Even though Blu-ray has won the format war, you won't see anybody dancing in the streets as a result. You see, there is still a degree of uncertainty about Blu-ray players. The war may have finally resolved itself, but AV enthusiasts could be hesitant to pick up a new Blu-ray player for another reason: the delayed introduction of the so-called "Final" Blu-ray Profile 1.1.
Up until October 31 2007 last year, many players on the market were unable to take advantage of special features, like picture-in-picture commentary, while the rival HD DVD format has had these features from the start. While this player While some manufacturers rushed to get their players out before the deadline, Panasonic has taken a leisurely approach to the Australian market approach, and released their first Blu-ray Profile 1.1 player, the DMP-BD30, four months later than in the States. And while the price of the player is still high overall -- AU$899 RRP -- it's still relatively cheap for a standalone Blu-ray these days. The DMP-BD30 certainly doesn't beat the value proposition of the PlayStation 3 (), but if you insist on getting a standalone player as opposed to Sony's console, it's one of the top contenders.
We were happy to note that DMP-BD30 lacks the extremely annoying flip-down panel of its predecessor, the DMP-BD10. While a large panel still conceals most of the BD30's front-panel controls, the disc tray hides behind a separate, smaller panel that automatically flips down when you hit the Open/Close button. We definitely prefer this arrangement to having to manually lower the BD10's panel every time we wanted to change a disc. On the right half of the DMP-BD30's face player is the LED display, which was sized to be easily legible from a seating distance of about 7 feet.
We absolutely hated the remote on the DMP-BD10, but luckily Panasonic wised up and included a more reasonable clicker on the newer model. Toward the bottom half of the remote is the circular directional pad, which is surround by three large buttons (Top Menu, Pop-up Menu, and Display) and four smaller buttons in the corners (Sub Menu, Status, Functions, and Return). Directly in the centre of the remote are the Stop, Play, and Pause buttons, and we appreciated their large size and blue color, which makes them easy to find. Because the DMP-BD30 lacks the annoying door mechanism, the remote is able to include the handy Eject button -- so the tray will be waiting for you by the time you get off the couch. Our biggest complaint about the remote is that the setup menu button is buried at the bottom, but overall it's one of the better ones we've used recently.
The DMP-BD30's disc-tray door opens automatically, a welcome improvement over the DMP-BD10A.
The DMP-BD30 is still one of the first Blu-ray players to feature the Final Standard Profile, also known as Blu-ray Profile 1.1. In technical terms, this means it meets several hardware requirements, including 64kb of onboard persistent memory, 256MB of local storage, and both secondary audio and video decoders. In practical terms, this should allow the DMP-BD30 to play picture-in-picture commentary and perhaps take advantage of other, as yet unspecified, interactive features available on Blu-ray Profile 1.1 discs -- still none of which are on the market yet. All Blu-ray players made before the cut-off date (Blu-ray Profile 1.0) should still be able to play these discs, but they won't be able to take advantage of some of the interactive content.
Panasonic's DMP-BD30 is also one of the first Blu-ray players that can output both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks in bitstream format, to be decoded by compatible receivers. Both formats are lossless, which means that the playback on your system should be identical to the digital master and should, with the right equipment, sound better than standard Dolby Digital and DTS.
While high-resolution bitstream output is great for owners of new receivers, DMP-BD30 owners with older receivers are somewhat out of luck. The DMP-BD30 has no internal decoding for Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD High Resolution, or DTS-HD Master Audio. This lack of internal decoding is particularly disappointing because the older DMP-BD10 itself offered internal decoding for all of these formats except DTS-HS Master Audio.
Any DMP-BD30 owner whose AV receiver lacks built-in decoding for the new audio formats won't be able to enjoy the high-resolution soundtracks available on many Blu-ray discs (unless the disc includes an uncompressed soundtrack, as well.) Among AV receivers CNET has reviewed, the following selection has the requisite internal decoding capabilities: the Sony STR-DA5300ES, the Onkyo TX-SR605 and TX-SR875, and the Yamaha RX-V3800. The Panasonic DMP-BD30 does, like almost every other player, have built-in decoding for standard Dolby Digital and DTS.
