Friday, December 5, 2008

Onkyo 706 vs. 806 vs. 876 vs. 906 vs. 886P

The Onkyo 2008 lineup has 4 THX certified AVR's and one THX certified processor/preamp. All five Onkyo products have 7.1 analog pre-amp outputs so they can be used with separate external amplifiers. They also all support the internal decoding and the external bit-streaming of the newest Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA codecs used by the Blu-ray format. Below is a list of the base features that they all have in common.

base features
  • THX certified
  • 7.1 analog inputs
  • 7.1 analog pre-amplifier outputs
  • 3 coax and 3 optical SPDIF digital inputs
  • 1080p upscaling, Deep Color (36bit), xvYCC color support
  • Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding
  • Sirius and XM satellite radio
  • available in black or silver
As you step up through the Onkyo product line higher end features are incrementally added. Other than power, dimensions, and price; the major changes are highlighted below.

  • THX Select 2 Plus
  • Audyssey MultEQ
  • HDMI v1.3a 4in, 1out
  • two TI 32-Bit DSP chips
  • Faroudja DCDi Cinema video processing chip
  • 192 kHz/24-Bit Cirrus Logic DACs
  • 100W x 7 ch
  • exposed front controls (no flip down panel)
  • 14.8" x 17.1" x 6.9"
  • 27 pounds
  • 5.9A power consumption
  • MSRP $800, street $500

  • THX Ultra 2 Plus
  • Audyssey MultEQ
  • HDMI v1.3a 5in, 1out
  • two TI 32-Bit DSP chips
  • Faroudja DCDi Cinema video processing chip
  • 192 kHz/24-Bit Cirrus Logic DACs
  • 130W x 7 ch
  • 16.9" x 17.1" x 7.6"
  • 37.5 pounds
  • 7.8A power consumption (idle: 88W for 6ohm and 56W for 4ohm settings)
  • MSRP $1000, street $600

  • THX Ultra 2 Plus
  • Neural THX
  • Audyssey MultEQ XT
  • ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) video calibration
  • HDMI v1.3a 4in, 2out
  • HD radio
  • three TI (Aureus) 32-Bit DSP chips
  • HQV Reon-VX video processing chip
  • 192 kHz/24-Bit Burr-Brown DACs (PCM1796)
  • 140W x 7 ch
  • switched 110V trigger outlet
  • 18.1" x 17.1" x 7.6"
  • 53.1 pounds
  • 9.5A power consumption
  • MSRP $1600, street $1000

  • THX Ultra 2 Plus
  • Neural THX
  • Audyssey MultEQ XT
  • ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) video calibration
  • HDMI v1.3a 4in, 2out
  • HD radio
  • DLNA audio streaming; Ethernet and USB (AAC, WMA, MP3, WAV, OGG, and FLAC)
  • three TI (Aureus) 32-Bit DSP chips
  • HQV Reon-VX video processing chip
  • 192 kHz/24-Bit Burr-Brown DACs (PCM1796)
  • 145W x 7 ch
  • switched 110V trigger outlet
  • 18.1" x 17.1" x 7.6"
  • 54 pounds
  • 9.8A power consumption (standby 20W, idle 140W)
  • MSRP $2000, street $1500

PR-SC886P (pre-amp/processor)
  • identical features of the TX-SR876
  • except 7.1 XLR pre-amp outputs replace the internal power amplifier
  • Ethernet for remote control
  • 17.5" x 17.1" x 7.6"
  • 29.3 pounds
  • 1.1A power consumption
  • MSRP $2050, street $1600
Amplifier power output is what signifies the difference between the THX Select and THX Ultra classes. A 30W - 45W increase only amounts to an additional 1 or 2 dB of headroom which isn't all that significant.

The TX-SR706 and the TX-SR806 both use the same Faroudja video chip which has a "blue dots" problem with 1080p sources that can be fixed by disabling the on screen display (OSD). The Faroudja video chip also has a black clipping problem which is active even when HDMI pass-through mode is enabled. Clipping the black level doesn't let "blacker than black" signals pass through, such as a pluge test pattern, which makes it difficult to properly calibrate the brightness on your video display. So even when in video pass-through mode the Faroudja chip is modifying the video signal. On the the audio side, the analog 7.1 inputs lack ADC's so all digital processing is bypassed, this means that the digital delay, equalization, surround processing, and bass management features are not operational. Channel level control with the 7.1 inputs does work since the gain adjustment is done in the analog domain.

The upgrade from the TX-SR706 to the TX-SR806 adds one HDMI input and a cosmetic flip down panel that hides a number of infrequently used controls and input jacks. Is the extra power and improved looks of the flip down panel worth an exta $100?

The upgrade from the TX-SR806 to the TX-SR876 removes an HDMI input but replaces the Cirrus Logic DACs with Burr-Brown DACs and replaces the Faroudja video processor with one by Reon. The Reon upgrade allows ISF video calibration which is convenient but not that useful if you prefer to do your de-interlacing and video scaling on your flat panel display. Some displays, such as the Pioneer Kuro 9G plasmas, provide higher quality video processing circuitry. In fact, 24 FPS PureCinema film mode doesn't operate with a 1080p source, so Reon processing could even be detrimental in this particular case. Another interesting addition is that the TX-SR876 has an extra TI DSP chip, its use is speculated to be for the extra processing capability needed by the Audyssey MultEQ XT, Dynamic Volume, and Neural THX features. While all these features are nice, except for the potential Reon 1080p Kuro PureCinema problem, the main improvement are the Burr-Brown DACs. It is interesting that last years TX-SR805 had the Burr-Brown DACs. The important question is the improved signal quality of the Burr-Brown DACs worth an extra $400?

The upgrade from the TX-SR876 to the TX-SR906 adds DLNA audio streaming over Ethernet or from the USB port. Audio streaming your music collection is a great feature if you have a home network set up but is it worth an extra $500? Or is the modular addition of a streaming Apple TV, Sony PS3, or a Roku box a better value?

The upgrade from the TX-SR876 to the PR-SC886P (pre-amp/processor) is more of a horizontal move than an upgrade. Since it is a pre-amplifer, the internal power amplifiers have been replaced by 8 balanced XLR outputs. The PR-SC886P has an Ethernet port but it lacks the USB port and DLNA capability the TX-SR906 has. The PR-SC886P is made by the Onkyo Pro division which makes it more difficult to find and since it isn't a high volume product it doesn't get the same pressures on price that the mainstream Onkyo products have. While $1600 is a great price for comparable high-end pre-amps, it does seem odd for the removal of features (power amps) to cost an extra $100.

Unless the performance of the Burr-Brown DACs is a significant improvement, the best value is to use a TX-SR706 or a TX-SR806 as a pre-amp/processor. This represents a $1000 - $1200 savings. That way, in a couple years when the newest greatest codec, DSP algorithm, or technological HT feature comes out it will be that much easier and less painful to upgrade.

For the latest prices and availability check out the Onkyo THX processors store.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in HD

I watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in HD last night on CBS (1080i). I've seen this Christmas special many times in my childhood but I was in complete awe seeing it again in high definition. The picture quality and detail was amazing. The fuzz on Rudolph's fur, every hair on the Abominable Snowman, and the fabric texture of Burl Ives plaid vest was clearly visible. Rudolph's glowing nose looked like one of those old style red film covered light bulbs. I could even tell that the Christmas trees were made of felt! You could clearly see how everything was constructed. The amount of detail almost takes the magic away from this Christmas classic.

