- Review Price: £349.00
Not so long ago we tested the Panasonic DMP-BD35 and were quite frankly blown away by its superb hi-def picture performance and comprehensive feature list, which were made all the more remarkable by its reasonable price tag.
So it’s with a great deal of optimism that we turn our attention to the step-up DMP-BD55, which costs around £100 more than the BD35 but offers some significant extras – we’ll find out whether or not these additions are worth the extra cash in due course.
But for many people, the most pressing issue is how quickly Panasonic has replaced the stunning DMP-BD50, which we reviewed as recently as July and has already disappeared from Panasonic’s website. The launch of this updated version is bound to be a bone of contention among those people who forked out for the BD50, but at first glance there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of difference between the two, barring the addition of some new picture technology (more on this later).
Aesthetically, the BD55 and BD35 are almost identical. Once again it sports an attractive reflective fascia with the seemingly mandatory blue light in the middle and a pleasing lack of clutter, but at 55mm the BD55 is slightly fatter than the BD35.
On the right hand side is a drop down flap that conceals a few playback buttons and an SD card slot, which lets you view AVCHD and JPEG files and plays a key role in the deck’s Blu-ray functionality. Because the BD55 is a fully-fledged Profile 2.0 player but doesn’t have the necessary 1GB of memory built-in, you have to slip an SD card into the slot if you want to download and store BD Live content from the Internet. It’s worth noting that this slot supports SDHC cards with a capacity of up to 32GB.
Around the back, there’s a generous selection of sockets and taking centre stage is the HDMI v1.3 output, which handles those lovely hi-def pictures and HD audio bitstreams, while the Ethernet LAN connection is your passport to a world of BD Live webchats and poorly superimposed mugshots.
They’re joined by component and composite video outputs, while on the audio side you’ll find optical and coaxial digital audio outputs (the BD35 offers optical only), analogue stereo output and a set of 7.1-channel analogue outputs. The latter is the most significant upgrade from the BD35, as it allows you to enjoy high-resolution audio formats even if your receiver lacks an HDMI input.
The other advantage the BD55 has over the BD35 is its superior audio circuitry (better capacitors and insulators, for example) which we don’t feel is really enough to justify such a big jump up in price, as the rest of the feature lists are identical.
Audio support is comprehensive. Not only can the BD55 decode Dolby True HD, DTS HD Master Audio, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS HD soundtracks and send them as PCM from the HDMI or 7.1 analogue outputs, but it can also pass the raw bitstreams on to your receiver.
What’s more, the BD55 puts players like the Samsung BD-P1500 and Sharp BD-HP21H to shame with its wide-ranging format support, which includes DivX, MP3, JPEG, and AVCHD as well as every recordable disc format (including DVD-RAM, amazingly).
The BD55 comes armed with the same arsenal of picture processing technology found in the BD35 (courtesy of Panasonic’s UniPhier chip) which could give its images the edge over similarly priced competition. It includes the enhanced version of its PHL Chroma Processor Plus system, which corrects colours on a pixel-by-pixel basis to create crisper and more vivid tones than its predecessors. Also on board is P4HD, which handles processing duties like motion detection, 3:2/2:2 pulldown, upscaling and i/p conversion.
Other features include 1080/24p output, Deep Colour and x.v.Colour support, Viera Link and a basic set of picture adjustments covering contrast, brightness, sharpness, colour and gamma.
Just like the BD35, the BD55 is an absolute joy to use. All of the onscreen menus are presented with an almost child-like simplicity, using bold primary colours and large legible text. The menu software is also ultra responsive and allows you to explore the extensive array of picture, sound and network settings without any confusion at all.
The remote also plays a big part in making the deck easy to operate, thanks to its big foolproof buttons and clever layout. There are dedicated buttons for all the key features, including keys to turn the BonusView secondary video and audio on and off and an Option button that brings up a handy menu showing the frequently used functions.
It’s also pleasing to discover that the BD55 doesn’t take an unreasonable amount of time to load up Blu-ray discs, and during playback it’s fairly responsive when activating the scan mode or calling up the pop-up menu, for instance. BonusView and BD Live material also presents no problems, all of which makes this one of the slickest Blu-ray players around.
Even more impressive is the deck’s eye-popping picture quality, which is perfectly demonstrated by the sumptuous ”Iron Man” disc. Right from the start, the Panasonic’s sublime detail handling capabilities are clear to see, as it effortlessly picks out the rocks and bushes of the barren Afghan landscapes as the Army convoy drives through. But throughout the film edges look sharp and objects are reproduced with a crispness and depth that beggars belief – particularly dazzling are the gleaming metallic surfaces and intricate machinery during shots of Tony Stark’s workshop.
What’s also impressive is how clearly detail is rendered during dark scenes, which means you’re able to clearly make out what’s going on as Tony builds the prototype suit in the dingy cave. Compared with the Samsung BD-P1500 its pictures look marginally sharper, and it gives the Pioneer BDP-LX71 a run for its money in terms of pure picture clarity.
PHL Chroma Processor Plus also appears to be doing a terrific job with colours, as Iron Man’s red paint work looks deep and dazzling, while subtle shading and delicate hues look smooth and natural. Black level and shadow detail is also top-notch, as demonstrated by Tony’s tuxedo jacket, which is solid but stops short of looking like a black hole thanks to the visibility of the creases and folds within it.
Shots of Iron Man flying through the air reveal smooth motion at 24fps, especially during the scene where he evades the two F15s. Switching to DVD, the BD55’s upscaled picture quality is very good, with loads of detail, deep blacks and vivid colours, but there are still a few traces of the noise and jagged edges we saw on the BD35.
The BD55 gets a clean bill of health with hi-res audio soundtracks, improving upon the great work done by the BD35. Using the analogue outputs, ”Iron Man’s” Dolby True HD track is delightfully direct, expansive and detailed, which helps to convey the scale and drama of the film’s big set pieces. Dialogue is prominent and effects are relayed with the confidence of a much pricier player. The fact that there’s very little difference between this and digitally-piped audio (bitstream or PCM) from the HDMI output is testament to the deck’s competent audio circuitry.
The Panasonic also earns its corn with CD playback, which sounds cleaner and more dynamic than the BD35 – and most other budget players for that matter.
The Panasonic DMP-BD55 is without doubt the best Blu-ray player available right now. It boasts an unrivalled feature list, which includes full BD Live compatibility and wide ranging format support, plus it’s slick, easy to use and delivers even better picture and sound performance than the BD35 – all of which makes its price tag look pretty reasonable, especially when you consider there are Profile 1.1 players that cost almost twice as much.
The only downside is that the added audio features don’t completely justify the extra expense over the BD35, so if you don’t need 7.1-channel analogue outs then it might be worth saving money and going for the cheaper option. But if you want the very best Panasonic has to offer no matter the cost then make a beeline for the BD55 immediately.
Score in detail