October 25, 2001

DVD & HOME THEATRE INFORMATION


Watch some DVD's with your PS2.
So you've got yourself a Playstation 2, a couple of games and a bit of change lef over. What's left to buy? Well, one of the great features of the PS2 is its ability to play DVD movies. If you're fortunate enough you will already have a Dolby Digital 5.1 and hopefully DTS decoder and amplifier with suitable speakers and sub-woofer. If that is the case, then good on you. If you don't have a clue what I just said then this is the article for you. In this Special Feature I spill the beans about what DVD is, how it benefits the consumer, tell you about some of the the pitfalls of the format, and suggest what to look for and how much you should spend on each component to get value for money in a home theatre.

THE DVD DISC
DVD is short for Digital Versatile Disc, or Digital Video Disc as it's commonly, but incorrectly, referred to. It's the latest format for watching movies, concerts or even TV shows at home, and will replace VHS within a matter of years. Basically DVD's store movies on an 11cm silver coloured disc, which for all intents and purposes looks the same as a standard music CD (although a DVD will not work in a CD player). The biggest difference between the two however is the amount of data that can be stored. Each single sided, single layered DVD can hold 4.7GB of data, which is about 7 times more then a music CD. However, this only allows for around 90 minutes of video, and most movies have to use a dual layered disc which essentially means that when the manufacturers make the DVD they literally glue two sides facing the same way together. Instead of having to swap the disc over half way through the movie the DVD laser intensifies to pass through the first layer of data to read the 2nd layer. This layer change can cause a very slight pause in the movie of around half a second, but movie studios try to place this pause in a scene break in the movie so there is no noticable disruption to the consumer. At the moment you can't record onto DVD's although some companies are starting to release DVD writers which still retail for over $AU3,000. Not quite mainsteam yet.

So what's so good about a DVD? Well, DVD's have several benefits over VHS videos. Firstly, because the data is digitally pressed onto the disc DVD's aren't prone to degradation due to magnetic fields. VHS tapes and casettes may encounter problems if stored near TV's, speakers or magnets. Most movies on DVD are also broken up into chapters so, much like a book, you can easily return to the section of the movie you want to view. DVD's can also store several different soundtracks in different languages or sport directors commentaries through the movie. As well as this the DVD format supports up to 32 different subtitle tracks. The discs can also hold other extras as well as the main feature including movie scripts, photographs, documentaries, trailers etc (more on this later). Finally, DVD's also have support for multi-angle viewing so during a programme you can change to different camera angles. Sadly few movies use this feature yet but it's becoming more common on concert and ermm... porn DVD's.

VIDEO
There are several major differences between DVD and VHS video when it comes to quality. DVD's are encoded using the MPEG-2 (Motion Picture Expert Group) standard which compresses the image quite considerably with minimal loss in quality. MPEG-2 uses a lossy compression technique which basically removes the unnecessary information in scenes. If, for instance, two people were talking outside with a blue sky in the background then the lossy compression wouldn't store the blue information for each frame, only report the differences every 5th frame or so. That's a rough example, but you should get the idea.

The biggest difference between DVD and VHS quality however is the resolution of the image. The DVD resolution can be as high as 720 vertical x 480 horizontal pixils which is much improved from the 270 lines of horizontal resolution of VHS. Most DVD's today which are presented as 16:9 enhanced or animorphic have been enhanced further for widescreen TV's and ensure that the picture quality isn't affected when viewed on these wider TV's. This vertical resolution is approximately 33% higher when the disc is listed as anamorphic.

ASPECT RATIO

One of the most common questions about DVD's is why the movies have black bars on the top and bottom of the screen. Why is that? Well one of the ideas behind DVD's is to provide you with the complete cinema experience at home. When you go to a cinema movies are actually in a ratio of 2.35:1, 1.85:1 or a couple of other less obvious ratios (such as 2.15:1). Conventional TV's have a ratio of 1.33:1 which means the picture from a DVD, to retain the ratio from the cinema, only takes up the middle section of your screen. In no way have you lost any picture compared to a VHS movie or movie on TV. In fact you have gained more picture at the sides. Below is a comparison between the original 1.85:1 and a formatted 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

ASPECT RATIO DIFFERENCES

The cinema/DVD 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The VHS/TV 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

As you can see in the shots above the original aspect ratio of Jurassic Park III is 1.85:1 which is how the scene would have looked in the cinema, and how it will look on DVD early next year. On the right is the scene with an aspect ration of 1.33:1 which is how the battle will look on VHS and when the movie is eventually broadcast on TV. It's clear to see that the widescreen version is the one of choice.