The aspect ratio of the picture was 4:3 which is expected for a made-for-TV special from 1964. Back then everything was recorded directly to film which explains the high level of fine detail. I wonder what other old TV shows will pop up on HD with incredible looking pictures? Frosty the Snowman in HD will be broadcast Friday December 12th on CBS.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sennheiser HD-280 pro headphones

The HD-280 pro's are closed-ear headphones designed for professional-quality monitoring. Sennheiser claims a frequency response of 8 to 25,000 Hz (-10 dB) and up to 32 dB of noise attenuation which make them particularly useful for in noisy environments. The long coiled cable has a 3.5mm jack with a 1/4" adapter that screws on for a solid connection. The street price is about $85 (hover your mouse over the picture to do a quick price check).

For the past 2 years my HD-280 pro headphones have gotten a moderate amount of use in a studio environment and they have stood up very well, in fact they still appear brand new. The HD-280 pro's are a tight fit and that is key to their deep bass response. I own a number of different subwoofers and the HD-280 pro's bass performance exceeds them all by at least an octave. I fondly call them my "pressure cans" partly because of their tight fit but mainly because that's what bass an octave below 20 Hz feels like. I've surprised myself many times listening to recordings that I thought I knew very well only to hear (feel) bass that I didn't know was even there. I fully believe Sennheiser's claim of frequency response down to 8 Hz.

The HD-280 pro headphones do an amazing job of attenuating external environmental noise. When you put them on you feel like you are in a quiet room. Sennheiser claims "up to 32 dB of attenuation" which may be true in the ultrasonic frequency range. My tests with a function generator show these attenuations with the following signal sources:

  • pink noise -6 dB
  • white Gaussian noise -9 dB
  • 100 Hz sine -1 dB
  • 400 Hz sine -3 dB
  • 1000 Hz sine -6 dB
  • 2000 Hz sine -9 dB
  • 4000 Hz sine -12 dB
  • 5000 Hz sine -15 dB
  • 7000 Hz sine -18 dB
  • 10000 Hz sine -24 dB
  • 14000 Hz sine -30 dB
The HD-280 pro's attenuation of external noise is a function of frequency. Above 400 Hz the attenuation appears to follow a -3 dB / octave reduction curve. Bass frequencies don't have much attenuation. The signal structure of white noise has less low frequency energy than pink noise which results in -3 dB more of attenuation.

Except for the 14 kHz high frequency sine wave test these numbers are all a lot lower than 32 dB but this needs to be put into comparison. Good foam earplugs will give a 30 dB reduction. The HD-280 pro's have better external isolation than any other headphone I've tried but they aren't in the same league as foam ear plugs. That said, the dB attenuation of the HD-280 pro headphones is very significant in that it creates a lower background noise floor which allows the use of a lower volume level while also improving the audibility of weak signals.

  • very accurate sound
  • deep bass pressure
  • attenuation of environmental noise

  • tight fit
  • large and heavy
  • top band messes up hairdo
  • must be worn correctly for deep bass performance

I highly recommend the Sennheiser HD-280 pro headphones to anyone who appreciates high quality audio at a value price. Bass enthusiasts and those who appreciate a quiet background environment will be pleased.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Black Friday deals 2008

Home Theater related Black Friday (Novemeber 28th) deals. Items with a star "*" are limited quantity "door buster" first-come-first-served deals.

  • Sony BDP-S350 1080p Blu-ray Disc Player $199.00
  • 300 [Blu-ray] $16.99
  • Reservoir Dogs (15th Anniversary) [Blu-ray] (1992) $11.99
  • I Am Legend [Blu-ray] $16.99
  • A Clockwork Orange [Blu-ray] $10.99
  • The Shining [Blu-ray] $11.99
  • March of the Penguins [Blu-ray] $9.99
  • The Road Warrior [Blu-ray] $13.95
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day [Blu-ray] $11.95
  • Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow [Blu-ray] $9.99
  • Black Snake Moan [Blu-ray] $9.99
  • Predator [Blu-ray] $12.99
  • Dreamgirls (Two-Disc Showstopper Edition) [Blu-ray] $9.99
  • The Mummy [Blu-ray] $15.95
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [Blu-ray] $16.99
  • Early Bird Blu-ray's 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. (Pacific time) on Friday, November 28th


  • Samsung Blu-Ray Player - $199.99
  • Insignia Blu-Ray Disc Player - $249.99
  • Sony Blu-ray Disc Player - $249.99
  • Transformers Blu-Ray Disc - $9.99
  • Samsung 46" Class 1080P LCD HDTV - $1099.99
  • Insignia 47" 1080P LCD HDTV - $999.99
  • LG 47" Class 1080P 120Hz LCD HDTV - $1499.98
  • Panasonic Viera 50" 720p Plasma HDTV TH-50PE8U - $899.99 *
  • Samsung 52" 1080p LCD HDTV LN52A580 - $1499.99 *
  • Mitsubishi 60" Class 1080P DLP HDTV - $999.99

Circuit City - possible going-out-of-business problem with returns
  • Samsung Blu-Ray Disc Player BDP1500 - $199.99
  • Reservoir Dogs Blu-ray Disc - $11.99
  • SAW Blu-ray Disc - $11.99
  • 007: Dr. No Blu-ray Disc - $17.99
  • Samsung 46" Widescreen 1080p LCD HDTV LN46A500 - $1,099.99 * or @Amazon for $1099
  • Samsung 50" Widescreen Plasma HDTV PN50A400 - $899.99
  • Sharp 52" 1080p LCD HDTV LC52SB55U - $1,499.99 or @Amazon for $1520
  • Mitsubishi 65" Home Theater 1080p DLP HDTV WD65735 - $1,199.99
  • The Untouchables Blu-ray disc - $9.99
  • Predator Blu-ray disc - $12.99
  • The Mummy Blu-ray disc - $15.99
  • The Hulk Blu-ray disc - $15.99


  • Sony Blu-Ray BDP-S350 Disc Player - $179.99
  • Samsung 42" PN42A400 720p Plasma HDTV - $699.99

  • Sony BDP-S350 Blu-Ray Disc Player - $179.99 *
  • 300 Blu-Ray disc - $19.99 * or @Amazon for $18
  • Sleeping Beauty Blu-Ray disc - $18.99 * or @Amazon for $20
  • Samsung 46" 1080p LN46A530 LCD HDTV - $1199.99
  • Samsung 52" 1080p 120Hz LN52A650 LCD HDTV - $2099.99 or @Amazon for $2059
  • Sony Bravia V-Series 52" 1080p LCD HDTV - $1799.99 or @Amazon for $1745
  • Sony Bravia W Series 52" 1080P LCD HDTV - $1999.99 * or @Amazon for $2016

  • Magnavox NB500MG9 BonusView 1.1 Blu-ray player - $128.00 *
  • Samsung BD-P1500 Blu-ray Player - $198.00
  • Blu-ray Movie: American Gangster - $15.00 *
  • Blu-ray Movie: Indiana Jones Crystal Skull 2-Disc Special Edition - $15.00 *
  • Blu-ray Movie: Iron Man Ultimate 2-Disc Edition - $15.00 *
  • Blu-ray Movie: Kung Fu Panda - $15.00 *
  • Blu-ray Movie: Shooter - $15.00 *
  • Blu-ray Movie: Transformers 2-Disc Special Edition - $15.00 *
  • Samsung 46" Widescreen 1080p LCD HDTV - $1,098.00
  • Samsung 50" Widescreen Plasma HDTV w/ 2 HDMI Inputs - $798.00 *

There are some great bargains here but many items can be purchased at roughly the same price on-line without the hassle of all the Black Friday crowds. So before you go out and shop make sure you do some price checking.

