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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, 15 January 2009

Firmware - Tuesday, 10 February 2009, 10:44 am

My five-way Blu-ray player comparison review is out in the new issue (Feb/March 2009) of Sound and Image magazine. The review covers lower cost players: the LG BD300, the Panasonic DMP-BD35, the Samsung BD-P1500, the Sharp BD-HP21X and the Sony BDP-S350.

In the summary table, just after the physical dimensions and the like, I specify the firmware version installed in the player. This is a relatively new innovation for me. The fact is, consumer electronics are less and less hardware devices these days, and more and more special purpose computers. Imagine comparing two identical computers, but with one of them running Windows XP and the other running Windows Vista. They would be like completely different machines, even though their hardware is the same.

With Blu-ray players and digital TV receivers this is pretty much the case. New firmware versions are issued quite often, addressing bugs, adding features and so on. For example, Samsung recently added BD-Live capability to its BD-P1500, several months after its launch. So when I review one of these devices, it's important to say which firmware is installed. Of course, I always make sure that the latest available firmware is installed at the time of the review. Already both the Sony and the Samsung units have had their firmwares upgraded between when I wrote the reviews and when they appeared in print today.

I suggest you keep an eye out for reference to firmware when you are reading reviews.

Star Trek goes Blu - Monday, 9 February 2009, 10:03 am

Paramount Pictures has just released its Australian Blu-ray release schedule for April and May this year. And this is the first time it is a specific schedule, not just the Blu-ray titles mixed in with the DVD schedule.

A couple of exciting things are included, especially Season 1 of the original series of 'Star Trek'. This was released quite a while back on HD DVD, and was brilliant then. I imagine that the level of brilliance will be the same.

Here's the list:

Madagascar16 April 2009
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa16 April 2009
Traitor16 April 2009
The Heartbreak Kid16 April 2009
Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter23 April 2009
'Star Trek': The Original Series - Season One30 April 2009
Star Trek: The Original Crew Movie Collection30 April 2009
Star Trek: The Motion Picture14 May 2009
Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan14 May 2009
Star Trek: The Search for Spock14 May 2009
Star Trek: The Voyage Home14 May 2009
Star Trek: The Final Frontier14 May 2009
Revolutionary Road21 May 2009

All the Star Treks have been remastered.

The Zombie Strippers test - Wednesday, 4 February 2009, 1:31 pm

Zombie Strippers Blu-ray coverIn my recent comparison of inexpensive Blu-ray players for Sound and Image magazine, I introduced a new picture quality test. Here's how I explained it:

In assessing picture quality, I made resort to a test that shall henceforth be known as 'Zombie Strippers'. The name is simply too delicious to resist.

I base the test on playing back a movie trailer on the recently released Sony Pictures Entertainment Blu-ray of Felon. That is a fine and serious movie, well worth viewing, so forgive it for also carrying a trailer for a dreadfully bad movie called Zombie Strippers. This, apparently, is going to be released on Blu-ray. The trailer itself is in 480i format.

I've noticed an odd thing about Blu-ray. NTSC DVDs generally carry their movies in 24 frames per second format (although the frames are divided into interlaced fields). The DVD player performs the 3:2 pulldown required to convert this to 60 frames per second. But on Blu-ray, Special Features presented in 480i format tend to have already had the 3:2 pulldown performed upon them. This uses more space, but Blu-ray has space to burn. So about two fifths of the frames are heavily interlaced, presenting a deinterlacing challenge for some Blu-ray players. It was on this trailer that I first noticed this behaviour. So 'Zombie Strippers' will be the test.

That stuff about how the 480i video can be presented in different ways is covered in somewhat more detail here (see the section 'NTSC -- where interlacing goes wrong').

Incidentally, the pack shot I've shown for this movie I grabbed from the persistent storage USB memory stick I used in a Blu-ray player. It had been downloaded from the Internet by the BD-Live facility on one of the Sony BD-Live discs I'd been checking out.

More Blu-ray vs DVD comparisons - Wednesday, 4 February 2009, 1:31 pm

The so-called Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Matrix have joined my Blu-ray vs DVD comparisons. The former (which I compared to the PAL Superbit DVD version) is variable in the improvement; the latter is magnificent.

