Shaped like something out of War of the Worlds, Panasonic's latest DVD design will have your techie friends drooling in envy. This ultraslim, chrome-clad slice of the future performs well and offers features not found on earlier decks. True, the DVD-XP50 costs a bit more and unfortunately has one annoying quality. But those minor drawbacks shouldn't keep it from making your shortlist of progressive-scan players with DVD-Audio (DVD-A) support. Shaped like something out of War of the Worlds, Panasonic's latest DVD design will have your techie friends drooling in envy. This ultraslim, chrome-clad slice of the future performs well and offers features not found on earlier decks. True, the DVD-XP50 costs a bit more and unfortunately has one annoying quality. But those minor drawbacks shouldn't keep it from making your shortlist of progressive-scan players with DVD-Audio (DVD-A) support.
At a mere two inches high, the XP50 takes up precious little space in an entertainment center. Still, it looks best atop a silver TV because the few buttons--Open/Close, Transport, and Remaster--are mounted on the player's top instead of out front. In fact, the only things that fit on the slim face are the drawer and a spacey, violet-backlit LCD.
That novel display--most decks have LEDs on a field of black--is actually the XP50's biggest flaw; it's tiny, hard to read, very bright, and impossible to dim. In terms of irritation, just imagine a 10-foot-tall Exit sign at the front of a movie theater. OK, that may be a slight exaggeration, but you get the picture.
The rest of the XP50 is far more copacetic. The remote's buttons, while not backlit, are arranged well, which allows for easy navigation by feel. The setup menus lack explanatory text, but navigation is simple enough. A well-designed display menu gives you access to more-advanced functions that are relevant during playback, such as Search and Picture modes.
The XP50 handles a multitude of formats, including DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD+RW, DVD-RW, DVD-RAM, and yes, DVD-A. DVD-A uses the 5.1-channel analog-audio outputs and requires a receiver or a preamp with matching inputs. Among the XP50's other audio bonuses are the Remaster feature, which resamples CD music to 24 bits, and Audio Only, which shuts off the video circuitry to supposedly reduce interference.
This deck's MP3 capabilities are among the best that we've seen, and it's one of the first players to support WMA files. The XP50 displays filenames and the disc's file tree, including folder names (for example, album titles). It can play an entire disc of MP3s at random and even lets you search for a tune anywhere on the CD by entering a few letters of the filename--very nice.
Since the XP50 lacks aspect-ratio control, owners of certain older wide-screen DTVs--those that can't resize a progressive image--will have to watch nonanamorphic discs in lower-quality interlaced mode. This Panasonic is also missing a coaxial digital-audio output, but it has an optical output, along with jacks for component video, S-Video, video, and stereo audio.
Mulholland Drive looked very good on the XP50. Detail and color were excellent, down to the reflections in the teardrop in an extreme close-up of Rita's face. We noticed minimal noise in the shadowy scenes at the Silencio nightclub, and the player rendered pans around Betty's Los Angeles apartment with little noise and no moving lines. Video sources appeared free of jagged edges, thanks to the Sage DCDi chip. Unfortunately, the XP50's conversion of anamorphic discs to 4:3 introduced motion artifacts and jagged edges.
Listening to DVD-A content, we couldn't tell the difference between this Panasonic and the on our modest test system. The intimacy of Bjork's voice on Vespertine enveloped us completely and extended far beyond its range on the CD version. We tried the Remaster function on the CD version of the album; it did lend some crispness and life to the upper range of the percussion, but at times, it made the music sound a little harsh. The Audio Only function had no effect that our ears could hear.
As noted, the $400 XP50 is more expensive than competing DVD-A units from , but it certainly is more stylish. If you like the XP50's look but don't need DVD-A support, the step-down costs around $75 less. All told, the XP50 is a solid value on the strengths of its design and good performance.