That's right. Shop smart, shop S-mart. Ya got that?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Netflix HD codec details

Netflix, Inc.New streaming HD codec details emerge from the Netflix blog.

For Xbox 360 and Silverlight platforms, Netflix will be streaming HD content using a 720p resolution with the VC-1 Advanced Profile codec at 24 FPS for movies and 30 FPS for video. The two bit rates are 2600 kbps and 3800 kbps so a fast broadband connection will be required. Audio will be limited to stereo only until they figure out how to package a multichannel AC3 audio stream in WMDRM10 (Windows Media Digital Rights Management).

Roku is saying that their Netflix HD streaming should be ready by the end of the year and will be available by an automatic firmware update. Roku claims that their "implementation of Netflix's HD content will take significantly less bandwidth that what is currently required on the Xbox" then they contradict themselves and say that "Roku Players will be using the 2.6 and 3.8 streams, which are the HD streams." So at this point it appears that the Roku box will be using the same VC-1 AP codec that the Xbox 360 and Silverlight platforms use.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Terminator: Blu-ray vs. LaserDisc

The 1984 film The Terminator made by James Cameron stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, and Michael Biehn. It is the classic action sci-fi cyborg thriller flick.

I purchased the THX certified LaserDisc of The Terminator in 1995. It wasn't a reference quality LaserDisc like the THX pressing of the Terminator 2 directors cut by any means but it wasn't a bad transfer either. The original was a low budget production and to reduce costs the film was mixed with mono audio. I have enjoyed watching this movie many times over the past decade, it was a good purchase.

The Blu-ray version of The Terminator is a BD25 disc that uses the MPEG-2 video compression codec at an average 18.54 Mbps data rate. The picture visuals are far from reference quality but they are a huge step up from the THX LaserDisc. Video noise is mostly absent and the image isn't that grainy. The Blu-ray also has much more detail and is cleaner than the LaserDisc. Unfortunately these improvements have a downside in that the special effects shots are now more obvious and fake looking. It's a good looking disc and the extra detail provides a definite high-defness. This is probably the best The Terminator will ever look and it is a dramatic improvement over the old THX LaserDisc.

The old THX LaserDisc, as did the theatrical release, had a mono audio track. Cameron had a limited budget for Terminator and decided to spend the available funds on special effects instead of on a surround soundtrack. This was a good choice as the SFX really made the film work. The mono track obviously lacked any stereo or directional sound information. The mono track also lacked bass and sort of dynamics during the scenes with gunshots and explosions.

Several years ago Terminator was remixed with multichannel surround and many sound effects were recreated. The Blu-ray has an uncompressed LPCM 5.1 16-bit sound track along with a 640 kbps AC3 5.1 track those with older audio equipment. This new remixed audio track is impressive with strong bass and extreme dynamics. The battle scenes now have a kinetic sound force that matches the intense action on screen. You can hear the bullets whizzing around the room. Directional pans add a nice touch to some scenes. The rear surround channels are used throughout the film for an added ambience; urban city noise, crickets near the woods, humming sodium lamps in the parking garage, and buzzing machines in the tool shop. One strange ambient surround effect is the choice of crickets inside Sarah Conner's apartment. What are crickets doing inside? Other than that slight flaw, the sound design is well done and almost a bit over the top in some action spots. I enjoyed the new 5.1 remix immensely and it is a huge improvement over the mono track. This is the surround sound track that Cameron probably wanted originally but couldn't afford.

So what about purity of essence and faithful reproduction of the original version? Is 5.1 remixing like B&W colorization or the adding of CG effects years later? The 5.1 remix definitely has more impact and excitement than the original mono track which was lackluster and boring. So as a home theater enthusiast I like this new 5.1 mix but it would of been nice, form a purity of essence standpoint, if they included a compressed version of the original mono track for posterity. Other than for comparisons, I probably would never listen to the mono track but it's the sort of thing that should be included these days with multi-gigabyte Blu-ray discs.

The video and the audio of the Terminator Blu-ray are huge improvements over the old THX LaserDisc. The Blu-ray video has fine high-def details but it isn't close to being reference quality. The 5.1 remix has strong bass, explosive dynamics, nice directional pans, and enveloping surrounds. The Blu-ray provides a better viewing experience and I'll probably be watching The Terminator a lot more often now.

Highly recommended.

Monday, November 10, 2008

0 dB THX reference level

The THX 0 dB reference level is a calibrated volume setting used in dubbing, cinema, and home theaters. The 0 dB (decibel) setting represents an average 85 dB SPL (sound pressure level). Movie soundtracks are created and mixed in dubbing theaters. Movies are presented and played back in cinema and home theaters. The general goal of the reference level is to preserve the directors intent which is to ensure that the volume level that the movie was created (mixed) at is the same as the playback volume.

Pink noise and a sound pressure level (SPL) meter with C-weighting are used to calibrate the individual 5.1 or 7.1 speaker levels. This calibration balances all of the speakers levels so that they are equal and that no speaker is louder than any other. The calibration also sets the 0 dB volume setting to equal the THX reference level. Both internal and external pink noise signal sources can be used to calibrate the speaker levels. External calibration signals found on video discs are typically full range pink noise at a 85 dB SPL. A preamp/receiver's internal calibration signal is typically banded pink noise played at a 75 dB SPL which is -10 dB down from the reference level. The quieter -10 dB signal is chosen by manufacturers because it is less harsh for users. It is also important to note that banded pink noise and full range pink noise will produce dB level settings that are slightly different. Which one equates to the true reference level depends on who you ask and how flat the frequency response of your speakers are.

Maximum Level
The 0 dB reference level represents an average 85 dB SPL and a maximum 105 dB SPL. The LFE (Low Frequency Effects) channel used by AC3 (Dolby Digital) and DTS is +10 dB higher. This means that the maximum output for bass peaks is 115 dB SPL. The purpose of the +10 dB gain for the LFE channel is to increase the dynamic range of bass events such as explosions, crashes, punches, and rumbles. This means when the volume is set to 0 dB that the subwoofer could be asked to produce an output of 115 dB SPL. Such loud bass levels places a heavy resource burden and requires multiple high-end subwoofers to produce it accurately. Fortunately THX processors have a feature called the Bass Peak Limiter which compresses peak levels in an attempt to reduce distortion and prevent speaker damage.

THX theaters
The THX certification process for cinema theaters has numerous audio and visual quality control assurances that must be met. This THX stamp of approval ensures that the movie looks and sounds good. The 0 dB THX reference level is part of this quality assurance and the volume control knob is usually behind a locked panel so that it cannot be adjusted. This ensures that all movies played in a THX certified theater are played at the correct THX 0 dB reference level. Unfortunately a 0 dB volume level is too loud for many patrons and cinema owners so over time many certified THX theaters will have their "locked" reference volume levels reduced. If the rules aren't enforced then what use are rules?

