The Panasonic BD55 is a discreet black design, with sturdy metal construction and a slight mirror-finish to the front detailing.
Around the back are the mains lead connector, fan outlet, and a comprehensive selection of outputs: HDMI v1.3, component video, composite video, optical and coaxial digital audio, and 5.1 multichannel analogue audio.
There's also a stereo audio output pair, which doubles as the multichannel surround back outputs, making this the first Blu-ray player I've seen with 7.1-channel audio outputs. Naturally, the player can output both Dolby TrueHD and DTSHD MA as a bitstream as well as decode them internally into LPCM.
Both the BD35 and BD55 are BD-Live compatible, and so, of course, have LAN ports for connection to networks, allowing users to download images, subtitles and other data, participate in interactive and multiplayer games and access other Profile 2.0 gubbins.
This will also permit updating of the player's operating firmware via the network. The players' SD memory card slots must be used for BD-Live downloads, but the SD reader can also display JPEG format digital images at up to 1920 x 1080 resolution.
The provision of 7.1 analogue audio outs on the DMP-BD55 fulfils a niche requirement of some users who would like to connect analogue outputs to their amplifiers, but so far have been limited to 5.1 channels by the spec of previous BD spinners.
The upgrade has been achieved by the obvious step of making the stereo audio outputs switchable to serve as the additional two channels; if you can manage all the interconnects, you should now be able to stream glorious 7.1 analogue sound to the multichannel inputs of your amp.
The majority of home cinema fans won't need the DMP-BD55's 7.1 analogue outputs, but for the few who do, they will be a welcome feature and possibly a sale clincher. No other player on the market offers this feature so far, though you can bet there will be others soon – Sony's forthcoming S550 is the front-runner.
Both players support 192kHz/24bit audio conversion, and have a range of audio processing modes including dialogue enhance, night surround mode and dynamic range compression.
Disc format compatibility is fairly wide, including DivX 3/5, MP3, DVD RAM and AVCHD, though S/VCD and DVD-RW VR are not supported, and neither are Super Audio CD or DVD Audio. The omission of the latter two is a real shame, but something we're getting used to on Blu-ray players.
Panasonic's main claim for the BD55's picture performance is based around the PHL Reference Chroma Processor Plus video processor. Designed to create colours faithful to the movie original, it's the culmination of years of cooperation between Panasonic's Hollywood Laboratory and the Hollywood studios. Future-proofing is provided by support for both DeepColor and x.v.Color.
It won't come as much surprise, considering the impressive performance of the BD50, that the BD55's Blu-ray images are stunning.
I tested it with a range of Blu-ray discs, including Jerry Maguire, Horton Hears a Who and The Omen (2006).
The first thing to note was the quality of colour handling; on Jerry Maguire, realistic skin tones capped a convincingly smooth treatment of scenes in offices and airports. Switch to Horton Hears a Who, though, and the psychedelically bright colours of the animation leap out without any suspicion of overblown colour boosting.
Could the BD55 also handle dark scenes? Judging by The Omen, which is all night scenes, driving rain and darkened churches, the answer is 'yes'. Despite the gloom, there is plenty of detail in the darkness, and the laser sights of the SWAT team in the climactic scene burned through without degrading shadow detail.
General levels of detail are extremely high, with no sign of fuzz. I could see every whisker of Tom Cruise's designer stubble.
There's no doubt that the BD55's chroma processing is doing its job, but if we had any criticism of the BD50, it was that treatment of DVD playback was unexceptional. So has this aspect been tackled on the BD55?
Our Tech Labs came up with some interesting figures for analogue video output. While results were pretty much comparable to those of the BD50 in most respects, there were improvements in some significant areas; video jitter is down, chroma amplitude modulation down. Most significantly, though it marginally failed the HQV Benchmark 'jaggies' test, was that it passed the text crawl test, which the BD50 failed.
Testing with the DVD of Arrow Films' edition of Caligula proved illuminating. The BD55 couldn't do much about the graininess of the original print, but upscaling to 1080p did bring out some detail.
Similarly the EIV edition of the Director's Cut of Dark City showed a little more detail when upscaled, and the BD55 certainly brought out all the detail in its gloomy street scenes. It seems that Panasonic has certainly responded to criticism, and come out with a Blu-ray player which is also an above average DVD player.
Of course, audio performance will depend largely on the sound system you're using, but on my reference system, the BD55 really shone. The soundtrack of The Omen had me jumping out of my skin, with the doomy score, cracking of thunder and shock moments superbly handled with a huge dynamic range and strong positioning.
My music demo disc of choice, the Blu-ray audio Divertimenti by Trondheim Solitene on the 2L label, delivered a rich and involving sound with every nuance of the performance brought out by the player's uncoloured audio processing. Standard CD playback impressed too, with our Linn Records edition of Fiddler Tam by the Concerto Caledonia delivering a rambunctious performance.
The final standard?
In my colleague Jim Hill's review of the Panasonic DMP-BD50, he said "I think I speak for all hardcore home cinema fans in saying that this is the dedicated Blu-ray player the world has been waiting for." Well, right sentiment, Jim, but as it turns out, wrong player – Panasonic's DMP-BD55 is really the business.