PAL VS NTSC
Many of you are probably wondering what the difference with PAL VS NTSC. It comes up quite a lot in game consoles, and is now also a big issue with DVD's, especially now that Warner Brothers has decided to release some movies here in NTSC format instead of going to the effort to converting them to PAL. Basically, PAL and NTSC are two different TV formats used in different parts of the world. While America and Japan adopted the NTSC format, Europe and Australia decided that the PAL format was the better option. Each has it's own advantages and disadvantages. The first difference is the resolution of the picture. PAL TV's run at a much higher resolution then NTSC resulting in a much sharper image. While the number of horizontal lines on a PAL picture is 625 the NTSC format is restricted to only 525 lines of resolution. The other major difference is the refresh, or frame rate. PAL TV's only run at 50HZ which means the picture refreshes 50 times per second (or 25 frames per second for a full screen refresh), while NTSC is 17% higher at 60Hz.

What does this mean for DVD's? Well in general the PAL DVD's have a better picture quality due tot he higher resolution the NTSC format doesn't suffer from speedup of the picture. This PAL speedup sees movies generally run 4% faster then then when the movie appeared at the cinema, and how the film was originally made. This speedup is due the PAL TV's display 25 frames per second while the theatre displays 24 frames per second. When watching a movie this slight increase in speed isn't really noticable. NTSC on the other had repeats every 5th frame to increase from 24 to 30 frames per seconds so the film will display a film in the following sequence:
Frames - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 10, 11, 12 etc
These repeated frames keep the movie at it's correct length but is, to a very trained eye, noticable with an extremely slight stuttering (5 times per second).

AUDIO
Anyone who buys DVD's will notice that the movies have several sound formats. The most common are English 2.0, Diolby Digital 5.1 and increasingly, DTS. But what do all these mean? It's pretty simple really and a lot will depend on your setup at home.

English 2.0 is the most basic of sound formats and is pure and simply just a stereo sound format, with no seperate channel for the sub-woofer. The sound will only come out of the front 2 speakers and when they encode the sound they merge all the front and back speakers together so you don't lose any of the sounds from the rear channels. All DVD's should have this sound format (Or English 1.0 which is mono sound) as standard. It is usually recorded at 192kb/second.

Dolby Digital 5.1 (also known as AC-3) is the true surround sound format with 6 discrete channels recorded on the disc. This sound rate uses all 5 normal speakers (front left, center, right & rear left, right as well as a subwoofer for bass) and allows you to experience true surround sound. Each speaker's sound is stored separately on the soundtrack and is not made up like Dolby Surround where the rear speakers are mono and the center speaker (I believe) is made up from the front left and right mixed together. The data transfer rate is usually around 384k/second although some discs use a higher 448kb/second.

DTS sound is the same format used in cinema's. Although the sound is compressed slightly the quality over DD5.1 is quite noticeable. Some DVD titles use a lower bitrate (768kb/sec data transfer) which is close to the quality of DD5.1, but if DTS is encoded using the full data rate of 1536kb/sec it is an astonishing difference. Those of you with a copy of Twister from America and DTS capabilities will know how much more frightening the twisters actually sound. Gladiator, which was released on December 6, 2000 in Australia, was the first movie released here to include DTS sound. Since then several more DTS movies, and many music DVD's have been released including Seven, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (due out November 21, 2001), The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, Hannibal and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Expect many more releases with DTS sound over the coming year as it's popularity grows here.

SPECIAL FEATURES
One of the great additions that DVD has brought to the home consumer is the addition of extra features to the movies. As well as the standard English sountrack the extra space on the disc can be used to include the entire movie in other languages such as French or German as well as subtitles. Some DVD's such as Ghostbusters they have included subtitles for about 15 different languages from the most common to the almost ridiculous including Icelandic, Hungarian and Hindi. I can't exactly see the demand for DVD players in these regions as being excessively high, nor the demand for these languages in countries Australia.

Some of the more interesting features include behind the scene footage, deleted scenes from movies, making of features, theatrical trailers, concept art, storyboards, production notes, actor/crew biographies and special effects shots. Of course no too many DVD's have all of these features, some DVD's have none at all. But if you're a big fan of the movie then these can provide hours of fun and information about the film.

REGIONS
As with video game software the world has been split up into several regions. The most important regions for Australians are as follows;
1 - U.S., Canada
2 - Japan, Europe, South Africa, and Middle East (including Egypt)
3 - Southeast Asia and East Asia (including Hong Kong)
4 - Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands, Central America, Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean
5 - Eastern Europe (Former Soviet Union), Indian subcontinent, Africa, North Korea, and Mongolia
6 - China
7 - Reserved
8 - Special international venues (airplanes, cruise ships, etc.)

The reason for doing this is simple. When movies are released they usually appear in one territory (usually America) before the rest of the world. As as been the case with some movies (Blair Witch Project and Chicken Run being excellent examples) the DVD's can actually come out in America before the movie hits theatres here in Australia. To stop people importing DVD's manufacturers have included region checks in the players so that you can't run a Region 1 disc (America) in an Australian (Region 4) player. If you want to watch a DVD on your Australian Playstation 2 you will have to buy a R4 DVD only.

