As I write this, its been almost a year to the day that I first got my hands on an HD DVD player. I remember the circumstances well. They didnt involve anything as exciting as a fist fight for the last unit on the shelf or a manager chasing me around the parking lot because his store had accidentally sold me a player before release day. However, I certainly shared a similar exhilaration when I respectfully approached the sealed box of my player, cutting tool in hand. Since that day, I have been enjoying some gorgeous HD pictures, mind-blowing lossless sound, and truly next-generation interactivity. On the first anniversary of HD DVD, I thought it would be fun to reminisce a bit and surmise what the future holds for HD DVD and Blu-ray disc.
Gen 1 vs. Gen 2 vs. Next Gen
When we first began to configure HD players, we discovered that they would only output 1080i video at 30 frames (60 fields) per second. This was somewhat disappointing becauseand it holds true to this daythe overwhelming majority of HD DVD and Blu-ray discs contained 1080p at 24 fps. As it turned out, the decoder chips of the day would only support 1080i, so manufacturers who wanted a 1080p output had to add a de-interlacing function to turn 1080i back into 1080p. Most of us, however, preferred to ignore this internal de-interlacing and feed the 1080i signal to an external video processor or a display. If the de-interlacing was performed correctly, it was possible to reconstitute the original 1080p, 24fps content on the disc, and that was what really mattered. Things became much less complex, though, when players began to offer real 1080p output at either the native 24 fps or 2-3 frame rate multiplied to 60 fps, which is more widely accepted by current displays. In the future, we hope to see widespread 24 fps output to displays that refresh the image at an even multiple of 24, such as 48, 72, or even 120 Hz.
Flipping over to the audio side, the first-generation players introduced us to the concept of compressed audio formats like Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD being decoded in the player rather than the AV controller. Taking advantage of HDMIs ability to carry uncompressed PCM audio, the players decoded all forms of compressed audio into a multi-channel PCM stream that could be read by any HDMI 1.1 AV controller. Some Blu-ray titles already contained PCM soundtracks that could be sent directly to the controller. For S/PDIF coaxial and optical connections, the PCM stream was re-compressed to Dolby Digital or DTS in real time to fit within S/PDIFs bandwidth restraints. Subsequent advances in audio decoding have been slow to develop, however. Most notably, were only just beginning to see products that decode DTS High Resolution and DTS Master Audio. As time progresses, were looking forward to both players and AV controllers that support all the latest audio formats.
A Big Surprise
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year has been the Xbox 360 and the PS3. No longer are gaming consoles the scourge of the AV world. The latest offerings from Microsoft and Sony may have a few shortcomings in the HD DVD and Blu-ray department, but its impossible to deny that these two multimedia systems are substantial over-achievers. They offer high-quality AV performance that is arguably on par with standalone players. They also have full Web access for interactivity and updates, which, amazingly, is lacking on some very notable standalone players. If you also consider the fact that the Xbox 360 and PS3 play HD games, stream music and pictures over a network, and download HD video, then you are dealing with a truly unbeatable value for clients who are tentative about taking the HD plunge. In fact, I wouldnt rule out putting a 360, PS3, or both in every installeven on the high-end.
Over and over I hear people say that they need HDMI 1.3 (the latest version of HDMI) for HD DVD and Blu-ray to work, and it is simply not true. HDMI 1.1 will support 1080p video up to 60 fps and uncompressed multi-channel PCM audio. What more do you need?
That being said, take note of two things. First, some manufacturers chose not to make their HDMI 1.1 components compatible with 1080p video. Theres no limitation within the HDMI 1.1 spec itself, its just a decision made by manufacturers. You need to be careful not to put one of these components in a system that is otherwise compatible with 1080p. Second, software and hardware of the future may support features like Deep Color that actually do require HDMI 1.3, but nothing does now. Dont use that as an excuse for leaving HD players out of your current jobs.
The High-Definition Frontier
I calibrate hundreds of high-end home theaters for various custom installation firms. Its really a fun job; I get to see past all the hype to what is actually being installed in the field. Guess what? Its been a year now, and Im not seeing enough HD players out there. Come on, whats the deal? For under $1,000 you can offer your clients truly impressive HD that will show off all the expensive video display hardware you install. If youre afraid that the new formats might fail, install an Xbox 360 or PS3 instead. If not, put in the best HD player you can find.
Dont use the occasional playback glitches as an excuse, either. The majority of problems that your clients will have with HD DVD and Blu-ray can be solved simply by carefully cleaning discs before playing them or disconnecting/reconnecting power to the players if they lock up. Take an extra minute or two to train your clients (and perhaps employ a convenient way for them to switch power on/off to the players), and youre good to go. The time is now. Lets get out there on the HD frontier and ride off into the sunset.
Chase Walton contributed to this article.
Anthony Grimani (agrimani@ pmiltd.com) is president of Performance Media Industries, a California-based acoustical engineering firm specializing in home theater design and calibration.