Blu-ray players buying guide
Loren Barstow started at Crutchfield in 1999. After working a few years as a sales advisor, he moved on to become a writer and then an editor. He has written about televisions, Blu-ray players, speakers, and various other audio/video components.
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Blu-ray players bring home theater to the next level with virtually flawless picture and sound. But how do you know which one's right for you? Below, we'll walk you through common Blu-ray features, as well as the gear you need to take advantage of them, so you can make the most of your high-def home theater setup.
Blu-ray Disc: High-definition video up to 1080p
Blu-ray Disc™ is currently the best source of high-definition video. It delivers images that are even more vibrant and lifelike than the best HD television broadcasts. Blu-ray can deliver 1080p — the highest resolution currently available. (See our article on understanding HDTV resolution for more information.) So if you're craving HD content, and are disappointed with the inconsistent quantity and quality of the HD programming offered by broadcasters and cable and satellite providers, a Blu-ray player might be right for you.
Next-generation audio for a more theater-like experience
In addition to high-definition video, Blu-ray also gives you more detailed sound. Blu-ray Discs and players can provide the same Dolby® Digital and DTS® soundtracks you've grown accustomed to with DVD, plus advanced new versions of these formats:
- Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD™ High Resolution (also known simply as "DTS-HD") — Both offer up to 7.1-channel surround sound, for even more enveloping audio than standard 5.1-channel Dolby Digital and DTS. They also use less compression than their DVD counterparts for a more faithful reproduction of the original movie soundtrack.
- Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio — These formats use "lossless" compression to deliver soundtracks that are identical to the movie studio's original master, for the closest possible reproduction of the movie theater experience. Some discs also feature multichannel PCM soundtracks — uncompressed audio that also matches the quality of the studio master.
Dolby Atmos® — This format uses in-ceiling or Dolby enabled upward-firing speakers to project sound from above the seating positions. It reproduces audio "objects" with pinpoint accuracy in the listening space, for a more immersive, realistic experience. Learn more about Dolby Atmos.
See our article on understanding surround sound formats for more information on these new formats.
Do all Blu-ray players support the new audio formats?
All Blu-ray players must support Dolby Digital, DTS, and PCM. Most newer Blu-ray players also support Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Atmos, DTS-HD High Resolution and DTS-HD Master Audio.
Most Blu-ray players can decode Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD internally (Dolby Atmos is encoded with the TrueHD bitstream). Some players can also decode DTS-HD High Resolution and DTS-HD Master Audio (and this number is growing all the time). But be aware that not all Blu-ray players with built-in surround sound decoding have multichannel analog outputs, so in most cases, you'll use HDMI to take advantage of the player's internal decoder. However, some models do still offer multichannel analog connections, so be sure to look for them if you have a home theater receiver without HDMI inputs. You can read more about connecting your Blu-ray player in our article.
How many movies include the new formats?
Of course, player support is just one side of the equation — these new formats also need to appear on the disc for you to enjoy them. As of August 2010, the vast majority of Blu-ray discs include one or more of the lossless formats — Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio, and PCM — with DTS-HD Master Audio being the most prevalent. About one-fifth include conventional Dolby Digital soundtracks, and a handful of discs have soundtracks in Dolby Digital Plus and/or DTS-HD High Resolution (keep in mind that a disc can include soundtracks in more than one format). As of Spring 2015 a few Blu-ray discs were available with Dolby Atmos soundtracks. See the list of titles.
Netflix®, PANDORA® Internet radio, and other online services
In addition to delivering high-definition movies and related bonus features, a few newer Blu-ray players let you stream movies and music from online services like Netflix, Blockbuster®, PANDORA®, YouTube™, and more. You'll need subscriptions to these services and a broadband Internet connection to take advantage of them. You can find more info in our article on enjoying the internet on your TV. Once you're connected, you can enjoy movies from your Netflix Instant Queue, for example. Or, kick back and listen to music from Pandora — an Internet radio service that creates on-the-fly play lists based on your musical tastes.
Some other players give you access to other content, like digital photos or your music collection stored on your computer. You can learn more about this feature in our article on enjoying music, movies, and photos from your computer on your TV.
3D Blu-ray compatibility
A number of newer Blu-ray players are able to play 3D video from 3D Blu-ray discs and send that signal on to your 3D TV. Check with your Blu-ray player's manufacturer to be sure.
In order to watch 3D Blu-ray movies, you'll need each component in your system to be 3D-compatible. That means you'll need an HDTV capable of displaying 3D video, as well as 3D glasses from the same manufacturer as your TV. And if you're connecting your 3D-ready Blu-ray player to a receiver, then the receiver must also be 3D-ready in order to pass 3D video on to your TV.
You'll also need HDMI cables to connect all your 3D gear. Most recent HDMI cables should be up to the job, especially if they're 2 meters or less in length. If you're buying new cables, look for ones labeled "high-speed" to be sure. Check out our article about HDMI and our introduction to 3D TV for more info.
Dolby Atmos compatibility
In order to enjoy Dolby Atmos soundtracks, you'll need a home theater receiver that is compatible with the format. You'll also need at least two in-ceiling or Dolby enabled upward-firing speakers in your surround sound system. Be sure to connect your Blu-ray player via HDMI and set it to bitstream out to send the Atmos encoded content to your receiver.
BD-Live and BonusView
Blu-ray Discs include many of the same bonus features you find with DVD, such as directors' commentaries and behind-the-scenes footage. The Blu-ray Disc specification also makes provisions for even more interactive features, such as BonusView (picture-in-picture) and BD-Live (online bonus material), and quite a few discs with these new features are currently available.
Discs with BonusView features let you watch a picture within the picture. This can be used for things like director's commentary. For example, the player displays the movie in its original, full-screen form while also playing video commentary from the film director on a smaller, inset screen. Players that support this feature also need to include 256MB of local storage for audio/video and title updates. This can either be built into the player or available through a removable memory card or USB drive. Discs with the BD-Live feature let you connect to Internet on a compatible player to access online bonus material, like online games and chat rooms. In order for a player to support this feature, it must have at least 1GB of local storage and must also include an Internet connection.
The initial batch of Blu-ray players were not required to support either of these features, but most players built in the past year or two can generally support both. If you're interested in these features, make sure the player you choose supports them before making a purchase.
Most of today's Blu-ray players also have the extra capabilities you may have grown accustomed to with your DVD player, such as the ability to play regular CDs and those filled with MP3 files. Many of them can play WMA music files, too. Some players have the ability to play ultra-high resolution audio formats, like FLAC, WAV, SACD and DVD-Audio. Most models also let you pop in a disc filled with JPEG digital photos, so you can display your favorite snapshots on your TV screen. And if you're a fan of DivX®, you'll be happy to know that some players can also play CDs or DVDs loaded with DivX videos as well.