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No Stupid Questions… Part 3: Players

by July 21, 2008
Its really cute how stupid you are...

It's really cute how stupid you are...

As a reviewer (much less the host of AV Rant), I am asked on a regular basis for my opinion. Everyone from the checkout guy at the supermarket to random people at parties want me to tell them which is the best display or speakers or HTiB. Family and friends are no better in that they ask for specific suggestions to the vaguest of questions. Sometimes they want specific answers to specific issues with which I am unlikely to have an answer (what are the best wireless headphones, best VHS to DVD recorder, etc.) and other times they just want to know what is the ultimate, best, "X". Invariably, their eyes glaze over as I wax poetic about the differences between LCD and Plasma, or HTiBs and banging your head on the wall, or how they measure contrast ratios by tossing little plastic Smurfs coated in bacon grease at their dog and multiply the number eaten by 1000 and putting a :1 after it.

Audioholics has put together a number of documents to help people help themselves.

This will probably not really be one of them.

Someone once said that there are no stupid questions. That person was stupid. People who repeat that idiom are either stupid or are looking for material for their blogs. You'll notice that while many of the questions I cover aren't particularly stupid, the lack of thought or the inability for any human to answer them is what puts them, and their asker, squarely in the "I eat paste" camp. This installment will deal with questions about players.


With the advent of high definition, we get more and more questions about high definition. People are confused. People are angry. People don't know why Blu-ray discs cost $30. I don't either.

Blu-ray? What's that?

You remember Blu-ray. Right before Christmas there were all those commercials featuring Disney characters talking about the great picture and sound? And then they stopped right after Warner Bros. dropped HD DVD and you haven't heard a thing since? Ringing any bells? Bueller?

Apparently, after HD DVD died, the marketing department over at Blu-ray broke their arms patting themselves on the back and have been recuperating in posh LA boutique hospitals getting pedicures and espresso enemas ever since. Hey Smurf-ray, the battle isn't over yet. Your players are overpriced, your discs are way too expensive, and your best player is a game console. When I tell people that last one, they give me the Spock eyebrow as if I were trying to trick them into buying a game system so their three year old could start playing Grand Theft Auto behind their backs. No, it's true, the PS3 is the best on the market right now. And that is just sad.

So, what do I tell people when they ask what Blu-ray is? It is an overpriced format that looks to have little chance of succeeding unless they start dropping prices. The players are expensive, the discs are expensive, and half the people I talk to don't have a high def set yet and so aren't even entertaining the idea of buying it. And frankly, I don't blame them. I have a high def display and can't bring myself to pony up the $500 for a PS3 (you know I'm getting the 80 gig version if I'm getting one) so how can I in good conscience recommend something different to someone else? I can't.

Why should I care about high definition?

If you are talking about TV, you should care a lot. It looks and sounds a ton better. Sure, there are problems (compression, dropped signals, etc.) but when it works, it rocks. If you are talking about Blu-ray… well, it is a bit harder sell. As I mentioned above, a well upconverted DVD (ironically, the PS3 also does a fantastic job of this) looks pretty good side by side with a Blu-ray picture - especially from a reasonable distance. Now sound-wise, the difference is much more dramatic. There is a much better dynamic range on high definition discs as opposed to their DVD counterparts. The fidelity is much better and even the bitrate of the standard Dolby Digital and DTS tracks are better meaning you don't even need HDMI to get better sound. If you can take advantage of the TrueHD or DTS MA tracks, the fidelity is MUCH better.

But then again, who am I talking to? My mom doesn't give a fig about sound quality. You might convince her that the increase in picture is worth it but she isn't worried about the sound. I'm having a hard time convincing people to spend a decent amount on speakers much less to upgrade to a format just because of sound. I'm either preaching to the choir or my words are falling on deaf ears. Either way, I'm done with that.

Unconversion, upscaling… WTF?

Yes, there are people out there that don't know what this is or why it might be important. Well, if you are still using an outdated CRT that is as much a piece of furniture as a display and the "remote" is little Johnny, then skip this section. It doesn't apply to you. When the standard definition picture you have enjoyed all these years was designed, there wasn't a thought in anyone's mind that someone might want to blow it up onto a 110" screen. That just wasn't on the radar. These days, it is more true than ever.

Depending on the situation, Upconversion and Upscaling might mean the same thing or it might be two different things. In general, when referring to DVD players, they are pretty interchangeable. With a receiver, Upconversion refers to taking various analogue inputs and sending them all out one output (usually HDMI) while Upscaling means to increase the output resolution of the signal. Regardless, the hard part is changing the resolution. If you think about blowing a picture up, at some point it becomes blurry. Your scalers or upconverters will interpolate from the information on the disc what information should be there to make that picture less blurry. Some do this better than others (remember the talk about the HQV score - the higher the score, the better it does this).

If you have a big TV you either need to spend money on the TV so that is will upscale well or make sure all your sources are good upconverters. Good upconverting DVD players can be had for <$200 with great ones around $400. The problem will come with standard definition TV. Cable/satellite boxes are notoriously bad scalers (though if they put out a bad 480i signal you might be better off letting it scale anyhow). If you have a capable display, you can set all your sources to 480i and never have to worry about it. Your high definition sources can be set to their highest resolution (1080i or p).

Downloadable content

Hey, isn't the next big thing downloadable content anyhow? Honestly, probably. But I don't think it is going to be a "big" thing as much as a small one. Whenever this topic comes up you will inevitably come across the trolls that will start quoting bitrates and throughput and a bunch of other numbers they you don't understand at you. You don't speak uber-geek so you can't respond and end up leaving with a slight "I think I just got Smurfed inappropriately" feeling.

