Ah, format wars. The 1980's had the classic example of the consumer electronics show-down known as a "format war" when VHS and Beta both entered the market. VHS won that one, although Beta clung to a professional market for a very long time and can still be found in that market. In the mid-1990's, the industry was working on a 5" optical video disc and struggled to avoid a repeat of the VHS/Beta fiasco, eventually producing the wildly successful DVD. Even the DVD had a brush with format violence, though, when Circuit City teamed with a Hollywood law firm to create DIVX (not to be confused with the video codec DivX that appeared years later). Launched roughly a year and a half behind DVD, DIVX overlayed a "pay-per-view" sort of system onto the DVD format. Internet uproar over this competing format was so ferocious that DIVX was abandoned after less than nine months on the market, and DVD proceeded from there free from the burden of a format war. Not long afterward, though, two competing formats set out to replace the CD, and the DVD-Audio/SACD format war was born. The arrival of the iPod and iTunes Music Store combined with poor marketing from both sides and some problematic limitations on digital output hurt both formats, and at this point SACD has been relegated to "niche format" status while DVD-Audio is largely dead. And yet after all the pain and profit loss of past format wars, we still have another format war on our hands today. This time it's two high-definition 5" optical disc formats that are waging war against each other: HD-DVD and Blu-ray.
As I mentioned recently in my review of Toshiba's HD-A2 HD-DVD player, I was leery about buying into this new format war. My initial sense that Blu-ray had all the advantages faded quite a bit during 2007, as Toshiba's HD-DVD hardware support has been consistently solid and Blu-ray hardware has struggled for over a year now. Blu-ray players have suffered from slow load times on newer titles and from being limited to Blu-ray Profile 1.0, meaning that future titles would eventually start offering content that would be inaccessible to those players. The Playstation3 was an exception to many of these drawbacks, as it offered fast load times and rumored promises of a Profile 1.1 firmware update (and perhaps even a Profile 2.0 update eventually), but it also lacks bitstream output support for the new audio formats and a proper IR remote control (making home theater integration a pain). The BD30 was one of the very first standalone players to arrive that offered Profile 1.1 capability (via a firmware update to follow later and a user-furnished SD card), and it also was among the first to offer bitstream output of the new audio formats. When early reviews described video quality that matched or perhaps even bested the very best Blu-ray players (including the PS3) and load times that were close to those seen on the PS3, I decided that it was time to repeat a purchase made almost exactly nine years ago. In November 1998, I bought my first DVD player from Panasonic (a DVD-A310 that I still have sitting in a closet) and paid just under $500. In November 2007, I bought my first Blu-ray player, again from Panasonic and again for $500. It just seemed appropriate... As in my previous equipment reviews, you can find an equipment list at the end of this review.
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I may be in a minority here, but none of the HD disc players have struck me as having particularly inspiring industrial designs. Several have gotten fancy with motorized front panels and the like, but such things always make me a bit nervous (maybe coming from seeing too many examples of complex designs going awry when put into service). The BD30 retains a touch of that, with a faceplate made of two separate hinged panels, but it at least avoids motorized doors. The left portion of the front panel is spring-loaded and pushed open by the disc tray when the tray opens, while the right portion is a simple hinged panel that conceals the display (visible through a window in the panel), the SD card slot, and a minimal number of buttons. Power and disc tray open/close buttons are on the top left and right corners, respectively. Very clean, rather minimalist. It gets the job done and doesn't try to get overly fancy in the process and the black faceplate is a traditional, conservative look that blends into my equipment rack well. Granted, the bright blue light in the middle of the upper edge can be a bit overbearing, but it can be turned off in the setup menus or set to only come on when an SD card is loaded. Since mine is behind a tinted glass door, I've left it on. The weight isn't anything that one would describe as "tank-like" not as heavy as my first DVD player, certainly but it's not so light that I'm worried about the electronic equivalent of an eating disorder.
