Blu-ray Players – Movies and Home Theater – All You Need to Know – Blu-ray players and Blu-ray movies are generating a lot of excitement. Now that the “format war” is over with Blu-ray crowned the victor, consumers are getting ready to embrace high-definition on a disc, namely, Blu-ray Discs! This guide will make sure you understand Blu-ray and get the most out of your experience.
What do you get with Blu-ray?
There are four primary advantages Blu-ray Disc movies have over their DVD equivalents:
o Improved capacity and durability. Blu-ray Discs have up to 50GB of disc capacity for a dual-layer disc, which is over 5x more than a double-layer DVD. Blu-ray discs carry the data close to the surface of the disc, so a hard coat is applied to protect the fragile data. This hard coat is extremely durable and resists scratches and fingerprints.
o Improved video quality. Blu-ray Disc movies have up to 6x the picture detail of a standard DVD. Numbers are not the way to describe the difference, though! Suffice it to say the sharpness, depth, color and detail is far greater than anything you have ever experienced before. No matter what they say about upconverting DVD players providing “near high-def quality,” after you experience Blu-ray it is more of a country mile than “near.” The bigger the screen size, the bigger the difference.
o Improved audio quality. Most Blu-ray Discs have lossless audio, which, obviously, means no loss of sound quality. In short the sound quality from Blu-ray Discs is capable of matching the master tapes from the studio. If you have a sound system capable of using the lossless audio formats, the difference in sound quality is just as apparent as the difference in video quality. In fact, when doing demonstrations in my own home theater before I even get to explain that the sound as well as the video is high-definition the viewers make comments such as “Wow, the sound!” or “I’ve never heard sound like that anywhere.” You need a relatively recent surround sound setup to experience the lossless sound; more on that later.
o Improved interactivity. Blu-ray Discs and players use BD-Java, a version of Sun Microsystems’s Java programming that is ubiquitous on the Internet. Using Java allows the studios to put games and other interactive features on the discs, as well as menus that can be accessed while the movie is playing. (Once you have experienced the latter, it’s even harder to go back to DVD!) The downside to the BD-Java is that it requires a lot of processing power and early Blu-ray players may take several minutes to load the discs once they are placed in the player. Compatibility problems may exists as well and the player may need a firmware update to function properly. Blu-ray will soon be introducing Profile 2.0, or “BD-Live” which will bring Web interactivity to Blu-ray and allow you to download bonus materials, play games, and much more.
What do I need to experience Blu-ray’s spectacular video quality?
This is an easy answer! You need a high-definition TV, a Blu-ray player, and a connection cable or cables. If you have an HDMI input on your TV, you should use an HDMI cable from your Blu-ray player to the TV. Do not overpay for your HDMI cable. Most big box stores only sell overpriced brands such as Monster Cable and charge from $90 to $150 or more for a single HDMI cable. You can get a perfectly good, well-made HDMI cable for under $5.00 from monoprice.com.
If you have an older HDTV with component video connections, you need a set of component cables and a set of stereo audio RCA cables.
What do I need to experience Blu-ray’s lossless sound?
This is a lot trickier! First of all, if you are just running the sound through your TV speakers there isn’t going to be much difference. You need a separate sound system to really appreciate Blu-ray’s fine sound.
There are several lossless sound formats available and older receivers, and even many current ones do not support these new sound formats. Not all of the players support them, either. I’ll start with the different surround formats, and then explain what equipment you need to experience them at home.
PCM, LPCM: These are the same thing. Some studios call it PCM, for Pulse Code Modulation, a lossless method of digital recording. LPCM stands for Linear PCM. Sometimes you will see “20 bit LPCM” or “24-bit LPCM” on the disc cases. The more bits, the higher the resolution and the better the sound. To experience lossless PCM sound you need a receiver with an HDMI input capable of receiving multichannel PCM, or a Blu-ray player with multichannel analog outputs and a receiver with multichannel inputs. If your receiver has an HDMI input the player will send the audio over the HDMI cable and the receiver will amplify the sound and send it to the speakers.
If you are using the analog outputs, the player will convert the PCM sound to analog and send the high-resolution sound from its analog connections to the receiver’s analog inputs. In this case the surround settings are set on the player and the receiver is just a volume control and an amplifier.
