Home Entertainment Blog ArchiveBrought 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, 9 October 2008
Forty four episodes of 'The Simpsons' - Wednesday, 19 November 2008, 8:40 pm
Any semi-fans of 'The Simpsons' out there? I have eleven themed DVDs to give away. No covers. No boxes. Stamped 'Not for Sale'.
Oh, and why did I say 'semi-fans'? Because real fans already own all the episodes!
UPDATE (Thursday, 20 November 2008, 9:27 am): Well, these have gone already to Michael in Canberra. I've got a few other bits and pieces that I'll be giving away from here over the next few weeks, so stay tuned.
Blu-ray and HD DVD the same ... more or less - Tuesday, 18 November 2008, 1:52 pm
It used to amuse me when people would pronouce Blu-ray to be the 'better' format than HD DVD, or vice versa, on picture quality grounds. Potentially BD could be better simply because it had more space available. Kind of. Possibly.
Even that wasn't really correct.
Virtually all HD DVDs were dual layer, and thus had a capacity of 30GB. Nearly all the very early Blu-ray releases were single layer (25GB). Toshiba announced fairly early on a move to triple layer HD DVDs. They claimed that firmware upgrades would make players compatible with these. The importance of being able to claim the larger endowment was suggested by the fact that instead of being 45GB, as you'd expect (15GB per layer), the triple layer HD DVDs were to be 51GB, or slightly larger than a dual layer BD. Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyaaaahhhh!
But meanwhile, back in the real world, film companies like Warner Bros which had decided to issue in both formats typically went for the same encode where possible (although often with fewer sound formats or features on the Blu-ray, due, I suspect, to less capable early authoring software, and the lack of early consumer players capable of fully using these additional sound formats and features).
But since both HD DVD and Blu-ray supported the same video formats, you would not expect there to be any differences between the two. The only actual differences ought to be due to the differences in the players used to watch them. That's the theory. Let us examine two actual discs from Warner Bros, both containing the same movie: Corpse Bride. What do we find?
The Blu-ray is single layer and uses 15.30GB, the HD DVD is dual layer and uses 19.09GB. Their extras are the same, except that the HD DVD adds a picture zoom mode.
The Blu-ray has four audio tracks, all Dolby Digital EX 3/3.1 @ 640kbps. The HD DVD has the same audio tracks, except three of them are Dolby Digital Plus 3/3.1 @ 640kbps, while the Music Only track is Dolby Digital Plus 3/2.1 @ 640kbps. Why this difference? Who knows!
Both present their content at 1080p24 using the VC1 codec.
At face value, it seems likely they'd be the same. The size differences could be due to different overheads between the two formats. So let's delve a little deeper.
I sampled the first twenty minutes of both versions of the movies, extracting the 'I' or 'anchor' frames to PNG format image files. These were identically located (ie. the I frames were at the same position in both the Blu-ray and HD DVD video steams). In each case the matching files had an identical files size, down to the last byte. So I selected three of the matching PNG files and did a byte-by-byte file comparison (using the DOS command FC /b) between the HD DVD and BD versions. Both were absolutely identical in every way.
All this is mostly for academic interest, now that HD DVD is dead. But it does act as yet another warning against the perils of a blanket declaration that technology A is better than technology B on the basis of subjective impressions of quality.
Bunch of Warner Bros Blu-ray discs coming, new and old - Monday, 17 November 2008, 5:23 pm
Some interesting stuff here:
Easy, or not, on the eyes - Monday, 17 November 2008, 5:00 pm
I haven't actually been doing entirely nothing lately. Truly! In fact I've been adding some more Blu-ray reviews, and in their absence some DVD vs Blu-ray comparisons. Check them out. What follows here is an extended discussion regarding the picture quality of the Warner Bros Blu-ray of Deliverance, which I've lifted from the screen shot comparison.
I only gave the Blu-ray 3.5 stars out of five for picture quality. Here is why:
What do we see here? At first glance, the picture seems softer than the PAL DVD. So much so that perhaps it would be better to choose the DVD!
