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[nextpage title=”Introduction”]

These days where you can find a Sony DVD player with HDMI output costing USD 60 at Best Buy you may wonder why someone in his (or her) right mind would buy a USD 100 player from Panasonic. The answer is simple: Panasonic DVD-S53 can play not only Divx files – a feature somewhat easy to find on players from major brands – but also MPEG4 files. If you have a lot of home videos stored under these formats in your PC this feature gives you the opportunity to burn all your videos directly to DVD-ROM as regular files and play them on your TV, without the need to convert them to DVD-Video format first, process that takes an eternity.

This can also save a lot of space on your hard drive, as you can delete the files from your drive and simply use the DVD-ROM you burned with your files whenever you want to watch your videos at your PC.

This player also features a HDMI output, allowing you to connect your player to your HDTV with the best connection available today, increasing the resolution of your DVD and video files up to 1080p, a feature called “upconversion” or “upscaling.” Pay attention as there are some cheap players with HDMI output around that don’t go up to 1080p, some go up to 1080i or even less and that is another reason why this unit is more expensive than other players.

DVD-S53 is available in two colors, black (DVD-S53K) or silver (DVD-S53S). We reviewed the black one.

Panasonic DVD-S53 DVD PlayerFigure 1: Panasonic DVD-S53 DVD player.

In Figure 2, you can see all the connectors available on S53. It offers HDMI, component video, S-video and composite video outputs. Of course for the best image quality you will need to connect the unit to your TV using HDMI. If you don’t have a HDTV yet then you will need to connect your player to your TV using one of the other available connections.

For audio, this unit offers audio over HDMI (more on this later). This unit also has a coaxial digital audio (SPDIF) output, but not an optical one, which is a shame, especially for an expensive product like this. This unit also provides two analog audio outputs (left and right channels) to allow you have audio through your TV in the case you don’t have a home theater receiver around (for example, you are travelling and decided to carry your player to hook it up to the TV player available on the summer house you are going to stay).

Panasonic DVD-S53 DVD PlayerFigure 2: Connectors found on Panasonic DVD-S53.

This player comes only with one audio/video cable for composite video and analog stereo audio. If you will connect your player to your HDTV – which is probably the case, as you picked a player with HDMI output – you will need a HDMI cable.

You should be careful because retail stores like Walmart, Best Buy and Circuit City charges a lot for HDMI cables – it could cost you half the price you paid for your player, which is insane. At Newegg.com you can find the same HDMI cable for less than USD 10. It seems that a lot of people research for prices on the player, but forget about researching for prices on the HDMI cable. You will probably need to buy a SPDIF coaxial cable too, depending on your home theater setup. More about this in the next page.

You can see this unit’s remote control in Figure 3. It is not capable of controlling any TVs, even the ones manufactured by Panasonic.

Panasonic DVD-S53 DVD PlayerFigure 3: Remote control.

[nextpage title=”Installation”]

We installed Panasonic DVD-S53 to a 47” 1080p HDTV set from LG (47LC7DF) and to a Sony STR-DG510 5.1 receiver.

As we mentioned briefly, this unit sends audio signal through the HDMI connector, which is really convenient if you receiver has an embedded video switcher, as you will need just one cable for connecting the player to your home theater system. This video switcher feature, present on several home theater receivers, allows you to simultaneously switch your audio and video by the press of a button. For example, when you press “DVD” on the receiver, it will automatically play the audio being sent by your DVD player and send the DVD video signal to your TV, at the same time. By selecting “Video 2,” for instance, it will switch both audio and video to whatever equipment is connected to that input (your cable decoder, for example). On receivers without this feature you can only select the audio input, not the video, so you have to switch the audio input on the receiver and the video input on your TV.

If you don’t have a receiver with a video switcher then you will need an extra audio cable, since you will need to connect the player to your TV using a HDMI cable and then use an audio cable to connect the player to the receiver. Since this player has only coaxial SPDIF, this is your only option (another option would be using the two analog audio outputs, but they should only be used if you don’t have a home theater receiver). Here the same tip we gave last page about cables is valid. Buy online; it’s cheaper. SPDIF coaxial cable is also called RCA mono cable.