THX equipment
A related benefit of the 0 dB reference level is the requirement that home THX certified equipment, particularly amps and speakers, be able to reproduce volume at this level without distress. Originally two 12" subwoofers were required to meet the THX spec for large rooms. An output level of 105 dB isn't an easy task at 20 - 40 Hz for subwoofers, especially when the +10 dB LFE channel is accounted for. Actually this output spec has been relaxed a lot during the past decade so that a single smaller sub can meet it. This "practicality" was probably due to pressure from consumers and manufacturers.

The 0 dB THX reference level is a wonderful concept for many other reasons. It creates a standard for comparing playback volume levels. If you and I both have our systems calibrated to the reference level then when I say that watched that movie at volume setting of -15 dB then you will know what I mean and you will have a general feeling for how loud that is.

The engineer in me really likes having the volume control operate with units of dB. And the fact the 0 dB level is actually a reference to something makes it even better. I don't know what is but that dB display just soothes my soul. In fact I won't buy a preamp or receiver that doesn't have it.

Watching a movie at 0 dB is crazy loud and I rarely watch a movie anywhere near that level. It depends a lot on the movie but I tend to watch movies with the volume set between -17 and -11 dB. For some very quietly mixed movies I tend to go up to about -5 dB. I love loud bass and I also love my hearing. I just don't understand how the professional sound mixers can listen to their craftwork at the 0 dB reference level for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, without suffering any permanent hearing damage. According to the OSHA occupational noise exposure levels A-weighted SPL's of 90 dB for 8 hours, 105 dB for 1 hours, and115 dB for 15 minutes per day are allowed.

I'm a fan of THX technology and it is kind of sad seeing the slow dilution of the 0 dB reference level specifications. The THX stamp at the cinema and in the home just doesn't mean what it used to.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Amazon's Blu-ray Buy 2 Get 1 Free

Amazon is having another one of its Blu-ray buy 2 get 1 free deal that runs until November 6th 2008. The selection this time is very similar to the B2G1F sale in the middle of June. Slow but free shipping is also available.

The way to get the most out of this deal is to choose 3 discs that are all the same price. This time the biggest selection and best deals are the $20 discs which works out to a little more than $13 per disc.

$20 * 2 / 3 = $13
  • The Fifth Element (Remastered)
  • Hellboy (Director's Cut)
  • Underworld (Unrated)
  • Black Hawk Down
  • Bram Stoker's Dracula
  • Gattaca
  • The Patriot (Extended Cut)
  • Resident Evil
  • House of Flying Daggers
  • The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Memento
  • Resident Evil: Apocalypse
  • Dogma
  • Run Lola Run
  • A Knight's Tale
  • A Few Good Men
  • Seven Years in Tibet
  • Monty Python's Life Of Brian - The Immaculate Edition
  • Wild Things (Unrated Edition)
  • Cruel Intentions
  • Immortal Beloved
  • Secret Window

The Fifth Element and Hellboy have excellent Blu-ray picture quality and are visual treats. Bram Stoker's Dracula is a great film but this Blu-ray has a very soft picture quality and the fine detail and resolution look the same as on the old anamorphic DVD. Happy Shopping.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Netflix HD Streaming

Netflix, Inc.Netflix HD streaming will be available late 2008 for the Roku, Xbox 360, TiVo, and both the LG and Samsung Blu-ray players. Unlimited streaming is included with the $9/month and up plans. An 8 Mbps broadband connection will be required for the top quality level. The video encoding will be MPEG-4 Advanced Profile with a 720p resolution. Since this is a different codec from what is used by the Xbox which means that different digital streams will need to be encoded and stored on the Netflix servers. No mention if Dolby 5.1 AC3 surround audio will be streamed,

The Roku engineers hinted that "a new major feature" will be included in the update but they did not specify what it might be. Speculation is that the Netflix Roku box will gain network audio streaming which is a common feature with Roku's other products.


Friday, October 31, 2008

Baraka Blu-ray Freezing Problem

The October 28th 2008 release of the Baraka Blu-ray disc has a problem. Many people have reported that video playback freezes between chapter 18 and 19 which is around 72 minutes into the film. The exact location where the freeze up occurs changes slightly when the disc is reloaded but it is always between the chapter 18 and 19 spots. After freezing up, playback can resume on its own after the player jumps several minutes, or by manually fast forwarding or chapter skipping. Some people have reported no video playback freezing problems whatsoever. Everyone agrees that the picture quality of Baraka is spectacular.

The Baraka Blu-ray is a BD50 disc that utilizes the VC-1 codec at a high 30+ Mbps bit rate. When you do the math the 72 minute mark is about 20 - 25 GB into the disc which is about where the layer change would occur. This could be just a coincidence and the 72 minute mark could just be the location of a mastering flaw. What is odd about the freeze up flaw that everything is fine once the player jumps around 10 minutes past it.

The Baraka Blu-ray is packaged in an environmentally "green" 100% recyclable cardboard box that has a fold out sleeve which the Blu-ray disc slides in. It is a fairly snug fit and the disc surface is touching the cardboard sleeve. Optical media and friction are bad and can cause scratches, dirt to stick, and warping. Most inspections of the disc surface return a clean bill of health so scratches and excess dirt are not likely the problem. The tight shrink wrapping and the lack of structural support from the case can be causing minor warping.

Possible Culprits
  • disc mastering or pressing flaw
  • minor disc warping due to flimsy cardboard packing
  • second layer transition laser focus problem

Some Blu-ray players seem more susceptible to this freeze up than others. Players such as the PS3 have been reported to both freeze up for some people and work flawlessly for others. Below is a list of which players suffer from the Baraka freeze up and which ones don't. Note that some players are listed in both good and bad categories.

Good Players
  • Insignia NS-BRDVD
  • Panasonic BD55
  • Pioneer 51FD/05FD with firmware 1.12a
  • Pioneer 95D
  • Sony BDP-S1
  • Sony PS3

Bad Players
  • LG BH200
  • Samsung BDP-1500
  • Sony BDP-BX1 with 010 firmware update
  • Sony BDP-S300
  • Sony BDP-S350 with 010 firmware update
  • Sony BDP-S550
  • Sony BDP-S5000ES
  • Sony PS3 with 2.50 firmware

Below is a list of links that have reported the Baraka freeze up problem:

Tracking Report Links

My Experience
I have a Sony BDP-S350 that has been updated to the most recent 010 firmware. I purchased my copy of the Baraka Blu-ray from Amazon. Picture quality is fantastic and the disc played great until a little bit after chapter 18 (~70 minutes) then playback froze and my S350 was unresponsive. I was able to skip a chapter forward but that took about a minute of waiting. I then ejected the disc, turned off the player, tried it again, and playback froze but at about the same spot (roughly 20 seconds later). I tried this several time an had the roughly the same results.

So I complained to Amazon that the Baraka disc was defective and they sent me a new one which arrived two days later. Now that is good service. Well, I put the Baraka Blu-ray disc jumped to chapter 17 and started watching. It played fine past the spot the original disc froze at, this got my hopes up, and then it locked up my Sony S350 player about two minutes later (at about 72 minutes). I tried this a couple time and the same thing happen. I looked at the surface of the Blu-ray disc and it looked fine. Great, now I have to discs I need to mail back to Amazon.

