HD DVD and Blu-Ray players have been available to the consumer for a little less than a year. And while the first-generation players worked, they were plagued with quirks and bugs that made the viewing experience less than ideal. Now, under a year later, the second-generation equipment is hitting store shelves, and the improvements are myriad.
We recently got a chance to bring several of these second-generation players in-house at the same time, as well as two identical Epson 1080p video projectors. Using these, we were able to find what makes each player unique, as well as some unexpected similarities. From the Toshiba HD-XA2 to Panasonic's DMP-BD10 and the Pioneer BDP-HD1 and Sony's unique Playstation 3, there's a high-definition disc player out there for everyone.
HDMI 1.3 and 1080p/24
Before we get started, there are two issues to address. If you recall, the buzzword for the last batch of high-def disc players was 1080p/60 output -- Blu-Ray had it, and HD DVD didn't. In truth, it made little to no difference in image quality, but people were drawn to Blu-Ray in part because of the hype surrounding 1080p/60 output. This time around, 1080p/60 is old hat, and the new buzzwords are HDMI 1.3 and 1080p/24 output.
HDMI 1.3 is supposed to be the next big thing in home theater, promising better color, better sound, and better bandwidth. Specifically, HDMI 1.3 advertises the xvYCC color gamut and Deep Color, which are supposed to improve the color depth and accuracy of a display to "beyond what the human eye can detect." They also advertise the ability to send Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD tracks to an HDMI 1.3-compatible receiver natively, for decoding and output to your speakers. In theory, these improvements are extremely desirable.
In practice, the whole thing is much less exciting. As of now, there are few HDMI 1.3 A/V receivers or processors on the market to take advantage of the improved sound streams, though they are slowly becoming more and more available. And as far as video is concerned, we saw no difference between Deep Color and non-Deep Color on two identical projectors. Deep Color is in fact somewhat misleading as a marketing term, for it leads consumers to imagine they will get deeper, richer, more saturated color. But we already get plenty of deep, rich color saturation without it.
What Deep Color will do is enable displays to define a greater number of colors. The practical consequence is that it will provide smoother gradations between very subtlely different tones. While that is nice, the typical consumer is not likely ever to notice any difference between pictures being driven by Deep Color vs. non-Deep Color. HDMI 1.3 may prove to be valuable in the future, when compatible A/V receivers are available and xvYCC-enabled content hits shelves. For now, though, it's not delivering any tangible benefits.
The other big buzzword, 1080p/24, has been around for quite a while. HD DVD and Blu-Ray film content are encoded to the disc at 1080p, 24 frames per second -- the same frame rate as film. Having this content output natively at 24 frames per second should eliminate motion judder that is introduced in the 2:3 pulldown conversion of 24 fps sources to 60fps display. In theory this should make panning sequences cleaner and more stable.
Despite our excitement to test 1080p/24, and our eagerness to report on the improvements thereof, we could not visually identify any advantages that 1080p/24 held over the same movie being played in 1080p/60. Side by side the pictures look identical, with 1080p/24 offering no reduction of motion judder. There could be several reasons for this, and we are not in a position to speculate at this time. We will continue to look into it and see what the issues are. Meanwhile, if you buy an HD disc player with 1080p/24 output, and you feed that into your new 1080p projector and find no discernable reduction in motion judder, don't be surprised.
This is not to say that 1080p/24 and HDMI 1.3/Deep Color are snake oil. In the future, it is likely that these two features will produce some noticeable benefits for home theater. However, they are still in their infancy, and it will be some time before we see these technologies become advantageous to the end user.
The HD-XA2 is Toshiba's new top of the line HD DVD player. After less than a year, the first-generation HD-A1 and HD-XA1 look positively ancient. The new HD-XA2 is improved in just about all aspects, from size to audible noise to disc load times. This last point is possibly the most important, as the slowness of the older players was quite the sore spot for those who bought them. Controls are now more responsive, and discs now load about 30% faster. And while users of the older HD-A1 will recall how hard the remote control was to operate in the dark, the XA2 remote control also has a backlight, which makes it incredibly easy to use.
