Making sense of the latest home cinema terminology
Not so long ago, back in the early days of DVD, getting to grips with the audio and video formats on offer was pretty simple. You connected your player to your TV with either a Scart cable or component video, plugged a digital audio connection into a multichannel receiver, and everything just worked.
Now we have discs with HD soundtracks of various kinds; players sending sound in native form to receivers, or decoding it to Linear PCM or multichannel analogue; and the HDMI connection. This carries HD audio, allows players to upscale your existing DVDs to near-HD quality, and is even capable of delivering 3D video, at least when used with a suitable TV set.
So what do you actually need? Well, there’s an element of “how long is a piece of string?” in all this, but it really depends what you want. If you’re happy to carry on playing a DVD collection – and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be – then an existing TV and DVD player will be more than enough, along with a very basic AV receiver. If, however, you want to upscale DVD – basically using the data on the disc to create extra lines of picture information – then you’ll need a TV able to take an HDMI input, or accept high-definition on component video. Just about any modern flatscreen TV will do.
The same connections are used for a Blu-ray player. Using HDMI you can also connect through modern AV receivers, and thus to a TV, giving simple switching of multiple sources and the benefit of a single-cable connection from the system to the TV – handy if you want to have a sleek wall-mounted flat panel installation. Well, it’s almost that simple…
Not all receivers have HDMI inputs, and while you can use the good old S/PDIF digital audio connection on a single optical or electrical cable, this doesn’t have the bandwidth to deliver the HD audio formats. Fortunately Blu-ray discs must also have “core” sound to handle this eventuality, but there is a way round the problem provided you have an older receiver with multichannel analogue inputs.
All you then need is a Blu-ray player with matching multichannel analogue outs – ie one capable of decoding the soundtrack onboard – and a bunch of analogue interconnects (three pairs for a 5.1-channel hookup, or four pairs for 7.1) and you are, as they say, in business.
To play Blu-ray video at full resolution you need a TV able to handle a 1080p (1080-line, progressive scan) signal: these are normally known as Full HD sets. But the quality improvement available from Blu-ray is readily apparent on older HD-ready sets, capable of 720p or 1080i (interlaced) video. I have to admit to using a rather old 50in plasma TV, from a manufacturer now long out of the domestic TV business, and enjoying Blu-rays on it enormously.
And 3D TV? Well, that’s a whole new can of worms, with a range of TV systems, picture formats and so on. Perhaps we’ll return to that particular subject if and when the march of 3D TV sets has become more than just a distant rumble somewhere over the horizon…
The basics of AV formats
The surround audio familiar from DVD. Many think DTS, with less compression, sounds a shade better, but Dolby Digital is on just about every DVD disc. DD or DTS doesn’t have to mean surround: it can come in mono, stereo, four- or five channel, 5.1, and even 6.1-channel versions.
Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD
Uncompressed audio formats, found on Blu-ray discs. Again there’s a range of channel configurations, but the increased data requirements mean higher capacity digital connections are needed to deliver them. S/PDIF won’t do; HDMI is the most practical solution.
The most common picture formats in high-definition TV. So-called HD-ready TVs can handle 720p (720-line, progressive scan) and 1080i (1080-line interlaced) signals; Full HD TVs guarantee 1080p handling.
Blu-ray or DVD?
Blu-ray is on the up, but for many users DVD, upscaled to near-HD quality, offers the best compromise between quality and catalogue availability. A good Blu-ray player with DVD upscaling can now be had for around £100, so it makes sense to buy a BD machine, even if just for DVD playback.