The DVD-RP56, Panasonic's entry-level DVD player with progressive-scan capability, is a good performer but not the most attractive piece of gear available. With a slim face cluttered by buttons and logos, it delivers impressive progressive-scan images and includes a healthy set of features. Nonetheless, owners of progressive-capable TVs may want a classier-looking DVD player that's more in line with their TVs' expensive looks. The DVD-RP56, Panasonic's entry-level DVD player with progressive-scan capability, is a good performer but not the most attractive piece of gear available. With a slim face cluttered by buttons and logos, it delivers impressive progressive-scan images and includes a healthy set of features. Nonetheless, owners of progressive-capable TVs may want a classier-looking DVD player that's more in line with their TVs' expensive looks.
Face full of features
In addition to a display and a disc drawer, this player's black, gold, and white face has no fewer than 30 words, 14 buttons, four logos, and one big dial. The dial, a shuttle control for forward and reverse searches, would be much more useful on the remote, which is on the small side and feels a little cheap, with no glowing or backlit keys.
Although the RP56 is currently one of the least expensive progressive-scan players on the market (with a $299 list price), its feature set is much more than skin and bones. It supports CD-R/RWs and MP3 CDs, but it can't play MP3 tracks at random or display ID3 tags onscreen. A One Touch Cinema Memory feature provides a single memory slot for the player's four principal user-adjustable modes: Virtual Surround, Bass Plus, Dialogue Enhancer, and Cinema.
Bass Plus is the most useful audio mode of the bunch, enabling you to directly connect a separate, powered subwoofer in case you don't have a multichannel amp. The back panel includes the standard composite video, S-Video, and component-video jacks (Y, Pr, Pb), as well as an optical output for digital audio, though there's no coaxial output.
Ugliness is only skin deep
Progressive-scan technology takes standard interlaced video, where the scan lines that make up a TV image are presented alternately, and turns it into progressive video so that the lines are all presented sequentially. This creates a much more stable, flicker-free image. The catch is that you need an expensive progressive-scan digital TV or HDTV to display the images. Unless you have such a set or plan on buying one, the RP56 isn't for you.
That said, those who have the right equipment should be pleased with the player's video performance. Equipped with 3:2 pull-down circuitry to clean up the output of film-based DVDs, the RP56 displays very crisp images. When we slipped in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it easily outperformed the progressive-scan circuit built into our Samsung wide-screen HDTV. There were virtually no motion artifacts visible in slow pans over the richly decorated rooms in the Yu palace. Jen's elaborate costumes were also brilliant, with well-balanced color levels.
Performance wasn't perfect, though. Slats in a window at Shu Lien's dojo jumped a little during one early shot, and a medium-speed pan caused a set of pillars to pass in subtle jerks instead of smoothly. Meanwhile, visual-noise reduction was average (we noticed, for instance, a few dancing motes in the flagstones of Peking's streets).
The RP56 lacks aspect-ratio control, so you'll have to switch to the interlaced mode when watching movies that aren't enhanced for wide screen (unless your HDTV can change ratios with progressive-scan material; many cannot). Thankfully, there's a front-panel button to switch between interlaced and progressive modes.
In interlaced mode, the component-video performance is also very good, with output levels and saturation close to progressive levels. We were disappointed, however, with the RP56's images on a standard 4:3 television; there were visible jagged edges and moving lines even with progressive scan engaged. Fortunately, high-end 4:3 TVs with a 16:9 enhanced mode (a.k.a. anamorphic squeeze) are immune to this problem.
Panasonic makes two more-expensive, single-disc progressive-scan models. The step-up DVD-RP61 includes DVD-Audio capability, and the has reference-level video performance as well DVD-Audio support. As we said, there are plenty of more attractive players out there. But if cosmetics aren't a concern and your main priority is good progressive-scan video, the RP56 is a great bargain.