You could say I was frustrated. What do I do now? Hmmm. I looked at the cardboard packaging and thought what a piece of junk. It's great that they want to save the planet by using "green" packaging but sliding the disc in like that can't be good for it. So I put the Baraka disc into an unused CD jewel case I had laying around. About 12 hours later I decided to give the second Baraka disc another try. I popped the disc in, skipped to chapter 18, and this time it worked flawlessly. This is crazy so I tried it a couple time and every time it worked fine. Problem solved but how? This exact same disc failed several times just 12 hours prior. The disc must of been slightly warped and sitting in the CD jewel case fixed it.

Since I hadn't sent it back to Amazon yet, in an effort of completeness I decided to try my original Baraka disc again. It has been sitting in the cardboard sleeve for the past couple days. Jumped to chapter 18 and it froze at about 72 minutes, which is at a slightly different spot than it did at first. Tried it a couple times and roughly the exact same result. The original Baraka is now safely in a CD jewel case too.

Update Nov 7 2008
Over the past several days I have checked both copies of Baraka several times. My original Baraka disc is still freezing up in the Egyptian ruins section (~72 minutes) but at slightly different spots. My second "replacement" Baraka disc that originally froze has worked fine every time I have retried it. So it appears that the CD jewel case solution has worked great with one disc and it hasn't done a thing for the other disc.

Update Nov 14 2008
It has been another week of sitting in a CD jewel case and my original copy of Baraka is still freezing up at around the 72 minute position. The exact freezing spot is about +15 seconds from a week ago so it does seem to be moving forward slowly. I am returning this defective disc to Amazon today so this is end of my testing.

The environmentally "green" packaging is warping the Blu-ray disc. The solution seems to be to remove the disc from the flimsy cardboard packaging and put it some place safe where it won't be torques and twists. An empty CD jewel case or unused DVD case will work nicely.

If you have the Baraka Blu-ray please post your experiences here. Please list your Blu-ray player make, model, and firmware version (if known) and the timestamp where Baraka freezes. If Baraka works fine on your player please mention that too.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mitsubishi LaserVue L65-A90

The Mitsubishi LaserVue L65-A90 is a 65" DLP rear projection television (RPTV) that uses a laser for illumination instead of the traditional incandescent bulb or LED. The L65-A90 has a 1920x1080p native resolution, 4 HDMI 1.3a jacks, a 120 Hz smooth display mode, 24fps source, ATSC/QAM tuner, 3D capability with special shutter glasses, and all the other standard features that you'd expect in a high end HDTV. The L65-A90 is 10" deep, weighs 136 pounds, and has a $7000 MSRP. An optional wall mount that adds 2" of depth is available for $200. I can't imagine hanging something this big that protrudes a whole foot from a wall. A 73" version is planned for 2009.

Instead of a projection lamp and a spinning color wheel, the L65-A90 uses red, green, and blue (RGB) laser that can quickly be pulsed on and off. The red, green, and blue lasers have a very narrow spectrum which is a common trait for lasers. So spectral analysis of the RGB color mixing will have 3 very sharp lines. This is very different than the colors produced by sunlight and a prism. It is also very different than the light produced by an LCD's CCFL and the phosphors in CRT and plasma displays. Additive mixing of strong green and red spectral lines will produce the color yellow but the basic components will still be red and green. This color mixing works because our eyes have red, green, and blue cones but a tetrachromat may disagree.

The L65-A90 uses the Texas Instruments .65” Dark Chip 4 DLP imager. Like other DLP chips is utilizes a pixel shifting technique create a 1920 x 1080 image. The quick on/off pulsed nature of the RGB lasers replace the spinning color wheel. This reduces the rainbow color wheel effect that is common with DLP's. The L65-A90 has a fresnel lens screen like traditional DLP displays so off-axis brightness shift should still be an issue.

Black Level
This display has a very good black level, some say it even rivals the Kuro's. Black level performance is partly due to the ability of the individual lasers to turn off during parts of the refresh when they are not in uses. The low beam divergence nature of the laser also reduces the pixel spot size and mirror scatter which helps the black level.

The L65-A90 has a "natural" color mode which matches the HDTV standard Rec. 709 closely. The "brilliant" color modes has a color space that exceeds Rec. 709 and it extremely wide. The "brilliant" color mode produces a visible wow effect with all of the RGB primary colors and especially red. The value of this extended color space is questionable since it doesn't match what calibrated studio camera and monitors use.

Torch Mode
The L65-A90 is an incredibly bright display with a max 111 foot-lamberts (fL) measurement. Calibration took this down to 66 fL for the brilliant mode and 50 fL for the natural mode. This extreme level of brightness should prove beneficial in stores where torch mode tends to sell more HDTVs.

The HDguru measured an overscan of 2.5% and a motion resolution of 320 lines in 60 Hz mode and 610 lines in 120 Hz mode. Power consumption usage is about 95W which is extremely low for a display of this size. The HDguru said that brilliant mode "provided a more satisfying viewing experience than the Rec.709 constricted color of the natural mode setting" and gave the L65-A90 his highest 4-heart rating.

Amazing picture. The extended brilliant color space, good black level, and extreme torch mode brightness should prove very successful on the showroom floor. The higher brightness of LCD displays is a main reason for their popularity over plasmas.

The high MSRP of $7000 will definitely limit the popularity of the L65-A90. Current traditional bulb Mitsubishi DLP's of the 65" size list for $2500. Except for the light drive mechanism and the 3X price increase, the two Mitsubishi DLP's are basically the same. Mitsubishi is definitely targeting the high-end with the L65-A90 and maybe they can be successful there but if they can build a 73" model and lower the price to the levels of the previous DLP generation then they will have a definite winner. The chances of such a dramatic price drop are low though so this may signal the end of the RPTV era.

The laser DLP technology of the L65-A90 would also be very interesting in a front projection model. The high brightness and low beam divergent nature of laser light would make it very well suited to long throws such as at a movie theater.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP)

The Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP), also known as A/65, describes specific channel and program event information in terrestrial and cable transport streams. The current time, channel name (station ID), virtual major-minor channel mappings, parental ratings, and program schedule are some of the information that PSIP carries.

PSIP tables:
  • System Time Table (SST) - GPS time, UTC leap second offset, daylight savings time info
  • Master Guide Table (MGT) - general information about the other tables; PID mapping
  • Virtual Channel Table (VCT) - channel name, major-minor channel numbers, other stream components
  • Rating Region Table (RRT) - static codes for geographical ratings such as MPAA in the U.S.
  • Event Information Table (EIT) - event times and program names like a TV guide
  • Extended Text Table (ETT) - optional text messages (channel info, program descriptions, ...)
  • Directed Channel Change Table (DCCT) - optional perform an automated channel retune
  • Directed Channel Change Selection Code Table (DCCSCT) - optional genre codes and criteria for DCCT

The STT uses a system time is a 32-bit unsigned integer number of GPS seconds since 00:00:00 UTC, January 6th 1980. The UTC leap second offset is a correction to the GPS time. The daylight savings time structure contains information of the current status and when the next transition is to occur.