Our problem here, however, wasn’t with the player but with our receiver. Even though Sony STR-DG510 has a video switcher, it is not capable of extracting audio from the HDMI inputs (which is a shame, by the way), so the audio was routed to the TV instead of being played on the receiver. Since our TV was with its audio outputs disabled – as it is the normal procedure if you have a home theater receiver – we couldn’t hear anything S53 was playing. The solution was to connect a digital audio cable from the player to the receiver – one extra cable and one extra cost. One again, this was a limitation of our receiver and had nothing to do with the player itself.

As we mentioned, this unit doesn’t come with the cables you’ll need. If your receiver has an embedded video switcher you will need to buy two HDMI cables, one to connect your player to your receiver and another to connect your receiver to your TV – plus a coaxial SPDIF audio cable (RCA mono cable) if your receiver, like ours, is incapable of extracting audio from the HDMI connector or if your TV doesn’t have a HDMI input. If your receiver doesn’t have a video switcher, then you will need to buy one HDMI cable to connect your player to your TV and one audio cable (coaxial SPDIF) to connect your player to your receiver.

From what we’ve been seen on the market, the most common HDMI cable lengths are 3 feet, 6 feet and 12 feet. We tried them all and three feet proved to be too short to connect the player to the TV, but if you are using a receiver with an embedded video switcher and you will place the player on top of it, this length is adequate. To connect your player or receiver to your TV you will need a 6-feet cable if the player or receiver is right below or right above your TV. If they are more distant than that, then you need to buy a 12-feet cable.

Once again, buy these cables on-line at stores like Newegg.com: it makes no sense paying USD 40 or more on a HDMI cable when they cost less than half of this on-line.

After the physical installation it is time to tu
rn on the player for the first time. This player is really fast to come to life and its tray opens really fast.

The biggest problem we found is that this DVD player doesn’t have an “auto” option to try to detect the maximum resolution of your TV to automatically configure its internal upscaler. Not only that, the option to configure the upscaler is hidden and unless you read the manual you won’t find it (and even the manual isn’t so clear about this). This is really a problem, as many people will buy this DVD player, connect it to his or her TV and think they are already using the maximum resolution the player can provide (and get a lousy image quality), while in fact the player will be working at 480i (SDTV). This is really bad.

In order to configure the resolution you will need to hit the “Function” key four times and change the resolution under “Video Format.”

The remote control has a convenient “setup” key where you can configure almost everything about your player – but the output resolution. This is really stupid; the resolution configuration should be there.

Not only that. When you turn on this player for the first time it shows you a “quick setup” option like many players on the market, but this quick setup doesn’t configure the output resolution!

After fixing this you should hit the setup key and check the audio and video configuration. Video should be configured as “4:3 Letterbox” if you are using a CRT-based TV or as “16:9 Normal” if you are using a widescreen TV. Make sure to configure “PCM output” as “Up to 96 kHz.” If your home theater receiver has Dolby Digital decoder (which is the most probable scenario) you should configure “Dolby Digital” as “Bitstream.” The same thing should be done with “DTS” if your home theater has a DTS decoder.

After this initial setup we had the basic audio and video configurations corrected and we were ready to watch movies using all the power from Panasonic S53.

[nextpage title=”Watching Movies”]

This unit is really fast to turn on, its tray ejection mechanism is really fast and movies are also loaded really fast. On the DVD main menu we could select the play option by hitting “Play” on the remote control or on the player front panel, which is excellent (on some players you need to hit “Enter” and not “Play” to start playing a movie, which is really counter-intuitive).

When a movie is playing, the player response to commands to commands like previous/next chapter and scan backwards/forward is really fast.

We didn’t like the display configuration, though. Instead of showing the running time of the disc it shows the number of the chapter being played. And we couldn’t find a way to change this configuration.

We tried to play some problematic movies to see how this unit would play them. These movies are in widescreen format but somehow they send to the player the information that they are in 4:3 format, making them to appear with a black frame around them on some players, like if they were played inside a window (click here to see this problem in action). The movies we use to test this are Streets of Fire, A Night at the Roxbury and The Breakfast Club. At Panasonic DVD-S53 these movies were played with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, making the movie to play with the wrong aspect ratio – all characters were shorter and fatter. This was fixed by selecting the zoom1 option on our TV set, which main goal is to fix this issue.

Panasonic DVD-S53 DVD PlayerFigure 4: Movie playing with horizontal black bars and wrong aspect ratio.

Panasonic DVD-S53 DVD PlayerFigure 5: Problem fixed by selecting “zoom1” on our TV set.