Dolby TrueHD: This format uses lossless compression so the audio information takes up less space on the disc than a PCM file, but no sound quality is lost in the compression process. There are several ways to experience lossless sound from Dolby TrueHD. The first is with a receiver with an HDMI input capable of receiving multichannel PCM, and a Blu-ray player that can decode Dolby TrueHD and convert it to PCM. The player will decode the Dolby TrueHD, convert it to PCM and send it via HDMI to the receiver for playback. The PlayStation 3 is an example of player that uses internal TrueHD decoding and an LPCM output via HDMI.
The second way is with Blu-ray player with TrueHD decoding through multichannel analog outputs and a receiver with multichannel inputs. If you are using the analog outputs, the player will decode the TrueHD, convert it to analog, then send the high-resolution sound from its analog connections to the receiver’s analog inputs. In this case the surround settings are set on the player and receiver is just a volume control and an amplifier.
The third way is via “bitstreaming.” Bitstreaming takes the digital data from the disc and transfers it via HDMI to a receiver with a built-in Dolby TrueHD decoder. The receiver decodes the TrueHD and powers the speakers. According to many who have tried all three methods, bitstreaming is the best possible way to reproduce TrueHD.
DTS-HD: DTS-HD consists of two streams: a “core” with a high-resolution (but lossy) DTS track and a DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) track. The MA track is a lossless track capable of duplicating the studio master tape. At the time of publication no players with internal DTS-HD decoding exist so the only way to reproduce the lossless DTS-HD MA track is with a player capable of bitstreaming the information and a receiver with DTS-HD decoding. The major studios currently using DTS-HD are 20th Century Fox and New Line Cinema.
Dolby Digital Plus: Improved Lossy Sound
Many Blu-ray Discs have Dolby Digital Plus, an improved version of Dolby Digital. While it isn’t lossless, the sound quality is noticeably better than standard Dolby Digital soundtracks.
Blu-ray players conform to one of three profiles, each having different capabilities.
Profile 1.0 players simply play the movie. This is called the “grace period profile.”
Profile 1.1 players play the movie and have picture-in-picture capabilities via secondary picture and audio decoders. The picture-in-picture feature is called “Bonus View” and the profile is called “Final Standard Profile.” All Blu-ray players announced from the present onwards must conform to at least profile 1.1.
Profile 2.0 players play the movie, support Bonus View and provide an Internet connection for Web interactivity.
Will I need a Blu-ray player and a DVD player if I have DVDs?
All Blu-ray players will play DVDs and upconvert them to high-definition resolutions, if not high-definition quality. Upconverting quality varies widely by Blu-ray player so if you have an upconverting DVD player, use the same DVD in both your Blu-ray player and your DVD player and compare the picture quality. You may want to keep both hooked up, or simply use the Blu-ray player for all your playback needs.
Firmware updates are software updates for your player’s operating system. Firmware is updated either by web (Samsung BD-P1400 and Sony PlayStation 3) or via CD (all others.) To update via CD you must visit the manufacturer’s website, download the firmware file and burn it to a disc. Be sure to follow all instructions when burning firmware discs! As Blu-ray is a new and evolving format, using the most recent firmware is critical for best performance so be sure to register your purchase so you are notified when updates are available and check the manufacturer’s website frequently for new releases.
Recommended Blu-ray Players
There has been a lot of info provided thus far. Now it’s time to put it together, starting with a player! This list will be edited and updated as new players are introduced and tested.
Sony PlayStation 3 (40GB) $399: I am listing the PlayStation 3 (PS3) separately because not only is it the best Blu-ray player currently available, it is truly a breed apart.
What makes the PS3 the best Blu-ray player? It has extremely powerful processors that make loading times fast and BD-Java compatibility a breeze, it is extremely responsive, and firmware is easily updated automatically and wirelessly. It can also surf the web with a built-in web browser and works as a multimedia center and can display digital pictures and play music from its internal hard drive. It supports profile 1.1 now and will support profile 2.0 with an announced firmware update, so it is future-proof.
Oh, yeah, and it plays games too! It is easy to forget that, sometimes!
A Blu-ray Disc remote is available for $24.99, making a complete PS3 Blu-ray outfit a mere $425… a bargain for a future-proof profile 2.0 player that is rock-solid reliable. If you don’t like the idea of using a “game machine” (which the PS3 admittedly is) in your home theater, try to think of it as a multimedia entertainment system instead.
