FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 33
The Emperor Has No Clothes - Chaos in the AV
industry, Part II
In the Sept.-Oct. 2006 issue I wrote part one of this article. It dealt with the problems and questions at that time in the AV industry. In the intervening ten months little has changed. There are still two competing HD formats that are slowing down the public's acceptance of high definition video discs, and neither is emerging as the front runner. HD-DVD sales are reported at about 100,000 units and Blu-Ray, if you count Play Station 3 sales into the number, is about the same number. Most of the PS-3 players were bought for gaming, not movies. Toshiba, the lone HD-DVD manufacturer, has to be a lot happier with these numbers than the five- Blu-Ray player manufacturers that must share that number of sales. LG has come out with a player that plays both versions. It has a problem in that it is not fully functional for HD-DVD play back. It has been reviewed as not having the best up-conversion for standard DVDs. Samsung has announced that it is coming out with a combo player for the holiday season. This gives hope to the ordinary video consumer. No price or specifications have been announced. HD-DVD has the advantage of lower price and better titles. Blu-Ray has the advantage of more studios backing it and more data storage capacity. One reviewer said that if there is a winner in the battle it will be the format that comes out with the most machines under $500 by the holidays. Multiple formats are a definite problem for most buyers. They do not want to buy into a format that might die. They also do not want to be limited in the titles they can enjoy. You could buy two machines, but this adds extra expense. Not only is there the expense of two players, but also auxiliary equipment. You need extra HDMI cable, extra shelf space and extra 5.1 cables. Also many preamps or TVs may not have ample HDMI connections. For audiophiles the expense gets even greater. They will need audiophile cables, an extra plug in their power conditioner, extra isolation devices and tweaks, extra power cords, and extra 5.1 inputs on their preamps.
The next problem is the HDMI 1.3 connection. Right now only two players offer this connection. They are Play Station 3 and the second generation Toshiba HD-DVD players.
Five AV receivers have been announced that will have the connection: Onkyo, Pioneer, Integra, Denon, and Sherwood. Most are not out as yet. Emotiva is talking about a preamp/controller in December. Other higher end companies units are even farther out. There currently are no TVs that I know of that have it. For now, audio is the important part of the HDMI 1.3 connection. Of course you have to have both a player and a receiver/controller that has the connections. There must also be the chips to convert the audio to Dolby Digital True HD and DTS Master Sound in the controller. Since the TVs do not have the surround audio processing chips in them, the HDMI 1.3 is not that important to have in a TV for a while. The HDMI 1.3 does have extra video capacities of Deep Color, xyYCC and Lip synch. The HDMI web site describes these advantages as:
These other advantages are unlikely to have any effect for at least a couple of years. To take full advantage of HDMI's abilities there would need to be new cameras, a new HD standard, new video software discs, new players and new TVs. Lets face it, this isn't going to happen in the near future.
The audio advantages may start to be usable in the next couple of years. I know of only a couple of available DTS–HD Master Sound or Dolby Digital True HD discs at this time. Preamps and receivers with HDMI 1.3 and the ability to decode these new sound standards should start to come out in the second half of 2007. Most HD discs at this time only have regular Dolby Digital. Audio is one of the biggest problems with DVDs at the present time. The video, especially with up converted signal, can be pretty good on quality DVDs. The sound is an entirely different matter. At best, it can sound like a very mediocre CD. Usually it is more like a poor quality cassette tape, especially DD. What you are missing in sound becomes very apparent in concert videos. You see players banging away on drums, but there is no bass impact. You see cymbals and bells being played, but you either don't hear them or they are robbed of any reality of sound. Singers sing, but there is no sense of presence. Violins play but there are no high frequencies. Sopranos have no extension to their voices. Dynamic nuances are pretty much eliminated. A perfect example of this is Vanni "Live at the Acropolis." The concert is massive in scope with hundreds of musicians. There is no impact and hardly any sound from the long row of kettle drums. Choirs have no sense of presence or power. There is no extension to instruments or vocalists. The whole thing is muddy sounding and sounds like AM radio. A DVD that might have been very interesting is made totally useless by the sound of the DVD. Some newer DVDs have started to use PCM-HD or other uncompressed stereo PCM. These are usually better than DD or DTS sound but still not good in sound quality. You will probably notice that most AV dealers are not demonstrating the sound quality of present Blu-Ray or HD-DVD. The real problem with DVD sound is the data transfer rate. The new audio media will offer up to about 25 megabytes per second of audio data transfer. Once this happens, hopefully we will for the first time have high quality audio and video together.
