After what seems like an age of speculation, 4K Ultra HD BD is finally here, and the Panasonic DMP-UB900 stands as its early champion. Positioned above Samsung’s rival UBD-K8500 in both price and spec, this a player designed to serve the AV enthusiast – it’s the first source component we’ve seen to get THX 4K Source certification, which implies some rigorous performance testing – without entirely pricing itself beyond the 4K curious.

While there’s a lot of new technology beneath the lid, from the outside this looks very much a classic Panasonic disc spinner. The chassis is full-width, half-depth, with a drop-down translucent fascia. Chamfered edges blend into the main body, while large silver feet add an air of superiority. It's a nice-looking box, but doesn't approach the battleship build we're accustomed to from the likes of Oppo, Cambridge Audio or Pioneer.

A new standard doesn't bring with it any connection surprises, but what's here is excellent. Dual HDMI outputs, designated Video/Audio and Audio cater for those with a non-4K/HDR AV receiver – link the player directly to the screen, leaving the Audio output to deliver multichannel sounds without images to the amp. Futureproofed users can simply route the Video/Audio output into an AV receiver that offers the necessary support. It's worth noting that the player can't output 4K simultaneously from these HDMIs.

Additionally there’s a full 7.1 analogue output bank, plus dedicated stereo phono pair, and optical and coaxial digital outputs. Ethernet and dual-band Wi-Fi is available. Beneath the front drawbridge is a USB port and SD card reader.

Booted up and the Panny's main Home page offers buttons for Video, Music, Photos, Home Network and Network Services. The latter is essentially the first-gen Panasonic content portal. While the interface is familiar (and a little old-fashioned), the YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Video apps are 4K flavoured. In addition there's BBC iPlayer, BBC News and Sport, the resurrected MySpace, DailyMotion and a heap of VOD stuff in the apps store you'll never want to watch.

A clear improvement

So, what does this player deliver? Well, I was stunned by the quality of the 4K HDR images it proffers – think beautifully smooth colour gradations, loads of detail and extraordinary dynamics. It's a clear improvement on Full HD BD. As it happens, I only had two UHD discs to spin (San Andreas and The LEGO Movie), and the former is an extremely OTT HDR experience, while the latter boasts a more psychedelic appeal. Whether either are reflective of where UHD Blu-ray disc authoring will be in a year’s time remains to be seen – the industry is on a learning curve.

One aspect of the DMP-UB900 that will be of interest to early 4K TV buyers is the player's adjustable dynamic range conversion (DRC). This allows users to tailor playback for screens which are not HDR-enabled. Selectable via the options menu in the Picture settings, DRC offers a sliding scale of adjustment, variable between -12 and +12 (the higher the value, the brighter the output).

One end of the scale is intended for intrinsically bright LED panels, the other for dull ones, with the mid-point suitable for those standard LED LCD TVs which have an average brightness of around 350 nits.

To see just how this worked, I hooked up the UB900 to a first-gen Sony X9005 4K TV. A middling setting (I settled on +3) was about right for this screen. Using San Andreas' 'tip the hat' sequence, the blue sky provides a useful benchmark. Altering the dynamic range of the picture doesn't just effect brightness, but also colour, and there's a point where the sky takes on an unnatural purple hue.

It quickly becomes clear that there's a huge difference in perceivable image quality when watching 4K Blu-ray discs on an HDR screen and on an SDR rival. The new disc format has taken its own sweet time getting here, but given the importance HDR plays in the viewing experience, maybe the timing is spot on.

Blu-ray players, of course, have to do much more than just spin movies to earn their keep. As a file player the UB900 is well equipped. The DLNA client quickly found compatible media servers on my network and codec support is extensive. MKVs play fine, as do MP4, MOV and MPEG-2, and like all content get a 4K upscale. It's audio-friendly too. Have a secret stash of DSD (either DFF or DSF) files you want to dance to? Fire them up, maestro – this deck is hot to trot, and will even play DSD64 5.1 multi-channel, which is about as esoteric as it gets. Other formats supported include AAC, ALAC, FLAC, WAV and WMA.

While 4K Blu-rays are encoded with 4:2:0 colour subsampling, the player upscales to 4:4:4. This is no surprise; Panasonic has been using this conversion for years on its standard BD hardware to reduce colour banding effects (often spotted on animation).

If you join the UB900 up to a non-4K TV, UHD discs will play back in 1080p resolution (provided studios allow it). I tried it with a 1080p plasma. While the player prompts you to load the Full HD BD, the downscaled 4K version looks very good. Quite why anyone would ever want to do this though remains a point of conjecture.

Perhaps the true mettle of the UB900 can be deduced through its regular AV performance, and here the deck knocks it out of the park. Upscaled with Einstein-grade processing, 1080p discs appear sensational, with pinpoint pixel info, smooth blends and vibrant colours.

On a more practical level, it's a fast-loader. My reference Java-heavy BD (Goldfinger) went from tray out to menu screen in a sprightly 43 seconds.

This is also a very fine CD player in its own right. It manages that rare trick of playing overly-loud modern recordings – which are generally mastered with no real dynamic range – and adding a welcome sense of depth. It also sorts through the hash to find real detail, as much as with nuanced classical music as guitar-heavy rock.

First-generation genius

Overall, Panasonic’s UHD Blu-ray debut is a cracker. You should never expect first-gen technology to be cheap, but the UB900 lands with only a modest price premium over its predecessor, the DMP-BDT700, yet offers so much more. Partner it with an HDR 4K display and you’ll be grinning from ear to ear. And quite apart from its 2,160p talents, it’s a great standard BD player, an above-average CD deck and a solid media streamer. If you want to see your new 4K display at its best, you simply have to audition it.