Although it’s been more than two years since the U.S. introduction of the Blu-ray high definition disc format, until recently, none of the free-standing players have been capable of handling all of the features included in the Blu-ray standard.

Panasonic’s first 3rd generation player, recently introduced, conforms to 2.0, the full Blu-ray specification, including BD Live. Pre-recorded BD-ROM discs (Blu-ray read only memory) mastered with BD Live allow you to download content from the Internet, store it in an external memory device (this player uses a 1GB SD memory card) and play it as added features when using certain Blu-ray titles. A number of movie studios have made public commitments to the feature (including Disney).

Sony’s first freestanding 3rd generation player, the BDP-S350, now shipping, will conform to the profile 2.0 standard through a firmware update available, the company says, “in the near future.”

If you have been holding out for a freestanding high definition disc player capable of performing every feature within the Blu-ray standard, you may want to consider one of these units. Which one? Let’s compare.

The Basics.

Panasonic’s top of the line DMP-BD50 ($599.99 retail) has many of the bells and whistles one has come to expect in a full featured Blu-ray machine including on-board decoding of the two lossless audio formats (to 5.1 channels) Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD allowing connection to any surround sound system with 5.1 analog inputs. In addition, it outputs video at 1080p 60 or 24 HZ (via HDMI) and compared to earlier generation Blu-ray players, it has relatively fast disc loading times. There are other features on the BD50, among them the ability it display AVC HD video or still photos stored on an SD memory card.

The Sony BDP-S350  ($399.99 retail) can only downconvert the lossless digital audio surround formats to stereo via its on-board decoder. It can’t play your photos or AVC HD video stored on external memory. If you want to hear the best sounding “lossless” audio formats (DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD), you will need a current surround receiver that can accept and decode these formats via HDMI.  The BDP-S350 contains a rear mounted, recessed USB flash memory jack, which requires at least 1GB of storage for BD Live operation. Potential buyers beware, the opening around the jack measures about 13/16 inch wide, which was narrower than most of the USB memory drives I had on hand. Fortunately, Sony does make a 1GB USB memory of the properly narrow width.

Both players have video noise reduction circuitry. Sony adds an audio time delay up to 120 milliseconds, useful if your display’s audio is ahead of the video. The Panasonic has a full range of picture modes, including contrast, sharpness, color and gamma as well as two noise reduction controls. For performance evaluations, all controls were left in the factory default positions.

The Sony and the Panasonic connect to the Internet via an Ethernet rear mounted jack using a cable from your router. Both units can update their respective firmware if you have the player connected to the Internet. The Sony will display an on-screen prompt if there is a new firmware version available.  However, the Sony appears to have a defect that required extra effort to allow the player to connect to the Internet. My guess the problem resides in its firmware controlling the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) function. DHCP should automatically assign an IP addresses, subnet masks, default gateway, and other Internet connection parameters to provide Internet connection. The DHCP function did not work, forcing me to manually entering the proper information after retrieving it from my PC. This is unacceptable, as I feel connecting and configuring a Blu-ray player is difficult enough for many prospective purchasers. Once properly configured, the BDP-S350 connected to the Internet, confirmed there was a new firmware update and executed the download by following the on-screen instructions. The Panasonic had no difficulty automatically configuring using DHCP. Once connected to the Internet, it can be set to automatically download any new updates.

With the latest firmware installed on the Sony and the Panasonic, I began testing performance. First up the Sony.

Since the Profile 2.0 update and BD Live functionality is not yet available on the Sony player, I disconnected the internet cable and limited my testing to performance criteria including overall HD picture quality, deinterlacing, time required for boot up and start of a disc and the quality of its upconversion of standard definition DVDs.

The Sony BDP-S350 is a diminutive player measuring a mere 17” W X 8.75” D x 2.375” H. In addition to shrinking the player they also shrank the owner’s manual to about 8.25” x 5.25” with the associated small typeface for difficult reading. What’s next, I pondered, an on-line manual? How about including a magnifying glass?

After hitting the power switch the Sony will boot-up and display a home screen Sony calls the X-Media bar. From there you may perform set-up as well as load and play a disc. There are a normal and quick start modes for the X-Media bar. In quick start mode, the X-Media bar appears in just 6 seconds versus 20 for the normal standby mode. The time it takes from inserting a Blu-ray disc and the movie to begin depends on the specific Blu-ray disc you are using. “Men In Black required 1 minute 31 seconds for Sony Studio’s logo to appear.

“Reign Over Me” clocked in at 50 seconds to begin displaying the studio logo while Gone Baby Gone took 60 seconds to reach the first trailer (its authored for the studio’s logo to appear later).