The VCT comes in both Terrestrial (TVCT) and Cable (CVCT) versions. CVCT uses two parameters that TVCT doesn't have; Path Select and Out of Band (OOB). The Path Select is for the rare case of having two physical cables. The Out of Band channel is a cable-operator supplied data channel that requires a dedicated OOB tuner. The OOB channel has supplemental PSIP information such as program guides and a navigation map. Also, depending on the carrier, the CVCT modulation field data may be in error and 8-VSB, 64-QAM, and 256-QAM may be encountered. Note that CVCT (cable) is not required by the FCC to carry the first 4 EITs which contain the next 12 hours of program guides.

The PSIP text strings use Huffman data compression to reduce the size which lowers the transmission bandwidth requirements.

An automatic scan can go through all the possible channels retrieving and storing the appropriate channel name and major-minor channel identification data. A standard 6 MHz analog channel can have between 19.4 Mbps (8-VSB) to 38.8 Mbps (256-QAM) of bandwidth which is enough for several HD and SD channels. PSIP helps the digital TV and the consumer manage all of this channel information.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Amazon's Blu-ray Buy 2 Get 1 Free

Until October 31st 2008 Amazon is running its Blu-ray buy 2 get 1 free deal. You choose 3 discs, pay for the two most expensive discs, and then get the third for free. Shipping is even free if you select Super Saver shipping which is a couple days slower than the Standard method.

The selection is 148 discs that range in price from $14 to $55. The way to get the most out of this deal is to choose 3 discs that are all the same price. Below I've grouped the some of my picks into their respective prices brackets:

$17 * 2 / 3 = $11
  • The Fifth Element (Remastered)
  • Hellboy (Director's Cut)
  • The Shining
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Halloween
  • Saw
  • Saw II
  • The Fugitive
  • The Aviator
  • The Road Warrior
  • Outbreak
  • Swordfish
  • Bullitt
  • Eraser
  • Enter the Dragon
  • Dawn of the Dead
  • Every Which Way But Loose
  • Wyatt Earp
  • Resident Evil: Apocalypse
  • Battle of the Bulge
  • The Gauntlet
  • Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn

$20 *2 / 3 = $13
  • Bram Stoker's Dracula
  • Gattaca
  • Resident Evil
  • Robocop
  • Species
  • Secret Window

$21 * 2 / 3 = $14
  • 300
  • I Am Legend
  • The Departed
  • Troy (Director's Cut)
  • The Terminator
  • Ocean's Thirteen
This is an amazing deal and a great way to build your Blu-ray library. Some Blu-ray discs can be had for as low as $11 each! Happy Shopping.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sony Bravia KDL-55XBR8

CNET gives a score of 9 to the 55" Sony XBR8 LED-backlit LCD HTDV which is the highest ever for any LCD display. The Pioneer Elite Kuro 9G plasma still scores a higher perfect 10 as the current HD display champ. The MSRP of the 55" Sony XBR8 is $7000 which is more expensive than the MSRP of the 60" Pioneer Kuro Elite. Bigger screen, better picture quality, lower price. The Kuro plasma is still king.

Sony's Triluminos RGB LED backlight technology differs than the white LED implementation used by the Samsung LN46A950. Sony uses an array of 128 red, green, and blue LEDs that are individually controlled for regional contrast control. If uniform LED regions are used than that works out to about 16 x 8 = 128 LEDs for a 16:9 aspect ratio display. While this backlight technology offers an amazing black level and is an improvement over the CCFL backlights it still has some display issues such as off-axis viewing and region blooming.

  • excellent black levels (almost as good as the Kuro)
  • off-axis viewing has black level and picture quality degradation
  • LED array regions produce slight blooming
  • Ethernet DLNA supports only pictures (no music, no video)
  • USB memory port supports music and pictures (no video)
  • they thought the XMB (Crossbar Media Bar) interface was a bit cumbersome
  • 120 Hz refresh rate (for dejudder and 24 fps 5:5 pulldown modes)
  • advanced color temperature controls (RGB gain/bias)
  • "funky" Digital Reality Creation (DRC) video processing for Reality vs. Clarity?
  • game mode that reduces video processing lag
  • single ATSC/QAM tuner means lack of true PIP
  • TV Guide onscreen electronic programming guide (Ethernet or PSIP?)
  • Energy Star 3.0 compliance for a calibrated 140W (0.11 W/sq. inch)
  • 4 HDMI ports, 3 composite, 1 S-Video Y/C, 2 component YCbCr
  • 1920x1080 VGA, 10/100 Ethernet, USB 2.0 port, optical Toslink output,
  • plus a couple propriety Sony ports for Bravia-link and iPods
  • very close to D65 performance out of the box
  • on completely dark screen: Sony 0.001 cd/m2 vs. Pioneer 0.002 cd/m2
  • excellent color accuracy
  • LED Motion Plus dejudder
    • created slight motion artifacts
    • Clear mode: 1000 lines of motion resolution
    • Smooth / Standard mode: 600 - 700 lines of motion resolution
    • Off mode: 300 - 400 lines of motion resolution
  • matte screen, excellent ambient light and reflection performance
  • average SD performance
I feel that the the poor off-axis picture quality is an issue. The CNET reviewer said "Sony's black level performance and color saturation fell off noticeably when we moved off-angle by just one seat cushion on our test couch, while the plasmas stayed consistent." A one seat sweet spot is just not acceptable. I also feel that motion lines of resolution is a major issue. The Sony XBR8 with the LED Motion Plus at maximum has an excellent 1000 lines of motion resolution but it creates slight video artifacts. When disable LED Motion Plus the artifacts go away but the motion resolution drops to 300 lines. So it is a choice, you can't have 1000 lines of motion resolution and be artifact free at the same time. So both the off-axis PQ and motion resolution issues are deal breakers in my book.

The MSRP of the 55" Sony XBR8 is $7000 which is more expensive than the MSRP of the 60" Pioneer Kuro Elite. Bigger screen, better picture quality, lower price. The Kuro 9G plasma is still king.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Channel Change Speeds

A French monitoring solutions company did a worldwide survey of the amount of time it takes to change a television channel using the +/- buttons. They found that the average channel change time was 1.9 seconds. Satellite services were about twice as slow. Systems that used Microsoft Mediaroom such as U-verse were the fastest at around 0.6 seconds.

My experience with the ATSC and QAM tuners of HDTV's is that channel changes are in the one to two second range. This makes for some painfully slow channel surfing that actually have changed my channel surfing habits completely. I do miss the analog NTSC days when my old Sony XBR RPTV could rapidly surf through about 5 channels a second (0.2 seconds). Digital, and HD especially, offer a far superior picture quality but there were a few nice things about analog. For example; few HD devices today have dual tuners for true PIP operation which used to be a standard feature on mid-end NTSC TV's.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Presidential Debate #3 in HD

Tonight is the last of the three presidential debates and like the previous debates it is being broadcast in glorious HD. The candidates for this debate will be sitting at a table facing each other which should provide the opportunity for some good HD closeups.

HD Makeup
High definition is all about looking good on camera and there are actually companies that specialize in HD makeup. It was thought that because of the age difference that HD would play a big factor in the Obama, 47 vs. McCain, 72 presidential debates. Surprisingly McCain looked good in the previous debates. I'd say he looked 15 years younger thanks to the hard work of his SFX crew. With enough high resolution zoom though excessive use of HD makeup could become visible, so keep your eyes open tonight.

