Panasonic has been making quality Ultra HD Blu-ray players since the format's inception, but it's only been since the demise of Oppo that enthusiasts have really started taking the company's higher-end efforts seriously. Of course, that creates something of a quandary: with the both Samsung and Oppo's reasonably recent departure from the high-end disc player market, is the Ultra HD disc player landscape really viable anymore? And even if it is, how on earth can Panasonic could justify a thousand-dollar player in such a climate?
It might surprise you to learn that the Ultra HD Blu-ray market is actually growing, not slowing. I know it surprised me. According to a recent report, more than 59 percent of video sales are still on physical discs. Ultra HD Blu-ray accounts for 13 percent of all Blu-ray sales, up three percent from last year. And it turns out Samsung left the market due to poor hardware sales, partly because their players didn't offer competitive performance and features for the price. Oppo left in an effort to take the company in a different direction. So, don't worry: the format isn't going anywhere for the time being.
Panasonic is consciously aware that streaming, despite many of its relative deficiencies, is on the rise, and support for streaming options is an important purchasing factor for many, which is why the company's DP-UB9000 features built-in support for Ultra HD HDR streams from Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Prime.
Panasonic has also put a large emphasis in the quality of the UB9000's analog audio outputs, making it suitable for those wanting to use the player as a high quality two-channel audio source or for those who want to pair it directly with a multi-channel amplifier. Panasonic makes it clear the UB9000 is not just a disc player, but rather a jack-of-all-trades piece of hardware meant to serve as a hub for most of your AV-related needs.
The UB9000's build quality is top shelf. The chassis is comprised of surprisingly thick anodized aluminum, which not only gives the player that flagship look, but also helps reduce chassis vibration, aiding in additional performance for both the solid-state components as well as the mechanical disc drive. Additionally, the disc drive is centrally mounted on its own raised steel shelf inside the chassis to further isolate the drive from vibration issues. The front of the chassis is equipped with an information screen, and a set of physical buttons giving you quick access to the player's basic controls.
Around back you'll find a robust set of input and output options, including the main 18 Gbps HDCP 2.2-compliant HDMI 2.0 port. The secondary HDMI port is audio output only, which is useful for those with older AV receivers with legacy HDMI ports. Users have the option to use either 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac wireless or the gigabit LAN port for home network and internet streaming services. The UB9000 also includes two USB ports for media playback, with the rear port having enough juice to power an external hard drive. Audio output options include coaxial and optical S/PDIF, along with 7.1-channel RCA line-level outputs and a set of balanced two-channel XLR outputs.
Panasonic has put considerable time and money developing high-quality digital-to-analog output for this player. As well as using premium DAC chips for both the two-channel and 7.1-channel analog output stages, the UB9000 uses a differential, fully balanced design that is mounted on special glass-epoxy circuit boards. High-quality, low-noise op-amps and audio-grade electrolytic capacitors are used throughout, allowing the UB9000 to have a low noise floor with a high signal-to-noise ratio for excellent sound quality no matter the audio format being decoded. For those using the HDMI ports, Panasonic hasn't forgotten about you. The HDMI ports are electromagnetically isolated from the processing portion of the player, with the data re-clocked to ensure low noise and jitter.
The UB9000 supports a plethora of media formats via both disc and file-based playback. Physical disc support includes CD, DVD, Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, and Ultra HD Blu-ray. File-based playback is also supported via the USB ports or over your home network. Supported PCM based audio formats include FLAC, WAV, WMA, MP3, ACC, AIFF, and ALAC. DSD audio is supported up to quad-rate via DFF or DSF files. Common format video file playback is also supported via USB or over your home network.
The most impressive feature of the UB9000 is its versatility with HDR content. It's one of only a handful of players that currently supports all four consumer HDR formats: HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and Hybrid-Log Gamma. The UB9000 also includes its HDR Optimizer tool that allows owners to choose between tone map modes designed to be used with specific HDR-capable displays, including OLED, LCD, and projectors. These modes alter the stock HDR image to better suit the real-world capabilities of these displays.
If you have a legacy display that doesn't officially support HDR or one that falls drastically short in reaching the performance needed to accurately render HDR content, the UB9000 gives you the option to tone map the content down to SDR.
