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.
Blu-ray Upgrade
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June 13, 2008 by Greg Robinson

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.

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Greg Robinson - Contributing Writer
Greg Robinson is a freelance technology writer whose work has appeared in several national publications. When he's not evaluating Blu-ray Discs or calibrating televisions, you can usually find him thumping volleyballs at his local gym in rural northeast Connecticut.

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