For tonight's debate, both sides have requested that air-conditioning vents be placed above their candidate in order to prevent sweating. Excessive perspiration played a role in the televised 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate. With HD, beads of sweat will easily be visible and this time around they strangely may even add a human element. The American public may be a little wary if one of the candidates comes across as a cyborg. HD makeup plus perspiration may equal smudges, runs, and/or blistering. So again, keep your eyes open tonight.

The previous debates were simulcast in HD on all of the major networks (FOX, CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS). This provided the opportunity to compare the picture quality of the different networks since it appeared that they all were fed the same official audio/visual HD feed. So I switched between the Bay Area HDTV channels carrying the debate to see who had the best quality. Both KTVU-FOX and KGO-ABC are broadcast at 720p and they were noticeably softer than the other 1080i stations. The picture quality of both KPIX-CBS and KNTV-NBC looked about the same but the KPIX-CBS station banner was obnoxiously large and bright. KQED-PBS has a slightly sharper picture, an extremely minimal station logo in the corner, but unfortunately it suffered from a lip-sync problem which I found annoying. The only explanation for KQED's signal quality was that they were accidentally adding a small time delay to the audio and either artificially sharpening the picture or the other 1080i stations were doing some mild filtering.

So after determining that KNTV-NBC's picture quality, small banner, and correct lip-sync made it the winner I decided to stop surfing, be a maverick, pop open a cold one, and just watch the debate.

Post Debate Update
Just finished watching the debate. This update section will have a lack of political commentary as if I watched the debate with the sound turned off. The focus will be on the HD aspects only.

The air conditioning seemed to be working correctly. No sweat beads or perspiration were visible on either candidate and no HD makeup accidents occurred. Actually neither candidate appeared to be wearing that much HD makeup.

McCain was very brightly illuminated with a cool color temperature which made his skin appear translucent. I was fascinated by the red and blue textures of the veins and arteries beneath the surface. Something seemed wrong with McCain's face; parts of it didn't move as if over-Botoxed and a large bulge on his lower left check occasionally throbbed. It could of been the bright lights but McCain at one point was blinking five times a second. He probably blinked 10,000 times during the whole debate, it was that distracting.

Thanks to NBC's split screen presentation of the HD broadcast McCain could be seen furiously scribbling down notes and making contorted faces of disbelief while Obama was speaking. Obama's behavior during the debate was very cool, calm, and collected while McCain's behavior appeared neurotic.

HD made all these little nuances that much bigger but will any of it make a difference when it comes election day? I doubt it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Blu-ray is "a bag of hurt"

At the October 14th 2008 Apple Notebook event a question was asked why the new MacBooks didn't have HDMI or Blu-ray. The answer was "HDMI is limited in resolution and can’t drive our 30-inch display so we put in Display Port."

Then Steve Jobs added:

“Blu-ray is a bag of hurt. I don’t mean from the consumer point of view. It’s great to watch movies, but the licensing of the tech is so complex. We’re waiting until things settle down, and waiting until Blu-ray takes off in the marketplace before we burden our customers with the cost of licensing. It's a nascent market that's just getting started. We'll see how it goes."

Bag of hurt? Ohh how I feel the pain. So is it licensing, cost, or something else?

Apple currently licenses MPEG-2 video and Dolby AC3 audio technology for their DVD products. iTunes uses the MPEG-4 video codec and DRM. AppleTV has an HDMI port. Any hardware patents for the physical laser / disc transport would be taken care of by the drive manufacturer. So the only parts missing for a minimal Blu-ray implementation are the VC-1 video codec and BD-Java. Apple is also a member of the Blu-ray alliance whose sole purpose is to share technology and ease licensing problems. I don't see how licensing is an issue.

The current cost of Blu-ray drives are around $100 for a reader and $300 for a burner. These costs will go down over time but both Sony and Lenovo are currently shipping notebooks at MacBook prices so cost isn't the only issue. Performance also isn't an issue since a Sony VAIO with a 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5800 Processor can handle playing Blu-ray video.

Something Else
Blu-ray would compete with Apple's iTunes video download business and it would make the current AppleTV obsolete. Apple and several other "experts" have claimed that the HD future is video downloading. High rental costs, limited movie selection, low quality (720p and low bitrates), and broadband provider bandwidth caps are all going to be major obstacles for consumer adoption. Another problem is that the video download market space is crowded with many players (Netflix, Sony, Hulu, Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, all the cable company VOD offerings). As a consumer, that is just too many boxes to have in my living room. I want one box and I think alliances are key here.

LG just came out with a Blu-ray player that supports Netflix streaming. Tivo supports Amazon downloads and there is talk about future Netflix and Hulu support. Sony has its Bravia-link streaming service and I wouldn't be surprised to see Sony's PS3 and BD-Live compatible players get a firmware upgrade supporting it.

The only solution that can currently support Netflix, Hulu, and iTunes is the Home Theater PC (HTPC) but I'm not sure I want one in my living room. Microsoft's Vista Media Center can do all this plus browse the web, play Blu-rays, do DLNA, and be a networked DVR. Has the battle for the living room just begun? Or is it already over?

Monday, October 13, 2008

FCC Digital Must Carry

The FCC Digital Must Carry rule clarifies how cable companies must carry digital over-the-air broadcast signals for its basic tier subscribers. If a TV station returns its analog spectrum and converts to digital operations then it must be carried by local cable systems. Basic tier service costs about $14/month in most areas. The following are excerpts from the FCC document and an analysis of what they mean and how this is good for consumers:

"The Report and Order finds that the signal strength level necessary to provide a good quality digital signal at a cable system’s principal headend is –61 dBm."

This prevents the cable companies from transmitting a digital signal that to too weak to be demodulated error-free by the QAM tuners in HDTVs.

"Primary Video. The Report and Order finds that the “primary video” entitled to mandatory carriage includes a single programming stream and other program-related content. The television station chooses which one of its unrelated multiplexed signals gets carried under the Act. The Further Notice seeks comment on how to define “program-related” in the context of primary video."

The TV station and not the cable company get to decide which two streams (1 primary and 1 multiplex) will be carried. The HD stream will usually be the primary stream, so the TV station gets to decide which of its sub channels also get to be carried. Some stations have multiple SD streams (> 2) instead a larger HD + SD sub channel configuration, so in that case the TV station gets to decide which two will be carried.

"Program-related. A cable operator would be required to carry the following material carried on a digital television signal because it could be considered program-related under the WGN factors: (1) closed captioning, (2) V-chip data, (3) Nielsen ratings data, and (4) channel mapping and tuning protocols (“PSIP”)."

Requiring that the channel mapping PSIP data be carried without damage is important because this allows a method for consumers and HDTVs to be able to find the channels. Many cable companies place the must carry stations at random locations across the dial which makes them difficult for the user to find. Some cable companies routinely move these stations in a further attempt to frustrate consumers who don't use a cable company supplied set-top box. The PSIP data makes the stations easier to find and some HDTVs will map them automatically.

"The Report and Order finds that a cable operator would not necessarily be materially degrading a digital television signal if it carries less than the full 19.4 mbps transmitted by a broadcaster."

This allows the cable company to utilize QAM modulation which is more bandwidth efficient than the over-the-air ATSC VSB modulation.