The jack pack is pretty complete, including multichannel analog outputs.
The connectivity package on the DMP-BD30 is very good. The main video output is naturally HDMI, which is capable of outputting both 1080p video signals (at either 24 or 60 frames per second) and multichannel, high-resolution audio signals. For analog video, there is a component output, as well as S-Video and composite output. Blu-ray discs can be output at 1080i over the component video connection, although DVDs are limited to 480p/576p.
Audio can also travel via the HDMI output, in addition to the optical and coaxial digital audio outputs -- although only the HDMI will allow the high-resolution audio bitstreams mentioned above. The DMP-BD30 also has 5.1 multichannel analog outputs for making the connection to older receivers, although the lack of internal high-resolution audio decoders makes these analog outputs less useful than on other Blu-ray players. Additionally, there is a standard analog stereo output.
Panasonic stashed an SDHC card slot under the flip-down panel on the front. This slot can read many different media types, including MP3s and JPEGs with resolutions up to 1,920x1080. More interestingly, it can play back high-def AVCHD video from high-def camcorders which record on SD cards. According to the Panasonic representatives we talked with, it's also possible that in the future movie studios will make extra content available for Blu-ray movies, which you could download to the SD card and watch on the DMP-BD30. That's certainly not ideal -- it's really just a workaround because the player lacks an Ethernet port -- but it's better than nothing.
We started off by looking at some test patterns via Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on Blu-ray. The DMP-BD30 performed excellently by properly deinterlacing 1080i signals to 1080p without artifacts or jaggies. It passed the video resolution test easily and also had no problem with the film resolution test. Considering the lackluster 1080p performance from some recent high-def disc players, we were happy to see the DMP-BD30 passed these important tests -- especially considering its price point.
Moving on to actual movies, we started with Mission Impossible: III. We immediately took a look at the stairs at beginning of Chapter 8, and the DMP-BD30 had no problem outputting a clean image. We also looked at trimming on the limo in Chapter 16 -- another tough scene -- and there wasn't a jaggy in sight. Switching to Ghost Rider, the DMP-BD30 passed the difficult sequence at the end of Chapter 6, having no problem rendering the grill of the RV in the background.
The SD card slot is found under the flip-down panel on the front.
After spot-checking some known problematic scenes, we sat down with the excellent-looking Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. As usual, the image quality of Blu-ray was vastly superior to DVD when viewed on a big screen. Details were razor sharp, and the jaggies of the DVD era were nowhere to be seen. Details as minute as individual strands of hair and facial stubble were easy to make out and the colours were nicely saturated to give the image "pop." The jaggies seen on the video-based HQV tests were nowhere to be found in all the program material we watched.
Overall, home theatre fans will be wowed by the image quality of the DMP-BD30. While the DMP-BD30's Blu-ray image quality is excellent, we wouldn't say that it's necessarily better than other top-performing Blu-ray players. In fact, as long as the player is capable of properly performing 1080i deinterlacing, we've seen virtually no performance differences between the various Blu-ray players, including the PlayStation 3.
We were impressed by the DMP-BD10A's performance on standard DVDs, so we had high hopes when we fired up Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on the DMP-BD30. The initial resolution test looked rock solid, clearly displaying all the detail of DVD without any flicking or image instability. The results on the next jaggies tests were more disappointing, while the DMP-BD30 also struggled on the relatively easy scrolling titles test, with words exhibiting comb-like tearing as they moved horizontally across the screen. On the upside, it performed well on the difficult 2:3 pull-down test, by kicking into film mode in under a second as the racing car drives by the grandstands.
Nobody sane likes to watch just test patterns, so we moved on to actual program material. The DMP-BD30 showed off its pull-down prowess once again on the introduction to Star Trek: Insurrection by smoothly rendering the curved railing of the bridge and the hulls of the boats. We also looked at the difficult opening sequence of Seabiscuit, and, for the most part, it performed well. While many players struggle and display lots of jaggies, the DMP-BD30's image was clean -- aside from a few instances of flicking on the grilles of cars. Overall, we were disappointed that the DMP-BD30 didn't handle the difficult video-based HQV tests as well as its predecessor, but it still did a solid job with film-based DVD content.