The good thing about this player is that it has six different aspect ratio configurations for fixing problematic movies (4:3 Pan & scan, 4:3 Letterbox, 4:3 Zoom, 16:9 Normal, 16:9 Shrink and 16:9 Zoom).

After playing some regular DVDs we decided to burn some CDs and DVDs with some MPEG4 and Divx files to see how they would play on Panasonic DVD-S53.

We were impressed by the quality and response time while playing such files. They not only played at an outstanding quality – meaning that this unit uses an excellent decoder – but also the search function (i.e., skip forward/backward) worked just fine with a terrific response time. Since we were playing regular computer files we thought that this unit could have some delay between hitting the skip forward key and the image starting moving forward, which wasn’t the case.

We burned CDs, DVDs and dual-layer DVDs to see if we would run into any compatibility issues. CDs and regular DVDs (DVD-5) worked just fine, but this unit proved to be incompatible with dual-layer recordable DVDs (DVD-9), even though Panasonic lists this unit as being compatible with recordable dual-layer media.  After making a lot of noise the unit came with the message shown in Figure 6.

Panasonic DVD-S53 DVD PlayerFigure 6: We couldn’t play dual-layer recordable DVDs on this unit.

We burned four discs (copied three dual-layer DVDs from our collection and burned one dual-layer DVD with tons of Divx movies) and we couldn’t play any of them. The media was recorded just fine, as we could play the discs at two different PCs.

[nextpage title=”Upscaler Quality”]

LCD and plasma TVs have a problem: if the movie isn’t being played on the TV native resolution, you will have really bad image quality. This same problem happens with LCD monitors, for example. If you configure your PC to use a video resolution lower than your LCD monitor native resolution – usually the maximum resolution your monitor accepts – the image will be blurred. If you have a LCD monitor try decreasing the video resolution to see what happens and understand this concept.

So we have a problem with TV channels transmitted at a lower resolution than our TV native resolution and DVD movies, as their original resolution is 480i, a.k.a. SDTV. To solve this issue the latest DVD players and both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray players feature an “upconversion” or “upscale” feature, which converts the original DVD signal to HD resolution, up to 1080p. All HD TVs also have this feature, tailored to convert channels that are being transmitted with a resolution lower than your TV’s into your TV native resolution.

To keep the cost of these units low, manufacturers use cheap video processors in their units, which do not provide the best quality possible. In fact, one of the main reasons one TV is more expensive than another with the same screen size is the quality of the video processor used. The same idea goes to players.

So we were curious to see the quality of the upscaler used on Panasonic DVD-S53. To check this we compared the image with the scaler disabled (selecting 480i resolution on the player) with the scaler enabled (selecting 1080p resolution on the player). After that we compared the image generated by the embedded scaler with the
image generated by an iScan VP20 external scaler. This device is also known by other names, like external video processor, line doubler or de-interlacer. This unit has the same goal of the internal scaler found on players with an embedded upscaler, but it provides, at least in theory, a better image quality, as it uses a high-end processor. In order to get the best quality from our external scaler we configured the player to send the movie on its original resolution (480i) to it, so all upscaling processing was done by the iScan VP20.

Even though with the embedded upscaler your movies will play at a far better quality compared to playing them at their original resolution, the upscaler quality isn’t the best we’ve seen around. With our external upscaler the image quality was far better and we also could get a better image quality when playing DVDs on other units – like the Sony BDP-S300 Blu-Ray player –, with their upscaler enable, naturally.

We tried to take some pictures to show you the difference in quality but unfortunately with static images you can’t see much of a difference: the main difference was on action scenes. So you have to trust us on that.

Also don’t forget that you need to manually configure the upscaler, and the access to this configuration is hidden:  you need to hit four times the “function” key on the remote control.

[nextpage title=”Making Panasonic DVD-S53 Region Free”]

One good thing about this unit is that we were able to make it region free. This procedure, however, is tricky as you will need one button not present on the remote control that comes with the unit. Then you will need a programmable universal remote control, a PDA, PlayStation Portable (PSP) or a laptop with IrDA (i.e., infrared) port. Below we will describe the procedure we did to make this player region free by using a One For All URC-7555 remote control (European version, with the “magic” button). The complete procedure for making this player region free using other devices can be found here.