But let's look a bit closer. Underneath the fuzziness of the Blu-ray plicture there is, in fact, more detail. Look at the face of the man under the hat. There is a least a hint of a normally shaped face in the Blu-ray, whereas the DVD just has a narrow horizontal band in a skin tone colour. Look at the upright divider in the grill of the car, visible only on the Blu-ray.
Fact is, the DVD is full of apparent detail which isn't really there at all. It's illusory detail, and is generated artificially. My guess is that the DVD image was 'sharpened' prior to encoding. This process typically involves enhancing contrast differences. It makes the image easier on the eye in one way, because it has more clearly defined edges to latch onto (if the picture is fuzzy, your vision mechanisms assume that your eye isn't properly focused and try to correct this, futilely and tiringly).
Nonetheless, it is a lie because much of the apparent detail simply is not there in reality. Look at the mottled surface of the metal canoe on the more distant car's roof. This is simply subtle variations enhanced and made disturbing by means of the sharpening. And so it goes for every other part of the picture.
To illustrate, below I have applied a great dollop of sharpening (100%, Radius 6.6 pixels) in Photoshop to the right hand part of the picture. Now this Blu-ray source looks a lot more similar to the DVD, even though I operated on the high definition source.
Having said all that, it is clear that different prints of the film were used for the Blu-ray and DVD versions, and I suspect that the print used for the DVD version may have actually been sharper and held more detail than the print used for the Blu-ray version. Here and there in the former there are bits of detail that are absent in the latter which do not appear to be artificially generated lies, but actual original content. For example, compare the rear view mirror attached to the door on the car at the rear, the one from which the man is emerging. This is clearly better defined on the DVD, especially where it attaches to the door.
Careful of your fingers - Thursday, 6 November 2008, 10:27 pm
This is just sad. This comes from page 3 of the manual of the Marantz AV8003 home theatre preamplifier/tuner. This is a wonder of technology and high-end performance that costs $4,499.
Yet it has to have a notice in the manual warning you not to pinch your friggin' fingers!
I'm not blaming Marantz here. I'm blaming a legal system that ends up with people having to waste time on such silliness as this.
James Bond scrubs up, as does Ursula Andress - Tuesday, 28 October 2008, 10:42 am
Twentieth Century Fox is releasing its first batch of Bond Blu-ray discs in Australia on 12 November 2008. These are:
Anyway, you can judge the results for yourself with my Blu-ray/DVD comparison here. Here's a taste, with Ursula Andress' famous entrance:
The original Australian PAL DVD to the left, the new Blu-ray to the right. Note: there is considerable cropping of the DVD source, so I haven't blown this up quite as much as I normally would. In increased it to 1,801 pixels wide, rather than the usual 1,920.
More DVD/Blu-ray comparisons - Friday, 24 October 2008, 1:31 pm
I've added a few more DVD/Blu-ray comparisons. For those that haven't checked them out, I take an identical frame from the DVD and the Blu-ray, digitally captured using a suitable application and drive on my computer (I've been using LG's BE06 USB external Blu-ray/HD DVD drive). I select one rectangle in the frame, measuring 250 pixels wide by 300 tall, and capture this from each version. I present these side-by-side at full resolution, underneath a 500 pixel wide version of the full frame. This full frame allows context to be seen. For example, from one of the latest (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe):
The full list, along with the rest of my Blu-ray and HD DVD reviews, is here. There are 32 reviews and 15 comparisons. I do add more from time to time. Indeed, there are four more reviews I will be adding in next few days, and comparisons for a couple of them. I usually do five or six comparison shots in the comparisons.
Bring on the Blu-ray Sound - Wednesday, 22 October 2008, 4:20 pm
Although I think DVD Audio is a dead format, and SACD isn't too far off either, I still keep buying them if I see them at a reasonable price. The other day I picked up The Who's Tommy from Amazon.com on DVD Audio at a reasonable price. It's also available on SACD.
Why? Because my Oppo DVD players play them (and SACD) brilliantly. And because these older works -- including some from Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, The Doors -- sound far, far better than they ever will on CD. It isn't the greater resolution, I think, that makes the difference (most are supplied with 96kHz sampling and 24 bits). It's partly the way that 5.1 channels allows the ear to separate the musical elements more clearly than two channels. But it's also largely because of the amount of work that has been put into cleaning up the sound before loading it into these high resolution formats.
