Blu-ray vs. HD DVD: Round Two -- The Next Dimension?

By Peter M. Bracke
Friday, September 8, 2006 at 3:45PM EST

This past Tuesday, Warner Home Video released their second wave of Blu-ray titles. Led by 'Firewall,' 'Lethal Weapon,' 'Blazing Saddles' and 'Full Metal Jacket,' it was yet another diverse batch from the studio -- disparate in age, genre and style. And like Warner's first Blu-ray wave in early August, all four titles had already made their HD DVD debuts, so that meant we here at High Def Digest could partake yet again in one of our favorite sports in the high-def format war, the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD comparison.

What made us even more eager this time around to assess Warner's latest Blu-ray batch is that in only the few short weeks since our first head-to-head test drive, the stakes have been raised even higher for both formats, and not a week seems to go by without a major new development that ups the ante. The developing controversy over VC-1 and MPEG-2 has now turned into full-on battle of the dueling codecs, one few saw coming just a few months ago. Firmware upgrades for the first-gen HD DVD players have redefined how we think about consumer electronics hardware, and introduced a slew of new hardware features in a mere matter of weeks. And there are also a bevy of new audio options coming to Blu-ray and HD DVD, including the much-anticipated Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio lossless formats.

All these new developments have inflamed the passions of the early adopters, while intensifying the worries of the backers behind both next-gen formats -- not to mention racketing up the pressure on folks like us to deliver critical assessments of each format's plusses and minuses, without taking sides. So when I sat down to compare Warner's latest Blu-ray titles to their HD DVD counterparts, I knew I had to tweak our review methodology in light of so many recent developments.

Of course, the big news with Warner's second Blu-ray batch is that, with the exception of 'Full Metal Jacket,' the studio has jumped codec camps from MPEG-2 to VC-1. Which means that, at last, we can do a true apples to apples comparison -- right down to the exact same compression codecs. We were also able to finally solve the cropping problems we suffered with Blu-ray in our last comparison (chalk it up to problems with the hardware, not the software). We even set up a "blind" face-off this time around, using the help of a video switcher and a partial observer to compare images without knowing the source until after we recorded my observations. The results challenged my expectations and perceptions once again about what each format is currently capable of delivering.

You can read my full reviews for each title by following these links -- 'Firewall,' 'Lethal Weapon,' 'Blazing Saddles' and 'Full Metal Jacket' -- but to summarize, with this batch there is no clear "winner." If last time Blu-ray took more than its fair share of slings and arrows over picture quality and the format's reliance (up until now) on MPEG-2, this time the more level playing field has helped close the gap between Blu-ray and HD DVD. If nothing else, our second Blu-ray versus HD DVD face-off strongly indicates that what some people had declared a format war won is still far from over.

So, with our second comparison complete, it's time for some thoughts on where Blu-ray and HD DVD now stand, and a look ahead at the main challenges both formats face in the coming weeks and months as they battle it out for market supremacy.

It's the Hardware, Stupid!

If I learned anything with these round two comparisons, it is that more than any other consumer electronics format I've ever encountered, the quality of a high-def presentation is radically affected by the technology you are watching it on. Ensuring that playback parameters are identical is absolutely crucial in detecting differences in video and audio. Both of the next-gen high-def formats -- certainly more than DVD -- are very, very sensitive to even the slightest discrepancies in hardware setup and display calibration. Whether it be that black level expander setting you forgot to turn off in your Blu-ray player, or that damn auto-sharpness auto-filter on your HDTV monitor refusing to listen to your remote control, even a single hitch can throw off a supposedly "fair and equal" comparison.

That said, with all things being equal and this second round of comparisons being apples to apples -- same title, same master, same codec, same supplemental material -- it is telling that I found it almost impossible to detect any differences between the Blu-ray and HD DVD discs. And any discrepancies I did see often felt like nitpicking. Which means that this stage of the game -- at least while we're still using first-generation hardware -- I'm starting to feel like in comparing the two formats, I'm not so much reviewing software, but hardware. If I see visible noise, a difference in contrast, or wonky black levels -- are these the faults of the disc, the player, or the display device? Or a kink in the chain somewhere in between?

What's more, without the original source master to compare it to, who's to say which is more accurate to the filmmaker's original intention -- the Blu-ray or the HD DVD? Just because, say, the transfer on one format looks a bit darker than its rival, how do we know it is not supposed to look that way? There is no reason to think that Warner, or any other studio, is going to create a new master for the Blu-ray release versus the HD DVD, or vice versa -- at least with titles that are released on both formats concurrently. So aside from any compression glitches or outright screw-ups made during disc mastering or replication, it is likely that any differences between the formats on a specific title are going to be impossible to quantify as "right" or "wrong." At least for now.

