In our 2018 Awards we recognised two Ultra High Definition Blu-ray players able to deliver the ‘4K’ resolution of the latest TVs from the new generation of optical disc.

The winner over $500 was Oppo’s UDP-203 at $999, and we mentioned also the company’s $2199 “audiophile” UDP-205. Clearly this desirable pair will deliver sensational results, though Oppo has stopped making them, and we gather remaining stocks have already been fully dispersed - so get them if you can..

But our winner below $500 — the Panasonic reviewed here — is perhaps the more exciting product. After all, if every UHD Blu-ray player cost $2000, the format wouldn’t have a hope of surviving to become even close to mass market. That was why in the first year of releases it was great to see the very first units being a cost-effective offering from Samsung, followed by a unit from Panasonic, then $1099, now $899. But Panasonic followed up with this player (currently $449) and the cut-down DMP-UB300, which has, amazingly, a mere $279 RRP, and is available, we can see as we write, for $228.

The company also has a potential Oppo replacement coming in the "audiophile" UB9000, about which you can read here

Hopefully, then, the combination of price and Panasonic prestige will encourage enough new purchasers into UHD Blu-ray that we will continue to enjoy releases in this most reliable and least compressed format of UHD video delivery for many more years to come.

Equipment
Trimming those dollars from the selling price seems to involve, mostly, shedding irrelevances and features of minor value — but retaining the more useful ones.

There are no analogue audio outputs on this player, for example. But even if you’re not entirely up to date in the home theatre receiver department, don’t despair. The player has an optical digital audio output. And it has a second HDMI output which carries only audio (woven into a nothing-much video signal). Any home theatre receiver up to 15 years old will be able to make use of one or the other of these.

Also gotten rid of is the SD card slot, although two USB sockets have been retained. The one on the front (nicely hidden under the front flap) is USB 2.0, while the socket at the back is USB 3.0. The other HDMI output supports full Ultra-HD resolutions to 2160p/60 and, of course, HDCP 2.2 copy protection.

This player has WiFi (802.11n, dual band) and Ethernet (100Mbps), and a bunch of network
capabilities. The Ethernet is also cut down compared to the DMP-UB900, which has gigabit Ethernet (i.e. 1000Mbps).

Further slimming involves the physical form of the player. It’s 360mm wide rather than the 430-ish mm wide of a regular component. It has the sprung flap over the disc tray, which is pushed open when the tray opens. But there’s no display in there. All information is via the TV screen. There’s a regular remote of the kind used by Panasonic for its disc players for years.
The manual has been slimmed down as well, to a dozen pages including the covers. I was briefly disappointed, but there was a pointer to a more fulsome 45-page manual available for download.

Performance
There are good transport controls with this unit. With regular Blu-ray discs it’ll do five fast-forwards and five fast-reverse speeds, plus five slow motion forwards and frame-by-frame forward stepping, but no reverse frame by frame or slow motion. The same functions were available with Ultra-HD Blu-ray, along with the same limitations. With DVDs, added to these were reverse slow motion and reverse frame by frame stepping.

In general, disk loading was fast. The unit played my difficult discs — mostly ones with worn surfaces — without problems. With dual layer DVDs there’s a very slight pause on layer switching, rather than full buffering to avoid any interruption at all. But it wasn’t the chunky second or so of old, just the slightest hesitation. (Layer switches in Blu-ray are designed to be gapless.)

Scaling seems to be Panasonic’s forte. You can choose from among all kinds of settings for the output resolution, but that involves digging down into the set-up menu. So it’s generally best to leave the output on full Ultra HD, since the player handles it so well any way.

You can adjust what it does to the picture from a menu available during playback by hitting the ‘Option’ key on the remote. This pops up a panel with a large number of settings for general player behaviour, sound and picture. Within the picture options are things like edge enhancement and sharpness and progressive-scan conversion. The standard upscaling of DVDs produced a picture of much higher quality than it had any right to be, with fine sharpness and excellent details, and no noticeable processing artifacts. You can fiddle with the settings using that ‘Option’ panel. The progressive scan conversion has ‘Auto’, ‘Film’ and ‘Video’ settings. The first was very impressive, getting things pretty much perfectly right all the time. The ‘Film’ setting doesn’t quite force film mode (unlike Panasonic players of old — a Panasonic DVD player which I bought more than a decade ago could do that), but did employ a very strong film bias.

