Panasonic is a superstar of the Blu-ray world. Year after year, its new players are greeted with the sort of unbridled enthusiasm usually reserved for Tom Cruise's red carpet walkabouts in Leicester Square. The reason for its techno-celebrity is simple: innovation. Profile 1.1, BD-Live, Blu-ray recording – you name it, Panasonic did it first, and over the years no-one has done more to push the format forward.
However, Panasonic's position has been under threat from deck's like LG's brilliant BD390, which offers built-in Wi-Fi, PC streaming, unrivalled digital media support and top-drawer performance at a consumer-friendly price.
Finding itself at the start of 2010 in the rare position of playing catch-up, Panasonic has hit back with the DMP-BD85. Equipped with a killer spec and more of the picture processing goodness that made its predecessors so successful, the BD85 might just be Panasonic's masterpiece – at least until it unleashes the 3D-capable DMP-BDT300 later this year…
On the outside, the BD85 is an unremarkable sight. Touch sensitive keys, curves or a gloss black finish? A Panasonic buyer craves not these things, apparently. A blue light is the best you can hope for, but at least build quality is solid.
The outlook is much brighter on the back. Multi-channel analogue outputs offer receiver luddites a chance to enjoy hi-res Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, and there's an Ethernet port for accessing BD-Live content, which is finally becoming worth bothering with.
There's also a USB input for attaching the BD85's supplied USB dongle – because one of the BD85's big new features is Wi-Fi support, bringing the web into your living room without Ethernet cables cluttering up the place.
Plugged into the back, the chunky dongle is unwieldy and could cause problems in your AV rack, but there's an extension lead if you're worried about that sort of thing.
Wireless connectivity throws up more goodies. The BD85 is DLNA certified and as a result you can pull music and photos from PCs on your home network, and the setup process is slick and hassle-free.
DivX HD playback has been added, too, popping up on the spec sheet alongside MP3 and JPEG. You can play these from USB sticks via the port on the front, which sits next to an SD card slot that accepts higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC cards. But because the BD85 doesn't come with BD Live memory built-in, you'll need to keep a card in the slot for any online activity.
Once running, the deck keeps things simple onscreen, and apart from some unnecessary submenus, it makes navigation a breeze.
But there's a sluggishness about the BD85 that you really shouldn't have to put up with these days. Entering the setup menu not only lost my place in the movie, but i also had to wait for the player to handshake with my receiver and TV again.
Once again, Panasonic's P4HD chipset is the beating heart of the BD85 and, in conjunction with PHL Reference Chroma Processor Plus, it delivers beautiful images.
With Inglourious Basterds the opening shots of the verdant French countryside are conveyed with such depth and richness that you can almost smell the grass, and after colonel Landa has charmed his way into the house, the fantastic contrast range sheds light on the painstaking detail of the rickety interior.
Elsewhere, the BD85 doesn't put a foot wrong – skin tones are faithful, strong hues blaze from the screen and the chaos of the cinema-set showdown is smoothly tracked. and the way it aces the Silicon Optix HQV tests without so much as a flicker or twitch is bordering on nonchalance.
On the audio side, there's a wealth of sound modes to play with, including Digital Tube sound simulator, which ups the warmth to make music sound like it's being played on a tube amplifier. The effect is pleasant, but I preferred the stereo untampered.
There's more new tech in the shape of an HDMI Jitter Purifier, which enhances the stability of bass performance when piping audio over the digital connection. Let the deck rip with a movie through the analogue outs and the results are equally electrifying – Basterds' brutal denouement is sharp, feisty and oozing with energy from every speaker.
All of which makes the DMP-BD85 a certified triumph. Okay, so it's not the prettiest deck ever designed, nor the fastest, but there's something still very special about this player, particularly when it comes to picture and sound performance.
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