Sunday, March 23, 2008

Panasonic DMP-BD30 Blu-ray Player Review

Blu-ray is here! Now that the format war is over, I can confidently commit to an optical disc hi-def format. You can read about my aborted attempt at a dual-format player here. For an MSRP of $499 (I got it for $399 at Amazon), you can enjoy hi-def bliss in your own theater. The BD30 supports 24p video output and bitstreaming of lossless sound formats to a compatible receiver. It will also upconvert standard DVD to 1080p/60 if you wish. This player will play pretty much any shiny disc except SACD and DVD-Audio. AVCHD support for hi-def camcorders is included as well. This format allows HD video to be encoded on a standard DVD or an SD card. For audio output there are 5.1 analog output jacks provided as well as coax and optical digital and of course, HDMI. This player will not decode lossless sound formats internally. It should be considered an audio transport to be used with a receiver or processor capable of decoding Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Fortunately, the Onkyo SR805 in my rack is one such product. I will post a review of that unit shortly.

Ergonomically, the unit is pretty typical of disc players. The front panel has 2 flip-down doors, one hiding controls and the SD slot and one hiding the disc transport. Fortunately, you don’t have to manually open the disc door to insert or eject a disc like you did on the BD10. I’m not sure why Panasonic chose to put the eject button on the opposite side from the disc tray, strange. My only real complaint about this player is the blue light in the top center of the front panel. This little light is about an inch wide and shines an extremely bright blue. Oddly, you can dim the panel display in the setup menu but not this annoying light. I will probably put a piece of black tape or cloth over this as it is within my peripheral vision when I’m watching a movie. (**Update 3-29** To turn off the light, enter the Setup menu, choose "Display" then "SD Card LED Control." Turning this option off turns off the blue light. Thanks to Widescreen Review for this info.) The remote is decent though without a backlight, it’s pretty much useless in a darkened theater. I couldn’t wait to set the player up with my Harmony 890.

Before I dive into the playback results, a word about 24p: once you’ve experienced a movie without judder or cadence-related artifacts, you’ll never want to go back. I highly recommend a display capable of displaying 24p. Note my use of the term “displaying.” Some TVs will accept a 24p signal and display it at 60 or 120 hertz. This completely defeats the purpose of having a 24p capable player. My projector displays 24p signals at 96 hertz. Look for a refresh rate that is a multiple of 24. Pioneer plasmas can refresh at 72 hertz while the latest Panasonic commercial plasmas support a 48 hertz refresh rate. The resulting smooth and artifact free cadence really brings movie watching to whole new level.

Now, on to the playback results. Blu-ray discs, not surprisingly, look stunning on my Panasonic AE2000U projector and Carada 92-inch screen. Detail and color are simply on another level even from hi-def TV. There is simply no comparison of a quality Blu-ray image to cable or satellite HD. Since compression is minimal and bandwidth is plentiful, the image rivals that of a movie theater. In fact it handily surpasses the film quality available in my area of the country (Orange County, New York). DVD upconversion is decent though I much prefer the image from my Denon 2930CI. I’ve added one of these excellent players to my theater to support my standard-def movie collection. I would say though on a 50-inch or smaller display, the DVD playback of the BD30 is above average. I’d say you’d have to go with at least an Oppo 983 with its ABT video processor to surpass the Panasonics DVD image quality. Audio from this player is also superb. Of course, in bitstream mode it’s simply passing the data to the receiver for decoding. The advantages of a direct signal path with only one digital to analog conversion are clear. Sonic detail from movie soundtracks is the best I’ve ever heard. I’m hearing subtle things in familiar titles I’ve not heard before. Blu-ray discs with lossless soundtracks are even more impressive. Once you’ve heard a well-mastered disc in TrueHD or DTS Master Audio, Dolby Digital won’t be quite the same. The speaker system in my theater is the same Axiom M60, VP150, QS8 and EP350 setup that I use in the living room. Between the improvements I’ve made in electronics and room acoustics, I can now say with confidence that I’ve surpassed the sound quality available in all but the best movie theaters. There is no harshness or fatigue. Dialog is clear and tight. There is a huge dynamic range yet I’m never straining to hear detail or reaching for the volume control when the louder dynamics are in play.

I realize that at $499, many still consider Blu-ray to be too expensive. It’s a shame that the industry isn’t willing to get players down to the sub-$200 range at this time. For us early-adopters however, it’s a great time to be a videophile. I only wish there were more Blu-ray titles! They are slowly getting out there. I’ve already purchased a few movies that I previously owned on DVD. To me, it’s well worth it for the improvement in image and sound quality. Before Blu-ray, images and sound this good couldn’t be achieved even on the most expensive equipment available. Now you can have 1080p and lossless sound for only $499! The only caveat with this player is you must pair it with an HDMI 1.3a capable receiver to realize its full audio potential. This isn’t too hard though with the excellent Onkyo SR805 selling for under $1000. With today’s quality hi-def displays available at ever-lowering prices, it’s easy logic to have the best hi-def source available to maximize performance. The Panasonic BD30 advances the art and science of video to a very high level. You won’t be disappointed!

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Mancave is Alive!