Further expanding the UB9000's HDR capabilities, JVC and Panasonic joined forces to optimize HDR10 on large format projection screens when pairing the UB9000 with a current model JVC native 4K D-ILA projector. Unlike current LCD flat panels, most projectors fall drastically behind in image brightness on even modestly sized projection screens. The UB9000 includes two new tone map curves designed specifically around the in-room performance of JVC's 2019 projector lineup. Users can choose between High Luminance Projector mode or Basic Luminance Projector mode. High Luminance mode is a tone map curve that clips at 500 nits and is best suited for high-nit HDR content at the expense of color saturation. Basic Luminance mode is a tone map curve that clips at 350 nits and places widest color gamut reproduction as a priority by enabling the projector's P3 color filter.
During my time with the UB9000, I watched a variety of content on several different displays. The type of content ran the gamut from 1080p SDR to 1080 3D, and 4K SDR to 4K HDR, from sources ranging from YouTube streams all the way up to Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. I was continually impressed with the UB9000 no matter the display or content type.
To save on file size, consumer video formats use something called chroma subsampling, which lowers the amount of color data encoded into the video. As such, Blu-ray players need to recreate the missing color information through a process known as chroma upscaling. As you can imagine, there's quite a bit of variability among players in how they interpolate this missing color information. Normally, the limiting factor in performance is the amount of processing power available. In the case of the UB9000, with its powerful HCX video processor, I found its chroma upscaling to be top notch when pulling up some chroma resolution test patterns. Its performance is amongst the best I've seen and is one of the major aspects that separates the UB9000 from other Ultra HD Blu-ray players, including those from Oppo. Specifically, transitions between pixels of differing shades of color were starker, giving way to an image with better delineation and apparent resolution.
Another strong suit of the UB9000 is its video upscaler. Considering the fact that many of us still have a large library of 1080p content, having a quality upscaler is important. Not only is the UB9000's upscaling algorithm high quality, confirmed with both test patterns and real-world video content, Panasonic also gives you access to a suite of smart sharpening controls to further enhance the image. Using these controls at modest settings gave the image an extra sense of fine detail and resolution without adding noticeable noise or edge enhancement artifacts. This makes the UB9000 an excellent choice for anyone concerned with how their 1080p library will look on a 4K display.
To test out the UB9000's unique tone mapping options, I took my JVC DLA-RS4910 projector out of storage. This projector comes from a time before HDR; however, it still accepts and displays a 4K SDR image. Things to look out for in tone mapping performance are shadow detail rendition, issues with blown-out highlights caused by hard clipping, and poor color point remapping. The tone mapping software Panasonic uses has been in constant development for the past several years, though, and I'm happy to report that, subjectively, the UB9000 performs well in all three of these key areas. The tone mapped image through the RS4910 looked punchy and color accurate, with excellent shadow detail. So even if you own a display that can't meet the brightness, dynamic range, and color saturation standards needed to faithfully reproduce HDR10, the UB9000 offers an excellent compromise.
Switching over to my current reference projector, the JVC DLA-RS2000, I opted to use the Basic Luminance tone map mode created specifically for this line to test performance. This mode offers a subjective increase in image brightness over High Luminance due to the more aggressive tone map and better matches the actual image brightness most projector users achieve on screen. Compared to the projector's internal tone mapping solution, I found this new collaborative software does a much better job at rendering shadow detail without raising the level of black with darker HDR10 video.
I decided to test this software out with the opening sequence of Avengers: Infinity War. Compared to JVC's tone mapping software, the image took on a far more satisfyingly contrasty appearance without sacrificing shadow detail. Colors appeared well saturated and natural. Even brighter material seemed to have more punch. This is the best HDR10 performance I've seen on a JVC projector outside of using a high-cost and relatively difficult to configure outboard video processing solution from the likes of Lumagen or madVR. This is also a more turn-key solution compared to the outboard processors, giving owners a way to get an excellent HDR image with minimal effort.
After I finished testing the UB9000 with projectors, I moved the player upstairs to use with an LG B8 OLED in my living room.
Since both support Dolby Vision, I made sure to use a disc that was mastered in this format. I ended up choosing the UHD Blu-ray of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. This film was shot in 6.5K resolution and has a true 4K digital intermediate. Without mincing words, this film looked absolutely sublime played through this combination of hardware. The UB9000's excellent image processing and image rendering combined with the LG B8's dynamic range, color saturation, and proper handling of the Dolby Vision metadata did wonders for this film.
