New-age Blu-ray

High-end Blu-ray players may offer a wide range of extras, but Panasonic’s $279 player shows how much you can get for far less.

DMP-BDT460

Do you need to spend a fortune on a Blu-ray player for great picture quality? For the past few years Panasonic has been demonstrating that you don’t. And so it continues this year. But in addition to quality performance of core functions, Panasonic’s new premium (at just $279!) DMP-BDT460 offers the rare feat of being able to deliver still photos at a real 4K resolution, not 1080p upsampled to 4K.

EQUIPMENT
Of course, in addition to playing Blu-ray discs, DVDs and CDs, it has proper network functions and also supports media playback from USB and SD cards. It also has a web interface and access to Panasonic apps which give it various internet functions.

backpanel

This is a fully digital player. It has no analogue connections at all, not even for audio. Perhaps the only surprising inclusion is the optical digital audio output — perhaps useful for passing audio direct to a soundbar if your TV is stripping out surround information, or for legacy support if your AV receiver lacks HDMI inputs.

Or your older receiver may have HDMI inputs but not support the 3D or 4K signals the player can deliver. The player deals with this by providing two HDMI outputs. You can set one of these to be audio only and plug that into your receiver, getting the benefit of the highest possible audio standards while sending the picture directly to your more up-to-date TV.

There’s an Ethernet socket for networking, or Wi-Fi support for b, g, and n standards, but on the 2.4GHz band only. (The UK and South East Asia models get both 2.4 and 5GHz. We wonder why Australia and New Zealand don’t get the same treatment.)

front flap

Around the front, underneath a fascia-wide smoked flap which folds down when the disc tray opens, are sockets for SD and USB. The card slot supports the newer standards up to 32GB on SDXC, while the USB can handle drives of up to 2TB.

As usual with Panasonic you have to pay attention to which of these media you’re using according to the function you want to employ. Both SD and USB can be used for viewing photos — both 2D and 3D (in MPO format) — along with MP4 video. But if you want to watch AVCHD video (in 2D or 3D) then you will have to load it onto SD. If you want to listen to some music (AAC, FLAC, MP3, WAV, WMA) then you use USB. Likewise if you want to watch MKV, MPEG2 or Xvid format video.

Blu-ray disc makers seem to have largely abandoned the more exciting special features that used to be provided, such as BD-Live content, but if you do want to load ‘persistent storage’ to enable such functions, then note that Panasonic has switched support from SD to USB. This is rather a pity in aesthetic terms, since you can leave an SD card in place and close the front panel, but USB storage stops it from closing.

The unit is fairly compact: just under the usual component width at 415mm, but only 192mm deep and 43mm tall.

In these days of chain stores apparently refusing to carry HDMI cables valued much less than $50, the inclusion of a free HDMI cable with this unit is welcome.

A stubby remote control is included. Surprisingly there are no iOS or Android apps available to control this unit. It appears that 2012 was the last model year for which Panasonic offered this feature.

PERFORMANCE
One of the best things about Panasonic Blu-ray players is their superb picture quality with Australian DVDs and the few (but important e.g. ‘Pulp Fiction’) Australian Blu-ray discs running at 1080i/50. With this player you can at any point hit the ‘Option’ key on the remote, arrow down to ‘Picture Settings’ and from there set ‘Progressive’ to ‘Auto’, ‘Film’ or ‘Video’. ‘Video’ assumes that the fields in interlaced video are displaced in time with respect to each other, so it always applies good quality motion-adaptive deinterlacing, bobbing the moving parts of the picture and weaving the fields together in the static parts. ‘Film’ assumes that the content is progressive, so it just weaves the two fields together. This is suitable for the great majority of Australian DVDs. If you set it wrongly, you will soon tell by the horizontal combing on moving parts of the picture.

‘Auto’ attempts to work out the appropriate setting from moment to moment. This it did quite well, but imperfectly with my usual selection of torture tests on both DVD and Blu-ray. That’s standard behaviour, so the ability to select force-film mode is always welcome, and the reasonably easy on-the-fly accessibility makes it usable.

All that, combined with Panasonic’s usual high standards for decoding compressed video and scaling to 1080p, makes this player, on the video front, as good as any in existence.

It will also upscale to 4K should you want it to. But why would you want it to? Your 4K TV knows more about its innards than a Blu-ray player, no matter how well designed. I checked it out. It worked. The results were not at all distinguishable from those of a 55-inch LG 4K TV doing its own upscaling from a 1080p input. In general let your TV do the work, if for no other reason than that HDMI cable performance becomes more critical as you up the signal resolution.

