Editor's Note: Each Friday, High-Def Digest's own HD Advisor will answer a new round of questions from our readers. If you have home theater questions you need answered, send an email to HDanswers@gmail.com.
Answers by Joshua Zyber
Pillarboxing Standard-Def Video
Q: I now have two Sony Blu-ray players: a BDP-S360 and a BDP-S370. Both are hooked up to Sony LCD screens via HDMI. Both TVs are within 3 years old. On both, whenever I play a DVD disc that is 4:3 fullscreen, the TV wants to stretch the picture to fill the screen instead of pillarboxing the image. Looking at both the TV and Blu-ray player options, I don't see anything to fix this issue. It's fine if the video is 16:9, but 4:3 doesn't play properly. This is usually an issue with using HDMI, as using RCA connections the picture is fine. What am I missing here?
A: I'm guessing that your Blu-ray players are upconverting the standard DVDs to high-def resolutions. Unfortunately, many HDTVs assume that all HD input signals must be 16:9 in aspect ratio. While some allow aspect ratio control even for HD content, others automatically lock into 16:9 stretch mode.
The reason that your analog RCA connections don't have this problem is that they're transmitting standard-def signals, and the TV continues to allow aspect ratio control with SD content.
Some Blu-ray players offer an option to pillarbox 4:3 DVD content. Check the Blu-ray player's setup menu under the "Video" section. What happens here is that, when upconverting the video, the player scales it to retain proper geometry and add black bars to the sides. This will be the Blu-ray player doing this, not the TV. All the TV ever sees is a 16:9 HD signal. Unfortunately, while I haven't used your particular Blu-ray player models, in my experience, earlier Sony BD models did not have this feature.
Another possible option is to set the Blu-ray player to a "Native" or "Raw" output resolution mode. This would have the player output video content on whatever disc you play in its original format without upconversion. Blu-ray HD video would be output as 1080p, while DVD standard-def video would be output as 480i (or sometimes deinterlaced to 480p, depending on how the specific player handles it). When your TV receives the DVD signal in standard-def format, it should re-enable aspect ratio control.
Again, not all Blu-ray players offer this feature. I don't recall offhand whether the Sony players I previously used had it, but it's certainly worth checking in yours.
In a worst case scenario, your Blu-ray players may offer neither pillarboxing nor "Native" output resolution. If that's the case, you may be out of luck unless you buy a new Blu-ray player with one or both of these functions.
Cable TV Audio Hook-Up
Q: I had a question about the best way to hook up my A/V receiver in order to get the best sound quality out of everyday TV. I currently have my cable hooked up directly to my receiver through HDMI. I then run another HDMI from the receiver to my TV. Would there be any difference in sound quality if I were to change this and have the cable box hooked up to the TV using HDMI, and then run another HDMI to the receiver? The problem is that my cable box only has 1 HDMI, and my theory has been to run the cable directly through the receiver and then to the TV. Will there be any difference in sound quality if change this setup?
A: I'm pretty sure that the way you currently have things set up – with your cable box connected to your A/V receiver by HDMI, and then the receiver connected to the TV (also by HDMI) – is the way that most people with surround sound do it. Assuming that the receiver has multiple HDMI inputs, this will allow you to connect and easily switch between multiple video sources (cable TV, Blu-ray player, game console, etc.) all feeding into the same single HDMI input on the TV. This is generally the most convenient connection option.
A good receiver should not cause any sort of degradation of the video signal when you do this. Unfortunately, some do. If you notice that your picture quality looks worse than when you connect the sources directly to the TV, try turning off any video processing features in the receiver. Some receivers will upconvert standard-def video to HD for you. Disable that and set the receiver for pure "passthrough" of all video.
In answer to your question, connecting your sources the opposite way (everything into the TV first, and then audio out from the TV to the receiver) should not (in theory) degrade your sound quality either. You'll need to make sure that your TV actually offers this feature, though. (Not all do.) You'll also need to set the TV to turn off its own internal speakers if you're going to use the surround sound system for audio instead.
I can't think of too many scenarios where it would be preferable to route to the TV first, unless the receiver is harming your video quality. If your concern here is that you don't always want to use surround sound for non-critical TV viewing (the evening news, reality shows, and so forth), you'll very likely have to go into the TV's setup menus to turn its built-in speakers back on every time you want to bypass the receiver. That can be a pain.
If the issue is that a spouse or other household member doesn't want to deal with the hassle of turning on the whole surround sound package just to watch TV, I recommend buying a Harmony remote and programming it to control all of your devices. The Harmony line will organize all of your components into easy-to-use "Activity" commands such as "Watch TV" or "Watch Blu-ray" that will turn on and control the appropriate devices with a single button-press.
Broadcast Audio Format
Q: I was curious about the typical decoding that is used when simply watching movies on TV. Are most movies are DTS or Dolby Digital, and how good is the quality?
A: I'm going to assume that you're specifically concerned about HD movies airing on digital broadcast, cable, and satellite TV. Those services transmit audio in standard (lossy) Dolby Digital format. Some will use 5.1 surround, while others simply 2.0 stereo (or mono), depending on the network and the content. Most broadcast DD 5.1 is set at a bit rate of 384 kb/s, which is below the typical DVD standard. A few networks may use a DVD-quality 448 kb/s bit rate, but that's still rare. DTS is not used for television broadcast.
In France, the TNT HD platform broadcasts in Dolby Digital Plus format, which is still lossy but has better transparency than normal Dolby Digital. Unfortunately, DD+ hasn't made any inroads into American broadcasting yet.
The HD Advisor knows many things, but he doesn't know everything. Some questions are best answered with a consensus of opinions from our readers. If you can help to answer the following question, please post your response in our forum thread linked at the end of this article. Your advice and opinions matter too!
Panasonic Plasma Grayscale Issue
Q: I have a Panasonic TC-P50V10 and my parents have a Panasonic TH-42PX600U plasma TV. Both TVs have issues with steps appearing in the reverse gray ramp test on the 'Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics' Blu-ray disc test pattern for contrast. Also, color differences in the fleck field are noticeable, altering the gray scale in those areas. 'DVE' talks about this issue having to do with not having enough digital resolution in the video processing or display itself, citing that 8-bit resolution is ideal. This becomes problematic for enjoying Blu-rays when there are tungsten lights on the screen flashing out from the black background, like in the "Off to War" chapter of 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' (the light above the boat's gun and light above the door the boat captain comes out shortly thereafter). The effect is that there appears to be banding around the light source (a greenish like haze). Are these issues with Panasonic plasmas or plasmas in general? Can a professional calibrator fix this and/or a separate video processor, or is it a deficiency of the TV?
Check back soon for another round of answers. Keep those questions coming.
Joshua Zyber's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.