What a Load of Bollocks!

A publication out of the UK has been propagating a story recently in which it allegedly exposes the truth that, and I quote, “Despite the routine claims that Blu-ray delivers ‘the maximum HD experience’ some barely look better than their DVD counterparts.” If you haven’t already done a facepalm at that, wait until you hear the criteria that the so-called “Technology Researcher” has been using to come to this conclusion.

The articles in question appear on a web site called ‘Which? Conversation’. That appears to be the spin-off blog for ‘Which?’ magazine – a sort of British ‘Consumer Reports’. The ‘Conversation’ site describes itself thusly: “It’s a place for Which? experts to give the insider view of the burning consumer issues of the day and tell you why you need to know about it.” The grammar of that sentence has already given me a headache.

The main post is called “Many Blu-rays no better than DVDs.” It links over to another page with the investigative quality tests.

I find this enormously frustrating on many levels. The thing is, I don’t necessarily disagree with the underlying premise that some Blu-rays are only small steps up from the comparable DVD editions. I think most Blu-ray fans will admit to sharing that experience from time to time. I’ll also be fair and point out that the writer, Mike Briggs, doesn’t claim that all Blu-rays are a scam. He admits that, “Blu-ray can look fantastic,” and is only trying to call attention to the duds.

I’ll even concur with one of the examples given. I wrote in my own review of ‘Master and Commander‘ that the Blu-ray was “only a slight perceptible improvement in detail” over the DVD release of the movie. However, I also cited that the high-def disc had fewer artifacts, less edge ringing, and a more stable picture.

The biggest problem with the ‘Which?’ articles is the criteria that the writer uses to determine whether a Blu-ray is an improvement over DVD or not. Unfortunately, this comes down to a lot of common misconceptions about high definition video and even more ignorance of filmmaking. It seems that he believes that all movies should have that so-called “through a window” crystal clarity and razor sharpness of content shot on HD video. When praising certain Blu-ray editions of classic movies, he boasts that they “still manage to look like they could have been filmed yesterday.”

The logical fallacy here is huge. A movie made decades ago shouldn’t look like it was filmed yesterday. It should look like it was filmed when it was filmed. The purpose of a good video transfer is to preserve a movie true to its original form, not to update it to look more modern. That’s a dubious goal at best, and is the reason why we’re now suffering through travesties like the ‘Star Wars: Special Editions’, which foist crummy new CGI effects onto old footage shot decades earlier, and through other older movies being tinted teal.

One of Briggs’ examples of an excellent Blu-ray is the UK release of ‘Zulu’, which he says “really does look like a different film on Blu-ray.” A different film? Is that a good thing? I haven’t imported the ‘Zulu’ disc myself, but I’ve heard several people complain about its heavy-handed use of Digital Noise Reduction to scrub away all trace of film grain, and a significant chunk of picture detail with it. I bet this guy thinks that the abhorrent ‘Predator: Ultimate Hunter Edition‘ is pretty swell too.

Under the “Marginal improvement or no difference” category, he has the gall to list ‘North by Northwest‘, which he claims is “a little flat” and that “resolution didn’t appear to have improved.” Is he blind? That movie is absolutely stunning on Blu-ray, and a huge step-up from DVD.

Even among discs that are known to have problematic transfers, like ‘Gangs of New York‘ (first edition) or ‘Ghostbusters‘, his logic doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Of the latter, he says that, “The resolution wasn’t much better than DVD.” I’ll agree that both of these Blu-rays are bad transfers, but they’re still noticeable improvements in resolution over the even-worse DVDs.

Wait! Briggs says that ‘Gangs of New York’ “was good on DVD, but apart from having a slightly sharper image, looked very similar on Blu-ray.” Oh, dear lord! ‘Gangs of New York’ was one of the most notoriously awful DVDs ever produced. It’s smothered in Digital Noise Reduction and Edge Enhancement. And he calls that “good”?

