Posted Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 10:03 AM PST by Joshua Zyber
Is the first Profile 1.1 Blu-ray player worth your high-def dollar? High-Def Digest reviewer Joshua Zyber puts Panasonic's DMP-BD30 player through its paces.
By Joshua Zyber
Hitting store shelves at an MSRP of $499.95, Panasonic's new DMP-BD30 is one of the more affordable Blu-ray players currently on the market, as well as the first to be compliant with the format's Profile 1.1 specification (more on this below). That makes for a pretty winning combination, but does it live up to its potential as a category killer?
Cosmetics, Connections, and Setup
The BD30 is rather small for a Blu-ray model. The front of the unit has a flip-down panel, beneath which is an SD Card slot (useful for displaying JPEG images or creating a slide show). Next to this is another motorized panel that will automatically flip down when the disc tray is ejected. Like many Blu-ray players, positioned above the front LED display is a bright blue light, as if to announce, "Hey, this is Blu-ray!" This one is brighter and more distracting than most. Fortunately, the LED can be dimmed in the player's Setup menu, and the brighter light can be turned off with the setting labeled "SD Card LED Control".
On the back are located the expected assortment of video and audio connections: Composite and S-video (both useless for High Definition, so don't bother with them), Component Video, HDMI, and both Coaxial and Optical S/PDIF. The HDMI output is Version 1.3 compliant (more on this below). There are separate sets of stereo and 5.1 analog audio outputs. Disappointingly, the unit does not have 7.1 analog outputs as found on Panasonic's earlier DMP-BD10 model.
The remote controller is one of the ugliest I've ever owned, with a frustrating button layout featuring no fewer than three separate Menu commands. There's a button for the Pop-up Menus available during Blu-ray playback, a button for jumping straight to the Top Menu (if the disc offers one), and another button called Sub Menu that brings up an on-screen menu of other menu options. Neither the Pop-up Menu nor Top Menu buttons work during Standard-Def DVD playback. The only way to access the main menu on a DVD disc is to hit the Sub Menu button and scroll down to the "Menu" command, which is aggravating and far from intuitive. Also annoying is the player's reliance on the Return button (a command I'd never had to use on any previous player) any time you're done with a menu screen and wish to exit it. At the bottom of the remote are two new buttons called "PIP" and "Secondary Audio" that are specific to Profile 1.1 features.
A word of caution about the initial setup: The player defaults from the factory to a resolution setting of "Auto," which will output 1080p60 video if connected by HDMI, or 1080i if connected by Component. If your HDTV doesn't support 1080p input signals (not all do), connecting by HDMI may lead to either a blank screen or garbled video. The Troubleshooting section of the owner's manual advises pushing the Stop and Play buttons simultaneously to reset the resolution. If that doesn't work, try connecting a set of Component cables for the preliminary installation so that you'll be able to navigate through the setup menus to change the resolution.
The BD30 boots up very quickly for a next-gen player. I clocked the time from power on to disc tray ejection at 20 seconds. Loading time for a disc is not much better than my last Blu-ray player, however. One of my slowest Blu-rays ('Dirty Dancing') took a solid minute from tray retraction to the first appearance of the disc menu. Navigation of disc menus is also rather slow and clunky.
The player's setup screens are pretty straightforward for the most part, though again the unit does require use of the Return command to navigate them. During movie playback, the Display menu will provide information on the video and audio codecs encoded on the disc (a feature we disc reviewers find very helpful), but will not distinguish between the DTS-HD High Resolution and DTS-HD Master Audio formats.
As with all High Definition disc players of either the Blu-ray or HD DVD formats, the DMP-BD30 is perfectly capable of transmitting HD video up to 1080i resolution over the Component Video outputs so long as the software being played allows it. Should a Blu-ray disc be flagged with an Image Constraint Token (ICT), the player will be forced to downscale the video output to 480p Standard Definition. Fortunately, at the time of this writing no Blu-ray discs have yet been burdened with an ICT flag. Per restrictions set by the DVD Forum, Standard-Def DVD playback is always limited to a maximum 480p resolution over Component, and can only be upscaled to higher resolutions over HDMI.
Using the HDMI connection, video may be output at resolutions up to 1080p60 or 1080p24 (the latter on Blu-ray discs only). For more information on the distinction between these two formats, see my earlier What's the Big Deal About 1080p24? column. Selecting the "Auto" resolution setting defaults everything to 1080p60, except when the 1080p24 function is also activated, in which case suitably encoded Blu-ray movies will output at that rate. Standard-Def DVDs or 1080i Blu-ray content will all be upscaled or deinterlaced to 1080p60 unless a different resolution is specifically chosen.
Since my projector is compatible with 1080p24 resolution, I chose that for my testing of Blu-ray movie playback, all of which looked terrific as expected. I've read comments from owners claiming that the BD30 outputs a sharper picture than the Playstation 3 console. I wasn't able to make that comparison myself, but to my eyes video quality looks identical to my previous Sony BDP-S300 player, appearing neither sharper nor softer to any noticeable degree. That's far from a complaint, as I was always perfectly satisfied with the S300 and anticipated no less here.
Picture controls including Contrast, Brightness, Sharpness, and Color are available through the Display menu. Generally speaking, I advise adjusting these in the display device if possible, not the disc player. Also provided are Noise Reduction enhancements. I played around with these a bit, but didn't care for the results. They didn't seem to affect noisy video content much at all, but did visibly soften real picture detail. Use of these functions is likely to come down to a matter of personal taste.