Listen closely now - it isn't you. They did just pull one over on you.

As near as I can tell, there is one central uber-geek-troll that lives in a nest constructed of Cheetos, empty diet Mountain Dew cans (he's watching his figure), and old copies of E.T. for the 2600 and HD DVD giveaway extended version Troy copies (because what Troy needed to be was LONGER). This one individual is the central repository of all things geeky and thinks entirely in FORTRAN but can speak in Perl which other geeks can sort of understand. He'll occasionally post something so riddled with numbers and formulas that you'd need a degree in higher mathematics and a 1337 to English translator to even begin to understand that he really didn't say anything.

His followers or as I like to call them "trolletes" run around searching for people that have asked questions about the same topic and copy and paste his response everywhere. Because, as you well know, the sole criterion for determining "truth" on the Internet is by the number of times it has been posted in places that can be searched by Google.

Don't let the numbers confuse you. Sure, at full size it would take hours to download a Blu-ray movie much less all the extras. But look at what is happening to music now. Are people downloading the full song? No, some compressed version of it. What will probably happen is some combination of lowered expectations (Blu-ray will die, DVD will remain dominate, and people will be OK with DVD quality on their bigscreen TVs), increased download speeds, and decreased file size through new compression codecs. Downloading movies is available now. Look for widespread adoption sooner rather than later.

But for those "but people want to own the disc" pundits, I agree. They do. But they'll get over it. At least until the new "big thing" comes out. I'm guessing it is going to be 3-D. The file size will be so large that downloading will be a virtual impossibility for a long while. I image that it will be even less tolerant of compression artifacts than DVDs. I'm hoping to see some new 3-D sets at the tradeshows this year but don't expect to see them in the home for at least 5 years.

How come my HDMI doesn't work

Let's make this clear - this isn't a stupid question. It is the answers that are all stupid. The "great" HDMI was supposed to simplify our lives. One cable to do everything. But instead of all the great, tried and true cables in the world that were already in existence, the HDMI people decided to devise their own cable because apparently the fine print of their deal with Satan was that they were also to create strife in the world. HDMI is such a complicated cable that it almost always has to be terminated by hand (sorry custom installers). The spec changes so much the half the time the claims made about said cables are either false or are true by accident (sorry manufacturers). The changing spec also means that just because you bought a top of the line cable for your 75 foot in-wall run, doesn't mean that it will be up to spec in a year or so or that it will always work with all any possible upcoming formats.

So here are some of the stupid HDMI answers:

  • Try turning on your TV first

  • Always turn on your TV, then your receiver, then your DVD/Blu-ray player/Cable box.

  • Those sparkles are because your cable can't keep up with Blu-ray even though it was rated for 1080p

  • No, other than duct tape there is no way to secure the HDMI connector to your display. Yes, we know it keeps falling out every time someone walks across the room.

Don't even get me started on the different versions. I've got a switcher here that is claimed to be HDMI 1.3 enabled but won't pass DVD-A information. Instead it sends stereo PCM for no apparent reason. Do I blame the switcher? No. I'm sure somewhere down the line HDMI screwed these guys just like they screwed all of us. Connectors fall out, HDCP handshake fails randomly, switching sources is back to seconds long waits, and suddenly cables cost way too much. Thank you HDMI. Thank you to death.

Why does it look like I am watching a stick of chewing gum when I put on a widescreen DVD?

It baffles me that people still buy full screen movies. If the HDMI debacle didn't convince you that stupid people not only survive in this world but hold positions of power, the aspect ratio thing will. Historically, TVs are 4:3 (meaning that they are a little wider than they are tall) but most movies are filmed in 16:9 or 2.35:1 which means that they are wider and shorter than your TV. If you watch the movie in its native format, you'll get black bars on the top and bottom. If you don't, you cut off the sides. Now, if you are a horse (or donkey) and are used to wearing blinders, then this may be fine for you. It isn't for me.

Nowadays, most TVs are 16:9 so the problem is much less prevalent. But we have a whole new set of problems - they are still filming many shows (and all of the old ones or course are) in 4:3 which gives us black bars on the sides. Luckily all of these new sets come with a "wide" or "stretch" mode which stretches the picture to fit. That looks so cool. Everybody is so fat and squished. Just like me. I feel better about myself now.

What's sad is that there are people running to their displays right now and finding out that they had it on stretch mode and didn't realize it. We'll be around to collect your Audioholics Secret Decoder ring shortly. Tsk.

In closing…

You know what I hate more than format wars? Nothing. I hate nothing more than format wars. They do nobody any good and are obvious money/fame grabs by manufacturers. Why work together for the good of the customer when you can go to war with nothing to gain? Why use existing or (gasp!) easy to make cables when you can spec something so complicated that even the experts agree that some of the costs of HDMI cables are justified (the same experts that say you shouldn't pay more than 50 cents a foot for speaker cable)? Why do something that will bring a new format technology to the customer quickly and painlessly rather than launch competing technology? It is because you like to watch the fanboys froth at the mouths as they claim (in no uncertain terms) that your tech is the best? Is it to giggle in glee as early adopters throw money down the drain as they buy into the technologically better tech just to watch it get trampled under the jackbooted iron heel of your marketing machine? Is it because you truly, honestly, think that what is good for you is good for the customer? Whatever it is, STOP IT!


About the author:
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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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