Between the two articles, Briggs calls out Blu-ray several times for having oversaturated colors, which allegedly crush detail in the picture. This makes me wonder whether he’s simply viewing these discs on a badly calibrated television.

I understand that not all viewers are going to be very well versed on the technical attributes of high definition video, or even the basic aesthetics of motion picture photography. That’s inevitable. However, it’s simply irresponsible for someone claiming to be a technology researcher – especially one who writes for a consumer advocacy publication that reviews HDTVs and Blu-ray players – to perpetuate these gross misconceptions. He’s doing his readership a great disservice.


  1. Hey, Josh. I think this goes back to what I was saying on http://www.highdefdigest.com/blog/alien-resurrection-transfer/ – its consumer perception and education. Many consumers think that HD SHOULD look like a picture window. It is starting to become more of a buzzword and more of an issue, and I could see it possibly dividing the HD market. Purists, like we have here, want the grain in tact. The general uneducated public, however, want the video-window and the “looks like it was filmed yesterday” look.

    I think I know of a solution though – features in players that you can turn on or off to apply DNR to the picture. This way, purists can have their grain, and the general consumer can have their scrubbed picture window.

    Looks like a comment on the page gives major shoutouts to highdefdigest. 🙂 It wasn’t from me.

    In any case, it all goes back to educated versus uneducated, and what people prefer. I know what film grain is, and said it before, I prefer grain-reduction as long as it does not affect detail. That is grain REDUCTION, not scrubbing – big difference.

    I am really wondering at this point where studios will go on this. The purists are the early adoptors, but now that Blu-Ray is becoming more mainstream, it will be interesting to see what happens, and I guess that is, which market is bigger. Well more sells be made with or without DNR, with or without edge enhancement.

    Quite frankly, I understand where he is coming from with North by Northwest. Not that I agree. http://www.blu-ray.com/movies/screenshot.php?movieid=762&position=5 This all goes back to the uneducated consumer – they don’t understand filmstock, optics, and stuff like that. Too many people (I was this way at once, and still slightly am, but not like I used to) will try to, oh, compare the look of North by Northwest to, oh, lets say Avatar – http://www.blu-ray.com/movies/screenshot.php?movieid=10629&position=2 If you hold it to that standard, there is no comparrison.

    I could ramble on. I’ll just sum up though – I UNDERSTAND where they are coming from, even though I don’t agree.

    • Josh Zyber

      It’s one thing for an average viewer to not understand issues of film grain, etc. It’s quite another for a so-called “technology researcher” to write an article so filled with inaccuracies and logical fallacies.

      Just look at one of the comments below that article:

      “I’ve never seen a Blue Ray disc, and this article hasn’t really made me any more disposed to! I think I will stick with my DVD collection for now at least.”

      This is what he’s doing. He’s perpetuating the myth that DVD is “good enough” and Blu-ray is a scam. It should be his job to educate his readers, not mislead them.

      • True – but its also a consumer website. They look at things from a different perspective.

        Every website / news source has its target audience, and their columnists cater to them.

        The people who read Which! probably know what kind of website it is. Goto Google, type in Blu-ray review. What comes up? HighDefDigest and blu-ray.com, and that is followed by hardware reviews by cnet. Sadly, if I type in Consumer Reviews UK, Which! comes up as the second, and a search for consumer reports comes up as first. 🙁

        This is an editorial. I expect most people will understand this. And look at this:

        Don’t get me wrong. Blu-ray can look fantastic. New movies produced since the format launched in 2006 are optimized for HD and transfer brilliantly to Blu-ray. And there’s plenty of older movies worth the cover price too.

        Zulu, Wizard of Oz and From Russia with Love are classic movies that span the decades, but still manage to look like they could have been filmed yesterday (though the 60s fashion sensibilities in Bond could give it away).

        This sounds like high-praise for the format to me. He is stating that many movies do look good.

