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Editors' note: Panasonic has released a new Blu-ray player, the DMP-BD30, which meets the requirements of Blu-ray Profile 1.1 (more info here) and adds bitstream output for high-resolution audio formats such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. However, the DMP-BD10A is still worth considering as it has built-in decoding for Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio, plus it has 7.1 analog multichannel outputs--which may make it a better choice for audiophiles with older receivers.
When Panasonic rolled out the DMP-BD10 last September, we were impressed but ultimately gave it only a lukewarm review. Despite good performance, the BD10 had an MSRP of $1,300, which ultimately was just too much. And although Panasonic promised a firmware update to add support for internal decoding of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD High Resolution--two of the new, high-resolution surround sound formats--we've been fooled too many times by the "we'll fix it in the firmware" attitude to take this kind of promise at face value.
Now just nine months later, Panasonic has released the DMP-BD10A, which has the exact same hardware as the BD10, but there are a few key differences. For one, the BD10A comes with the newest firmware, which enables support for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD High Resolution out of the box (BD10 owners can gain this functionality with a firmware upgrade). Secondly, the MSRP has taken a serious nosedive, all the way down to $600. And to further sweeten the deal, the DMP-BD10A comes with five Blu-ray movies packed in the box (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Transporter, Fantastic 4 and Crash). Those factors make the BD10A a much better deal than the BD10, but savvy consumers will note that you can buy a PlayStation 3 for that price and get a whole lot more functionality. If you're set on getting a standalone player, and are deciding between the DMP-BD10A and the Samsung BD-P1200, the short story is this--the BD-P1200 is more expensive, has a nicer design, and slightly better DVD upconversion, while the less-expensive DMP-BD10A comes with superior soundtrack support, DVD-Audio compatibility and five free movies.
Save for the Power button in the lower-left corner, the face of the Panasonic DMP-BD10A has a sleek look that's entirely free of buttons. In fact, it's so sleek that its disc drawer is completely hidden--until you flip down the front panel to reveal the drawer and several additional front-panel buttons. Unfortunately, the flip-down panel isn't motorized, so you'll need to flip it down yourself, manually, every time you change a disc. Lazy as we are, we also didn't like the lack of an open/close button on the remote; we had to walk up to the main unit to open the panel and drawer, instead of having it already be open by the time we got up. Of course, you could just leave the panel down, but then the darling of your home theater system looks like some cheap, no-name DVD player.
We did like the large LCD display, which is viewable through the front panel. There's also a blue light on the top--a not-so-subtle reminder that this is
On the other hand, the remote looks cheap at first glance, although the big blue Stop, Pause, and Play buttons stand out well. The bottom half of the remote is distinguished by its combination directional pad/scroll wheel, which we really couldn't stand using. The slippery wheel makes navigating with the directional keypad unnecessarily annoying and far too easy to accidentally spin into scan mode--you have to hit the Play button for it to resume playing at normal speed. Happily, the wheel's scan function can be deactivated in the menu, which we did as soon as we found out we could.
To access the advanced functions, you have to flip up a hatch on the top part of the remote. Underneath, you'll find a full number pad, the setup button, and some other keys. We found ourselves using the setup button frequently enough to wish it was on the remote's main surface. In all, you'll probably be better off buying a good universal remote.
The setup menu itself is easy enough to use and will be familiar to anyone who has played with a Panasonic DVD player in the past. We were a little disappointed that the company didn't upgrade the menu graphics for this high-end player--the Philips BDP9000, for instance, has high-def graphics that are much easier on the eyes. Of course, if you don't plan on tweaking the settings frequently, you won't see the menu often.
The Panasonic DMP-BD10A's main feature, of course, is the ability to play Blu-ray discs, but its compatibility in other areas is also better than that of some Blu-ray players. It one-ups the Samsung BD-P1200 by including support for the high-resolution audio format
In terms of Blu-ray and DVD soundtrack support, the DMP-BD10A handles standard Dolby Digital and DTS, and can send both of them over HDMI in either bit stream--to be decoded by an AV receiver--or linear PCM (LPCM) formats. It also has support for new higher-resolution soundtrack formats, such as Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD High Resolution, and you can take advantage of these formats by setting the DMP-BD10 to PCM mode (rather than bit stream) and sending the PCM signal via the HDMI output, or using the 7.1 multichannel analog outputs. Audiophiles should take note that the DMP-BD10A and Sony's older BDP-S1 are the only standalone Blu-ray players that have support for these high-resolution soundtracks--although several HD DVD players have this functionality, as does the PlayStation 3.
