You'll probably do a double take when you first see Panasonic's DMP-BD35. It's unfeasibly thin.
Sat atop my regular Blu-ray player, Pioneer's hulking great LX-70a, it seems insignificant.
How, you might wonder, can this lightweight deliver state-of-the-art picture and sound, let alone challenge the AV extremes of more esoteric machinery? But it can and does.
The Panasonic DMP-BD35 is the replacement for the popular BD30 launched early in 2008. Standing just 49mm tall, thanks to a slim-line disc drive and some downsized silicon, it cuts a much smaller silhouette.
The BD35 is the sister deck to the DMP-BD55. It lacks the option to run multichannel audio via analogue outputs, but is a close match in most every other way.
If the AV receiver you intend to use with it is a current HDMI-enabled model you'll not only get superb 1080p24 video but also high-res audio. Offering both Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio bitstream outputs, it's ideally paired with an AVR able to decode both sound formats.
Suitable models are available from most manufacturers, including Panasonic itself. If your receiver is an older design and lacks HDMI and hi-res audio decoding, then the player's lack of 5.1 analogue outputs will rule it off your Christmas list.
Impressive feature set
A Proﬁle 2.0 design, the BD35 is compatible with both Bonus view and BD-Live functionality. The rear Ethernet port can also be used to download new firmware updates.
An SD card slot hidden under a front fascia on the unit is key to accepting downloads from BD Live sites. Trailers and other ancillary files go direct to the media and not into any integrated memory; this is known as 'Virtual Packaging'. I don't think we'll see too much of it in the future. It's clunky in operation, and it can only be a matter of time before brands build significant storage directly into their decks.
General disc compatibility is good, and covers everything from homebrew DVD discs (inc DivX), to BD-RE recordable media, RAM and CD-R. However, it's worth noting that our sample failed to playback a reference DVD-R disc (even though it coped with a +R) and had problems spinning the CD side of a DualDisc platter. It also failed to recognise an S-VCD. But then who wouldn't?
Other jacks includes component, AV phonos, and coaxial and optical digital audio. Remember, the latter pair can't be used for lossless audio, only regular 5.1 mixes and the like.
Viera Link woes
As you might expect, the HDMI output comes with CEC control (aka Viera Link). The BD35 supports the latest iteration of Viera Link, HDAVI Control 3. This was originally conceived as a system simplifier, but increasingly it's nothing but a nuisance; I now routinely turn it off in all components.
The problems with CEC usage are manifold: it'll think you want to off your TV when you turn off your BD player, or turn on your TV when you just want to listen to a CD – and heaven help you if there's a projector somewhere in the chain.
Not only is the BD35 much slimmer than its processors, but it's also faster to boot. Outside of the PS3, most Blu-ray players are about as speedy as a sloth in concrete boots. This can lead to a quite tedious user experience.
The Panasonic DMP-BD35 is a definite improvement. Load up a Java-heavy disc and you no longer have time to microwave popcorn before the first video screen appears...
While there's no 7.1 analogue output, the HDMI connection will still deliver 7.1 sound mixes if they're on the disc. Blu-ray audio playback remains a minefield of confusion.
For best results, it's always preferable to output DTS-MA HD and TrueHD as a bitstream. This will guarantee you lossless audio through the appropriate receiver. However, if you're playing a disc with a Bonus View (Profile 1.1) PiP feature, you need to engage Secondary Audio in the sound menu. Doing this disengages hi-res audio on the main soundtrack and will default the movie to standard 5.1. To avoid confusion, keep the Secondary Audio 'Off' until you specifically want to view a PiP disc.
Taking a bitstream output will also remove all menu button sounds. Personally, I find these pops, clicks and whooshes annoying, so there's no loss there. If you don't have decoding for hi-rez audio in a receiver, the player should be set to PCM Out. This then reinstates all the button sounds.
Newbies maybe a little daunted with the setup, but basic usability can be considered good. Once I'd configured the menus, disc playback seemed straightforward.
Blown away by Blu-ray
I tested the deck with a variety of material and was generally blown away by its performance. Blu-rays are ruthlessly revealed, with the player offering stunning detail retrieval. What's more, this BD range is the first from Panasonic to offer a high level of DVD playback.
Upscaled SD is good – de-interlacing comes without penalties and weird artefacts. The deck sailed through Silicon Optix HQV benchmark tests for jaggies, and text crawls. The player's SD video response at 5.8MHz is scorchingly good.
At the heart of the player is a new 45-nanometre version of the brand's UniPhier video processing LSI chip, which incorporates both P4HD picture processing and the PHL Reference Chroma Processor.
This powerful chip draws upon much of the expertise derived from the brand's long-running Hollywood Labs authoring operation in LA.
One area where the BD35 could do with improvement is in noise reduction, but this comment applies equally to pretty much all BD players currently on sale.
Although we routinely eulogise the picture clarity of BD, software for the format often has levels of noise apparent in the picture which I would consider unacceptable.
The problem is that no one has produced a video processor able to distinguish between very fine detail and digital garbage. So while this player has two NR 'modes', these do little more than scowl fiercely and waggle fingers at the picture.
Heroes: Season 2 (Blu-ray) is particularly blighted by video noise and the BD35 is powerless to do anything much about it. The white plaster on Mohinder Saresh's hooter looks more like a speckled egg.
Considerably better is the encode of the Dark Knight Prologue on Batman Begins; this really is peerless – and the BD35 just eats it up. Texture, colour fidelity, three-dimensionality – I struggle to imagine a better picture.
Nearly as impressive is the BD release of Transformers. Chapter 8, a high-contrast sandstorm of exquisite detail and pulse-pounding lossless audio, is probably the best reason to buy into BD you'll see all year. Play it to your pals and they'll be scampering off to get themselves a player.
Panasonic's tweaking options
The BD35 offers a substantial number of picture and audio tweaks for demanding cinephiles. In the User mode, there's gamma and the aforementioned 3D NR and Integrated NR increments.
For CD playback, there's the brand's proprietary Remastering modes (which extract fine detail normally masked by noise) as well as a selection of AV presets (Night Surround and Virtual Surround) which should generally be avoided.
While the BD35's audio components are less refined than those in the BD55, the player clearly benefits from nigh-on identical build and chassis. As a result it can be considered a reasonable CD-spinner, too. Our labs measured audio jitter at a mere 181.9.ps.
On most budget/mid-range AV systems, I'd wager differences between it and the BD55 will not be apparent. The real cap on fidelity is not so much the components used as the actual physical build, which is common to both machines.
Extraordinary Blu-ray deck
One point I do think that could be addressed by Panasonic is the inclusion of a screensaver or visualiser that can be engaged during CD playback. The last thing I want to see on my plasma screen is the clunky CD playback menu burnt into the glass at the end of an audio session.
Overall then, the Panasonic DMP-BD35 is an extraordinary HD player: beautifully engineered and capable of terrific results. Audio visual quality is high, BD Java loading times are (relatively) fast and it's super slim too boot. What will Panasonic's rivals do now?