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
Video Processors and Constant Image Height
Q: I have a question about the DVDO iScan VP50Pro video scaler since you own one. I have my projection screen set up as 2.20:1 so I can watch 70mm films like 'Baraka', '2001' and 'Patton' in their original ratio. When I watch 35mm films, I see the tiny black bars on the top and bottom, which is fine with me. I was wondering if I bought the DVDO iScan, will it get rid of the black bars? I'm not using an anamorphic lens by the way, just the zooming method. Also, when I watch 'The Dark Knight' on Blu-ray, when the IMAX sequences appear, the picture spill over the top and bottom of the screen. Will the iScan fix that too? I just want to know how the iScan works and I couldn't find the answers on the web.
A: In today's market, where advanced processing chips are often built right into Blu-ray players, A/V receivers, and even HDTVs themselves, the dedicated video processor (once the heart of many high-end home theaters) has largely become irrelevant. For most people, that's a good thing. It's one less (expensive) device to install or fiddle with. However, one area where a good video processor is still invaluable is Constant Image Height projection. The primary reason for that is aspect ratio control. A CIH viewer with a 2.35:1 projection screen will need to be able to watch movies and TV shows of any aspect ratio properly displayed on that screen. Unfortunately, the processing chips built into most CE devices lack enough flexibility to accommodate that.
I've owned DVDO video processors for years, starting with the company's early iScan Plus "line doubler." From there, I dutifully upgraded from one product generation to another until the flagship iScan VP50Pro, which I've owned since release in 2007. I'm fed up with the company and will be moving to competitor Lumagen shortly, but we'll get to the reason for that in a minute.
One of the best features of the VP50Pro is its very intuitive setup menus. The aspect ratio controls are divided into two categories: Input and Output. On the Output side, you tell the processor the aspect ratio of your screen (in your case, 2.20:1). On the Input side, tell it the aspect ratio of the content you're watching. The processor will then automatically fit the content properly on your screen. A 2.20:1 movie like 'Patton' will fill the 2.20:1 screen. A 2.35:1 movie will have small letterbox bars on the top and bottom. A 16:9 TV show will appear with pillarbox bars on the sides. In the iScan menus, you can dial in exactly what you need, and the processor will always do the right thing with it.
The VP50Pro also includes support for Constant Image Height regardless of whether you use an anamorphic lens or the "Zoom Method" (as you do).
To clarify something, when you use the Zoom Method, your projector shines parts of its image (the top and bottom parts containing black letterbox bars) beyond the borders of your screen. No video processor will ever be able to remove those letterbox bars on its own. They're a permanent part of the projector's pixel panel. You need an anamorphic lens to redirect those pixels into your screen area.
What a video processor can do for you, however, is apply electronic blanking to the overshoot area, so that no movie content ever appears in it. 'The Dark Knight' or the upcoming 'Tron: Legacy', for example, are movies primarily at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with selected scenes that expand to fill the 16:9 frame. This looks great on an HDTV, but not so great on a 2.35:1 screen, because now parts of the movie image appear on the wall around your screen. By blanking off those parts of the frame, you'll never see the excess image.
So, I kind of sound like a DVDO cheerleader here, don't I? I used to be, but right now I can't recommend the company's products anymore. DVDO discontinued all development and support of the VP50Pro almost two years ago, despite the fact that the processor is still officially its "flagship" product and still has several prominent bugs that were never fixed. The VP50Pro is glitchy to the point of being useless when it comes to passing through high-res Blu-ray audio, and cannot support 3D video at all. DVDO has no plans to replace the VP50Pro with another flagship processor.
In the meantime, the company has focused its energies on its newer, lower-end Edge and Duo processors, which are incredibly rudimentary in design and completely lack even basic aspect ratio control, which had been a core part of every DVDO processor dating back to the iScan-HD in 2004. The company has simply abandoned its advanced users. I've had enough.
DVDO's main competitor in this area is Lumagen, whose Radiance XS processor is directly comparable to the iScan VP50Pro – but a lot more stable and able to fully process 3D video. Lumagen also has a much better track record in recent years for supporting its products with regular firmware updates. Just this week, I finally made the decision to order a Radiance XS, and look forward to receiving it soon.
