Upgrading Your Home Theater for Blu-ray
Ready to jump on the Blu-ray bandwagon? These are the updates you need to make in order to fully enjoy the experience.
Earlier this week, we gave you “3 Reasons to Avoid Blu-ray (For Now).” Now, we’re not knocking the technology, just making the case it’s not for everyone. For those ready and eager to adopt this new format, you’ll want to first make sure your system is “Blu-ray Ready.”
Just as Windows Vista requires your computer to have a certain processor speed, hard drive size and video resolution, there are similar “minimum system requirements” to be aware of when upgrading to Blu-ray. Do you have a high definition display? Does your display have an available DVI or HDMI port? Do you have the necessary cables? Is your receiver (or processor) capable of decoding a Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD soundtrack? What are these Blu-ray “profiles” I keep hearing about? These are all important questions, so let’s step through them one at a time.
Unlike DVD, Blu-ray is a high definition format. That means you’ll need a high definition display in order to see the improved detail that comes with the format’s increased resolution. Whereas off-air, cable and satellite HDTV is transmitted in either 720p or 1080i, Blu-ray Discs are typically encoded at 1080p. Although most Blu-ray players can be configured to output video at 480i, 480p, 720p or 1080i, you’ll obtain optimal results when using the 1080p output setting.
Since Blu-ray video is encoded at 1080p, you’ll get the maximum video performance from your Blu-ray Disc if your television has a 1080p native resolution (1920 x 1080). If your display is 720p, Blu-ray will still look great – but if you’re buying new, go for 1080p.
Short for High Definition Multimedia Interface, HDMI has replaced DVI (Digital Visual Inteface) as the standard for making a digital video connection. And in addition to carrying your digital picture, HDMI also delivers your multi-channel surround sound – all on one cable.
If you have a display with a DVI port, the HDMI output from a Blu-ray player can connect to the DVI port using an HDMI-to-DVI adapter or a cable with HDMI on one end and DVI on the other. Just check your TV owner’s manual to make sure your DVI display is “HDCP-compliant.” HDCP, or High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, is an anti-copy system for digital connections. Some early DVI displays lacked HDCP but it is standard on all HDMI devices.
If your display doesn’t have an available DVI or HDMI port, you can still get 720p or 1080i video from a Blu-ray player’s component video output. Just be aware that this may not remain viable in the long term if studios begin using the “Image Constraint Token” (ICS). The ICS is a software-based anti-piracy mechanism which can restrict your player’s analog video output to 480p. Bottom line: HDMI is your best bet if you have that connection option available.
It should be noted that HDMI has gone through several iterations and the latest specification - known as “HDMI 1.3” - adds support for the new lossless soundtracks (see below) and a wider color gamut known as “Deep Color.” To be on the safe side, purchase hardware and cables that are HDMI 1.3-compliant.
In addition to higher resolution video, Blu-ray Discs also boast higher bit-rate, “lossless” soundtracks such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. The simplest way to enjoy these new formats is to use a receiver sporting the Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD logos with the ability to switch multiple HDMI 1.3 sources. Since HDMI is now commonplace on cable set-top boxes and other devices, look for a receiver having at least three HDMI inputs. If you’re not yet set up to handle these new formats, don’t worry – you’ll still be able to hear the core Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 soundtrack.
Decoding of these new high-def soundtracks can happen at either the Blu-ray player or the receiver; it all depends on the gear you choose and one option isn’t inherently better than the other. What’s important to remember is that not all Blu-ray players have the same decoding capabilities and the same is true for receivers – even those with HDMI inputs. For example, some Blu-ray players might feature internal decoding for Dolby TrueHD but not DTS-HD Master Audio.
At minimum, make sure your receiver can accept a multi-channel PCM soundtrack over HDMI. This is what you’ll get when selecting “PCM” as the audio output in your Blu-ray player’s configuration menu, thereby forcing your Blu-ray player to perform the decoding. Ideally, you’ll want a receiver that features on-board decoding of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. In that case, you can select “Bitstream” output on the Blu-ray player and let your receiver do the work.
It should come as little surprise that manufacturers rarely include an HDMI cable inside the box, so you’ll need one of those. In fact, you’ll probably need at least two. If you want to take advantage of a film’s surround sound, you’ll need to run one HDMI cable from your Blu-ray player to a receiver and a second HDMI cable from the receiver to your display.
HDMI is the simplest way to enjoy Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD soundtracks, but it’s not your only option. Alternatively, you can use the multi-channel analog outputs on Blu-ray players that feature internal decoding for those (and other) surround formats. In this configuration, you’ll probably want to use component video for your picture and a set of six (5.1) or eight (7.1) RCA-style audio cables between your player and receiver.
Although Blu-ray “Profiles” deserve an article all to themselves, they should be mentioned here since we’re talking about maximizing your Blu-ray experience. Put simply, not all Blu-ray players were created equal. There have been three major generations or “Profiles” of Blu-ray hardware: 1.0, 1.1 and 2.0. Although all Blu-ray players are capable of playing Blu-ray movies and TV content, advanced features such as PiP-style, dual-tuner video (aka “BonusView”) and downloadable web content (aka “BD Live”) are a different story altogether.
BonusView only works on Profile 1.1 (or newer) machines and BD Live can only be used on a Profile 2.0 machine. What’s the big deal, you ask? Just run a firmware update and problem solved, right? Wrong. With the exception of Sony’s Playstation 3, Profile 1.0 and Profile 1.1 players cannot be upgraded to Profile 2.0. Thankfully, we’re finally starting to see a few Profile 2.0 machines hit the market and there will undoubtedly be plenty more available before the holidays. If BonusView and BD Live are important to you, make sure your player features Profile 2.0.
Ready, Set, Wow
As confusing as all of this sounds, rest assured that the benefits of Blu-ray far outweigh the headache you may now be feeling. Once you’ve set up your system to be “Blu-ray ready” and the lights go down, profiles and bitstreams will be the furthest thing from your mind. In fact, the first time you watch “Spiderman” in 1080p with uncompressed sound, your only thought will be something akin to “WOW.”
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3 Reasons to Avoid Blu-ray (For Now)