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Confessions of a HT Luddite: finally embraces HDMI fully (1 Viewer)

Patrick Sun

Senior HTF Member
Joined
Jun 30, 1999
Messages
39,411
When I say I'm a HT Luddite, I mean I hadn't quite made the leap towards the new age of HT interconnectivity, and this is the tale of my HT journey towards fully embracing HDMI connectivity:

Having been into the Home Theater concept for the last 15-20 years in its various incarnations and through the appreciated evolutionary steps, it started out with the novel notion of watching films in their original aspect ratios (OAR) on VHS tapes and Laserdiscs in the 1980s because the versions that aired on TV rarely were shown in OAR, and were edited for content too.

This meant finding that highly capable VCRs (or S-VHS VCRs) and also Laserdisc players to add to the old stereo setup that would later expand to a 5.1 speaker setup as Laserdiscs would be the first to include dts and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio to the titles, allowing film enthusiasts a way to get the full surround sound experience. Bear in mind that the 5.1 audio channels were compressed from their original audio fidelity in order to fit on Laserdiscs and its successor, DVDs.

The video delivered from VCRs came from either a composite video output, or a S-video output (for the later models), while Laserdisc players would also utilize the composite video output and s-video output, and the video quality was dependent on the comb filter in one's TV set at the time.

To get 5.1 sound, it meant using the player's digital audio output, typically a TOSlink fiber optic connection, or a coaxial cable connection, and connecting it to a receiver, or a preamp/processor (pre/pro) that could process the signal and split the audio streams out to the proper speaker outputs to drive the speakers for surround playback.

For Laserdiscs, besides the standard left/right analog audio outputs, there were 2 different digital audio outputs: the standard digital audio output that was capable of delivering the laserdisc's PCM stereo tracks, or the dts 5.1 audio stream; or the AC-3 audio output for the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio stream, which needed an AC-3 RF Demodulator to convert the stream to something your receiver or preamp/process (pre/pro) could process into 5.1 channels of audio. Not all Laserdisc players offered the AC-3 Dolby Digital output, so you had to select your Laserdisc players carefully.

As you can tell, lots of cabling was involved in getting audio and video from the playback devices to your TV and surround audio system.

This technique for delivering 5.1 surround sound through the digital audio output was adopted by the next evolutionary step in home theater playback, the DVD player. DVDs offered better and more consistent video playback and resolution than VHS tapes or Laserdiscs, as well as the possibility of dts 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks on DVDs. Also, DVDs offered almost instantaneous random access to various points in a film (VHS tapes required a lot of fast-forwarding or rewinding, but Laserdiscs offered better chapter skipping capabilities, but most titles required a flip of the disc if it was over an hour in length for CLV titles, or 30 minutes/side for CAV titles).

For the venerable NTSC TV standards (the standard definition TV has had a 4x3 aspect ratio for its screen dimensions for over 50+ years), being able to view 480p video content on your TV was the holy grail in the late 1990's and early 2000's. Additional video benefit was achieved through anamorphic encoding of the video signal onto the DVD for films with either the 1.85 aspect ratio or the wider 2.35 aspect ratio (and other ratios that were wider than the conventional TV's 4x3 aspect ratio). DVD allowed users to watch films in 480p, if they had the TV and DVD player with the proper capabilities.

DVD players would also offer 3 ways to deliver video to the TV: the composite video output, the S-video output, and also the component video output (required 3 cables for the total video output signal to feed the TV). To get 480p video, you'd need to use the component video output, along with a DVD player that could output 480p (else it would be 480i, and rely on the TV to de-interlace the video signal for proper video playback), and a TV to display 480p video content.

As you can see, if you had different playback devices throughout the years, you would needs a receiver that could accept a multitude of different audio and video inputs from various sources, such as VCRs, Laserdisc players, DVD players, Satellite TV receivers, Cable TV receivers, digital video recorders (DVRs), video games systems, record players, tape players. This was all fair game in the early 2000s.

To take control of the situation, I personally picked a pre/pro solution (coupled with a 5-channel amp to power my 5 speakers, and a powered subwoofer). Suffice it to say, I was one of those people who had plenty of playback sources, and I pretty much maxed out all the different inputs on my pre/pro (the Outlaw 950), which served me well since 2002.

Let's fast forward to early 2000s when over-the-air (OTA, using antenna reception) high definiton broadcasts would start to sparkle the airwaves with the prospect of watching shows in 720p and 1080i video resolutions. This would start the next TV revolution as manufacturers would offer HDTVs to the masses, and these HDTV sets would be able to display not only 480p, but 720p and 1080i video material, and then HDTVs would offer 1080p playback (via upscaling/upconverting). The early HDTV sets were still in the 4x3 aspect ratio screen, with a 16x9 squash feature that would display the high-def video material in a 16x9 box on the screen (leaving some black bars at the top and bottom of the 4x3 screen). The later HDTV sets would all have screens with the 16x9 aspect ratio. If you like watching at TV, high definition TV offered much more detail and color fidelity, increasing your viewing pleasure and enjoyment. Of course, if you were an early adopter in home theater technology, you'd pay much more than those who'd wait it out as production levels ramped up and the price points lowered from economies of scale.