There’s no need to set the player to 4K to enjoy higher resolution from your photos. So long as its output resolution is set to ‘Auto’, and of course your TV (and AV receiver, if in line) support it, the unit will automatically switch to 4K output when displaying photos, whether from USB, SD or streamed from your network. As we reported in our last issue, the unit delivered our special test pattern perfectly.

There’s not much you can say about the unit’s audio quality when it comes to discs, because it’ll be up to the DAC in your receiver or TV. The unit can, of course, bitstream out all disc audio formats or convert them to PCM. Panasonic Blu-ray players have previously had the unfortunate habit when decoding to PCM of converting DTS (both regular and in its HD varieties) 5.1 to 7.1 channels for reasons quite opaque to us. This player no longer does that. Your 5.1 content will be delivered intact to your receiver, which can then apply its own processing should you request it.

As a disc spinner it’s 90% cent of the way to our ideal. One excellent feature is seamless layer changes on DVD, eliminating those pregnant pauses halfway through SD resolution movies (seamless changes were designed into Blu-ray, so it’s never an issue with them).

The unit offers a ‘Quick Start’ mode, which leaves the unit kind of switched on internally, but even without this it would get its disc tray open in less than four seconds from fully off. Both my test Blu-ray discs started playing in a little over 20 seconds, which is a bit faster than many, and less than 25% slower than the fastest competitor.

You get five fast-forwards speeds, and five fast-rewind speeds, frame stepping and five slow-motion speeds. But there’s no slow reverse, which is dispensable, and no reverse frame stepping, which I don’t think dispensable at all, and no time search, which can be quite inconvenient.

Apart from the lack of iOS/Android app support, the network features are kind of wonderful. Want to stream photos? The unit will send them out with 4K resolution, if your system supports it. Got all kinds of interesting high resolution and multichannel FLACs? This unit properly decoded 24-bit, 192kHz stereo FLACs, and 24 bit, 96kHz 5.1-channel FLACs. It supports all the video and audio standards listed earlier for SD cards and USB storage, except for the 3D variants.

It was happy with 1080i/50 and 576i/50 MPEG2 video, and MKV movies, and .ts files with H.264 and MPEG2 content.

During video playback of files you don’t get the excellent picture control functions provided when you’re spinning discs. In particular, you can’t choose film or video mode. The standard ‘auto’ mode is applied, and this works pretty well, but it’d be nice to be able to give streamed video the same quality treatment as disc-based video.

All this network support would benefit significantly from an app that helps you browse all the available media. But to be fair, the remote was reasonably good at shooting through lists at a good clip, thanks to the page-skip capabilities. And there’s another network feature that reduces the need for a separate Panasonic app — the Media Renderer function. Select this through the Home Network option and the unit takes the stance of being ready to be a dumb recipient of streaming media. You use a third-party DLNA controller app (I used BubbleUPnP on Android) to select the photos, video or music you want played and then select the Panasonic as the ‘renderer’, and the media will stream to the Panasonic, which will decode it and deliver as audio and video from its HDMI outputs.

This is perhaps better than anything a Panasonic app could hope to offer. Except that this function didn’t support full-resolution display of 4K still images.

One other streaming option provided by the unit is Miracast. With this you just select the Miracast option in the Panasonic player’s menus, connect using your Android Miracast-compatible phone or tablet, and the videos on your device will appear, via the DMP-BDT460, on your TV. Connection via my network was solid and picture quality quite reasonable.

CONCLUSION
What the Panasonic DMP-BDT460 Blu-ray player delivers is classy DVD and Blu-ray performance, excellent network media support and real 4K still photo output, all at a remarkably low price.

BDT460

Panasonic DMP-BDT460 Blu-ray player
Price: $279

FOR: First-class picture quality from discs, Excellent value for money, 4K stills output

AGAINST: Not a 4K video player; Front-only USB impractical/unsightly; No iOS/Android control app

Tested with firmware version: 1.30

Outputs: 2 x HDMI, 1 x optical digital audio

Others: 1 x USB, 1 x SD/SDHC/SDXC, 1 x Ethernet, Wi-Fi

Dimensions (whd): 415mm x 43mm x 192mm

Weight: 1.2kg

Warranty: 12 months

Product page: Panasonic Australia