Auld Lang Syne

As we bid a fond farewell to 2008—"fond" in the sense that many are glad to see it depart—it's only natural to take a look back at the year gone by and try to sneak a peek at the year to come. In the realm of home theater, there's a lot to ponder...

Of course, one of the biggest home-theater stories of 2008 was the death of HD DVD and the end of the stupid format war that crippled the introduction of high-def discs. Since then, Blu-ray has gained a lot of ground—nearly 150,000 players sold during Black Friday week, The Dark Knight sold 1.7 million Blu-ray copies worldwide in one week, dedicated player prices fell below $200, the total installed base is approaching 9 million players in the U.S., and over 1000 titles are now available. Granted, these are nowhere near the current DVD stats, but Blu-ray is on par with DVD's progress at the same point in its life cycle.

Another important story from 2008 was the continued rise of streaming and downloadable high-def content, which presents Blu-ray with a format war of a different sort. Netflix, Apple TV, and Vudu all started offering online HD titles, and LG and Samsung both introduced Blu-ray players that can stream HD content from Netflix.

In fact, many predict that online delivery will render Blu-ray a niche format akin to LaserDisc, but I don't buy that—online HD offers nowhere near the picture quality of Blu-ray, there are few if any bonus features in downloaded files, and it takes many hours to download a single HD title, even at broadband speeds. Also, humans are collectors by nature, and the allure of owning a physical disc is irresistible. On the other hand, as MP3 has clearly demonstrated, convenience generally trumps quality and even collectability, so I could be wrong here.

One cannot look back at 2008 without noting the economic collapse that shook the world. This calamity affected—and continues to affect—all segments of society, including entertainment. Circuit City filed for bankruptcy, and most other retailers and manufacturers are struggling as well. This helped to accelerate the decline of prices for home-theater gear, which is good news for consumers—at least, those who can still afford to spend any money on anything other than food, housing, clothes, and medical care.

So what can we expect in 2009? The big story is the DTV transition, which will occur on February 17. On that day, all full-power TV stations are required to shut down all analog broadcasting and switch entirely to digital. Certain low-power stations are exempt, but for most folks who watch an analog TV exclusively via rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna, they'll see nothing but snow on the screen. (Cable and satellite subscribers should not be affected.) There's still time to get a government-subsidized coupon for a converter box that will keep the picture on an analog over-the-air TV, but you need to act fast—go here to request a coupon.

The emphasis on "green" products, including TVs and other consumer electronics, will continue unabated, which is a very good thing in my book. These products are made with fewer toxic substances, they draw less electrical power, and they can be recycled more easily.

In other tech news, we could see larger flat panels based on OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology. This year, Sony introduced the 11-inch XEL-1 OLED TV for a whopping $2500, so a larger model can't be far behind. On the other hand, Samsung recently announced that it's backing out of the OLED business because it's simply too expensive.

I have no doubt that online delivery of HD content will continue to grow by leaps and bounds, though I still prefer the quality of Blu-ray over the convenience of streaming. On the other side of that coin, Denon and Oppo are both introducing truly "universal" players that can handle Blu-ray, DVD, CD, DVD-Audio, and SACD. I think the Oppo has a shot at a rumored price of $500 or $600, but the Denon has a tougher row to hoe at $3800.

Whatever happens, 2009 is sure to be another interesting year. And it all starts at CES next week, where I'll be blogging along with Kim Wilson and Gary Altunian, so be sure to check back here often during the show for our ongoing coverage. Until then, I wish each and every one of you a happy and healthy New Year!

If you have an audio/video question for me, please send it to scott.wilkinson@sorc.com.

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COMMENTS
Ben's picture

Scott, Interesting article. Regarding streaming content vs. Blu-Ray and the comparison to MP3, I think there are a few important differences to consider. (1) MP3s don't take up a lot of room. My wife and I have 300-400 CDs burned into high-quality MP3s, which comfortably fit on the 80 GB drive in my laptop. Our smaller (200+) DVD collection wouldn't fit; nevermind a HD collection. (2) MP3 players still play out of the same boring speakers we've always had. May be we bought a docking station, but we're not shelling out tons of money for high-end speakers. By contrast, HD movie buyers recently bought a HD TV, which likely means they are seeking media to show it off. The differences in video quality between compressed, downloaded content and Blu-Ray content are probably important to that buyer looking to "show off the new TV."

David Vaughn's picture

Ben, I agree with your comment above. Also, I think it's fair to point out that most people can't distinguish the difference in sound between a MP3 and CD audio, so they don't feel like they are losing something when the get a MP3 (and they still have a physical copy...it's just on a hard disc). By comparison, a movie download is generally only available for a short time, is of sub-par quality that is easy to see compared to Blu-ray, and the audio is generally limited to stereo (or so I've heard). In my mind, Blu-ray is the ONLY way to go for the foreseeable future, especially with ISP's putting caps on how many GB's people can download each month. Happy New Year,David

Scott Wilkinson's picture

Good comments, Ben! Perhaps the differences you cite make the comparison between MP3 and downloadable HD video less apt than I originally thought. On the other hand, hard-disk storage is getting cheaper by the day

Scott Wilkinson's picture

David, your point about ISPs limiting the amount of content a subscriber can download in a month is excellent! Another reason not to prefer downloads is that, even if you buy the content and can supposedly keep it forever, hard disks crash, and when they do, that content is gone for good, since DRM normally makes it difficult if not impossible to back it up. So much for the "physical" copy on hard disk! A Blu-ray disc cannot crash or otherwise be corrupted (except by a huge scratch on the surface), so I'm with you

