On The Outside Looking In With HDMI

Sometimes we say as much by not reviewing one component as we do by reviewing another. There are some components, often made by smaller, high-end manufacturers, that lag behind with technologies that become so essential that lacking them precludes a recommendation for that component by this publication. When we know a recommendation is precluded from the get-go based on a lack of essential technology, there is no point in acquiring the product for review.

At this point in time, HDMI switching that can handle 1080p/24 and 1080p/60 and hi-res multichannel PCM is such an essential feature. To get the most out of Blu-ray and HD DVD, both of which offer high-definition picture and sound, HDMI, while far from perfect, is essential. The highest resolution audio and video signals travel only over HDMI. On the audio side, while the multichannel analog outs often offer high resolution audio, bass management and processing is often less sophisticated. The best case scenario is that the signal passes through the AVR or pre/pro in the analog domain with as little manipulation as possible, meaning the full suite of processing you already paid for and want to be using is sitting idle.

A surprising number of components shown at CEDIA 2007, some very expensive, from well known high-end manufacturers, lack HDMI switching entirely or the critical abilities spoken of here. Like so many we've passed on before, we won't be reviewing these components because we simply can't, in good conscience, recommend them for purchase at this point in time. As far as we're concerned, the apps are here, and this is now the critical feature for AVRs and pre/pros.

And keep this in mind- everyone who doesn't yet have it is working on it. So take a huge chunk o' the proverbial salt with the salesman's claims that you don't need it, or that all the other high-speed, low-drag circuitry obviates it. No amount of high-end processing or circuitry will make lossy Dolby Digital compare to lossless Dolby TrueHD or uncompressed PCM. Period.

So, for some of these well known rigs out there, if you don't see them here, take a look at the spec sheet and you can figure out why.

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COMMENTS
Stephen Beney's picture

Hi Shane Last year I started looking at upgrading my current Pioneer receiver to separates. However, with the introduction of Blu-ray and HD-DVD and high-resolution audio, I put off making a decision. This year, again, I have not found anything in separates that would make me want to go this route. The dealers near where I live (Toronto) haven't said I don't need HDMI switching, but have said I should make my decision based on what type of listening I do most. This is good advice, but I generally equally split my time between music and movies, so for me I can't justify a lot of money on something that won't take me forward. The other solution of music-only / movie-only systems is not practical for me. At this point I am looking at Denon's new receivers and Blu-ray players till separates catch-up, then I'll review that route again. Of course, I eagerly await the reviews I've come to trust from this site on the slew of new receivers and Blu-ray players that have been announced.

Shane's picture

I'm a little confused- you like music and movies, but having the best possible picture and sound isn't a step forward? Like concert videos? On Blu-ray and HD DVD you can get 1080p video with either uncompressed PCM or lossless coding. That is not a step forward- it's a giant leap!

Stephen's picture

Shane, sorry to confuse ? the "this route" was meant to refer to buying separates, not Blu-ray or HD-DVD. I had to remove some of the text due to space limitations. What I was trying to say is that buying separates right now does not appear to be a step forward since they can't handle the new high-resolution audio formats. The giant leap for these new formats appears to be realized with the new receivers, which is why I'm eyeing the new Denon ones. I'll look at separates again in a few years once they've caught up. Of course, who knows what new formats we'll be exposed to by then, but I'm hoping that at some point there will be at least a few years where things won't change too much.

Shane's picture

Two things- I"m going to be writing more about this soon, but the new AVRs aren't a giant leap. All that they offer are a boatload of HDMI 1.3 features that either can't or shouldn't actually be used. In short, Deep Color and xvColor aren't coming to Blu-ray or Hd DVD any time soon, and doing the TrueHD and DTS-HD MA decoding in the AVR or pre/pro offers no benefits in performance and robs you of audio with secondary audio streams and interactivity. It is far more preferable in our opinion to convert these streams to PCM in the player. Many separates currently on the market offer HDMI switching with compatibility with all the features you need for the foreseeable future.

