There’s no shortage of Blu-ray players on the market from which to choose. As you try to decide which product is right for you, here’s a list of 16 terms that you need to know.
These features come standard on every new Blu-ray player, even the lowest priced models.
HDMI is the connection that allows you to transmit a 1080p video signal and a high-resolution audio signal from your Blu-ray player to your HDTV and/or home entertainment system. On the newest Blu-ray players, HDMI is the only output through which you can pass high-definition video, so don’t forget to purchase an HDMI cable. In older players, you could also output a 720p/1080i HD signal through the analog component video output; however, as of January 1, 2011, manufacturers are no longer allowed to transmit HD over analog (this is called the Analog Sunset). Therefore, many Blu-ray manufacturers no longer include analog video connections at all.
Just like Blu-ray provides a step up in video quality, it also provides a step up in audio quality compared with standard DVD. Blu-ray discs support the Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio formats, which allow for the transmission of up to eight channels of uncompressed audio. In comparison, the basic Dolby Digital and DTS formats found on DVD (and TV broadcasts) transmit up to 5.1 channels in a compressed form. Most new Blu-ray players can decode both of these high-resolution audio formats, or they can pass the formats in their native form to be decoded by an A/V receiver.
All Blu-ray players are backwards-compatible with DVD, which means you can still watch all of your older DVD movies through your new Blu-ray player. Blu-ray players can upconvert standard-definition (480i) DVDs to a high-definition (1080p) resolution. Upconversion is not as good as true high-definition because the player is essentially making up information to fill in the dots; some players do this more effectively than others.
New Blu-ray players are required to have an Internet connection, usually via a wired Ethernet port. Connection to your home network allows for quick firmware updates via the Web, but it also allows you to access BD-Live content. BD-Live is downloadable, interactive Web-based content that might be offered on a Blu-ray movie disc; types of BD-Live content include making-of featurettes, movie trailers, trivia, and games.
The USB port(s) on a Blu-ray player can serve multiple purposes. You can use it to load new firmware if the network method is not available. You can attach a USB thumb drive to serve as local storage to save the BD-Live features described above (some players have internal memory to store BD-Live content, while others require you to add a USB drive for storage). You can often play digital media files (music, movies, photos) stored on a USB drive. Finally, if your Blu-ray player does not have built-in WiFi, you might be able to add that function using a WiFi USB dongle.
These features might not appear on a manufacturer’s entry-level Blu-ray players but can often be found in the mid-level (and higher) models.
Manufacturers use the word “smart” to describe the various Web- and network-based features that might be offered on a networkable TV, Blu-ray player, receiver, etc. It includes streaming video-on-demand services like Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu Plus; streaming music services like Pandora; streaming photo sites like Picasa; social media services like Facebook and Twitter; games; and much more. Smart services vary per manufacturer (you can read our reviews of some major ones here). Some include a Web browser. Many Blu-ray manufacturers offer a free control app for your iOS or Android device that lets you control the player over your home network; some of these apps include the ability to flick media content (like your personal photos and videos) from the mobile device to your Blu-ray player for viewing on the big screen.
DLNA stands for Digital Living Network Alliance; it’s a standard that allows networked products to communicate with each other and share content. A DLNA-compatible Blu-ray player will connect with any DLNA media server on the same network, so you can stream personal music, photos, and videos stored on that server to enjoy through your Blu-ray player.
As I mentioned above, all new Blu-ray players must have an Internet connection. The lowest-priced players will often only include a wired Ethernet connection, but step-up players might also include built-in 802.11 WiFi for a wireless connection.
To watch the hottest new 3D movies on a 3D-capable HDTV, your new Blu-ray player must have 3D capability, and you must buy or rent “Blu-ray 3D” discs. The Blu-ray 3D standard uses frame-packing 3D technology, where it embeds the left- and right-eye images on top of one another in a single frame. Your active or passive 3DTV will decode this signal and split it into separate left- and right-eye images to create the 3D effect. Some 3D-capable Blu-ray players also support 2D-to-3D conversion, so you can watch a standard 2D Blu-ray disc in a simulated 3D mode.
Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL)
MHL is a mobile audio/video standard that allows you to transmit 1080p video and 7.1-channel audio between your smartphone/tablet and your A/V gear. If you purchase a Blu-ray player with an “MHL-compatible” HDMI port on it, you could directly connect your MHL smartphone/tablet to the player (usually via a MicroUSB-to-HDMI cable) and play media content. MHL can also carry control data, so you could control the tablet’s playback via the Blu-ray player’s remote control. The MHL port can also charge your smartphone/tablet so as not to drain the battery during playback.
Near Field Communication (NFC)
NFC allows two devices to communicate with each other over interacting electromagnetic radio fields, by touching or coming in very close proximity to each other. For instance, if you wanted to play a video stored on your NFC-supported smartphone through your Blu-ray player, you would simply touch the phone to the NFC sensor located on the player or perhaps the remote.
These features are usually reserved for top-shelf players that carry a higher price tag.
Ultra HD Blu-ray
Ultra HD represents the next big step up in video resolution. Ultra HD (3840 x 2160) offers four times the resolution of 1080p, and the Ultra HD Blu-ray format also supports the playback of High Dynamic Range video and a wider color gamut and bit depth than Blu-ray or DVD. The first Ultra HD Blu-ray players and discs arrived on the market in 2016. Ultra HD Blu-ray players are backwards compatible with Blu-ray and DVD discs.
Multichannel Analog Audio Outputs
If you own an older, non-HDMI-equipped A/V receiver or pre/pro and you still want to enjoy the high-resolution audio soundtracks on Blu-ray discs, you need a Blu-ray player with 7.1- or 5.1-channel analog audio outputs. The player can be set up to decode the Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD soundtrack internally and then pass the signal as multichannel PCM over the analog outputs to your receiver.
Universal Disc Playback
In addition to playback of Blu-ray discs, DVDs, and CDs, a “universal” disc player also supports playback of the high-resolution audio formats SACD and DVD-Audio. This type of player is targeted at someone who cares as much about high-quality audio as he/she does about high-quality video.
Source Direct Mode
A Source Direct video mode allows you to output all videos discs at their native resolution: DVDs are output at 480i, while Blu-ray movies are usually output at 1080p/24. This is desirable if you own an external scaler or a receiver/TV/projector that has a better internal scaler than the one in your Blu-ray player. This feature gives you more flexibility to decide which product handles the upconversion.
Some Blu-ray players (like the OPPO Digital BDP-103 and Samsung BD-E6500) add HDMI inputs, so you can route other sources, such as a cable box, through the player. This is desirable if your TV has limited HDMI inputs or you just want to run a single HDMI cable from your gear rack to your TV. You might be able to use the Blu-ray player’s internal scaler to upconvert the connected sources, or you might only be able to pass through the connected sources as is – that functionality varies per player.