Review: Panasonic DP-UB820 Ultra HD Blu-ray Player Offers Premium Performance
Panasonic introduced at CES 2018 its second generation 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray model DP-UB820, which offers many of the fine features of last year’s DP-UB900, including brilliant high-quality audio reproduction and clear, sharp 4K UHD video with support for multiple high dynamic range (HDR) profiles.
The player also offers owners of less-than-premium HD and 4K Ultra HD televisions a soghisticated tone mapping system to get better-than-usual performance from discs and streaming videos encoded with the premium-level brightness and color characteristics.
The Panasonic DP-UB820 will ring in at $499, where the original Panasonic DP-UP900 UHD Blu-ray player was originally introduced at $699. This puts the UB820 in the same price range as Sony’s pro-grade UBP-X1000ES, but less than Oppo’s $560 UDP-203, which along with the UDP-205, is now being phased out of the market.
In fact, with Oppo’s recently announced departure from the disc player business here, the Panasonic DP-UB820 immediately ranks near the top of the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player range in the United States.
Back in January the Panasonic DP-UB820 was announced along with three other players. The others (models UB320/330 and UB420) were intended for other international markets, and are somewhat less featured and less expensive alternatives to the DP-UB820. Under its plan for the United States, Panasonic has chosen to reduce its exposure in more mainstream AV consumer products in favor of offering only top-performing products that carry better profit margins.
Scheduled to first hit shelves of Magnolia departments at Best Buy stores in August, the DP-UB820 provides a nice value with its robust package of high-level features, fine music quality and crystal clear 4K Ultra HD video performance. Like the UB900, the new UB820 is also designed to deliver at least some of the benefits of HDR and chroma enhancement to less-capable televisions designed only for standard dynamic range (SDR). However, we found the improvement there to be only subtle and not something we expect most who settle for a mid to low range television are likely to appreciate.
As this was posted, the company was still considering a U.S. introduction of the new flagship Panasonic DP-UB9000 later in the year. That player will share most of the features of the UB820 but will incorporate better components, a better build quality and audiophile-grade performance characteristics, similar to the DP-UB900. But as we pointed out, that player’s U.S. delivery status is still no certain.
What the UB9000 will bring is a dedicated audio power supply, a high-performance D/A converter, and XLR balanced output. It will also feature a new vibration-reducing chassis and will be THX certified. We expect the price point to be close to double that of the UB820, which is no slouch.
The DP-UB820 will be Panasonic’s first player to support the new HDR10+ HDR profile with dynamic metadata, which is now a voluntary profile included in the Ultra HD Blu-ray spec. The UB820 will also support the baseline HDR10 static metadata HDR format, and through a future firmware update, it will add support for Dolby’s popular Dolby Vision profile, which also uses dynamic metadata-based HDR playback. Panasonic told us this will be the latest version of the Dolby Vision firmware and should be compatible with all Dolby Vision supporting TVs available at the time of delivery (even Sony models).
Also coming to the DP-UB820 will be support for Artificial Intelligence (AI) voice control using Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant devices. However, the review sample of the player we received for testing had not yet been updated to support either of these voice assistant technologies. Panasonic told us that in both systems, a network connection with a speaker with far field mics (e.g. Eco, Google Home speaker of Panasonic GA10) will be required. The Google Assistant capability will be ready for sure at the introduction timing. Amazon Alexa capability will be delivered at a introductory date to be announced later, the company said.
For those still in need of an outboard device to access Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube and other 4K/HDR streaming video apps, the Panasonic DP-UB820 is supposed to add those capabilities sometime around the retail launch. Unfortunately, those apps weren’t available in the test sample. However, the player’s remote comes equipped with a prominently placed Netflix quick-access button.
The review sample we received had rather spartan smart assortment of apps, although the player’s OS includes a built-in streaming store to add more apps as they become available. As is, the demo player included some basic video games, and a smattering of music services, including Pandora and TuneIn, among others. The player also includes the ability to access music and video files stored on server.
According to Panasonic: “At this stage, major OTT services (Netflix/YouTube/Amazon) will be available prior to the initial shipment in July.”
The company told us that planned video and movie related apps which will be built into the UB820 upon release include: Amazon Video, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus and CinemaNow.
