Feeling Blu, Ray?

Some Advice on the Upgrade Dilemma

blu-ray.jpgUp to six times the resolution of DVD! Perfect picture and sound! Sparkling high definition!

The marketing push for Blu-ray players and discs has been full of these and similar pronouncements, trying in a shitty economy to get you to upgrade your DVD player and (ideally) replace your current movie collection with this relatively new format. Concurrent with that has been the debate about whether Blu-ray will “survive” after winning the “format war” with HD DVD in February 2008. Concurrent with that have been silly partisan arguments using adoption rates and sales figures to show that Blu-ray reigns victorious! or that Blu-ray is already dead!

If you’re anything like me — and my sincerest condolences if you are — that’s a lot of noise to filter, and experts only add to it. Read a wonky review of a Blu-ray disc, and you might be baffled by jargon such as “edge enhancement” and “DNR.” Read enough of them and you’ll get sick of the phrase “inky blacks.” Read reviews of players and you’ll be buried in technical specs, from supported sound formats to analysis of upconversion to connection types.

But you want an answer to a simple question: Should I upgrade to Blu-ray?

A simple answer from this layperson’s perspective: not yet, unless you have cash to burn.

A slightly longer answer: The true cost of a Blu-ray upgrade is too steep considering the relative dearth of titles aside from recent theatrical releases, and is prohibitive considering the relatively modest improvement in picture and sound quality for most people. My advice is that if you have to make a financial sacrifice to upgrade, don’t do it.

Make no mistake: I love my Blu-ray player, and I’m happy to have it. Consider, however, that it was a gift, and it necessitated the purchase of a new receiver to take full advantage of Blu-Ray’s uncompressed-sound capabilities. And when I’m watching a standard-definition DVD, I’m not at all bothered that it’s not a Blu-ray disc.

This disc-upgrading is apparently a once-a-decade thing for me. I got my first CD player in 1989, my first DVD player in 1999, and my first Blu-Ray player at the dawn of 2009. (Yes, careful readers, I just tried to sneak late 2008 by you.)

In case this is not yet clear, I am no audiophile or videophile, and while I do my research on purchases, there is no doubt that I try to strike a balance between quality and price. I mean that as a grain of salt, but it might also give me more credibility, in the sense that my advice is not divorced from questions of cost and benefit.

My observations and recommendations:

  • Don’t upgrade to Blu-ray if you don’t have a high-definition television.
    Absolutely true, and common sense.
  • If you still listen to movies through your television speakers, you’re going to get a much bigger bang for your buck by buying a home-theater system than a Blu-ray player.
    I’ve read mostly negative things about relatively inexpensive Home Theaters in a Box (known by the catchy acronym HTiB), but I’m pretty sure that even a low-cost 5.1-channel setup will make a bigger difference in your movie experience than a Blu-ray player. If you can afford it, buy higher-quality components separately.
  • The much-heralded picture-resolution improvement of Blu-ray is barely perceptible below a certain size television.
    We have a 37-inch 1080i plasma hooked up to the Blu-ray, and bluntly the discernible difference in picture resolution is minimal. I’ve read that the gap only becomes apparent at 42 inches. Who knew five inches could matter so much? (Yes, careful readers, that’s a thinly veiled penis reference.)
  • With smaller televisions, the major visual benefit of Blu-ray lies in color reproduction and vibrancy.
    DVDs look positively faded compared to high-definition.
  • High-definition sound is surprisingly superior.
    Granted, it was played through a new (and almost certainly better) receiver than the one in our previous A/V system, but The Dark Knight rocked the house using the same speaker setup. DVD audio is compressed (or “lossy”), while most Blu-ray discs offer uncompressed and/or lossless audio — assuming that your player and/or audio components can handle it. This was the expensive part for me, because while my Blu-ray player could decode these high-def-audio options, my 10-year-old receiver didn’t have the HDMI input necessary to receive it. Hence: a new receiver. Buy carefully, and read and ask questions in forums. I’ve rarely been dissatisfied with compressed audio formats (on myiPod or on DVD), but the sound quality of most Blu-ray discs has been nearly revelatory, which I didn’t expect at all.
  • Don’t double-buy features.
    Many Blu-ray players decode high-def audio formats for you, so assuming you (ahem) have the proper HDMI connections, you don’t necessarily also need a receiver that can decode those formats. Many televisions already upconvert DVD video, so you don’t necessarily need to be concerned with that feature on a Blu-ray player. Again, do your homework.
  • Don’t double-buy movies ... yet.
    Given their MSRPs, you might hesitate to buy any Blu-ray movies. But shop smartly and you can get them for roughly $20 apiece. (Netflix gives you access to Blu-ray for an extra dollar a month.) I would avoid, however, purchasing movies you already own on DVD, for some of the previously stated reasons and also because studios haven’t figured out much in the way of value-added special features for Blu-ray. There’s plenty of potential there — especially with picture in picture — but it’s largely unrealized now.
  • Read disc reviews ... especially if you might double-buy movies.
    Despite what I wrote above, there are exceptions, and some Blu-ray discs represent clear upgrades in content and quality over their DVD counterparts. But plenty of discs are apparently only marginal improvements, and still others seem bizarrely wrong. My favorite destination is High-Def Digest.
  • Don’t fret about digital downloads.
    Many who claim that Blu-ray won’t last or thrive or be widely adopted believe that we’re moving past the age of physical media into the age of digital downloads. We’ll get there eventually, but it ain’t happening soon for high-definition video. Blu-ray, like DVD before it, will be the standard storage medium for movies at home for a decade. It should be clear that for the near future, there will remain two video markets: one for portable served by the Internet, and one for high definition served by discs. Internet service providers are simply too stingy with bandwidth and download speeds to make high-def-video downloads convenient for most people.

Questions?

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Poll: What best describes your relationship with Blu-ray?

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I got a PS3 - which happens also to be a Blu-Ray. player. Given that i have an HD TV well what the whoopdiedoo!
The only Blu-Ray disks I’ve bought are Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace - total nostalgia video games - otherwise I’ve been all about the Nextflix/zip.ca for them, and I will say - that, my friend is the way to go.

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