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Home Entertainment Blog Archive

Brought to you by your friendly, opinionated, Home Entertainment and Technology writer, Stephen Dawson

Here I report, discuss, whinge or argue on matters related to high fidelity, home entertainment equipment and the discs and signals that feed them. Since this Blog is hand-coded (I like TextPad), there are no comments facilities. But feel free to email me at scdawson [at] hifi-writer.com. I will try to respond, either personally or by posting here emails I consider of interest. I shall assume that emails sent to me here can be freely posted by me unless you state otherwise.

This archive is for an uncertain period commencing Thursday, 20 November 2008

The Wall Street Journal on the re-ordering of the music recording industry - Monday, 12 January 2009, 11:25 pm

The Wall Street Journal today has an interesting piece on how international record companies are gradually accommodating themselves to the fact of digital technology. As it puts it:

But after suing some 35,000 music fans for illegally downloading songs, music honchos decided not to sue the more than seven million others. Instead, the industry has concluded that if it can't beat them, it might as well join them in enjoying the benefits of technology. This marks a milestone in what might be called the Great Unbundling.
I was dead scared for a few years that this might happen too early. What frightened me was the thought that the CD would be replaced as the primary music distribution medium by MP3 or similar downloads. Imagine if most music could only be obtained as a digital track compressed with a lossy CODEC.

Now, though, I think that there will be sufficient bandwidth (and portable player space) to allow lossless compression systems to be used. Perhaps at a premium over the standard AAC or WMA version, but I wouldn't mind that.

IceTV saves the day - Sunday, 11 January 2009, 10:11 pm

I am a huge fan of the US TV show 'Heroes'. But it has been hard to watch, thanks to the TV station here, PrimeTV, shuffling it around the TV programming schedule. Season 3 came to a premature end late last year, but there was a suggestion it would reappear early this year. I went away to join my family mid-week for a few days of holiday, and returned yesterday to discover that the resumption took place last Thursday evening. I figured I had missed it.

That was particularly irritating because of the way that 'Heroes' is structured as a complex array of intersecting stories, with those intersections largely coming in the last couple of episodes. This missed episode was the penultimate one for the season.

But just in case I checked my Beyonwiz PVR. And, lo and behold, there it was!

There was no magic involved. It's just that last year some time I had marked on IceTV my interest in recording all episodes of 'Heroes' as they appeared. The Beyonwiz is plugged into my network, and it periodically interrogates this website to download up to date electronic program guides, plus information on programs to record.

Similar facilities are apparently available using TiVo. If you're keen on not missing recordings, these are well worth checking out.

Viva Blu-ray! - Sunday, 4 January 2009, 8:46 pm

There is war in the world, and possibly a major economic problem, so I am going to outline the reasons I like Blu-ray with reference to my experience last Thursday night. My wife and I had some time to kill, so we went to the nearest convenient cinema to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We both rather enjoyed the movie, but this post isn't about that. It is about the pros and cons of Blu-ray.

The cons of Blu-ray are few: I have to wait longer to see a movie (it was only the other night that I finally saw The Dark Knight), and there is an increased danger of the accidentally learning of twists and surprises in a story prior to seeing the movie.

The pros of Blu-ray are many, at least compared to my experience at Cinema 1 of Hoyts Cinemas, Belconnen Mall, Canberra, ACT:

