(Pocket-lint) - Panasonic was one of the first companies out of the gate with an Ultra HD Blu-ray player in 2016. The UB900 - still the flagship player from Panasonic - offered superb handling of the new 4K disc format, but came at a price that would only attract home cinema purists.
In 2017, there's a bigger shift to move the format along, delivering players at more affordable prices. The UB400 on review here is a perfect example of such a player.
But when you're dealing with Ultra HD Blu-ray, should you be stepping down to more affordable players, or shooting for the more capable models?
Panasonic UB400 review: Design and remote
- 320 x 199 x 45mm
- Looks like a "mini UB700"
The first thing you'll notice about the UB400 is that it drops the size down from the normal 400mm width to 320mm, so it's more compact than some of the other players on the market. This has been something that's often been associated with more affordable devices, but in many cases there's not the need for such a large player anyway - especially when the rear panel isn't fully loaded with connections.
Panasonic has adopted the glossy front from both the UB900 and UB700 for this model too, giving a seamless finish - there's no drawer, just the angular edges to that frontispiece. The rest of the body is black metal, but you're unlikely to spend any time looking at that.
There's no display on the UB400, just a single red LED which will indicate power. There is a cooling fan on the rear and there's some residual noise from this as it keeps the innards cool.
The remote for the UB400 is essentially the same as that of the UB700. It's plastic and features plenty of buttons - indeed, there are more than you're likely to ever use. However, there are some special buttons, like the "playback info" button that will report what formats and standards you're playing, which is one that we geeks especially love.
A new addition - and also one of the features making its debut here - is a button called "HDR setting" which essentially lets you change the brightness of the HDR effect (which we'll talk about in more later).
Panasonic UB400 review: Connectivity
- 2x HDMI (one a dedicated audio connection)
- 2x USB
- Ethernet and Wi-Fi
- Optical audio
Although the UB400 slims down a little, it still delivers a full range of connectivity that will suit most users. First and foremost there are two HDMI connections on the rear, one dedicated to audio, meaning you can have a connection that runs to your TV for the visuals and a separate feed to an AV receiver for the audio.
This not only gives you flexibility, but if you've got a new 4K TV, but an older sound system that lacks 4K pass-through, you can still have the audio piped directly into that. For those with fewer connections, there's also an optical audio output on this player, so you can easily hook into most legacy systems.
When it comes to network connectivity, there's an Ethernet connection on the rear so it can be hardwired to your network, or there's the option of Wi-Fi. Exactly which you'll want to use depends on a full range of considerations, such as whether you plan to use the smart features of this player to stream content either from online sources or from your local network.
Finally there are 2x USB connections. These till again allow you to add media, or hook-up a HDD with more video files, should you wish.
Panasonic UB400 review: Performance and playback
- HDR effect control
- Same video processing as UB900
- Supports 3D
The important thing to note about the UB400 is that it offers the same video processing engine as Panasonic's top two players, meaning it's pictures are every bit as good looking. There has been some evolution of the 4K HDR space since we reviewed the first two players and accordingly you'll find things like the option to convert HLG content to regular HDR for playback on TVs that might not support that standard.
There are plenty of settings to control the playback, so you can specify the particulars of the TV to which the player is connected, such as whether it's a 10-bit panel (such as the Samsung QLED Q7F we tested it with), or a 12-bit panel, like the LG OLED B6.
In most cases, however, there's no need to change anything (ensuring that the TV itself has the HDMI port you connect to on the right settings) and you can safely leave things on the automatic settings - which is what Panasonic recommends.
There are also a number of controls on the audio front, so you can choose whether the Dolby and DTS decoding is handled by the player, outputting PCM, or you can have your receiver do the decoding. Again, this very much depends on what hardware you already have and what formats are supported.
As with Panasonic's previous players, we found that the performance is excellent, delivering that crisp 3840 x 2160 resolution, boosted with HDR. We tested the player with the Samsung QLED Q7F and the Samsung MU7000 televisions, both delivering stunning results, surpassing the quality of 4K streaming. We've said it before and we'll say it again: Ultra HD Blu-ray really is the superior format for next-gen entertainment.