Creation vs. Evolution

Okay, so maybe comparing the high-def format war to the "Creationism vs. Evolution" debate is stretching it a bit. But seeing as the phrase "firmware upgrade" is fast becoming a permanent part of the consumer electronics lexicon, it is clear Darwin would have loved this whole Blu-ray versus HD DVD thing.

In the four months since Toshiba's first two HD DVD players hit the market, the company has [post 195]issued almost as many firmware upgrades[/post] for their next-gen wonders. That means the devices have become evolving creatures, not immutable blocks of metal and plastic. And though Samsung has yet to announce its first firmware upgrade for its Blu-ray player, the unit is just as capable of supporting download fixes and enhancements as the Toshibas. Which means that whichever format(s) you choose, that Blu-ray or HD DVD player you buy today may likely morph into a totally different beast a year from now, and a year after that, and a year after that...

The idea of an ever-evolving consumer electronics device is, of course, exciting. How cool was it to download that latest Toshiba firmware upgrade and suddenly have TrueHD capability at your fingertips? And how cool will it be to finally eradicate that reported "faulty" noise reduction chip in the Samsung with a quick Ethernet fix? But from the standpoint of trying to assess the quality of actual BLu-ray and HD DVD software, it is potential minefield. While the content encoded on a disc will always remain unchanged, the circuitry that unlocks it for us will not. New audio formats and quicker load times are just the tip of the iceberg. What sort of quality improvements might we see on our current players in the coming months? Could all those discs that previously looked mediocre suddenly appear a whole lot better a few firmware upgrades from now? If the evolution of hardware starts to radically transform the way we perceive software, it could usher in a whole new paradigm shift not only in high-definition, but the entire consumer electronics industry.

Price Matters More Than Ever

One thing hasn't yet changed, however -- Blu-ray hardware and software is still generally more expensive than HD DVD. Sure, we early adopters are used to paying big prices for our new toys. But when even a comparatively"cheap" $500 player and $29 discs makes the average consumer balk at HD DVD, what do you think their reaction is going to be when Blu-ray sticker shock sets in? That $1000 price tag for the Samsung is pretty steep even for diehard tech-heads, not to mention those upcoming $40 discs from Fox and MGM.

Of course prices, too, will evolve. And they are going to have to if Blu-ray hopes to truly entrench itself as a mainstream consumer product. HD DVD, too. Eventually, players on both formats have to start hitting the below-$300 mark, and discs routinely need to be priced at $20 or less. Only then will the Average Joe even think about jumping into the next-gen format war -- and it's still going to be a tough sell.

None of this has any bearing on the quality of either format, of course. And value for money is unique to the individual plunking down the cash. But when and if all things become equal, and both Blu-ray and HD DVD are indistinguishable in terms of video and audio quality and depth of supplemental features, price will become even more important in deciding the format war. In fact, I think it will be absolutely crucial, even more than studio support. Let's face it, we're a nation of cheap Americans who want the biggest bang for the smallest buck. Price will always matter, regardless of quality. Just ask the Betamax.

MPEG-2 -- It Ain't Dead Yet

Who knew VC-1 and MPEG-2 would be on the tips of every early adopter's tongue? Just six months ago, few even knew what a compression codec was. Now, it seems the format battle itself may be decided by them.

Given that Warner has switched over to VC-1 for three of its four launch titles, the results of our comparison are even more potentially incendiary. The virtual lack of any difference in quality that I could detect between Warner's Blu-ray titles and their HD DVD counterparts would seem to support the growing party line that VC-1 is superior to MPEG-2. But the reality may not be so simple...

It is true that VC-1 is a codec that was engineered and optimized for lower bitrate applications. In a nutshell, that means that it generally requires less disc space than its rival MPEG-2 to encode the same amount of material. That's why the majority of HD DVD releases so far (which with few exceptions have been encoded with VC-1) have been more packed with supplemental features than their Blu-ray, MPEG-2 rivals. What's more, Sony in particular has opted to go with uncompressed PCM soundtracks on their Blu-ray discs, which take up a lot more space than comparable Dolby Digital formats, meaning there is even less room for goodies. So it is not hard to see why even devout Blu-ray backers are calling for the studios to drop MPEG-2 and go with VC-1.

But I will now say the unthinkable -- it is really impossible to say one codec is "better" than the other. Both were created and subsequently refined for different purposes and applications. MPEG-2 is a perfectly fine codec. Just because it is a bit more space hungry does not automatically make it something terrible, or unable to produce top-notch video quality. Perhaps the real problem is that MPEG-2 is just not so good when you are on a bitrate diet? Yet the quality of the base codec aside, the question remains -- is MPEG-2 is the right choice for Blu-ray?

