Home Theater Review

 

Blu-ray Player Education and Information

1.0 What is Blu-ray?
Blu-ray is an optical disc format that competes with DVD and uses a blue (actually somewhat purple) laser to capture the information from the disc, which allows for better performance than the red laser used in traditional DVD players. Blu-ray discs have up to 50 gigabytes of storage and can provide the consumer with 1080p high-definition video images for their HDTV, as well as high-resolution audio via PCM or lossless compression via DTS Master Audio and Dolby True HD. Blu-ray offers a significant upgrade over DVD in terms of picture quality and sound quality, while the players are backwards-compatible with DVD discs, allowing consumers to play their "legacy" DVD collections as they upgrade their collection to high-definition on Blu-ray.

2.0 The History of the Blu-ray/HD DVD Format War
Blu-ray got off to a rough start, with Hollywood movie studios being lobbied by powerful computer and electronics companies to make an exclusive choice between one of two competing formats. The Blu-ray group was backed by Sony, Philips, Pioneer, Panasonic, LG, Hitachi, Apple Computer and, ultimately, many others. The competing HD DVD format, packing the more intuitive name (because it has both HD and DVD in it, telling consumers exactly what the players did) was supported by the likes of Microsoft and Toshiba. Studios like Disney, Sony and Fox exclusively offered Blu-ray discs to the public, thus drawing a line in the sand in the format war. HD DVD garnered support from Paramount, DreamWorks and Universal. Warner Bros., with a huge catalogue, sat on the fence. 

Consumers and early adopters hated the format war from the get-go, as players were relatively expensive ($500 to $1,000) compared to DVD players on the market. Load times for both formats were more than a minute, when comparable (and far less expensive) standard-definition DVD players were nearly instantaneous. Both Blu-ray players and HD DVD players needed frequent firmware updates that in many cases killed off the units. Both players also needed frequent hard restarts, which require the pulling of the plug on the unit; DVD players rarely ever need this to perform flawlessly. What consumers fretted over most was the idea that, in their quest to get 1080p video (the highest available resolution from digital cable and/or HD satellite is 1080i), they would get stuck with "Beta" when "VHS" was going to be the deciding format.

In the fourth quarter of 2007, the HD DVD group was gaining significant marketplace momentum, thanks to the release of very affordable players (some under $100 at the time) and a handful of strong HD titles, while the Blu-ray group was building somewhat less momentum pushing Sony's PlayStation 3 game consoleas the best, or at least most affordable, Blu-ray player at nearly double the price of the entry-level HD DVD machine. Everything changed on "Blu-Friday," January 4, 2008 - the last business day before the almighty Consumer Electronics (CES) trade show where nearly 150,000 AV and computer industry executives from around the world converge on Las Vegas. Warner Bros., which had been releasing titles for both formats in a somewhat unexpected move, decided to support Blu-ray exclusively with their titles. The conjecture at the time was their allegiance was up for auction and that the Blu-ray group bid more than $300,000,000 higher than did the HD DVD group. With the two competing formats sporting million-dollar booths at CES almost directly next to each other, the Blu-ray camp was celebrating as if they'd won the Super Bowl, while the HD DVD booth was a virtual morgue. Toshiba swore they would fight back, but Wal-Mart dropped its support of the format in mid-February, 2008. Online disc rental house Netflix announced they also would be dropping HD DVD for Blu-ray. Big box retailer Best Buy announced Blu-ray was their preferred HD disc format and it was all over for HD DVD. Only days later, Toshiba announced they would cease making HD DVD players and the format war ended with the last supporting studios scurrying to convert HD DVD titles to Blu-ray releases.