With the new OTA HDTV content floating around in the air, you'd need an ATSC receiver for the OTA HD content, or your HDTV would need a built-in ATSC tuner to get the same OTA HD content. ATSC was a digital broadcasting spec, and it took less of the broadcasting bandwidth spectrum to deliver much more in terms of video and audio quality. If you had a HDTV without an ATSC tuner, you'd need to feed your ATSC receiver's component video output to your TV (or receiver and than to the TV, if you used your receiver for video switching). So imagine all the different cables are being fed to your receiver or pre/pro if you had a multitude of audio/video sources. It was a wire jungle behind my personal pre/pro, no doubt.

So, OTA HDTV content was becoming more and more available through the mid-2000s, and finally today the US is now totally digital in OTA broadcasting of network TV shows as of June 12, 2009, with the channels broadcasting on the UHF channels (14-69, and sub-channels), and leaving the VHF analog channels (2-13) behind, with that bandwidth to be used for other forms of transmission.

In the period during 2006-2007, a new exciting level of quality for home theater playback would emerge as 2 different high definition disc formats came to the forefront: HD DVDs and Blu-ray Discs. After a contentious format war between the 2 formats, Blu-ray won the war when studios finally made a choice on supporting a single format (I don't want to dredge up the internal politics of how the dominoes fell Blu-ray's way, what's done is done).

High-def discs, now Blu-ray discs (by default) offered 1080p playback (almost 6 times more information in each frame of video over DVD), and up to 7.1 full-resolution audio tracks (better than the compressed 5.1 audio offered on DVD). While most people are satisfied with MP3s for their carry-around music on Ipods and Zune players, full-resolution audio tracks offer a more immersive listening experience and more impactful viewing. Full-resolution multi-channel audio is something you just have to experience to fully appreciate what it has to offer in your home theater setup. 2 high-definition audio formats also emerged: dts HD-MA, and Dolby TrueHD. They both offer full-resolution audio with on-the-fly "unZipping/decoding" of uncompressed audio tracks on Blu-ray discs. There was also enhanced multi-media picture-in-picture content and networking possibilities for additonal real-time content with Blu-ray discs.

Now, Blu-ray had some stumbles with its specs, with the early players having the 1.0 profile (newer Blu-ray titles would play fine, but extra features like picture-in-picture weren't always going to be playable), which would produce Blu-ray players that lag behind as more Blu-ray titles would take advantage of the format, and then 1.1 profile players emerged, allowing for picture-in-picture bonus view, and then the final 2.0 spec, which also included networking connectivity for BD-Live content, and firmware downloads,etc). Nowadays, there's no reason to settle for anything less then a 2.0 profile player, but if networking interactivity isn't your cup of tea, then a 1.1 profile player is fine for you.

The advent of high-definition playback devices would bring forth a new way to connect those devices to your HDTV set or receiver (and then to your HDTV set), this would be known as the HDMI interconnectivity standard. As with any standard, there were some growing pains for it, but currently the standard has matured to 1.3A as being robust enough to "settle" on for the time being. HDMI is a standard that allows for video/audio information to be encrypted and sent through a single cable in a digital format. This means it is capable of carrying 1080p encrypted video content, and 7.1 audio channels through a single cable and streamlined interface connector.

So far, HDMI sounds great, right? It is a great innovation if you have the proper HDMI-capable receiver (or pre/pro) and HDMI-capable HDTV set. That requires an investment in upgrading from older technology, and I'd been sitting on the fence as some higher-priced models of Blu-ray players (and HD DVD players) offered full-resolution audio playback through multi-channel audio output in the form of 6 (or 8) analog audio jacks on their backsides. Also, the receivers that were HDMI-capable weren't all that inexpensive in the early years of HDMI, so the prices weren't appealing to me.

This almost always meant paying more for such players over the other player models without the multi-channel analog audio output jacks, but it was better than the alternative of upgrading the pre/pro at the time. Since receivers and pre/pro's weren't cheap at the time, I elected to remain a HT luddite for the past few years as the HDMI revolution was to take its place as the default interconnectivity standard for Blu-ray (and normal upconverting DVD players), and newer DVRs (Tivos, Cable DVR boxes, PC-based, etc). Since my old pre/pro only had 1 multi-channel analog audio input, I used an inexpensive A/V component video switcher purchased from Wal-Mart that would allow me to connect 2 different sets of multi-channel analog audio inputs from my Blu-ray and HD DVD players to my pre/pro's multi-channel input. As you can imagine, that meant even more cables to the vicious cable jungle already present in the backyard of my pre/pro. It was getting ridiculous.

