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Home Theater Manufacturers Tout Upconversion Over Blu-ray Print E-mail
Thursday, 17 July 2008
ImageSeveral news stories and press releases have appeared over the past few months in which manufacturers, either subtly or not-so, extolled the virtues of DVD upconversion over Blu-ray. Not surprisingly, none of these manufacturers currently sells a Blu-ray product, but two of them are expected to enter the Blu-ray market soon enough -- which makes their current marketing tactics seem counterproductive at best, blatantly misleading at worst. The first story involves Toshiba (no shock there). Unwilling to go gently into that good night, Toshiba has decided that it’s in the consumer’s best interest that they keep trying to provide an alternative to Blu-ray. A story originally posted on the U.K. website Pocket-lint reported that Toshiba is working on an “extension to the DVD format” that will offer video quality “comparable to that produced by Blu-ray.” The story goes on to say that DVD players utilizing this technology will be available this year and will be priced much lower than Blu-ray. We queried our Toshiba PR rep, who confirmed that Toshiba is developing a “high-resolution DVD player and recorder,” but they would not comment on the details. Without having seen the technology, we can’t yet say whether or not it does something dramatically different to make standard-def DVD look as good as Blu-ray, but we’re skeptical. Even if the technology does work as advertised, is this really the best use of Toshiba’s time and energy at this point? The price of Blu-ray players is steadily declining, and the market already offers a lot of good, inexpensive upconverting DVD players for people who aren’t yet ready to embrace Blu-ray.

That leads to the second story. OPPO Digital, one of the most respected names in the upconverting DVD realm, recently released their newest upconverting player, the DV-983H. The company clearly states that this is its last upconverting DVD player, which suggests that it plans to move into the Blu-ray realm with its next generation of products. The DV-983H upconverts to 1080p via HDMI, offers 7.1-channel Dolby EX decoding and 24-bit/192-kilohertz audio D/A converters, uses Anchor Bay’s respected VRS processing chip for upconversion, and includes both RS-232 and IR inputs/outputs. It’s also a universal disc player that supports SACD and DVD-Audio playback (with bitstream output over HDMI), and it sports a USB 2.0 port for easy playback of digital music, photo, and movies files. Indeed it is a fully featured player, but its price point is still somewhat of a surprise: $399. That’s a fairly big jump over the previous $229 DV-981HD, and it’s the current entry-level price point for Blu-ray. If cost really is what’s keeping consumers from embracing Blu-ray, who is going to buy an upconverting DVD player for the same price? Clearly, OPPO Digital is targeting the more discerning fan who wants the best audio and video performance from his or her existing DVD collection, as well as easier integration into an advanced control system, but the company is taking a risk -- since those may be the exact consumers who have already decided to step up to Blu-ray. Make the product a little less expensive, and you might lure in more of the undecideds.

What really caught our eye, however, was a quote in the press release from an OPPO Digital executive: “Home theatre enthusiasts can enjoy their DVD and music collections at a whole new level with the DV-983H before investing in an entirely new Blu-Ray library.” That statement could lead people to believe that, when they finally upgrade to Blu-ray, they will have to invest in a whole new disc library, which isn’t true. Blu-ray is backwards compatible with DVD, and most Blu-ray players currently on the market upconvert DVD to 1080p over HDMI. If OPPO Digital feels that the Anchor Bay VRS chip offers better upconversion than you’re going to find in one of the new entry-level Blu-ray players, then why not say that instead? It could very well be true. As is, though, the quote is misleading and unnecessary. Again, if the company had priced the DV-983H a little lower, maybe it would not feel compelled to mention Blu-ray at all in its marketing.

The most blatant offender is Kaleidescape, which boldly proclaimed in a recent press-release headline, “New Kaleidescape Movie Players Produce Stunning Video Quality from Ordinary DVDs, Provide Viewing Experience That Rivals Blu-ray.” If you’re not familiar with Kaleidescape, the company offers a high-end media server that stores your DVD library in digital form, lets you easily cue up content using a great onscreen interface, and offers multiroom functionality to distribute content to clients around the home. The two new movie players are clients designed to receive content from the central server. The 1080p Mini Player ($2,995) receives content only from the server, while the 1080p Player ($4,295) also has its own DVD/CD drive to import and play discs. Kaleidescape uses Sigma Designs’ respected Gennum VXP video processing to display an upconverted 1080p image: The press release says that the new 1080p player “upscales ordinary DVD content to beautiful high definition video…Crystal clear video and amazingly accurate colors provide a viewing experience rivaling that of Blu-ray.” Maybe it’s just semantics, but you can’t upscale DVD to high-definition. You can upscale DVD to a high-definition resolution, but it’s still a DVD source.

There’s simply no reason for Kaleidescape to take this marketing approach, and frankly it’s a huge disservice to everyone – consumers, dealers, and manufacturers. These new players are designed to function as part of a proprietary Kaleidescape system that is DVD-based anyhow. Why even bring Blu-ray into the discussion? Focus on how great the players will make your DVD library look and tout all the cool, new features that make these players a great addition to the current Kaleidescape platform, but don’t insult our intelligence by suggesting that your DVD system rivals Blu-ray. Elsewhere in the press release, a dealer is quoted as saying, “The new Kaleidescape Movie Player produces the best quality video I have ever seen from any source device.” The question is, if the new players render Blu-ray so irrelevant, how is Kaleidescape going to market their new Blu-ray system when it inevitably arrives? “Hey, We Know We Convinced You to Spend Thousands on Our DVD System, But It Turns Out Blu-ray Really Does Look Better. Go Figure.”

There’s still a lot of confusion surrounding Blu-ray and high-definition, and we don’t need manufacturers adding to it as they try to figure out how to market DVD products in an emerging Blu-ray world. Consumers frequently ask us why they need Blu-ray when an upconverting player can output 1080p? We try to educate them that a standard-def source is still a standard-def source. Take a small, low-resolution digital photograph and blow it up to a much bigger size, and it’s going to look soft. A great upconverting player does a better job of interpolating information to help fill in the gaps and make the picture look more detailed (among other things), but it’s still not going to have as much detail and nuance as an image that originates as 1080p. Unless a Blu-ray manufacturer does something to really mess up the picture, Blu-ray is going to look better than DVD.

Once you understand the difference between an upconverted source and a high-definition source, you may compare the two and decide that you can’t see a big enough improvement to merit the cost of a Blu-ray player and Blu-ray discs. That’s a completely valid decision. I have a friend who owns a PlayStation 3 and buys a lot of movies, not all of them in the Blu-ray format. If he thinks a certain movie is going to look great and benefit from being in high-definition, he’ll pay extra for the Blu-ray disc; with most average releases, though, he sticks with DVD. Again, a perfectly valid choice – one that’s made from an informed position.

The disc market is clearly dividing into those who have bought or plan to buy Blu-ray and those who plan to stick with DVD for now. Neither camp is wrong, and manufacturers don’t have to cater to one or the other. DVD manufacturers should be confident that there’s an audience for their products and tout them on their own merits, without misrepresenting Blu-ray or trying to render it irrelevant in the process.

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