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Home Entertainment Blog Archive

Brought to you by your friendly, opinionated, Home Entertainment and Technology writer, Stephen Dawson

Here I report, discuss, whinge or argue on matters related to high fidelity, home entertainment equipment and the discs and signals that feed them. Since this Blog is hand-coded (I like TextPad), there are no comments facilities. But feel free to email me at scdawson [at] hifi-writer.com. I will try to respond, either personally or by posting here emails I consider of interest. I shall assume that emails sent to me here can be freely posted by me unless you state otherwise.

This archive is for an uncertain period commencing Thursday, 3 January 2008

Yes, HD DVD is dead - Tuesday, 19 February 2008, 10:19 pm

Well, so that's it for HD DVD. Just Google News on HD DVD, and you will see that its demise is official.

Of course, it's only Toshiba abandoning the format, but without Toshiba the format is nothing.

Interesting parallels: Betamax was the first to market in the US, but it lost out to VHS. HD-DVD was the first to market in the US, but it lost out to Blu-ray.

Betamax had a lower capacity than VHS (ie. a shorter recording time). HD-DVD has a smaller capacity than Blu-ray (15GB vs 25GB for single layer. But, to be fair, Toshiba did suggest the introduction of a 51GB triple layer HD DVD, which would be bigger than the 50GB dual layer BD).

And those parallels are, of course, meaningless. Two vaguely comparable incidents in a thirty year period are not something upon which one ought to hang a trend.

Is HD DVD dead? - Sunday, 17 February 2008, 10:19 pm

A couple of decades ago I read a slim volume called 'The Limits to Prediction' (I think, or something like that), which presented half a dozen papers on the art of predicting future events, and the success that was achieved. Sadly, all but one of the papers reported very low levels of correctness in predictions.

So I should have known better than to try my own hand at predicting the future. In the struggle between Blu-ray and HD DVD, I predicted, either both would succeed, or both would fail. I expected hybrid players to make the disc format irrelevant. Despite the recent announcement by Warner Bros that it would be going exclusively to Blu-ray, I expected that the supporters of HD DVD would be stubborn enough to keep it going for quite a bit longer.

But now quite a few news outlets are reporting that Toshiba will be abandoning HD DVD later in the year. I am seeking confirmation from Toshiba, so this is yet to be confirmed.

Still, if it is true, then that would suggest that all my predications were incorrect!

The question of what one does with one's HD DVDs will require some answering. Will there be a 'swap' option to Blu-ray? If the reports are correct and HD DVD will soon be out of the running, this should increase the likelihood of a HD format succeeding, since there will be less consumer confusion. But given my past predictions, perhaps you ought to ignore that last sentence.

Another example of lousy 576i deinterlacing - Sunday, 17 February 2008, 10:12 pm

Top, good deinterlacing, bottom: lousyI'm reviewing a high definition digital TV receiver/PVR that, like most of them, doesn't have the ability to output 576i over HDMI, nor to perform decent deinterlacing of it.

To confirm my suspicions I took some photos. Having taken them, I thought I might as well put them here.

Top is taken from the score box displayed during a cricket match, output over HDMI at 576p by HD PVR, but reprocessed by an iScan VP50Pro to turn it back into 576i and then deinterlace and scale it properly. Bottom is the same score, but without the benefit of the reprocessing. These kind of differences writ large over a full projection screen make a significant difference to the picture quality.

New formats always lead to troubles - Sunday, 17 February 2008, 9:55 pm

When the DVD was first introduced, some of the early discs were released in pan and scan 4:3 format. There was outrage from quite a few enthusiasts, who wanted to see movies in their original aspect ratios, a position with which I sympathise.

But, of course, DVD manufacturers had to make a guess as to which format would sell best, so I'm not and was never outraged about the choices they made. At least as far as that goes. Non-anamorphic letterboxed widescreen is a different matter, and should never ever be used for a DVD.

What I found interesting was a remark on an IMDB message board from a commenter called 'aventer-1'. The commenter claims to have been a film projectionist back at the time that widescreen movies were being introduced into cinemas. From what he says, it seems that films were rarely ever shown the way the director intended. It's well worth a read.