Well, before you answer too quickly, say hello to the BD-50. At last, the first batch of dual-layer, 50GB Blu-ray discs are coming in time for the fourth quarter, at least from Fox (likely Sony, too, though they have not yet officially announced any BD-50 titles as of yet). With 25GB of extra space now available to the format (versus today's "lowly" BD-25, 25GB single-layer discs), Blu-ray's bitrate playpen is about to get a whole lot bigger. What's more, Fox is utilizing the AVC/MPEG-4 codec, eschewing MPEG-2 and VC-1 altogether. So those trumpeting VC-1 over all others as the heir apparent to the next-gen, high-def codec throne may want to bite their tongues. No one knows how these next round of BD-50 discs are gonna look and sound, so it is far too early to proclaim one codec as the king of the hill. Ohh, this holiday season is gonna be fun!

It's Startin' to Get Ugly...

Far more than firmware upgrades and compression codecs, what has surprised me the most about the current state of the format war is how personal it is getting amongst early adopters. Supporters on both sides of the Blu-ray and HD DVD fence are mobilizing, and just a quick perusal of online message boards (check out this raging thread over at AVS Forum about our 'Tears of the Sun' review if you don't believe me) reveals that things are getting quite impassioned out there.

Given the sometimes vitriolic nature of comments being volleyed back and forth, you'd think this was some ideological or religious battle, not a battle between two home video formats (did VHS versus Beta ever get this ugly?) Of course, I get all of this stuff for free, so to be completely honest I have no real vested interested in who wins. So maybe, because I am a bit too fortunate, I can't fully understand the passion behind all the mud-slinging? After all, it isn't my hard-earned dollars I'm spending this stuff.

Still, I can't help but throw out a theory here. Perhaps there is a bit of a Davey & Goliath thing happening? Quite frankly, Blu-ray had long been tapped as the obvious winner in the format war from early on, to the point where it seemed they had an easy victory in the bag. If you read the press a year ago, HD DVD was often labeled an errant distraction, the unfortunate spoiler who should have just conceded the whole race to Blu-ray and save consumers the trouble.

Now, I'm not saying the Blu-ray camp got too cocky. But that is how some media watchers are starting to spin it. HD DVD has amazed everyone by defying its detractors and earning far more upbeat press and positive reviews out of the gate than Blu-ray. Maybe there is a sort of come-from-behind glee in the way HD DVD is now the little engine that could? We all love a good underdog story, and HD DVD was certainly the Davey to Blu-ray's Goliath, especially given the latter's increased hardware and studio support, not to mention the looming monolith called the PlayStation 3.

Of course, the pendulum swings both ways, and if HD DVD is gaining support and momentum amongst the industry, the media and the early adopters, they better not get too cocky or stand to lose it all. Certainly, this format battle is shaping up to be juicier than an episode of 'Melrose Place.'

The Fourth Quarter and Final Thoughts

So, what's next for Blu-ray and HD DVD? It seems that all signs are pointing for one pretty zany fourth quarter. All of the major studios will have thrown their hat into the high-def ring by that point, including Buena Vista, Fox and MGM, and we should start seeing some second-generation hardware, too. And, of course, there is the November launch of the Blu-ray-backed PlayStation 3 on the horizon. Though Sony recently [post 220]halved the number of console shipments worldwide at launch[/post], there is still going to be four million units in North America and Japan by the end of the year, which should give Blu-ray a huge boost in market penetration almost overnight.

Though it is far too early to declare Blu-ray or HD DVD the winner -- or even try to predict which format will come out ahead by the end of the year -- what I'm most excited about with the coming fourth quarter is that the competition should result in more great leaps forward. In video and audio quality, interactivity, supplemental features and overall value for dollar. If either Blu-ray or HD DVD is successful in moving the kind of hardware and software units the industry is predicting for this holiday season, then the high-def format will be farther along than DVD was in a comparable timeframe after its launch.

Which is good news for all of us, I think. The studios and electronics manufacturers will start tripping all over themselves to win our hearts and minds (and wallets). We'll start seeing better players, better discs, more bells and whistles and a huge leap-frog in exclusive HD content. The PlayStation 3 is also potentially exciting, regardless of what format drives it. The PS3 will introduce millions to pre-recorded high-def content in a matter of weeks. And don't forget Microsoft's HD DVD add-on drive for the Xbox 360, which has just as much of a shot as the PlayStation 3 at huge market penetration. My hope for both is that the gamers who turn out in droves to snatch up one of these next-gen game consoles might also become interested in all this high-def stuff they've heard so much about. The more eyes that get accustomed to high-def means the more eyes that will start demanding high-def. And that is a win-win for anyone who wants HD to succeed as a mass market product.

So the fourth quarter is going to be fantastic for us early adopters. More software, more hardware, better quality, and tons of technological whiz-bang for our buck. I can't wait for Blu-ray versus HD DVD, Round Three. See ya then!

All disc reviews at High-Def Digest are completed using the best consumer HD home theater products currently on the market. More about our gear.