The BD30's rear panel makes a pretty respectable showing. There's certainly more happening than around front. In addition to the detachable power cord and the inevitable HDMI output, there is a healthy array of other connections: component, composite, and s-video outputs; optical and coaxial digital audio outputs; stereo analog output; and a 5.1 analog output. It would be nice to have a 7.1 output similar to the BD10 and BD10A, but since they've dropped the onboard DD+ and TrueHD decoding the multichannel analog output is a bit more limited in usefulness anyway. There's also a cooling fan. I've remarked in the past on my preference for natural ventilation versus mechanical ventilation in my consumer electronics, even though my day job involves mechanical ventilation of a much larger scale. Past experience suggests that the fan on a source component like this may not be all that objectionable, though. Both my DVD recorder (a Panasonic DMR-E80) and HD-DVD player (Toshiba HD-A2) have similar fans, and neither fan has been a noise problem for me. So far, the BD30 has proven likewise.
The remote is fairly typical for a DVD player's standalone remote: no backlight, necessary player controls with a few generic TV and receiver buttons tossed in (TV and receiver volume controls, TV power, and TV channel). Backlight would be nice, of course, but since I've got a universal remote I find that I can forgive source component makers who elect to avoid that expense. The layout of the remote seemed fairly sensible when I was programming it into my MX-700 (see here for my BD30 .mxd file and here for my overall system .mxf file).
So far, so good. That still leaves the next big test: setting it up and checking out some Blu-ray content.
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Since I've already got my multichannel analog input occupied with a universal DVD-Audio/SACD player (two formats for which I have more software than either of the new HD formats, both of which lack a fall-back digital audio connection useful to me), I am not using the multichannel analog output. Instead, I pulled my OPPO Digital 981HD out of the right side of my entertainment center and slipped the BD30 into its spot: power cord, optical cable, HDMI cable, and IR emitter. My wife was stunned when I sat back down a couple minutes after pulling the player out of the box and declared the process complete. The 981HD would be moved later, since it was time to return it the central DVD playback duties in the left cabinet anyway (with the 980H around for DVD-A/SACD and some children's TV shows stored on a USB drive), but she didn't have to be bothered by that just then.
I made a handful of changes to the BD30's setup menus. The "Setup", "Disc", "Video", and "Display" menus I left unchanged. On the "Audio" tab, I made several changes. For Digital Audio Output, I changed each option from PCM to Bitstream. This means that Dolby Digital and DTS signals are not decoded internally. It also means that Dolby Digital Plus, TrueHD, and DTS-HD bitstreams (up to and including DTS-HD Master Audio) would be passed as bitstreams via HDMI if I were using the HDMI connection for audio. Since I'm not doing that, each of those cases ends up passing a core bitstream of basic Dolby Digital or DTS via the optical output. If I were to leave these set to the default of PCM, the BD30 would decode the Dolby Digital and DTS signals and output as multichannel PCM, but it would only output PCM stereo from the optical connection. It would also decode only the core DD or DTS bitstream to prodice the multichannel PCM delivered to the HDMI output. I also turned off the BD-Video Secondary Audio, although in theory this shouldn't be necessary. According to the manual the player will only decode the signal internally if a secondary audio signal is present. This is a desirable behavior, especially for anyone with an HDMI v1.3 processor, as it will allow bitstream output of the new advanced audio formats when no secondary audio is present but will still automatically grab a core format and decode internally when using a special feature that involves secondary audio. What I've seen posted by BD30 owners who have v1.3 receivers or processors suggests that this theoretical scenario is not foolproof, so I plan to leave secondary audio disabled until I (eventually) have a v1.3 processor. At that point I'll run some tests to decide whether I want to change it. In addition to the several changed that I made on the "Audio" tab, I also made a few under "TV/Device Connection". I left the TV Aspect setting alone (default of 16:9, which includes the ability to pillarbox 4:3 content), but I changed "HDMI Resolution" from Auto to 1080i. I left BD-Video 24p Output disabled, as my display does not support 24p video. I also disabled HDMI Audio Output and EZ Sync. Someone using the multichannel analog outputs or the HDMI output with multichannel PCM tracks would probably need to take a look at the speaker settings located here, but since I'm only using the optical output I didn't need to change anything.
Once all of that was done, I was ready to start spinning some Blu-ray discs...