Aron's picture

A general question about LPCM vs. DTS-HD vs. True HD. Suppose you've got a BR or HD-DVD disc with a sountrack encoded at 24 bits/96 kHz (got to happen eventually, right?). In principle, I know that if doesn't matter whether it's encoded using LPCM, DTS-HD, or True HD, since the latter two are lossless formats that can be converted back to uncompressed LPCM. So is there any difference in practice (other than, say, different storage requirements)? I.e., should I care whether lossless compression is done with DTS-HD or True HD?

Steve in Manitoba's picture

This issue is the single biggest hurdle I face with equipment selection for our under construction dedicated home theater. Many years ago I purchased a top of the line Hi8 camera. The salesman said that digital cameras are way off and would take a long time for any of the features they are expected to have to be really available. I bought the camera. That Christmas I regretted the decision. Fast forward to today. I am looking at projectors with HDMI 1.3a, sources with HDMI 1.3a but the separates I was looking at are HDMI 1.1. The manufacturer and others have said that's all I'll ever need and don't require 1.3. I don't want to get caught again. I am now looking at those receivers, Denon, Integra, Onkyo, Mar antz and Pioneer. Purchasing the separates means I will always require sources that decode HD sound in the source and send out via PCM. Yes, separates are usually of better quality but its the insurance of future use and compatibility I also want. Within reason of course. Any advice anyone?

Shane's picture

Aron- First, Sony BMG already has one music title on Blu-ray with a 24/96 uncompressed PCM track (Chris Botti) and another with TrueHD from a 24/96 master (Dave Matthews). I have heard the Botti disc and the sound is spectacular! I wouldn't look for this to happen with movies any time soon, which are typically mastered either 20- or 24-bit/48kHz. To answer the other question, well I don't want to know if TrueHD or DTS-HD MA lossless sound better than one another. Back in the day I A/B'd lossy DTS and DD enough to get sick of that. I'll listen to both and if I hear something glaringly wrong with one of the other I might investigate, but I'm not doing Dolby vs. DTS again. Been there, done that. TrueHD I have heard because the decoding is in players. I've no problems with it. The results are spectacular and a giant leap past lossy DTS or DD.

Shane's picture

Steve- I am using, and about to recommend the Anthem AVM 50 in a review i'm finishing up. This means i'd spend my own money on this product or recommend it to a friend or family member. This is my threshold for recs without caveats. The AVM 50 is HDMI 1.1 I believe. May be 1.2 but I doubt it. I know for a fact it's not 1.3. It handles all the varieties of 1080p and it handles hi-res multichannel PCM. For reasons that will be explained in an article here soon, UAV is not recommending that you do TrueHD or DTS-HD MA decoding in the player. So that gets you nothing in our opinion. On the video side of HDMI 1.3, the skinny is xvColor is a gaming thing that has also been appearing in some camcorder products. Deep Color doesn't exist anywhere And what's more, none of the current encoding tool sets for VC-1, AVC or MPEG-2 suport anything other than 8-bit (per channel) signals. The entire front end of Blu-ray and HD DVD decoding would have to change.

Stephen's picture

Shane, I will be interested in the review of the Anthem AVM 50, and the discussion on converting in the player vs. the receiver or pre / pro. I?ve also heard that decoding in the player is required for branching audio tracks. If the player decodes, can the signal still be sent to the receiver or pre / pro over HDMI? Also, I want to be able to hear DTS-HD Master tracks, not just the core track. In my set-up, the analog inputs are already taken by my universal player for SACD / DVD Audio playback. Again, I look forward to your article on this very interesting, and confusing topic.