The Matrix was a very important movie in the advance of DVD, and it was an early leader in DVD sales, establishing the format as something here to stay. It also shows how much things have changed, and in particular standards have improved. Some reviews of the Australian DVD release of The Matrix are here, here, and here. It received for video quality at those sites, respectively, 4.5 out of 5 stars, 5 out of 5 stars and 5 out of 5 stars. The TVs used for those reviews were 'Loewe Art-95 95cm direct view CRT in 16:9 mode', 'Panasonic 51cm and 68cm televisions' and '48" Sony RPTV'. With today's bigger screens and HDMI connections, it isn't surprising that compared to the Blu-ray, I'd give the original DVD release of The Matrix about 2/5 for video quality.

Company Precedence in The Matrix - Wednesday, 4 February 2009, 1:28 pm

Viewers of The Matrix will recall that at the very start, even before the cascading computer text, the Warner Bros and Village Roadshow movie logos are presented on stylised screens as the creepy music starts. This movie was a co-production, and I think one of the ways that the production benefits were split was that US distribution rights belonged to Warner Bros, while Australian rights belonged to Roadshow Entertainment.

When the movie was released on DVD here, it was virtually the same as the Warner Bros version released in America, with the same special extras ('Follow the White Rabbit'), but of course it had to be remastered for our 576i video system.

With the Blu-ray version, no remastering is required so this version is, I think, identical to the Warner Bros version sold in the US. It even has an FBI copyright warning. Only now, after all these years, I've noticed that the Australian DVD, remastered for Roadshow Entertainment, opens with the Village Roadshow logo, followed by the Warner Bros one. On the Blu-ray, Warner Bros leads, followed by Village Roadshow.

Number 1 and Number 11 hitting Blu-ray in Australia! - Friday, 23 January 2009, 2:21 pm

Warner Bros advises that from 4 March to 1 April 2009 you will be able to purchase The Shawshank Redemption and Casablanca in Australia, in high definition on Blu-ray, for $AUS29.95. Number 1 and Number 11 refer, respectively, to their positions on the Internet Movie Database Top 250 list.

I place a lot of weight on the IMDB ratings because they are open to public votes. While some gaming is, I suppose, possible, with votes of between 100,000 and 400,000 unique registrants for most of the movies, it doesn't seem that it would significantly influence the results. Those who distrust the common person would probably fear that such a list would fill with blockbuster shoot-em-ups, but the list has 12 Angry Men at number 10, The Seven Samurai at number 14, City of God at number 17 and so on. Neither parochialism nor poor taste there.

Not to say that I, personally, agree with everything on the list. But, then, some movies I consider to be masterpieces are not well regarded by most other people. Rather, it is a solid distillation of widely-spread wisdom.

Shawshank usually jostles at the top of this list with the first two Godfather movies. Casablanca has always been included in critics' 'best ever' lists.

I have high hopes for the quality of Shawshank (Warner press release PDF: right click here to download). The DVD re-release of a couple of years ago was pretty good, and it is a fairly recent movie.

I know for sure that Casablanca is going to look lovely, because I purchased the HD DVD version from the US a couple of years ago and it looked lovely. Warner Bros typically ports them to Blu-ray pretty much unchanged and the extras collection seems pretty much unaltered. (Press release PDF: Right click here to download.)

Also releasing on Blu-ray by Warner:

Body of Lies25 February 2009
RocknRolla4 March 2009
'Smallville' (Seasons Six and Seven)4 March 2009
Interview with the Vampire4 March 2009
Eraser4 March 2009
Outbreak4 March 2009
Pale Rider4 March 2009
Every Which Way But Loose4 March 2009
Gods and Generals4 March 2009
Poltergeist (Deluxe Edition)4 March 2009
Justice League: The New Frontier4 March 2009
'Supernatural (Season Three)'4 March 2009
'Sarah Connor Chronicles' (Season One)4 March 2009
Superman Doomsday1 April 2009
Another Cinderella Story29 April 2009
'Pushing Daisies' (Season One)29 April 2009
An American in Paris29 April 2009
Gigi29 April 2009
Who is bringing Miss Potter into the US? - Wednesday, 21 January 2009, 4:27 pm

The US arm of Amazon.com has the Blu-ray version of Miss Potter listed for sale on its website. Under 'Product Details' it has 'Studio' listed as '101 DISTRIBUTION'. I emailed 101 Distribution because I wanted to see if it was importing this disc (which I suspect may be a problem for some US purchasers because fewer US TVs are designed to work with 50 hertz media than Australian TVs designed to work with 60 hertz). That company replied thus:

We have been recently confused by the number of inquiries coming in regarding Blu Ray products. Somehow, our company is being listed as the distributor/producer/production house for Blu Ray titles. We do not import anything more than music. We're sorry we couldn't be of more assistance.
So who is Amazon getting its supplies from?

