PANASONIC DP-UB820 UL­TRA HD BLU-RAY PLAYER

Sound & Vision - - CONTENTS - By Kris Deer­ing

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.

FEA­TURES

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.

PER­FOR­MANCE

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.

CON­CLU­SION

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!

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