Considering how dark the film is overall, I was impressed with how well color and shadow details were rendered throughout. Despite the prevailing notion that HDR is all about brightness, I find that it's darker films that HDR does a more impressive job on, allowing for a more life-like, expressive rendition of darkness. The extra finesse Dolby Vision imparts on the encoding process, effectively making the video 12-bit, is just icing on the cake.
It's also important to note that, with regular HDR10 content, the UB9000 correctly sends along static HDR metadata to your display. Many players out there still don't support this feature. This not only triggers the display's HDR mode, but also tells the display the mastering information for the content being watched. This is important information for the display to have, as any given HDR10 film or TV show can be mastered with a different peak luminance level, average luminance level, and black level. When the display receives this information, it knows how to treat the HDR10 content and display it correctly based on this mastering metadata.
I also ran the UB9000 through its paces in a dedicated two-channel audio setup to see how it fared as a source component and DAC. I paired the UB9000 with my First Watt J2 amplifier and a pair of Monitor Audio Platinum PL100 II speakers. It's fair to say Panasonic isn't being hyperbolic with their marketing claims. While its user interface for music playback isn't particularly intuitive or pretty to look at, I was continually impressed with sound quality when listening to both CDs and FLAC files played off a USB stick. Sound was consistently clean, articulate, and natural. I think those looking to use the UB9000 for dedicated two-channel audio won't be disappointed.
Considering how good the UB9000's analog circuitry is, it's a shame there's no support for SACD or DVD-Audio disc playback. While these are relatively niche formats, it would have been nice to see this functionality, considering the player's price tag. Oppo, by contrast, supported both of these disc formats with their premium players, so I can't give the UB9000 an excuse.
The included plastic remote also feels a bit cheap, as if it were reused from one of Panasonic's budget-oriented Blu-ray players. I don't think the remote reflects the UB9000's flagship status, nor does it complement this player's impressive build quality.
For file-based video playback, the UB9000 only supports lossy audio codecs such as DTS and Dolby Digital. So, unless Panasonic addresses this via firmware, any video file that has a lossless DTS-HD MA or Dolby TrueHD audio track cannot be played back with audio. Please note, this is not an issue with Blu-ray discs, only video files played back locally via USB or through your home network.
Comparison and Competition
With Oppo and Samsung out of the game, there aren't too many higher-end UHD Blu-ray players to choose from. Ironically, I think the UB9000's closest competition is Panasonic's own DP-UB820. The UB820 lacks the build quality of its bigger brother, along with its high-end analog circuitry, but it does have almost all the same video processing capabilities, including those for HDR content. So, for anyone out there who doesn't need top shelf built quality and premium analog sound, the UB820 would be the player I'd recommend looking in to.
An alternative route would be to consider a used Oppo UDP-203 or UDP-205. There are many available on websites such as eBay. But buyer beware: there
are significant price hikes on these players, well above MSRP, due to the finite amount of players available. In my opinion, the UB9000 is a better Blu-ray player, though I do know many people simply prefer to own an Oppo. The UB9000 has slightly better picture quality and a far more robust set of tools available for HDR content. Tone mapping specifically, while available on the Oppo players, is far better handled on the UB9000, with less in the way of conversion artifacts. It's also unlikely that Oppo will continue with firmware updates fixing issues or adding functionality now that these players are discontinued. So, keep these things in mind when considering this option.
Panasonic, more than any other manufacturer, seems to understand the plight 4K projector owners face moving into a world dominated by HDR. Many with a dedicated home theater are looking for a player that not only reflects the hardcore enthusiasm they have for the hobby, but also one that meets the demands necessary to have a great HDR experience using a projector. The UB9000's tone mapping capabilities gives enthusiast projector owners a new lease on life for HDR10 content that wouldn't otherwise be possible with another Blu-ray player. In a sense, it feels as if Panasonic is targeting this specific audience.
The Panasonic DP-UB9000 is without a doubt the most versatile UHD Blu-ray player that I've ever used. It ticks off almost every important box on an AV enthusiast's checklist, including top-tier audio and video quality, making it one of the best legacy source components currently available.
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• Samsung Pulling the Plug on UHD Blu-ray at HomeTheaterReview.com.