Panasonic first released their DMP-BD10 Blu-ray player late in 2006 with a pretty steep list price of $1299.99. Recently, though, in an effort to bring new consumers to the Blu-ray format, they have rebranded the hardware and its important firmware updates into the DMP-BD10A, bundled it with 5 popular Blu-ray titles (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, The Transporter, Fantastic 4 and Crash), and slashed the price down to $599.99. While this review is for the previous DMP-BD10, the two products are near identical (after the firmware updates -- version 2.2 in this case), and it should be useful to anyone looking to take the high definition plunge with Panasonic's latest offering.
LOOK AND FEEL
The first thing you notice when removing the DMP-BD10 from the box is its sleek and sturdy design. Before plugging it in, it feels like a serious piece of home theater equipment, with a flat finish and a reflective front panel. When you plug it in, the next thing you notice is that you're blinded by an obnoxious bluish light that might be better served helping land aircraft in a storm than on the front of a home media player. Fortunately, this light can easily be disabled in the setup under Display -- FL Display (FL must mean floodlight) and selecting the Dim setting. This will also dim the output of the main LCD display, but it is still large and easy to read. Most of the functionality that can be accessed on the front of the player is obscured by a reflective panel that manually folds down to reveal the disc tray and the important buttons. While this may seem effective for a showroom environment, it's a bit annoying through regular use to have to flip the panel down all the time, but considering that there's no OPEN/CLOSE button on the remote either, I guess it doesn't matter that much.
So let's talk about the remote. The manual indicates a good 60° of sensor range, but I was able to get significantly better than that with consistent operation a full 65° off of center, or a total range of 130°. The construction is solid, and the weight is properly balanced to easily fit in your hand during use. Too bad it's one of the ugliest remotes I've ever seen. It is divided vertically into two sections with the upper section flipping up to reveal more buttons underneath. The top panel of the upper section contains BD and TV POWER, basic TV/receiver functionality, Chapter Search/Skip, and STOP/PAUSE/PLAY, while the bottom panel includes a number pad, video adjustments like CONTRAST and SHARPNESS, and the all-important SETUP button. It's designed in such a way that the buttons on the top overlay the buttons on the bottom and can carry a dual functionality. The problem with this is twofold. First, to make everything line up, the buttons are huge and block-shaped, crowded by oversized text, and stick out as something that might be marketed to the visually impaired. Secondly, you can't press SETUP without opening the panel, but once it's open, you can't access PLAY until you close it. If you're trying to see how different settings affect the presentation, you can get a blister from all the opening and closing of that panel. To its credit, at least there is a latching mechanism that locks the panel in an upright position if you need to leave it open for a while.
The lower section of the remote contains rounded buttons that contrast the ugly squares above. Here there is an incredibly sensitive jog that doubles as directional control with an ENTER button in the center. It is surrounded on the edges by arced buttons at 300°, 0°, and 60° that control disc menus and display settings. I really like the circular layout of these three buttons, as it's incredibly easy to navigate in the dark and know exactly which button is being pressed. Unfortunately, the jog is way too sensitive and often activates when undesired, plus it acts inconsistently on different screens. Worse, when using it for chapter search (its only potentially useful purpose), there is no easy way to resume playback other than reaching the thumb up to the PLAY button, which is more awkward than it looks and in effect renders the function near useless. Thankfully, as with the blue beacon, this can easily be disabled in the setup menu under Setup -- Multi-jog Setting, turning the jog into a simple directional control. I know I'm being harsh here, but hey -- it's just a remote. You can always buy a better one and program it as desired. Let's get to the important stuff.
