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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, 21 February 2008

HD Olympics - Wednesday, 21 May 2008, 3:01 pm

The principal broadcaster for the Olympics in Australia will be Channel 7, (Prime TV in regional areas). This time around we will be getting it in HDTV (1080i) in addition to SDTV. There is an interesting problem with the live broadcast of HD sports to an international audience: do you capture the image at 50 or 60 hertz?

Naturally, we in Australia would prefer 50 hertz. That makes for a nice clean signal that will produce the highest picture quality that Australian TV is capable of. Americans would prefer 60 hertz, because then it feeds straight into their equipment without any frame rate conversion.

The Olympics is coming from China. China is a PAL country: that is, its internal TV network uses PAL, which is a 50 hertz system. The good news is that initial word from Channel 7 is that the TV cameras will be operating at 50 hertz, so we ought to get the best possible picture quality.

More as it comes through.

Paramount returns to Blu-ray! - Thursday, 15 May 2008, 3:15 pm

Those with longish memories may recall that when Blu-ray and HD DVD started, two studios were open minded. Warner Bros eventually (ie. this year) decided to go Blu-ray only, while Paramount was allegedly paid a significant sum last year to become HD DVD exclusive.

The collapse of HD DVD earlier this year made it clear that Paramount would have to return to the fold, and now it has ... in a big way. I've just received a press release in which it states that it will be selling Blu-ray in Australia from 31 July 2008. It will start with four titles. First will be The Spiderwick Chronicles, which will be a day and date release with the DVD, No Country For Old Men, Cloverfield and Shooter.

That's pretty good, but the news gets better. The press release closes:

Thursday 31st July also marks the start of the studio's day-and-date Blu-ray strategy with all new release titles from this date forward receiving a dual Standard and Blu-ray release. A list outlining the impressive non-stop avalanche of Blu-ray titles leading into the Christmas period will be released soon.
Looks like Paramount has resumed Blu-ray in a big way.
Denon DVD2500BT Blu-ray player - the way of the future? - Monday, 5 May 2008, 8:50 pm

Rear of the Denon DVD2500BT Blu-ray transport Earlier today I emailed Audio Products Group, the Australian distributor for Denon, along with other brands, about whether it would soon be releasing the Denon DVD2500T. Despite the name, this is actually a Blu-ray player.

Or not.

In truth, Denon call it a 'Blu-ray Disc Transport'. This became apparent when I looked at the brochure they emailed me and inspected the picture of its back. There on the back was an RS-232C serial port, an IR in and an IR out socket, and a HDMI socket. That's it. No component video outputs. No S-Video, analogue audio or even digital audio. This unit delivers the contents of a disc (CD, DVD Video, Blu-ray and various computer formats) digitally, and that's all there is to it.

Is this the way that Blu-ray players will go? I suspect that it's likely. I think that in the end all the outputs other than HDMI will be shed. However, some more internal processing will be required. In particular, it will necessary for a full set of audio decoders to be included -- ones capable of decoding two streams at once -- two support the highest quality primary/secondary audio output. This unit offers bitstream output but, as I understand it, no internal decoding.

APG expects the Denon DVD2500BT to be available in Australia in September, selling for around $1,899. It is a full Final Standard Profile unit and uses SD as its storage medium. The pricing reflects the premium nature of the product, which weighs a massive 9.2 kilograms.

Sony PS3 Gets DTS-HD Master Audio - Monday, 5 May 2008, 1:13 pm

A couple of weeks ago I was doing a piece on choosing your next Blu-ray player. I said, in short, that you'd be nuts to buy anything other than the Panasonic DMP-BD30 because it alone can do all of the following:

  1. Output 1080p24 video
  2. Allow DTS-HD Master Audio sound to be enjoyed at full quality
  3. Access BonusView features on Blu-ray discs (since it is a Final Standard Profile player)
Some do two of these things. For example, the Samsung BD-P1400 does 1 and 2 (the latter via bitstream output, as with the Panasonic), and the Sony PS3 does 1 and 3.

Before doing so, I checked the PS3 to make sure that there had been no new developments on the firmware front with regard to audio handling. I figured that there was a possibility Sony could have introduced either bitstream output (the PS3's HDMI output is apparently version 1.3) or internal decoding. The latest firmware release I found was 2.30, and there was no mention of either of those that I could find.

Now, I have been informed by a reader, it turns out that the 2.30 upgrade to the PS3 allows it to decode internally DTS-HD Master Audio.

That's irritating, given what I had committed to print.

But it does make for more options. If you have an older HDMI-equipped home theatre receiver which supports multichannel PCM, but not DTS-HD MA as a bitstream, then the PS3 is probably the way to go for you.

Incidentally, what the hell is up with Sony anyway? Its standalone Blu-ray players seem to be versions of Pioneer players. But why doesn't it take the chipset from a PS3, package it in a conventional consumer player box with a normal disk drawer, and sell it as a standalone Blu-ray player. It would be cheap (no need for all the USB connections, the wireless networking, the HDD). They'd just need to make sure it had a gigabyte of permanent storage. It would be a BD-Live player right now. It would be by far the fastest player (the bane of BD players is how slow they are to do stuff, but the PS3 with its industrial strength processor doesn't have that problem).