UPDATE (Thursday, 22 January 2009, 12:00 am): My brother, who is particularly observant, advises me that the pack shot of the Miss Potter Blu-ray at amazon.com is actually the Australian version. He is dead right. Here's a snippet of the page:

Compare that cover with the cover shown at this post. See that 'G' in a triangle in a green panel: that is a code mandated by Australian legislation. Is it possible that Amazon is selling the Australian version of this movie? Will its 50 hertz predeliction cause problems for US purchasers? I'm awaiting answers.

UPDATE 2 (Friday, 23 January 2009, 2:14 pm): In light of 101 DISTRIBUTION advising me that they have nothing to do with Miss Potter or Blu-ray, I tried drawing Amazon.com's attention to the matter using its correction form. My proposed correction was rejected. Oh well.

Nailing Down An Issue - Wednesday, 21 January 2009, 12:36 pm

You may have noticed that in my previous post I didn't mention which Blu-ray player I was using. That's because I don't like accusing players of misbehaviour until I'm very certain of my ground.

Miss Potter detailSince doing that post I've been doing a bit of work on nailing down what is happening with this player and disc.

First, I wanted to make sure that what I was seeing on the TV screen wasn't a faithful reflection of what was on the disc, but a failure to properly deliver it. So I grabbed a couple of thousand still frames from the disc to my computer in order to locate the specific problematic sections. In the picture shown here, there was a flickering and instability in the window frames as the camera panned from top to bottom down over this house (the detail is not scaled down from the original frame, it is merely a 250 by 250 pixel crop from the 1,920 by 1,080 pixel original).

All the respective frames looked clean and unmarred. So then I had to check to make sure that the full detail of the frame was being presented in my captures and I wasn't getting merely a field, scaled by my capture software to full size. I dragged a few representative frames into Photoshop and examined them up close to make sure that all the pixels were unique.

Then, to double check, I grabbed a pile of frames from the Blu-ray version of 'Naturally Ningaloo', a breathtakingly beautiful high definition video compilation of above and below the waters of the the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. I know that much of this is from interlaced source material and all of it is held on the disc in 1080i50 format. The frames I grabbed from this showed combing, so I could confirm that my capture software caught everything in a frame, not just in a field.

Then I went back to Miss Potter in the Blu-ray player. I hadn't let the credits run much on the previous viewing, so I had a closer look at them. A giveaway of poor deinterlacing of progressive sourced material presented in interlaced format ('progressive segmented frame' as it now appears to be called) is breakup of vertically scrolling credits and, sure enough, that's precisely what was happening with this disc.

Miss Potter still text detailTowards the end of the credits were three or four sections of still text panels. These are often revealing because by switching between 'Pause' and 'Play' I could compare the picture in a lot of detail. Some Blu-ray and DVD players do not handle 50 frame per second material well on 'Pause' and always drop one of the fields, giving you only half the resolution. This player (the Samsung BD-P1500) does that. It was clear from these sections that the text was more completely and smoothly presented when playing that when paused.

That meant that the player was not employing drop field deinterlacing during playback, and was using cadence detection, some form of motion adaptive deinterlacing or both. Detecting the steady sections during the display of these fields they were being rendered with full detail (ie. woven).

To further check all this, I switched the output of the player to 1080i rather than 1080p, so that would leave it up to the TV to do the deinterlacing. As I mentioned in the previous post, I'm presently using Pioneer's new fifty inch 'entry level' plasma, the PDP-C509A. This has basically the same video processing as the more expensive LX models and in my experience can do tricks with 576i material that no other video processing circuitry I have ever seen can perform.

