Ya'll ready for this?
I found the Panasonic BD10 at a SoCal Fry's this evening and just had to see what round two might look like. Some of you might remember that I originally posted my thoughts on the Samsung when it launch and was less than impressed, especially when pitted against the HD-A1. So how does the Panasonic stack up?
Initial impressions: Pretty good. It's a solid feeling player (not quite to the bulk of the HD-A1, but much better than the Samsung). The power cord is detachable which I know is a plus to some. I also noticed that back of player and the box both list "Java Powered," so we'll have to wait and see when the discs arrive. As I opened the box, I noticed that the player included a copy of Eight Below inside. Quite a nice surprise and chalk one up to Panasonic for offering up something to smile about right as you open the box. It also came with a certificate to go online and get two more free BD titles. The sheet says, "choose from some of today's hottest films," but it doesn't actually let you choose. The titles are Gone in 60 Seconds and The Great Raid. Boo for not letting me choose, but not too big a boo as they're still free.
Turning it on: the player is easily the quickest of the three main players out right now (HD-A1, BD-P1000, and the BD10) with the player off, hitting the open button it takes 15 seconds to power on and open the tray and another 25-30 before first play. However, it does still load the disc in stages, just like the Samsung. It does not, however, give you bizarre hourglasses or colored dots. It simply opens a box on the lower right corner that says "Now Reading." But again from off to first play, about 50 seconds total.
Settings: The player gives you about as many options as you can think of and if you've ever played around with one of Panny's better DVD players, you'll know what I mean. The player has settings for brightness, contrast, sharpness, color, gamma... I didn't mess with any of these settings though and simply calibrated my input to the normal setting and viewed everything HDMI at 1080i (my 50" Toshiba's native resolution) and ran all audio out of the HDMI to my Denon 3806 receiver.
BD Playback: I wanted to re-audition a few discs I had used when evaluating the Samsung while also looking at some of the new stuff that people have been raving about. I took looks at XXX, T2, Crash, Lord of War, Eight Below, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and I viewed SWAT in its entirety.
First things first... The Panasonic is not going to make any of the really bad BDs look all that much better. XXX still has pretty much all of the same problems that I saw on the Samsung. The film still looks soft and contains a good deal of artifacting, BUT... the Panny does look slightly better with a bit less noise and a bit more dimensionality. It still isn't a great looking disc, but I found it to be far less objectionable than I originally did back in June. But when I put in SWAT, I found an image that is far more in line with what I've become accustomed to with HD-DVD. It just had great depth and wonderful detail. I noticed very, very little artifacting of any kind during my viewing. Lord of War didn't exhibit the MPEG blocking that I saw with the Samsung. Eight Below and JASBSB both looked excellent, although Eight Below was a bit soft (which I believe to be the MPEG4) and JASBSB had some really over-saturated colors in spots (which I view as a master issue). Second round I'm much more impressed with current BD than I was 4 months ago.
Audio: Audio quality was first rate. The Panny, unlike the Samsung, will output both the LPCM 5.1 and Dolby/DTS 5.1 bitstreams without changing settings. This was something that really bothered me with the Samsung. I didn't mess with any of the analog outs or the coax/optical digi-outs. There is also a setting (unlike the Toshibas) to disable the button noises on BD discs. I have, however, found a bit of a bug (as the player works in my system at least). When changing soundtracks, either in the menu system or on the fly, from DD5.1 to LPCM5.1, the player doesn't give you all the channels. You'll hear left and right front. but no center or surrounds. Pressing stop and play will output the full PCM5.1. The player does have a Dolby Digital Plus logo on it and the manual lists that as a supported format.
*One other note... The Panasonic does not stutter when playing the Lionsgate titles with their DTS tracks, so this tells me it is a problem with the Samsung and its compatibility with those discs.
DVD Playback: Here's where the player is going to come under some fire. As a standard DVD player, I didn't feel that the Panasonic was in the same league as the Toshiba, or to a certain extent the Samsung. It's very good, but I felt, to my eyes, that it was quite a bit softer and lacking in detail. So as an SD-DVD player, I'm going to be continuing to use the Toshiba. BUT... Panasonic is the first player released that contains an appropriate zoom function for non-anamorphic letterbox material. There's a 4:3 mode that can either be set to Standard or Zoom. So watching the SWAT deleted scenes on the BD, they nicely filled the screen. With the Standard setting, they were stretched to fill the screen like on the Samsung. So the Panny gets a half point, but not a full since it contains no option to windowbox 4:3 material, either on an SD or BD disc.
Ergonomics: Ergonomically, this player's a mess. There's a very nice faceplate that you can drop to reveal the player's drawer and controls. Unfortunately, there's a very nice faceplate that you HAVE TO drop to reveal the player's drawer and controls. There's no open tray button on the remote, so you have to get up, drop the drawer down, and then open the tray. This doesn't seem like a big deal, but it becomes really annoying really quickly. The Panny also has the worst remote of the big three. There's a jog-shuttle that also performs duty as left right up down control and it's really sensitive. I actually had several instances where I popped up the BD overlay menus and when I tried to move left or right, it instead fast forwarded or rewound the film by accident. This is annoying. Fortunately, you can deactivate the jog shuttle in the menu, but then you do lose the jog-shuttle. I also think the display on the player is awful, only displaying the current playing time. There's no time remaining, chapter number, resolution setting, or anything else. So as you're chaptering forward, it's a little hard to know how far you've gone at a glance. Maybe this is something that can be set up in the player, but I haven't found it yet.
Firmwares: The player comes with two notes. One directs you to Panasonic's website where you'll be able to download and burn to CD the most current FW. The other says, "To further enhance the power of your HD experience, we'd like to send you free upgrades for DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD high definition audio when they are available." You fill out the card and send it in and Panasonic will mail you a free upgrade firmware when they are ready. Unfortunately, it doesn't say when this will be, but there you go.
Bottom Line: I've yet to have any snags, hang ups, or freezes and playback seems very, very good. Great discs look to be to the level of HD-DVD and therein lies the problem. This player is $800 more than the A1 and matching the performance of a player nearly a third the price of the Panasonic is going to be a bitter pill for many to swallow. So bitter, in fact, that I predict not too many people are going to be rushing out to pick this model up (and don't even get me started on the $1500 Pioneer). The inclusion of DVD-Audio is a nice bonus over all of the other HD players out there and I think this player has the potential to look tremendous with the right material, especially given the amount of set up options offered to tweak it to perfection. I'm much more hesitant to return this player than I was the Samsung, but I'm not totally sure if I'm completely sold on it, especially considering the SD-DVD playback. It's definitely a step in the right direction, but I think for $1300, people might have the right to expect more.