An industry colleague and I spent some time together the other day, and in kibbitzing about the state of the industry as we see it, he wondered aloud whether we’re now in the beginning of the end of the era of the AV receiver. Blu-ray players are now equipped with full decoding capabilities for both legacy lossy and full lossless Dolby and DTS audio. In addition to playing back Blu-ray Discs, these players are now full media hubs with hosts of streaming apps for both audio and video. Other set-top box media hub devices are entering the market as I write this, and some even integrate cable and satellite broadcast content into a unified interface that manages all of this content. It doesn’t seem a stretch to think these devices could evolve to include the base level audio decoding found in BD players, or that more with integrated BD drives will emerge. And full range wireless audio is something that’s been around the corner for some time, clearly a question of when not if. So, my colleague wondered, if you add powered loudspeaker systems with wireless capability into this equation is that a look at the future? The dazzling capabilities of the AV receiver are both its strength and weakness. AVRs are intimidating. How much of all that capability do people really bother to use? How many people could get by with a lot less capability in favor of usability? I don’t know the answers to these questions but found them provocative enough to bring to you, and get your opinion. Are these the end days of the AVR as we know it?
Last Friday Senior Editor Tom Norton and I were treated to an up close look at Panasonic's new DMP-BD50 Blu-ray Disc player at Panasonic's Hollywood Lab facility. And I'm thrilled to report, at long last, that there's a standalone player that can be recommended without any significant functional caveats.
I’m just putting together HT’s February Letters section, and one letter really stood out to me. A reader who’s Blu-ray centric and has built a quality surround sound system around lossless audio wrote in lamenting that streaming from Netflix and other platforms is gaining momentum even though the sound is not only lossy, but often limited to stereo instead of discrete 5.1. He wondered whether sound quality is going to continue to go by the wayside or whether, as bandwidth increases, these platforms will offer improved sound quality. Even the Vudu platform, which offers the highest quality streams I’m aware of, offers 5.1-channel surround at 640kbps lossy Dolby Digital at best. These are excellent questions, even if for now we’re ignoring the video quality issues (Apple’s iTunes movie downloads are limited to 720p, the high-def minimum). In the future, if bandwidth improves, it seems possible that high quality streams or downloads could be offered with lossless surround sound. But it would probably be at a cost premium, and people will have to be willing to pay more. To be willing to pay more people need to be educated that not all 5.1-channel surround sound is created equal, and be taught to aspire to lossless. HT’s readers are sophisticated on subjects like these, but I wonder, what about your friends and family? How many of them have component based home theater systems that would allow them to hear the difference? How many of your friends are using the speakers built-in to their TVs? Are these people into streaming? When they come to your house, and hear and see Blu-ray in its full glory does it make a difference? Do they ask you questions that suggest they’re interested in learning more and maybe elevating their experience at their house? I’m just curious, because for high quality options to exist in the streaming ecosystems, there needs to be demand.
A couple of weeks ago we mused on the qualitative audio experience offered by Blu-ray, and whether our friends family and neighbors know or care what they’re missing with the lossy audio options available from streaming applications. Today, I want to get your lively thoughts on the video quality of streaming applications. Before Netflix, Apple TV or Vudu we’d been preaching that not all high-definition content is created equal. The high bitrates and advanced compression used on Blu-ray is superior on large screens to critical viewers. It’s the gold standard. While I’ve not found the video quality of streams from Cable on-demand, Netflix or Apple TV to be impressive my question is whether you have? Do you find that the difference in video quality between streaming and Blu-ray is definitive on your video setup? What about your friends and family? When they come over and see Blu-ray on your system do they seem interested in going Blu? Or if they notice, do they shrug, and not want to spend the money on a player and discs? Or are there other barriers?
Is There a Future for High-End Displays?
I’ve had a running joke for the last couple of years, that the flat panel TV has ruined the entire industry. It never fails to provoke a reaction. But, people say, there are only two kinds of people in the world- those who want to have a flat screen and those who already have them! The flat panel has become a price-driven commodity. Who needs big screen specialty retailers when your HDTV is just another box you throw in the cart next to the 36-roll pack of TP when you’re at Costco? It’s a funny bit. Then I see Pioneer build the best single-piece HDTVs the world has yet seen, and fail. Not a funny bit. Makes me wonder. Is there a future for high-end displays?
I admit I’m surprised by the controversy caused by removing the product review ratings. Most who’ve written want the ratings back and accuse HT of running scared from advertisers/manufacturers. I want to set the record straight, elaborate on the reasons we eliminated the ratings, and engage in some meaningful debate about them. I also want to note that while the ratings in their original format will never return, I’m not totally opposed to a revamped system if you readers still think it’s necessary. There are some features coming up that I think will make you miss the ratings less, and I’ll explain those below.
Late last week I had a chance to speak directly with Ken Graffeo, who has a high ranking position with Universal Home Entertainment and is co-president the HD DVD Promotional group. Ken and the group wished to clear the air on the running rumor mills and talk about Universal and HD DVD's plans in the post-Warner decision world.