As you may have already deduced, the mancave is now a full-blown theater. To see how the room evolved into its present form, check out this article. I've posted pictures below:

Here is a close view of the front speakers, Axiom M60, VP150 center and EP350v3 sub.

This is the focal point, a 92-inch Carada Criterion screen. The viewing area is 80"x45", 16:9 aspect ratio. Believe me, it's worth the extra $100 for the Criterion frame. It's super-stiff for a perfectly flat screen surface. It looks like a giant flat-panel TV!

Another view of the screen and front speakers. The center channel stand is by Axiom also. They will provide custom heights for no extra cost, really nice. All speakers and the stand are on spikes included by Axiom.

Here is the gear rack. It's a flexi built according to these instructions. It's amazingly solid. I put the acorn nuts on the bottom to act as feet. This makes the rack easy to pull out to reach the rear jack panels. The setup you see here is 100% digital. Only HDMI cables are used to connect the three source components. The Onkyo SR805 receiver is THX certified and decodes all lossless sound formats. It also features 8-point Audyssey room correction.

A closeup of the source components. On top is an Oppo 980 for SACD transport. This player outputs DSD over HDMI for a mere $169, amazing! The Panasonic BD-30 does a super job with Blu-ray and outputs all lossless sound formats as a bitstream. The only thing I don't like about it is that bright blue light on the front. Unfortunately, there's no way to turn it off. You can just see the Denon 2930CI peeking out below. This is still the best player out there for DVD upconversion. It's also built like a tank. I wish there were a Blu-ray player as good for under $1000. Is anyone out there listening?

Two views of the Axiom QS8 surround speaker. This a quad-pole design with midrange drivers on the top and bottom and tweeters on the vertical faces. These surrounds sound great in almost any placement position, they are very forgiving. The conduit below is cable raceway from Home Depot. It comes in white plastic with double-stick tape on the back. Stick to the wall, insert cable and paint for a finished look.

This is the shelf-mounted Panasonic AE2000U projector. This is a 3-LCD design using the latest Epson C2fine panels. Black levels are superb and the overall image is stunning. Adjustments are many and a near-perfect calibration can be achieved. Stay tuned for a full review and calibration report.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sony KDS-60A3000 Calibration

History is replete with examples of products that were discontinued just when the manufacturer got them right. The latest victim of this injustice is Sony’s SXRD line of rear-projection TVs. These displays have always had benchmark status starting back with the Qualia series and its lower-priced successors, A2000, A2020 and A3000. Only the A3000 really got everything right. All the aspects of a quality TV are there; stable black levels, accurate color, good optics, 1080p/24 capability and correct gamma. Previous sets had most of these qualities but the A3000 finally had something I’d not seen since the last XBR960 I calibrated: accurate primary and secondary colors. This was the first Sony display, in my experience, with correct color out of the box.

My client was running his sources through an Anthem Statement D2 processor. This unit has Gennum VXP video processing so I ran my patterns through it to be sure of accurate results. As with most Sony TVs, all the controls needed are in the user menu. I started by setting the iris to a fixed aperture so it wouldn’t affect gamma and black level measurements. All enhancements were turned off. Black levels remained stable throughout the complete luminance range. Color space was left on standard. This set like many others supports an extended gamut (xvYCC) but no content is encoded with this colorspace. Engaging the wider gamut results in a cartoon-like picture with overblown color saturation. I did find use for the Live Color control. With the control set on medium, the CIE points were almost perfect and color separation seemed better. Since it had a positive effect, I left it on. Previous Sony products with this control do not benefit from its use.

Grayscale was easy to dial in with user menu controls as well. Tracking was within 100k of D65 after calibration, excellent performance. Gamma improved greatly from 1.7 to 2.1 after calibration. The gamma control did not have a positive effect so I left it off. Using it served only to raise the bottom of the curve. All adjustments were made with the Iris set on minimum. This ultimately hurt peak light output so I set in on Auto 2. Shadow detail was still excellent but peak luminance doubled to over 21 foot-lamberts. A 0 IRE field measured .008 fl for a contrast ratio of 2725:1. This was an ideal range for the room the TV was in. This TV is capable of prodigious light output but in a darkened room, anything over 20 fl will result in viewing fatigue. If ambient light had been an issue in this case, I would have opened up the iris to a larger, fixed aperture. I am a fan of automatic irises when you don’t see their operation. This is the case with the A3000. You don’t see the iris doing its thing when viewing content. Black level quality and shadow detail are excellent and you only notice the iris if you turn it off.

Once all adjustments to the Sony were complete, I dialed in the different sources using the Anthem’s adjustments. The Gennum VXP video processor has controls for everything except color management and grayscale. Small tweaks were made to brightness and some of the edge enhancement controls. DVD from the clients Oppo player was excellent and HDDVD played from an Xbox 360 looked stunning. Once you’ve experienced Blu-ray or HDDVD, you won’t want to watch any other format! For anyone considering a big TV like this, please hurry. Since Sony has ceased manufacturing this model, they won’t last long. I’ve seen them selling for under $2000. Imagine a 60-inch TV for under 2 grand! This has to be the video bargain of the century. As of today (March 9), Circuit City no longer has them in stock. If you already have one of these excellent displays, grab an extra bulb and consider a professional calibration. You should have no problem getting many years out of this TV.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!