Blu-ray players and Blu-ray movies are generating a lot of excitement. Now that the “format war” is over with Blu-ray crowned the victor, consumers are getting ready to embrace high-definition on a disc, namely, Blu-ray Discs! This guide will make sure you understand Blu-ray and get the most out of your experience.
What do you get with Blu-ray?
There are four primary advantages Blu-ray Disc movies have over their DVD equivalents:
o Improved capacity and durability. Blu-ray Discs have up to 50GB of disc capacity for a dual-layer disc, which is over 5x more than a double-layer DVD. Blu-ray discs carry the data close to the surface of the disc, so a hard coat is applied to protect the fragile data. This hard coat is extremely durable and resists scratches and fingerprints.
o Improved video quality. Blu-ray Disc movies have up to 6x the picture detail of a standard DVD.
Numbers are not the way to describe the difference, though! Suffice it to say the sharpness, depth, color and detail is far greater than anything you have ever experienced before. No matter what they say about upconverting DVD players providing “near high-def quality,” after you experience Blu-ray it is more of a country mile than “near.” The bigger the screen size, the bigger the difference.
o Improved audio quality. Most Blu-ray Discs have lossless audio, which, obviously, means no loss of sound quality. In short the sound quality from Blu-ray Discs is capable of matching the master tapes from the studio. If you have a sound system capable of using the lossless audio formats, the difference in sound quality is just as apparent as the difference in video quality. In fact, when doing demonstrations in my own home theater before I even get to explain that the sound as well as the video is high-definition the viewers make comments such as “Wow, the sound!” or “I’ve never heard sound like that anywhere.” You need a relatively recent surround sound setup to experience the lossless sound; more on that later.
o Improved interactivity. Blu-ray Discs and players use BD-Java, a version of Sun Microsystems’s Java programming that is ubiquitous on the Internet. Using Java allows the studios to put games and other interactive features on the discs, as well as menus that can be accessed while the movie is playing. (Once you have experienced the latter, it’s even harder to go back to DVD!) The downside to the BD-Java is that it requires a lot of processing power and early Blu-ray players may take several minutes to load the discs once they are placed in the player. Compatibility problems may exists as well and the player may need a firmware update to function properly. Blu-ray will soon be introducing Profile 2.0, or “BD-Live” which will bring Web interactivity to Blu-ray and allow you to download bonus materials, play games, and much more.
What do I need to experience Blu-ray’s spectacular video quality?
This is an easy answer! You need a high-definition TV, a Blu-ray player, and a connection cable or cables. If you have an HDMI input on your TV, you should use an HDMI cable from your Blu-ray player to the TV. Do not overpay for your HDMI cable. Most big box stores only sell overpriced brands such as Monster Cable and charge from $90 to $150 or more for a single HDMI cable. You can get a perfectly good, well-made HDMI cable for under $5.00 from monoprice.com.
If you have an older HDTV with component video connections, you need a set of component cables and a set of stereo audio RCA cables.
What do I need to experience Blu-ray’s lossless sound?
This is a lot trickier! First of all, if you are just running the sound through your TV speakers there isn’t going to be much difference. You need a separate sound system to really appreciate Blu-ray’s fine sound.
There are several lossless sound formats available and older receivers, and even many current ones do not support these new sound formats. Not all of the players support them, either. I’ll start with the different surround formats, and then explain what equipment you need to experience them at home.
PCM, LPCM: These are the same thing. Some studios call it PCM, for Pulse Code Modulation, a lossless method of digital recording. LPCM stands for Linear PCM. Sometimes you will see “20 bit LPCM” or “24-bit LPCM” on the disc cases. The more bits, the higher the resolution and the better the sound. To experience lossless PCM sound you need a receiver with an HDMI input capable of receiving multichannel PCM, or a Blu-ray player with multichannel analog outputs and a receiver with multichannel inputs. If your receiver has an HDMI input the player will send the audio over the HDMI cable and the receiver will amplify the sound and send it to the speakers.
If you are using the analog outputs, the player will convert the PCM sound to analog and send the high-resolution sound from its analog connections to the receiver’s analog inputs. In this case the surround settings are set on the player and the receiver is just a volume control and an amplifier.
Dolby TrueHD: This format uses lossless compression so the audio information takes up less space on the disc than a PCM file, but no sound quality is lost in the compression process. There are several ways to experience lossless sound from Dolby TrueHD. The first is with a receiver with an HDMI input capable of receiving multichannel PCM, and a Blu-ray player that can decode Dolby TrueHD and convert it to PCM. The player will decode the Dolby TrueHD, convert it to PCM and send it via HDMI to the receiver for playback. The PlayStation 3 is an example of player that uses internal TrueHD decoding and an LPCM output via HDMI.
The second way is with Blu-ray player with TrueHD decoding through multichannel analog outputs and a receiver with multichannel inputs. If you are using the analog outputs, the player will decode the TrueHD, convert it to analog, then send the high-resolution sound from its analog connections to the receiver’s analog inputs. In this case the surround settings are set on the player and receiver is just a volume control and an amplifier.
The third way is via “bitstreaming.” Bitstreaming takes the digital data from the disc and transfers it via HDMI to a receiver with a built-in Dolby TrueHD decoder. The receiver decodes the TrueHD and powers the speakers. According to many who have tried all three methods, bitstreaming is the best possible way to reproduce TrueHD.
DTS-HD: DTS-HD consists of two streams: a “core” with a high-resolution (but lossy) DTS track and a DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) track. The MA track is a lossless track capable of duplicating the studio master tape. At the time of publication no players with internal DTS-HD decoding exist so the only way to reproduce the lossless DTS-HD MA track is with a player capable of bitstreaming the information and a receiver with DTS-HD decoding. The major studios currently using DTS-HD are 20th Century Fox and New Line Cinema.
Dolby Digital Plus: Improved Lossy Sound
Many Blu-ray Discs have Dolby Digital Plus, an improved version of Dolby Digital. While it isn’t lossless, the sound quality is noticeably better than standard Dolby Digital soundtracks.
Blu-ray players conform to one of three profiles, each having different capabilities.
Profile 1.0 players simply play the movie. This is called the “grace period profile.”