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.

Created to deliver the highest possible quality video and audio standards, as well as finally unlocking the forbidden pleasures of BD Live (whatever the heck they might be) via an Ethernet port and local storage, Panasonic's DMP-BD50 appears to offer it all.

Superior functionality

We've already seen Panasonic's precursor to this deck in the shape of the award-winning DMP-BD30.

That was a Profile 1.1 player which sold out shortly after its introduction (purely because when stock was ordered from Panasonic's Japanese factory, the disc world was still embroiled in a format war and demand was expected to be subdued).

This is ostensibly the same player with some superior functionality that brings it bang up to date. But the extra features come at a cost, and while Panasonic has been prepping the BD50 for launch, Sony has been stealthily upgrading its PlayStation 3.

A programme of regular firmware updates saw it beat the BD50 to the Profile 2.0 post. So has Panasonic's thunder been stolen? Actually, no.

Advanced technology

While its BD Live functionality will probably help garner the deck headlines, there's more to this player than a talent to go online.

It features state-of-the-art silicon capable of advanced audio-visual signal processing. Picture-wise,
it outputs up to 1080p24 from Blu-ray and boasts the same processing power that made the BD30 HCC's favourite player.

Lurking within Panasonic's reference UniPhier chipset is the P4HD pixel processor for detail retrieval, as well as a PHL (Panasonic Hollywood Laboratories) Chroma Processor that up-samples colour data to max out the nuances in the BD format.

Superior audio

However, while the chipset is the same as that on the BD30, the software is different. Consequently, the player does not give exactly the same performance as its predecessor.

And, unlike Panasonic's BD30, the BD50 now offers in-built decoders for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Where the BD30 could bitstream the high-definition audio formats to a HDMI v1.3-capable amplifier, the BD50's internal decoders will also allow owners of amps without HD audio decoding or HDMI inputs to reap the benefits.

However, you will almost certainly get better bass management if you use the bitstream.

Extensive connectivity

The DMP-BD50 is a sleek-looking machine, hiding its bulk in a slim but deep unit. A drop-down front flap conceals the disc tray and buttons.

At the back you'll find the Ethernet port that makes BD Live content accessible for the first time, along with the Viera Link-capable HDMI output.

For those with older AVRs lacking HDMI inputs, six phono analogue outputs are provided. These can be hooked up with the analogue inputs previously supplied on older AVRs for use with SACD and DVD Audio players.

Note that 7.1 soundtracks are down-mixed to 5.1 channels. Those that want to enjoy 7.1 mixes will need to invest in an HDMI-enabled receiver.

User friendly

Despite the sophistication of the player, setup is straightforward.

Panasonic is generally rather good at GUIs and the friendly-looking remote control simplifies the process, too. Just take the time to work out whether you need to squeeze the HD audio soundtracks out as Bitstream or PCM.

Annoyingly though, like the BD30, the new player still has its disc opening and power buttons in the wrong place. I guarantee that you'll turn the deck off when you mean to eject the disc, on a regular basis.

Sluggish with Java

When it comes to handling discs with heavy Java content, the BD50 is relatively sprightly, although not as fast as a PS3. Sometimes working through disc menus feels like running through treacle.

For a definition of the word 'tedious' though, my advice is to visit Sony's BD Live content portal...

I had no problems actually getting the player online via BD Live; once connected to my wired network
the player automatically configured itself and was ready to connect.

But it quickly became apparent that the BD Live experience needs a lot more refinement.

BD Live woes

Sony's debut BD Live release is Men in Black. The disc is rather good, with lots of additional material,
a great transfer of the film and a stunning Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. The BD Live aspect on the other hand is a big disappointment.

Having established a connection, you need to insert an SD memory card into the player to store downloaded content. The card isn't supplied and it won't work without one.

When you do get to the online area you have the privilege of downloading movie clips and filling in customer feedback forms. I spent ages downloading an HD video clip of Hancock and almost as long trying to play it from the SD card.

Interactive games

Another attraction turns out to be an interactive game where you answer movie trivia questions, if you have the patience to type them in using the remote control.

It certainly looks like a colossal waste of time in its current form, but there's no denying the potential of BD Live. Such functionality, though, seems to be designed to appeal to an undemanding younger audience.

As an adult attraction it's clearly not ready for primetime.

Vivid hi-def pictures

As a home theatre playback device, the DMP-BD50 is outstanding. This Panasonic makes good use of image processing technology to improve already impressive 1080p24 video.

The result is a bold and focused picture that can only really be appreciated when blown up on a superlarge screen (I used it with an InFocus IN81).

The Men in Black BD looked superb, with natural skin tones and very vivid CGI images. MiB is full of dark material, including Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith's suits, of course, and this proved a good test of the BD50's handling of subtle contrast and shadow detail.

On DVD you typically can't make out the lines of their lapels against the black jackets, but on Blu-ray you certainly can. Shadowed areas are remarkably well-resolved throughout the film.

Ambient surround sound

Run Fatboy Run is a much lighter film altogether, but looks equally fabulous on the BD50. Nike will certainly be pleased with the sharpness of it's oh-so-unsubtle branding.

The Fatboy Blu-ray release is blessed with a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix, which sounded superb through my 7.1 reference system.

Assuming you have a fairly recent receiver with HDMI v1.3 inputs, you'll be able to appreciate the extended mix and huge dynamic range of the hi-res audio track.

It gives the crowd scenes a truly cohesive ambience with the additional speakers in attendance.

Strong CD performance

In our Tech Labs, while it failed BD 'jaggies' (just) and DVD 'text crawl' (vertical) tests the player was deemed to deliver excellent detail.

There is no resolution loss on either the film or video test sequences on the Silicon Optix HQV BD test disc. And while there is some noise in its video signal (no noise reduction is applied by the player) it is visibly less garrulous than rivals.

The BD50 supports neither Super Audio CD or DVD-Audio platters, but it does make a good fist of playing regular CDs. The player offers relatively low levels of audio jitter, and that means a good, clean signal from all of the multichannel analogue outputs.

Where the BD50 falls down slightly is in its DVD playback capabilities. The BD30 was only an average disc-spinner, and this model is not overly different. Interestingly, the new software coding on the Uniphier chipset has resulted in slightly different characteristics.

Most notable is a break-up on vertically scrolling text (typically the end credits on a movie). The player will, however, scale DVD to 1080p.

Future-proofed

Panasonic's BD50 is currently the best-performing Blu-ray deck you can buy. It offers unmatched levels
of picture clarity (edging past the PS3) and comes with a future-proof specification.

That BD Live has yet to develop into a worthwhile attraction is hardly Panasonic's fault – at least the internet connection will make upgrading firmware a simple task.

If you want the best performing standalone Blu-ray player available, this is the machine to get.