But I do worry. Will DVD-A (and SACD) die away so much that eventually there will be no equipment to play these. Which leads me to ask: when are they going to be re-released?
No, not as DVD Audio, nor as SACD, but as Blu-ray. Blu-ray does not support the Direct Stream Digital format used by SACD, but it does more-or-less support the Meridian Lossless Packing format used by DVD Audio. Dolby TrueHD is a development from and extension of MLP. There's no technical reason why these DVD Audio discs couldn't be ported over to Blu-ray with a minimum of fuss.
They could carry the SACD content as well, after it had been converted to PCM format. Since SACD fans worry about the granularity of PCM, and praise the 'analogue sound' of DSD, their concerns could be at least partially addressed simply by encoding these discs with a 192kHz sampling frequency and 24 bits of resolution. Actually, 176.4kHz would probably work better because SACD was designed for easy conversion to PCM in whole multiples of 44.1kHz.
But for older material originally recorded in analogue format, rather than converting from the DSD version, it would be better to resample afresh with high resolution PCM, thereby avoiding the monstrous amounts of ultrasonic noise that DSD loads into the sound.
But that's a story for another day.
Sony Playstation 3 Audio Handling - Friday, 17 October 2008, 5:51 pm
A couple of months ago Sony Computer Entertainment kindly loaned to me a Sony PS3 for use as a Blu-ray player. I sought this so that I could explore the new advanced features of Blu-ray: BonusView PIP material and BD-Live Internet content. At the time, the PS3 was the only Blu-ray player available which supported BD-Live. In many ways it remains the best, simply because its industrial strength processor makes it do things much faster than other Blu-ray players.
In addition to playing Blu-ray discs, the unit also plays DVDs, CDs and games. Plus it acts as a media player for music, movies and photos on the connected network. It was in playing back music over the network that some odd behaviour was revealed.
In short, when used to play stereo music (eg. MP3) retrieved from my computer over the network, or MP3, ATRAC or AAC files held on its own hard disk, it delivered the audio over HDMI to my home theatre receiver in the form of 7.1 channel PCM, with the sampling frequency changed from its native 44.1kHz to 48kHz.
While exploring this, I discovered that when playing a CD it delivered the audio in the form of 5.1 channel PCM, upsampled to 176.4kHz (ie: 4x original sample rate).
In both cases, the extra channels are 'empty', in that they contain no musical content. All the sound is actually delivered in the front left and right channels.
The major problem with this is that the receiver can't apply any of its nifty surround processing routines to 5.1 or 7.1 sound, only to stereo.
I queried Sony and they suggested switching off most of the digital audio standards in the 'Audio Output Settings'. Thus started a process of discovery, the outcome of which I summarise here.
First, let us deal with CDs. The process is far from intuitive. In essense, to reduce the output from 5.1 to 2 channel PCM the easiest way it to ... lower the sampling frequency!
Why switching off 176.4kHz would disable the 5.1 channel conversion is a mystery to me. It smacks of something an engineer might have slipped in to allow himself to test things.
Unfortunately, none of this applies to the MP3 playback over the network, nor to music ripped to the PS3's internal hard disk drive. I've tested it with MP3 and ATRAC.
To recap: MP3 music, played back from the network or from the internal hard disk, using a HDMI connection to a modern home theatre receiver, is delivered as 7.1 channel PCM, upsampled to 48kHz. The sound is contained only in the front left and right channels. The other 5.1 channels (centre, surround left and right, surround back left and right, and subwoofer) are all empty, carrying only silence.
The upsampling to 48kHz (from the 44.1kHz of the MP3) is of minor import, irritating primarily to the purists (like me) who object to such totally unnecessary processing. However the wrapping of two channel sound into extra unnecessary channels has significant implications. The primary one is that with most home theatre receivers it eliminates the ability to apply most of the receiver's surround processing options, such as Dolby Pro Logic IIx or the various DSP sound fields, since these will only work on two channel sound.
There are two rather clunky work-arounds. Follow the process shown above, but when you get to the fifth dot point, go through and deselect everything except the basic two channel modes. This will force the sound to be delivered in two channels. Unfortunately, you then have to go and re-enable those multichannel settings to fully enjoy high definition sound (DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD) from Blu-ray discs.