  • At home my Blu-ray movies start on time. In every case (so far) I can skip unwanted trailers and the like, so there is rarely more than a couple of minutes delay while I get the projector warmed up. At Hoyts a movie scheduled to start at 8:50pm saw us being admitted five to ten minutes late, and then having to endure several advertisements and at least four movie trailers. My guess: the movie started at least 20 minutes after the advertised time.
  • At home my Blu-ray movies end on time. The Hoyts program promised a finish of 11:51pm. We were supposed to pick someone up by midnight. I suggested to my wife that I'd be prepared to make the major (for me) sacrifice of departing as soon as the final credits began to roll in order to make it. The final credits actually began to roll after midnight, so half way through the movie I found myself sending text messages, warning of delays.
  • At home my Blu-ray movies sound wonderful. Actually, the movie sounded okay at the cinema too. But all those trailers and advertisements leading up to it didn't. They were obviously on optical tracks printed to the film, and heavily scratched as were several of the prints, with one having a continuous scratch throughout its entire run time right down the centre of the screen. The crackles made that clear. They were turned up loud and the distortion levels were very hard on my ears.
  • At home my Blu-ray movies have the correct aspect ratio. That also was largely the case for the movie at Hoyts. But not entirely. The last advertisement before the movie was showing stretched horizontally into a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, making its contents short and squat, and even showing black bars to the top and bottom. Then the movie started up, showing the Warner Bros and Paramount logos (apparently this was a co-production). The logos for both were tall and skinny. The masking curtains were in for a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, so it seemed that the picture was not enjoying the benefits of an anamorphic lens. Fortunately, within a few seconds the curtains were opened up and the appropriate lens put into place, correcting this.
  • At home my Blu-ray movies are sharply focused. This was not the case at Hoyts.
  • At home I get decent black levels. At Hoyts I would estimate the black levels to be consistent with a contrast ratio of about 2,000:1. The many dark scenes in this movie lost a lot of detail.
That will teach me to go to the movies!
Samsung delivers BD-Live - Tuesday, 23 December 2008, 11:24 am

When Samsung released its BD-P1500 Blu-ray player a few months ago, it delivered a BonusView player with a promise of a future upgrade to BD-Live.

Earlier this month it delivered on that promise with new firmware available from Samsung's website. I loaded it up, and then immediately had difficulties. The player went extremely slowly. When I pressed its remote key for the setup menu, it would take a solid five seconds to appear. When I then pressed the down arrow, it would take at least two seconds for the highlight to move down.

After fiddling around for a while, I determined that by inserting the USB memory after the unit was switched on, the slowdown was eliminated. If switched on with the USB memory in place, or without it, the unit ran slow. If I pulled the memory stick, waiting for this to be acknowledged on the screen, reinserted it and waited a few seconds -- or simply inserted the memory stick after the unit was switched on in the latter case -- then the speed returned to normal and the unit was properly responsive.

I also discovered that if I switched on with the memory stick in place, I could (slowly) make my way through the menus to the Persistent Storage management section and format the USB drive. This restored normal operation as well.

Perhaps it wasn't surprising, then, that I thought the issue had something to do with USB.

Since I had to finalise a review of the unit I went googling to see if others may have experienced this problem. No go. I called Samsung tech support and asked if they'd heard of this problem. No, they hadn't.

Then a weird thing happened. I had yanked the network cable on the unit, preparatory to moving it, when an afterthought occurred to me on something I had been checking. Since it didn't need network access, I switched on the player and there it was, running at proper speed. Could it be that the problem had nothing to do with USB?

So I posted a question on the DTV Forum site (which also hosts discussions on Blu-ray players). A few hours later Tony H remarked that he had the same problem and that a fixed IP address corrected it. He said that the unit seemed to not accept a properly generated, dynamically allocated IP address. I chose a number, set a fixed address, and now the Samsung works just as it should with BD-Live.

One question remains: why did fiddling with the USB memory stick fix the issue temporarily? Did it somehow cause the networking function to reboot? After my USB trick and the unit was working okay, I could do proper BD-Live stuff, apparently at full speed. I did try twice to do network things when it was running slow. On both occasions the unit reported that the network wasn't available. At the time I just thought that was because of a slow response the unit had jumped to the wrong conclusion, but now I see that the network really was disabled (from the player's point of view) during those slow times.


UPDATE (Sunday, 18 January 2009, 10:09 am): Samsung has released a new Australian firmware update that, I am happy to report, corrects this issue. In loading, it resets the unit back to a virgin state, which means that you will have to change the video and audio settings (including switching on 24fps output), and resets the network settings to default, which means having a dynamically allocated address. No more slowdown; the system works perfectly.