The big downside to the PS3 is it doesn’t support bitstreaming of Dolby TrueHD or DTS-MA (and never will due to hardware limitations) so you can’t currently use it to experience all of the lossless sound formats. Because it will never bitstream in its current form if you have a receiver that supports TrueHD or DTS-MA you can’t use it in the superior bitstream mode- only PCM. A firmware update to allow the PS3 to decode DTS-HD MA and output LPCM has been rumored, but not yet announced.
In short- at $399, the PS3 is not only the best Blu-ray player you can buy but one of the least expensive, as well.
A profile 1.0 player may get the movie on your screen but if you can get a PS3 for only $100 more, you are much better off getting a PS3. Unless it is being sold at a super-bargain price (under $300) or included for free with purchase of an HDTV, I recommend you avoid profile 1.0 players and look to the PS3 or a profile 1.1 model. The following players could be a good buy if the price is right but unless it is well under $300 you are really better off looking elsewhere. Because of this I have not listed suggested retail prices for these players- if it isn’t under $300, stay away.
Samsung BD-P1400: A word of warning: with this player you really need to watch the firmware updates as there have been problems playing certain discs (mostly Fox titles) on Samsung players. The BD-P1400 has an Ethernet port for firmware update via web, which makes it much easier than burning a disc. Audio support is excellent. The BD-P1400 can decode Dolby TrueHD to LPCM, bitstream Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA, and the analog outputs can provide lossless sound from PCM and Dolby TrueHD. No DTS-HD MA from the analog outputs, though.
Sony BDP-S300: Load times are slow but playback is reliable. Lack of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD support make this player best suited to setups without a sound system… in other words, just a TV and the player.
Sharp BD-HP20U: This player has reliable playback of Blu-ray movies but performance with DVDs is subpar, as is audio format support. Like the BDP-S300, this player is best used in systems comprised of a TV and a player.
Panasonic DMP-BD30 ($499): Panasonic’s Blu-ray players have proven to be extremely reliable and the BD30 offers loading times second only to the PS3. The BD30 has multichannel audio outputs for lossless sound from Dolby TrueHD and PCM/LPCM.
If Web interactivity isn’t important to you but sound quality is, the bitstream-capable BD30 and a receiver capable of decoding Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD is currently your best option and one of the only ways to experience both TrueHD and DTS-HD MA.
Panasonic DMP-BD50: Panasonic’s DMP-BD50 is essentially a BD30 with the addition of BD-Live capability. It will be available in the second quarter of 2008. Though it has yet to be tested the fine performance of Panasonic’s BD30 makes it a safe recommendation.
Recommended Blu-ray Movie Retailers
Blu-ray movies are much more expensive than their DVD equivalents if you buy them in stores. I strongly recommend you purchase your movies online from Amazon, where they typically cost $10-$15 less per movie. There’s a big difference between $21.95 and $34.95, both financially and perceptually! Keep your eyes open for online sales, too.
Recommended Blu-ray Movies
This list is by no means comprehensive- just some great titles to get your started with Blu-ray and show you what it can do.
20th Century Fox: Some of the earlier Fox titles use MPEG2, an older video encoding process. Recent titles use the more modern AVC encoding and top-notch jobs of film transfer, leading to stunning picture quality. Fox uses DTS-HD for lossless audio. Fox promises to release a great many new titles in 2008, including Patton, one of the best war movies ever made.
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer: Dramatic action sequences both on Earth and in deep space show what a difference Blu-ray can make in your system. This disc features a near-perfect film transfer with tremendous detail and bright yet realistic color. Be sure to check out the great documentary features, including interviews with comic book artists and writers.
The Simpsons Movie: A must-have for Simpsons fans!
Disney: Many believe Disney to be the finest studio in the high-definition disc business, consistently producing top-quality audio and video and some of the neatest menus and interactive features available. Disney movies should be in your hand when you are in the checkout line with your Blu-ray player. Disney uses 24-bit LPCM on almost all of their titles.
Cars: On a good system this movie looks almost 3-dimensional as the cars race around the track- it’s like there are models racing around inside your TV and you are watching through a clear window. Features interactive Car Finder game.
Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2, and 3: Reference-quality audio and video and a blend of action, reality and fantasy make the Pirates series some of the best films available on Blu-ray.