The primary connections of note are HDMI, analog audio (7.1), and component video. If you want to experience high definition and take advantage of the full audio potential, you will need to use some combination of these. The HDMI video setup could not be easier: plug it in. By default, HDMI Video Mode is set to ON and HDMI Resolution is set to AUTO DETECT, but if you're having trouble, these are easy to find under the appropriately titled HDMI section of the setup menu. Component video isn't too much more difficult, but I did encounter a frustrating glitch in the Connection menu of setup. Here you can specify the Component Video Resolution with choices of 480i, 480p, 720p, and 1080i, but before submitting the change, there's a message that explains you should press STOP and PLAY together for 5 seconds to undo the change if your video goes all wonky because you connected something wrong. To test this (read: I accidentally grabbed the wrong component cables for one of my test screens), I connected the DMP-BD10 to an input that maxed out at 480p. The screen was predictably unhappy when I selected 1080i for the video output, so I pressed STOP and PLAY together for 5 seconds, then 10 seconds, then 15 seconds. No success. I cycled the power, both through a soft and hard reboot, and still nothing. The only way to undo the change was to follow the factory reset instructions for the entire device in the Troubleshooting Guide of the manual. I tested these steps a few times under different conditions to confirm that the "STOP and PLAY" functionality simply does not work. For most users, this will never be an issue, but it would be nice if it worked as described. Rounding out the video connections are older composite video and S-Video options. Certainly, each of these is useless for Blu-ray and high definition content, but since the player handles numerous other types of media, it's possible that they could be used in an alternate configuration.
In addition to video, audio is also available through the HDMI connection, and the setup is just as simple as its counterpart. If it doesn't work by default for some reason, head to the aforementioned HDMI section and set HDMI Audio Output to ON. If you're not set up for HDMI yet, you can use the analog multi-channel connections in either 7.1 or 5.1 configurations (6.1 acts as shared mono in the back surround). Outputs exist for Front L/R, Surround L/R, Surround Back L/R, Center, and the Subwoofer. In 5.1 configurations, just ignore the Surround Back connections. Speaker settings can be tweaked under the Connection menu by selecting Speaker and then Multi-channel. Here you can adjust the speaker sizes (small speakers floor at 100 Hz), delay times, and relative decibel balance. If you just want 5.1, you can completely disable the Surround Back channels as well. Many users will have most of this configured on their receiver already, but the option is available if you need it. Navigating through this screen can be tricky, though, and it takes a little trial and error to get the hang of it. Also, all delays are set relative to the Front Left and Right speakers (5 millisecond max for Center, 15 milliseconds for Surrounds), which could create a problem if these speakers are closest to the viewer in your setup. Finally, there is a TEST option that will cycle the same constant pattern through the speakers if you want to break out a sound meter and get it just right. Two 2-channel connections are also available, as well as coaxial and optical TOSLINK S/PDIF outputs.
By far the most important aspect of this player is how well it handles Blu-ray discs. To evaluate this, I ran the DMP-BD10 through various test suites and tracked down a wide variety of currently available titles to get a feel for how it performs under realistic viewing. From an academic perspective, I was unable to find anything significantly wrong with the visual presentation: good noise reduction, strong detail, and no issues with jaggies or moiré patterns. At the finest levels of detail, I observed some minor shimmering in one of the test patterns, but certainly not at any level that would be objectionable. Overall, the resolution is very clear, and it looks as good as anything I've had the opportunity to play around with. I tried to compare 1080i against 1080p, but honestly, it was difficult to see much of a difference during normal viewing. When I got close to the screen, I could convince myself the 1080p is better, but they both look pretty darn good.
To get an idea what this baby would do with actual Blu-ray discs, I started with Apocalypto. Shot with the Panavision Genesis digital camera, it's a solid choice for a "Wow! Factor" experience, and "Wow!" is essentially how I would articulate my opinion. The definition on the Mayan skins and throughout the rainforest was just incredible. Next up was 300, which is very stylistic in its use of grain and certainly a different kind of "wow", but the DMP-BD10 performed admirably with this one as well. I gave a few other stylistic titles a spin, like Aronofsky's frequently underlit or overexposed The Fountain, and there were sections where the friend I was testing it with kept making me pause the track so he could inch his nose up to the screen and marvel at the detail. Good Night, And Good Luck's stunning smoke-filled black and white presentation was no different, save some slight edge issues near impossible to avoid with such contrast, and the black levels were great on shadow-intense titles like World Trade Center and The Prestige. In short, the Panasonic DMP-BD10 performs excellently as a Blu-ray player.
