Whatever your thoughts on physical media in 2018, you’ve got to admit, the posh end of the Blu-ray player market is a really interesting place: Panasonic has played a blinder with its high-end DP-UB9000, and now Pioneer has countered with the UDP-LX500, a slightly more expensive universal 4K player that combines versatile audio playback with painstaking video performance.
While Panasonic has an early lead in this race, Pioneer is no stranger to high-end disc spinners. Its BDP-LX88 from 2015 was one of the finest players to serve the first iteration of Blu-ray, and the UDP-LX500 clearly builds on that legacy.
At 10.3kg (a whopping 22 pounds), it’s a serious lift, but you’ll take comfort from its armour plated chassis and engineered stability.
Connectivity includes two HDMIs (one for combined sound and vision, the other offering separated audio if required), USB ports front and back, digital audio optical and coaxial outputs, and a meaningful pair of stereo phonos.
There’s also an Ethernet connection for networking, plus RS-232C for high-end home control integration.
If you’re wondering about that ‘universal’ handle, it means in addition to playing 4k Blu-ray discs, and their regular 2k cousins (including 3D editions), as well as DVDs and CDs, the UDP-LX500 will also party with SACD and DVD-A music collections, and decode Hi-Res audio files. It’s a media maestro in every sense.
Despite its obvious sophistication, this is pretty much a plug and play deck. That said, Pioneer won’t win any plaudits for User Interface design. The brand has operated a policy of dour functionality for more years than I care to remember, and there’s no change to that philosophy here.
Consequently, the Home menu is a bare bones affair, made more barren by the lack of any integrated streaming services, be they audio or visual. The Panasonic DP-UB9000 has Pioneer well beat here.
But there is still fresh excitement to be had. The deck boasts a superb disc display function, which is able to read HDR10 metadata from compatible UHD discs. This reveals Max FALL (Maximum Frame Average Light Level) and MaxCLL(Maximum Content Light Level) information, and offers a real insight into the mastering and display potential of 4K discs. Do you really need a display capable of 1200 nits to make the most of your HDR discs? As it happens, in most cases not.
The actual disc loader is slick, smooth and whisper quiet; there’s no cheap clatter here. The deck typically takes just over 40 seconds to go from tray in to menu onscreen, for movie discs, which is an average performance.
Of course, at this level, performance is everything, and the UDP-LX500 doesn’t disappoint: The player shares video componentry with its reference grade stablemate, the UDP-LX800, which sells for twice as much, and picture quality is very fine indeed. The player conveys astonishing levels of fine detail and nuance. 4K Blu-rays are marvellously cinematic (the opening space battle in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is nothing short of breathtaking), while HD Blu-rays gain additional solidity.
HDR presentation is also excellent. Out of the box, the deck handles standard HDR10 and Dolby Vision, and there’s the promise of a firmware update to include HDR10+, in due course. The deck’s video output can even be matched to different display technologies, be it LCD, OLED or projectors. A useful trick.
Pacific Rim Uprising (4K Dolby Vision) really provides an opportunity for the deck to strut its HDR stuff. Gloriously dynamic, with a rich, vibrant colour palette, the player offers wide colour candy and dynamics in abundance.
So is the UDP-LX800 comparable or even better than the Panasonic DP-UB9000? The answer to this isn’t immediately clear cut. Side by side, both decks appear absolutely peerless.
It’s only when you investigate (literally) under a magnifying glass that you’ll see that the Panasonic’s image processing technology, with proprietary 4:4:4 colour sub-sampling, has the edge. This removes any semblance of stepping from curves and edges, and providing smoother colour detailing. From a normal viewing distance though, there’s little to separate the two models.
Where the UDP-LX500 clearly scores over rivals is in its sonic performance. Most obviously, that comprehensive audio disc support, good news if you have a stockpile of DVD-Audio releases or are still snapping up SACDs.
Both of these venerable formats sound gorgeous, combining delicious clarity with toe-tapping musicality. The deck also does a fine job with regular CDs. Perfer downloads? No problem. The player is also High-Res audio file compatible.
The internal design goes some way to explaining this talent, with an optimised audiophile-style layout for the power supply, digital processing and analogue audio components: Serving the deck’s analogue output is an AKM AK4490EQ DAC. It’s perhaps not as accomplished as the ESS Sabre Reference ES9018 used in the older BDP-LX88, but it’s not sonically shabby either.
You can further fine tune the performance using a trio of digital filtering modes: Sharp Roll-Off, Short Delay, Slow Roll-Off. These offer subtle tonal differences, and while I could come to no clear preference, it’s fun to experiment.
While its £999 ($999, AU$1999) price tag might be a bit intimidating, Pioneer has produced a peach of a player with the UDP-LX500. This heavyweight home cinema hero deserves to be shortlisted by all high-end upgraders, and can comfortably claim to be the best universal 4K Blu-ray player available for less than a grand.
There are caveats though. It’s not quite as brilliant a video performer as its main rival, the cheaper Panasonic DMP-UB9000, and it’s not quite as well finished either. However, if music is as important as movies to you, it’s clearly got broader appeal. Move over Bradley and Gaga, a new AV star is born.
- Expect to see the UDP-LX500 on our list of the best 4K Blu-ray players