Hands On: Panasonic DMP-UB900 Ultra HD Blu-Ray Player

Australia's first Ultra HD Blu-ray player delivers the goods but you'll want a top-shelf television and a great movie to really do it justice. Right now Netflix is the sole oasis in Australia's Ultra HD content desert, but that's finally set to change with Panasonic unveiling its DMP-UB900 Ultra HD Blu-ray player – due to go on sale in September and likely to come with a local price tag north of $1000.

Panasonic's Ultra HD Blu-ray player finally lets you make the most of those top-shelf Ultra HD televisions. Photo: Adam Turner

Ultra HD Movies Are On The Way

The player has built-in Netflix Ultra HD HDR streaming, but of course we'll also see the arrival of the first batch of Ultra HD Blu-ray movie discs. Panasonic expects around 30 titles to be available when the player launches, growing to 100 by the end of the year. Thankfully the early Ultra HD titles tend to come with a standard Blu-ray copy in the box to help with a smooth transition to the new format.

There's no region coding on Ultra HD Blu-ray discs so Australians can already start buying them from overseas, although it's interesting to note that a handful of Aussie retailers including JB Hi-Fi have already started selling them online for $50. Perhaps not by coincidence, this is exactly what you'll pay to buy them from Amazon US once you allow for the exchange rate and international shipping.

The UB900 player is already on sale in the UK, where Panasonic throws in free copies of Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas on both Ultra HD Blu-ray and standard Blu-ray -- just as they threw in a few free discs back at the launch of DVD and Blu-ray players. We're likely to see a similar deal when the UB900 goes on sale here later in the year.

Listen Up

The UB900's hefty price tag is part due to its high-end audio features, although not every lounge room would put them to good use.

The player sports dual HDMI outputs on the back, so you can run one to your television and the other to your surround sound amplifier. Alternatively you could run a picture to two televisions, but you lose the benefit of HDR. You'll also find a digital optical output on the back, along with 7.1-channel analogue.

On the front of the player you'll find USB and SD card slots, with support for playing high-res audio formats such as DSD, ALAC, FLAC and WAV. Unfortunately it doesn't play Super Audio CD and DVD Audio discs.

Take A Closer Look

Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas were at hand to put the UB900 to the test, connected to Panasonic's new $7149 DX900 65-inch flagship Full Array backlit Ultra HD HDR television. For comparison, it sat alongside Panasonic's new mid-range $4199 DX640 65-inch Ultra HD television connected to a standard Panasonic Blu-ray player offering 4K upscaling.

I also took along my Ultra HD Blu-ray and standard Blu-ray copies of The Martian, purchased from Amazon US, which was a good thing because to me The Martian looked much better than the other two Ultra HD Blu-ray titles.

My eyes weren't playing tricks on me, The Martian looks better because it was actually shot in 4K while Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas were shot in 2K and 3K respectively. While the picture quality of all Ultra HD movies takes a hit during the editing process, it clearly makes a difference if you start with a great picture. From what I've seen so far, I don't have high expectations if the movie studios start re-releasing old favourites in Ultra HD.

A 65-inch screen is large enough to appreciate the resolution jump from standard Blu-ray when watching The Martian in Ultra HD. The picture looks fantastic – incredibly detailed and vibrant without looking fake – but the improvement is more subtle than the jump from DVD to Blu-ray. In part that's due to Panasonic's impressive 4K upscaling which helps Blu-rays look their best on an Ultra HD screen without adding too much noise to the picture.

The improvement of watching The Martian in Ultra HD over upscaled Blu-ray shows through as slightly less blur in panning shots, along with extra fine detail in skin tones and clothing. The intricate patterns in the orange cloth used for the astronaut's space suits catches your eye, helped by Ultra HD's more vivid colours. You need to look much harder to see these improvements in the other two movies.

In an effort to compare apples with apples, I switched both Panasonic televisions to Cinema picture mode, which saw Ultra HD's wider colour gamut shine through. Panasonic's flagship television also features THX Cinema mode, to display content as the movie maker intended it to look, but this dulls the colours a tad and you'll want to tweak it to taste – especially if you expect the Earth to sparkle like a blue gem in space.

Peer Into The Darkness

To my eyes the true benefit of Ultra HD is the extra contrast and brightness offered by High Dynamic Range (HDR). It's an optional part of the Ultra HD Blu-ray standard but seems to be common among the first batch of movies which is a good sign. It's also available with streaming Netflix Originals like Daredevil and Marco Polo.

To see the benefit of HDR you need an HDR-enabled Ultra HD television like the Panasonic DX900 flagship I had at hand. Even then you're at the mercy of the source material – the HDR improvements in The Martian looked more impressive than Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas because The Martian was shot in HDR whereas the other two added it in post production.

The benefit of decent HDR makes itself felt as the camera pans across the Martian landscape at dawn and dusk, revealing more fine detail on the rock faces lying in the shadows. HDR also helps in the bright of day, taking some of the harshness out of the deep black shadows by calling on finer shades of grey. In comparison the Blu-ray version looks like it's crushing those fine shades into a dark blob.

HDR naturally makes its presence felt in some scenes more than others, it's not nearly as striking in the NASA offices on Earth as it is roaming the surface of Mars. It brings an extra sense of realism and depth to the picture which is much more noticeable than the sharper resolution.

From what I've seen so far, if your Ultra HD television lacks HDR then you're missing out on the best aspect of the new video format. Panasonic's DX900 flagship television offers 1000-nits brightness, earning it Ultra HD Premium certification. As a test I swapped televisions, plugging the Ultra HD Blu-ray player into the dimmer DX640 which lacks HDR. The loss of that fine detail in the shadows was a significant blow to the overall picture quality, although it still looked better than the upscaled Blu-ray version.

Thankfully if you don't have an HDR television the player does its best to map some of that detail to the SDR picture, plus it can downscale the picture to 1080p for Full HD screens. Even so, once you've seen how great a true Ultra HD HDR movie like The Martian looks on a top-shelf Ultra HD HDR screen you'd be reluctant to forgo HDR – especially if you've got deep pockets and can afford to be an early adopter.

So What's The Verdict?

We've still got a few months until Panasonic's player hits Australian shelves, but this first look at Ultra HD Blu-ray is certainly an encouraging sign of things to come. The picture quality is fantastic – a worthy successor to Blu-ray – but only when you've got every piece of the puzzle. Some Ultra HD televisions look better than others, as do some Ultra HD movies, so it's important to do your homework before you take the plunge.

Panasonic's UB900 player is going to be pricey and judging by what we've seen in other countries its competitors are likely to offer cheaper Ultra HD Blu-ray players in Australia. If you won't take advantage of the UB900's high-end audio features then you might find better value for money elsewhere, but if you want one with the lot this might be the slice of Ultra HD goodness you've been waiting for.

Adam Turner travelled to Sydney as guest of Panasonic.

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This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.