The Look and Sound of Perfect With Joe Kane

On Saturday UAV Editor Tom Norton and I crossed the street from the Convention Center, braving vicious, howling winds to get to HD DVD’s version of the Madden cruiser to get some of that old time religion with the HD DVD camp and video industry icon and iconoclast Joe Kane.

Joe spent 45 minutes or so showing us various clips played back from his hard drive at both 720p and 1080p at a variety of bitrates on a Marantz VP-11S1 1080p DLP projector. He bounced back and forth between clips encoded in MPEG-2 and Windows Media Video, the video compression codec from Microsoft that has now evolved into VC-1, which has been used on nearly all HD DVD releases so far and is rumored to be close to making its first appearance on Blu-ray Disc.

Joe’s point that the WMV and VC-1 could handily outperform MPEG-2, even with the latter using much higher data rates, was repeatedly revealed. Joe’s 720p clips were typically around 8Mbps, which is equivalent to high bitrate DVD, while the 1080p clips were often at just 12Mbps. And yet it was always obvious that the WMV clips had less noise and more detail than the MPEG-2 clips, and usually the difference was dramatic.

Joe finished up by playing VC-1 encoded clips from the production HD DVDs of Phantom of the Opera and, of all things, Blazing Saddles. The video quality of both films was simply startling, with proper amounts of film grain and astounding clarity and detail with natural, saturated colors. Joe’s point was that if a movie from the early 70s could look this good with VC-1, then the codec must work!

Joe also let us know that he hasn’t yet had a chance to properly evaluate the MPEG-4/AVC codec due to a current lack of hardware decoders. He assured us that he’d make an evaluation as soon as possible using his own demo material.

One of the more fascinating parts of the program, at least for propeller heads like Tom and me, was at the end when Microsoft’s self-described HD DVD evangelist Kevin Collins gave us some hard numbers on the average video data rates being used in some VC-1 encoded HD DVDs we’re familiar with. He broke down Phantom, 16 Blocks, and Rumor Has It. While it wasn’t a surprise that the reference quality video of Phantom was encoded at an average of over 15Mbps, with peaks as high as 28Mbps, it was surprising to know that 16 Blocks and Rumor, which are DVD/HD DVD combo discs with only a single layer on the HD DVD side of the disc also maintained average data rates of 14.6 and 16Mbps, respectively.

Joe summarized by saying that he hasn’t seen MPEG-2 come close to the performance he saw with WMV and consistently sees with VC-1. This mirrors my own experiences with VC-1 encoded HD DVDs, which are by far the best HD I’ve yet seen, blowing away any form of broadcast MPEG-2 HD I’ve experienced. While my initial impressions of the MPEG-2 compressed Blu-ray Discs is low, I need to get the just released firmware update for the Samsung BD-P1000 or a production player from another company before making the final call.