Blu ray. To take the plunge or not + HDMI spec.

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Should I go out and spend my hard earnt cash on a Blu ray player?

Remember all those years ago the war between VHS and Betamax? The latter was (arguably) the better system but due to several factors (length of time on a tape, corporate pressure...) Betamax died a death & we all ended up with VHS video recorders. With the recent high definition disc war over and Toshiba's HD-DVD dead you might think the answer is cut & dry - but is it?


Blu-ray is still in its infancy & development is still ongoing. Many users report problems with various players. The use of Java (BD-J) to control interactive menus & other "value added" content continues to be problematic with content sometimes taking an age to load and (at worst) causing certain players to lock up. As the spec of the disc themselves continues to be tweaked certainly be wary of buying older Blu ray players as these may not be able to access all of the content on new & future releases. There's some "techy" stuff about this at the bottom of the guide.

There are the other considerations of  what you're hooking a Blu ray player up to:


Picture: If you don't have an HD telly there's obviously no point. If you do check whether it's "full HD" or "HD ready" as this can mean different resolutions: either 720 or 1080. I've seen HD tellies of both resolutions playing the same 1080 HD source material & whilst there is a difference in quality, frankly it's only a gnats whisker & you have to really look hard to notice it!! You really want to be connecting the player to your HD telly using an HDMI cable. Unlike analogue cables (such as Scart, S-video, coaxial etc...) these transfer digital information (1's and 0s) and there is no advantage whatsoever in paying for thicker or gold cables. You'll get exactly the same quality from a cheap & cheerful cable.


Sound: Now this can get tricky. First let's look at what sort of setups you might have with a normal DVD player. Common-all-garden DVDs typically use a 5.1 soundtrack (Dolby Digital or DTS) and the players either have a built in decoder (for one or both) or spit the raw information down a (coaxial or optical) cable to your surround amplifier. Alternatively a simple stereo soundtrack is sent to your telly through the Scart lead.

Blu-ray discs can support several different types of enhanced soundtracks in up to 7.1 including Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD High Resolution Audio, DTS-HD Master Audio and even full multi-channel uncompressed sound..

Not all players support all formats, some decode on-board & some are capable of spitting the raw info out to a decoder in an amplifier. Raw Dolby Digital & DTS data can be sent to an amp in three ways - either by coaxial, optical but digital audio can also be sent through your HDMI cable.

The HD soundtracks can only be sent digitally by HDMI 1.3 (and above) - see techy stuff below (optical & coax don't allow for the necessary bandwidth) or by analogue - ie: a bundle of normal phono leads. So... choose your player carefully if you want top notch sound in all possible formats.

Add in to the equation that as well as not all Blu-ray players supporting all of the new audio formats, not all amps do either so there's another careful & informed choice you have to make - some amps only offer video switching by HDMI & not audio. The bottom line is that in order to get top notch sound you're probably gong to have to splash out upwards of a few hundred quid (or more than a few if you really want top spec equipment!!) on upgrading your amp & speakers too. Rule of thumb - what your chosen player decodes internally, your amp doesn't need to. Likewise; what your amp decodes, your player doesn't need to but must be able to support external decoding of that particular format. 

There's a handy comparison table of what the most common Blu-ray players support (either on-board or externally) at www.idoblu.co.uk 

The current front runners (at Nov 08) seem to be:

  • Sony BDP-S350
  • Sony BDP-S550
  • Samsung BD-P2550
  • Panasonic DMP-BD50
  • Panasonic DMP-BD55
  • Sharp BD-HP50U
As a rough guide the Sony S350 is currently £250 in the shops. they're going on here for upto £200 but not everything on Ebay's a bargain: that player can be bought from Richer Sounds for £170.

Cost of hardware: This is mainly what's caused me to write this guide. At the time of writing it's November 2008. As I already own an HD telly, with Christmas coming up the thought of upgrading crossed my mind. Now, despite having to upgrade the amp & speakers (which can be done at a later date) to get a Blu-ray player that supports all audio formats is going to cost a fair bit. Cost of course is relative. To some a couple of hundred quid is peanuts but for the majority of us it's a sizeable chunk of cash.

Most of us realise that there is never a good time to buy technology. There is always something faster, better, smaller, cheaper just over the horizon. If buying a top notch player & all the other ancillary kit to get the best from it is something you can afford & you just want it anyway then who am I to tell you otherwise. I have the telly but at current prices I'd need to be spending upwards of a grand to get the rest of what I want. For me - unaffordable. Then, of course, the player just sitting there looking pretty is no darn good so you're going to want some films to watch on it - costing another tidy bundle of your hard earnt cash!