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The first disc that went in the player was Ratatouille, partly because it was one of the only Blu-ray discs I had handy and partly because I hadn't seen it yet and was looking forward to watching it. Picture quality was excellent, but I was curious about live action material. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy arrived a few days later, but that disc didn't strike me as significantly better than the DVD when upscaled well (as with an OPPO Digital 981HD, for example). Then I tossed in the Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds BD, and I saw what I've come to expect from HD: that vibrant, detailed, three-dimensional sort of picture. As with any other format, the mixing, mastering, compression, and other work involved in creating a title are going to be a significant factor in how good the final product is, but that was the first disc that made clear for me that the BD30 could do what I needed it to do with a good BD transfer. A few other samplings helped reinforce that, starting with The Fifth Element (current version, not the poorly encoded disc released originally in 2006). The Fifth Element has an abundance of bright colors and fine detail, and the BD30 captured all of it very nicely. Black Hawn Down was the last live action movie I had on hand at the time of this writing, and while it also had some great "HD" moments there was also a lot about the style in which it was filmed that softened some the impact of seeing it in HD. Before moving on to standard DVD's, I took a moment to do a comparison between the two HD formats using Nine Inch Nail's concert disc "Beside You In Time." I put the HD-DVD version in the HD-A2 and the Blu-ray version in the BD30 and proceeded to sample both versions. The BD30 was outputting the core Dolby Digital track from the TrueHD, while the HD-A2 was decoding the TrueHD track and re-encoding as DTS. The sound was close, although I think the HD-A2 may have had a bit of an advantage. Picture quality was also close, as is to be expected for two discs that use essentially the same video source (althouth the Halo22 HD FAQ indicates that the Blu-ray version was encoded at a somewhat higher bitrate). There were a few moments when I felt the image quality was very slightly better on the BD30, but I don't know whether that is due to the BD encode having more space to work with, the BD30 providing better image quality than the HD-A2, or my imagination. Disc load times and menu access times were comparable between the two players. It's hard to read a lot into that, as the two formats run different software to handle disc menus and this disc's menus are more in line with traditional DVD menus than some of the newer menu designs found on HD-DVD and Blu-ray movie releases.
Even though I bought the BD30 with no intention of using it as a standard DVD player or a CD player, I figured that I'd at least try both formats out to see how it handled them. A brief series of tests suggested that the BD30 is in fact a pretty solid upconverting DVD player. The BD30 does support pillarboxing 4:3 content, which is good for DVD's of older movies and TV shows. Layer changes are a bit slow for my taste, however. The disc I use to test layer change is Attack of the Clones because I know just where it is (a few seconds into chapter 28), and it took around one and a half seconds to make the change. That's not excessive, but compared to my main DVD player it's surprisingly apparent. Without spending a lot of time cycling discs through and running through standard DVD calibration and test patterns, I'd say that the BD30 is a good DVD player better standard DVD performance can likely be had from a few of the current crop of upconverting DVD players, but if you need a Blu-ray player that can also do a good job with DVD the BD30 is certainly a candidate for that duty (and depending on the standard DVD player you have currently, it could even offer improvements from what you're used to for standard DVD playback). I'll leave the CD commentary for the next section.
One thing that I didn't test was the BD30's ability to play AVCHD content off of an SD card or DVD. The BD30 does not make much effort to support many of the endless array of audio and video file formats that exist these days, but it will support JPG image files and MP3 audio files in addition to AVCHD content so I did take a look at some JPG files. The interface is fairly straightforward, allowing access to the images in any one folder at a time. You can also rotate images to the right or the left, and if you are viewing images on an SD card while you have an audio CD in the player you can play music while viewing a slide show. In the next section I'll touch on MP3 playback and moving between the JPG and MP3 interfaces.
I've read a number of reports that the BD30's Blu-ray performance is on par with or even better than any other Blu-ray player on the market right now, including the PS3. I can't speak to that personally, but I have found that the BD30 does do an excellent job with good Blu-ray video content. It also does a respectable job with standard DVD playback if you need it to replace your existing DVD player.
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This is one place where I miss the Toshiba HD-A2's ability to decode DD+ and TrueHD and re-encode as high-bitrate DTS. Without HDMI v1.3 support in the receiver or processor, the BD30 offers support for only the older Dolby Digital and DTS formats (available as bitstreams via optical, coaxial, and HDMI digital outputs, or as decoded PCM via HDMI digital output and 5.1 analog output) and multichannel PCM tracks (available via HDMI digital output and 5.1 analog output). Since I don't have HDMI support on my processor and my multichannel analog input is currently tied up with a DVD-Audio/SACD player, my options without evicting the DVD-A/SACD player are Dolby Digital, DTS, and downmixed stereo PCM. Even with this compromise, I've had good experience with the legacy Dolby Digital tracks, particularly on concert material like the Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds disc.
