It seems Blu-Ray and HD-DVD are fighting their marginal little format war in a dusty corner of some video arcade, Blu-Ray quite literally, as its main growth is in game consoles. Pioneer’s Elite division, arguably designer and manufacturer of the most consistently outstanding players of video discs in general, and DVDs specifically in recent history, has embraced the Blu-Ray format with this machine. That embrace surely won’t smother the format, I think, and will tend to give it more credibility than any Playstation and all its meaningless HD graphic violence and destruction could.
But before getting into the politics of Blu-Ray (and I might even not bother), a quick look at the format’s technology is probably worthwhile. The dedicated site, www.blu-ray.com/info offers this introduction: “The format was developed to enable recording, rewriting and playback of high-definition video (HD), as well as storing large amounts of data. The format offers more than five times the storage capacity of traditional DVDs and can hold up to 25GB on a single-layer disc and 50GB on a dual-layer disc.”
“While current optical disc technologies such as DVD, DVD±R, DVD±RW, and DVD-RAM rely on a red laser to read and write data, the new format uses a blue-violet laser instead, hence the name Blu-ray. Despite the different type of lasers used, Blu-Ray products can easily be made backwards compatible with CDs and DVDs through the use of a BD/DVD/CD compatible optical pickup unit. The benefit of using a blue-violet laser (405nm) is that it has a shorter wavelength than a red laser (650nm), which makes it possible to focus the laser spot with even greater precision. This allows data to be packed more tightly and stored in less space, so it’s possible to fit more data on the disc even though it’s the same size as a CD/DVD. This together with the change of numerical aperture to 0.85 is what enables Blu-Ray Discs to hold 25GB/50GB.”
I’ve decided not to get into the rival format, HD-DVD, since this format war is already being decided by the emergence of players that handle both. In the case of audio optical formats, this has resulted in the virtual disappearance of DVD-A, and the dominance, albeit in a modest way, of SACD. I suspect that the same will follow for the video HD formats, and that Blu-Ray probably has the logistics and legs (software support and catalogue growth) to prevail. Enough said.
Blu-Ray players are, by virtue of the amount of information they must process in real time, very much like computers, and some of the same traits, starting with boot lag. The BDP-HD1 takes more than a minute to show any signs of life, and another, it seems, to actually ready itself to open its drawer in order to play a disc. I guess it’s a good time to read the notes on the back of the disc’s box.
After that it’s pretty much like any DVD player, though a little slower and clunkier when accessing chapters and other shuttle and play options. However, one lack is evident for those who like to combine music and video playback: the BDP-HD1 does not play CDs! I’m sure this will change in coming generations, especially in so-called “universal” players like those now common for the high resolution audio formats. And you have to expect that like newer computers with much faster operating speeds and more RAM, that the players will gain speed and lose their relative awkwardness of operation.
Looking at this particular model, we see a very attractive piano-black case, with a flip-down panel hiding most of the controls, the disc tray above it at left, and the LED display at right. The BDP-HD-1’s remote control isn’t the same monolithic black in styling, silver in background, with mostly grey-brown buttons, but 4 near top labelled and coloured Blue, Red, Green, and Yellow. In a couple of months of using this machine, I have never pressed any of these. Hhmmm..
Underneath are numeric buttons and a few others I’ll get to, with cursor array below. Next down are the transport function ones, with rudimentary TV Control buttons at bottom. This is not an especially intimidating remote, and is ergonomically excellent, as long as there’s a little light, since it doesn’t glow in the dark…ever.
I’ll say more about ergonomics and operation after I get to the main question, which is, first, does this thing give you a better picture with Blu-Ray discs, and, second, what kind of picture do you get with regular DVDs? Though both answers are a simple and emphatic YES, there are caveats and corollaries, but I’ll get to these, too, later. First let’s talk about sheer Blu Heaven on the screen.
The BDP-HD1 came with just a Pioneer demo sampler, so I went out and “blu” a hundred bucks or so on movies. These included A View From Space, an attempt to marry NASA footage and Classical music in various audio/video combinations; Talladega Nights, the only movie about NASCAR racing that’s even dumber than the sport itself; The Devil Wears Prada, in which Meryl Streep tries to outdo Jack Nicholson in chewing the scenery (scenery which is considerable, female- and fashion-wise); and The Departed, where Jack Nicholson himself proves that he is truly historically unsurpassed in this morbidly fascinating talent of set swallowing once again, here as a priapic mobster who makes cops Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Mark Wahlberg seem like meddlesome children in his sordid universe of debauchery and crime, especially at making them turn into serial killers of each other (I have to think that he brought along his script of The Witches Of Eastwick to help him again achieve his own Devil-ish dominance of the screen once again). Director Martin Scorcese, however, will have to answer for this film’s unrelenting terminal violence.
Please believe me, I did not plan all this thematically, but did let it unfold on my aging (but still better than plasma) 64″Pioneer Elite PRO-710HD set over a number of afternoons and evenings. And I have to say that A View From Space did not really prepare me for this further selection of world views, so to speak.
