Editors' note (March 30, 2009): The rating of this player has been changed since its initial publication to reflect changes in the marketplace.
Editors' note (February 9, 2009): This product has been discontinued. It will be replaced by the Panasonic DMP-BD60, which is expected to become available in April 2009.
Editors' note: The Panasonic DMP-BD35 and DMP-BD55 are virtually identical in most respects, and therefore their reviews are similar as well.
Over the last couple of years, the Sony PlayStation 3 has been one of the best bargains for home theater fans. It plays Blu-ray discs as well as any other player, handles high-def gaming, streams digital media, rents movies over the Internet, and, until fairly recently, it cost about the same as standalone Blu-ray players. Not to mention the fact that earlier standalone players had older Blu-ray profiles, incomplete high-resolution audio decoding, and were just plain slow to use.
The Panasonic DMP-BD35 significantly changes the game. It's a Profile 2.0-compliant player with onboard decoding for both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, and it carries a $300 list price. Furthermore, it offers excellent image quality on Blu-ray movies and it looks pretty good with standard DVDs as well. In many ways the PS3 is still a better Blu-ray player, especially when it comes to responsiveness and the fact that you can use it play games, stream media, and rent movies. But for home theater fans who just want to watch Blu-ray movies, the DMP-BD35 is the best value we've seen, and so it deserves our Editors' Choice award--the first we've given to a Blu-ray player.
The DMP-BD35's exterior design has been updated significantly over previous models. It has a slim profile and because it lacks the "vibration-reducing feet" of the step-up DMP-BD55, it's a little bit shorter. 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, which can be dimmed but not turned off completely. Also on the right is a flip-down panel, underneath which you'll find the SD-card slot and a few playback controls, although chapter forward/backward skip goes missing. 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 AV receiver.
Panasonic's DMP-BD50 was the first standalone Blu-ray player to offer Profile 2.0 support, and the DMP-BD35 is also 2.0 compliant. This means it's capable of accessing Internet-enabled special features (often referred to as "BD-Live" content) available on some movies, such as Rambo and Walk Hard. To access the features, you'll need to have the DMP-BD35 connected to the Internet via its Ethernet port, as well as have an SD card in the front panel slot. 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-BD35 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 that the DMP-BD35 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-BD35 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-BD35. 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 player can also output high-resolution soundtracks in bit-stream format, so you can opt to let your AV receiver handle the decoding duties itself. There should be absolutely no sound-quality difference between the receiver decoding the soundtracks or the Blu-ray player doing so--and we've never heard any difference ourselves--but some people just like to see their receiver's "Dolby TrueHD" indicator light up.