Region encoding: Most of you will know about this on normal DVDs. Region 1 is USA, Region 2 is Europe etc... but for most players this is easy to bypass. Blu-ray players are also region locked. In short, Region A is USA, Region B is Europe and it's not so easy to bypass unless you're a dab hand with a soldering iron! There is news filtering through of region free players cropping up abroad (for lots of pennies!) but for now be very careful to check which region a player is before buying. You're going to be safe on this one on the high street but beware of apparent bargains on here from Asia & the US as you may well find that (after trotting down to HMV) your UK films won't play! Saying that, there are many discs that (although not labelled Region B) actually are region free. There's a list of these at http://bluray.liesinc.net/

Edit: I eventually found the player I wanted with a big bundle of films included. I knew the spec of the players & it was really just by luck that I happened to be browsing Ebay at the right time!

My advice: Unless you figure out exactly what spec you want or need from a player (including how future-proof it is against format tweaks) and you then manage to grab a bargain I'm of a mind to recommend waiting six to twelve months until the spec of the platform has stabilized & prices have come down.

The alternative: If you have an HD telly and a (Dolby Digital/DTS) surround amplifier there are DVD players on the market that "upscale" the picture. These players have a clever bit of stuff built in that fills in the blanks on your normal DVDs and sends a high def picture to your telly through an HDMI cable. The Gadget Show on Ch5 did a blind comparison test of Blu-ray against upscaled DVD recently which confirmed the following: Whilst not up to true HD quality (you can't trully put in what wasn't there in the first place) the results are, none-the-less, quite impressive. It means you get to see much improved picture quality from your existing DVD collection. The cost of these players? About fifty quid. So they're worth considering as a stop-gap.

Some techy stuff about blu-ray specification:

Players are currently available specified to one of three "profiles" and four basic HDMI specs as follows:

Profile 1.0: 64 KB of built in persistent memory required, no additional persistent memory capability required, no Virtual Package support for persistent memory required, no outlining support for text based subtitles required, no PiP decoding required, no secondary audio decoding required

Bonus View (profile 1.1): 64 KB of built in persistent memory required, 256 MB of persistent memory capability required, Virtual Package support for persistent memory is required, outlining support for text based subtitles is required, PiP decoding is required, secondary audio decoding is required

BD-Live (profile 2 - newest): 64 KB of built in persistent memory required, 1 GB of persistent memory capability required, Virtual Package support for persistent memory is required, outlining support for text based subtitles is required, PiP decoding is required, secondary audio decoding is required, internet capability is required

Then there's - HDMI, the cable used to hook your player up to your telly & potentially your amp too. This way of transferring data has been "tweaked" several times too:

HDMI version 1.0 was first introduced back in December of '02 and enabled one-wire transmission of audio and video. HDMI advantages over analog A/V interfaces include its uncompressed, digital transmission of HD video, digital audio and control signals between components. Combining audio and video on one cable allows the HDMI format to be a convenient connection solution to help eliminate the usual glut of analog home entertainment system cables.

HDMI version 1.1 in May of 2004 was a minor update to allow for content protection (copyguard) for DVD audio.

HDMI version 1.2 was released in August of 2005 which allowed for One Bit Audio support which is used for Super Audio CDs (SACD) with allowance for up to eight channels of digital audio.

HDMI version 1.2a updated the format to specify command sets to allow for Consumer Electronic Control which allows HDMI devices to communicate with each other.

HDMI version 1.3 (newest) increased the bandwidth capability to 340MHz or 10.2Gbps. Basically 1.3 can handle data transfer for today's devices and allows for future HD formats. 1.3 supports Deep Color of billions of colors (as opposed to the millions currently in use by today's devices). Other significant improvements include the allowance for lossless audio decoding by capable A/V receivers of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD codec data streams. HDMI 1.3a also allows for miniature connectors for connection to devices such as camcorders.

Edit:

HDMI version 1.4 (rolling out soon) adds Ethernet connectivity, 3-D capability by allowing two simultaneous 1080p signals using one connection, audio return channel, a new "micro" connector, 4Kx2K Resolution Support: Although the current high definition standard for consumer equipment tops out at 1920x1080 (1080p), HDMI 1.4 can accommodate future 3840x2160 and 4096x2160 high definition pixel resolutions now in the planning stages.

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