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Answers by Joshua Zyber
Q: Do I really need to spend $150 to have a TV professionally calibrated? What do they do that I cannot do myself?
A: You don't need to do anything you don't want to. Naturally, we recommend that every HDTV owner calibrate his or her display for the most accurate picture quality. At the very least, buy yourself a calibration disc such as 'Digital Video Essentials' and follow its instructions to adjust your basic picture settings (Brightness, Color, Contrast, Sharpness, etc.) as much as possible. That will at least get you in the ballpark of video accuracy, and will be sufficient for the majority of viewers.
However, professional calibration does have benefits. For one thing, a calibrator will be able to access your display's hidden service menu to manipulate advanced settings beyond most users' control. A good calibrator will also bring sophisticated measuring equipment such as color analyzers and waveform monitors that will help to really dial in your video to mathematical precision (or at least as close as your display's inherent limitations will allow).
Casual viewers may not necessarily need professional calibration, but those looking for the best picture quality will usually find it worthwhile.
Unfortunately, not all calibrators are created equally. I've heard far too many horror stories about the calibration services offered by certain big box retailers who shall remain nameless here. The last thing you want is a so-called "professional" to come in and leave your picture even worse than you started with. To be frank, any calibrator only charging $150 for their services is probably not going to be the most knowledgeable or experienced. You may be better off doing it yourself with the basic user controls than wasting that money. If you're serious about wanting a thorough calibration, you should expect to pay a bit more than that.
I normally recommend starting with the Imaging Science Foundation to search for trained calibrators in your area.
Lossy vs. Lossless Audio
Q: I recently got a Blu-ray player but my older receiver doesn't have any HDMI inputs so I haven't yet experienced Dolby TrueHD sound. I've been told by some that the lossless audio difference is minor and I would get more of an improvement by investing in better speakers for my current receiver, since my current speakers are from a home-theater-in-a-box bundle and apparently those are typically not the best quality. Can you clarify HD Audio for me?
A: Your question is more controversial than you may realize. My answer to you may fly in the face of many of our readers' firmly-held beliefs, but I personally believe in cutting through hype and misinformation to get to the underlying truth.
First off, know that I fully endorse the use of lossless and/or uncompressed audio on Blu-ray. (For brevity's sake, I'll use the term "lossless" from this point forward when referring to both. Even though the two terms are technically different, the results amount to the same thing -- a bit-for-bit identical copy of the studio master.) Whether it be PCM, Dolby TrueHD, or DTS-HD Master Audio, all three of these high-res formats are sonically equivalent, despite what fans of one or another may tell you. These are positive developments for the Blu-ray format, and represent a decided technological improvement over the standard lossy audio found on DVD. I recommend listening to the lossless track on a disc whenever possible. I also advocate that every studio include a lossless audio option on all of their Blu-ray releases. (That means you, Warner.)
With that said, the difference between lossy and lossless audio is not as vast as some people would have you believe. Especially when we're talking about the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks used on Blu-ray, which are encoded at higher bit-rates than their DVD equivalents. DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1 are both good audio formats. They're not perfect, but they are very good at what they do. The perceptual encoding techniques each use primarily remove audio signals beyond the range of human hearing, or signals that would be masked by other signals in the soundtrack anyway.
That's not to say that there isn't an audible difference between a lossy soundtrack and a lossless soundtrack. But when someone tells you about the mind-blowingly amazing improvement in sound quality between one codec and another, you should take that with a grain of salt. More often than not, the differences people hear between any two audio formats are mainly due to improper volume matching (most people confuse louder with better) or simple placebo effect (if you're predisposed to believe that you'll hear a difference, your brain is more likely to tell you that it does). Truth be told, most listeners, even self-proclaimed golden-eared audiophiles, find it very difficult to tell any two audio formats apart from one another in a properly-conducted double blind listening test in which all of the tracks have been volume matched (all other factors involving the sound mix being equal). When legitimate improvements in audio clarity and fidelity do exist, they're usually subtle.
The plain fact of the matter is that upgrading your speakers or A/V receiver will have a much greater impact on sound quality than the differences between any two audio formats. Your speakers are the single greatest limiting factor in the reproduction of audio in your home. The Digital-to-Analog Converters and amplifiers in your receiver are close behind. Both are far, far more important than the audio compression codec used on the video disc. Most entry- to mid-level home theater speakers (and almost all Home-Theater-in-a-Box speakers) are outright incapable of reproducing the full frequency range of sonic details found in a lossless Blu-ray audio track. Even if there is a potentially audible improvement in the lossless disc data, you'll never hear it from tiny HTiB speakers.
If you want the biggest bang-for-your-buck improvement in sound quality, prioritize new speakers first. Better speakers will improve the sound quality of all sources you listen to, even lossy soundtracks. When you're ready to buy a new receiver, you should of course get one that supports lossless audio. Even more importantly, you should look for one that has better DACs and amplifiers than your current model. The combination of all these factors, plus a lossless audio codec, will give you the best sound.