There are several problems with HD-DVD and Blu-Ray at the present time. First of all is the picture quality is not that compelling. With 1080P, the media should be better than Broadcast HD at 1080I. I have seen all the available players on various TVs, and only once have I seen video quality as good as good broadcast HD quality. This was with the Pioneer demo disc with the Sony Blu-Ray player into a Sony XBR TV. The Pioneer disc was shot in HD. Even worse is that sometimes an up-sampled DVD looks better than the HD version. One problem is that most present movie cameras are not up to the quality of high definition Video cameras. There also seems to be problems in the quality of film transfer to digital media. One interesting thing is that movies transferred to digital for broadcast HD often look better than the HD discs image look. One thing that may be causing this is the digital encryption used to protect the discs from coping. In past encryption usage on media, the quality of the media has always been compromised.
The next problem is the selection of movies that have been put out. Most are newer movies that are B rated movies. The studios know that releasing older movies is tricky for sales. Most people only want to watch a movie once or twice. If they already own the DVD, they will probably not upgrade to the HD version unless it is an outstanding movie. Most people watch movies by renting the video. Right now there are not enough machines out there to fuel much of an HD rental market. HD video is at its best when there is good lighting, bright colors and lots of detail. Many modern movies are shot in dim light with lots of special effects. Cameras, your eyes, or TVs are not at their best with dim lighting. The qualities of the special effects are shown up more by HD and the lack of detail on most special effects becomes more noticeable. Take the movie "Ultra Violet." It looks more like a cartoon than real life. HD looks best in brightly lit outdoor scenes that have lots of color and detail. The videos that people are most likely to watch multiple times are concerts, neo-classic movies, musicals, or movies that are visually beautiful. People often come back to movies that remind them of a period in their lives. For me movies like American Graffiti, Dirty Dancing, Doctor Zhivago, Animal House, Lawrence of Arabia, and A Year of Living Dangerously do this for me. Visually exciting movies or movies you use to show off your system, like Blade Runner, 2001 A Space Odyssey, House of Flying Daggers (HD disc looks horrible), Wind, and Once Upon A Time In The West get repeated viewings from me. I would also like natural scenes with music videos (a la Star Gaze and Nature's Symphony) to just get lost in the beauty of life. When I look at the present HD discs that are out, there is not much that I would feel compelled to buy. I would love to see gardens, birds, butterflies, fish and natural scenes in HD with music. The Planet Earth HD discs would be interesting to watch in HD once, but the narration would be boring after the first viewing. Having two sound tracks, one with narration and one with music would make for a more sellable disc.
The next problem is with the cost of the discs. Most HD discs are going for between $30 and $40 per disc. Most movies are not worth owning at that kind of price. Most people would not own very many titles at this price. Right now I probably have around 3000 DVDs. I have bought most of them used. With HD I would probably only upgrade a few of these discs. I would be more likely to upgrade concert discs if the HD sound was much better. The big video rental places have discs them on sale for three for $25 or less within a month of coming out on DVD. Within a year or two, many big name movies can be found new for under $10. Right now video rental stores have a limited selection of HD titles and only a couple of copies of each. It will be years before this will change much. The HD discs are run in limited amounts, and any sort of used market for them is years off.
There are also problems in the broadcast HD arena. HD video quality is all over the place. Some programs are great looking while others look only slightly better than regular digital TV. Sound quality is even a bigger problem. Some programs have fairly decent sound while others sound like poor AM radio. I have found as much as 20dB in average sound level of different broadcasts. From what I have seen cable HD does not look nearly as good as broadcast or satellite HD. I feel that most of the problems in broadcast HD are caused by compression of the signal to save bandwidth. Many of the smaller networks play the same things over with little new programming. The Discovery HD channel has some very interesting shows but a lot less that is for general interest. Direct TV advertises 150 HD channels by the end of the year, but with half the year gone I have not seen much that is new, only one sneak peek of a National Geographic HD channel. Direct TV has just announced about 10 new channels to start in September. They have agreements with 34 different channels for future programming. One channel that looks interesting is MHD. It is a new music oriented channel that has HD content from MTV, VH1 and CMT.
Some of the HDMI handshake problems have been worked out, but there are plenty of problems left. Sony has just came out with a second generation Blu-Ray player for $500. It does not have 5.1 analog outputs and does not process the advanced audio formats. Other than Play Station 3, I know of no players that will output DTS Master audio. The second generation HD-DVD and Blu-Ray players show improvements over the first generation players. Let's hope this continues and that some day HD discs will live up to their promise.