Firmware - it has advantages, and disadvantages - Friday, 8 February 2008, 11:05 pm

One of the interesting side effects of digital home entertainment equipment is that products are no longer set in concrete. It used to be that you'd buy some gadget or other and what you purchased you were stuck with. If there were things you didn't like about it, then you simply had to cope, or sell the item off and buy something else.

But these days the operating logic of much home entertainment equipment resides in (I think) EPROM (electronically programmable read only memory, although they may simply use some form of flash memory these days). So your device is no longer static, but can improve over time -- if you install the firmware updates.

Take, for example, the Samsung BDP-P1400 Blu-ray player. This is remarkably cheap for a Blu-ray player ($769 RRP in Australia), yet it can deliver 1080p24 and all the different audio standards as bitstreams over HDMI. It has worked well on the eight or ten Blu-ray discs I've used it with.

Except that at 1080p24 it skipped the odd frame, seemingly randomly. Sometimes you'd go twenty minutes without any problems, but then you'd have a jerk in the video happen several times within a few minutes.

So I upgraded the firmware. With the Samsung you can plug it into your home network and have it do the upgrade itself, or you can download the new firmware from Samsung, burn it to a CD and load it that way. I actually did both.

When I had finished, the jerk had gone away. Samsung had corrected it with programming improved firmware.

This kind of thing happens with most new generation digital devices. Toshiba regularly issues updates for its HD DVD players. I recently reviewed a Sony Blu-ray player and for it to work properly with some discs, it also needed a firmware update. Ditto for Pioneer. Also for many digital TV receivers and personal video recorders. I've even done it with three different DVD players.

Disadvantages? Well, there must be a temptation to get products out the door sooner, before they are fully debugged, since they can fix them as time goes on.

Macro blocking - Monday, 4 February 2008, 9:47 am

In the last item on the HD cricket broadcast I referred to the appearance of MPEG macro blocking in the picture from time to time. So what is macro blocking?

I don't pretend to fully understand the maths behind it, but MPEG2 video encoders do work in blocks of data (typically 16 by 16 pixels) as an intermediate compression step. When something doesn't work too well in either encoding or decoding, the 16 by 16 pixel blocks remain to some degree visible on screen. It most commonly occurs during fast action, or subtle moving surfaces, such as video of rippling water.

So that you can easily recognise it, below is a frame taken from the same cricket broadcast. Note, that the picture was not continuously so afflicted. But this did flash up from time to time, generally during very fast and complex scenes (there was quite a bit near the start when the camera was panning over the crowd).

The top part of the picture is the full frame, scaled down to fit on this page. Despite that scaling down, the macro blocking is still clearly visible. The bottom part zooms is simply Adam Gilchrist's face cropped out of the top picture, but this time not scaled. You can see how obvious the problem looks. Note, it is complicated a bit by the fact that the video of the cricket was 1080i -- that is, interlaced, so that there are actually two sets of blocks.

Macro blocking revealed

Cricket finally makes it to high definition! - Saturday, 2 February 2008, 12:13 am

Full frame comparison, HD top, SD bottom At long last the first cricket match to be delivered in high definition in Australia was broadcast. This was the 20/20 match between Australia and India, played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Australia won handsomely.

Let us have a brief look at how these compared. First there are the full frames: HD at the top, SD at the bottom. You will notice that for some reason the SD picture is cropped a little to the left and right, whereas the HD picture extends to the extreme left and right of the frame.

But how does the picture stack up in an overall sense?

First, there was a fair bit of MPEG macro blocking from time to time on the HD picture. In comparable places in the SD picture, there was none. This tended to occur during extremely complex scenes (such as horizontal pans across the crowd, and during a strobe light sequence while the band was playing between innings.) I did notice one severe example during a replay of a closeup of a player running fast.

Aside from that, the HD image was much, much better. Mind you, I was watching this with a front projector (the new Sony VPL-VW200, LCoS, full HD - it still isn't on Sony Australia's website). The whole thing was much easier on the eye, with excellent detail. In the closeups to follow, you might see a little MPEG noise. This wasn't noticable on screen. Basically, the picture just seemed more coherent, hiding the parts of which it was composed, unlike the SD image which made it clear that this was a slightly blotchy capture of something happening far away.

Now let us look in more detail at just one detail.

A closeup of the cricket, HD left, SD right This is a zoomed in detail showing the Indian cricketer at the left hand end of the wicket near the stumps.

