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 Also, note that this product has effectively been replaced by the Panasonic DMP-BD35 and Panasonic DMP-BD55.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.
The DMP-BD50 is also Deep Color-compatible, for what that's worth, but of course there are no Deep Color-enabled Blu-ray Discs released or announced yet.
For our Blu-ray performance tests, we compared the DMP-BD50 with two of its main rivals, the Samsung BD-P1500 and the Sony PlayStation 3. We started off looking at test patterns, with all three players connected to the LG 50PG60, with each input set to its THX picture mode. The first disc we looked at was Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on Blu-ray.
The DMP-BD50 handled all of the Blu-ray test patterns with ease. All of the detail was present in the Video Resolution Loss Test, with none of the strobe-like effects that we noticed on the BD-P1500. The DMP-BD50 also did a commendable job with the two jaggies tests, although we noted that the Sony PlayStation 3 was just a tad better. The main difference we noticed was on the test with three shifting lines and when those lines reversed direction on the DMP-BD50, they tended to "shake" for a second--this behavior wasn't present on the PS3. On the Film Resolution Loss Test, however, the DMP-BD50 handled the slowly panning resolution test pattern perfectly, as well as the slow pan across Raymond James Stadium.
We moved from test patterns to actual program material to see how the DMP-BD50 held up with real-world footage. We started off by spot-checking some scenes known to be problematic and expose faulty video processing. First up was chapter 8 of Mission Impossible: III, and the DMP-BD50 showed none of the moire that crops up on some cheaper Blu-ray players. Similarly, it handled the blinds at the beginning of chapter 12 and the limo at the beginning of chapter 16 without any jaggies or moire--just crisp, detailed images. While the DMP-BD50 and PS3 clearly outclassed the BD-P1500 on test patterns, all three players put out essentially identical image quality on M:I:III.
We popped in Ghost Rider and looked at the end of chapter 6. The scene ends with the camera panning up and away from an RV and while we sometimes see moire in the grille of the RV, the DMP-BD50 handled it perfectly. We also watched through a few other movies such as I Am Legend and Blade Runner, and flipping between the players yielded virtually no difference.
We did notice some differences on Tony Bennett: American Classic, which is an unusual disc because it actually contains 1080i video, while most discs are mastered at 1080p. At the beginning of chapter 7, there's clapperboard and the horizontal lines are a torture test for the video processors. The DMP-BD50 looked substantially better than the BD-P1500, showing less jaggies overall--although still not perfect. Interestingly, these scenes looked best when we output the video in 1080i format, as the LG TV's video processing was superior to both Blu-ray players. We also noticed extra jaggies popping up in a few other scenes on this disc, such as around 33:40, where we noticed jaggies on the batons, and the DMP-BD50 was better again. (Note that we couldn't compare this disc on the PS3, as the PS3 does not deinterlace 1080i material to 1080p.)
The main takeaway from these tests is that the differences between these Blu-ray players is slight, but that if you're a videophile the DMP-BD50 is a notch better than the BD-P1500, and just a tiny bit worse than the reference PS3. Also note that if you plan on using these players in 1080p/24 mode, the differences essentially disappear, as we noticed virtually no differences between the players in 1080p at 24 frames per second mode.
We also tested the disc-loading performance of the DMP-BD50, and it performed better than expected. For standard discs, such as Mission:Impossible III, it loaded them in 23 seconds with the player on, and it took 33 seconds starting with the player off. The Java-heavy Pirates of the Caribbean 2 loaded in 1 minute and 44 seconds, while Spiderman 3 loaded in 1 minute and 34 seconds. These speeds were all significantly faster than the Samsung BD-P1500, and among all of the standalone players we've tested, only the LG BH200 loaded discs as quickly as the DMP-BD50. Of course, the PS3 is still the speed champ, and we're constantly frustrated by how unresponsive standalone players feel in comparison.
Standard DVD performance
DVDs are still plentiful and cheap, so DVD performance is still a big factor on Blu-ray players. We popped in the standard DVD version of the HQV test suite to see how the DMP-BD50 looked with test patterns. The first resolution test looked good, displaying the full resolution of DVD and with no image instability. The following tests, however, were a disappointment. A test with three shifting white lines was filled with jaggies, as was the following test with a rotating white bar. We were also disappointed to see the DMP-BD50 perform particularly poorly on a test with scrolling titles, with both vertically and horizontally scrolling text was mangled. Granted, most of the DMP-BD50's failures were on video-based tests--which are less common than film discs--but it's still unacceptable on a disc player at this price. And it did pass the difficult 2:3 pull-down test, which many players choke on. Still, the cheaper Samsung BD-P1500 performed much better on these tests, as did the PS3.
We switched over to program material to see if the DMP-BD50 handled actual movies any better. First, we looked at the introduction on Star Trek: Insurrection, and it rendered the opening sequence competently, with the railings of the bridge and curved hulls of the boats rendered smoothly. We did notice a few subtle jaggies on the text on the opening credits, and those same jaggies were present on the BD-P1500, but not on the PS3. We switched discs to Seabiscuit, and we noticed jagged edges on the opening sequence of black-and-white photos. While they aren't as bad as some other DVD players we've tested--some players are almost unwatchable with this sequence--we did notice them in almost every photograph in the introduction. Of course these imperfections will only be noticeable to eagle-eyed videophiles, but we expected more from the DMP-BD50.