Lumagen also recently introduced an entry-level product called the Radiance Mini-3D, which (unlike DVDO's current models) seems to be fully-featured, except that it has fewer inputs and outputs. I have a lot of equipment in my home theater system, and will find the more advanced Radiance XS's two HDMI outputs very helpful for routing audio directly to my (non-3D-compatible) receiver separately from the video. Your needs may vary.
The main downside to Lumagen's video processors, unfortunately, is that they are much more complex and less intuitive to use than DVDO's. A friend of mine recently purchased the Radiance XS and demonstrated it for me. The setup menus are very confusing, and the user manual offers little help. The processor appears to have all of the important features, but figuring out how to use them can be a challenge. A learning curve will be necessary after installation.
Still, at this point, it's more important to me to have a product that works and that I know will be supported in the future. I can put up with a little inconvenience for that.
Universal Studios Blu-ray Quality
Q: Can you give me a couple examples of Universal's worst and Universal's best Blu-rays?
A: I assume that this question was prompted by some comments I made last week about Universal Studios authoring many catalog titles from old, inferior DVD masters that are not up to current video transfer standards. I stand by that.
Universal is one of the most frustrating studios to release movies on Blu-ray. Day-and-date titles from the studio are almost always excellent. Off the top of my head here, discs like 'Duplicity', 'Drag Me to Hell' and 'Leatherheads' all look terrific. The same applies to those few catalog titles that the studio goes to the trouble of re-transferring from original film elements. (For example, the Blu-ray edition of 'Dune' sports a new transfer that looks vastly superior to the crummy DVD that was released just a couple years earlier.)
The take-away from this is that the studio does a great job these days with film-to-video transfers… when it bothers to do them.
The problem is that, when it comes to catalog titles, Universal rarely strikes new video transfers. Instead, the studio more often than not recycles older high-def video masters that were originally created with DVD in mind. There's a business reason for this, of course. Universal created thousands of HD masters in the '90s and 2000s with the expectation of "future-proofing" its catalog. Those transfers were expensive at the time, and re-transferring all those titles would be another huge expense now. Universal is certainly not the only studio to re-use old DVD masters for Blu-ray, either. Most studios do, to some degree.
In itself, recycling older video masters wouldn't be such an issue if only those old masters were decent quality. Unfortunately, they often aren't. Many of the transfers that Universal struck for DVD were burdened with Edge Enhancement, Digital Noise Reduction, and other heavy-handed processing techniques that stand out like a sore thumb on Blu-ray.
Universal eventually cleaned up its act, and newer transfers look fine. I'm not sure if there's an exact cut-off date for when that happened, but both 'Carlito's Way' and 'Pitch Black' look great on Blu-ray, despite not being remastered. So, not all of the studio's old DVD transfers are terrible. However, far too many of them suffer from unsightly artifacts that were baked into the old masters. The studio needs to closer inspect the condition of each of its masters before deciding which titles to reissue on Blu-ray, and then remaster titles when needed – which will surely be more often than it wants to admit.
For some of the worst Universal discs, take a look at 'Spartacus' (which has been wiped clean of almost any textural detail) or 'Tremors' (which is plagued by really thick, ugly edge ringing artifacts). Those movies should not have been issued on Blu-ray in their current conditions. Discs like these are shameful. They give the studio a bad reputation, and leave consumers wary of buying its products.
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!
PS3 Audio Setup Issue
Q: I encountered this when setting up a client's home theater system when I was living in Florida. We had his PS3 hooked into his receiver via HDMI, but only got PCM audio. If I remember, I had to go into the menu and activate the digital output for Toslink or coaxial to make Dolby TrueHD work. It made no sense whatsoever: the Optical output wasn't being used at all, and the setting on it should have had no bearing on what was output via HDMI. But as soon as I did that, bam! the Dolby TrueHD light on the receiver came on.
JZ: I personally have the original PS3, which must decode all advanced audio formats internally and transmit them as PCM over HDMI. Only the newer PS3 Slim model can transmit the raw digital bitstreams for Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio and send them to an A/V receiver for decoding (which would light up the receiver's TrueHD indicator). I assume that's the one your client has. I agree that you shouldn't have to turn on the Toslink or coaxial outputs to affect how audio is transmitted over HDMI, but stranger bugs have been introduced into consumer electronic devices in the past. I'll have to put this out to our other PS3 Slim owners reading this. Is this a known issue?
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.