You will see that on the left side (from the high definition image) that he is looking down the pitch. On the right side it is impossible to see what he is doing. In fact, if anything, it looks like he is facing towards the camera. Obviously the other details are also far sharper in the HD image.

By the way, in creating these pictures, I imported digital recordings from a Beyonwiz DP-P1 HD PVR directly into my computer via the network. I found comparable frames in the HD and SD versions. I copied those frames into Photoshop. Then I deinterlaced both of them using even fields and interpolation. I then scaled the SD version from 1,024 by 576 pixels up to 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, since this is what a HD display device would do.

For these details, I cropped down to the relevant details and then doubled the size of them to make them easier to see on screen. If you want to do closer comparisons yourself, the two original frames (except that the SD has been scaled up in size and both have been deinterlaced) are here for the SD, and here for the HD. These are about 400kB each.

The first hints of region free Blu-ray? - Monday, 21 January 2008, 9:49 pm

When I took receipt today of a review Pioneer BDP-LX70A Blu-ray player, it still had firmware 3.0 installed. This lead to a previously mentioned problem with Die Hard 4.0. I tried to update the firmware over Ethernet using the built in function, but the unit claimed that it was already using the most up to date firmware.

So I downloaded the latest firmware (v.3.2) from the Pioneer UK website and installed this, dealing with this problem.

In searching this down, I stumbled across the website for Stegen Electronics which, amazingly, offers a modification kit for the BDP-LX70A to make it kind of region free. By 'kind of', it apparently offers switching between DVD regions 1 and 2, and between Blu-ray regions A and B. The kit includes a hardware addition in the form of a logic board and chip which have to be physically added to the unit.

All this brings back ancient memories. These days the only people who take DVD region codes seriously are the film studios and their distributors. In Australia, most DVD players come already region free, or are easily made that way by running a firmware upgrade (sometimes available from the manufacturer) or entering a remote control code. But back when DVD players were first introduced, everyone took them seriously.

My first DVD player was a Sony DVP-S725, then a high end unit. To make it region free required a similar hardware modification.

Could the availability of such a hardware modification for the Pioneer herald a similar path for Blu-ray? I hope so.

In the meantime, if you are considering such a modification, remember it will probably void your warranty.

Also, similar modifications are available for the Sony BDP-S300 and Sony BDP-S500 Blu-ray players at the same site (these are heavily based on the Pioneer unit).

Kerthump! - Monday, 21 January 2008, 10:20 am

I'm checking out the audio decoding capabilities of the Pioneer BDP-LX70A Blu-ray player and the Yamaha RX-V1800 home theatre receiver. To help me I have Dolby Laboratories' Blu-ray demo disc, 'The Sounds of High Definition'. After I had done my checks, using specific tracks, I just left it running while I was writing something. After a while I Waveform of Pulse on Dolby Blu-ray disc noticed a series of powerful thumps that didn't seem to relate to the music (a bit of light Mozart) that was playing. This was during selection 3 of the Dolby Digital Plus demo material, entitled 'Elements: Air, Earth, Snow, Water'. It was at the start of the 'Snow' section (about 1:20 into this selection).

I went closer and had a look at the subwoofer I am using this week, the REL R-305, which didn't have its grille on. The driver was pushing huge amounts of air, visibly displacing by a centimetre or so, and then tailing off slowly. The sub happened to be plugged into my power meter, which was flicking to 50 or 60 watts during these pulses. So of course I measured the LFE signal by plugging the receiver's LFE output into my computer.

The top part of the graphic shows all nine of the pulses, while the bottom part zooms in on the third pulse. Fundamental frequency: 11.7 hertz!

Why is this there? Is it a 'heart beat'? Or a mistake?

Dirty Disc and HD DVD error codes - Saturday, 19 January 2008, 11:34 am

The other day Paramount sent me the HD DVD of Stardust, all nicely shrink-wrapped. I hadn't really heard of this movie, so quick lookup on IMDB was encouraging, since it scores 8.1 out of 10 from over 36,000 voters.

Last night I started to watch it with one of my daughters. And the Toshiba HD-E1 HD DVD player was playing up. It stopped play a couple of minutes into the movie, showing an error code. I switched the unit off (holding down the power key for ten seconds) and then started it up again. It froze with the 'Welcome' message on the screen, before even attempting to read the disc.