Other supported apps will include: BIGFlix, Bild, BH, Break Comedy App, Couchy Play, Digital Concert Hall, Fireplace, Klyn, Ocean, SnagFilms, Viaway Internet, Vudu, Wealth TV 24/7, WOWtv, YuppTV.
The UB820 incorporates Panasonic’s powerful HCX processor, which helps to drive the player’s sophisticated tone mapping function. This is what enables the advanced tone mapping system that helps produce a somewhat better looking image from HDR and wide color gamut content on mid or lower-range 4K Ultra HDTVs and televisions with Rec.709.
This means less expense and lesser-performing TVs can play an Ultra HD Blu-ray movie disc that was mastered to a higher peak brightness level than the display was designed to support. For example, a movie that might have been mastered at 4,000 nits of peak brightness and a Rec. 2020 color gamut will have some of the qualities of that higher-level capability presented on the weaker device using the UB820’s “HDR Optimizer” function. This feature applies tone mapping to one of three peak brightness points (1,500 nits, 1,000 nits or 500 nits), as is required to most closely match the capability of the display.
The result should produce a slightly better-looking image, with, for example, more visible fine detail in bright and dark areas of the screen, than the television would have presented on its own.
The player also includes analog audio outputs, which indicates that like other high-performance Ultra HD Blu-ray players, the UB820 is equipped with a built-in DAC. As this was posted, Panasonic was unable to supply us with a list of components used in the UB820 or the planned UB9000 to help us discern any possible quality differences, although the UB9000 is supposed to have a more extensive package of advanced parts, and a more stable construction build. Despite this, we found the UB820 sound very good for both video and music performance through the player’s HDMI audio out as well as the analog outputs.
Stretching The Bounds of HDR
As mentioned, the UB820 will eventually (through a firmware update) add support for both HDR10+ and Dolby Vision dynamic metadata profile technologies. These are each intended to optimize the viewing experience on supporting displays on a scene-by-scene basis. Regrettably we weren’t able to test either one with this sample. One of the biggest differences between the two is that HDR10+ is an open, royalty-free dynamic metadata platform created by 20th Century Fox, Panasonic and Samsung. Content is expected to eventually make its way onto 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. Dolby Vision is a Dolby proprietary HDR profile, which adds build-of-materials cost to the device, but is said to deliver HDR with a more dynamic quality than static metadata based profiles or even HDR10+, which relies more heavily on tone mapping techniques. Dolby Vision enabled content is likely to be more broadly available than HDR10+ for at least the next year or two.
That aside, we found the UB820 was a capable HDR performer playing content encoded for plain vanilla HDR10. Both colors and specular highlights looked fantastic, even if graded at one set level through an entire movie. We found the UB820 matched up almost identically here with the Oppo UDP-203
The DP-UB820 is a compact player with a high-end look, thanks to a drop down translucent front cover plate designed to resemble beveled glass. The player itself is a svelte rectangular plastic box with a gloss piano-black finish. It measures 2.5 (high) x 17 (long) x 8 (deep) inches and is quite light, lacking some of the vibration dampening heft of the DP-UB900 before it, and presumably the UB9000 to follow.
Across the full length of the face of the player is a tinted translucent fold-down panel that automatically opens from the top out to allow the disc tray to emerge. A white fluorescent readout placed in the center of the front of the player appears clearly through the face plate when folded back up into position. The readout indicates when the tray is open and closed, and indicates the sound resolution quality of the content and other brief details before the digital count up begins with the start of the program.
Hidden behind the face plate is a 5V 500mA USB input, which is located just below the readout screen. A second USB input that accepts HDD devices requiring more power is located on the rear of the player. The tray mechanism itself appears sturdy, although it is a bit noisy when in operation.
The only controls on the player are a power button and a tray open/close button on top of the unit. Other functions must be operated with the supplied remote control.
Like the player itself, the remote for the DP-UB820 has been reduced in size from the full-size handset included with the DMP-UB900. This year’s version also lacks any back light, making it harder to use in a dark theater situation. Despite the size, Panasonic manages to include most of the buttons found on last year’s player, including the prominently featured white Netflix button that appears above the “up” arrow key. Due to the reduced size of the remote and the placement of the Netflix button, we found that big thumbs can easily slip and push the Netflix button instead of the desired arrow up button, which can get a bit frustrating.