I Love Warner Bros - Friday, 2 May 2008, 9:23 am

I have previously whinged about region coding on Blu-ray. If you are considering purchasing a Blu-ray disc from overseas, particularly from the US, go first to the Blu-ray Region Code Info page and make sure that your contemplated purchase is in one of the green coloured 'Region Free' lines.

If the movie is distributed by Warner Bros, you're likely to be in luck. I have just inspected this page and all the dozens of Warner Bros titles are region free. Brilliant, Warner Bros! I love you not only for your fine movies, but for providing wide access to them.

The only other label for which I've been able to find similar results has been Paramount. But I'm not certain Paramount is really back into the Blu-ray swing of things, having abandoned Blu-ray for HD DVD last year (it, like Warner Bros, started off releasing movies on both formats). The Paramount Blu-ray titles available on Amazon seem to have been around for a while, and at least one -- 'Shooter' -- is selling in Blu-ray format from a minimum of $US57.95, suggesting that it is no longer available from the source, and remaining supplies are being bid up.

It's interesting that the two companies that launched into Blu-ray and HD DVD agnostically are not (so far) using region codes on Blu-ray (HD DVD doesn't support region coding). When Universal (which was HD DVD-only from the start) finally starts releasing Blu-ray discs, perhaps it also will be region free.

Also on Blu-ray Region Code Info, I notice that it lists the recent 'No Country for Old Men' from Miramax as region free, while several older Miramax titles are region coded. Could it be that this studio, at least, is moving away from them?

There may continue to be a need for region coding, such as when the international distribution rights to a movie are held by a different company to that with US distribution rights. But I do wonder why companies such as Twentieth Century Fox and Sony and Disney/Buena Vista needlessly complicate their inventories. I've just noticed that Fox has applied region coding to 'Wall Street', which was made way back in 1987 for goodness sakes. Worse yet? Image Entertainment has released in the US a Blu-ray version of 'Breaker Morant', a 1980 Australian film. But it is region A coded, so it can't be played on Australian Blu-ray players.

Thank goodness 'The Searchers' and 'Casablanca' and the like were made by Warner Bros.

'Frank the Bunny Rabbit is also a somewhat frightening character' - Wednesday, 30 April 2008, 11:33 pm

Universal kindly sent me Southland Tales today at my request. Since I simply love Donnie Darko, created by the creator of Southland Tales, Richard Kelly, I thought it would be great to review it along with the more recent Southland Tales. May well be a challenging movie since it scores a mere 6.0 on IMDB, and this is in part constituted by the 24.2% of voters who give it 10/10, and the 12.4% who give it 1/10. This is, I think, the most 'love it or hate it' movie I've stumbled across yet. I'm hoping that I'm in the 'love it' camp.

I jumped over to Donnie Darko in IMDB on a whim. Lately I've been checking out the 'View content advisory for parents' link for movies. It can be pretty useful. It is there, for Donnie Darko, that I found the title for this post: 'Frank the Bunny Rabbit is also a somewhat frightening character'.

It sounds so ludicrous. But it's true. And hilarious.

The Ballad of Dwight Frye - Tuesday, 29 April 2008, 3:49 pm

Dwight Frye, appearing in 'Dracula' (1931) Last night I watched, with one of my daughters, the 1922 version of Nosferatu. The picture quality wasn't particularly good, yet it was still strangely powerful at certain points.

My daughter, who has read Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, of which this movie is an unauthorised adaptation, was helpful in clarifying which elements of the story had been changed. This morning I discovered that Kino has released a restored version. If it is anywhere near as good as the Kino restoration of Metropolis, it should be brilliant. In Australia a similar restored version is due for release on 21 May this year by Madman.

Anyway, watching Nosferatu inevitably led us to watch the 1931 Tod Browning version of Dracula. This was initially a bit tricky because the character who travelled to Transylvania to meet Dracula was not Jonathan Harker, as it is in the novel and in the 1992 movie version, but the Renfield character. This Renfield acts as Dracula's assistant later, and is clearly mentally disturbed. In the 1931 version of the movie, having him meet Dracula is the trigger for him becoming that way, so it's actually a fairly clever change to the story.

When I first got into hifi in the early 1970s, one of the musical groups to which I formed a close attachment was Alice Cooper (yes, back when it was both a person and a group). One of my favourite albums from the group was 'Love it to Death'. One of my favourite songs from the album was 'The Ballad of Dwight Fry'. It is still a song I listen to from time to time, thirty five years later. But until last night it had never occurred to me that the Dwight Fry of the song was ever anything other than an invented name. The song is from Fry's point of view and is a, er, contemplation of his precarious mental condition.

But just as Dracula was starting, up flashes the name 'Dwight Frye' as one of the actors. It turns out that he plays the insane Renfield (pictured). He, apparently, was the inspiration for the Alice Cooper song made four decades later, even though they managed to spell it incorrectly.

