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 [email protected]
Answers by Joshua Zyber
Before I start the Q&A this week, I'd like to reiterate my plea for reader help in coming up with future numerical column titles. I hit a dead end after 70 and am running on fumes here. For this week, a couple of readers who dug through the IMDB search engine suggested a play on the title of an Austrian film called '71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance'. That seemed a bit obscure, so I went with the name of a supersonic military jet instead. Because supersonic military jets are cool. That's just a fact. Even if I didn't necessarily heed your advice this week, I promise that I'm listening and am very grateful for the assistance.
Now, on with the show…
Q: I've owned an Onkyo lossless audio receiver for the past 3 years. In that time, I've run out of HDMI inputs by accumulating a Blu-ray player, 2 game consoles, and an HDPVR. I've looked into expanding 3-4 inputs by way of an HDMI switcher and noticed that there is quite a range in price ($40 - $150). Is there any justification in this by way of quality / function or is this another one of those HDMI mark ups?
A: While HDMI cables themselves are often obscenely overpriced for no good reason, there may really be justification for seeking out a quality, reliable HDMI switcher. Due to HDCP encryption, any device that receives or transmits a signal over HDMI must "handshake" with every other device in the signal chain. For example, the Blu-ray player must handshake with the switcher, which must handshake with the A/V receiver, which much then handshake with the HDTV. If any of these handshakes fails, you will not get a signal. Unfortunately, HDCP is notorious for its handshake problems, which only become more common when you add more intermediary devices between the source and the display.
For that reason, you may want to spend a little more than the minimum to make sure you get a good switcher with reliable handshaking. That doesn't mean that you need to spend a fortune, though. There are quality devices in reasonable price ranges. I recommend shopping at a retailer with a flexible exchange policy (such as Monoprice) in case your first attempt fails and you need to try another model.
With that said, in my experience, HDMI switchers are generally less problematic than HDMI splitters. I had to go through several splitters before I found one that worked reliably. If you only need a switcher, you may not encounter so many issues.
Two other points to consider here:
If you have any thoughts about going 3-D with a TV in the future, you will need equipment compatible with the HDMI 1.4 standard. Everything will need to be HDMI 1.4 – Blu-ray player, switcher, receiver, TV… everything. Even if you're not there yet, you may want to future-proof yourself a little bit now by seeking out an HDMI 1.4 switcher, just in case.
You also have another possible stop-gap solution here that can save you some money in the short-term. If you don't have immediate plans to add any more source devices, you might consider switching to use Component Video on one of your game consoles or the HDPVR. That will free up an HDMI input, and will very likely not cause much of any discernable difference in picture quality on sources like games or broadcast TV that are not always high-resolution or particularly pristine to begin with. Prioritize the Blu-ray player for HDMI, of course. But using HDMI for all the others may not gain you much other than the convenience of a consolidated audio/video cable. In fact, I've actually found that my Motorola DVR from Comcast has better picture quality over Component than over HDMI, due to faulty HDMI implementation. It's worth testing out to see if you find any difference yourself.
Frame Rate Labeling Confusion
Q: I just purchased two different LED Televisions. One is a Vizio 240 Hz model and the other is an Insignia at 120Hz. On both of them, I noticed on the back that it only says 60Hz. So, any idea as to why they say 60Hz on the back when they are advertised as higher (which I can definitely tell they are due to the picture quality)?
A: This could be something as simple as the label on the back of the TV referring to the frame rate that the set will accept for input, not the frame rate that it displays the picture at. As I've written in previous columns, modern HDTVs have a native frame rate to which all input signals are converted. A 120 Hz TV will display all content at 120 Hz. A 240 Hz TV will display all content at 240 Hz. An input signal less than that (such as the common 60 Hz) will have its frames multiplied or interpolated to meet the higher rate.
Or, this could just be a labeling error. In either case, I don't think it's anything to worry about.
Why So Little 50 Hz Support in North America?
Q: I've read that the 'Wallace & Gromit short films have been slowed down from 25 fps to 24 fps in order to be released on Blu-ray in1080p/24 format in the U.S. I understand that Blu-ray cannot support 1080p at 50 Hz. If the disc was released in 1080i at 50 Hz, then many North American TVs would be unable to handle the 50Hz signal. What I'm wondering is why new TVs released in North American don't support 50Hz, and why the Blu-ray spec did not support 1080p/25, or indeed 1080p/30, for films that were shot at those frame rates? UK TVs can handle 50Hz and 60Hz fine. So it seems absurd that North American TVs can't.
A: I'm not certain if all of the 'Wallace & Gromit' short films were photographed at 25 fps. I do know that the most recent film, 'A Matter of Loaf and Death', was. That one was produced specifically for UK television which broadcasts at the 50 Hz rate. I was under the impression that at least some of the earlier shorts were made for theatrical release at the 24 fps theatrical standard. I could be mistaken about that, however.
In any case, as you note, the Blu-ray standard does not support 1080p resolution at either 25 fps or 50 Hz. In fact, the only 1080p frame rate supported on Blu-ray is 24 fps. (Players set for 60 Hz output at 1080p convert the frame rate internally by adding 3:2 Pulldown.) The Blu-ray spec does support 1080i/60 and 1080i/50.
The UK Blu-ray release of 'Loaf and Death' is encoded at 1080i/50 and plays back at the original photographic speed. (The 25 frames per second have simply by separated into 50 interlaced fields.) On the other hand, the U.S. Blu-ray release has been slowed down to 24 fps and is encoded at 1080p/24. This was necessary because many North American Blu-ray players and many North American TVs don't support 50 Hz content or display.
So, why is that? Is it just short-sightedness on the hardware manufacturers' part? Perhaps, but I don't think entirely. Remember, most of these manufacturers are international corporations that make electronics for sale all over the world. The same company that makes a TV that won't support 50 Hz in the US makes another TV that does support it in Europe. And both of those sets are probably assembled side-by-side at the same plant in China.
In fact, in many cases, this is an intentional design limitation that's been imposed to discourage consumers from importing foreign electronics or movie software. If region coding isn't enough to stop you from importing a foreign DVD or Blu-ray, frame rate compatibility problems may be. From our point of view, this may seem pretty ridiculous and consumer-unfriendly. But from the corporate point of view, there are marketing and sales implications that take priority.
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!
Blu-ray Player Glitches
Q: I've owned a number of Blu-ray players in recent months but they seem riddled with glitches. I wondered if you could offer me some advice on my latest problem – white specks of digital light on some films. Is this normal? I watched 'The Descent' and there are several quick specks of bright white light that appear throughout and are quite distracting. I've owned this title on DVD before and it is not from the original print. Plus, they look more like a digital problem. I've tried different TVs, projectors, and different HDMI cables, even a component lead and the problem is still there – dots appear at the same points all the time. (A few on the doors and walls when they are chatting in the cabin early on and some behind the deer carcass as they walk to the cave; these are just a few examples of many). I'm just surprised nobody else seems to be reporting this online. As someone who views Blu-rays regularly, have you seen this and how can it be solved? Is it the player or the disc? Would really appreciate your thoughts as it is driving me insane.
JZ: I think I can safely say that no, that isn't normal. However, I haven't personally watched 'The Descent', and you didn't cite which model number(s) of Blu-ray player or TV you're using. Please post those details in the forum thread. Perhaps some of our readers who've experienced anything similar can help.
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.