Aron's picture

Shane, thanks for your reply. That's exciting that mfrs. are starting to use these hi-def discs for audio; since the demise of DVD-A/SACD, that's exactly what I was hoping would happen. More specifically, I'm hoping that, once there's sufficiently large market penetration of hi-def players (as there never was with DVD-A/SACD), major labels (seeing a profit opportunity) will begin to re-release all their old but popular recordings at 24 bit/96 kHz. Regarding DTS-HD vs. TrueHD, I think you may have misunderstood my question. I wasn't asking if you would do a comparison but rather if one could say, based strictly on engineering principles that, with proper implementation, there CAN'T be a difference between the two -- since that's just what lossless means. I.e., if it's the case (and I think it is) that when you uncompress either of these formats (prior to sending the signal to the D/A converter) they are converted, to identical (BIT FOR BIT) uncompressed signals.

Shane's picture

Stephen- Yes, once the player decodes TrueHD, DD+, DTS-HD Master Audio (or even garden variety DD and DTS) to PCM it goes out over HDMI. Thus far we've no evidence that this has any sonic consequences whatsoever. Aron- Yes, in theory both Dolby and DTS lossless coding options offer "bit for bit" recovery, meaning that what gets decoded on playback ends up identical to the signal that came in. There are tools to analyze this, and since TrueHD is based on the MLP technology used for DVD-Audio we know at least in that case that it is bit for bit as such analyses were undertaken years ago. Let me just say this though- there are other factors. DVD-A used a digital "watermarking" technology for copy restriction and it was widely known that this had a detrimental effect on sound quality. I don't know if any of the DRM used on Blu-ray or HD DVD will have such consequences. What I do know from experience so far is that the sound quality of TrueHD is a huge leap forward even for

Shane's picture

Got cut off- damn character counter lies!!! a huge leap forward even for movie sound. DD and DTS just can't hold a candle to TrueHD and I'll let you know on DTS-HD MA once we can decode it somehow to test it.

Steve in Manitoba's picture

Shane, thanks for the info. I too look forward to the article on the AVM 50 and on the issue of not decoding TrueHD or DTS-HD MA in the player. Video is not the deciding factor for me at this time. I recognize that deep color is way off. As such, trying to anticipate needs for that now will mean I will never equip our theater if I keep waiting. Something marketed as being better will always be on the horizon. However, I feel that TrueHD and DTS-HD MA is close enough to wait. On another note, I find UAV to be a trustworthy resource for home theater information. Appreciate the effort.

Dave Anderson's picture

"It is far more preferable in our opinion to convert these streams to PCM in the player." "For reasons that will be explained in an article here soon, UAV is not recommending that you do TrueHD or DTS-HD MA decoding in the player." These two statements of Shane's posted above seem contradictory. What am I missing?

Shane's picture

Dave- Thanks!!! Unlike me, you're missing nothing. What I meant to say is "UAV is not recommending that you do TrueHD or DTS-HD MA decoding in the AVR or Pre/pro." My bad! These things get confusing, even for us!

Steve in Manitoba's picture

Shane, this stuff is confusing enough for someone who is looking for a few pieces of equipment for a personal purchase. With the variety of equipment and technologies available and reviewed by you guys at UAV, it must be far more difficult to keep your ducks in a row. To get a blog sentence incorrect now and again is to be expected. I still look forward to the articles and my opinion on UAV being a trustworthy resource still stands. PS. I have always considered myself to have good vision. However your Security Answer picture could be a little more user friendly.

Aron's picture

OK, so just to clarify things: Suppose you are playing a disc with hi-def audio (24 bit and 48 or 96 kHz) encoded with DTS-MA or True HD. You've got three choices: 1.Do the entire D/A conversion inside the player, and get analog out from the player. 2. Have the player convert the DTS-MA or True HD to linear PCM, output the linear PCM (over HDMI) to an outboard DAC (e.g., in your AVR or pre-pro), and do the D/A conversion there. 3. Have the player output the DTS-MA or True HD directly over HDMI, and have your AVR or pre-pro do both the conversion to LPCM and then the D/A conversion. Further, of the three, I assume you don't like #1 because (at this point in time) the DAC and audio stages of the video players are mediocre (there's no Arcam Blu-Ray or HD-DVD player, for example). That leaves #2 and #3. Your recommendation is #2. Can you explain why you prefer #2 over #3? Also, which players are now capable of #2 (converting to LPCM and outputting LPCM over HDMI)? Thanks again.