I don't know what else the update does. There is some talk on the DTV Forum that it also provides DiVX support. I noticed when I was watching Eagle Eye the other day that the player was skipping the occasional random frame. I hope it improves the unit on that front.

I initially tried this morning to do a network update on the player, but it claimed that its firmware was up to date, so I downloaded the USB version from Samsung's website and did it this way. On its website, Samsung called it 'Version 2.3'. The unit itself reports the new firmware as '090113.21_050708-1_XSA'.

Speedy Miss Potter - Tuesday, 23 December 2008, 12:17 am

Lately I have been devoting my website attentions more to my Blu-ray vs DVD comparison shots than I have to this Blog. Most of them haven't really been worth commenting on individually here, but now an unusual one has arisen.

Miss Potter is a British produced biopic about the childrens' book author. Icon Film Distribution kindly sent me a copy of both the DVD and the Blu-ray release. I promptly set about entering their specifications into my database. The theatrical showing of the movie had, according to IMDB, a run time of 92 minutes. As expected, the DVD had a run time of nearly 89 minutes.

The shorter run time is that as with most PAL DVDs, the film frames were transferred one for one to the DVD frames. Since PAL DVD runs at 25 frames per second, the film plays a little faster. About 4% in fact.

Since Blu-ray movies are played back at 24 frames per second, their run times should be the same as the theatrical showing. But on Blu-ray, this movie was also nearly 89 minutes long. It took a while for the penny to drop. Eventually I realised that I now had in my collection the first Blu-ray movie I had seen which was not recorded at 1080p24, but at 1080p25. Why Icon would do this I have no idea. But it is nice to see something unusual. In addition, the special extras use the Australian standard definition resolution of 576i.

Everything you always wanted to know about Blu-ray sound, but weren't silly enough to request - Wednesday, 3 December 2008, 1:18 pm

Earlier this year I did a two part piece on the audio standards of Blu-ray and some of the complications in getting it out just the way you need it. Here it is: 'The New Digital Sound'

Pioneer Susano SC-LX90 home theatre amplifier review - Tuesday, 2 December 2008, 9:21 am

I see that Sound and Image has put my review of this high-end, $AUS10,999 home theatre amplifier on-line. Read it here.

HDMI 1.3 cables - Monday, 1 December 2008, 8:59 am

On the Sony BDP-S350 Review Thread at the Blu-ray forum someone asked, 'I am totally confused whether I should be using a HDMI 1.3 cable.'

Someone else responded, 'If you want to bitstream DTS-HD MA and DD TrueHD you must use HDMI 1.3.'

But this isn't quite correct. The HDMI version numbers refer to the kinds of capabilities that can potentially be supported. They don't refer to cables as such because in a basic wiring sense, all HDMI cables are the same.

That does not mean that all HDMI cables work the same. You may not get a reliable connection for higher bandwidth signals over longer cable runs if you use a cheap, thin cable. A cable that works at 1080i may not work at 1080p.

As it happens DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD do not make additional demands on cables. These are compressed audio formats that typically reduce by about 50% the amount of data required to carry the sound. But even way back in the beginnings of HDMI -- Version 1.0 -- it was specificied to carry up to eight channels of 192kHz, 24 bit uncompressed LPCM.

HDMI 1.3 did double the bandwidth requirements to 10.2Gbps, but that extra bandwidth provides for the future, not for current demands.

I have been using Kordz HDMI cables for several years (since before HDMI 1.3 came into use), and they continue to work perfectly for me, despite being plugged in and out of equipment all the time.

DTS vs Dolby Digital vs high definition sound - Tuesday, 25 November 2008, 1:16 pm

Interesting article here about the differences in sound quality between the various forms of DTS and Dolby Digital and the new lossless formats, in which actual controlled listening tests are conducted.

Bottom line: differences are subtle.

Wall-e coming - Tuesday, 25 November 2008, 1:09 pm

Wall-e coverDisney advises that it will be releasing its latest animated marvel, Wall-e, on DVD and Blu-ray on 14 January 2009.