For example, I have a 576i test clip in which the movie is showing, but some text scrolls across the bottom of the screen. The text was inserted by the TV station and is interlaced. To display this every circuit I have used treats it as film sourced, in which case the text shows strong combing, or video sourced, in which case the progressive video behind the text is somewhat mutilated. These Pioneer TVs can deliver full resolution for the video and deinterlace the text at the same time. How I do not know. I think it may be black magic.

Anyway, this was very instructive. The two problematic parts of the movie then played back with excellent stability, with no suggestion at all of any deinterlacing issues. At first glance, the scrolling credits were the same.

Then I looked more closely. As the text credits appeared at the bottom of the picture frame, they were indeed flickering and unstable, but as they made their way up the screen, typically before having passed more than a quarter of the way up (the relatively narrow 2.35:1) height of the display area, they locked into stability. The Pioneer's video processing circuitry, it seems, had to examine each line of text as it appeared at the bottom to work out what to do with it.

This is going to be a very useful disc.

Miss Potter shall be amongst my most-played Blu-ray discs - Tuesday, 20 January 2009, 9:23 pm

In an earlier post I noted that the newly released Blu-ray of Miss Potter runs at 25 frames per second, rather than the usual 24. So it appears to have been sped up, for no good reason. I made reference to it being 'the first Blu-ray movie I had seen which was not recorded at 1080p24, but at 1080p25.' A couple of days later Craig Mecak, a tech wiz at Channel 9 in Sydney, corrected me on this point:

From my research, 1080/25p is not a valid blu-ray resolution/format.

Allowable combinations are:

1080/50i & 60i (actually 59.94i)

720/50p & 60p (actually 59.94p)

Suspiciously absent are 1080/25p or 1080/30p. Not really a big issue, as I'm sure you're aware that 1080/25p can losslessly be conveyed as 1080/50i, whereby each field contains half the number of lines from each original film frame. In effect, it's 1080/25Psf (progressive segmented frame).

Deinterlace back to 25p by weaving the fields. Simple.

I'm prepared to take Craig's word for this; he really does know a lot about this stuff. At the time I replied to that effect, and I agree that it is odd that 1080p25 and 1080p30 weren't provided for in the Blu-ray specification. Still, perhaps they were worried about chipset availability or some such.

I was tied up for a while so it wasn't until last night that I actually watched this movie. I must say it is a charming little movie. But of principal interest here is the picture quality. Watching fairly closely and using an actual TV for once instead of a front projector (it was the forthcoming Pioneer PDP-C509A 50 inch plasma, $5,499), at several points in the movie two things were obvious: Craig was right, and the Blu-ray player wasn't doing a very good job.

In those scenes in which almost horizontal diagonal lines were moving across the screen, the jaggies were obvious. Which means that, first, even though the material originated on a progressive source (it was shot on film), it was encoded on the disc at 1080i50, not 1080p25. That meant that the Blu-ray player had to deinterlace it.

As Craig says, it should be a simple matter of weaving the two fields back together to restore perfect 1080p25 picture quality. But the Blu-ray player was doing a shockingly poor job at deinterlacing, not just those jaggie bits but also, I think, the whole movie. It certainly seemed a lot softer on screen than I expected. At this stage, I am thinking that the player was doing drop field deinterlacing. But I shall explore further.

Meanwhile, I now have a Blu-ray disc I can use for testing 1080i50 deinterlacing of progressive-sourced material, just too late for a set of five low cost Blu-ray player reviews I completed a few weeks ago, but just in time for set of five expensive Blu-ray player reviews I shall soon be starting.

Mark Steyn on Progressive Rock - Sunday, 18 January 2009, 12:43 pm

In discussing his new book A Song for the Season on 'Counterpoint' on ABC Radio, Canadian writer Mark Steyn remarks:

I think I say somewhere in the book, while it's not technically true that inside every great freeform progressive rock classic there's a cheesy, easy listening cover version waiting to get out, it's certainly true in this case.
The 'this case' he's talking about is 'Light My Fire' by The Doors. The Doors aren't usually titled a progressive rock band, with Wikipedia preferring 'Psychedelic Rock, Blues, Rock', but I've always thought that some of their earlier lengthy classics like 'The End' and 'When the Music's Over' were so close to progressive rock that splitting the difference would be impossible.

This was brought to mind as I was listening to Emerson Lake and Palmer's 1971 album Tarkus this morning. Except that the twenty minute long title track seems to me to have three or four 'cheesy, easy listening cover version[s] waiting to get out', and I love them all.

