080p/24 and 1080p/60 output. Also, the DMP-BD50 doesn’t output 480i via HDMI. I appreciate players that have a Source Direct mode that bypasses the internal processing and outputs every disc at its native resolution. That way, if your TV or external processor offers better scaling, you can easily use the external device instead. The DMP-BD50’s average DVD performance makes this feature all the more desirable.

Conclusion
BD-Live support may be the DMP-BD50’s initial draw, but I don’t think it’s ultimately the determining factor in whether or not this is the player for you. Price and audio support are the real issues. The DMP-BD50’s original MSRP was $699.95; however, almost immediately upon the player’s release, Panasonic lowered the price to $599.95, which is still a couple hundred dollars more than the PlayStation3 ($400) or the new BD-Live-ready players from Samsung (the BD-P1500, $400) and Sony (the BDP-S350, $350). In the performance realm, the Panasonic is certainly a worthy contender; whether or not it’s worth the step up in price really depends on your A/V system’s capabilities. The two BD-Live-ready models lack the full complement of internal high-resolution audio decoders, and the PlayStation3 lacks multichannel analog audio outputs. The DMP-BD50 has more flexibility to integrate with an older HDMI- or non-HDMI-equipped receiver. It’s more economical to pay an additional $200 for a Blu-ray player than to buy a brand new receiver with high-resolution audio decoding. When you look it that way, the DMP-BD50 represents a good value, and its Profile 2.0 designation ensures that it will support the Blu-ray features you want, now and in the future.
Manufacturer Panasonic
Model DMP-BD50 Blu-ray Player
Reviewer Adrienne Maxwell
Output Resolutions 1080p
HDMI Version 1.3
Audio Format Support DTS-HD Master Audio (Bitstream) • Dolby TrueHD (Bitstream) • Multi-Channel PCM
Supported Media Formats BD-R • CD • CD-R • CD-RW • DVD • BD-RE • DVD+R • DVD-R • BD-ROM • DVD-ROM • DVD-RW • DVD+RW
BD Profile 2.0
Recordable No





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