New Line Cinema
Hairspray: Hairspray has a great story and quirky, interesting and likeable characters throughout. The film bursts with energy, featuring great choreography and music.
Sony Pictures: As a primary creator of the Blu-ray Disc format, Sony’s support has been strong. LPCM is the most commonly used lossless audio format and is featured on almost every Sony Pictures title.
Casino Royale: Spectacular film transfer with deep, rich color and detail that makes you feel like you are there in the middle of the action. Tons of shameless Sony product placement in this one- look for the Sony phone and Sony Blu-ray Disc player!
The Life of Brian: Monty Python’s classic looks great in HD. You may find the falling-blocks menu neat or annoying, depending on how you like gimmicks. This title has great-looking menus, too. Features both Dolby TrueHD and LPCM lossless audio.
Warner Bros.: The most prolific studio in high definition, Warner produces more titles on Blu-ray than anyone else. LPCM and Dolby TrueHD are both used.
300: Though liberties are taken with historical accuracy regarding the Spartans and the battle of Thermopylae, this film is a triumphant merging of CGI and live action and will keep you on the edge of your seat. Make sure you have the stomach for lots of gore. Features both TrueHD and LPCM soundtracks.
2001: A Space Odyssey: Kubrick’s sci-fi classic is a perfect example of how good classic movies can look in high definition. With a good TV you can read the writing on the instructions for the zero-gravity toilet! 24-bit LPCM sound.
Blade Runner: Beautifully restored print of this sci-fi classic looks almost 3-dimensional with a tremendous sense of depth. Director’s cut features an ending different than the happier original. Dolby TrueHD sound.
Harry Potter (all titles): Harry Potter’s fantasy world is perfect for HD. What more needs to be said? LPCM sound.
Planet Earth: This BBC documentary series is probably the best nature series ever made and an absolute must-have. Iimagery is powerful, magnificent, featuring vistas that are almost, well, unworldly as you see sights you never knew existed on our planet.
Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures have recently announced Blu-ray support and are expected to release titles by mid-2008.
Appendix: Upgrading your sound system
As a final note, now that you are ready to embrace Blu-ray you may want to upgrade your sound system to make the most of it. Below are some of the best values available in speakers and receivers. All of them feature class-leading performance in their price range and are sure to satisfy anyone looking for great sound for TV, movies and music. Add your Blu-ray player and you’re all set for fantastic home theater!
Great speakers are the key to a great sounding audio system. Truly good ones will sound great no matter what you play through them… classical or rock music, action movies, sports on TV, vinyl records or CDs. This is by far the most important part of your sound system and worthy of serious investment, if you have the means. Listed here are some easily affordable options sure to make you smile.
Insignia NS-B2111 $87.98/pair
Sold exclusively at Best Buy, these speakers have crisp, clean sound that is also warm and full-sounding. I never thought I would recommend a speaker selling for under $100 per pair as suitable for use in a quality sound system… yet here I am doing exactly that. Two pairs of these and an entry-level Onkyo receiver make for an excellent-sounding four channel surround system that will blow the doors off of most any home-theater in-a-box system. They are not magnetically shielded so you can’t put them too close to a tube-type TV. Listing for $87.98, they are often on sale for $75 or less.
Acculine $249/pair and up
What makes Acculine speakers special is their leaf tweeters, typically found only in very expensive, exotic speakers. These tweeters must be heard to be appreciated, as they render sound so transparently and with so much detail that I liken it to a sonic version of the visual difference between HDTV and analog TV-they are really that good! I imagine a lot of new owners will turn their heads in disbelief as they hear sounds in their recordings they never knew existed. They speakers are very well made, with solid cabinets with high quality aluminum woofers.
To show Acculine’s extreme value equation, we will build two Acculine 5.1 channel systems. The Acculine A1s are $249 per pair with two pairs required, one for mains and one for surrounds. This comes to $498. The A-2 Center Channel is $179 and the Acculine ASub is $289. This gets you a top performing home theater speaker system using exotic technology for only $966. That’s pretty incredible!
The second Acculine system mimics the one above, but uses Acculine A3 towers as main speakers. The A3s are $499 per pair, a $250 difference which brings the total to $1216. This is equally incredible for a high quality system using tower speakers.