The acronym DVD seems so ingrained into our lexicon today that it’s hard to imagine a time, only 12 years ago, when DVDs didn’t exist. Rarely has a consumer product gained such widespread acceptance in such a short period of time. While no longer the cutting edge of home entertainment technology, DVD is still hands-down the most wildly popular format on which to watch movies in the home. Discs are more affordable now than ever, with countless popular titles available for under $10. DVD players themselves are available in all price ranges to suit any need and budget. Features that a few years ago existed only in expensive enthusiast models have now trickled down to entry-level models that you can find for less than $100.
But as big screen, flat panel TVs became all the rage, the DVD format began to show its age. In February 2008, after an 18 month high definition disc format war, the Blu-ray format emerged as the next generation home movie format.
When you go shopping for a DVD or a Blu-ray player, the most important thing to keep in mind is the intended use of the player. If it is going to be attached to an 18-inch standard definition TV in your college dorm, an entry-level DVD player will almost certainly do the trick. An entry-level player, in addition to being more budget-friendly, will take up less room in an environment where space is tight. If, on the other hand, you’re shopping for a player to be at the centre of your home theatre system, you’ll want to look at a Blu-ray player which will allow you to achieve the highest quality picture and sound from your DVDs and Blu-ray discs.
Most people are familiar with composite or RCA connections. These are the yellow, red and white plugs you see on most A/V gear, with the yellow denoting video and the red and white being left and right stereo audio. This single analogue video connector is the lowest quality connection available on a player, and should only be used if your display device is incapable of accommodating any of the other, higher quality connections.
Next up is S-video, which is a multi-pin analog connection carrying luminance (brightness) and chrominance (colour) along two separate wires, reducing interference between the two parts of the video signal and giving you, the viewer, a substantially better picture.
Next up the performance ladder you’ll find component video. This connection further breaks up the video signal into one luminance and two chrominance carriers. The greater bandwidth afforded by component video allows for the transmission of high definition picture resolutions (720p and 1080i) and progressive scanning.
Finally, there is HDMI – the most advanced connection available today. This single digital connector is capable of carrying both video and audio. The HDMI connection can transmit a pristine digital picture with a resolution up to 1080p, the same resolution offered by latest displays and found on Blu-ray discs. It can also transmit up to eight channels of uncompressed digital sound as well as the latest generation surround audio formats. All Blu-ray players are equipped with an HDMI connection as are most recent DVD players. If your display device accommodates it, HDMI is definitely the connection to use.
All Blu-ray players will allow you to “up-scale” standard DVDs from their native 480i resolution to 720p, 1080i and 1080p. Up-converting DVD players offer the same functionality. In order to take advantage of up-conversion, you will have to use the HDMI connection. Up-scaling is a process which takes the existing 480 interlaced lines of video information and, through a process called interpolation, creates a higher resolution signal that can then be sent to an HDTV, giving you a sharper image. This up-conversion can be done to “create” virtually any HD resolution, from 720p up to 1080p. The results obtained through this up-scaling process can vary wildly depending on the player and display device. With some players the difference between the regular 480p output and up-scaled 1080p is negligible, with others the difference is shocking. This is one of the features widely available today which, only 3 or 4 years ago, was available only on certain high-end players. One thing that should be stressed though, is that this up-scaling doesn’t produce a “true” HD image, it just takes the 480 lines of resolution from a DVD and increases them through digital processing.
Every standard and high definition player has an on-board video processor. In a standard DVD player, this video processor is responsible de-interlacing the standard DVD signal encoded at 480i (i.e. converting 480i to 480p). Most Blu-ray discs are authored at 1080p, although some are authored at 1080i. Therefore the video processor in a Blu-ray player has to de-interlace the 1080i signal when playing certain discs. In both standard and high definition players, the video processor also has to detect and compensate for 3:2 pulldown in film-based 480i or 1080i material. The performance of various video processors produces very different results. How can you judge a disc player’s video processing performance? Look for magazine or online reviews of the product, or use test discs such as the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark or the Spears and Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray Edition.
Sound is just as important as the picture when trying to recreate the theatre experience at home. All DVDs and Blu-ray discs come with 5.1 or 7.1 channel soundtracks which can give you the sensation of being part of the on-screen action. Standard DVDs are capable of storing soundtracks in Dolby Digital and DTS (both lossy formats). In addition to these, Blu-ray discs add two new lossy compression codecs Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and two lossless compression codecs DST-HD High Resolution Audio and DST-HD Master Audio. Blu-ray discs can also store an uncompressed soundtrack, which is lossless. While the lossy formats suffer some loss of quality due to compression, lossless formats produce a near-perfect soundtrack because they are bit-for-bit identical to the studio master soundtracks.
In order to playback these multi-channel soundtracks, you will need to connect your player to an A/V receiver. The decoding of a soundtrack can be handled by either the player or the A/V receiver – most home theatre enthusiast prefer for the A/V receiver to handle this. All players specify which audio formats they are capable of decoding internally. However, if you would like to send the audio for decoding inside the A/V receiver, the player will have to output the bitstream audio for each soundtrack. Whether a player can perform this should be specified by the manufacturer. Of course, for an A/V receiver to decode the bitstream audio, it will have to have an internal decoder for each soundtrack format.
