Friday, 21 November 2008

Devil in the Details

You may have gathered it already from my previous post, but over the last few days I have been conducting a lot of research in order to help me come up with a definitive answer to the question that was bothering me: Which is the Blu-ray player to buy?
My requirements are simple. My Blu-ray player should be able to do the following:
1. Support profile 2.0, also known as BD Live, which is the latest spec of the Blu-ray standard. For now. Its main feature is the ability to download extra material over the internet. For the record, that extra material is blocked from normal internet access; you need to have the movie disc in order to access it, and thus far you cannot do it from a regular PC even if you have a Blu-ray drive. We're dealing with great companies here.
2. Full support for Dolby TrueHD bit-streaming, meaning the ability to push the Dolby TrueHD singal through an HDMI connection to a sound processor. In order to achieve that the player needs to support the 1.3A spec of the HDMI standard, which is relatively new.
3. Full support for DTS HD bit-streaming, as per Dolby TrueHD.

And now come the catches. There is currently no cheap player that will do all of the above; the cheapest one, as far as I can tell, is the LG BD300. However, as nice a player as this one is, it is limited to Region 4 only for DVD playback and cannot be set free for the risk of getting it eternally stuck with a void warranty. I expect more for $450.
There is also a Panasonic model that would do the same for $550 and a Sony for $650, but then again for $700 I can get a Sony Playstation 3 and have myself a Blu-ray player and a very capable games console in one go.

So what's the Playstation 3's story, then? Well, if you have to ask...
The answer is not simple. Look in Sony's numerous websites and forums and you will not find the definitive answer, as in - you will not find a set of specifications. What is Sony trying to hide?
Research seems to indicate the following. As it was originally delivered, the PS3 was incapable of handling the latest Dolby and DTS sound formats. However, through repeated firmware updates (the latest from March 2008) the PS3 was made able to handle both. In its ability to be constantly kept up to date, an ability gained by its very powerful computing hardware, the PS3 is vastly superior to all other Blu-ray players out there.
There is a catch, though. When Sony released the PS3 they were in a hurry, so they shipped it out without 1.3A spec HDMI outputs. Because of that, the PS3 is incapable of bit-streaming Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD; instead, the PS3 processes these inside, and sends out the fully equivalent PCM signal down its HDMI output. There is no loss of sound quality here as the PCM is identical to the original, but what you do miss out on is the choice department:
1. The PS3 does not allow you to choose whether to do the processing on the player or in the receiver/processor. That shouldn't matter, but it does mean that the choice is taken out of your hands; if you have a PS3 then you must rely on your player.
2. Where it does matter is in areas like bass management: In some cases you would have to do it through the PS3, unless your receiver is truly sophisticated.
3. Another drawback is in stereo soundtracks (as opposed to 5.1 or 7.1): When given a stereo signal, as is with most supplemental material, the PS3 would still transmit a 5.1 signal to the receiver (with only two channels actually carrying a sound). Your receiver will think it's receiving a 5.1 signal so it wouldn't let you apply matrix processing on it (e.g., Dolby Pro Logic), so instead of enjoying an analog Dolby Surround sound that utilizes your center channel you're stuck with stereo sound coming out of your left and right speakers.
4. No 7.1 sound: As there is no room for 7.1 PCM sound over the PS3's HDMI connection, you can only get 5.1. To most people, me included, 5.1 is more than enough.
5. You cannot use your universal remote with the PS3 without some aids. The PS3 only accepts Bluetooth remote inputs, so you either need to buy its dedicated Blu-ray Bluetooth remote or buy a special Bluetooth remote repeater.

As an audiophile, the lack of bit-streaming on the PS3 annoys me the most. I want to have the choice, even if it shouldn't really matter. It's rather annoying also because by now the new PS3 units do have 1.3A HDMI and all Sony needs to do is release a firmware upgrade to kick them into action; yet Sony chooses not to do so.
On the other hand, the PS3 has a winning trump up its sleeve: it's got wireless built in, so you can easily enjoy BD Live material without too many hassles connecting the PS3 to your existing wireless network. None of the other players have that ability; they all have ethernet inputs you can use with a wired network, but what are the chances of you having your network router right next to your Blu-ray player? You are much more likely to want to use wireless, and to achieve that with anything other than the PS3 you will need an ethernet bridge like this one here.
Add the cost of this bridge to the cost of the player and you end up with a PS3 like cost, not to mention the hassles of messing with the wireless network. All this means that if you want to use BD Live your only choice is the PS3.

So is it the PS3 for me? I'm not sure. BD Live would be nice, but then again I'm only planning on renting Blu-ray titles, so who is going to have the time to mess with downloaded content? As if that content would be earth shattering; it's just going to be some extra supplementals anyway.
The main thing is to play the movie and play it well, and currently there are no Blu-ray players that would do a fully satisfactory job without sever wallet damage.
It comes down to me having to imagine how I am going to use Blu-ray in order to be able to make an educated purchase decision. Yet how am I to know my imagination is through enough?
I'm sad to say it, but Blu-ray is not here yet. A PS3 might be a good idea for its gaming abilities, but other than that the world of Blu-ray is a world full of ridiculous compromises.


wile.e.coyote said...

as I know there is no point to buy PS3 for now, it may play the your blue movies very good, but as I know you can not crack its games yet

Moshe Reuveni said...

The record clearly shows we haven't been playing much since Dylan has arrived at the scene. The plan is to rent games and buy the odd used one, such as Fifa 08 (a game I know I will play till I drop).