High Resolution Audio
Version 2.0 (they're at 2.2 right now) of the firmware brought Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD High Resolution to the DMP-BD10, which pretty much means it can do everything except DTS-HD Master Audio (often noted as DTS-MA). This wouldn't be that big a deal, except DTS-HD Master is by far the more common of the new DTS formats currently available on Blu-ray discs, and since it will end up decoding at the basic DTS core, there aren't too many opportunities at present to really use DTS-HD High Resolution. To be honest, though, DTS is such a good codec on its own (and sounded great on the tests I ran) that I can live without DTS-HD at this stage. Besides, the DMP-BD10 still provides Dolby TrueHD (which is lossless) as well as uncompressed PCM. To evaluate these, I returned to many of the same titles. The best demonstration of Dolby TrueHD was 300, and it really showcased the format and made me appreciate its potential. For uncompressed PCM, I ran through a variety of titles, but Apocalypto and The Prestige both stood out again, particularly the spine-shaking discharge of Tesla's coil in the latter. So much is made about high definition video, and rightfully so as it's much easier to immediately recognize the benefits, but I was very pleased with the audio performance of this player as well and can understand the desire to invest in these higher resolution outputs.
Now things get a little ugly. Keep in mind that the DMP-BD10 is a Blu-ray player, not a DVD player, but I think a reasonable expectation from users is that it will do both. In most cases, this appears to be the case. Sadly, there are some jarring exceptions. Across HDMI, this Panasonic will upconvert standard definition DVDs all the way to 1080p. Via component, you're only going to get 480p. Each of these looks very good for its respective resolution, and with the firmware I have, I was unable to detect any evidence of the chroma bug. Here's the problem: the DMP-BD10 completely choked on chapters 12 and 13 of the recently released Collector's Edition of Serenity, freezing, then repeating video, then freezing again, all while only sometimes recognizing commands from the remote, and even then on about a 5-second delay. This happened in about 6 different places on the disc and rendered it nearly unwatchable. The film looked and sounded great ... until it didn't. While that's certainly annoying, don't even bother with the Extended Edition of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The display simply indicates "NoREAD" on all 4 discs and refuses to even attempt playback (the other films in the franchise work without incident). How big an issue this is certainly depends on the individual. In a span of two weeks, I watched every second of material on 16 separate Blu-ray discs, from early 25GB releases like Syriana to the latest and greatest 50GB 300, from older catalog titles like Goodfellas to independents like Living Landscapes. I did not encounter a single problem of any kind with playback. If you're looking for an excellent Blu-ray player, the DMP-BD10 will likely meet or exceed your needs. If you require standard DVD playback as well, be aware that I was able to break it twice in a short period of time with a fairly small sample set.
The Panasonic DMP-BD10 claims to handle just about everything (except SACD), so I was curious how accurate these claims really were. First up, DVD-Audio ... check. It sounds fantastic. What about Video CDs? I threw all kinds of garbage at this player and not a single hiccup. I dragged out some VCDs I made with early freeware tools on cheap CD-Rs back in the 1990's, and it played them just fine. Considering the poor analog recordings and high level of compression, they didn't look too bad either. Professionally authored VCDs as well as SVCDs were a piece of cake, and Audio CD playback is excellent. Unfortunately, there's no support for CD-TEXT, and aside from a brief flash of the track number, the only feedback from the display is the ascending run time of the current track.
Next up was mp3s. I tried a few combinations of file structures and bit rates, and it handled almost all of it, including tricky VBR scenarios. If you try to play an mp3 with a sampling frequency of something other than 44.1 kHz / 48 kHz, it won't throw an error and will process the duration of the file, but it won't output any audio. In fairness, the manual indicates this isn't going to work, but I gave it a shot anyway. The mp3 file system navigation is a little clunky, but it's not too bad. JPEG specifications are outlined in the manual, but my tests of this can best be described as a near complete failure. A Photo CD from Wolf Camera wasn't recognized by the player at all, and a CD of a few hundred random JPEGs I grabbed from my hard drive invoked the thumbnail browser but did not generate any thumbnails and refused to recognize any of the images. When I manually hand-picked a group of files that clearly met the specifications in the manual, barely 20% of them were viewable. So, yeah -- this high quality Blu-ray player does a terrible job with JPEGs. I bet the chances of that being a deal-breaker for you are only slightly less than the chances you even read this section of the review.