While it is possible to get around this security with a Region X program on Playstation 2 it must be noted that movie studios have just started using new security measures, called Region Code Enhanced. This basically checks to see if your DVD player is set to one speciaifc region. If the DVD player has been modified or set to no specific region the disc will refuse to play. It's somthing to be be wary of.

WHAT TO BUY

There are several key things to consider when buying a home theatre system.

DISPLAY DEVICE
Sony VPL-VW11HT Projector. Yours for about $12,000.
Obviously, the key item in a home theatre is the display advice. There are several different ways to go when selecting a viewing screen. Firstly, there are the normal CRT based TV sets. Definitely the best value for money, and the cheapest item, it's wise to ensure that you get a minimum of 68cm or else those widescreen DVD's are going to be pretty painful to watch unless you sit a few feet away. Other things to watch out for are that the TV set includes a 60Hz mode (check the back of the TV set to be sure) with NTSC playback. It's also possible to get a 100Hz TV set which, while they cost a bit more, create a much sharper and more steady image due to a high refresh rate. Also ensure the TV set has SVHS inputs on the back for the best quality picture. It makes quate a difference and without it you will likely get dot crawl (where red pixils appear to shimmer and move on the screen).

Other opions in this are include a read projection TV ($4000-8000), Projectors (about $10000 for a good quality with screen) or if you are extremely lucky and win the Lotto, possibly a Plasma Screen for about $15-25,000.

DVD PLAYER
Obviously if you have a Playstation 2 you will be pretty much set in this area and at only $AU499 it's not that much more expensive then a cheap DVD player which are around the $AU300 mark now. Of course you also get the added benefit of being able to play the PSOne and PS2 games. The video quality of the PS2 DVD component is pretty solid, especially for software decoding of the movies. If you have a PS2 you would be well advised to pick up the official PS2 DVD Remote control for $AU49.95. Controlling the movies with a Dual Shock controller is a pain in the ass.

If you're looking for a seperate DVD player the most important thing is to not go for the cheapest brand, or the cheapest player. Some of the cheaper brands can have problems playing back DVD's when they bitrate (data transfer) gets very high, or with special features such as the "Follow the White Rabbit" on The Matrix. Another thing to consider is whether or not to get the onboard sound decoder built into the player. If your planning on getting a seperate decoder/receiver you will generally get much better sound quality and processing and this build in decoding will be waste of money.

DECODER/AMPLIFIER
The high-end Sony STRDA777ES decoder/amp. Only $3,500.
This is the most important thing when you are considering the sound quality for your home setup. Spend $400 and you will be lucky to get something that does little more then split up the sound to the 6 speakers. Spend a little more (around $AU1000) and you will be able to pick up a moderately powerful amplifier with decoding capabilities including DTS sound which, despite what some people will say, does sound better then Dolby Digital 5.1 with the correct setup. It is possible to spend up to $5000 on a receiver, but unless you are going to spend that again on speakers there is little point.

SPEAKERS
Speakers are an crucial component to any home theatre setup. I myself, only have a set of $AU700 Sony speakers which are suitable unless you really want to crank it up and blow away the neighbours. Put on a DVD like the Up In Smoke Tour concert with Eminem, Dr Dre etc and the subwoofer really struggle. My friend however has spend $1000 on the subwoofer and $4000 on the other speakers in his room and the sound quality is stunning. Obviously this is at the higher end of what most people spend (although you can spend up to $100,000 for a set of speakers if you really wish) but the quality of sound reporduction in DTS is mind boggling. It's definitely lot more then what the average home user will ever need. My suggestion: most people will be happy with a set of speakers that are under $2000, but if you have the means spend a little more. Just make sure your decoder/amplifier is up to the task.

OTHER BITS
Sony optical leads sell for $47.95.
There are of course some additional things which you will require when you set up a home theatre. The first is the audio lead from the DVD player (Playstation 2) to the decoder/amplifier. The most common of these is an optical fibre lead which can be picked up for about $AU50. If your DVD player doesn't have an optical output then you will be looking at needing a standard copper wire lead which sells for about $AU30.

Next up is the speaker wire. It's possible to get the el cheapo wire which is extremely thin and not even worth considering. It ususally comes in at about $AU1 per meter, and will get you buy if you've run out of money. Much more preferable however is if you can spend a little more and get good quality speaker wire (which may cost about $AU10-$AU20) per meter. This thicker, and higher quality wire, will reduce noise distortion and keep the sound as clear as a bell. It possible to spend even more money, but once again without a proper theatre room and speakers there is little point.

Finally your going to want to pick up some DVD's. Stay tuned for a feature special on some of the hottest DVD's available now.