Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray Disc Player Page 3

The Terminator looked like the low budget film it was. There's significant film grain, more in the early scenes than in the later ones. Although it's reasonably sharp, it's not consistently so throughout, but is also never truly bad like the worst scenes in The Punisher. The transfer clearly looks like high-definition, but not in any knock-you-out sort of way, just in terms of everything being clearly defined and generally clean (apart from the film grain). I saw no artifacts, and no visible edge enhancement. Dark scenes were respectable. While I wish it looked even better, this may be the best that's possible given the original photography and film elements.

That's three down and while there are no disasters so far (though I wouldn't put The Punisher on anyone's must buy list), I've seen nothing particularly exciting yet either. But I imagine if the first three HD DVD titles I viewed had been The Fujitive, Full Metal Jacket, and Constantine, I would have wondered what all the fuss was about there, too.

I moved on.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day clearly blows the above three titles out of the water. The menus are sharp and detailed. When the film starts, the title lettering is softer than the best HD I've seen, so I started to get a little concerned. I needn't have been. True, the images aren't striking throughout; there are some rather ordinary-looking shots, including the first scenes in John Connor's foster home. And a few scenes elsewhere challenge the term high-definition. Were they photographed that way? Adam Greenberg's cinematography was nominated for both an Oscar and an American Society of Cinematographers award for outstanding achievement. But cinematographers often look for qualities other than consistently sharp, detailed images, and this is where the BD falls down a bit. I can't say for certain that this intermittently limited resolution is in the source material, or even possibly in the original film-to-video transfers, but that's always possible. It's also possible that something in the Samsung player or BD transfer is reducing the resolution on some scenes just enough to slip the result down from very good to simply okay.

Still, T2 is the best-looking BD of the first four I've sampled, and by a considerable margin. There are plenty of scenes—most in fact—that are clearly high-definition. I saw good shadow detail, fine color, low noise, and no serious artifacts. In the few places I thought I spotted a problem, the same thing showed up—though sometimes less clearly—in the T2: Extreme DVD.

One point demands to be made here. While the T2 version on the Blu-ray disc is the standard theatrical edition, the film has been released in a superior, extended cut on two DVD versions, including the last one, that Extreme DVD. Was the standard cut too long for a single layer Blu-ray, or are we in for the same endless progression of T2 titles on Blu-ray we experienced on DVD? Inquiring minds want to know.

I moved along, reluctantly, to Underworld Evolution, a depressingly awful movie. But it's a useful test because it's almost as dimly lit as Dark City. I saw good black levels and shadow detail, with no serious noise, artifacts, or edge enhancement. But while the picture quality is okay in most respects, it isn't particularly detailed or sharp. It's well short of the kind of resolution I expect from quality high-definition.

The colors on 50 First Dates are brilliant. It's a good-looking BD from beginning to end. But for a film shot almost entirely in bright sunlight, with the breathtaking scenery of Hawaii as a backdrop, it's surprisingly lacking in the sort of detail you'd expect in a superior high-definition presentation. Again, it's not soft in an absolute sense. But for high-definition, it is.

The verdict so far, as viewed on one of the best 720p displays on the market? Not nearly as negative as in many online reports. In fact, the best discs did look pretty good. Not amazing; up to this point I hadn't been reduced to the quivering mass of protoplasm that resulted from the briefest glance at the best HD DVDs. There's still nothing here to compare with the HD DVDs of Phantom of the Opera, The Chronicles of Riddick, U-571, 16 Blocks, or Unforgiven. Those discs will roll down your socks.

It was at this point that the new Marantz VP-11S1 1080p DLP projector, reviewed by Shane Buettner this week, arrived at my studio for some additional measurements. Naturally, I had to repeat some of the above work on this higher resolution projector, which also offered me the opportunity to select the Samsung player's full 1080p (HDMI) output resolution. I viewed many of the same discs, and other titles as well.

Though the enhancement with a 1080p display only pushed the results to a significantly higher level on one title, the improvements were definitely visible on all of them.