The other is to connect an optical audio cable in parallel. Then, whenever you want to play MP3, ATRAC, AAC or WMA tracks from the unit or the network, you go to Settings on the PS3's XMB, select 'Audio Output Settings', then 'Digital Out (Optical)'. Of course you will need to change the audio input of the home theatre receiver from HDMI to Optical. Some allow both inputs to be connected at once, such as my Yamaha. My receiver is clever enough to switch to HDMI if there is an audio signal coming from it, and then back down to Optical if not, and fall back on Analogue if there is no optical signal either.
Unfortunately, the PS3 messes this up as well because when the output is set to optical, it still outputs two silent 48kHz PCM tracks down the HDMI connection, so tricking the receiver into thinking that there is HDMI sound and negating its auto input switching function. Still, I can manually switch that with my receiver.
However, after using the optical output, when it is time to go back to HDMI sound for Blu-ray, you find that any custom settings you have made in its output have been lost.
Since the unit adds nothing to the extra channels it generates, it would be best if the unit defaulted to a kind of 'native' output for all CD, MP3, AAC, WMA and ATRAC music.
UPDATE (Friday, 24 October 2008, 1:26 pm): I raised this with Sony Computer Entertainment here in Australia. My contact there has emailed me this morning:
I have had a note back from the Tokyo based engineering team. They were appreciative of the feedback and wanted to let you know that they are attempting to address the matters you have raised. They hope to be able to provide a fix in a future system software upgrade.That is indeed heartening.
Regulations got around, as usual - Wednesday, 15 October 2008, 10:50 pm
A while back some or other agency of the Australian government was talking about banning TVs that were threatening to destroy the planet. Something about using too much power, and therefore causing too much carbon dioxide to be generated. As I understand it, the government has backed off a bit and is now talking about a star rating for energy usage.
But back then there was talk of plasma TVs being banned because they used too much power and so on. A draft international standard for conducting the measurements was promulgated, and the necessary pass mark to achieve at least one star was, using this measurement protocol, using less than 480 watts of power per square metre of screen.
So how do you measure this consistently? A ten minute set of short video clips were created which, apparently, represents the average brightness levels of typical TV broadcasting. You measure the amount of energy used to display this clip, divide by time, and thereby derive the average power used. From there it's easy to work out whether a TV passes or fails.
Except for one thing. What settings should you use? Fiddling with the user picture settings can change the amount of power used very significantly. Two TVs I've reviewed, when switched to 'Movie Mode' actually use less than half the amount of power they do when switched to 'Vivid Mode'. Both plasma TVs and LCD TVs with a 'dynamic' backlight vary the amount of power used according to the overall produced brightness of the picture.
The standards body settled on an 'out of the box' setting. It reasoned that most people take a TV out of its box, install it and watch it without ever playing with its settings. Sadly, they are probably right.
When I started measuring TVs for this a year ago, few passed. The last few I have measured have, however, passed.
What has changed? Most major brand TVs now, when switched on for the first time, start up with a question: are you installing in a shop or the home? If you choose the latter, as you should, then the TV starts up with the picture defaulting to its 'Standard' rather than 'Dynamic' settings, and therefore uses a lot less power. The 'Dynamic' setting used to be the default.
Incidentally, some TVs complicate matters by providing a setting which varies their overall brightness according to the ambient light within the viewing environment. The standard, contrary to the previously mentioned 'leave the defaults unaltered', requires that this be switched off.
Why? Because it would be too hard to measure otherwise. You'd have to come up with some estimate of the average room luminosity in the evening and in the day time, and the proportion of time spent by the general public viewing at those respective times. And then conduct your measurements with the luminosity set to two or more levels (at a controlled point on the front of the TV) and ...
Oh, it's all too hard! We throw up our hands in frustration! So in order to support the regulatory standards sought by various governments (I assume Australia isn't alone on this one), we have a standard that, in the case of some TVs, requires them to be measured in an unrepresentative state.