One of the new introductions on the UB400 is that HDR settings feature. We've seen this sort of option appearing in a number of different places - some TVs will let you change the HDR effect and now this player will too.
The odd thing is that HDR was first pitched as being "as the director intended" with the source telling the display exactly how bright it should be and so on. That idealistic position hasn't lasted long, then, as if you want things to be brighter, you can just hit the button and change the settings from the player for the movie you're watching. It's actually fairly convenient, more convenient than diving into your TV's settings, and from the standard you can select natural, light and bright.
Flipping to natural might give things a little lift, although ultimately you'll have to decide whether your TV needs to be adjusted as a larger issue, or if you just want to lighten something that's a little too dark for your tastes. We found that the top two settings (light and bright) cause a noticeable loss of contrast, with highlights losing detail and shadows losing those crisp blacks. We tested this in some of the dark scenes of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and, generally speaking, it's a little too easy to destroy the fidelity of those scenes.
Flip over to regular Blu-ray and that HDR setting is no longer an option. Blu-ray is very well handled by this player with richness and detail, ensuring that those last-gen discs still have plenty to offer, including support for 3D. DVD plays nicely too, but as home TVs are growing larger, there's only so much you can do to cater for the comparative lack of resolution.
Overall, the performance of this player is very good and priced as low as £250 on Amazon.co.uk at the time of review, it ultimately helps bring Ultra HD Blu-ray to more people.
Panasonic UB400 review: User interface and streaming services
- Netflix, Amazon Video and other services
- Basic menu system
So far, everything we've covered has been positive, as this player offers almost all the benefits of the top-tier players (bar higher-end sound outputs) at a fraction of the cost. But it also adopts some of the elements of those players that are weaker.
Starting at the front, the UB400 is a little slow to turn on and off. This was the same with the UB900 and we can't help thinking that it could be faster. That said, disc loading is pretty fast once you get going.
Panasonic's biggest problem really lies in the UX, or user experience, once you get into the menus. The main menu is rather dated, lacking the sort of consumer-friendly sheen you get from Samsung's players, for example. If you're just loading a disc and playing it, that really doesn't matter too much, although those who want to tinker in the settings will find it's a little clunky navigating around.
There's a jarring difference in the main menus and the menu for the network services and there seems to be no good reason for that - it feels like two different people worked on design and then just lumped them together.
There are also the defacto streaming services on offer - supported by the dedicated Netflix button on the remote. If you want to use this player to watch BBC iPlayer, Amazon Video or YouTube, those services are there. However, the experience is clunky compared to any major smart TV.But that's also the reason that this low point might not matter: the 4K HDR TV you'll be connecting this player to almost certainly offers those services too, so you might never have to use them on this player.
Ultra HD Blu-ray has had its time as an enthusiast format: an expensive nicety for the early adopter. With 4K TV adoption increasing, we can't settle the argument as to whether Ultra HD Blu-ray will find as many fans as streaming 4K content, but we're happy to say it's the best quality of the bunch.
The Panasonic UB400 doesn't make any huge breakthroughs, but it does launch with prices that are a lot more appealing. Panasonic also undercuts itself with the UB300, which loses the second HDMI and Wi-Fi of the UB400, but sees the price tumble another £50, accepting a design that's a little more basic.
For home cinema enthusiasts there's a lot of high-end choice now available. The UB900 is much more advanced as an audio player, as is the Oppo UDP-203, both looking to deliver the best there is and bringing a wider package for those high demand users.
But for everyone else, the UB400 makes perfect sense. It plays well, it's affordable and it doesn't scrimp on essential connectivity, making it an easy route to Ultra HD Blu-ray enjoyment.
The alternatives to consider
Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player
Read the full article: Samsung K8500 review
Read the full article: Oppo UDP-203 review
Read the full article: Panasonic UB900 review