        He also states this:

        Ghostbusters, Die Hard and The Graduate are shocking examples of Blu-rays that offer little more than the DVD versions – other than over-saturated colour and an inflated cover price.
        How can we pick out the good ones?

        Andrew Vandervell has already bemoaned the lack of HD broadcast content for those without the deep pockets for Sky+HD, so I’m aware that this isn’t what HD TV owners want to hear. But don’t despair. When they get it right, the studios do deliver. Zulu really does look like a different film on Blu-ray – the colour and detail is simply magnificent.

        But how can you pick out a gem from the duds? Unfortunately, you can’t tell from the packaging. Most discs are routinely labeled ‘full-HD quality’, and there are no industry plans for any ‘mastered from the original source’ logos on the horizon

        I can’t speak for many of these, but Ghostbusters did seem over-saturated in places. I should point out that most consumers do NOT have their sets properly calibrated, so once again, this is a fair argument for the average consumer.

        He also does have a point that it would be nice if discs were labled that they were “mastered from the original source”, or got a new transfer for Blu-Ray. He is right – packaging rarely states that, and I am relegated to looking at review sites like this to know what kind of transfers I get.

        His points are valid, but I agree, if he had of taken a couple of paragraphs to talk about how films age, how restorations are done, a little about film stock, how not all movies are going to look the same, how to calibrate your set, etc, it would have helped – but that wasn’t the crowd he was writing to.

        He turned off a couple of people to the format. Shoot, that comment, “I’ve never seen a Blue Ray disc, and this article hasn’t really made me any more disposed to! I think I will stick with my DVD collection for now at least.” sounds like he is closed minded in the first place. Go down to your local electronics store, there are tons of demos. Go over to your friend’s house. See for yourself. Blu-Ray market penetration is high enough that there are many places you can go to see for yourself.

  2. There’s a trend for some dreadfully cheap reporting over here in the UK at the moment. People just jump on the bandwagon of something, and make various claims, and the idea of ‘research’ or ‘un-biased opinion’ seems to have gone out the window in favour of sensationalist opinionated rants. I read an article on the BBC website recently about UFOs, and the guy actually started the article with “Let me be completely honest. I do not believe in alien UFOs. Nothing could persuade me…”
    “It is an issue, in fact, on which I am uncharacteristically closed-minded. There is no evidence you could cite that would make me change my mind.”
    Could you imagine what would happen if a supposedly reputable reporter started an article about ANYTHING else with statements like that? For example a trial or something? But that kind of ‘reporting’ is becoming the norm, more and more, unfortunately…

  3. Jane Morgan

    There should be a full disclosure law that all blu-ray critics must list in every review what audio video equipment they used to base their opinion.

    Personally, I would only trust a reviewer who had a perfectly calibrated top-of-the-line projector, and a 120″ + high definition screen.

    • amen to that! ive read reviews of some that dont have any sort of home theater at all. im not gonna complain if someone has a lesser system than i, but someone has no right commenting on HD quality on a 36 in 720p set and audio quality being the set 15 watt speakers.

      • Jane Morgan

        Of the eight reviewers at HDD, only two have projectors, and Josh doesn’t list any details about his screen.

        Thanks for pointing out the gear link. It’s nice to know what you guys have.

        • Josh Zyber

          Jane, I have a simple matte white screen. (Da-Lite, I believe. Purchased it a long time ago.) I have mixed feelings about the benefits of either gray or high gain screens, and don’t feel that either is appropriate for my particular home theater.

          My screen in 6-foot wide 2.35:1. You can do the math on what that makes the diagonal. I had it written down on a post-it somewhere once but lost it. It’s something like 80″ in Cinemascope and 65″ in 16:9.

          Your requirement for a 120″ screen I find unrealistic and a little unreasonable. There are serious trade-offs in picture quality when you push an image that large. Very few home theater projectors are bright enough to support that size, especially not after a few hundred hours when the lamp has broken in. A high gain screen is basically mandatory at that size, and then you have to deal with sparklies, hotspotting, and limited viewing angles.