Here's what it says about the extras:

Single Disc DVD:

  • Presto – A Pixar Animation Studios original theatrical short about a star magician’s ego that provokes some clever revenge from his neglected rabbit costar.
  • Animation Sound Design: Building Worlds from The Sound Up – Ben Burtt, an Oscar-winning sound designer, introduces viewers to the art of sound design using examples from WALL•E and historic footage of the early Disney sound effects masters at work.
  • Geek-o-Rama – Pixar artists (some of the biggest geeks in the universe!) confess how their science fiction, fantasy and comic book influences inspired and drove the creation of WALL•E.
  • Audio Commentary by WALL•E director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo).
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Easter Eggs
Blu-ray Bonus Features:
  • Robots – Find out everything about the film’s robot heroes, including hilarious web vignettes, the names and functions of all of WALL•E’s malfunctioning misfit robot friends and an interactive storybook packed with child-friendly challenges.
  • Behind the Scenes – Six exclusive featurettes give fans an insider’s view of the making of WALL•E, including the film’s visual design, character development and musical score, plus the story behind the special effects challenges and a look at building the robot characters that populate the film.
  • Buy’n’Large Shorts – Straight from the BnL archives, five revealing short films provide insight into the inner workings of the company, from its humble beginnings to the intergalactic plan that launched EVE into space. Learn how to operate the Axiom, find out about the company’s line of “robots “for every need” and hear the story behind the Earth Exit Plan.
  • The Pixar Story by Leslie Iwerks – An award-winning, fascinating documentary account of the founding and early success of one of the most revolutionary animation company in the world featuring John Lasseter, Steve Jobs and many other groundbreaking Pixar innovators from the beginning to the present.
  • Early WALL•E development test
  • Cine-Explore – A fascinating viewing option in which filmmakers comment on WALL•E, accompanied by behind-the-scenes visuals, in sync with the movie.
  • Geek Track – An additional commentary full of obscure references, little known trivia and lively sci-fi discussion, this pop-up silhouette in-movie feature gives viewers a peek inside the minds of some of the more passionate geeks at Pixar.
  • The Axiom Arcade – A retro suite of video games with a Wall•E twist, including Eve’s Bot Blaster, Wall•E’s Dodge & Dock, M-O’s Mop-up Madness and Burn•E’s Break Through.
  • 3D Set Fly-Throughs – Cutaway illustrations of the Axiom and Earth sets provides viewer access to HD set fly-throughs from ten of the film’s most detailed locations.
Batman Begins menu: sliding or snappy - Tuesday, 25 November 2008, 10:58 am

As is Warner Bros' habit, the Blu-ray of Batman Begins doesn't really have a main menu. When you insert the disc, the player shows an FBI warning, Batman Begins coverthen the Warner Bros logo, then reads off some BD-Java code and then starts playing the movie straight away. If you want to do something you hit the pop-up menu button. The 'Top Menu' button doesn't do anything. When the movie gets to the end, the disc runs through some copyright panels, and then presents the 'Special Extras' menu over a still shot from the movie.

Because there are very extensive special extras, this menu is quite large. In fact, it seems to use rather more than a half of the screen area, and because it is presented as a box, it looks like it uses even more.

If you invoke this from the pop-up menu (which is presented as a bar across the bottom of the screen), it appears in different ways depending on the player. For the Sony Playstation 3, it slides smoothly up from the menu bar over the course of a second or so. With the Yamaha BD-S2900, which I have the disc in right now, it also slides up, but just a little jerkily. A couple of months ago I used the Olin OBDP-1000 Blu-ray Player, and this also slid up the extras menu, but very jerkily, as does the Samsung BD-P1500.

However, if I use the Sony BDP-S350 or BDP-S5000ES Blu-ray player, or the LG BD300 (from memory, this one, so I could be wrong -- I had to surrender it back to LG), the menu just snaps up into place instantly, rather than slides up.

Different BD-Java implementations in the players, perhaps?