Aron's picture

Two other things, while I'm peppering you with questions :-). First, essentially what we're talking about here is DVD-Audio sound quality. But are we giving up something here by having that as our new high quality digital audio format, rather than SACD? I never had a chance to compare SACD to DVD-Audio, but I do recall reading that many audiophiles thought that SACD was superior in some subtle but important way -- more analog-like, more natural, etc. I know you've spent a lot of time listening to both. Is one better than the other, or is it mostly just how the recording was engineered? Second, on a somewhat different issue, what's your take on this: http://displaydaily.com/2007/09/17/red-laser-hd-capacity-discs-brings-ne...

Shane's picture

Steve- Thanks for hanging in there- I too get "Securuty Answer Incorrect" two or three times per response. I've mentioned this time and again, and all I can say is that IT has a free kick in the groin coming anytime they want to drop by and see me. Aron- Option #2 is preferred because there is no sonic advantage to #3, and with #2 you don't lose secondary audio with interactive features, which I value. I'd consider giving up the secondary audio if someone shows me a qualitative reason to, but so far that's not the case. And let me be clear- I'm not just talking about lame stuff like games or button click sounds in the menus. By decoding in the AVR or pre/pro you also lose the audio for cool stuff like commentaries and PIP features such as Warner's In-Movie Experience and Universal's U-Control. On option #1, the real downers are that the bass management and processing options (delays, etc.) are often far more limited than an AVR or pre/pro.

Jim in GA's picture

Shane: My pre/pro is the Integra Research RDC-7.1, which has i.LINK inputs and HDMI 1.0 switching (IR promised an HDMI upgrade card but has not delivered). Since the HDMI inputs will not even accept PCM, I've been holding out for a BD player with i.LINK output. It appears that the only such player on the horizon is the Pioneer BDP-LX90, which supposedly will also do SACD and DVD-Audio. It appears that such an arrangement would be essentially equivalent to sending PCM via HDMI to the pre/pro or receiver, and would allow me to extend the useful life of my RDC-7.1 by possibly several years. Does this sound reasonable, or am I missing something here? I've read on the AVS forum that this player will be Profile 2.0 and is due in Q1/2008. By the way, some early information on the Pioneer player is available at http://www.mundodvd.com/showthread.php?p=925980 P.S.: You stated that your Blu-ray Interactivity Blog dated Sep t. 19 was your "least interesting Blog" in some time. I disagree--ver

Shane's picture

Jim- I am not familiar with the Pioneer player referenced. I must confess to not being in touch with iLINK specs as that was never supported by more than a few manufacturers and seemed primarily a way to send SACD and DVD-A over a secure digital link. Neither of those formats is a significant presence in the market as of now, in spite of how terrific both sounded. I would have to look into this to learn more. However, I would note that SACD is does not use PCM coding, but rather DSD. I assume that iLINK would transmit it as a native DSD stream, but again am not intimately familiar with the details of transmission over this standard.

Paul Matwiy's picture

Curious to see if Dolby TrueHD, on whichever disc format wins, will supplant DVD-A or SACD as a music platform. However, if something doesn't shake out soon, downloads to PVRs of AVC/MPEG4 films with DD may supplant this format all together.

Steven Knapp's picture

Hi Shane: I really enjoyed your AVM 50 review and would love to add this unit to my setup. The price is a bit steep, however. What do you think about buying a used AVM 20/30 and then going for the upgrade. I understand this delivers a unit that is functionally equivalent to an AVM 50.

YOUTUBE's picture

View the most incredible Youtube movies online at http://esdreinterpretations.blogspot.com/2010/03/other-greyhound-esd-vid...

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