David Vaughn's picture

Scott, Another negative is when you have to reinstall an OS like I just did because of a motherboard problem. The few digital copies of movies I had on my hard drive won't play now because they noticed a change in my system. Very consumer friendly, eh? DRM pretty much sucks, which is why I only buy MP3's from Amazon.com since all they sell is DRM free music (although I don't download very many songs...they are mostly for my kids). David

Steve's picture

Happy New Year! Scott, I agree about Blu-Ray being the way to go. I use a PS3 for mine, and it's wonderful. Of all my HD sources - a couple of Tivo S3's, OTA HD (still amazing) FIOS HD and the Vudu box, Blu-Ray is the standard of excellence. I have an huge external e-Sata drive for my main Tivo S3. But the external drive crashed once...taking along with it entire seasons of HD shows. The Vudu has been very reliable, but again, it has a hard drive. So I only rent HD (or their super format HDX) on Vudu...I'm reluctant to buy titles there. So, for archiving and collections, Blu-Ray is the only game in town, in my opinion. Quick question...since I only have space for a 40" HD set, should I stay with my wonderful 720p Sony XBR? Or would I see a difference in a 1080p? I've heard that at 40" and under, there's no perceptible difference. Thoughts? Scott, I enjoy your appearances on Leo Laporte's 'The Tech Guy' show. I look forward to many more of them. An

David Vaughn's picture

Steve, I'm not Scott, but maybe I can answer your question. How far back do you sit from the 40" TV? If you sit further than 1.5 screen widths away, then you won't notice the difference between 720p and 1080p. If you sit pretty close to it, then you will most likely enjoy the added pixel fill. Happy new year, David

Steve's picture

Thanks, David! That helps a lot. Yes, we sit about 9 feet back. So I'm well beyond the 1.5 screen widths point. What can I say? You just saved me about a thousand dollars! Thanks again to you and UltimateAVMag.com...best tech site I've ever found. All the best in 2009! Steve

David Vaughn's picture

Steve, No problem. A friend of mine saved $4k on his Pioneer plasma using the same logic. He sits 10 feet away and couldn't see a difference between 720p and 1080p and decided to go with the 720p set for under $2K versus $6k for the 1080p model. The 1080p had slightly darker blacks, but not $4000 worth! Happy New Year, David

Bruce in CO's picture

I just bought a 42" 1080P Panasonic plasma. It was only $150 more than the comparable 720P version, which made the price difference irrelevant. Even on Pioneer I haven't noticed $4k differences, except between the highest and lowest end models, which is an apples to oranges comparison. While in most situations I probably wouldn't be able to notice a difference, where I absolutely saw the difference in the store is with sporting events. The better resolution made reading names and numbers easier. May be it was an optical illusion, but it was noticeable. Also, just knowing that a 720P HDTV was dropping 30% of the resolution didn't sit well with me, whether it was noticeable or not.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

Another factor in the 1080p vs 720p debate is scaling artifacts. Even if you can't see a difference in detail/resolution from beyond a given distance, you might still see artifacts as the TV scales 1080i and 1080p (i.e., most HDTV and Blu-ray) to 720p. This depends on how good the TV's scaler is.

David Vaughn's picture

Scott, I agree with the scaling aspect. Pioneer's are pretty damn good and the Sony XBR sets generally do a good job. Now if we were talking an older Vizio, then that's a different subject altogether. But given Steve's circumstances, I doubt the trade-up in resolution is worth $1000. Do you agree Scott? David

Steve's picture

Thanks again for your information, I appreciate it. But, a followup, if I may: I thought that 720p sets, like my older Sony KDL-V40XBR1, were capable of 1080i...just not 1080p. Most of my sources show up on the screen as "1080i"...so I thought if any scaling would be done, it would be done from 1080p to 1080i...not down all the way to 720p. I may be hopelessly misinformed...but perhaps you could educate me, and perhaps others in this fundamental point: when I watch a Blu-Ray movie through my PS3, and run it via HDMI into my Sony KDL-V40XBR1, and it says "1080i" on the screen...am I really seeing 1080i? Or is is really 720p with a misleading on-screen indicator? Again, TYVM!

David Vaughn's picture

Steve, The native resolution of your display is 1366 x 768 (close to 720p). So it will scale an incoming 1080i signal (1920 x 1080) down to the 1366 x 768 resolution of your display. So when it says 1080i, that's the signal it's receiving at that particular time. Does that make sense? David

Steve's picture

It does! Thanks again. The whole resolution issue can be daunting, but your explanation makes it crystal clear. Thanks for your answer, David, especially on a weekend! - Steve

Jack Simone's picture

Looking forward to the Oppo. Hope it does HD-DVD too.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

As far as I know, the Oppo will not play HD DVDs. It will play Blu-ray, DVD, DVD-Audio, SACD, and CD. HD DVD is a dead format, so there's no reason to make a player that can play it.

Steve's picture

Scott and David...to bring this all back to the original meaning of this post, let me say that thanks to you, I'll be starting a New Year by getting the most out of my home theatre! Thus, in 2009, my New Year's Resolutions: 1.) to let my formerly top-of-the-line Sony XBR handle all my video scaling; 2.) to never scale twice...with a component and then again with my monitor; 3.) to walk away politely when a salesman says "720p and 1080i are the exact same thing." Instead....4.) I'll rely on the experts. Thanks again, and Happy New Year! -Steve

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