Panasonic Hollywood Lab - Good for Movie Studios, Even Better for Consumers

Panasonic Hollywood Lab

The Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory: a video research lab in Hollywood, the movie capital of the world.

The work done inside Panasonic's video research lab is displayed in their latest Blu-ray player and wireless home theater system.

May. 12, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

The Universal CityWalk is just one part of the huge sprawling complex that NBC/Universal holds tight in Los Angeles. Sure there are shops, restaurants and an IMAX theater all leading to the theme park at the northern end, but that land holds other secrets as well. The place I and several other media members are heading to now, the Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory (PHL), holds the distinction of being the only video research lab located in Hollywood. It’s devoted to the technologies of digital cinema and provides a starting point for movie studios looking to extract every ounce of quality when transferring their films to discs. A concept which is needed more than ever now that Blu-ray has won the format war.

Of course PHL can’t help but contribute to Panasonic’s own ventures in Blu-ray hardware, so it’s no surprise that we’re herded into a room which contains the new DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player. Being familiar with the previous ’30 1080p model, we sneak a look at the back to find something that you can’t add through a software upgrade: an Ethernet port for accessing the Internet. That pretty much screams out that BD-Live is active on this player, and now it’s up to the studios to fill their servers with content that can be downloaded and viewed in conjunction with their titles (not that studios are rushing since there’s far too many early adopters with BD players already out there that can’t access this feature). Panny also eliminates the issue of storage space to hold this content; unlike other players, the small amount of built-in memory can be supplemented through an SD memory card, as the ’50 uses this to display still photos and play camcorder AVCHD high-definition videos. And of course having Ethernet also future-proofs the ’50 since updates can be funneled from online. The player also decodes the new high-definition audio formats of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. The audio can be sent directly for decoding by a compatible amplifier for true 7.1 channels surround.

Other additions are welcomed, though not surprising: it’s Deep Color ready, has Bonus View for picture-in-picture and can output 24 frames/sec playback for a more film-like picture. Add Energy Star certification and the VIERA link which networks compatible Panasonic components and lets you use the same remote to control everything and the $699 retail seems a more than fair price.

But lost in all this is just how good the video processing is, and if you didn’t know PHL existed, you probably wouldn’t expect this Panny’s video to be much different than some other BD player manufacturer. But it’s the video processing that’s the reason to get this player - the UniPhier platform combining all kinds of tech down into one chip-set that speeds up operations and provides improved video signal processing. For example, the PHL Reference Chroma Processor up-samples color information in decoded video signals for a faithful reproduction while the P4HD (Pixel Precision Progressive Processing for HD) applies optimal processing to over 15 billion pixels a second. Takeshi Kuraku, Manager, Audio Video Marketing Team, Overseas Sales & Marketing Group, is quick to point out that the technologies used to improve video comes from the PHL’s work with proprietary encoding and authoring software in tandem with movie studios who have spent serious time analyzing how their films will translate to disc. When viewed on the huge projection screen next door to where we’re seated, every imperfection (film grain for example) of a BD transfer from film stands out like a sore thumb. “Studios want the film grain to look realistic,” Kuraku says. “It must be properly accounted for, appear natural and not look as if it was added in.”

The images look strong and inviting as scenes from “Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Man’s Chest” are displayed on a pair of matched 50-in. plasma displays (one connected to a ’30, another to a ’50 player). But even if Tetsuya Itani, Chief Engineer, Advanced Development Team, Product Engineering Group, hadn’t taken the initiative to tell the group, we still would have seen that some additional tweaking has been made to the ’50 that improves upon the solid performance found in the ’30. There’s a bit more detail and a qualitative visual improvement in the color and contrast.

Panny has one more introduction up their sleeve: the SC-BT100 Wireless Home Theater System with Integrated Blu-ray Disc Player (yes it’s a Home Theater in A Box). HTIB’s don’t have much cred, because they’re usually cheap in price and execution. But I won’t complain about the ‘100’s all-in-one surround system with a pop-out iPod dock (music and video), and an SD slot for digital photos and playing camcorder HD video (the Viera link too).

The SC-BT100 comes with a $999 retail price tag. But as Panasonic Marketing Manager Paul Sabo points out, what’s inside justifies the steep price: a Blu-ray player with all the video processing power and functionality of the DMP-BD30 (minus BD-Live as it’s sans the Ethernet port). This includes full decoding of those high-def audio formats for 5.1 and 7.1 channel surround, a “whisper” mode to moderate volume and an optical input to use with a cable box, etc.

Instead of some cheap, flimsy wired speakers, Panny has gone an interesting route; from a subwoofer design that promotes a clean bass with minimal vibration and “noise” to the front and center channel vertical speakers using a bamboo diaphragm in the woofers and tweeters rather than paper (more rigid and eco-friendly too). The rears are wireless and receive their signal from a transmission card (2.4 GHz) popped into the back. This provides a hassle free way of setting up 5.1 surround, aided by “virtual” 7.1 if you want - but we’d say go with the optional wireless kit that adds another pair of speakers for true 7.1. Of course how well the wireless will hold up under normal conditions with cell phones and home networks isn’t something you can find out till you try, but in our experience with wireless systems in the past, the odds of getting good results are high. And after listening to jazz in straight stereo before switching to the battle scenes of “Master and Commander,” we found the wireless performed without incident, nor was there anything to fault with the audio or video presentation.

Sabo says the whole idea behind the 1250 watt ‘100 is to create a family-friendly HTIB that offers a real home theater which can be set up quickly and easily. Having ranted against all the problems with running wires throughout a room (i.e., pets, small children, detriment to the decor), I whole-heartedly agree.

Now as we walk back out into the California sunshine, should I be accused of having some kind of love-fest with Panasonic, just consider how rare it is to see some consumer electronic products that go the extra mile rather than just parroting what everyone else is doing. For that alone they deserve respect, and maybe a big bite out of our rebate checks too.

Return to full story: