Editor's Note: This week, our HD Advisor takes a break from the usual Question & Answer format to provide a follow-up to his earlier guide to Constant Image Height projection. We'll be back next week with more Q&A, so please keep sending your questions to [email protected] To browse through previously answered questions, visit the main HD Advisor page.
By Joshua Zyber
Several months back, I wrote a tutorial on the subject of 2.35:1 Constant Image Height projection. A home theater owner with a CIH screen will eliminate (or nearly eliminate) letterbox bars on movies with aspect ratios wider than the HDTV standard of 16:9. Doing so allows "scope" movies to be projected as they were intended, larger and wider than those of the 1.85:1 or lesser aspect ratios.
As I mentioned in the article, Constant Image Height is very much a niche, and the home video studios rarely take the needs of CIH users into account when mastering their movies for DVD or Blu-ray. One very common problem, and a significant drawback to the CIH movement, has been the placement of subtitles on foreign-language movies. (This also affects English-language movies with selected lines of dialogue in a foreign language.) When a CIH viewer zooms a 2.35:1 movie to fill his or her 2.35:1 screen, the letterbox bars are cropped off the image. Consequently, any subtitles placed in those letterbox bars are also cropped off. Thus, this:
Looks like this:
Now at least half of every line of dialogue is missing. This effectively makes the disc unwatchable on a 2.35:1 CIH screen if you don't speak the language of the movie's dialogue.
Some studios (like Universal, Paramount, Disney, and Criterion) are usually pretty good about authoring their discs with CIH-friendly subtitles inside the movie picture.
Unfortunately, other studios (like Warner and Sony) default to placing one line of dialogue inside the picture and one in the letterbox bar. In July of last year, I directed readers to vote in a poll that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment held to determine how the studio should author the subtitles on its discs. I also provided further visual illustrations of the problem. I was very heartened to see that the option to move all subtitles into the movie picture won that poll by an overwhelming majority. The representative speaking on behalf of Sony promised to follow-up on the issue, and that action would be taken.
Well, here we are over six months later, and not much has happened. Recent discs from Sony still have subtitles half in the picture and half in the letterbox bar. The studio rep claims that these discs were already in the production pipeline, and that the running change will take effect on new discs in the near future. I hope that proves true. In the meantime, Warner Home Video has not even hinted that they might be open to so much as discussing the suggestion
Even if Sony does follow through on its pledge, we'll still be stuck with subtitles in the letterbox bar on discs from Warner. Even more importantly, we'll be stuck with subtitles in the letterbox bar on thousands of existing discs from both studios. Until recent developments, there's been little that any Constant Image Height viewer could do to rectify the problem. The best available compromise has been to utilize an external video processor to shrink the movie image and shift it upwards just enough to keep the bottom line of subtitles legible on the 2.35:1 screen.
This is an awkward workaround at best. Not to mention an expensive one.
But now, finally, there is hope for CIH viewers! Two Blu-ray hardware manufacturers have implemented a new subtitle shift feature in their Blu-ray players. This allows viewers to manually adjust the subtitle position up or down at their own discretion, regardless of where the studio placed those subtitles during disc authoring. This is not only a much-needed tool for CIH users, but will also benefit viewers with 16:9 HDTVs who actually prefer all subtitles in the letterbox bar instead. Either way, viewers can get what they want.
The Philips BDP7300 Blu-ray Disc Player
Philips has been a big proponent of Constant Image Height viewing, and has even gone so far as to release an LCD TV with an extra-wide 21:9 aspect ratio in Europe. To support this, they've also implemented a subtitle positioning feature (called "Cinema 21:9" mode) in their newer Blu-ray players, such as the model BDP7300. To use it, all a viewer has to do is hold down the Subtitle button on the remote. This will bring up a player menu with an option called Subtitle Shift. Once selected, an on-screen prompt will direct you to use the remote's arrow buttons to move the subtitles up or down. It's incredibly easy, and works on all Blu-ray discs, even Java-enabled titles.
This Subtitle Shift function is not a "sticky" setting. It resets all subtitles back to the default position as soon as you eject the disc. So you'll have to manually apply it each time. However, this also means that it doesn't negatively affect 1.85:1 movies or those 2.35:1 movies with subtitles that were properly authored in the movie picture to start.
Here's the catch: The BDP7300 is not sold in the United States. Nor is the Cinema 21:9 mode available on any Blu-ray players sold under the Philips brand in this country. In fact, Philips has actually abandoned the North American market entirely, and has licensed their branding to Funai here. All electronics marketed under the Philips name in this continent are actually rebadged Funai products. The Cinema 21:9 and Subtitle Shift features are only available on Philips Blu-ray players sold in other countries, primarily Europe. Further complicating matters is that any Blu-ray players sold in Europe will also be locked to Region B playback only.
Fortunately, the BDP7300 is also available in Hong Kong, which is Region A just like North America. The player can be ordered from Hong Kong retailer HiViZone for the not-unreasonable price of $260 USD. With international shipping, it comes to about $300 USD. It may not be the cheapest Blu-ray player around, but it's also far from the most expensive. A Constant Image Height user may find it worth the money.