I also compared the first three titles below directly with their DVD counterparts, the latter played back on the Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player set to upconvert to 1080i. I set the Sharpness control on the projector to between +5 and +10 depending on the disc (Shane had used zero, the maximum setting is 50, so we're not talking a big boost here). This provided a subtle but useful increase in subjective detail without oversharpening the image (or adding clearly visible white lines on test patterns). It may or may not be significant that I was perfectly happy with a zero setting when watching HD DVDs.

The House of Flying Daggers has, for some reason, a sterling reputation for image quality. That may be true of the theatrical presentation (which I did not see) but it most certainly is not true of the DVD. It's satisfactory, but the most colorful sequence in the film, in the house of "entertainment" where we first get to know many of the main characters, is never very crisp and has some shots that can only be described as badly focused.

On the positive side, the colors on the BD are strikingly beautiful—deeper and richer than the DVD. There's also an enhanced sense of three-dimensionality on the Blu-ray, the same sort of depth I see on HD DVDs.

Some close ups—most in fact—look fine, though if you look closer you'll see an absence of facial textures. And medium and long shots are often excruciatingly soft. Yes, they are better on the BD than on the DVD, but the lack of detail on the higher resolution format in these scenes is more annoying because of failed expectations. You want this title to be a knockout, and it isn't. Could the limited resolution originate in the film source? Yes, it could, but that makes it an awkward choice as one of the first Blu-ray discs, despite the fact that's it's arguably a premier title.

While Hitch is no better than an average-looking disc in the still cozy Blu-ray Pantheon, it absolutely looks better on BD than on DVD. No, it's not a night and day difference, but the DVD is only a fair transfer, and the Blu-ray ups the resolution to the point where it is clearly better. There's more detail in fabrics and facial textures, particularly on close ups. There's no question that this is high-definition. That extra degree of detail, particularly as viewed on a premier 1080p display, makes the image more relaxing to watch.

While the DVD mangles wider establishing shots and many middle shots as well, Hitch on BD handles them noticeably better. It didn't distract me with the difference between reasonably sharp close-ups and the "whoops, what happened to the focus?" reaction I have from the DVD when the camera moves back.

A perfect example of this the boardroom scene in which the accountants are first seen talking to Allegra Cole. The shot starts with closeup of her, then the camera pulls back slowly to take in the rest of the table. On the BD, Allegra remains in excellent focus throughout the pullback. On the DVD, the focus is respectable for about the first third of the shot, but by the end she's a fuzzy blob. You don't often notice these things consciously (unless you're a critic!), but they add up to the difference between an enjoyable presentation and the feeling that something you can't quite put your finger on isn't right. Watch enough good high definition and you'll spot the improvement over DVD every time. You'll start to notice something slightly artificial and not quite film-like (despite how much we have all overused that term) about many DVDs, if not most. I wouldn't call Hitch on BD a watershed of high-definition. It's certainly no better than the average HD cable presentation. But it was most certainly high-def, particularly on a great 1080p display.

OK, I know you're all waiting to hear about BD of The Fifth Element. On the Marantz projector it looks very good. Yes, there's some dirt and speckling in some of the early scenes suggesting that a damaged print snuck into the transfer suite. I wish it weren't there, but the flaw isn't the onset of Armageddon, and it passes quickly. There is a subtle sense of sharpening in many scenes, but the image is always crisp and rarely looks artificially enhanced.

But how does it compare to the Superbit DVD?
The main problem with such comparisons, including those above, is that you can't be sure the two discs were cut from the same masters, (and there are some indications here, such as those dirt speckles, that suggest they were not). Nor can you be sure how the scaling on the player/projector handling the DVD is affecting the result. But bearing those issues in mind, the two discs here were very close, indeed. Could I see differences? Yes. Surprisingly, the HD version on BD isn't always quite as sharp as the Superbit. The latter appears to add subtle edge enhancement that is largely gone or innocuous on the BD. Would I pay for the difference? Absolutely, but the larger the screen, the more you're likely to notice the superiority of this BD. Except as noted, I saw no significant differences in either color or video noise, though the BD did sometimes seem a bit grainier.