Connectivity is also better than other Blu-ray units. The DMP-BD10A is currently the only Blu-ray player with 7.1 analog outputs, which can handle the full resolution of the high-resolution audio soundtracks. If you have an older receiver without HDMI, there's a good chance it has a 7.1 multichannel input so you can still take advantage of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD High Resolution.
Like other Blu-ray players, the most important connection is the HDMI output that can carry 1080p video signals along with new high-resolution, multichannel surround audio soundtracks. For those without HDMI-friendly receivers and displays, there is also a component-video output, along with an AV output with S-Video. There are also both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, but note that they cannot carry the high-resolution audio soundtracks.
Forward-thinking buyers also will be quick to note that the DMP-BD10A lacks HDMI 1.3, which is the latest iteration of the HDMI spec. While HDMI 1.3 opens up the possibility for many seemingly worthwhile features--such as the ability to send high-resolution soundtracks in bit stream format and an expanded color gamut--all of the high-def disc players we've seen with HDMI 1.3 have been unable to utilize these upgrades. Until we see players with the HDMI 1.3-enhanced features, we don't consider the lack of HDMI 1.3 to be a big loss.
For those who haven't seen the difference between the new high-def disc formats and DVDs, the increase in image quality is large if you're watching on a big screen HDTV. The enhanced resolution and color saturation over DVDs goes a long way to bring the film experience into your home theater. To see how the DMP-BD10A compared to the competition, we put the DMP-BD10A up against our current reference Blu-ray player, the Samsung BD-P1200. Before we get into the details, the short story is that, like all Blu-ray and HD DVD players we've tested, there is very little difference in image quality between new high-definition disc players--unlike DVD players, where differences in quality are often considerable.
We started off our test looking at Corpse Bride in 1080p on the Pioneer PRO-FHD1 and the Panasonic TH-42PZ700U. This disc is extremely sharp and any difference in detail between the players should be visible. However, with our noses inches for the screen, we found it very difficult to find any significant differences in the image quality between the players. This is even more so the case when watching at a standard viewing distance of around 8 feet for a 50-inch plasma.
We also took a look at Ghost Rider, as we've seen some TVs have issues with 1080i deinterlacing at the very end of Chapter 6, where the camera pans up with the RV in the background. While we've seen TVs struggle with this, both the BD-P1200 and the BDP-BD10A had no problem, as the grille of the RV was correctly rendered and free of moirÃ©.
Lastly, we took a look at some test patterns on Silicon Image's HQV test suite on Blu-ray, in 1080p mode on both players. The DMP-BD10A, like the BD-P1200, didn't have any trouble with the tests, acing even the difficult film resolution tests that we've seen most 1080p HDTVs fail. Like we said before, there's really very little difference in Blu-ray performance among all Blu-ray players.
The Panasonic is still a little slow with load times, but it's a bit faster than previous firmware versions. It took about 30 seconds from the time we hit Close Tray until a picture came up. Other standalone players we've tested came in about 5 seconds faster, while the PlayStation 3 was fastest of all. On the upside, the Panasonic was still significantly faster that the notoriously slow Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD player. Also improved in the latest firmware is the responsiveness to chapter skips, which was a little pokey in previous versions. It's still not as fast as the PlayStation 3, but we didn't feel it had a negative impact on our viewing experience.
Since everyone purchasing the DMP-BD10A will have a bigger collection of standard-def DVDs than of Blu-ray discs, DVD upconversion performance is a critical factor. Overall, the DMP-BD10A is a top-notch upconverting player. To start off, we ran through the Silicon Optix's HQV test suite, in each resolution--480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p. Beginning with a resolution test, the DMP-BD10A looks as sharp as a DVD can look in every resolution, with 480p being just a smidgen softer. Next up were some motion tests that it passed easily, exhibiting none of the issues we saw on the Philips player. The DMP-BD10A plowed through the rest of the tests, demonstrating lightning-fast
We had noticed in previous firmware versions that the DMP-BD10A exhibited the chroma upscaling error, also known as the "chroma bug", which can look like comblike artifacts in certain colors. However, in the newest firmware (version 2.2), we only saw this behavior on improperly flagged DVDs, which means it should only show up on poorly authored discs.
Moving past the chroma bug, we watched the introduction from Seabiscuit, where the camera movement over black-and-white still photos often gives lesser DVD players problems, especially in the angled lines. The DMP-BD10A handled the section extremely well, and we were reminded just how good DVDs can look when properly upscaled. Like we said before, the DMP-BD10A is an excellent upscaling DVD player and is maybe only a smidgen behind players equipped with HQV processing, like the BD-P1200 and the Toshiba HD-XA2.