Editors' note (March 30, 2009): The rating of this player has been changed since its initial publication to reflect changes in the marketplace. The Panasonic DMP-BD55 has been replaced with the newer Panasonic DMP-BD80
Blu-ray has almost gotten its act together. After putting the stake in the heart of HD DVD, prospective buyers have had to deal with confusing Blu-ray profiles, varying audio-decoding capabilities, and standalone players with prices above $500. As we head into the 2008 holiday season, however, we're finally starting to see fully mature Profile 2.0 players with high-resolution audio decoding at prices that don't exceed the cost of theSony PlayStation 3.
The Panasonic DMP-BD55 is a perfect example, hitting almost all the essential features we look for and pairing those up with pristine image quality. That being said, Panasonic also offers the cheaper DMP-BD35, which (from what Panasonic engineers have told us), will offer all the same features and identical video performance--with the exception of the 7.1 analog outputs and analog-audio enhancements. As good as the DMP-BD55 is, unless you intend to use the analog outputs on your Blu-ray player, go with the less expensive DMP-BD35.
The DMP-BD55's exterior design has been updated significantly. Compared with its predecessor, the DMP-BD50, the DMP-BD55 has a slimmer, sleeker look--although its "vibration-reducing feet" cause it to be nearly as tall as the DMP-BD50. Gone is the large, clunky, flip-down panel from the DMP-BD50--replaced instead by a DVD-like disc tray in the center of the unit. On the far left is the LCD screen, and on the far right a blue indicator light for the SD-card slot. We appreciated that the SD-card light could be completely turned off; the LCD display, for its part, can be dimmed, but not turned off completely. Also on the right is the flip-down panel, and underneath you'll find the actual SD-card slot itself and a few playback controls--although no chapter forward/backward. In all, we like the sleeker redesign.
The remote is virtually unchanged from previous designs. The center is dominated by big, blue playback buttons, including chapter skip and fast-forward/rewind. Below 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 remote control can also control a TV and an audiovisual receiver, if programmed to do so.
Panasonic's DMP-BD50 was the first standalone Blu-ray player to offer Profile 2.0 support, and the DMP-BD55 is also compliant. This means it's capable of accessing Internet-enabled features (often referred to as "BD-Live" features) available on some movies, such as Rambo and Walk Hard. To access the features, you'll need to have the DMP-BD55 connected to the Internet via its Ethernet port, as well as have an SD card in the front panel slot--we would have liked to see Panasonic offer built-in memory as another step-up from the DMP-BD35. So far, BD-Live features have been pretty underwhelming, but we expect the content to improve as more compliant players hit the market and disc makers get a handle on the new technology. We will note that the DMP-BD55 still offers a significantly inferior experience to the PS3 on these interactive features--the PS3 is just faster, and its built-in hard drive is more convenient.
We were happy to see the DMP-BD55 handled nonanamorphic wide-screen DVDs correctly. While there's no manual setting, we popped in an older version of Carlito's Way and the DMP-BD55 automatically detected the aspect ratio and properly displayed the movie. This is particularly useful on some HDTVs that lack aspect-ratio control for HD sources.
Soundtrack support is comprehensive on the DMP-BD55. 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. For what it's worth, Panasonic emphasizes the superiority of the DMP-BD55's internal analog-audio components, although we didn't hear any improvement over the standard HDMI output. The DMP-BD55 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 sound-quality difference between the receiver decoding the soundtracks or the Blu-ray player --and we've never heard any difference ourselves--but some people just like to see their receiver's "Dolby TrueHD" indicator light up.