HD Advisor in the 25th Century

Posted Fri Aug 21, 2009 at 12:30 PM PDT by

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Answers by Joshua Zyber

HDMI 1.3

Q: I was thinking about upgrading from an HDMI 1.1 output Blu-ray player to one with a HDMI 1.3 output. I have a new 58-inch plasma that has an HDMI 1.3 input and supports Deep Color and x.v.Color. I have heard that an upgrade from 1.1 to 1.3 HDMI will eliminate gradation banding among other things. Not sure if that is true. Will I be able to notice any difference in quality by up grading or is it unnecessary?

A: On the video side of things, HDMI 1.3 has minimal advantages over earlier versions of HDMI when it comes to Blu-ray playback. HDMI 1.3 offers compatibility with the Deep Color and x.v.Color formats, but these are not in use on Blu-ray. Blu-ray video is still encoded in only 8-bit color. Any version of HDMI is fully capable of transmitting Blu-ray video at its highest quality.

There are some Blu-ray players that offer the ability to upsample the color channel to a higher bit-depth, which may slightly reduce the appearance of banding artifacts. If your plasma is Deep Color or x.v.Color compatible, it probably offers a similar feature internally anyway. You don't necessarily need to perform that action in the Blu-ray player. In any case, this is not likely to be offer a dramatic improvement in picture quality. Any change will be subtle.

HDMI 1.3's main advantages are on the audio side of things. You need an HDMI 1.3 connection to transmit the raw digital bitstreams for any of the high-res audio formats available on Blu-ray to a receiver. However, if your Blu-ray player is capable of decoding those formats internally, it can transmit them as PCM in full quality over any version of HDMI.

Keep in mind that in order to use HDMI 1.3, every piece of equipment in your signal chain must be compatible. If you route your video from the Blu-ray player to an A/V receiver and then to the TV, each one of those components must support HDMI 1.3.

See my earlier Is HDMI 1.3 Really Necessary? column for more information.

Backwards Compatibility of HD Audio

Q: Am I correct to assume that HD audio formats are backwards compatible, so that if your receiver couldn't support them, then you would still hear a Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS version of the soundtrack? If this is true, then why would they even offer the older formats as an option on a disc, or worse yet, make them the default track?

A: I covered this a while back in my Blu-ray Audio Explained article. Be sure to check that out for the full run-down.

The highest-quality audio from Blu-ray comes in three main formats: lossless Dolby TrueHD, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, or uncompressed PCM. All are bit-for-bit identical to the their studio masters, and equivalent in quality to one another.

Technically, Dolby TrueHD is not backwards compatible with older forms of Dolby surround sound. However, every disc with a TrueHD track is also required to have a backup track in standard Dolby Digital format. On some discs, this is selectable from the main menus. On others, it's hidden. If your equipment is not compatible with TrueHD, the player will automatically fall back to the lossy Dolby Digital option. Warner Home Video is the only major studio that has ever authored their Blu-ray discs to default to the lossy Dolby Digital track even if the equipment could support TrueHD. There was never any need for that. It was a poor design decision, and the studio has recently stopped doing it.

DTS-HD Master Audio works a little differently. This format is designed in what's known as a "core + extension" configuration. At the heart of every Master Audio track is a standard lossy DTS "core." The parts that make the track lossless are contained in the extension. If your equipment isn't compatible with the full Master Audio format, your player will disregard the extension and only read the core.

PCM Audio can be transmitted in 5.1 format over HDMI, or converted to analog and output over multi-channel analog connections. If your receiver lacks either of those input types, and you're forced to use a Coaxial or Toslink S/PDIF connection, the PCM track will be downmixed to 2-channels. S/PDIF only has enough bandwidth for 2 channels of PCM. As a result, discs with PCM 5.1 should be authored to include a standard Dolby Digital or DTS backup track as well. In at least one instance ('Kung Fu Hustle'), the studio made a stupid decision to only include the original Cantonese language soundtrack in PCM 5.1 form, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 track was for the English dub only. Therefore, viewers reliant on S/PDIF were forced to choose between a 2-channel rendition of the original language or the dub in 5.1.

Is BD-Live Worth Upgrading For?

Q: I got a Magnavox basic Blu-ray player for Christmas that does not have any online capabilities for upgrades. I think the picture quality is excellent but do I need to buy a Blu-ray player with upgrade capabilities now? Should I just wait a couple of years? Are the new updates really worth it?

A: The internet connection on a Blu-ray player is useful primarily for two things: downloading firmware updates or connecting to BD-Live for web-enabled bonus features.

If you don't have an internet connection on the player, most manufacturers will make their firmware updates available for computer download from their web sites, where you can burn them to a CD or load them to a USB drive. There's little need to worry about having an internet connection on the player for this.

As for BD-Live, that's a decision you'll have to make for yourself. To be frank, few Blu-ray discs have yet made very compelling use of the BD-Live features. There are a few neat things here or there (I enjoyed the dynamicHD features on 'Star Trek: The Original Series'), but little that I would personally go out of my way for. Perhaps more interesting things will come along in the future.

Of course, your mileage may vary. I invite our other readers to post about their favorite BD-Live features in the forum thread linked below.

Homework Assignment: You Be the Advisor

Some questions that the HD Advisor receives 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!

Soundbar Recommendations

Q: Any recommendations for a decent soundbar around $300 or less? This is going in a room where I can't have full-blown surround sound, but want something at least a little better than the TV speakers.

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.

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