Samsung BD-P1500 Blu-ray player going BD-Live - Sunday, 12 October 2008, 9:47 pm
The other day Samsung made available a Version 2 firmware for its BD-P1500 Blu-ray player. As delivered the player was BonusView (ie. PIP) capable, and 'BD-Live ready'. That is, it had the hardware for BD-Live (principally, the ability to access Web-enabled content). But not the firmware. The new firmware delivers on that promise.
Two minutes ago I checked, and it is not yet available in Australia. But I can't imagine it will be very far away. When it does become available, this may well displace the Sony BDP-S350 as the fully functional Blu-ray player price leader, seeing as how my brother purchased one a couple of weeks ago for just $350.
UPDATE (Monday, 13 October 2008, 4:17 pm): So how much does the Samsung BD-P1500 cost anyway? Last month I was told its recommended retail price was $699. With the launch of the low cost Sony units, I thought that Samsung might respond with a price reduction. It apparently did since, as I mention above, my brother purchased one at a regular discount retailer for $350. So I've tried twice in the last week to find out the current RRP. On both occasions my regular contact hasn't answered his phones, so I've resorted to the Samsung help line and asked there. They always maintain this information. On both occasions, though, after looking up their price lists they were unable to find a price. Odd. On the second occasion, the helpful operator went in search of an answer, and the one she was advised to deliver was that as the BD-P1500 is a replacement for the BD-P1400, it is the same price: $769.
Somehow I don't think the price has gone up.
UPDATE 2 (Tuesday, 14 October 2008, 10:19 pm): Samsung's PR firm advises me that the RRP of the BD-P1500 is $499. Now, that's more like it! I hope to have info soon on the BD-Live upgrade. I want to test it out ... and also see if the USB memory stick containing my BD-Live stuff from the Sony BDP-S550 will work on a different brand player.
'Heroes': To BD-Live or Not To BD-Live - Saturday, 11 October 2008, 9:39 pm
Reader James has been very kind to me. First he found and sent down some VHS tapes for me to use in a comparison (still coming). Now he has sent down Seasons 1 and 2 of 'Heroes' on Blu-ray. Now that's what I can generous!
And useful, since the Australian arm of Universal didn't bother to provide its PR company review copies of the Blu-ray releases.
So now that I'm in a position to do some comparisons, especially between the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions of Season 1. Here are the differences:
BD-Live 'ready' on Disc 1. This means that when Universal launches their BD-Live service later this year you will be able to access the content from online such as downloadable content, additional deleted scenes, commentary, or etc.The other merely states this as a fact.
But the Australia Blu-ray of Season 1 mentions no such thing on the box (unlike Season 2, which does). And the Australian version seems to be shared with Europe, and seems to be identical to the US version, since it has an FBI copyright warning.
Finally, there was no hint on any of the menus of any the discs of the existence of some BD-Live functionality.
I was happy to let matters rest there, thinking that perhaps those two sites had made an error. But then I examined the Season 2 Blu-ray discs, and I could find no indication on Disc 1 of the BD-Live content which is claimed to be there. But the back of Season 2's box clearly states:
Access the BD-Live Centre online and download even more bonus content: the newest trailers, on-set interviews, exclusive events and much more!The episode guide on the back of the slick says that this is on Disc One. But I can't find any reference to it in any of the menus on that disc.
So now I'm totally confused about whether there is indeed BD-Live content for Season One, and how you get at BD-Live content for Season Two. I shall have to find out on Monday.
Iron Man succeeds - Friday, 10 October 2008, 12:45 am
Well, that explains things. A couple of posts ago I mentioned that US watchers of Iron Man on Blu-ray were having their Playstation 3s seize up on loading the disc. No wonder. It seems that the Blu-ray version of this disc sold 260,000 copies on the very first day (and half a million in the first week). Presumably the Internet site to which it linked was initially overloaded.
The report also mentions that compared to the 500,000 Blu-ray discs of this movie sold in the first week, 7.2 million DVDs were sold. That's an impressive result ... for Blu-ray. Some seven per cent of sales were Blu-ray. Okay, that proportion is probably biased since enthusiasts probably also tend to be early adopters of technology. Nonetheless, it does give cause for hope that Blu-ray is succeeding, and will be a format here to stay.