PANASONIC DP-UB820 ULTRA HD BLU-RAY PLAYER
TODAY’S ULTRA HD BLU-RAY
player market is drastically smaller than the one for the spinning-disc machines of old. In my early days reviewing DVD players, I could literally enter an electronics store, walk out with over a dozen players, and that would only represent a sampling of the available models. But with the massive rise in the popularity of streaming, we’ve seen the player market continue to slim down. On the plus side, the quality of the UHD Blu-ray players we’ve seen has been uniformly good. Granted the quality of the disc media is fantastic, so in the end the player just needs to pass that data along to the display with as little manipulation as possible.
For this review we’re going to look at a new UHD Blu-ray player from Panasonic that actually does quite a bit of manipulation, but for good reason. Panasonic’s DMP-UB820 is the first player to offer advanced onboard tone mapping for High Dynamic Range (HDR) and
Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) playback. The HDR Optimizer feature found in the DMP-UB820 was designed to correct the HDR troubles of displays that either don’t support HDR or don’t do a great job with it. The UB820 is also the first player I’m aware of that supports the new HDR10+ format. While no discs exist yet in this format, having that support helps future-proof the player. Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) HDR is also included and Dolby Vision support will be added in a firmware update slated for Fall 2018. At $499, the UB820 is a midto-upper-price offering, but read on to see why it’s the best player yet for corralling the wild, wild west of HDR.
The UB820 closely resembles the Panasonic DMP-UB900 reviewed in the February/march 2017 Sound & Vision (online at soundandvision. com), a player that earned top marks for its performance and remains one of our top picks. I’ve owned the Panasonic's remote control is small and lacks backlit keys. UB900 myself and found its video playback capabilities second to none, though its ergonomics didn’t fit with me as well as my reference Oppo Digital UDP-205 player. The UB820 is nearly identical to the UB900 from an everyday operation standpoint: its menu structure and home screen are the same, and both players have the same sleek look, though the UB820 lacks touchsensitive controls, THX certification and other minor details that make it feel slightly less high-end. I do prefer the UB900’S remote control to the UB820’S, which is smaller and lacks the backlit keys and spacious layout of the remote that comes with the older Panasonic player.
The back panel of both players are nearly identical with dual HDMI outputs (one audio-only), a 7.1-channel analog audio output, USB support and a LAN connection. All standard fare for this market, but I was bummed to note the lack of an HDMI input. That’s a feature that the now discontinued Oppo Digital
players offered, and would have been a welcome addition to this player so that other sources could take advantage of its unique HDR processing. (After I dive in deeper on that topic, you’ll understand why.)
HDR, SDR, GAMMA, AND TONE MAPPING
I’m not going to talk much more about the UB820 itself since I found its performance to be nearly identical in every way to the previously reviewed UB900. What I do want to focus on is what sets this player apart: HDR performance and processing. The arrival of HDR has been both a blessing and curse. It delivers the best video I’ve ever seen at home, but I’ve found its implementation to be abysmal at best, with standards lacking for pre-recorded media, playback, and display. HDR has also generated yet another format war to confuse consumers. Fortunately, the UB820’S onboard processing does a formidable job of beating back many of the HDR demons.
To understand the UB820’S unique advantages, we’ll first need to discuss the specifics of HDR. This relatively new format was designed to leverage the higher light output capability of today’s displays—a capability that was wasted on most of the programs we’ve been watching for years. Before HDR, consumer media was mastered for display at 30 foot-lamberts (approximately 100 nits) brightness, which is on the dim side for most flat-panel TVS. HDR10, the most basic HDR format and one that’s mandated for inclusion on all UHD Blu-ray discs, supports brightness levels up to 10,000 nits!
Granted, we have not yet seen programs graded at that brightness level, but we have seen some that were graded on mastering displays capable of up to 4,000 nits, which is far beyond the capability of any consumer TV on the market.
So how do you display content mastered at 4,000 nits on a display capable of only 25 percent of that brightness or less? Tone mapping. SDR content is mastered using what we commonly call gamma. This system measures the peak white output of your display and then balances the grayscale intensity to that level. HDR, in contrast, uses absolute values that are meant to map directly to the display with no wiggle room for its overall light output. To properly show content with a higher brightness level than the display is capable of hitting, tone mapping is used.
The most basic way to describe this process is that the display shows the content as intended for as much as its brightness capability will allow. After that point, any remaining detail that exists in the program gets “rolled off.” This compresses information at the upper end of the brightness range so that you are not just clipping the signal. If you were to graph the response, it would almost look like a crossover filter in an audio system. The problem, however, is that there is no standard of any kind for tone mapping, so every TV and projector manufacturer handles it differently.
Another issue is that HDR10 programs contain metadata that’s supposed to inform the display about the program’s characteristics. More often than not, this data is largely inadequate (or missing, or wrong), so the tone map is generated based on incomplete or misleading information. This is the primary cause of viewer complaints about HDR images looking too dark or displaying clipping in highlights.
