Alongside all this digital TV functionality you get a top-drawer BD Live Blu-ray player, offering most of the goodies found on Panasonic’s standalone decks (except support for a USB Wi-Fi dongle). These include HD audio decoding, Viera Cast and DLNA networking features that allow you to watch recordings made on this unit on other networked Panasonic players, as well as stream AVCHD and JPEGs from compatible Windows 7 PCs. Sadly we weren’t able to explore this newly-added feature as our review sample kept prompting us to make a software update, telling us it already had it, and then denying access to the network features.
Playing content from USB sticks is a hassle-free process, thanks mainly to the excellent onscreen menus, and the sound quality of files is surprisingly good. There’s a built-in feature for ripping CD tracks to the HDD, and tracks are tagged using the internal Gracenote database.
The remote is excellent, boasting a button layout that makes any function feel intuitive. Even lesser-used features are easy to locate thanks to the clear labelling. It’s just a shame that our review sample was surprisingly sluggish to respond to remote commands. It took much longer to change channels than expected and the onscreen info banner lagged at least a second behind each button press. In fact, various aspects of the deck seemed glitchy, which could be linked to the aforementioned software update problems.
There are no problems with picture performance though. DR mode recordings of HD channels look as punchy, sharp and solid as the live broadcast, but even when you later convert them to any of the H.264 modes, there’s very little reduction in quality. The conversion process is quite lengthy and carried out in real time, but there’s an option to convert files when the deck is in standby. Converting to XP, SP or LP increases artefacts in the picture but the results are still satisfactory, although EP is a little too noisy for comfort.
Standard-definition Freesat channels are also recorded in DR and are similarly faithful to the source broadcast, while recordings from external sources (in this case a Sky+HD box) look superb in XP and SP modes, decent in LP but excessively blurry in EP – use sparingly.
For Blu-ray, the DMR-BS880 calls on Panasonic’s PHL Reference Chroma Processor Plus to process every pixel and improve the accuracy of Blu-ray colour reproduction. The result is remarkably natural, sharp and artefact-free Blu-ray pictures that look fantastic even when blown up on a 65in plasma TV. It’s a dab hand at DVD upscaling too, bumping up the resolution without introducing artefacts like jaggies or mosquito noise. There’s also a range of picture presets, sharpeners and noise reduction modes to fine-tune the images.
Like its esteemed predecessor, the DMR-BS880 commands respect with a jaw-dropping amount of Blu-ray and Freesat features, flawless picture performance and a wonderful-looking operating system. Our experience with it was slightly marred by some problems with networking and software updates, but that may have been peculiar to this sample – in all other respects the BS880 is a magnificent machine. The only things that count against it are price – at over £700 it’s still mega pricey – and Freesat itself, which offers a paltry selection of hi-def channels, even compared with Freeview HD.