For Standard-Def DVD playback, it's worth noting that 4:3 aspect ratio discs will be automatically pillarboxed into the center of a 16:9 screen. Using the "Screen Aspect" setting in the Sub Menu, the player does have an option to zoom those in non-anamorphic letterbox format to the appropriate dimensions.
I'm saddened to report that deinterlacing of 1080i Blu-ray content (music concerts, nature programs, etc.) and upconversion of Standard-Def DVD are both seriously flawed. After testing with the Silicon Optix 'HQV Benchmark' (in both DVD and Blu-ray varieties) and the 'Spears & Munsil VRS Evaluation & Optimization DVD', the player failed just about every deinterlacing test I threw at it. There were terrible jaggies visible on all diagonal lines, waving flags, racecar tracks, hockey videos, and more. On film-based material with a simple 3:2 cadence, the unit performed acceptably, but any badly-flagged or complicated content just fell apart. This is simply not the unit's strength. I would recommend outputting 1080i Blu-ray content as 1080i and letting the HDTV display handle the deinterlacing, and I would not advise using the DMP-BD30 as a primary upconverting DVD player at all.
Like all Blu-ray players, the BD30's Coaxial and Optical S/PDIF outputs can be used to transmit standard Dolby Digital and DTS audio, or PCM up to 2-channels. Advanced codecs such as Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD cannot be transmitted over S/PDIF and will be downconverted to standard Dolby or DTS using those connections. For more information on these new audio formats, see my Blu-ray and HD DVD Audio Explained article. The player also has 5.1 analog outputs useful once again for standard Dolby Digital or DTS, as well as PCM 5.1 soundtracks.
In a major disappointment, the BD30 does not incorporate DD+, TrueHD, or DTS-HD decoding, as Panasonic's prior DMP-BD10 model did. The feature was likely left out to meet the lower price point. As a result, this means that those advanced codecs cannot be decoded internally for output over the 5.1 analog connections in full quality. As with S/PDIF, they will be downconverted to standard Dolby or DTS. This also applies to the HDMI output if connected to an A/V receiver by any version of HDMI up to and including 1.2a.
On the other hand, the DMP-BD30 does have an HDMI 1.3 output, and will transmit the raw bitstreams for any of these audio formats to a compatible receiver for external decoding. This requires that the receiver have its own HDMI 1.3 input and the necessary decoders. Since those are relatively new features, anyone with a receiver more than a year old is basically out of luck, and will not be able to listen to the full high-resolution quality of DD+, TrueHD, or DTS-HD without upgrading to a new receiver.
In a positive development, the unit offers full speaker size, delay, and level calibration controls for the analog audio outputs, which gives it a big leg up over comparable models from Samsung and Sony. Strangely, the controls for this are not located in the Audio section of the setup menu, but rather under the "TV/Device Connection" section.
[Important Note: Extensive testing by users revealed that, in its early firmware versions, the DMP-BD30 had incorrect LFE levels when using the HDMI output. PCM soundtracks, or any other audio format decoded to PCM within the player, suffered –5 dB LFE suppression over HDMI. This problem was corrected with Firmware Ver. 1.6, issued on February 25, 2008. Users relying on the HDMI connection for audio are strongly advised to apply the latest firmware update.]
For more information on the meaning of each of Blu-ray's hardware Profiles, please see my separate Blu-ray Profiles Explained column. In short, Blu-ray players released before November 1st, 2007 were all classified as hardware Profile 1.0, which did not require inclusion of secondary video or audio decoders for use with interactive Picture-in-Picture bonus features. Blu-ray Profile 1.1 adds those functions, and the DMP-BD30 is the first model compliant with the new specification.
Since this review is being published in advance of the availability of any Blu-ray discs with actual Profile 1.1 features, my coverage of this area must rely on the limited documentation present in the owner's manual. I assume that Picture-in-Picture and similar content will be accessible from the disc menus, as traditional bonus features are. The player also has "PIP" and "Secondary Audio" buttons at the bottom of the remote, so it seems that the video and audio for these features can be brought up independently.
Under the "Digital Audio Output" section of the player's setup menu and in the owner's manual are some confusing notes on how to configure the settings for use with BD-Video Secondary Audio content. The player's menus imply that you should leave the Secondary Audio setting "Off" until needed. If you leave it "On", all high-resolution audio formats including DD+, TrueHD, and DTS-HD will be automatically downsampled to standard Dolby or DTS quality (even if using the HDMI 1.3 bitstream transmission method) so that the secondary content can be mixed in. On the other hand, the owner's manual states "When playing BD-Video without secondary audio or clicking sounds, the audio is output as the same format as if 'BD-Video Secondary Audio' was set to 'Off'." What isn't clear is whether the high-resolution audio on Profile 1.1 discs will be downgraded automatically only when you turn on those features, or regardless of whether you use them or not. The whole thing seems a little overly complicated for its own good, but hopefully will be cleared up once the first discs start coming out.
The Bottom Line: Is It Worth It?
Each potential buyer will judge the importance of Blu-ray Profile 1.1 based on their own personal priorities. Previous Blu-ray models will continue to play all discs and traditional bonus features, so if you don't find support for interactive content all that important, this feature may not necessarily be a deal-breaker.
In any case, for the first Profile 1.1 compliant Blu-ray player, the Panasonic DMP-BD30 is a well-priced deal that offers excellent video quality on Blu-ray discs and the capability to bitstream advanced audio codecs to a compatible receiver (still a rare feature in Blu-ray players). On the other hand, it lacks the ability to decode those audio codecs internally as prior Panasonic models could, and has very poor deinterlacing and DVD upconversion quality. The BD30 isn't quite a perfect Blu-ray player, but it performs strongly in core areas and rates a worthy recommendation.
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