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
Blu-ray vs. HD Streaming
Q: I have a question that has been burning a hole in my head and I can't understand. Please help me. If a Blu-ray is the current BEST high definition standard, how it is possible for devices like the Xbox 360 which are like 6-years-old by now, to be able to stream high definition 1080p 5.1 audio to my TV? I thought the whole point of buying the disc was that it was impossible to stream such high quality. Please help put my weary mind at ease.
A: Rest assured that Blu-ray currently remains the highest-quality home video format available to consumers. Most "HD" streaming and download options available through Xbox Live, the Playstation Network, or other sources such as Amazon and Netflix, are only offered in 720p resolution. [Correction: I've been informed by a reader that Xbox has a significant amount of 1080p content, including programming from ABC, in the Zune Marketplace section.] Even those that are technically encoded at 1080p resolution are heavily compressed to facilitate broadband transmission. This usually results in a loss of detail, as well as distracting compression and motion artifacts.
When all other factors (such as the movie's film-to-video transfer) are equal, Blu-ray discs will almost always provide superior video quality to internet streaming. The larger your screen size, the more noticeable this difference will be. Most Blu-rays also have lossless HD audio and bonus features that you can't get via streaming. And, when you want to watch the movie again, you've already paid to own it. You won't need to pay for a rental for each new viewing.
Plasma vs. LCD
Q:I'm in the market to purchase a new television and I'm torn on which technology I should go with. I've owned several HDTVs over the years, with my current models being a Samsung 61" DLP and a 40" Samsung LCD. I would like to replace my 61" DLP for either a LED-LCD or a plasma, but I'm torn as to which to choose. I'm leaning more towards the plasma, but one thing keeps coming up... Burn-in. While several sites out their hint that burn-in is a thing of the past, there are some all too real horror stories about burn-in out there. Also, my brand preference has always been Samsung, but I may be ready to try a different brand. What are your thoughts on burn-in and the various benefits of each of these technologies? I would appreciate any help you could provide.
A: Both LCD and plasma have their strengths and weaknesses. I'm hard-pressed to say that one is "better" than the other. It really depends on your priorities and your needs.
In many cases, plasma can provide better picture quality due to its superior black levels and contrast. LCD displays typically need to use dynamic contrast adjustment to constantly raise and lower brightness levels between bright scenes and dark scenes. This can lead to distracting "brightness pumping" artifacts. Some sets do this better than others. In a best case scenario, the transition will be nearly seamless to the eye. In a worst case scenario, scenes with a lot of contrast between bright and dark (such as well-lit spaceships against the background of outer space in a sci-fi movie) will experience noticeable brightness fluctuations.
On the other hand, LCD sets are usually brighter than plasma, and have non-reflective screens. They're better suited to room environments with ambient light, whereas plasma works best in a darkened home theater.
Plasma phosphors are potentially subject to screen burn-in issues, though this is largely a factor of incorrect calibration. A set with the "Contrast" setting adjusted too high can cause static bright objects to burn into the screen. Properly calibrating the Contrast controls and varying up the types of content you watch will substantially mitigate this problem.
If you're specifically looking for an LED LCD, keep in mind that there are two very different types. "Edge-lit" LED sets only have a string of LED diodes around the outside of the screen pointed inwards. "Back-lit" sets have a complete LED panel behind the screen. The latter are superior. Unfortunately, many manufacturers fail to disclose which type their "LED" TVs are. Be sure to check product reviews on any model that interests you.
In the end, your choice of TV will be dictated by your needs and by your budget. Shop carefully and do your research. There are plenty of good offerings from both technology types. I'm sure you'll find something that will leave you satisfied.
In lieu of our usual Homework assignment this week, I felt it important to post this piece of reader feedback about a very troubling issue regarding the presentation of older TV shows on Blu-ray.
Cropping of Older TV Shows
Feedback: This isn't so much an HD Advisor question, but more a plea that you might consider raising awareness regarding the cropping of older TV shows for their Blu-ray releases.
The classic 1970s British WWII documentary 'The World at War' is set for a Blu-ray release after a long restoration. Initially, I was ecstatic about getting to see this documentary series remastered and in HD, but then I saw this in the Amazon product description:
New widescreen presentation
The decision to convert the aspect ratio from the original 4:3 to 16:9 was taken after months of tests and reviews. The primary reason for this that for most viewers now own a widescreen TV, so expect programmes to be in this format, and also because with any HD material for broadcast, the broadcasters expect widescreen material. As the aim of the project was to create restored masters (at great expense) for multiple use (ie Blu-ray, DVD and broadcast), there was no option other than going down the 16:9 route.
It was essential that this be done as sensitively as possible. The process of aspect ratio conversion from 4:3 to 16:9 was done by firstly going back to the original materials and then using 'Pan & Scan' to ensure that all of the essential picture detail is retained. The panning and scanning process can be notorious if done badly where the screen is basically lazily cropped, losing vital information. With this in mind in this instance each frame was panned and scanned according to strict guidelines following the tests done to ensure that the focus of the picture is always on the most important action so that we retained the quality of the original series.
There is already a lot of backlash on the Amazon reviews section for this.
It really seems backwards that the studio thinks people will assume that all Blu-rays will fill the screen. I would think people would assume Blu-rays would be in the original aspect ratio – not pan and scan. It's especially bad with this release, which is a documentary, a visual document of the past. You'd hope they would at least look into providing both versions on the discs. This would be an optimum outcome if they are dead set on putting a pan and scan version out there.
The UK Blu-ray release of 'Thunderbirds' was cropped to 16:9, and it seems the 'Space 1999' set will be also. It may be too late for this release, since it's being released soon and may have gone to production already. Would you be able to highlight this problem so that studios can see that people do not accept pan and scan on Blu-ray?
You had great success with the issue on subtitle placement, and I hope you'd consider trying to highlight this real concern. Thanks for your time.
JZ: I very strongly agree with you on this. I find this cropping of old TV programs to fill a 16:9 screen to be utterly disgraceful. The purpose of the Blu-ray format has always been to present content as faithfully as possible to the original source material. A big part of that means maintaining the Original Aspect Ratio. Content wider than the HDTV 16:9 standard should be letterboxed with black bars on the top and bottom of the screen, and content narrower than 16:9 should be pillarboxed with bars on the sides.
Numerous Blu-ray releases of 4:3 material – from 'Star Trek: The Original Series' to 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Gone with the Wind' – have already been released on Blu-ray in properly pillarboxed presentations, without raising any sort of consumer protests. The notion that viewers expect programs to fill the 16:9 screen, and so therefore the programs should be modified to comply, is disingenuous at best. Shame on Freemantle Media (the current rights-holders) for desecrating this classic documentary in such a way, and then having the audacity to market it as "The Ultimate Restored Edition."
Freemantle has released the documentary on Blu-ray through its own label in the UK, and has licensed it to A&E Home Entertainment in the United States (to be released November 16th). I urge everyone to voice your displeasure about this predicament to the studio by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Even if it's too late to fix 'The World at War', let's at least make sure this doesn't happen again to something else in the future.
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.