Once Blu-ray triumphed in the late, great HD format war, movie lovers were set free to take the Blu-ray plunge with confidence, and for all the right reasons. Blu-ray, after all, provides gorgeous 1080p HD images and high-resolution Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD-Master Audio soundtracks. The only small catch, of course, is that not all systems are ready to take full advantage of Blu-ray’s better than CD quality sound. Allow me to explain.
Panasonic, like other Blu-ray player makers, is keenly aware that players can potentially take three different approaches in handling high-resolution soundtracks:
Panasonic’s DMP-BD55 ($400) stands as a versatile and full-featured player that supports all three options, and that also offers die-hard movie mavens both 1080p/60 and 1080/24p playback options—the latter allowing films to be presented at correct 24 frame per second rates. Given the amount of interest in the DMP-BD55 shown on the forums at our sister Web site (www.avguide.com), we couldn’t wait to review the player.
Consider this Blur-ray player if: you want a versatile and affordable player that taps the full video and audio capabilities of the Blu-ray format—including a 1080/24p feature. The DMP-BD55 offers 7.1-channel analog outputs (and very good-sounding analog circuits) plus the ability to convert advanced codecs for multichannel LPCM output. Both features make this a fine player to use with legacy components that don’t have Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio decoders of their own.
Look elsewhere if: you don’t need or want 7.1-channel analog outputs or multichannel (7.1- or 5.1-channel LPCM) features. If HDMI bitstream support for advanced codecs is all you need, Panasonic’s simpler DMP-BD35 will get the job done, for $100 less.
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced Blu-ray players):
The DMP-BD55 provides a reasonably clear onscreen user interface that will help you navigate though some—though definitely not all—set-up tasks without having to rely upon the manual. But regarding the interface, I do have two specific complaints.
First, the menu structure is not as logical as it should be. For example, the Panasonic provides a menu item labeled Audio, yet speaker setup parameters (normally thought to be an “audio” functions) are nowhere to be found on the menu. Instead, the speaker setup parameters are located, somewhat illogically, under the TV/Device Connection menu. Go figure.
Second, certain functions are “hidden” in such obscure locations that the only way you’ll be able to find them is by reading the manual (a step I’d always recommend, though one many users might resist). For example, if you search the TV/Device Connection menu, you still won’t find the “hidden” speaker setup parameters I mentioned above. Only by studying the manual will you find the far-from-intuitive keystroke sequence that unlocks the speaker setup window (talk about trying to find a needle in a haystack). It seems to me that such basic functions should not be so deeply hidden—or difficult to use.
The bottom line is that Panasonic’s user interface/menu structure, though workable if you have the manual at hand, is far from the best in available in this class. Intuitive is it not.
Remote control: the DMP-BD55’s remote features neatly organized black (or blue) control buttons with highly legible white markings. The only drawback is that there is no backlighting feature—a feature Panasonic should consider adding.
In keeping with standard Playback practice, I used the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark DVD to test the DMP-BD55’s DVD playback capabilities, and came away impressed. The Panasonic did a very good-to-excellent job with the difficult HQV jaggies and moiré pattern tests and it also did a better than average job on noise and cadence tests. On real-world DVDs the Panasonic proved to be a fine upscaling player—one that perhaps foregoes the “nth” of image sharpness in order to achieve an almost film-like degree of image smoothness.
It was no surprise to find that the DMP-BD55 produced spectacular images with Blu-ray discs. It was a treat to watch the “The Cotton Bowl” sequence from The Express, where at several points the director (Gary Fleder) and cinematographer (Kramer Morgenthau) apply a distinctive and very selective “heat shimmer” effect to convey the sheer intensity of the game. The way the effect works is that certain elements within the frame—for example, individual players, selective small details on the players’ uniforms, or even individual tufts of grass on the playing field—are presented in incredibly sharp focus (with Blu-ray capturing fine, small details as only it can), while other element momentarily melt and morph, as if in a shimmering heat wave.
The Panasonic is easily the equal of the best Blu-ray players we have tested in this class, though its presentation does have subtle, signature characteristics (as do most players). Specifically, on Blu-ray material as on DVD playback, the Panasonic impresses with its image smoothness, and though it does a superb job of rendering fine-line details it exhibits very slightly lower contrast levels than some competing players do, meaning that edge details sometimes look slightly subdued.
Good analog sound quality is one reason you might choose a player in this class (as opposed to one that does not have multichannel analog audio outputs), and the DMP-BD55 does not disappoint. I watched Flight of the Phoenix, first using the player to send DTS-HD Master Audio bitstream data to my reference AVR, and then using the Panasonic’s built-in DTS-HD Master Audio decoders and multichannel analog outputs. To my surprise, I thought the soundtrack sound more powerful, moving, and effective through the Panasonic’s decoders and DACs than through those in the receiver (even though the receiver’s presentation was quite good, too).
Many people assume (or accept as gospel) the notion that the best decoding happens in the receiver or controller, but the Panasonic demonstrates that this isn’t necessarily so. On the powerful “Mayday” chapter from Flight of the Phoenix, I felt the Panasonic did a better job than the reference receiver did with the deep, roaring, swirling sounds of the sandstorm, the terrifying buzz-saw like sound of the loose propeller clawing through the side of the fuselage, or the violent, wrenching screech of the tail section of the plane being ripped away as it collides with a rock formation. What made the Panasonic’s sound superior? Several things: slightly deeper and more impactful bass, smoother yet still highly detailed highs, and cleaner and more tightly focused transient sounds. Individually, these differences might seem small, but add them together and they make for noticeably more compelling movie sound.
The same qualities that make the DMP-BD55 a strong performer on movie soundtrack also serve listeners when enjoying CDs. To reiterate, the Panasonic’s distinctive advantages are: unusually deep and well-defined bass, smooth and yet crystal-clear highs, and an overall sense of focus—especially on sharp, transient sounds. To hear all of these qualities in play in the same musical piece, try listening to the challenging “Root Beer” track from Thomas Newman’s soundtrack for the film American Beauty [Dreamworks]. The track opens with shimmering cymbals and a fast-paced figure played on a bell or small gong, with punctuation supplied by—of all things—a soaring whoopee-whistle. Then, in the midst of all this activity, there arrives a stunning, plunging, and absolutely subterranean bass line. The net effect is really breathtaking, and through it all the Panasonic does a wonderful job of keeping all the overlapping timbres and textures straight—something few players this price can do well. And on that monster bass figure, the DMP-BD55 keeps it cool, hitting that just right balance point between bass power and control.