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!


Greg said...

You mention 120 Hz displays as "defeating the purpose" of 24p display. Keep in mind 120 Hz is an even multiple of 24, and display a 5:5 cadence as long as you don't enable any sort of motion processing. -Greg

Chris Eberle said...

Not all 120hz displays use a 5:5 cadence. Some will use frame interpolation even when motion processing is turned off. Other displays won't allow motion processing to be turned off. I should have been more clear about that fact.