A View From Space (WEA/Concert Hot Spot 00107) provides just over an hour of folotage from the Shuttle in HD, starting outside the spacecraft at launch in a long telephoto sequence which ends with the booster rockets detaching and falling away, a rare shot taken with a very steady tripod or other long-distance camera tracking device (Surely not by hand or even Steadicam!).
The music is composed of 8 different hour-long classical music soundtracks, 1, 3, and 7 mixed composers, and the others highlighting excerpts of works by Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach, and Tchaikovsky, in that order. The sound is in Dolby Digital Plus, which means you get some unnatural musical contributions from the rear, which successfully convinced me to turn down the surround. The performances are unattributed, pleasantly anonymous sounding with workmanlike playing, making me think of such ensembles as the Bruno Sculptors Guildhall Players, or the Acapulco Marijuana Workers Mariachi Orchestra, or the more famous Academy of St. Peter-in-the-Woods. I could go on like this, but my point is that the performances are pleasantly innocuous, and occasionally appropriate to the visuals. These pictures are lovely, and worth having as continuous widescreen wallpaper, and it’s nice to be able to vary the background music. All in all, an orbital experience for all of us who will never be Marc Garneau, right at home on our wall-mounted flat screens, with some better class Muzak to exercise the almost invisible Bozo (did I spell that right?) surround audio system. Not you, you say? Oh well…
The Depahted, set and shot in Boston, explores the many layers of police corruption “theah”, with appropriate accents, has a cinema verite feel to it, with quite vivid colour, and looks pretty good in terms of detail and shadings. A particular strength of Blu-Ray is its palette, with richer, more saturated and variegated colours. It’s certainly evident here, though found in even more vivid terms in Talladega and Prada, which are both brightly hued fantasies. And because I’m trying to review the player, not the films, I’ll note that watching them was very enjoyable for just the visual and sonic aspects, and the cumulative effect was very much like doing the same on the HD movie channels. I’ll conclude about these by saying that “The Legend of Ricky Bobby” (its subtitle) is a definite one-watch, while Prada was for me a true half-watch when I became tired of Meryl Streep’s prancing fashion diva-doyen-devil…a little too much like Jeanne Beker, I thought, which, of course sent the shivers down my arm that activated the Eject button.
But back to the real subject at hand. The BDP-HD1 is a great player of these new discs (it does not play HD-DVD, nor, I found computer-made MPEG discs like my OPPO does), and its performance with regular DVDs may actually be its strongest selling point, though perhaps not at the original $1500 price. Now, I’m used to upsampled video from the OPPO 970HD and other players, and my reference, the limited edition Pioneer Elite DV-AX10 outputs a 540p signal that the PRO-710HD line doubles to 1080i, which is pretty hard to beat, and hasn’t been bested by any other player yet, including the best previous Elite models. Well, this one does it, or at least matches the AX10 through our component video hookup, at least with commercial anamorphic DVDs.
Then, when I started to watch my quite large collection of IMAX DVDs, most non-anamorphic, with the squarer screen shape, I noticed that resolution was not quite up to the standards I’d become used to. Doing a direct comparison with a couple, Into The Deep, and Super Speedway, I found that while the BDP-HD1 looked very good, the picture with the DV-AX10 had a little more snap and detail, especially in ZOOM mode on the PRO-710 with these discs. I should also note that the Blu-Ray player in combination with its sibling display locked it into FULL, so manual aspect ratio changes were not possible in our component video setup.
And here I’ll insert a minor digression. Much as been said about the ever evolving HDMI connection system, which certainly has its digital virtues, especially with long cable hookups like those encountered with front projectors. But in my experience it has not proved inherently superior in picture quality to component or good RGB in most situations, and I have not been encouraged to use it, especially in circumstances where I am feeding inferior display devices. Certainly with fixed-pixel displays it can be an advantage in maintaining the resolution relationships (or altering them without analog conversion or loss) by means of the purely digital chain. But with a CRT-based system like mine, I suspect that analog component or RGB video is in no way inferior at 1080i. And in spite of some of the enthusiastic comments you may read elsewhere about the amazing look of 1080p plasma or LCD sets, unless they are in sizes above 60″, the improvement in true resolution will be almost impossible to see, especially on such fixed-pixel displays. To sum up, I expect to graduate at the “p”HD level with a front projector one of these days, but they’ll have to come down further in price, which, given current trends, will be quite soon. Maybe then I’ll get a little more excited about 1080p from Blu-Ray.
Oh, and one final note: Those coloured buttons on the remote allow chapter access and negotiation of BD-R discs, that is, Blu-Ray ROM. Haven’t seen one of those yet!
Outside the Speakers
Random Thoughts on the Music Mask
NPR on Whether Audiophiles Still Exist
Audiophile Grade Mics?
CDs Sales Die, LP Sales Fly
Some High End 'Phones from CES
Audio Ideas (Andrew Marshall)
Ox Box (Bob Oxley)
Hy End (Hy Sarick)
Bain's Blog (John Edward Bain)
Most Popular Today