3.0 HDMI and the Art of Copy Protection for Blu-ray
Hollywood studios love Blu-ray, not only because it offers them an opportunity to resell their entire vast catalogue of movies to clients on an HD format, but unlike the compact disc for the record labels, Blu-ray's best features are nicely copy-protected when displayed in HD, thanks to HDMI and its much-maligned HDCP copy protection. HDMI makes a digital "handshake" with other HD components in a home theater system, thus locking the content from source (Blu-ray player, HD DVD player, etc.) to receiver or switcher and then to the video display (HDTV, front projector). This makes it difficult (but not impossible for those with way too much time and skill on their hands) to break the digital lock. 

On the surface, HDMI sounds like the one-cable dream solution to the audio-video industry's connection needs, neatly paired with the copy protection Hollywood studios demand for their movies in HD, yet all is far from perfect. HDMI and its HDCP copy protection have been horrendously unreliable, to the point where many AV installers and retailers refused to use the connection in the early days of the format. Copy-protected Blu-ray and HD DVD players suffer from copy protection communication issues that left systems crippled, while non-copy-protected sources like HD DVRs worked like a charm. HDMI has updated its software and copy protection to make it current to version 1.3b. However, electronics companies and chip providers struggle to keep up with technological changes, often with the weak link being the receiver/preamp part of the system. Most current displays are HDMI 1.3b-compliant, as are most Blu-ray players. Many receivers and AV preamps on the market today offer only one or two HDMI inputs and often they are HDMI 1.1, which can potentially cause problems with connectivity. Without HDMI connection, the highest-resolution sound from the likes of DTS Master Cinema and Dolby True HD are not released from the disc. Some discs even limit or down-res the video content coming out of the player when not connected via HDMI.

4.0 DTS Master Audio and Dolby True HD
The two lossless compression audio formats available on Blu-ray are DTS Master Audio and Dolby True HD. They are not always available on the same disc, but both represent a very accurate replication of the master audio 7.1 soundtrack for a film. They run on HDMI cables and require an HDMI receiver with the ability to process the codecs, as well as receive HD video. 

5.0 What About Deep Color?
Deep Color refers to 10-bit color which has never been commercially available on Blu-ray. Some say that is could be part of a new Blu-ray format for Ultra HD, which is the new name for consumer 4K, yet to date there have been no moves to improve color in HD or Ultra HD via Blu-ray.

6.0 Why Is There No Blu-ray For Music?
The music business has suffered a terrible loss in market share that they blame almost exclusively on peer to peer file sharing, arising out of the Napster phenomenon of the late 1990s, yet they still sell the 25-year-old compact disc as their main form of music sales. While legal downloads are copy-protected, there are millions of CD titles that are not copy-protected. Blu-ray offers the ability for record labels to resell their best back-catalogue discs in dramatically improved audio formats, like DTS Master Cinema and Dolby True HD, as well as pack HD video footage, high-resolution still images and other impressive supplemental materials, yet all four of the major record labels reject this format. Known as the "Grandfather of Grunge," Neil Young, who owns the catalogue of the music he has composed/performed, announced in the spring of 2008 that he would release his recordings in high resolution and/or high-resolution surround on Blu-ray. No major studio has followed his lead to date. Audiophile record labels have not quickly adopted Blu-ray for music, despite Blu-ray having upwards of a reported eight percent market penetration in American households. Some boutique record labels like 2L records from Norway and AIX Records are pushing for music on Blu-ray but with few exceptions - like Rush's Moving Pictures and a few Pink Floyd reissues - mainstream music isn't being released in Blu-ray.

7.0 Streaming Media Via Blu-ray Player
From day one, Blu-ray players could be more than just units that spun silver-colored discs, as the Sony Playstation 3 taught us. In the current marketplace, even the most inexpensive Blu-ray machines priced as low as $100 come with internet connectivity and streaming possibilities. Internet connectivity makes it easier to do firmware updates and streaming options from the like of NetflixAmazon Video-on-Demand, and others. This allows customers to bring movies and TV into their home with need for a physical disc, albeit at a lesser quality than Blu-ray. Additionally, applications are now starting to be part of the Blu-ray value proposition, which allow for popular services like Pandora, internet radio, Spotify, and others to be accessed via your Blu-ray machine.