The setup menu, while oddly 4:3 and cheap looking, is quite useful, although it's awkward to navigate at times. On the left of the screen are 7 categorized tabs that open up to specific options on the right when selected. Strangely, you cannot hit ENTER to select a tab. You have to highlight it and then hit the RIGHT button. However, almost the exact same visual indications exist once you are browsing the category's options, but here you do have to hit ENTER to select something. If you don't immediately disable the multi-jog (but trust me -- you will), you'll notice it acts in an awkward manner as well. Also, some of the nomenclature is pretty confusing. For example, there is something called Easy Setting on the first screen. My first reaction is that this would toggle me out of "Advanced Setting" mode. In reality, it's more of a wizard that walks you through some of the more common steps. The implementation here is poor as the menu flashes in the background after every button click, making you swear that you accidentally pressed the button twice and skipped a screen. Other terms like "16:9 Full" aren't obviously defined, but to Panasonic's credit, almost everything can be found somewhere in the manual, even if its organizational structure leaves a lot to be desired. Often, electronics manuals from foreign manufacturers are so poorly translated that they are virtually useless, but this one does a pretty solid job of clarifying and suggesting what default options make the most sense for particular setups.
The setup menu itself is divided into 7 sections: Setup, Disc, Video, Audio, Display, Connection, and HDMI. "Setup" is the default bucket for options that don't categorize well like Remote Control Code and Multi-jog Setting. "Disc" manages video ratings and default languages. "Video" doesn't have any picture settings (those are all controlled from the remote), but it does offer options for how to handle paused video for the clearest single-frame image, something called Seamless Play to manage the transition between chapters, a black-level control. Under "Audio", you can disable the sound used by the in-movie Blu-ray menus (if you're new to the format, you can navigate disc menus while the movie is playing now). There is also a Dynamic Range Compression setting for late-night viewing. "Display" controls the on-screen display, "Connection" is for aspect ratio, component output, and speaker settings, and "HDMI" speaks for itself. One annoyance is that you cannot resume playback directly from the setup menu. If you forget this and close the upper remote panel to hit PLAY, you have to open it back up and navigate out of the setup menu, then close it again to hit PLAY. One would assume that PLAY would just exit the setup.
During playback, some more options are available in-movie from a DISPLAY button on the remote. From this overlaid menu, you can switch soundtracks, subtitles, and angles. While the soundtrack selection can be directly controlled from the remote as well, there is no quick way to toggle (or loop through) subtitles and angles from the remote. Some preset picture modes and a digital filter that you probably won't use also appear in this menu. Two items that may come in handy, though, are Repeat Play and Dialog Enhancer. While it won't give you accurate sound, the latter boosts the center channel and could prove helpful to those who are losing their hearing and struggle to make out dialog when its set against dynamic sounds in the surround channels. Also, it makes for another late-night viewing option. Finally, there is a TIME SLIP button on the remote that allows you to jump forward or backward by a selected number of minutes and a STATUS button that indicates the format and play status of your current disc on the first press and a current Track/Chapter progress bar. Sadly, I was unable to find any option, either through the on-screen display or the LCD display, that would indicate a track's total length or allow you to view the run time in a countdown manner.
The Panasonic DMP-BD10 performs admirably in its primary function of delivering high definition video and high resolution audio. As a Blu-ray player, it is excellent and provides fantastic video and audio. As a DVD player, the quality is very good, but that performance is undercut by its failure to play certain titles. In this review, I've mentioned numerous minor issues that I found irritating or frustrating, but almost all of those are cosmetic and can be overlooked when compared against more important factors. I wish Panasonic had sent me the DMP-BD10A to review, so I could be clear in my recommendation, because the reality is that no one should purchase this specific player when essentially the same thing is being marketed at half the original MSRP with the latest firmware installed and 5 free Blu-ray titles in the box. However, to tell you to skip this would be disingenuous, because it's an excellent Blu-ray player and a solid piece of equipment. So I'm rating this as Recommended and hoping that you read the text of this review and purchase the correct player.