From da bitsâ€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦.
Okay... hope you guys all had a great weekend. Hot as blazes here in The OC, but that seems to be the trend everywhere these days.
I wanted to check in this afternoon with a bit of an update on Blu-ray Disc. As I reported on Friday, I was having troubles with the HDMI output on the Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray Disc player. Actually, I was having three separate issues. The first was what I consider to be subpar picture quality on several of the first Blu-ray Disc releases. The second was a problem with the HDMI output feeding video to my Panasonic projector properly at 1080i resolution. The final issue, is what I consider to be a problem with the BD-P1000's HDMI output video quality in general. All of these were rather vexing.Fortunately, on Friday afternoon, I was able to spend a couple hours at Pioneer Electronics with Chris Walker, the company's Manager of New Technology. He invited me to bring my Samsung player and a few of the first Sony and Lionsgate discs over to their offices here in The OC
, to take a closer look at some of the quality issues. Pioneer is understandably concerned that people don't judge the quality potential of the Blu-ray Disc format by just a single player and the first few discs, and I was happy to have a chance to compare the performance of the Samsung Blu-ray player to Pioneer's yet-to-be-released Elite BDP-HD1.
We began by connecting both the BD-P1000 and the Elite BDP-HD1 to a pair of side-by-side, matching 50-inch plasma displays - Pioneer's new Pro-FHD1 Elite plasma, that's fully 1080p compatible. We connected the players to the monitors first via HDMI, selected full 1080p resolution (which both the Samsung and the Pioneer are capable of delivering), and used an identical test disc in each player to play back MPEG-2 encoded footage of Disney's Chicken Little (we photographed a nearly identical setup playing the same disc at CES in January). I had told Chris that my first impression of the Samsung player was that the video image lacked some of the detail I had expected to see, and that it wasn't fully delivering all of the color and contrast information encoded on the disc either. Sure enough, that was the first thing we both noticed. Colors and contrast (particularly color) from the BD-P1000 just seemed more subdued compared to the same image delivered by the BDP-HD1, and some of the fine detail in the image was also missing. The difference was rather dramatic. It's almost as if some kind of high-frequency filter is being applied, or as if the Samsung player is doing some kind of extra signal conversion before it sends the signal out via the HDMI connection. It's not the connection itself, because as Chris confirmed, both players use the same HDMI hardware and chipset. So it has to do with the way the Samsung player is processing the signal. By the way, to confirm that what we were seeing was really an issue with the Samsung player, and not the plasma displays, we swapped the displays connected to each player and sure enough, the video quality issues migrated to the new display.
To test something that I suspected might be the case based on my experiences with the Samsung player, we next connected the BD-P1000 to the display via the component output, and selected 1080i resolution. As I suspected, and to Chris' surprise, all of the problems with the video signal just disappeared. Suddenly, the video being displayed by the Samsung was MUCH closer in quality to the 1080p HDMI output of the Pioneer. Colors and contrast were VERY close to identical - colors just popped off the screen - and fine image detail was significantly improved on the Samsung side (although still not quite as good as the Pioneer - the difference was about what you would reasonably expect between analog component and digital HDMI connection, along with an interlaced image versus progressive scan). The upshot is, if you own a Samsung BD-P1000 and you want to experience the best possible image quality - quality that closely approaches the full potential of the video signal encoded on the disc - you NEED to be viewing via the component output. Now, that's troubling given that protected digital HDMI is what everyone in the industry is encouraging people to use. Yes... the Samsung is capable of delivering full-resolution 1080i video to your display via component. Like all Blu-ray and HD-DVD players, the player must be able to read the Image Constraint Token flag on the software if the studios choose to turn it on (and thus disallow full-resolution analog playback). However, the good news so far is that neither Sony or Lionsgate has chosen to exercise this option yet (for that matter, neither have any of the HD-DVD supporting studios either).
By the way, the scaling problem I was having between the Samsung and my Panasonic LCD projector via HDMI at 1080i resolution wasn't happening with the Pioneer plasma. It also isn't happening at any resolution via the component outputs, so it's definitely something endemic to the way the Samsung and my projector handshake via the HDMI connection. I'm hearing a few reports from other Panasonic projector owners who are having the same problem, so it's not just confined to my specific model of projector.
While we were conducting our tests, Pioneer's Senior Vice President Andy Parsons joined us for while. We continued sampling various Blu-ray Disc titles from Sony and Lionsgate, along with some other film demo material, including one clip that was encoded in VC1 format. Those of you who are interested in how Blu-ray displays VC1 material will be pleased to know that it looks absolutely spectacular. Unfortunately, I can't talk about the specific clips we saw, but it wouldn't be fair to compare Blu-ray's VC1 quality to that of HD-DVD at this point anyway, especially not from a single short clip. I will tell you, however, that one specific piece of test footage we looked at (in MPEG-2) was hands-down the single most stunning high-def video I've ever seen. I've seen a lot of HD video in my day, but NOTHING this good in terms of detail, color, contrast and lack of compression artifacting. I have no doubt that both HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc are capable of delivering video quality of this level eventually, but I'm betting full-length movie discs this good won't start hitting store shelves until mid-to-late next year... when the authoring and compression folks have had enough time to really hone their wizardry with these formats. The same was also true in the early days of DVD, of course, and compression quality has only gotten better since 1997. I suspect the same will be true with HD. Suffice it to say that when the average video DOES get that good on HD-DVD and Blu-ray, there's going to be something said for the argument that once you experience that kind of HD quality, it's hard to go back to regular DVD.
Anyway, I left Pioneer feeling a LOT more confident about what I was seeing from the Samsung player. I know now that the picture quality the player delivers via HDMI is significantly inferior to that of its component output, and I know that Samsung's 1080i component output comes very close to delivering the full image quality encoded on the discs. I also have a better handle on the software quality issues - what's related to disc compression or to transfer issues. As a result of this, I've begun to evaluate the first wave of Blu-ray titles with all this in mind. I'm also going to compare the Toshiba's HD-A1 player's HDMI output with its component quality, and begin seriously reviewing the first several waves of HD-DVD titles with a more confident eye as well. Chalk it all up to the kinds of critical re-training you need to do with any new video format. C'est la vie in this industry in the 21st Century!
Rest assured, however, we'll check back tomorrow with a full update of all the latest standard DVD release news, and we've got a number of standard DVD reviews on the way as well. Also, we've got a big (and long overdue, we know) update of the Upcoming DVD Cover Art section nearly ready, and Todd checks back in with a new Doogan's Views column this week as well. So stay tuned...!
Bill Hunt, Editor
The Digital Bitsbillhunt@thedigitalbits.com