Blu-ray has arrived in the UK, if not with a vengeance, then at least a reasonably enthusiastic proclamation. Panasonic's DMP-BD10 joins Samsung's BDP-1000 at the forefront of the new format's invasion, and there's a sense that all the posturing and prevarication that has preceded the format is coming to an end. It's time for the products to start doing the talking.
Priced at a wallet-numbing £1,299 (which infuriatingly is a direct dollar-forpound conversion of the model's US price point) this is comfortably the most expensive of the new HD disc spinners; however, it's not overly pricey if you put it into context with the high-end DVD players from the likes of Arcam, Denon and others.
So is it a genuine alternative to the world's most exotic DVD decks? Or are those machines (honed after years of development) still a better bet, as their makers maintain?
Visually, the BD10 is either bland or slickly minimalist, depending on your viewpoint. It lacks the gloss black build of the Samsung model (which frankly feels more up-market), but compensates with a length-wide transparent flap.
Unfortunately, when in use this flap will spend most of its time down, revealing a less than glamorous disc tray and transport control-strewn face to the world. And because its not motorised it can't be controlled from the remote.
Rear connectivity is good, offering ample scope for hooking up to both high- and standard-def displays (ideal in a multi-screen environment). There's an HDMI output alongside component jacks, plus RGB scart, S-video and composite.
Audio outputs include digital coaxial and electrical, plus a bank of phono connectors. The latter are particularly important, as these are the only connectors you can use to access the multichannel linear PCM soundtracks, which deliver BD's premium audio format. Linear PCM is too much of a data hog to travel through the conventional digital outputs or the supplied HDMI connector. For that you would need HDMI v1.3.
The analogue outputs need to be run into an amp or receiver with a matching bank of phono audio inputs. Typically these are labelled up for DVD Audio or Super Audio CD connection.
Although BD is a fundamentally different technology to DVD, in use it's much the same, including the provision of a Setup button to configure the player for your display and audio system. It's all fairly straightforward.
Controlling the unit is a surprisingly chunky remote. Although I was originally a bit dismissive about its big-button design I must confess that it is at least easy to use. However, out of the box I found its control codes clashed immediately with a resident Panasonic DVD recorder. It is possible to change these codes if you have a similar problem.
Powered-up, the player proudly proclaims its BD status via an onscreen logo, but feed it a disc and, like other HD disc players we've seen, taking some time to read and play. Typically it needs about 30 seconds to get on with the show, from the time a disc is sucked into its guts to when video appears onscreen.
The DMP-BD10 is widely compatible with other disc and file formats. In addition to DVD and CD, it'll play multichannel DVD-Audio, RAM recordings, MP3 and JPEG-strewn CD-R/RWs and even VCD. However, it won't recognise WMA files, DivX or Super Audio CD.
Panasonic has made much of the player's ability to spruce up both CD and DVD, via either up-scaling or remastering, both of which use smart-Alec interpolation techniques to guild their respective lilies.
In use, both of these work rather well. Upscaled DVDs look clean and detailed. Perhaps the resident scaling is not as skilled as the Realta processing offered by Denon, but the results are pleasing enough.
I also rather liked Panasonic's 'remastering' wizardry for enhancing the audio from CD. The processing technique comes in three strengths, each tailored for different musical styles. After some experimentation I opted to leave it on Mode 1. The unit offers other audio tweaks and filtering which are subtle at best, but could prove amusing time-wasters over a wet weekend.
Suffice to say that beneath the hood, the unit boasts 192kHz/24bit DACs for each of its eight channels.
Another unique trick to this BD player is HDAVI, which utilises the HDMI connection to offer full system control between other HDAVI-enabled Panasonic products. This simplifies usage if you have a full complement of Panny kit (unlikely).
So just how exciting is this debut Panasonic as a HD disc spinner? In truth, it's difficult to say, because of the vagaries of the BD content released to date and the lack of a decent yardstick. Even Panny concedes that the first wave of MPEG-2 encoded releases are not making the most of the format's potential (see page 7), so trying to pigeon hole its talents is a bit of a crapshoot.
At its best, image quality is tangibly better than upscaled DVD. The better UK releases such as S.W.A.T and Hostel are detailed and glossy in a way that DVD just isn't.
The crumbled brickwork of Hostel's Slovakian, Club 18-to-hurty tourist trap gives a level of three-dimensional detail to the horror that's a little too real for comfort. Meanwhile, the assorted textures inherent in the explosive S.W.A.T add a realistic sheen to the cinematography that pulls you into its outrageous narrative.
The player also ships with an impressive demo disc, with a number of beautifully encoded musical sequences, and its here that you can really sense the levels of fidelity the deck is capable of.
However, during the review period it soon displayed a propensity to crash. On both S.W.A.T. and Hostel the player froze, displaying a dialogue box that proclaimed, 'There may be a problem with this disc', before announcing it would shut down. Which it promptly did.
On the S.W.A.T. disc it crashed on the trailers section of the menu, while on Hostel it simply went black 17 minutes in. However, as neither crash could be repeated it's unclear if the fault was actually with the movies or the player.
The video engine is without doubt the most advanced yet put in a Panasonic disc player. New P4HD circuitry can process more than 15billion pixels per second.
The silicon is undeniably powerful. The deck's 297Mhz/14bit video DAC provides 4 x oversampling for 1080i/720p output; NSV (noise shaping video) processing which improves the signal-to-noise ratio; and 14bit signal processing for supersmooth gradations.
Owners can also boast to their mates, when pub conversations run dry, that the DMP-BD10 can theoretically reproduce nearly 4400 billion colours. Pulling 1080p native off disc is the latest Sigma Designs chipset. Incidentally, if the disc has been encoded in 1080/24, it outputs this at 60Hz.
This Panasonic is undeniably a thriller, but despite all the clever chippery, it's not the definitive article. When it comes to audio, the player is incompatible with Dolby TrueHD or DTS Master Audio from Fox (Panasonic expects you to keep an eye open for a firmware update).
Instead it downscales these audio formats to either Dolby Digital or DTS. If you want higher quality audio, you need to select the uncompressed linear PCM option provided on other studios' BD platters. And, because it lacks Ethernet connectivity, it's also unable to use BD Live, the as-yet unrealised online interactive feature of the broader Blu-ray package.
Of course, as a DVD player, the DMPBD10 is definitely impressive. It handles standard-def with authority and does not add to or exaggerate encode/decode artifacts when it upscales. Given HD content it's even better. Blu-ray has begun. Home entertainment will never be the same again.