Editors' note: The rating on this review has been modified due to changes in the competitive marketplace. Also, note that this product has effectively been replaced by the Panasonic DMP-BD35 and Panasonic DMP-BD55.
Sony may be the face of Blu-ray, and Samsung made the first Blu-ray player, but lately Panasonic has been leading the technological race among standalone (non-PlayStation 3) Blu-ray players. Last October, the company released the DMP-BD30K, which was the first Blu-ray Profile 1.1 player on the market, beating its competitors by a few months. Now Panasonic's latest release, the DMP-BD50, is the first standalone Profile 2.0 (also known as BD-Live) player on the market, with only the PS3 currently offering similar functionality. Not only that, but the DMP-BD50 can also decode the full suite of high-resolution soundtrack formats, or output them in bit stream format to a compatible receiver.
We've been complaining about the annoying Blu-ray Profile formats and confusing high-resolution soundtrack options for quite some time, but the DMP-BD50 finally feels like the first complete Blu-ray player we've reviewed. That being said, it will set you back $700 and it still doesn't offer nearly the value of the $400 PS3. So while the Panasonic DMP-BD50 is our favorite standalone player so far--and there are a few reasons why someone might prefer a standalone player to a game console--the vast majority of buyers are still much better off with the PS3.
The design of the DMP-BD50 is essentially identical to its predecessor, the DMP-BD30K. Viewed from the front, the left side of the unit is dominated by the disc tray, which is hidden by a flip-down panel that automatically raises and lowers (unlike the manual panel on the DMP-BD10A). Further right is the LED display, and we appreciated that its large size made it easy to read from the across the room. The right side also features a big flip-down panel, and underneath are some playback controls, including chapter forward/backward, which is nice for when the remote goes missing. Also under the flip down panel is an SDHC card slot, capable of reading high-definition photos or video shot in AVCHD format. There's also a bright light located toward the top of the front panel, which is an indicator for the SDHC card slot. Luckily for those looking to control light sources in a dark home theater environment, the SDHC card light can be completely turned off, and the main LED can be dimmed. Overall, we couldn't help but feel that the DMP-BD50 looked a bit pedestrian next to the slick Samsung BD-P1500.
The included remote is also almost exactly the same as the DMP-BD30's. The center of the remote is dominated by big, blue playback buttons, including chapter skip and fast-forward/rewind. Below that is a large directional pad, surrounded by other important buttons for disc menus, pop-up menus, and a general display button. Overall, it's fairly well laid out and easy to use, and the clicker can also control a TV and AV receiver if programmed to do so.
The DMP-BD50 is the first standalone Blu-ray player that is compatible with Blu-ray Profile 2.0, also known as BD-Live. This means it's capable of accessing Internet-enabled features available on some movies, such as Rambo and Walk Hard. You'll need to have an empty SD card handy to access these features--the lack of built-in memory feels cheap at this price point--and your DMP-BD50 will have to be connected to the Internet via Ethernet. While we initially had some trouble accessing these features--we're assuming because we didn't use an empty SD card--the payoff certainly wasn't worth it, as the bonus content consisted mostly of trailer downloads and clunky "remix this movie" software. We also noticed that the PS3 handled the BD-Live content much quicker, which is even more noticeable for interactive content. There most likely will be some worthwhile Profile 2.0 content in the future, but don't rush out expecting to gain access to any great bonus content right away. The player is also compatible with Blu-ray Profile 1.1, aka Bonus View, which means you can access picture-in-picture commentary tracks on some discs such as Sunshine.
Soundtrack support is outstanding on the DMP-BD50. It has onboard decoding for all high-resolution soundtrack formats, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, so you don't need a new receiver to take advantage of the improved audio quality. The DMP-BD50 can also output high-resolution soundtracks in bit stream format, so you can opt to let your AV receiver handle the decoding duties. There should be absolutely no difference as to whether the receiver or Blu-ray player decodes the soundtracks--we've never heard any difference--but some people just like to see their receiver light up and say Dolby TrueHD.
Connectivity is also solid, with the DMP-BD50 offering up all the main outputs you'd want. The most important connection is the HDMI output, which can handle high-definition video up to 1080p as well as high-resolution audio. For analog high-definition video, there's also a component video output, but note that Blu-ray Discs are limited to 1080i over component and DVDs to 480p. For audio, there are 5.1 multichannel analog outputs, and with the onboard decoding, that means you can enjoy high-resolution audio even on older receivers that lack HDMI connectivity. It would have been nice to see 7.1 mulitchannel analog outputs, like the DMP-BD10A had, but that only matters if you have a 7.1 audio system setup. As mentioned before, Panasonic stashed an SDHC card slot under the flip-down panel on the front. This slot can read many different media types, including MP3s and JPEGs with resolutions up to 1,920x1,080. More interestingly, it can play back high-definition AVCHD video from high-definition camcorders that record on SD cards.