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The Holy Grail of Home-Theater

May 5th, 2009
Has perfect picture and sound really been achieved?


Ken’s review of Sin City on Blu-ray last week really got me thinking.

Have we really achieved what home-theater enthusiasts have dreamed about for decades… film reproduction in the home environment that is faithful to the director’s intentions and able to fully render the fidelity of the source? While one can argue that film’s photo-chemical nature allows for a fuller color spectrum than the somewhat more restricted color space approved for our HDTV system (and Blu-ray Disc) can reproduce, in virtually every other way I think that the answer to the question is an unreserved “Yes”. We have arrived.

Despite the rigors of the format war and the still-evolving 1080p display technology that lights our HD lives, it somehow seems too easy. Where is the cutting of the ribbon and the parade? Shouldn’t all of the home theater forums be bustling with chatter about how we’ve finally gotten what we have been dreaming about for decades? That what was at one time a pleasure only for the rich has now been brought to the living room of film enthusiasts on almost any budget? At this point any HT enthusiast who really loves film and had originally embraced Toshiba’s rival HD DVD format has most likely embraced Blu-ray Disc and found satisfaction that rather than two floundering HD formats we have a single, successful HD format with industry-wide support that gains more and more traction with consumers by the day. The time for walking on eggshells about Blu-ray Disc’s success for fear of offending the other team is over; it’s time to celebrate.

Within just 2 decades we’ve gone from analog video and audio on a 12 inch laserdisc platter to 1080p digital video and 7.1 lossless 24-bit sound capability on a 5 inch platter. Excluding large-format film such as 65mm, our home-based 1080p system is now able to provide better picture quality than even the above-average 35mm print venue (not to mention lossless audio quality on BD that surpasses the lossy-compressed digital audio options available to theaters).

Think of how far we’ve come and how quickly we got here.

Only a few short years ago Faroudja was selling “line doublers” for the price of a car that turned 480i video into 480p video. When rival DWIN marketed a “line doubler” (deinterlacer) that applied 3-2 pulldown reversal to create 480p out of 60Hz 480i, Faroudja tried to argue in a court of law that their concept of applying 3-2 pulldown reversal to reconstruct original frames from 60 Hz interlaced fields was theirs and theirs alone.

Seen any "3-2" stickers on your HDTV, scaler, or upscaling DVD player? That device probably cost just a fraction of Faroudja's $20K line-doublers from 1996.

When DVD first came to market I said that the “glory days” of overpriced video processing gear was numbered, as DVD’s native component nature bypassed the need for expensive comb filtering and color decoding, and that it wouldn’t be long before a manufacturer would provide native 480p output negating the need for Faroudja’s outboard black box.

I was told by several top manufacturers that it would never happen as the industry would never allow a progressive-scan DVD player due to piracy concerns. Then 2 years later, those same manufacturers were offering 480p “progressive scan” DVD players.

In 1998 I suggested to a technician at a leading video company that one day you’d be able to get an all-digital signal path for the video from your DVD player to your digital projector.

I was told that would never happen. Using an HDMI cable to get that HD picture to your TV?

In 2000 I suggested at a high-profile science-based (cough) discussion forum for AV gear that digital projectors and displays would bring full 1920 x 1080p resolution to consumers at affordable pricing which would allow a new market for full 1080p media (there was no such thing as Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD at the time) and that chip-based projectors and panel-based 1080p displays would become affordable as they would bypass the physical limitations of CRT-based display technology that kept costs high.

I was told by all of the experts that it would never happen, and that Joe Kane’s then-proposed 720p red-laser HD format (using VC-1 to squeeze 720p HD onto a standard DVD-ROM) was the best we should hope for as 720p display technology was the best we’d ever be able to afford. When I suggested that Joe Kane had a “lack of vision” for advocating for a 720p red-laser HD disc rather than pushing for the industry’s support of a future 1080p format that would then be able to take advantage of future 1080p display systems, I was flamed on the forum in marshmallow fashion.

Seen any 1080p TVs at your Costco lately? Did you know that you can get a decent 1080p front projector for about the same price as that 50” LCD flatscreen?

When myself and another enthusiast compiled a wish-list for the ultimate disc-based HD format which was printed in Widescreen Review, the AV enthusiast “experts” laughed out loud at our proposal that HD media provide for full lossless quality audio because the “studios would never go for it” because consumers don’t care and lossy audio CODECs are good enough.

Pardon me while I turn down my 24-bit, 96 kHz lossless audio track on my Baraka Blu-ray Disc.

Saying I-told-you-so has never felt so good. And I know that many of you reading this now were saying those same things to the same unbelieving ears who refused to accept that HT technology, and industry support of it, would get us to where we are today.

So here we are: 2009, and enjoying the discovery that most of the major studios (Disney in particular) seem to delight in really maxing out the high-bandwidth and 50GB capacity of Blu-ray Disc with reference-setting video transfers and lossless audio tracks that equal or exceed the quality of the projected film print in the theater. After such a long journey, and thousands upon thousands of dollars that many HT enthusiasts have spent on now-obsolete hardware and software that offered inferior quality despite our constant effort to tweak with calibration software, now that the dream has finally been realized, it seems appropriate to me that it’s time to acknowledge what we’ve finally been given: the holy grail of video has been achieved.

Is there still room for improvement beyond the grail? Certainly. For one, a grail is only as good as the wine that fills it, and so without proper film restoration, transferring, and careful (minimal) digital processing, Blu-ray Disc’s potential isn’t going to be realized. And absolutely, the vast resolution of large-format 65mm films really demand ultra-HD such as 4K digital to do them justice. However, in the context of the majority of films in our library (35mm and 1080p24 HD), Blu-ray Disc is more than capable.

The next battle will be convincing home-theater and film enthusiasts to take a whole new perspective on how they watch films in their home: wide-angle. Of course, that’s the topic for another article…

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