          I personally am willing to sacrifice size to maintain a bright and punchy image without those other problems. Also, my seating distince is currently an ideal 1.5x the screen width at 9-feet.

          If I had any more space in my room (I don’t), I would probably go a little larger, but not too much. A friend of mine has an 8-foot wide screen (also 2.35:1), and he’s skirting the edge of his projector’s limitations. He replaces his lamp far more often than I do.

          • Jane Morgan

            Okay, I’ll lower my requirement to 80″+ but not an inch lower.

            I have a 50″ Panasonic G10 plasma and I can just feel that I’m not even getting close to absorbing all the detail encoded in a good blu-ray.

            I’m looking to get a projector/screen come fall 2012, most likely an Epson and a Carada. I’m hoping to go 120″. That’s the only reason I set the bar that high.

            I didn’t mean for my comment to read as as insult. I would never insult a guy with a D-ILA.

  4. EM

    Like William Henley, I’m a lot less bothered by the “Which?” article than Josh and most of our commenters here. Not every video consumer is an actual or potential diehard home-theater enthusiast, and criticism geared for the more “casual” consumer is not necessarily a bad thing. A 40ʺ screen may be smallish to the Bonus View crowd, but lots of people will be watching on sets smaller than that. Indeed, when my father asked me about Blu-ray, I told him he shouldn’t feel any rush to adopt it. The fellow’s current TV set is 720p and 32ʺ at the largest, he sits a largish distance away from it, and he horizontally stretches 4×3 material to fit the screen despite my clear recommendation to the contrary. Most or all of the benefits to be reaped from adoption of Blu-ray would be wasted on him. (Heck, some of them are wasted on me.)

    That said, I feel that “Which?”’s coverage could and should have been more forthcoming, as in pointing out that the added detail is less detectable at smaller screen sizes (this may seem obvious to us, but it isn’t obvious to much of the populace) and that the added detail pretty much disappears below a certain screen size. As it is, I consider the coverage sloppy at best.

    As for vintage-film Blu-rays which “still manage to look like they could have been filmed yesterday”, I humbly submit that Josh may have overreacted in interpreting the simile so literally. (However, there’s literal and there’s literal: a very rigid reading would suggest a single day’s dailies rather than a completed film. 🙂 ) We’ve all seen prints or transfers from prints or negatives that have suffered the ravages of time or other damage. I tend to think that persons who use language like “filmed yesterday” are pointing out a pristine quality, not necessarily a modern quality. (I suppose my interpretation is marred by the writer’s added comment about fashion in an older Bond movie, but I consider that more of a joke and/or an attempt to backtrack from the imprecision of the simile.)

  5. Totally agree. I used to run a fan review site (had a few readers, nothing really big) that was focused on the more casual viewer. I used terms like “looks like it could have been filmed yesterday” when refering to movies such as 2001, Casablanca (even though it was black and white), and Poltergeist. It was ment to suggest that the print was pristine, not that they were using modern filmmaking techniques.

    In fact, I am pretty sure I have seen that term thrown around on HDD by other reviewers a few times.

  6. Had to laugh… Just watching a program in the UK called The Wright Stuff, discussing current hot topics and latest news… and it looks like one of the big newspapers has reprinted that report (Or jumped on the bandwagon) and done something very similar.

    It was only a brief mention, but the panel discussing it, appeared to lack any knowledge of Blu Ray, seemed to take the article at face value, and the woman reading it out announced: “And apparently, you can’t even play all of them in your normal player.” Oh the hilarity… I’ll have to look out those few Blu Rays that I CAN play in my normal DVD player… I must have missed those. 😉

    • EM

      Or maybe she was referring to the fact that new Blu-rays sometimes break the Java limits of existing Blu-ray players’ firmware. It sure would be nice if the journalism weren’t so sloppy as to obfuscate rather than clarify legitimate issues.