"The Report and Order finds that a cable operator may not carry a digital television signal in a lesser format or lower resolution than that afforded to a non-broadcast digital programmer carried on the cable system.

This means that a cable company cannot degrade the video resolution, MPEG-2 bitrate, or audio AC3 bitrate to a level that is lower than any of the extended or premiere channels that is also carries. Since almost all cable companies will broadcast a high quality HBO, Showtime, or VOD stream in high bitrate 1080i with 5.1 384kbps AC3, this means they cannot degrade the must carry channels to a level less than this. They are basically prohibited from transcoding the must carry channel to unencrypted standard def (SD) while charging for the encrypted high def (HD) version.

"However, a digital-only television station may demand that a cable operator carry its digital signal in an analog format without the prohibition against material degradation being violated. If a television station chooses to be carried in this manner, it is treated in the same manner as an analog signal."

This gives the TV station the option to also be broadcast in analog NTSC for non digital-ready viewers. I believe this rule expires sometime in 2010. (TBD, find the exact date with a link to the relevant FCC doc)

"Cable operators are permitted to remodulate digital broadcast signals from 8 VSB to 64 or 256 QAM. Cable operators are not required to pass-through 8 VSB."

This allows cable companies to use QAM which is more bandwidth efficient than VSB modulation and will allow more channels to be broadcast on the cable. This also allows cable company set-top boxes to only have QAM tuners which should reduce costs.

"The Report and Order finds that there is no need to implement channel positioning requirements for digital television signals like those that exist for analog signals."

This allows the cable company to place the must carry station at any digital channel location it wants. It is unfortunate that this exception exists because when there are 100+ digital channels this becomes a game of find the needle in the haystack for the consumer. Fortunately PSIP alleviates some of this pain.

"The Report and Order finds that channel mapping protocols contained in the PSIP datastream adequately address a television station’s channel positioning concerns."

See above. Unfortunately the first generation of digital HDTVs don't support PSIP that well.

"The Report and Order finds that a cable operator must notify its subscribers whenever a digital television signal is added to the cable system channel line-up."

This allows a consumer to know when to perform an auto-scan and find the new channels. Unfortunately the cable company is not required to notify subscribers when they randomly move channel numbers around.

"The Report and Order finds that digital television signals must be available to subscribers on a basic service tier. The Further Notice seeks comment on voluntary carriage of digital signals on a tier other than the basic tier."

This just restates the requirement that basic tier subscribers be able to receive digital channels without any extra charge.


The basic tier subscriber cannot be charged extra for the ability to view local HD stations in their original quality. Transmission options are clear-QAM, VSB, or issuing free set-top boxes to all subscribers. For technical and economic reasons the cable companies will choose the clear-QAM option.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sleeping Beauty restoration

Disney Studios recently underwent an extensive restoration of the 1958 film Sleeping Beauty that was released last week on DVD and Blu-ray. The picture quality has been called "stellar" with "perfect contrast" and "awesome color levels."

video restoration details:
  • used original nitrate sequential Technicolor process negative
  • negative is 3 frames (RGB) of B&W film
  • separate RGB frames prevent longterm color fading
  • Technirama large format negative process was 35mm is size but called a 70mm format
  • used an anamorphic Delrama lens for a 2.55:1 aspect ratio
  • scanned with a 4K resolution
  • major frame damage and flaws were manually fixed
  • digital noise reduction (DNR) was used to remove grain and clean up image
  • 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encoding on a 50 GB Blu-ray with a bit rate that averages 35 Mbps

audio restoration details:
  • the 1958 original 3-track 35mm magnetic score recordings from UFA Studios in West Berlin
  • Peter Tchaikovsky's 1889 ballet score
  • the original soundtrack was 6-track
  • equalization and signal processing were used to remove noise, track hiss, and pops
  • surrounds are used for residual score and ambient effects
  • lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 on the Blu-ray

An incredible amount of care was put into the audio / visual restoration of Sleeping Beauty. The Blu-ray release also has an extensive amount of supplemental material. Let's hope Disney expends this amount of effort of all its future releases.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

excellent quality low cost cables

Home Theaters require a lot of cables which can quickly get very expensive. If you haven't discovered Monoprice yet then I suggest you check them out. Their cables are just as high quality, if not higher, than that brand that starts with the letter M and all for a fraction of the price.

I highly recommend the 28 AWG HDMI cables, the basic digital coax and optical Toslink cables, the thicker RCA audio cables, and the RG6 coax F-connector cables. The 3-way F-type splitter is also very nice. The 3.5mm cables have thin shielding so I wouldn't get them in long distances but for the price they are a great deal. I also use Monoprice USB, DVI, Firewire, and Cat 5e cables for my computer needs.

I've been using Monoprice cables for a couple years now and I have been very pleased with their performance. High quality, low cost, excellent value. Now I have more money to buy better AV gear that will actually make a visual and sonic difference!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Comcast HD channel lineup

With Comcast's $14/month Limited Basic service in the California Bay Area (Silicon Valley region) the following high definition (HD) clear-QAM channels can be received:

station   channel   affiliate   resolution
KTVU-HD 2.001 FOX 720p
KRON-HD 4.002 myTV 720p
KPIX-DT 5.001 CBS 1080i
KGO-DT 7.001 ABC 720p
KQED-HD 9.001 PBS 1080i
KNTV-HD 11.001 NBC 1080i
KICU-DT 36.001 720p
KBCW-HD 44.001 CW 1080i

These channels are not encrypted and they can be decoded with any HDTV that has a built-in QAM tuner. Note that the required over-the-air ATSC tuner is different than a QAM tuner. So if your HDTV has a built-in QAM tuner, most new models do, then you are good to go. A separate set-top box, cableCARD, or extra digital cable service fee is not required thanks to the FCC's digital must carry rule.

To find these clear-QAM signals the HDTV's automatic channel scan will need to be performed. These HD channels may be randomly placed across the dial so you may need to hunt for them. Using the televisions "favorites" feature will make it easier to quickly surf only the HD channels. The station identification info will automatically be extracted with an HDTV that supports the Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP). Comcast may also choose to move the station numbers around from time-to-time so you may need to occasionally rescan for them. The cable companies don't tell you this and they don't make it easy but these "clear-QAM" signals are available for free with a "basic cable" subscription service.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Netflix $1/month Blu-ray surcharge

Netflix, Inc.

Beginning November 5th (remember remember) Netflix will begin charging a one dollar per month premium for unlimited Blu-ray rental access. This $1/month will be in addition to the standard membership charge. The extra fee doesn't seem too exorbitant considering that Blu-ray discs cost significantly more than DVD 's. Let's hope this means no more long wait queues since Netflix will be increasing their Blu-ray inventory!

The monthly plans:
  • $5 - 1 disc at a time - limit 2 discs per month and 2 hours of streaming
  • $9 - 1 disc at a time - unlimited exchanges and streaming
  • $14 - 2 discs at a time - unlimited exchanges and streaming
  • $17 - 3 discs at a time - unlimited exchanges and streaming

Since the $1/month Blu-ray fee is the same for all plans the $17 plan offers the best Blu-ray for the buck. And remember with Netflix you get free shipping both ways, there are no due dates or late fees, and you can cancel at anytime.

Netflix, Inc.