Up to this point I've been relatively positive about what I see from Blu-ray, but with the important caveat that none of the current titles have impressed me as much as the best offerings from HD DVD. That feeling was reinforced when I went back and had another look at two HD DVD titles on the Marantz 1080p projector, The Perfect Storm and Phantom of the Opera. The former is an average-looking HD DVD, but looked about as good as the best-looking BDs sampled up to this point. Phantom is one of those "Oh, my God!" experiences that nothing I've seen on Blu-ray yet equals. The forces behind Blu-ray need to look at this disc on the best projector they can find, and honestly ask themselves if they are offering anything to equal this. In my opinion, they are not, at least not yet. But that isn't to say that they can't.

But one BD finally came tantalizing close. And it only takes one great release to prove a format. Remember my comments above about 50 First Dates viewed on a 720p projector? Colorful, clean, and just a little short of what I had hoped to see from it. Well, on the 1080p Marantz I couldn't believe I was watching the same BD. Maybe Sony or Samsung snuck in overnight and swapped discs or players on me. Now, it looked sensational. There were very few "off" shots (and nearly every movie has them, where the budget does not allow a re-shoot for a scene that's just a hair off in focus or exposure). Mostly, it was as sharp as I could wish for from start to finish. The colors remained vivid and yet natural. Adam Sandler's performance is the same mix of endearing charm and dumb humor as before, and Rob Schneider's is still just dumb, but BD can't help that. This BD now came very close to the best of the HD DVD discs, though for reasons yet undetermined that was not the case on the 720p Yamaha projector.

This single experience tells me that a superb Blu-ray experience on the Samsung player is achievable—and at the same time makes me wonder why the other BD releases I sampled left me feeling let down.

DVD, Anyone
The BD-P1000 is, of course, also a DVD player. To check out its performance as such, I compared both the The Fifth Element Superbit and Shakespeare in Loveon the Samsung against the Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player. The Toshiba was set to upconvert to 1080i, the Samsung to 1080p. Using two samples of each of these DVDs, I was able to do a fast switch between the two players, connected to the two separate HDMI inputs on the Marantz projector. (The swap was not instantaneous; it does take a few seconds for the projector and players to complete their secret Commander Cody HDMI handshake on each switch.)

The differences weren't huge, but they were noticeable, with the Samsung looking less detailed. Both players looked virtually the same (and very smooth) on a luminance (black and white) sweep test from the original Video Essentials DVD, though that is no guarantee that there aren't subtle differences in their video frequency responses. Nevertheless, while both players produced fine pictures, I slightly preferred the crisper look of the Toshiba—though some may feel that it looks slightly enhanced on DVD (which it definitely does not on HD DVD). The Samsung was less resolved in a way that almost looked like there was some sort of subtle video noise reduction going on in the processing chain, but there's no noise reduction control on the player. (Noise reduction also softens the image along with reducing noise)

There are significant differences inside of any BD player in how BD and DVD are processed. Softness on DVDs, therefore, doesn't necessarily prove that the softness on most of the Blu-ray discs I've commented on comes from the Samsung. But it is possible.

There are few HD test patterns on disc, at present, for testing Blu-ray players. The T2 BD has the THX setup patterns. Also, every Blu-ray disc from Sony has several patterns that are hidden, Easter Egg style, in the opening disc menu. While the menu is on screen, simply push 7669 (which spells S-O-N-Y on your telephone!). There's a color bar pattern, a pattern with a variety of resolution checks, red, green, and blue full-screen patterns, a crosshatch pattern, a color sweep pattern, and a gray ramp.

Using these tests, plus a few patterns on DVD, I determined that the Samsung will reproduce above white and below black on the Yamaha projector, that the (HD) color sweep is excellent and very uniform, the luminance sweep from the T2 BD is extended but a little uneven at higher frequencies, and there is just a hint of vertical banding on the (HD) gray ramp.

I performed deinterlacing and scaling tests on the player using my usual battery of standard definition DVD images, with the Samsung set to 1080p HDMI and connected to the Marantz 1080p projector. This tested the full gamut of the player's scaling, starting with a vanilla 480i source and converting it up to 1080p. If it performs well here, it should not have serious scaling or deinterlacing issues on typical program material. And it did turn in some excellent results, with one exception. It sailed through my jagged diagonals tests and showed excellent handling of film-based sources, including recognition of unflagged 3/2 pulldown.