Was HDMI 'designed to degrade the signal'? - Sunday, 18 January 2009, 10:41 am

I noticed a comment recently on a movie website to the effect that HDMI hobbles burnt DVDs. I followed up and 'C.B.' replied in part:

Since getting the Bravia, I noticed that DVDs I burned are markedly poorer in quality than the original signal, or any of the DVDs I burned when we had a standard TV with optical cable connections. Markedly, not marginally. Since I bought my equipment at Best Buy, I went down there and asked. I was told that it was the HDMI cable, which was designed to degrade the signal, presumably to motivate you to buy a DVD, rather than burn your own.
I replied as follows:
You seem to have a genuine problem, but it seems that electronics retailers in the US (I assume that's where you are) are staffed by people with a similar level of knowledge to those here (Australia). That is, not very much.

HDMI was designed to improve the signal, not degrade it. Before HDMI (or before DVI, which was around on a few products for a brief period before HDMI), all interconnects were analogue. The digital video on a DVD or whatever had to be converted to analogue, and then reconverted back to digital again by the plasma or LCD TV. Both processes sap quality. HDMI skips those two extra steps.

HDMI does include copy protection, called HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection). This is essentially an encryption system. When two HDCP-compatible devices are plugged together the source device encrypts the video prior to sending it down the cable and the receiving device decrypts it. The idea is to stop the high quality digital video being slurped up by some kind of recorder.

(This is wrong-headed for many reasons including: 1. pirates don't care about quality, so they're happy to use a lower quality capture from analogue outputs; 2. it's far easier to rip to a computer than fiddle around with real-time playback capture devices.)

Initially HDCP caused a few problems, mainly at the handshaking stage of establishing the link. Lately, though, it seems to have become pretty transparent. It's a waste of effort, but causes no problems.

So HDMI won't degrade video, and indeed doesn't know whether the DVDs you are playing are burnt or original. But you are seeing differences, so where could the problem be?

First, the Sony Bravia is an LCD TV. LCD TVs are particularly revealing of MPEG2 compression artefacts (eg. the swirly 'noise' you see around hard boundaries in the picture), far more so than CRT and Plasma and DLP projectors and so on. I've been puzzling about this for a few years and I still have no even slightly plausible explanation.

If your burnt DVDs are excessively compressed, this will be more obvious.

Second, I imagine your Bravia is bigger than its predecessor. A larger picture size is more revealing of poor picture quality. Excessively compressed material can, in addition to having more artefacts, have a softer picture. A standard (US, we are different in Australia) DVD has a resolution of 720 by 480 pixels. But other permissible resolutions are 704 by 480, 352 by 480 and 352 by 240. Many DVD recorders if you set them to a recording time of more than two hours for a single-layer DVD drop the resolution to 352 by 480. This will result in a markedly softer picture, especially on a nice sharp large screen Bravia. It may not be so obvious on a smaller older TV.

Third, for the very reason that HDMI preserves picture quality, some burnt DVDs can seem worse. The D/A and A/D conversions used for analogue cables both include some high frequency filtering to avoid aliasing effects. This can mask some picture quality problems which are revealed when a HDMI connection is used.

SUGGESTIONS: first confirm for yourself that HDMI really isn't doing any damage by comparing like with like. Rip some video from a single layer DVD. Burn it to a DVD+R or DVD-R on your computer. Make sure your software does not re-encode the video, so it is identical to what was on the original disc. Play both using the same connection and settings. My bet is that there will be no difference. I have a couple of recorded DVDs with all my test clips on them for checking TV and DVD player performance.

Make sure your Bravia is set to 'Standard' for its picture quality, not 'Vivid'. The latter, in addition to being basically unrealistic anyway, also tends to make picture quality problems more obvious.

In making new DVD recordings, use the least compression possible that allows the disc to accommodate the program. If the program is too long, consider splitting it across two discs or using a dual layer disc if your hardware supports it. If you use a program like DVD Shrink to copy commercial DVDs to single layer recordable DVDs, use the 'Reauthor' facility and eliminate menus, unnecessary audio tracks, unnecessary subtitles, and all the special extras, in order to maximise the dataspace available to the video.

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