By 2007, I upgraded my old HDTV (no built-in ATSC tuner, used a Samsung ATSC tuner) to a plasma HDTV set with HDMI inputs. So, I was half of a HT Luddite, as I got the video through HDMI from player to TV, but the audio was still through the multi-channel analog audio ouptuts, and I limped along for quite a while. Then providence struck in a strange way, as my house was robbed at the end of 2008, and my plasma TV and many HD playback devices and video game consoles were stolen. But they obviously knew my pre/pro wasn't HDMI-capable and left that item behind. So, I've been replacing bits and pieces of my HT setup over the past 6 months (thanks to Nationwide insurance). Replaced the TV with the Samsung 67A750 DLP/LED HDTV (a HDMI-capable model), and also got another replacement for my Toshiba HD DVD player (XA2) off of Ebay, and finally got a Panasonic DMP-BD80 player, both players had multi-channel audio outputs since it was a concern at the time of purchase for me.

My pre/pro, unfortunately, had seen better days as the LED display died, and the remote control had been stolen in the robbery. It was a pain to use it, as I had to get up and change inputs by hitting the up/down buttons for cycling through inputs, and manually adjust the volume level controls. So, it was time to finally dip into the waters for a receiver or another pre/pro. It's a good time to start shopping for receivers that can handle HDMI, as well as process the high definition audio formats via bitstream output through HDMI.

Being in HT for so long, meant I still have a few "legacy" devices, it meant I still wanted a receiver or pre/pro solution that had a handful of analog A/V inputs, a component video input for my Wii and Cable DVR, and at least 3 HDMI inputs for the high-def sources (Blu-ray player, HD DVD player, Philips upconvert DVD player to read USB memory sticks for video/audio content). Nowadays, if you don't have too many older pieces of gear, you can buy receivers in the $300-$500 range that have enough HDMI inputs (3-4 of them) and provide enough power to drive your speaker setup, though some strip out S-video inputs or limit the number of composite video/audio inputs. Of course, as the price points go higher, you get more for your money, including speaker level calibration solutions, networking (streaming of content, firmware updates), more power for your speakers, more inputs, more video upconverting capability (480i and 480p to 1080p through HDMI output to the HDTV set), surround audio processing modes, etc.

I finally settled on the Pioneer Elite SC-05 since it looked like Pioneer was getting out of the high-price Elite product line during this down economic climate, and focusing on the non-Elite product line to stay price competitive in the market. So I ended up getting a good price as these Elite units were being somewhat clearanced at certain online vendors. I also decided to buy since the pricing was comparable to the upcoming Emotiva UMC-1 pre/pro (no telling when it was going to be released after many months of waiting by others since last year), and I would also be able to use it as a pre/pro since it also provided 7.1 audio preouts for the speaker outputs, which made it a more attractive choice due to how my speakers are still wired to my 5-channel amp under my TV stand.

Let's get back to how much simpler HDMI has made my HT wiring in the rack. By getting rid of the multi-channel audio cables, and the component video cables, I can finally see the backsides of my new receiver. Also, instead of having to run a set of component video cables from my old pre/pro to HDTV set, I just had to run 1 HDMI cable from the new receiver's HDMI output to the HDTV set's HDMI input. I'm now able to have the receiver to take any input source, be it from an older standard definition (480i or 480p, or less) source or a high-def source, and output it through the HDMI output, and it will upconvert the standard definition material to 1080p. No more having to switch to various inputs on the HDTV set. It's a wonderful thing.

Just for your bemusement, I've included some before and after photos of my latest HT upgrade:

The backside of my old HT setup (not everything was cabled up at the time, still a mess):



The clump of cables I was able to excise from the setup (this was not all of them):



The backside of the new HT setup - a much cleaner look:



Closer look at the top section:



Closer look at the bottom section:



Front view of the HT rack:


So, if you think you're saving some bucks sitting on the fence with a non-HDMI-capable receiver or pre/pro, limping along with scads of analog audio cables in contending with a wiring jungle, think of an HDMI-capable receiver purchase as something that will not only simplify your HT wiring, but also your HDTV set's input switching, and it gives you advanced audio decoding, and video unconversion capabilities. There is a receiver solution for your particular situation, and the pricing is bound to be good as the industry has matured to a point where you won't feel like you will miss out on something when new models are announced in the near future after you've bought a current HT receiver or pre/pro with HDMI inputs and advanced A/V processing.
 

Patrick Sun

Senior HTF Member
Joined
Jun 30, 1999
Messages
39,411
I've heard of the networking add-on to the HDMI spec, but for consumer electronics, I am going to ride the current upgrade for the next 5 years or more because I think HDMI 1.3a/b is fine for what is needed to deliver high-def video and audio. I thought I'd read that HDMI 1.4 would have a differnent connector type (could be incorrect about that, though), which might make the manufacturers have to offer 2 different HDMI connector sockets on the Blu-ray players, and perhaps also on the receivers or pre/pros, not sure if HDTV sets would benefit much from the 1.4 spec in terms of added networking capabilities.

So, I know there were be more revisions to the HDMI spec, but I'm happy with the 1.3 spec for HT purposes.
 

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