This article was originally published on The Wirecutter, a “list of great technology” curated by Wired alum Brian Lam.
TV just got super boring. Games of Thrones and Mad Men are over and the summer weather means it’s a wonderful time to save some money on digital services — like cable television. Here are some tools you can use to kill your cable with, including a great antenna for free HDTV for city folks and a new best blu-ray player. (And don’t forget Wirecutter’s guide to streaming media boxes.) Or you could just kill cable and blow the extra money on snow cones, amusement park tickets or a plane ticket to Mexico. Either strategy is Wirecutter approved.
By Terrence Russell
I pick Panasonic’s DMP-BDT220 ($130) as the best 2012 blu-player.
It has 3D support, one of the fastest at disc loading times, produces great high-def images and has support for a lot of media streaming services. Add in the Dolby/DTS support that’s all that most people need for a modern blu-ray setup.
But before you buy let’s address the big question: Do you even need a blu-ray player? Many of the advertised perks like Netflix streaming and Amazon VOD are available in cheaper dedicated streamers like the Roku 2. Local file streaming from your computer is better on older devices like the Xbox 360 ($199), PS3 ($250) or even the Boxee Box ($179). If you just want quick and dirty access to networked content there’s no point in paying for an optical drive.
So, what do players like the BDT220 really offer? Top-notch picture quality for one. Since the data is coming straight off the disc and not wrestling with network traffic it plays in full 1080P every single time. They also have a huge advantage if you’re interested in playing/converting 3D content. High-fidelity Dolby/DTS Digital audio is also a big perk for those wanting a 5.1/7.1 home theater experience. Premium disc-based features like director commentary and behind-the-scenes featurettes typically aren’t offered on streaming services either.
See a theme here?
Blu-ray discs are fundamentally designed to look/sound their best at all times. You can get 1080p picture from Netflix and Vudu too (bandwith permitting), but it’s not the same as having high-def perfection at your fingertips. It sounds trivial but it’s a crucial distinction for anyone who’s sprung for the perfect receiver or a lavish HDTV and want to go the last mile to make it all work. Blu-ray is currently the highest quality way to deliver movies.
Of course, all this fidelity makes it harder to choose a standout like the BDT220. Most of the major manufacturers are cranking out comparable picture quality and the price range is extremely tight. The $140 ballpark seemed to be the sweet spot for 2012’s players. Go higher and you’re paying for things you don’t need yet like dual HDMI ports. Go cheaper and you potentially lose large(ish) features like 3D or 24p video on demand playback for a mere $10-20 in savings. It was an extremely tight race, but the BDT220 ultimately pulled ahead. It just happens to be the fastest optical disc player with most relevant featureset at the best price.
For starters, it easily beats our previous pick, the LG BD670 ($90). The Panasonic has fewer stability and firmware issues while providing most of the same advantages (i.e., WiFi, 1080p 3D, light file streaming). The LG’s disc loading speeds fall behind the BDT220 too.
CNet’s blu-ray guru, Matthew Moskovciak, loves the BDT220. He dubbed it “Editor’s Choice” back in April and says its overall value gives it enough of an edge. “It’s in the sweet spot of Panasonic’s Blu-ray lineup, with built-in Wi-Fi and an excellent set of streaming-media services, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, Vudu, MLB.TV, and Pandora,” he raves in the review. “And while competing players from Samsung and Sony offer just as many streaming apps, they’re hamstrung by awkward user interfaces.”
Moskovciak rated the 220 an “Excellent” 4-out-of-5, but also reiterated some of its shortcomings when it comes to streaming. He wasn’t able to play back DivX or Xvid files, or any of his ripped DVDs. “That’s frustrating, but not a dealbreaker in my book, since all Blu-ray players are mediocre local-media streamers at best,” he says. “If you’re a heavy torrenter or digital music streamer, you’re better off with a more specialized device.”
In a brief 5-star review Whathifi praises the Panasonic for its 3D and DVD upscaling performance. “The Panasonic is impressively stable compared with its rivals, and when coupled with a rich colour palette and good resolution this makes for easy and enjoyable viewing,” says the reviewer. “Those of you with large DVD collections aren’t left out, either: the Panasonic is fantastic when upscaling to 1080p.”
Danny Phillips at Trusted Reviews gave the BDT220 a 9/10 rating, giving the interface high marks. He says, “What’s more, the operating system is fantastic, using a super-intuitive onscreen layout and a remote that’s ironically easier to use than the BDT320’s new touchpad zapper. It’s also a talented picture purveyor with 2D and 3D discs, all of which maintains Panasonic’s position as a formidable force in the Blu-ray market.”
Many Amazon users echo Phillips’ love for the BDT-220 too, averaging a 4-out-of-5 ranking with 111 reviews.
The BDT220 also beat other models in the Panasonic lineup. Cheaper 2D units like the DMP-BD87 ($104) skip the 220’s full HD upscaling and high-quality 192kHz/24bit audio support. The step up BDT320 ($147) adds a wonky touchpad remote and that ultimately frustrated Trusted Reviews’ Danny Phillips.
Sony’s S590 ($120) and bargain S390 ($112) ran an extremely close second to the 220. They’re both much better at filesharing, but the Panasonic won out due to superior loading speeds, 24p video streaming, and a simpler interface. LG’s flagship BP620 ($140) also has better file support but falls behind the 220 in CNet’s benchmark comparison. Will Greenwald from PC Mag dinged the LG’s video processor for being behind the curve too. Even worse: the whole 2012 LG lineup is missing Amazon Instant. Denon’s ‘low-end’ BDP-1611UD ($350) is great but far too expensive. Yamaha’s BD-S671 ($300) suffers a similar price-related disqualification.
Long story short? After narrowing it down to 24 contenders over 16 hours of research the Panasonic pulled ahead either on overall practical value, a small perk, or price in some cases.
CNet’s Moskovciak also gave us some background on how the BDT220’s stacks up against their reference player, an Oppo BDP-93 ($500). In short, the Oppo wins, but the practical differences in picture quality probably won’t matter to the average person. “I’ve been a longtime fan of Oppo since their DVD players,” he says, “but I think the BDP-93 is overkill for the vast majority of buyers and lacks the extensive streaming capabilities that more mainstream players have.” Moskovciak also says the difference in image quality between the Oppo and other players is “incredibly small these days, especially on Blu-rays.”
Sound and Vision editor Michael Berk gave us a similar assessment of the BDT220’s pecking order in relation to the industry all-star BDP-93. “Yeah, it’s $500,” he admits, but he also says it’s the fastest and “best looking picture of anything out there.” Berk also endorses a PS3 for a mid-price option but ultimately says a Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, or LG player “would do you just fine as well.”
The BDT220 has enough advantages to hog this particular spotlight. We don’t expect that to be the case forever, but it’s still a great value today.
Last Year’s Model: Looking for a older model is tricky with blu-ray players. Not only are they constantly refreshed, but slow firmware updates meant to patch bugs have been a big problem. I’d just get this year’s Panasonic.
Looking Ahead: This current slate of players are most likely the best we’ll see until 2013. Most of these models debuted at CES and were scheduled to hit the market by midyear. Buy with confidence.
Read on for the best HDTV Antenna and best media streaming box.