Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray Player Real-World Performance

Real-World Performance
I have no complaints with the Blu-ray performance from the BD50. Reference discs such as Cars and The Chronicles of Narnia looked every bit as good as I have seen from the Panasonic BD30 and PS3.

One of the biggest complaints with standalone players is their user interaction, which can be a very frustrating. Certain Blu-ray discs are notorious for slow loading times, including Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Ratatouille, and Cars. Firmware upgrades have improved the loading times on older players, but the BD50 offers slightly more improvement. Ratatouille took about 40 seconds to load on a BD30 and 31seconds on the BD50. A 25% improvement is a plus, but by contrast, the PS3 takes about 10 seconds!

The BD50 had no problems playing any games from discs that offer them, but as a former gamer, this functionality has a long way to go to equal the user experience from a PC or game console. My biggest issue with the BD50 in this department is the delay when choosing menu items. On Sony's Men in Black BD-Live title, navigating between the different bonus features was painfully slow. In comparison, the PS3 offers no resistance when selecting different features and is lightning fast.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story includes links to BD-Live downloads of movie trailers, and the Panasonic was able to download them onto a SD card. Unfortunately, you can't stream the trailer; you must wait for the entire download to complete before viewing. It took about five minutes to download a standard-definition trailer, but it felt more like five hours as I stared at the screen. The Blu-ray Disc Association promises future advancements of BD-Live, such as downloadable subtitles and BD-Java applications, and I expect more compelling BD-Live features as the format matures (see Scott Wilkinson's blog about the upcoming release of Sleeping Beauty with BD-Live features).

One of the BD50's main benefits is its ability to decode the high-resolution audio soundtracks internally. Does it really make a difference where the audio is decoded? Without double-blind testing, I can't be sure, but I did my best to ascertain any audible differences between internal and external decoding.

Using the fabulous DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack from New Line Cinema's Hairspray, I listened to the BD50 outputting both bitstream and PCM to my Onkyo Pro PR-SC885 pre/pro. Since I couldn't switch "on the fly," I had to rely on my audio memory to compare the two approaches. From what I could tell, the bass was a hair tighter utilizing bitstream, but the differences were subtle.

Comparing the BD50's bitstream and PCM outputs versus the PS3 revealed a wider disparity. The bitstream output from the BD50 had better depth across the front soundstage with deeper bass and crisper highs. The internal decoding of the BD50 was also a slight improvement over the PS3, but I needed further clarification.

To accomplish this, I compared a Dolby TrueHD bitstream output from a Toshiba HD-A35 HD DVD player with the internal decoding of the PS3 and BD50. I used V for Vendetta as my test material because I own a copy on both Blu-ray and HD DVD, which allowed me to quickly switch back and forth.

All sounded fantastic, but the subtle edge went to the pre/pro's decoding. The soundstage had additional depth and clarity. It was easier to distinguish the subtle differences between internal and external decoding in this test because there was only a slight delay when switching compared to nearly two minutes in my DTS-HD Master Audio comparisons. Even so, this is not a scientific approach—double-blind tests would be the proper way to conduct such a comparison—so take my findings as anecdotal.

I have yet to find a Blu-ray player that challenges the best upscaling DVD players for DVD playback. The Panasonic's performance is passable, but comparing it to the Oppo DV-983H revealed some shortcomings. Viewing Star Wars Episode II was less than a best-in-class experience. The picture was noisy, especially in dark scenes, and the layer change (when Obi-Wan chases Jango Fett into the asteroid field) took nearly a full second to complete. Some may find its upconversion satisfactory, but I plan on keeping the Oppo in my system until I find a Blu-ray player that can at least match its performance.