How to Buy a Blu-ray Player
Getting the Best Blu for Your Buck
Not all high-definition videoor audiois created equal. There isn’t an upgrade of any kind that you can make in any part of your system that will allow it to take a lower-quality source and deliver the kind of performance you’ll get from Blu-ray Disc. Blu-ray features the highest bandwidth, best-in-class high-definition video currently available to consumers. And it serves it up with a chunky side order of lossless audio that’s miles beyond the lossy compressed audio we’ve had in theaters and at home for the past decade and a half. Buying a Blu-ray Disc player isn’t the minefield it was just a couple of years ago, but we’ve still got some tips and tricks that will help you get the best Blu for your buck.
In addition to supporting the legacy lossy surround formats we’ve enjoyed for years on DVD, Blu-ray Disc offers lossless audio in the form of DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. This means that while the digital data file that contains the audio content is compressed to save storage space on the disc, the signal is fully restored on playback, bit-for-bit identical to the soundtrack master. The DVDs we’ve lived with for years got a lot of sound out of an often MP3-sized bit bucket, albeit by discarding some information. Lossless audio is a sea change in terms of dynamics, detail, and overall transparency. You don’t need a set of golden ears to hear the difference; with even a moderate system, we think you’ll be wowed.
Most BD players today can transmit DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD as native bitstreams or perform full internal decoding to PCM. When you’re buying a player, be mindful of the A/V receiver or surround processor you’ll use with the player. If it’s a newer model with HDMI audio processing capability, welcome to single-cable heaven. Older HDMI-equipped AVRs and processors may not be able to decode DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD internally, which means conversion to PCM in the player is required. That’s A-OK, as both transmission methods are qualitatively similar if not identical in the end result. Both offer the full lossless audio experience. Just be aware that with bitstream audio, you’re forgoing access to secondary audio for commentaries, PiP streams on the fly, and the various sounds that accompany menu selections. If you choose PCM out from the player, you won’t have to jump into the player’s setup menu to access such features when you want them.
Many pre-HDMI A/V receivers and surround processors have multichannel (5.1 or 7.1) analog audio inputs. If this describes your equipment, you’re still not out of the lossless audio market. If you’re not ready to upgrade, you’ll have to spend extra bucks on a player that not only has internal decoding for DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, but has multichannel analog audio outputs as well. While this too offers full-resolution, lossless audio, it’s not our first-choice connection method for lossless audio. Your AVR or surround processor will typically have more sophisticated bass-management options for your surround sound system than a BD player will. And with many AVRs and processors using the multichannel analog inputs, this bypasses advanced, performance-enhancing post-processing features like DSP modes or even room EQ. HDMI offers the best combination of performance and flexibility.
Blu Basics: All That Video
The simple truth, which manufacturers of expensive BD players won’t be thrilled to read, is that our testing of BD players has consistently revealed that basic 1080p Blu-ray playback over HDMI yields essentially perfect performance regardless of the player, even on a large screen. If you’re a videophile (like we are), the purchase of a player with superior video processing will primarily buy you improved performance with upconverted DVDs and the few Blu-ray Discs that are mastered at 1080i (some concert videos and TV programs, for example). But even that won’t cost you an exorbitant amount of money. Sub-$300 players we’ve tested from Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony offer very good processing with a broad variety of discs, while OPPO’s $499 BDP-93 is totally beyond reproach. Among the processing sets we’ve tested in BD players, proprietary solutions from Panasonic have consistently passed all of our tests, and we’ve seen great performance from name-brand solutions like HQV (Denon’s players) and Anchor Bay’s VRS (OPPO’s first players, Marantz, and others). This isn’t to say that these are the only solutions that offer fine performance, or that these are the only players that offer great performance and value. Sony’s PS3 remains one of our favorites, and it doesn’t even offer processing for HD signals. But if you’re a videophile and you’re looking for the best pure video performance, these standouts offer the best potential to make your entire existing library of DVDs and the variety of material on Blu-ray Disc look their best. But there are other factors to consider too.
Blu Basics: Firmware Updates Are a Sad Fact of Life
With Blu-ray Disc players, firmware updates are a necessary evil. Most often, these updates don’t offer anything new or exciting in terms of updated features or functions; they merely ensure that you’ll be able to play the next blockbuster release without any hiccups.
Sony’s PlayStation 3 is popular, and it’s apparent the studios work hard to ensure proper playback on that platform. The PS3 is more devoid of playback issues than any player we’ve experienced. OPPO’s players have been nearly as solid, but perhaps just as importantly, OPPO has been ultra swift on the trigger finger when issues have arisen, delivering fast, easy-to-implement firmware updates when needed. Overall, player stability seems much improved since Blu-ray’s early days. These players probably aren’t the only platforms that provide this level of reliability, but since our firsthand experience with them is extensive, they’ve earned this shout-out.