To combat these common HDR tone mapping issues, Panasonic leveraged what it learned from developing its own flat-panel displays to create a feature that it calls “HDR Optimizer.” When enabled, this feature lets you pick from an assortment of brightness presets that match your display’s capability. Presets include 1500 nits, 1000 nits, and 500 nits, which roughly align with the light output capability of high brightness LCD TVS, OLED TVS, and lower brightness projectors. Once configured, the player applies a tone map designed to match the typical brightness seen from these designs. But the UB820 doesn’t just provide a simple tone map; it also looks at the HDR metadata in the program and bases its processing on that information (including the maximum brightness of the display used for mastering and the program’s maximum pixel level).
If the program’s maximum pixel level happens to be lower than the maximum display level, the tone map adjusts to the pixel level to preserve image brightness (thus eliminating the dark look that so many complain about with HDR viewing). The UB820 also provides an onscreen dynamic range slider that lets you make adjustments for richer contrast (at the
expense of brightness) or a brighter average picture level (at the expense of contrast). Panasonic has even included presets that can be accessed directly from the remote control to quickly tailor overall image brightness for viewing in different environments.
The UB820’S HDR adjustment features worked well, delivering exceptional tone mapping performance with all the programs I viewed. I found very little reason not to use it with both my projection system and LG C7 OLED TV. The UB820 changes the HDR signal’s metadata when you turn on the HDR Optimizer, so the signal that your display sees is different than what you’d get with the Optimizer turned off. This actually makes it hard to evaluate your set’s own performance: Some HDR displays actually use the HDR metadata to do their tone mapping, so if the player changes that, the display may be
'Panasonic leveraged what it learned developing HDR displays to create the HDR Optimizer.'
doing something different than it would have with an unaltered HDR input. I found that the HDR Optimizer did a fantastic job with nothing objectionable to note, but it will ultimately be up to the end user to evaluate how it performs in conjunction with their own display’s internal processing.
Another major perk with Panasonic's UB820 is its ability to convert HDR to SDR while still preserving UHD’S wide color gamut (BT.2020). Here’s why that’s important. Some projectors and older TVS support a wide color gamut, but not HDR, or do a very poor job with HDR processing. Panasonic’s previous UB900 player was capable of sending SDR signals with a BT.2020 color gamut if the display it was connected to reported it would accept BT.2020 but not HDR. Projector owners tried to take advantage of this capability by using inline devices like the HD Fury Integral or Linker, both of which are capable of changing the HDMI information that the player is receiving.
With the UB820, the option to send SDR signals with BT.2020 (or Rec.709) color is now available right in the setup menu, so there’s no need to use external devices. This lets you watch HDR programs tone mapped down to near-sdr levels (the default is 350 nits, which works well for projectors), so a viewer with a projector or older, non-hdr TV can still get many of HDR’S picture quality perks by simply calibrating the display to a 2.4 gamma and either Rec.709 or BT.2020 color (the player supports both).
The UB820’S very impressive tone mapping let it breeze through content I typically use to evaluate HDR display problems such as clipping, black crush, and poor overall image balance. Some of my go-to discs for this include The Revenant, Mad Max Fury Road and Deadpool. The Revenant has absolutely stunning natural-looking images featuring low light photography that many HDR projectors have a hard time dealing with. With the UB820, the HDR Optimizer’s tone mapping brought out plenty of shadow detail in the more difficult sequences while still providing an excellent balance in brighter scenes.
The infamous “sand storm” sequence in Mad Max Fury Road can really test a display’s tone mapping when it comes to clipping and color saturation. With the Panasonic handling the processing, however, I didn’t see any of the same issues I’ve noted with some other displays when viewing this scene.
With the player in HDR-SDR conversion mode, you also get the option to turn the HDR Optimizer on and off. This will tell the player whether or not to use the program’s HDR metadata or to default to a base 1,000 nits tone map. For the most part, leaving this feature on was the way to get the best possible picture quality with HDR programs, but there were some UHD discs like Sicario that looked better with it turned off. That’s because this title doesn’t report its 1,200-nits maximum pixel level, but only its mastering display maximum value of 4,000 nits. (The missing data causes the player to tone map to the higher brightness level, which results in a more dull and washed-out image.) This feature alone puts the UB820 at the top of my list for anyone wanting to view HDR programs with a projection system. It’s also as close to a plug-and-play solution as I can think of, and performed nearly as well as my reference video processor, the Lumagen Radiance Pro, in delivering high-quality HDR tone mapping on a lower light output display.
The DP-UB820 is an outstanding UHD Blu-ray player that matches the referencelevel playback of Panasonic's previous UB900 but adds much-needed features to optimize HDR playback. I would have liked to have seen refinements in operability, but its overall video performance is without peer. For projector owners who want to watch HDR, the UB820 is the first must-own player to hit the market, but I’m sure it will also improve playback of 4K/HDR on the majority of other displays as well. A Top
Pick for sure!