This had been happening several months ago, but had stopped when I upgraded the unit's firmware to 2.7. So I closed it down again and started it up again by pressing the 'Open' key to make sure the disc wouldn't be read.

Then I did an 'Initialise' in the player's setup menu, had it check that the firmware was up to date, made suitable settings again, checked that the persistent storage was empty and tried playing the disc again. This time the player displayed error code 408bc00d before even getting to the main menu. I closed down the player again (another ten seconds on the power button) and started it up. Then the player worked properly.

The movie was very enjoyable, until about 55 minutes into it the sound started dropping out and the picture stuttered in an unwatchable way. So I did a few more restarts and still the problems persisted. I took out the disc and watched the last couple of episodes of season one of 'Star Trek' on HD DVD, finally completing this ten disc epic.

Only then did I examine the Stardust disc. When a DVD plays up about halfway through the movie, it's a fair bet that there are some finger marks or dirt on the playing surface near the disc's edge. Dual layer discs generally play from the centre to the edge and then back in towards the centre again. I know this, and since Startdust is longish, it was also a fair bet that the HD DVD was dual layer.

But it was fresh out of a shrink-wrapped box! That's why I had lightly dismissed this possibility. Still, I checked. And, sure enough, there were three separate gooey splotches on the surface near the outer edge. A bit of metho and a soft tissue, and these were gone. Then the disc played flawlessly.

But how did the dirt get there in the first place?

Confusion on channels - Monday, 14 January 2008, 5:07 pm

Oh wow, this is confusing. HDMI devices talk to each other, but what are they actually saying?

As mentioned in the last item, I've been working on a roundup of all HD disc players. One of these is the Panasonic DMP-BD10A, now priced at just $1,099. I have been drilling down into what capabilities the various audio decoders of each player have and, in my initial draft, I accused the Panasonic of only decoding Dolby TrueHD to 5.1 channels, even if the source was 7.1 channels. But there were two things that made me hold back. First I had this niggling suspicion I had previously checked this and that it did 7.1 channels okay. The second was that it didn't make much sense for the Panasonic to have 7.1 channel analogue outputs if it couldn't decode to 7.1 channels.

So I asked Panasonic and it, in turn, was surprised about my discovery. So I decided to explore further, using the Dolby Laboratories 'Sound of High Definition' test Blu-ray disc.

I double checked the settings on the player (Dolby Digital Plus & Dolby TrueHD both set to PCM out). Then I played it. With DD+ the 7.1 tracks seemed to be coming through fine, with my Yamaha RX-V1800B reporting on its signal info screen a format of PCM, sampling of 48kHz and channels of 3/4/0.1. Perfect. But the TrueHD tracks I was playing were reported as PCM, 96kHz and 3/2/0.1 - ie. 5.1 channels.

Then I remembered that there are also 'Channel Check' tracks on this Blu-ray disc, so I went to those and played the TrueHD 7.1 trailer and the TrueHD 7.1 channel check. Both of these were reported by the Yamaha as PCM, 48kHz, 3/4/0.1.

So, I thought, I have it nailed down! The Panasonic, I figured, can't cope with high sampling frequencies and 7.1 channels at the same time, so if the sampling frequency is 96kHz it switches back to 5.1 channel downmixing. But if it's only 48kHz, then the unit will produce the full 7.1 channels. Or so I thought.

Now I've been using a DVDO iScan VP50Pro video processor for the last several months. This does wonderful stuff, such as converting the 1080i output of my Toshiba HD DVD player to 1080p24, and fixing the lousy deinterlacing in some source devices. But it has been a bit buggy (they're working on it), and in particular, despite featuring HDMI 1.3 connections, it won't pass through bitstreams of DTS-HD, Dolby TrueHD or Dolby Digital Plus in undecoded format (nor, for that matter, SACD). So having, I thought, resolved that issue I figured I'd try running the Panasonic multichannel PCM output through it to see if it passed through okay.

By golly, not only did it pass through the multichannel PCM at 48kHz in 7.1 channels, suddenly the 96kHz 7.1 channel material started appearing from the Panasonic player!

A new theory: the Panasonic was misunderstanding the capabilities of the Yamaha receiver -- or the latter was sending the wrong information down the HDMI cable -- causing the Panasonic to downmix 96kHz 7.1 material to 5.1.

