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
Broadcast HD Quality
Q: When I watch movies in HD (on HDNet Movies or HBO, for example) on cable or satellite TV, the picture is never even close to that of a Blu-ray disc. I know that because of bandwidth limitations cable and satellite companies cannot send enough information through to make the picture 1080p, but why do so many movies seem to be better watched in standard def? I'm thinking of 'Kramer vs. Kramer' in particular, where there was some horrible effect I can only liken to a computer mouse pointer's trails. This was especially prevalent during the low light scenes.
A: In addition to being transmitted at a lower resolution (most high-def networks are either 720p or 1080i), HD broadcasts are also significantly more compressed than Blu-ray. Pixel breakup is very common on both cable and satellite. As these services add more and more bandwidth-hogging HD channels to their line-ups, they've been reducing the bit-rate to each, thus causing a lessening of detail and increase in artifacts.
The level of compression and the codec used will vary by provider. Some services are now using MPEG-4 to reduce these types of artifacts with low bit-rate transmissions, but many others are still using inefficient MPEG-2. On satellite specifically, you may also have issues with signal reception that can cause a degradation of picture quality.
Remastering Old TV Shows
Q: I recently purchased the complete series DVD set of the 1977-1981 show 'Soap'. It is obviously shot on video, and looking up the technical specs on imdb.com confirms this. However, the back of the case says "Remastered in High Definition." I understand that shows shot on film contained more detail in the film negative than a standard def TV could show, but how is this possible for a show shot on video in 1977? Were television cameras not recording in a 480i resolution when video was used during that era? Could this show, or others such as 'Three's Company', benefit from a Blu-ray release, aside from a higher bit-rate than DVD? I simply don't understand how it was remastered in HD, as I thought 480i was the standard for video recording in the pre-HD era. I understand upscaling, but my DVD player can do that just fine, and I would think there would be a loss of quality if upscaling a 480i image for a master that is going to be converted back to SD for DVD.
A: As far as I know, you're absolutely right. While older television shows that were shot on film (such as the original 'Star Trek') can be remastered from the film elements for a high-definition scan, sit-coms of the '70s and '80s like 'Soap' and 'Three's Company' were shot on NTSC videotape. They exist only in standard definition resolution. Any attempt to "remaster" them in high definition would be a matter of upscaling.
Modern digital tools may be able to clean up some of the old analog videotape artifacts, and perhaps that's what was meant by "remastered." However, it's not possible to draw a high definition level of detail out of those old videotapes, because there just wasn't that much detail captured by the original cameras.
My best guess is that the packaging on that DVD is probably just incorrect, and the studio marketing people who wrote that blurb didn't understand the difference between SD and HD.
HD DVD Players
Q: I have recently bought a lot of HD DVDs from eBay. While they are a format that is no longer used, they are very cheap compared to their Blu-ray brothers (between $4-6). I just need to get a HD DVD player. I have seen a few but they all appear to only play at a maximum output of 720p or 1080i. What brand/model HD DVD players can play at a full 1080p?
A: All HD DVD players can output to at least 1080i resolution, but not all can output to 1080p. There were several models that offered 1080p output, but even among those not all of them provided 1080p24. (See my What's the Big Deal About 1080p24? article for an explanation of the difference.)
If your HDTV can accept a 1080p24 input signal, I would recommend a Toshiba HD-A35 or HD-XA2.
Be aware that when you set an HD DVD player (or a Blu-ray player, for that matter) to the standard "1080p" resolution (which is really 1080p60), the player will decode the video on the disc to 1080i first and then deinterlace it to 1080p. Only by using native 1080p24 output will you avoid this interlacing/deinterlacing process. For that reason, if your HDTV isn't capable of accepting a 1080p24 input signal, you're probably just as well off using 1080i output from the disc player. But, if your TV can accept 1080p24, you definitely want to buy a player that offers it.
Toshiba's first generation of HD DVD players were very glitchy and had a history of playback freeze-ups, especially on Combo format discs. Their hardware got better with successive generations. In my opinion, the HD-XA2 and HD-A35 were the best all-around HD DVD players. No matter which model you get, make sure you update it to the latest firmware (which should be v4.0 in all cases).
To Bose or Not to Bose
Q: I have been researching the Bose Lifestyle V30 system and have become a little confused. This setup would include one of two Blu-ray systems (PS3 or Sony BDP-S550) and Samsung 52" 1080p monitor. I understand the Bose system does not have HD audio capability. But does that matter since both my Blu-rays have on board decoding and they would be hooked up to the Bose system with HDMI? Would I still be able to listen to Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD MA, and PCM tracks? I am also assuming the video transfer would not be negatively altered (no change to my wonderful 1080p picture since, again, everything is being run via HDMI). I have also been reading a lot of negative comments in general regarding Bose "Home Theater in a Box" systems. Why is there such a backlash? I always thought Bose was considered elite/high-end speaker and audio systems. I guess if you have the same negative slant toward Bose, could you suggest other HTIB systems where I will be getting the most out of the HD Audio/Video experience provided by Blu-ray? Please help! I don't want to be regretting my purchase in 6 months.
A: Your question about audio decoding I have addressed in previous columns. I'll direct you to back to that for the answer. You should also have no problem getting 1080p video out of any Blu-ray player if you buy a 1080p HDTV with an HDMI input. All current-model Blu-ray players can handle that equally well.
I would like to talk about Bose, though. As you've noticed, there's a backlash against the company in many home theater circles. I'll be perfectly honest in that I'm not a big fan of them myself. What this comes down to is that Bose products are overpriced for what they offer. You can buy equal- or better-quality components from other manufacturers for less money. Quite often, significantly less money. Bose (much like Monster Cable) charges premium prices for their brand name itself. They've fostered a reputation as a high-end brand, and price their products accordingly. In terms of raw quality, their products are really no better than anyone else's. And in terms of value-for-money, they're pretty much at the bottom of the pack.
Let me be clear, I'm not trying to slander the company here. I also don't mean to offend any of our readers who own Bose gear. The company's products aren't necessarily bad. They're just overpriced. Way overpriced. Since this is the HD Advisor column, if you want my advice, I'd recommend looking at other brands.
I think you'll also find that you'll get more bang-for-your-buck purchasing separate components rather than a "Home Theater in a Box" system. HTIBs are packaged for maximum convenience, but not necessarily maximum quality or value.
As far as recommendations for what to purchase instead, I'll make that our Homework assignment for the week, and let our readers post their suggestions in the forum thread linked at the bottom of this page. If you can join the thread and post your approximate budget for this purchase, that will help to narrow the options.
Check back next week for another round of answers. Keep those questions coming.