Is Blu-ray worth it?

Now that Netflix and Best Buy are in the Blu-ray camp and Toshiba is reportedly admitting defeat, you may be thinking about buying a Blu-ray player. I've been using a Blu-ray disk player and a half dozen Blu-ray movies for a couple of months.

Now that Netflix and Best Buy are in the Blu-ray camp and Toshiba is reportedly admitting defeat, you may be thinking about buying a Blu-ray player. I've been using a Blu-ray disk player and a half dozen Blu-ray movies for a couple of months. Is Blu-ray worth it? The short answer: not today.

Knowing what I know now I wouldn't have bought a $300 Blu-ray player. Instead I would have bought a quality upconverting DVD player from Oppo Digital and saved a few bucks and a lot of hassle dealing with an unfinished product.

My setup I'm not a videophile. I have good quality consumer components and a 700 DVD movie library, but I don't know what my tweeters are made of and I can't see the difference between plasma and LCD.

Picture I love the 50" Panasonic plasma 720p display. I found that on displays less than 54" I couldn't tell the difference between 720 and 1080. It's physics: your eyes can't resolve the difference unless you're too close to the screen. Check it out at the store before assuming 1080 is worth several hundred dollars.

Sound I also love DTS sound, which I get from an Outlaw Audio receiver delivered through Dynaudio 5.1 bookshelf speakers. Good medium-priced kit.

Then there's the new Sony BDP-S301 Blu-ray disk player. More on that later.

Blu-ray movie quality The good: At its best, HD movie quality is almost crystalline on a big screen. You can see wrinkles, pores on skin, tendrils of smoke and individual leaves on trees. The detail is amazing and involving.

Even better: high-quality DVDs - like Superbit - up convert to HD beautifully. The last bit of detail is missing - skin looks softer - but even visually busy scenes are rock-solid. The chips that generate the added pixels are amazing.

The bad: only newer movies, shot with transfer to high-def in mind; or older movies with very good production values that are well-mastered will give you full HD quality. If the original source film was grainy and muddy, if the sets weren't well-finished, if it wasn't recorded in surround sound, there simply won't be the HD experience you'd expect.

For example, low-light scenes where the film is grainy. On a big screen you see the grain as flickering specks. Watchable, but not the pristine high-def shots you see in the showroom.

Sound quality Same deal with sound. If the original flick was stereo, it can be re-processed to simulate 5.1 surround, but the quality varies. The most immersive sound experience I've found is DTS.

Even though Blu-ray supports DTS, many movies weren't recorded with it or the studio may omit it from a disk. So the high-def promise - great sound - isn't always kept.

Player quality Blu-ray players start around $250 on the net. I got a Sony BDP-S301 at Costco. This model isn't listed on Sony's BD product page but it is in the support section. It appears to be identical to the BDP-S300 model.

Beware: this is an absolute bottom of the line player. While the high-def video and upconversion work well, this player is a mass of compromises.

  • Slow everything - almost a minute before the disk tray opens, 10-15 seconds of "loading," and about 5 seconds to open the tray. Bring a book.
  • Flaky upgradeability: theoretically you can download firmware updates, burn the installer to a DVD, and then install. I haven't been able to get it to work and I've been playing with computers for over 30 years.
  • No disk memory. The player won't remember where you were on a disk or that you've already watched the stupid FBI warning unless you keep the player on all the time and don't open the tray.
  • Certain Blu-ray audio formats, like TrueHD, aren't supported - by the leader of the Blu-ray pack!
  • Other annoyances: occasional freezes; play button doesn't close the tray.

It is as if Sony took everything it knew about DVD players and threw it out the window to design this beast. At least they included an HDMI cable. BTW, get HDMI cables online for about 80% less than in stores.

Knowing what I know now, if I had to have a Blu-ray player, I'd buy a 40 GB PS3 instead. It is another $100 and most reviewers agree that's the best Blu-ray player with great Java BD performance. And it plays Ratchet & Clank!

The Storage Bits take The bottom line is that Blu-ray isn't compelling. When we moved from VHS to DVD we got a better picture, random access, more convenience, more content and sometimes better sound. All Good Stuff.

With Blu-ray and a big screen HDTV we get a better picture - usually - and sometimes better sound. The added content can be a bonus, but I don't watch most of the add-ons today unless I really like the picture. And it is less convenient.

A better picture is worth something, but you'll get 90% of that with a good upconverting DVD player. And you won't spend more for new disks either.

Blu-ray technology is a great idea with a seriously flawed implementation. Everything about it, from the wildly varying quality of source materials and mastering to the ever-evolving Blu-ray spec - now at a version my player won't support - it feels more like a buggy computer than a consumer appliance.

And I spend enough time with buggy computers already, thank you.

Comments welcome, as always. Is Blu-ray worth it to you? Why or why not?


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