The performance with 1080i/50 discs was even more impressive. In auto mode the progressive-scan conversion was absolutely perfect on my most difficult test clips. If anything — far from being cut down from the processing in the DMP-UB900 — it seemed to perform slightly better. Perhaps there has been some refinement in the firmware since last year. What was very impressive then has become well nigh perfect now.

There is an intriguing ‘HDR Effect’ button on the remote. Pressing it gave four options, that essentially adjusted the brightness gamma curve (that’s the brightness mapping between input signal and output signal). The bottom one was ‘Standard’ while the next three were designed for ‘Natural’ , ‘Light’ and ‘Bright’ environments. As it happened, I was testing this out on Ultra-HD Blu-ray of the 1984 Ghostbusters (it’s only available for these discs). As I’ve previously noted, this is already presented as a somewhat pointillist image. Using the other HDR options increased the overall brightness, emphasising the specks of brightness. I’d not be inclined to use it.

As for performance with Ultra-HD Blu-ray discs, well what can you say? It delivered them with the full glory they deserve. I’m not sure that an Ultra-HD Blu-ray player can impart a specific character to the playback from a disc, so I’ll limit myself to saying that the delivery was flawless, on both the audio and video fronts. If you want better than what this player delivers with today’s Ultra-HD discs, you’ll have to lobby for better movie making.

There are two networky aspects to this player. One is its interface to ‘Network Services’. This is the old creaky interface that Panasonic introduced with its TVs many years ago and has abandoned for at least three years for Firefox OS. It works a bit more smoothly than it did in those olden days, thanks to the use of faster processors. It has apps for various useful things, such as Netflix, Quickflix, Bigpond Movies, ABC iView and SBS On Demand. There’s a ‘Market’ where you can grab more apps — I think they’re all free — including games, a ‘Fireplace’ that will display on your TV, Twitter and some other bits and pieces. Noticeably missing was YouTube. If you don’t have YouTube any more, I’d suggest your platform is dying. Probably time Panasonic switched these players over to Firefox OS as well.

The other network thing is its local media support. All this works in the smooth and modern way. I could mirror (or extend) my Windows notebook display to the DMP-UB400 for display on TV. I could mirror my Samsung Android phone to the DMP-UB400 for display. In both cases, you have to enable it, and the connection stays open for a minute for you to make the connection. For some reason that kind of explicit enabling isn’t required on Panasonic smart TVs.

You can also run DLNA media using the player’s own interface, however I preferred to do it using an Android app. No permission granting was required for this. Photo output from the player to the TV was at full Ultra-HD resolution, with no scaling or loss of colour resolution from my UHD test pattern.

With digital photos (most of which, these days, are of higher than UHD resolution) there appeared to be good quality scaling directly down to UHD resolution.

A 100Mbps Ultra-HD video clip was just a touch too much, bandwidth-wise, for the Ethernet connection, catching its breath to refill the layer’s buffer every few seconds. All the 50Mbps ones ran smoothly, including those in H.264 and H.265 video format. Those with HDR encoding were properly recognised and delivered with their high dynamic range properly respected. A couple I have with Dolby Vision simply would not play. I imagine that if/when Ultra-HD Discs with Dolby Vision encoding appear, they will have some kind of fall-back to HDR10 encoding.
Network audio was well handled, with fine handling of FLAC content up to 192kHz, 24 bits of resolution along with regular Direct Stream Digital, plus double speed DSD128. All DSD was converted to 88.2kHz PCM for delivery over the HDMI output.

Conclusion
Our conclusion is, of course, prejudged by having given this player a Sound+Image Award last issue. The Panasonic DMP-UB400 is a fine little Ultra-HD Blu-ray player that provides all the essentials at an eminently reasonable price. 

Panasonic DMP-UB400 UHD Blu-ray player
Price: $449

+ Excellent value for monty
+ Fine disc performance
+ Good local network media performance

- Network service interface well out of of date

Tested with firmware version: 1.04
Inputs: 1 x USB 2.0, 1 x USB 3.0, 1 x SD, Ethernet, Wi-Fi
Outputs: 2 x HDMI, 1 x optical digital audio
Dimensions (whd): 320 x 45 x 199mm deep
Weight: 1.5kg
Warranty: 12 months