The Panasonic DP-UB820 has a nice selection on the back panel of audio/video outputs including a pair of HDMI ports (one HDMI 2.0a for video) one for video/audio and the other for audio only output. Also included are 7.1-channel analog outputs, for those with suitably equipped preamps or AV receivvers and an optical digital output. Also offered is a LAN connection. Missing from the UB900 model last year are a coaxial digital output and an SD card slot. The player also omits an RS-232 port used primarily for system integration control setups.
During tests of the DP-UB820, we compared the player with the comparably featured Oppo UDP-203. Watching a 4K UHD Blu-ray of Planet Earth II, images looked equally clear, clean, and vibrant and were virtually indistinguishable. Scenes from the African grass lands showed incredible detail and nuanced colors in the closeups of individual strands of the tall grasses that a field mouse carefully navigates trying to escape a hungry owl circling above. Both players delivered exceptionally rich and deep colors on the screen of a Samsung QN65Q8C QLED display used for this review.
Similarly excellent was the performance of standard Full HD 1080p Blu-ray content. Colors in the Blu-ray version of Iron Man where rich and vibrant, although lacking the color volume and fine detail found in bright and dark areas of 4K UHD image with HDR. The deep burgundy red and gold colors of Iron Man’s suit glistened although the specular highlights were much flatter than they appear with HDR from a version encoded for Ultra HD.
Again, in these real-world tests, any difference in quality level between 1080p Blu-ray playback of the DP-UB820 and the Oppo UDP-203 were difficult to discern. Both players perform so well that any detectable nuances must be determined with test patterns, like the Spears & Munsil Blu-ray test disc, where the Panasonic DP-UB820 shows marginally better results. Indeed, even the player’s upconversion of DVD passed the usual Spears & Munsil tests. But most people don’t spend a lot of time watching test patterns. We noticed that black levels on standard Blu-ray material appeared darker and lost some shadow detail compared to Ultra HD Blu-ray discs with HDR.
Fortunately, the Panasonic DP-UB820 continues to offer a nice selection of picture setting adjustments to help dial-in just the right amount of sharpness, luminance, and color noise reduction. Adjustment for sharpness, for example, can bring out subtle detail elements before any ringing artifacts begin to emerge.
Similary, a few notches up on the brightness setting in the luminance adjustment section brought out more of the hidden dark shadow detail in the early cave sequences of Iron Man, without disrupting the calibration settings of the television.
The brightness adjustment was most helpful using the player’s HDR-to-SDR conversion feature on 4K Ultra HD material viewed on an SDR display to help restore some lost black level detail, although the degree of improvement from the transition was subtle and well shy of the quality seen in a native HDR picture on a proper premium-level display.
Where the Panasonic DP-UP820 earns its bones is in music reproduction. We found the sound quality differences between the DP-UB820 and the excellent Oppo UDP-203 to be very subtle. Performing an A/B comparison using Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same from the Houses of the Holy CD, the UB820 was just slightly warmer and more lively than the Oppo played through Denon’s excellent AVR-X6400H AV receiver.
The UB820’s nice flat delivery is excellent for stringed performances. We also found a pleasingly full midrange listening to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie (La Gazza Ladra) from the original soundtrack to A Clock Work Orange. The disc provides a wonderful transition test into Wendy Carlos’ brilliant use of the synthesizer on Timesteps, and back into the power of the second movement in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The UB820 didn’t miss a note, and did a nice job of making the instruments sound natural.
Panasonic offers a lengthy selection of sound effects that provide subtle shading nodes for music, including six different “Digital Tube Sound Effects,” which are fun to play around with to test your golden-ear worthiness, as the changes are only slightly different.
Panasonic’s player also performed well wirelessly tied into a DLNA Network Attached Storage device to stream hi-res audio (FLAC) tracks ripped from Charles Mingus’ Mingus Moves CD. Here the midrange was really put to the test. The brilliant musical conversation between the tenor sax of George Adams and trumpet of Ronald Hampton was crystal clear, right down to the rattling of spittal from Adams’ reed.