In addition to Blu-ray and standard DVD, the BD30 offers a few other capabilities. There's that old faithful 5" silver disc, the CD. There's also the newer king of compressed music, MP3. Both formats are played back through the same interface: a file manager of sorts that lists each track (and any folders that might exist if you're dealing with MP3's). CD playback via digital output is just what you would expect the player is serving as a digital transport, and does the job just fine. When moving on to other file types, I discovered a few things. First, the BD30 can't read data DVD-R's. Second, the interface for reading MP3's is separate from the interface for viewing JPG's, and if you have both on one disc then you have to use the FUNCTION button to toggle between the two interfaces (a tidbit that I wouldn't mind seeing a hint about on those two respective interfaces alongside the display that shows the navigation keypad and a few other relevent buttons, although it's not a huge deal since it's covered in the manual). Sound quality from MP3's is what you would expect: no appreciable difference from what I've heard via my Roku Labs SoundBridge or other DVD players with MP3 support. The interface is nothing fancy: files in a folder sorted alphabetically into a list, with track name and artist name extracted from ID3 data. The interface works just the same for data stored on an SD card. It's nothing that will draw people to use the BD30 as a media player, certainly, but it works for simple tasks.
In the end, the only things that I would have liked to see done differently are related to the new HD audio formats. Having on-board DD+ and TrueHD decoding would have been a nice touch, as would some sort of DD or DTS re-encode for those tracks and multichannel PCM. Clearly the main focus was HDMI v1.3 output, though, and that's something I knew from the outset so it's hard for me to get too upset about it. I accepted the compromise because I expect that my Blu-ray library will be too small to justify evicting DVD-Audio and SACD from my 7.1 analog input for at least a year, by which time there is a fairly good chance that I'll be raed to move to an HDMI v1.3 processor and I'll be able to use the player to its fullest without getting in the way of other formats. That decision is working out reasonably well for me, but it's certainly not going to be true for everyone. If you don't have plans for an upgrade to HDMI v1.3 at the receiver, you may want to look at a different Blu-ray player like the Panasonic BD10A or a PS3 or wait for newer players to appear in 2008.
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First, a little musing on the effects of the format war on how I'm using my BD30 and its HD-DVD neighbor. As I mentioned in my HD-A2 review, I'm not investing much in either format's software at the moment. I've bought just a handful of titles on each format, and once my five free Blu-ray discs arrive some time this winter I'll have ten free discs (five of each format) and probably a dozen more titles, with HD-DVD having a slight edge. I'm also not investing in standard DVD's, either my buying habits had tapered off a fait bit over the last couple years, anyway, as I'd picked up most of the catalog titles I was interested in and other expenses (our daughter, born in 2005) took priority, but the format war has further scaled back my movie buying. Not everyone is taking this same stance, of course, but I doubt that I'm entirely alone in my buying habits. In contrast, the lower costs and lack of a format war were helpful incentives in leading me to spend quite a bit on DVD's when I was first digging into that format. I wonder what movie sales for HD discs would be looking like if we didn't have a format war and if disc prices weren't as high as they are.
The format war is one issue. The BD30 as a player is not solely the format war, though. In my system, it will be focused solely on BD playback, just as the HD-A2 beneath it is focused solely on HD-DVD playback. Nonetheless, it is a respectable DVD player. Like my HD-A2, it is a bit weak on the layer change, but picture quality is quite good. When you disregard the questions surrounding the format war and look at Blu-ray performance by itself, the BD30 really does a remarkable job. Player start-up time and disc load times even with Java-intensive titles such as Disney's recent offerings are quick enough not to raise questions from my wife, and picture quality once the movie is playing is excellent. There are compromises, of course. I would have liked to see an ethernet connection so that there could have been hope for a profile 2.0 firmware update, but I bought the player with the recognition that I wasn't going to get that and that I would have to settle for profile 1.1 (with a little investment in an SD card, of course). Likewise, I am accepting certain compromises on the audio side because I don't have HDMI v1.3 support at my surround processor, but I'm doing so with the expectation that I'll likely be in the market for an HDMI v1.3 processor by this time next year. In the interim, I'll be able to enjoy Blu-ray discs as easily as HD-DVD's. Overall, I'm quite pleased with the BD30 and (when paired with one of Toshiba's HD-DVD players) I consider it a solid way to achieve format neutrality.
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