The case is slimmer than the first-generation players, which brings the HD-XA2 down to a more standard size. Connections on the back include standard video inputs, from composite and s-video to component and HDMI. Audio inputs include analog stereo and 5.1 channel, TOSlink optical, and coaxial. There is, as always, an ethernet port for updates to the firmware.
In another new development, the HD-XA2 uses HDMI 1.3. HDMI 1.3 offers several improvements over previous versions, such as higher bandwidth and what's called "Deep Color." As discussed above, Deep Color should provide for better color accuracy and fidelity, but in reality we saw very little improvement using the XA2 and our Epson 1080p projectors.
The HD-XA2 will output video from 480i up through 1080p/60, with the notable exception of 1080p/24. 1080p/24 transmission is desirable in theory, since it takes the contents of an HD disc and sends them to the display without any video processing being applied. This should result in a cleaner picture. However, in practice, we saw little evidence that 1080p/24 from the Pioneer Elite Blu-Ray player looked better than 1080p/60 from any of the other devices, including the XA2.
For standard definition, the HD-XA2's upconversion is nearly flawless. Using the Silicon Optix REON processor, the XA2 can scale 480i video or film into clean, clear, sharp 1080p for your projector or flatscreen display. In fact, the upconversion quality is high enough that you may end up disconnecting your regular DVD player.
One of the other advantages of HDMI 1.3 is that the HD-XA2 can output Dolby TrueHD directly to a receiver for decoding. However, at the present time, such receivers don't exist. Until HDMI 1.3 is more prevalent, this will remain a theoretical benefit. In the meantime, though, the HD-XA2 will transcode the TrueHD audio track to multichannel PCM, and output it from any of the other audio output ports.
With a street price of only $799, the HD-XA2 is the most capable HD DVD player released thus far. If you've been thinking about making the jump to high definition on the HD DVD side of the ring, the HD-XA2 is a great piece of kit.
The long-awaited Panasonic DMP-BD10 Blu-Ray drive has finally arrived on store shelves everywhere. While it's a little quirky at times in the user interface department, video performance is nothing short of stellar.
The BD10 has a slick, glossy front panel with no buttons, no ports, and not even a space for the Blu-Ray drive. All of the important workings are hidden behind a flip-down panel, giving the player a very elegant, clean appearance. However, since the BD10's only disc eject button is behind this flip-down panel (the remote has no eject button) you'll find yourself having to open and close the panel a lot. It is also glossy and shows fingerprints easily, so you may find yourself leaving the front panel open.
The remote control has large, easy to find buttons, but no backlight. Instead of a standard four-direction pad it has a jog wheel, which will scan forward and backwards in video. However, to navigate the menus one must also use this wheel, and it is all too easy to send the video speeding away in fast-forward or rewind by accident.
Video output is 1080p/60 maximum (no 1080p/24) over the player's HDMI link. Video quality is top shelf -- there is no softness or lack of detail to speak of, and a good source disc will guarantee some of the most beautiful HD video you'll ever see.
The BD10 is the only player released thus far with full 7.1 analog output. There is no HDMI 1.3 on this player, so if you're planning on upgrading your sound system to an HDMI 1.3 receiver soon, the BD10 may not be for you. However, If you have a 7.1 system, the BD10 can make use of the entire set of speakers like no other player on the market. The downside is that the BD10 cannot presently decode Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD, the new high-definition audio codecs. Panasonic has promised a firmware update in April of this year, but this far they have not confirmed that TrueHD support will be added. Even if it is, since the BD10 lacks HDMI 1.3, you'll be stuck transcoding the HD audio streams onboard - they can't be fed natively to your receiver.
Without a doubt, the $1300 price tag is steep, but the BD10 has the potential to be the best player around for audio if the April firmware update delivers TrueHD and DTS-HD support. With crisp, clean 1080p/60 video and 7.1 analog out, the DMP-BD10 is a fantastic player with some relatively minor user interface issues.
Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1
The Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1 is the most feature-rich Blu-Ray player on the market, as well as the most expensive. Pioneer's flagship offering marks the pinnacle achievement for Blu-Ray players thus far.
The BDP-HD1's case is pretty standard, but elegant. The front panel is uncluttered, but a half-door flips open to reveal playback controls should they be needed. Outputs on the back include most every common connection - HDMI, Component, S-Video, composite, Analog 5.1, Analog 2ch, coaxial, TOSlink, and an ethernet port for firmware updates.
The BDP-HD1 had the best video capabilities in the roundup, because of the noteworthy addition of 1080p/24. This allows for film material from a Blu-Ray Disc to be transmitted natively to a compatible display, thereby eliminating any signal processing from the image. The problem is, we could not see a clear, discernable difference between 1080p/60 and 1080p/24 with the equipment we were using for this shootout. This is not to say that there is no difference, but after several hours of testing, we could not tell A from B with any degree of reliability or repeatability.
Surprisingly, there's no HDMI 1.3 on this player. So even after you get a state of the art 1080p/24 player and a state of the art 1080p display that will accept 1080p/24 (many will not), you still don't have HDMI 1.3 and Deep Color. However, this is another future-proofing feature that will become more prevalent as time goes on, so it is not critically important at the moment.
The Pioneer Elite will transcode TrueHD or DTS-HD out over HDMI, analog 5.1, coaxial, or TOSlink. It will not, however, output them natively over HDMI. So if you plan on upgrading to a TrueHD or DTS-HD compatible HDMI receiver in the near future, the BDP-HD1 may leave you out in the cold.
Of course, quality comes with a price, and the Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1 comes in at $1,499. Of course, if you want 1080p/24 output, options are not exactly in abundance. For the amount of features that it brings to the table, the Pioneer Elite is worth a look.
Sony Playstation 3 (60GB)
Sony's new Playstation 3 is an odd bird. Not only is it the most powerful game system currently on the market, but it is also a Blu-Ray player -- one of the least expensive Blu-Ray players on the market. As such, it appeals to a wider audience than perhaps any game system yet released. Lightning-fast response times and an unbeatable price make the PS3 a unique value.
The PS3 comes in a sleek, shiny case, but you'll need to make some room on your equipment shelf. With a 13" x 11" footprint and a 4" height, it's not exactly tiny, and the curved top means that it must go on the top of your equipment stack. Luckily, it's not an eyesore.
The PS3 comes out of the box ready for gaming - its primary purpose. If you are going to use it as a dedicated Blu-Ray player, there are some items you should think about purchasing. For one, an HDMI cable or at least component cables are crucial, as the PS3 cannot output 720p, 1080i, or 1080p over anything less. Secondly, the PS3 Blu-Ray remote helps make the PS3 feel less like a game system and more like a standalone player. You'll need to purchase the official Sony remote, though, as the PS3 uses bluetooth as opposed to infrared. Universal remotes will not function with the PS3.
Video output goes up to 1080p/60 - including 1080p/24. Video quality is on par with the Panasonic and Pioneer players, which is an outstanding accomplishment for a device that costs less than half as much as the competition.
The PS3 also uses HDMI 1.3, which means that it will be compatible in the future with many HDMI 1.3 A/V receivers and processors. However, audio output options are much more limited than the other players. The PS3 can output audio over HDMI or over TOSlink optical, but those are the only options for 5.1 surround. While this is a relatively minor concern for most people, those looking for 5.1 analog outputs or coaxial output need to look elsewhere.
The real kicker, though, is that the PS3 can be had for as little as $600. For a lot of people, this brings Blu-Ray players into the realm of affordability, and gives the format a price-competitive stepping stone in its war against HD DVD. If you're not too picky about audio outputs, or if you planned to use HDMI exclusively to begin with, the PS3 is a fantastic value, hands-down.