Listening to Mary Lou from Steve Miller’s The Joker album in 96-kHz/24-bit from an HDtracks FLAC download, the vocals were warm and natural, while notes from the clavinet and guitar noodling fills were clear and present in the room. The separation between the right and left channels was excellent. The UB820 will play a range of hi-res audio formats, via network connection or from USB and HDD devices connected to the USB inputs. Supported music formats include DSD (11.2MHz/2.8MHz/5.6MHz), ALAC, FLAC, AAC, MP3, WAV and AIFF. It also includes 192kHz/96kHz surround re-master.
The main advantage the Oppo UDP-203 and various Sony Ultra HD Blu-ray players have over the Panasonic DP-UB820 is in the ability to play 5.1 multi-channel DVD-Audio and SACD discs. While it is true that these are now dead formats, they still exist in the libraries of millions of audiophiles around the world, and with the departure of Oppo from the universal player market, the lifespan of these discs is more limited than ever. Although the UB820 won’t play either format, it does a fantastic job with the small sampling of available multichannel Pure Audio Blu-ray music material. There is no comparison between a proper 5.1 channel mix and any of the faux surround formats available through today’s AVRs and processors.
For movie soundtracks, the Panasonic DP-UB820 supports all the latest and greatest, including Dolby True HD, DTS-HD Master Audio, and Dolby Atmos and DTS:X object-based audio. The players handles each of these very well.
With the gradual departure of Oppo’s Ultra HD Blu-ray players from the market, Panasonic steps up as one of the leading candidates to take over the high-end market for both video and audiophile-grade disc-based players. Panasonic’s latest model will add some nice new capabilities including support for the HDR10+ format and a more robust platform for streaming entertainment apps. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to evaluate how well this player will handle either of those capabilities yet. That aside, the UB820 steps right up to offer quality signal output to match last year’s excellent Panasonic UB900. Those who want to hold out for even more realistic and nuanced sound reproduction can wait for the possible arrival of the flagship UB9000 player that might make it here by the end of the year. But the differences are going to be hard for non-golden-eared listeners to appreciate. We also think Panasonic is missing an opportunity to take over Oppo’s niche role by not making its disc players fully “universal” models, with support for multi-channel DVD-Audio and SACD discs. After all, Panasonic was one of the leading developers and proponents of the DVD-A ecosystem, and in this reviewer’s opinion, DVD-Audio and SACDs are some of the best ways to listen to hi-res audio. Pure Audio Blu-ray discs will work, but sadly this format never generated the necessary momentum to build up a decent library of discs. Nevertheless, for most high quality music and movie lovers this is an excellent player that we highly recommend.
Comparatively, purchasers will find what remains of the rapidly disappearing inventory of Oppo’s UDP-203 and UDP-205 players, now starting at almost $200 more, or one of two Sony Ultra HD Blu-ray players that will be getting Dolby Vision support this year, starting at about $299 less, among a handful of players from LG, Philips and Samsung. However, the equivalently positioned Sony player will lack an internal DAC for compatible AVRs, pre-amps, etc., and won’t offer the same level of support for HDR-to-SDR conversion for those televisions that would benefit. For price/value alone, one of those other players may be a better buy, but the Panasonic will stand proudly against any of them in picture and sound quality.
DP-UB820 Feature List:
High Quality Picture
Ultra HD Blu-ray Playback (4K/HDR)
HCX (Hollywood Cinema Experience) Processor for Ultra HD Blu-ray
Supports HDR10+/ Dolby Vision dynamic metadata
4K High-Precision Chroma Processing
4K Direct Chroma Upscaling
4K 60p/4:4:4 Output
Full HD 3D Blu-ray Disc Playback
High Quality Sound
7.1 channel Analog Audio Output
Twin HDMI Pure AV (Twin Isolated Output)
High Clarity Sound Premium
HDMI Low Clock Jitter Processing
Digital Tube Sound modes
High-resolution Audio Playback (DSD (11.2MHz/2.8MHz/5.6MHz), ALAC, FLAC, WAV, AIFF)
192kHz/96kHz Surround Re-master
Works with Google Assistant and eventually Alexa Voice Assistants
4K VOD Supported (Netflix/ YouTube/ Amazon and others)
4K Networking (4K Video/ 4K Jpeg Playback)
DLNA network support
External HDD Playback
Mirroring with Smartphone / Tablet
Wireless LAN Built-in
Home Screen Wallpaper
The Panasonic DP-UB820 used for this review was a company loan.
By Greg Tarr
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