To test a number of HD performance criteria I used the Silicon Optix Blu-ray HQV test disc, with the Sony’s video output set to 1080p/60 Hz. The first test is to determine the BDP-S350’s ability to properly deinterlace 1080i HD content. Most movies are digitally transferred from film at 1080p/24Hz; however, many music concerts and scripted TV series appearing on Blu-ray are recorded and mastered at 1080i/30 Hz. The “i” stands for interlaced and alternately outputs 540 odd and even lines of resolution every 1/60 of a second. When set to 1080p/60 a Blu-ray player should combine the odd and even lines into a complete 1080 line image every 1/60 of a second. The BDP-S350 can’t do this and simply doubles the number of scan lines with the same 540 lines of information, thereby displaying only 50% of the detail within the recording.  You can work around this shortcoming if your HDTV properly deinterlaces 1080i, by switching the BDP-350’s output resolution to 1080i allowing the display to take over the deinterlacing task. Good news for those considering a new 1080p HDTV. The vast majority of 2008 HDTVs tested, properly deinterlace 1080i. Which ones? The information will be revealed in soon (Early September 2008) in the HD GURU’s test of 100 2008 HDTVs.

Next the player was checked to see if it properly performs 3:2 conversion with film based 1080p/24 Hz content. The Sony passed, producing a test image that was free of any artifacts or image degradation.

Using the standard DVD Silicon Optix HQV test disc to check out the Sony’s ability to upconvert standard definition content to 1080p revealed a number of issues. The color bar test failed by flickering portions of the test pattern, a symptom indicative of rudimentary motion adaptive circuitry. Other brand Blu-ray players sampled have passed this test. The single rotating bar did a fair job of avoiding jaggies while the three bar jaggie test failed, revealing jagged edges on all three bars. The detail test on the Silicon Optix disc revealed the Sony passed by displaying fine details such as the mortar lines of bricks on a bridge.

If your HDTV does a better job upconverting standard definition content (480i) by producing fewer artifacts, you’re in luck. The Sony’s output via HDMI can be changed 480i allowing your display to perform the  upconversion chores. By switching the player back and forth from 480i to 1080p (via HDMI) in the set up menu you can determine which output mode will produce the best image on your HDTV. The Panasonic can output 480p but not 480i via HDMI.

Blu-ray performance with 1080p/24 Hz content was superb with the player. I rate the BDP-S350 HD performance excellent when viewing 1080p/24 content (movies). With native 1080i content the BDP-S350 performed poorly due to its inability to properly deinterlace and displaying only 50% of the detail at any time. SD DVD upconversion quality is “fair”.

The Panasonic DMP-BD50

It’s compact, but about 3.75 inches deeper than the Sony player and includes a full size owner’s manual normal size fonts.

The Panasonic took longer to “boot up”, a reasonable twenty seconds. Load times were slower than the Sony but not by much. In the same tests “Men In Black” required eleven more seconds until the Sony Pictures logo appears, “Reign on Me” took three more seconds for the Sony Pictures logo to appear and “Gone Baby Gone” was two seconds slower to the trailer, compared to the Sony player. The winner, by a nose (and a few seconds), the Sony making it the “fastest to play” freestanding Blu-ray machine tested to date.

In the HD performance tests the Panasonic passed both the 1080i deinterlace test and the 3:2 pulldown test.

Using the HQV standard definition test disc, the Panasonic passed the color bar test, but failed the single bar and three bar test, producing jaggies on all bars. The Panasonic also passed the detail test.

Blu-ray performance with 1080p/24 Hz movie content was excellent on the Panasonic. I spent about an hour trying to find any sign that one player was performing better than the other, but they both had identical, outstanding HD Blu-ray movie playback performance.

The BD Live function worked fine when using the DMP-BD50 with the Lionsgate Blu-ray disc Saw IV. Unfortunately, BD Live would not properly connect to the studio’s server with any of Sony titles sampled including Men In Black. Confirming it’s the Sony disc/Panasonic player issue, I tried the BD Live Sony Blu-ray discs using a Sony Playstation 3 as the Blu-ray player (its the only other machine on the market today that plays Blu-ray discs and is profile 2.0 compatible). Sony Pictures is aware of the BD live issue with its discs and the Panasonic DMP-BD50 and has been working hard to resolve it soon.

So, which player wins the showdown? For video performance, if you are only going to play 1080p movies that are film based, it’s a toss up. They both provide the best HDTV images I have seen on any player.  If you plan to play DVDs and 1080i videos and programs, the overall edge goes to the Panasonic.

The audio side raises another issue. If you have an older 5.1 surround sound (SS) receiver or pre/processor with analog audio inputs, you’ll want to choose the Panasonic with its 5.1 lossless audio outputs. If you have a recent SS receiver with 1.3 HDMI and Dolby TRUEHD/DTS HD the Sony will provide “lossless” surround sound audio.

Last, if you want a full-featured freestanding Blu-ray player today, the Panasonic is the only one available until Sony’s promised a 2.0 profile firmware upgrade in the “near future”.

Copyright ©2008 Gary Merson/HD Guru®  All rights reserved. HD GURU is a registered trademark. The content and photos within may not be distributed electronically or copied mechanically without specific written permission.