Additionally, in order to pass the new codecs found on Blu-ray discs as bitstream, the player and receiver have to be equipped with an HDMI port meeting the HDMI 1.3 specification. Older HDMI ports will allow the sound to be passed as a PCM wave file, but not as a bitstream. This means that if you want to experience the next-gen soundtracks but don’t have a brand new receiver you’re still in luck.
A standard DVD player should be connected using a digital coaxial or optical connection. Blu-ray players should be connected to the A/V receiver with an HDMI cable in order to take advantage of the latest audio codecs. Some DVD and Blu-ray players can also be connected with analogue multi-channel outputs, if so equipped. These multi-channel outputs can be used to either connect the player to an older receiver that doesn’t have a digital input or to transfer information that exceeds the bandwidth of the optical connection, such as high-resolution audio from a Blu-ray player.
Blu-ray is the Next Gen Format
The large capacity of Blu-ray discs allows for a more detailed, higher resolution picture and up to eight discrete channels of uncompressed audio. The Blu-ray format is capable of outputting full HD, 1080 lines of progressively scanned video. Most discs are also authored at 24 frames per second, the speed at which the film that movies were shot on travels through a camera, which results in a more film-like picture. With 1080 lines of resolution, the picture is unbelievably detailed and sharp. The progressive scanning also helps achieve a smooth and film-like picture, even during very fast moving scenes.
Just as impressive as the picture is the sound. A DVD’s Dolby Digital is a lossy, compressed format. This means that some audio fidelity is lost in order to save space. The larger capacity of Blu-ray discs negate the need for that, and Blu-ray discs all come complete with either an uncompressed track or one of the new lossless compression codecs such as Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio.
The increased space on Blu-ray discs is also put to use by more detailed extras and documentaries, many of which are also in HD, and things such as animated menus and interactive content. You also see advancements like in-film menus, so if you want to turn on subtitles, for example, you can do so without pausing the movie.
Higher Blu-ray player models also contain an Ethernet port and features called BD-Live and BonusView.
The Ethernet port will allow the player to connect to the internet and download additional content such as movie trailers, bonus features, games and more. Some Blu-ray players are also capable of downloading firmware updates from the internet.
The BD-Live feature will allow you to access real-time extras from the internet. Some examples include playing trivia games with other people around the world connected to BD-Live, viewing commentaries uploaded by yourself (which requires a webcam) or other viewers, getting information about actors, and even chatting with movie directors at prearranged times when new movies comes out. The options here are virtually limitless – it’s just a question how the studios decide to implement them with each movie title.
Then there is BonusView, which essentially gives Blu-ray players a picture-in-picture capability. This feature allows a separate stream of video to play along with the movie, which can contain interviews and commentaries from the film’s cast and crew, storyboards, and other visual content.
What does all this mean to you, the consumer? Again it all comes down to your environment. For a lot of people with smaller or less precise display devices, an inexpensive DVD player will provide enjoyable picture and sound. For smaller HD sets, a good up-converting player can provide a very impressive experience. The larger or more exacting your display, be it a flat panel or projector, the more you’ll appreciate the sharper, smoother and more stable image afforded by a Blu-ray player. As always, this guide is just that, a guide. There are no hard and fast rules in home entertainment, so visit your local AV store and feast your eyes on all of these options yourself!
Blu-ray Player Profiles
One additional aspect to consider when buying a Blu-ray player is something called the “profile”. The profile, specified by the Blu-ray Disc Association, dictates the minimum specifications and capabilities that must be met by Blu-ray players. Three different profiles exist: 1.0, 1.1 and 2.0.
Profile 1.0 – All Blu-ray players introduced before November 1, 2007 were mandated to meet profile 1.0 specifications. This initial profile indicates the inclusion of the Blu-ray version of the Java programming language, BD-J for short. BD-J allows Blu-ray titles to contain advanced features such as menus to be displayed on top of a playing movie or games that can be played while watching a movie.
Profile 1.1 – This profile is also commonly referred to as Full Profile or Final Standard Profile. All Blu-ray players introduced after November 1, 2007 must adhere to the additional hardware requirements and functional capabilities specified by this profile. A profile 1.1 Blu-ray player must include at least 256 MB of persistent memory (which retains its contents even if the power is turned off) and a sound generator that produces sound effects when on-screen menu selections are made. But the most significant upgrade in profile 1.1 players is feature called BonusView (picture-in-picture support), which requires additional hardware. Hence profile 1.0 players cannot be firmware upgraded to profile 1.1 (with the exception of the PlayStation 3). Panasonic’s DMP-BD30 is the first profile 1.1 Blu-ray player.
Profile 2.0 – This profile also known as BD-Live, requires Blu-ray players to contain an Ethernet port to connect to the Internet. This will allow players to download new content such as movie trailers, additional info and bonus materials for certain titles, online games, and online shopping. Profile 2.0 players must have at least 1GB of persistent memory.