Although HiViZone only accepts payment by PayPal, I used them for this transaction, and have also used them in the past, and have found them to be reputable. Once I ordered the BDP7300, it was shipped and arrived very quickly.
The BDP7300 is a fully-featured, Profile 2.0 Blu-ray player with 5.1 analog audio outputs. It's capable of internally decoding all high-res audio formats including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, or can transmit their raw bitstreams to an HDMI 1.3 capable A/V receiver. The owner's manual is written in English, and the player's on-screen setup menus also default to English. If the player doesn't seem to have the Cinema 21:9 feature out-of-the-box, that can be easily added with the most recent firmware update.
In my testing, Blu-ray playback on the machine looks great, save for one caveat I will get to in a minute. DVD upconversion is adequate but nothing special.
The BDP7300 does have a few quirks that need to be mentioned. First is the power cord. Although the player is dual-voltage capable and will not require any sort of voltage converter, the included power cord has a Hong Kong-style plug. The cord is detachable and can be easily replaced, though. Or you can add a simple adaptor to the end. Mine came with an adaptor in the box, which I believe HiViZone threw in for me. To be sure, I would ask when ordering to see if they can do the same for you.
Perhaps more of a nuisance is that the player's splash screen and setup menus default to a 50 Hz frame rate. That frame rate could be problematic for American HDTVs or projectors that aren't built to support it. If yours doesn't, this will leave you with no picture on screen. All is not lost, however. The player will automatically change frame rates to coincide with any disc you put in it. If you put in a DVD, the player will switch to the American standard 60 Hz rate. If you put in a Blu-ray, it will switch to 24 fps (if you have that resolution enabled, or 60 Hz if you don't). The player's splash screen and setup menus will all be visible from that point forward, until you power down. Annoyingly, the player resets to 50 Hz after each shutdown. As I mentioned, this is a nuisance, but fortunately not a dealbreaker.
Some BDP7300 owners have reported that when the player is set for 1080p24 resolution, that it outputs that signal at exactly 24.000 fps. This is slightly different than the 23.976 fps that Blu-ray discs are actually authored at, and may result in a small amount of image judder. Because the info screen on my video processor rounds the read-out to 24 regardless of whether the incoming signal is 24.000 or 23.976, I can't validate this myself. What I can say is that I've watched a few movies in full on the player, and only noticed judder on one occasion. Perhaps I'm not as sensitive to this as other viewers, perhaps other parts of my hardware chain smooth out the problem, or perhaps it's not really a big deal at all. Anyone who encounters this problem and finds it bothersome should switch the player to 60 Hz output until Philips can correct this in a firmware upgrade. [April 2010 Update: Philips has indeed fixed the 24 fps issue with firmware v1006.5. Any firmware from that number or newer should play back without judder.]
The OPPO BDP-83 Blu-ray Disc Player
I've previously reviewed the OPPO BDP-83 on this site. It's a great piece of equipment, and remains my reference Blu-ray player. I can't rave about it enough. The benefits of this machine over the above-mentioned Philips are that it's sold in the United States, its DVD upconversion is superior, it has much faster disc loading and BD-Live access response times, and OPPO Digital provides outstanding support for its products. It also doesn't have any of the quirks described above.
The downside is that, at a $499 MSRP (and no retailer discounts offered), it's a lot more expensive than the Philips. OPPO recently announced a more-affordable BDP-80 model that scales back on the quality of DVD upconversion. With that in mind, you'll have to decide on your priorities and pick your poison.
The BDP-83 has been on the market for several months already. Listening to owner feedback, the company has added a subtitle shift feature in a recent firmware update. This function can be accessed one of two ways: either through the player's Setup menu (where subtitle positions are offered in a scale from -5 to +5), or by holding down the Subtitle button on the remote until a prompt appears on screen with instructions to move the subtitles with the remote's arrow buttons. This works on all discs, even those authored with Java features.
In contrast to the Philips BDP7300, the OPPO's subtitle shift feature is a "sticky" setting. Once you raise or lower them, all subtitles will remain in that position after you eject the disc, and even through power cycles. The drawback to this is that the subtitles on 1.85:1 movies, or on 2.35:1 movies for which the studio properly authored the subtitles inside the movie picture, will be forced up too high, into the middle of the movie image. The subtitles must be manually moved back down when that happens. Which approach you prefer, sticky or non-sticky, will come down to personal preference. I prefer non-sticky, but can live with it either way. I'm just glad to have the feature in any implementation.
We Still Need Action
As a 2.35:1 Constant Image Height projection user, I'm thrilled to finally have viable hardware solutions to the subtitle position problem from two different Blu-ray player manufacturers. The fact that one of them was already my preferred reference machine is icing on the cake.
However, the presence of this feature in a few Blu-ray players doesn't excuse the home video studios for authoring their discs incorrectly. Not all CIH viewers own one of these particular player models, and we shouldn't be forced to buy a new Blu-ray player to resolve what amounts to a screw-up at the studio. Subtitles are part of the movie and belong inside the movie picture. If all studios could get on board with this simple fact, life would be much easier for everyone.
Joshua Zyber's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.