A suggestion for TV manufacturers - Tuesday, 11 March 2008, 5:01 pm

I have just reviewed two depressingly bad TVs. It occurs to me that some TV makers are simply not doing the obvious thing when designing a TV: standing the near finished design beside a good TV and comparing them.

Of course, they would need to have decent test material at a wide range of resolutions and in both 50 and 60 hertz. I can help with the former. Then all they need is a HDMI splitter and a good comparison TV. I'd suggest a Pioneer Kuro.

There are some things that they won't be able to fix at this late stage, such as getting black levels to match those of the Kuro. But they ought to be able to tweak the scaling, the deinterlacing and other aspects of video processing so that they produce a nice picture. Not the junk that so many of them are current producing.

Will Australian digital TV switch to MPEG4? - Wednesday, 5 March 2008, 4:10 pm

Last night I received a telephone call from a reader who wanted to know if Australia would be switching over to MPEG4 for its digital TV broadcasts. At the moment we are using MPEG2, the same codec used for DVD.

The reason he was wondering was because one store was touting the ability of certain digital TV products that it sells to decode MPEG4-encoded digital TV broadcasts.

It struck me as unlikely that Australian DTV would switch over to MPEG4 since this would render a sizable proportion -- in fact, the overwhelming majority -- of current digital TV equipment obsolete and, therefore, useless. Neither the Australian government nor the TV broadcasters would have much of an interest in that.

I am using MPEG4 to mean Part 10 of the MPEG4 specification, which provides for the 'Advanced Video Coding' codec (AVC), also known as H.264. There are other codecs available under the broad MPEG4 specification.

What MPEG4 has going for it is higher compression efficiency. However this will not yield enormous bandwidth savings compared to MPEG2. It could provide slightly improved quality for similar bandwidth. But I doubt that any stakeholders would consider this sufficient benefit to justify the problems it would cause.

To confirm this, earlier today I spoke to Tim O'Keefe from the Australian Digital Suppliers Industry Forum (ADSIF). His body is aware of no moves at all on this front, not the slightest suggestion.

So, should you look for MPEG4 AVC decoding ability in your digital TV receiver? If it is network capable, then yes. It might come in useful for displaying Internet-sourced material. But for simple TV viewing, whether in standard or high definition, there is no need or advantage in having this capability available, unless you are planning to move to Europe and taking your TV or whatever with you. Europe may indeed be introducing MPEG4-based digital TV.

How to wreck HDTV - Thursday, 21 February 2008, 9:51 pm

Last night I watched 'House' which I had recorded earlier on a HDTV PVR. Naturally I recorded the high definition version from my local station, Southern Cross 10 in Canberra, which broadcasts HD at 1,920 by 1,080 pixels. As I was watching, I noticed from time to time a little bit of a shudder in on-screen motion. Weird. I fiddled with the deinterlacing settings on the DVDO VP50Pro. I had it set to 'Film Bias' mode as it turned 1080i into 1080p. I put it into full auto mode, and the shudder went away.

Intrigued, I transferred a couple of minutes of the show onto my computer for a closer look. The picture here is the same detail (100 pixels wide by 255 pixels tall) from six sequential frames of the show, as broadcast. You will notice the 'combing' caused by the use of interlaced video.

Six frames from House

But why is it interlaced? 'House' is not captured on video. It is filmed in 35mm. All the frames should be progressive, not interlaced. Indeed, this is the first major US TV show delivered on HDTV here that I've found to be interlaced.

Let us look a little closer at the interlacing. The subject of these details is moving fairly evenly, but there is significantly more combing on the first, second, fourth and sixth frames than there are on the third and fifth. Why would this be? This uneven combing is characteristic of a quick and dirty conversion from 60 hertz video to 50 hertz. In fact, if you look very carefully at the fifth frame, you will notice that the combing to the left of the head is still there, and still the same size. It's just that it's very faint.

There are three ways that you can create 50 fields per second video suitable for Australian (and European) TV systems from film. The obvious and best way is to create the fields from the 24 frames per second of the film. Each frame becomes two fields, and because in our 50 hertz part of the world we show fields at fifty times per second, the whole thing runs slightly fast. This is what normally happens, both with HDTV and SDTV.

Second, you can convert the 60 frames per second US version to 50 frames per second by reversing the 3:2 pull down performed on the film frames in the first place to create 60 fields per second video, reconstituting the original frames, and then proceed as with the first option. This is, obviously, unnecessarily complicated.

The third way is use the conversion system used with video-sourced 60 hertz material: six interlaced frames are turned into five. This involves most of the frames being some kind of average of original frames either side of them, thus some have hardly any interlacing, while others have quite a lot.

This system is most commonly seen with shows like 'The Simpsons', which originate with 60 fields per second video. For material originally shot on film, about the only place it is seen are the old Rank movies shown at 2am on ABC TV. These are movies usually made in the 1930s and 40s, and have obviously been converted from NTSC TV versions.

It is rather sad that a new show, such as 'House', should be treated in this cavalier way. I shall check again next week to see if, maybe, this was just some kind of a stuff-up.

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