That theory didn't last long either. After the disc had looped through a couple of times, the 96kHz 7.1 track began reverting to 5.1 channels again, just as it had with the direct connection between the Panasonic and the Yamaha. I switched everything off and on again and I was getting 7.1 channels again ... for a while, then it went back to 5.1 channels. More switching on and off. This time, 5.1 channels only. Do it all again, and it's 7.1. It was kind of random. I gave up.

The ways of HDMI are indeed mysterious. I shan't be able to resolve this until I get ahold of another Blu-ray player with 7.1 channel Dolby TrueHD decoding.

UPDATE (Monday, 21 January 2008, 9:37 am): I've just plugged in a Pioneer BDP-LX70A Blu-ray player. Same behaviour on multichannel decoding as with the Panasonic player. That is, the player converts 96kHz 7.1 channel Dolby TrueHD tracks to 5.1 channels.

The Pioneer is capable of delivering all four of the new audio standards as bitstreams, so I can get 7.1 channel TrueHD at 96kHz that way, thanks to the Yamaha's internal decoding of these bitstreams.

UPDATE 2 (Wednesday, 23 January 2008, 9:32 am): So now I've plugged in a Samsung BD-P1400 Blu-ray player. This unit also features full decoding for Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD, as well as the ability to deliver all four of the new audio standards as bitstreams.

This player works perfectly with the Yamaha receiver when decoding 96kHz 7.1 channel Dolby TrueHD material. So why won't the other two?

How not to review a Blu-ray player - Thursday, 10 January 2008, 10:42 pm

Okay, I'm putting together a roundup of all high definition disc players currently available in Australia. I've reviewed most of them, but there are three that I haven't. One is the Sony BDP-S300, one is the Toshiba HD-E10 and the final one is the Samsung BD-P1400.

I got onto the relevant PR companies, and I was able to get the Sony, which arrived today. Neither the Toshiba nor the Samsung were available in time for my deadline. So I've been researching the latter on the Web. I saw somewhere an intriguing suggestion that the Samsung may be capable of outputting the new high definition audio standards as bitstreams so that they can be decoded by one of the several new home theatre receivers with this capability. So I did some more googling around looking for something definitive on this.

Samsung's website was useless (although I found the unit's manual to download). And then I found 'Samsung BD-P1400 Blu-ray Player Review' at Hardware Secrets. This looked promising. There were two pages, with the opening subheaded 'Introduction and Tests'. I read through the review and am a little surprised when I come across five paragraphs discussing connections, HDMI cables and so forth, amounting to 466 words. Goodness me, some of the reviews I do are required, for space reasons, to be 500 words in total! This seemed like a strange digression. And the first paragraph was pretty unclear anyway, seemingly confusing home theatre receivers with HDMI switching with those that fully support HDMI, including the audio.

The very next paragraph commenced: 'Before playing a Blu-Ray disc we decided to play a DVD.' I raised my eyebrows a little, but, well, each to his or her own. It seems that the reviewer was unhappy with some odd behaviour when the player was showing DVDs. It seems that it inserted a significant black border around the edges of the picture when the output was set to 1080p. We are not informed which disc (or discs) this was a problem with, whether other video output settings were tried and so on. Reading a linked Sony review suggested that the problem was caused by the DVD itself carrying an incorrect aspect ratio flag.

And then I get to this paragraph:

We stopped our tests here. It wasn't worthwhile seeing how this unit played Blu-Ray discs. If a new unit cannot play our DVD collection the way it supposed to be, then the unit pretty much worthless.
What an appalling statement! When you review a Blu-ray player, you review it with Blu-ray discs! I have yet to find a Blu-ray player (or a HD DVD player) that plays DVDs as well as my preferred DVD players, and I mention that in my reviews. That's why I continue to have a DVD player plugged into my system. Admittedly I haven't stumbled across this particular issue, but it is irrelevant. The purpose of a Blu-ray player is to play Blu-ray discs. It should be reviewed with Blu-ray discs.

I expect, and would hope, that if I ever submitted a review like this to one of my editors that they would reject it out of hand.

Incidentally, the Samsung manual is useless on the matter on which I sought information. Oh well. I shall have to ring the Samsung product manager in the morning.

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