To make Panasonic S53 DVD player region free you have to send the following sequence of commands to the player, using your remote control:

Enter, 6, >=10, <<, Service, Audio, 8, 1, Subtitle, 4

The problem is that the “service” key doesn’t exist on the remote control that comes with the player. With a universal remote control you will need to program one of its buttons to be the service key, which should send the code “143” (or “00143,” if your remote uses 5-digit numbers).

On our One For All URC-7555 we programmed its button “1” to be this key, using the following sequence:

  • 1. Press the “DVD” key.
  • 2. Keep the “Magic” key pressed until the DVD light blinks twice.
  • 3. Enter “0490” to tell the remote that we will be talking to a Panasonic device. The DVD light will blink twice after that.
  • 4. Keep the “Magic” key pressed until the DVD light blinks twice.
  • 5. Enter “994” to tell the remote to enter its programming mode. The DVD light will blink twice after that.
  • 6. Press the “Magic” key (don’t keep it pressed this time). The DVD light will blink once as you press this key.
  • 7. Enter the code “00143.” The DVD light will blink once right after each key is pressed.
  • 8. Press “1” to tell that you want to associate this code with the button “1.” The DVD light will blink twice after that.
  • 9. Your remote is programmed.

Now pressing the button “1” on the remote control will send the missing “service” command to the player.

Turn on your DVD player with no disc inserted and wait until it displays the “No Disc” message. Now point the two remote controls to your DVD player and enter the sequence posted above, the only key you will press on the One For All remote will be the “1” key, which stands for “Service,” all other keys should be pressed on the player’s remote control.

After sending the sequence, the DVD player won’t acknowledge that it was hacked. This is the normal behavior. Turn the player off and then on again and try playing a DVD from another region and see what happens. If it still complains that it cannot play discs from other regions, try sending the sequence again, but faster, without stopping between each command.

[nextpage title=”A Look Inside The Panasonic DVD-S53″]

On Figures 7 and 8 you have a quick look inside Panasonic DVD-S53. There you can see main four chips, the microcontroller, the motor driver, the RAM memory and the ROM memory.

Panasonic DVD-S53 DVD PlayerFigure 7: Inside Panasonic DVD-S53.

Panasonic DVD-S53 DVD PlayerFigure 8: Inside Panasonic DVD-S53.

[nextpage title=”Main Specifications”]

Panasonic DVD-S53 DVD player main features are:

  • Maximum resolution: 1080p
  • Upscale DVDs to 1080p: Yes
  • Movie files: Divx (.avi, .divx) and MPEG4 (.asf)
  • Audio files: MP3, WMA
  • JPEG slideshow: Yes
  • Composite video output: Yes
  • S-video output: Yes
  • Component video output: Yes
  • HDMI output: Yes
  • HDMI version: N/A
  • Coaxial digital audio output: Yes
  • Optical digital audio output: No
  • Analog audio output: Yes, 2 channels
  • Ethernet port for firmware upgrade: No
  • Dolby Digital: Yes
  • DTS: Yes
  • Dimensions: 16 15/16" x 9 7/16" x 1 11/16" (43 cm x 23.9 cm x 4.3 cm) (W x D x H)
  • Weight: 4.4 lbs (2 Kg)
  • Cables that come with this unit: composite video, stereo analog audio and power cord.
  • More Information: https://www.panasonic.com
  • Average price in the US*: USD 100.00

* Researched at Shopping.com on the day we published this review.

[nextpage title=”Conclusions”]

Strong Points

  • Fast to turn on, fast to load movies, fast to start playing movies.
  • Fast response to commands like previous/next chapter and scan backwards/forward.
  • Plays Divx and MPEG4 files with outstanding quality.
  • We could make it region free (even though you will need an external device to accomplish that).

Weak Points

  • Remote control can’t control other devices, especially TV sets.
  • Doesn’t have an optical SPDIF output.
  • Display shows the current chapter being played, not the running time.
  • Proved to be incompatible with recordable dual-layer media.
  • Unit doesn’t provide an option to automatically configure the upscaler resolution, upscaler resolution isn’t configured at “quick setup” function and the upscaler configuration isn’t easily accessible.
  • Upscaler quality could be better.
  • One of the most expensive models on the market today.

Final Thoughts

This is a unit with fast response time and that we could make it region free. But unless you are looking for a player that can play both Divx and MPEG4 files we think that there are products that provide a better cost/benefit ratio on the market.