Incidentally, one especially nice thing about Batman Begins is the BonusView PIP feature. The information it offers is interesting enough, but I'm talking about its implementation. Every other BonusView feature I've seen, so far, essentially requires the movie to restart. This one just switches it on or off at the point in which you're in the movie without otherwise affecting playback.

UPDATE (Tuesday, 23 December 2008, 10:07 pm): I have the LG BD300 Blu-ray player back. Yes, I was right: it makes the menu on this disc snap up into place.

Panasonic Makes Me Happy - Tuesday, 25 November 2008, 1:02 am

When I reviewed the Panasonic DMP-BD30 Blu-ray player back in May this year, I wrote:

On PAL DVDs, you can set the deinterlacing mode via the 'Display' on-screen menu. Unfortunately, while some older Panasonic products had a 'Film' mode option, this one only allows a choice between 'Video' and 'Auto'. The 'Auto' mode, happily, does not use the flag in the video but uses cadence detection to work out for itself the best deinterlacing mode. It gets it wrong on my more difficult test clips, but with most discs worked properly most of the time.
With the possible exception of Pioneer Kuro TVs, I have never found a circuit that works perfectly in Auto mode on my PAL DVD test clips. And I have checked HQV, Faroudja, Anchor Bay Technology, and stacks of proprietary systems. So I do like the ability to be able to force film mode.

Well, I'm looking at the Panasonic DMP-BD35 Blu-ray player right now, and there it is: a choice of 'Auto', 'Film' and 'Video'. When I select 'Film', my test clips play back perfectly.

Thank you Mr Matsushita!

The Physics of the Spirit - Sunday, 23 November 2008, 12:06 pm

In the dying moments of the First Cricket Test match for this season between Australia and New Zealand, one of the TV commentators remarked that the Australian bowler Mitchell Johnson was noted for being able to produce a 'heavy' ball. This, he said, was a ball that seems to hit the bat harder than its 140kph nominal speed because Johnson is such a strong man.

Bloody hell! I had no idea that there was this spiritual quality of 'strength' that can attach to a ball, quite independently of its velocity. Does the delivery of each ball diminish Johnson's stock of 'strength'? Does it come back in time if Johnson rests? Can he transfer this strength to objects other than cricket balls? Can he, perhaps, lay his hands upon someone suffering extreme ennui and thereby restore their zest for life?

Back to reality: I do hope that this commentator doesn't coach bowling. How hard a ball hits a bat depends upon the ball's mass and velocity at the time it strikes the bat (I'm assuming friction between the bat and ball is fairly low). The only way, for a given speed of delivery, for a ball to strike in a more 'heavy' manner is for Johnson to substitute another, heavier, ball, thereby increasing both the momentum (=MV) and kinetic energy (=0.5MV^2) of the ball, or for him to employ some trick. Since the former is cheating, I shall assume the latter.

A large portion of the delivery speed is washed off between the time when the ball leaves the bowler's hand, and when it arrives at the batsman's crease. Some of this is from air friction, but the bulk is lost when the ball hits the pitch. If Johnson is able to impart some top spin to the ball during his high speed delivery, this could reduce the amount of speed lost.

Another possibility is that this is simply in some cricketers', or cricket commentators', imaginations.

It's a bit like that with home entertainment stuff. Some listeners decry technical or 'reductionist' explanations of how well (or otherwise) these things perform. Some suggest that the human ear is the most sensitive instrument. Which is silly, because the ear isn't an instrument at all. It is a bodgey tool developed by evolution to do a specific job which has nothing at all to do with measurement. It is intended to provide enough information to allow our equally bodgey audio processing circuits to generate a tolerably accurate aural picture of the world around us. Most importantly, to do this at high speed. Having a higher accuracy picture isn't much use if during the time it takes for all the processing to be completed the cheetah that was creating the sound has raced up and bitten off our heads.

If you can hear or see differences between two pieces of equipment that their specification sheets don't seem to suggest, that doesn't mean that they won't measure differently. Measure the right things with technical equipment, sufficiently finely, and in the right conditions, and you can define every discernible aspect of its performance.

But it may still sound different to different people from time to time because we also have imaginations, hormones, moods.

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