Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray Player

It has been two years since Blu-ray trickled onto the scene with the launch of the Samsung BD-P1000 and some less-than-stellar-looking movies. The combination of a faulty player setting and some poor-quality masters had many wondering if Blu-ray could challenge HD DVD for consumers' hard earned dollars.

By November 2006, the tide had turned Blu with the release of Sony's PlayStation 3, which still reigns supreme as the fastest Blu-ray player on the market. Around the same time, Panasonic launched its first Blu-ray player, the DMP-BD10, at a hefty price of nearly $1300. A year later, Panasonic introduced the DMP-BD30 for less than half the cost of its predecessor. As the world's first Profile 1.1 player, the BD30 provided 256MB of local storage and a secondary video decoder to facilitate PIP (picture-in-picture).

Of course, Profile 1.1 is just a baby step on the way to Profile 2.0 (BD-Live), which requires 1GB of local storage and network capability for access to the Internet. The PS3 received an upgrade to Profile 2.0 a couple of months ago and has been the only BD-Live player available—until now. Once again, Panasonic is the first company out of the gate with a dedicated Profile 2.0 player, the DMP-BD50. Does it have the chops to challenge the PS3 as the best Blu-ray player on the planet?

Complying with Profile 2.0 isn't the only thing the BD50 has in common with the PS3. It can also decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio to PCM for output to an AVR or pre-pro. The PS3 can only perform this task over HDMI, whereas the Panasonic offers the option of 5.1 analog outputs, so an HDMI-equipped receiver is not necessary to enjoy HD lossless audio. Unlike the first-gen BD10, the BD50 does not provide 7.1 analog outputs, a feature that's likely to become increasingly important as more titles are released with 7.1-channel soundtracks.

The BD50 offers speaker-setup controls for the analog outputs, including size parameters that let you specify "large" or "small" speakers. Unfortunately, the manual is unclear about what these settings do. I hope to get some clarification from Panasonic about this, and I'll update the review when I do.

For newer AVRs and pre/pros with onboard decoding of TrueHD and DTS-HD MA, the BD50 can send the raw bitstreams over HDMI. If you chose this option, you lose the secondary audio with PIP as well as the clicks and beeps in the menus of Blu-ray discs.

To comply with Profile 2.0, a player must have 1GB of persistent storage. The BD50 accomplishes this with an SD card slot hidden behind the flip-down front panel. Not only does this supply the required storage, it allows the player to display photos from a digital camera and AVCHD video from HD camcorders. Unfortunately, the BD50 does not ship with a 1GB SD card; with a retail price of $699, it should.

An Ethernet port lets you connect the player to the Internet, not only for BD-Live online features, but for firmware updates as well. When I powered up the BD50 for the first time, it informed me that a firmware update was available and gave me the option to update. The entire process took about five minutes and couldn't have been easier. Thankfully, the days of downloading and burning your own firmware disc will become a thing of the past with Profile 2.0.

The BD50 employs Panasonic's Viera Link, which is based on the industry-standard HDMI CEC (Consumer Electronics Control). This conveys control codes to any compatible equipment connected by HDMI, allowing one remote to control everything. I don't own any CEC-compatible gear, so I was unable to test this function.