Lossless audio is a very good thing. If you can listen to a lossless track, you should. But, it's not the only important factor in ultimate sound quality, or even the most important. It's just one part of a bigger overall picture.
HDMI vs. DVI
Q: I have a Dwin TV-3 projector which is only capable of 720p and does not have an HDMI input, but has a DVI HDCP compliant input. I made sure it had one before I bought it as I had read extensively about future compatibility issues. Now I want to upgrade to Blu-ray, but I want to be sure that my Dwin will interface with Blu-ray without this forced down-rez I've heard so much about. I realize that 720p isn't full high definition, but it should look way better than 480p, and I'm not in the position to purchase a new projector just yet. I'm aware that there are several DVI to HDMI connectors, but I'm concerned about possible HDCP compatibility issues. Can I expect things to work the way I intend or am I out of luck even though I have an "HDCP complaint" DVI input on my Dwin?
A: So long as the DVI input on your projector is HDCP-compliant, you should be able to successfully connect a Blu-ray player with a simple DVI-to-HDMI adaptor cable. As far as video goes, the two cable types transmit essentially the same signal. The main difference between them is that HDMI will also carry audio, while DVI won't.
Not all DVI connections are HDCP-compliant. Many displays with DVI inputs cannot accept encrypted Blu-ray video. If yours promises HDCP compatibility, you should be good to go.
In a worst-case scenario, you can still connect a Blu-ray player by Component video and receive a high-def signal up to 1080i resolution from Blu-ray content. However, standard-def DVD content would be output at a maximum of 480p resolution over Component, due to pointless limitations on upconversion mandated by the DVD Forum.
The Blu-ray spec requires BD players to check each disc played for an Image Constraint Token. If the Blu-ray disc is encoded with an ICT, the player would be forced to limit the resolution to 480p over Component for Blu-ray content as well. Fortunately, no Blu-rays have yet been flagged with ICT to date, and it looks like this feature won't be used in the foreseeable future.
Speaker Not Working Properly
Q: A friend of mine has a Marantz receiver, the 8002 I believe. The left speaker's volume has dropped to the point that he had to disconnect it due to the fact that the level of that speaker was so low it was obvious something was wrong. Is it possible that it's a processor issue? We connected the right speaker to the left side to check if it was the speaker and got the same result, a drop in volume. The left speaker worked in the other side (right side). It's a serious issue for him as he will have to send it away to have it fixed and he is on a bit of a budget.
A: If the left speaker worked fine when you switched it to the right side, and the right speaker (which was working fine previously) dropped in volume when you connected it to the left side, it's safe to say that the problem is not in the speakers themselves.
First things first, make sure the problem isn't something simple. Has the speaker wire on the left side come loose (at either the speaker end or the receiver end) or gotten frayed? Your fix may be as easy as re-attaching or replacing the wire. If that's not it, check the receiver's setup menu to make sure that the speaker level settings weren't accidentally changed or reset.
Failing that, there may be something wrong with the amplifier to that channel, which will probably require repair.
Q: I have a PS3 as my Blu-ray player. I also have a 73" HD Mitsubishi television. Say I am watching a 1080p Blu-ray movie. I decide I want to watch the Theatrical Trailer which happens to be in 480i. When it transitions from 1080p to 480i, or vice versa, there is a slight delay in the picture popping up (say around 2 seconds) but the sound is already coming through. There is also about 30 seconds of sporadic flickering of the picture. After that, everything is fine. Do I have something hooked up wrong? Or is this normal because of the difference in picture quality?
A: What you describe is normal for your equipment. When playing a Blu-ray disc with some standard-def content (e.g. the trailer), the PS3 will output that SD material as SD, without scaling it. The delay you're experiencing happens because your TV needs a couple seconds to resync to the new resolution each time the PS3 switches from HD (the movie or the disc menus) to SD and back. As a result, you get a black screen or flickering even though the new content has already started playing. It's a nuisance, I agree.
Some standalone players handle this differently. For example, my Panasonic Blu-ray player scales all SD content to whatever resolution I've told the player to output (1080p). No matter what I watch, my display always receives a 1080p signal. Perhaps Sony will eventually update the PS3 to do the same some day, if enough users find that useful.
Some questions that the HD Advisor receives are best answered by you, 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 matters too!
Samsung Blu-ray Player Setup
Q: The 3rd 'Mummy' movie is the first Blu-ray I've purchased. On my Samsung Blu-ray player, I get a box in the upper left corner that says Bonus View. I cannot figure out how to get it off the screen. I've tried every menu and button I could find and it doesn't go away; it's very distracting. Can you tell me how to turn this off? I just want to watch the movie.
JZ: There is almost certainly an option in the Blu-ray player setup menu that needs to be turned off, but I don't own a Samsung player to know what they call it. Can any Samsung owners answer this one?
Be sure to check back next week for another round of answers. Keep those questions coming.