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HDMI 1.3 And You
There's been a lot of buzz in the home theater world about HDMI 1.3. With brand new lossless audio codecs, two new disc-based high definition formats, and a host of HDTV's coming out with all kinds of new features, it's more important than ever to know what you're getting into before you buy. HDMI makes home theater hookup immeasurably more simple by providing a single digital cable that can transfer both picture and sound. But now there's a new version, HDMI 1.3, which touts several new features that companies are already marketing in their products, and often hiking the prices accordingly. What you need to know is that you may not need these features in your media hardware, and especially not at the high prices you'll be charged.
Perhaps a little explanation of HDMI cables would help before we delve deeply into what 1.3 means. HDMI stands for High-Definition Multimedia Interface. It's a single cable that can pass video signals ranging from 480i to 1080p, as well as up to 8 channels of audio, ranging from compressed sources such as Dolby Digital and DVD-Audio to uncompressed PCM, used in the new HD formats and Super Audio CD. The cable was introduced in 2003 in coordination with HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection), a form of copy protection that has become a standard on HDTV's and PC's alike. The advantages of HDMI are manifold, as not only do they reduce the amount of cables needed for high quality picture and sound (previously you would need three component cables and either an optical cable or a set of analog cables), but they also offer remote control capabilities, whereby you can control the media hardware hooked up via HDMI cable without using a universal remote. Furthermore, HDMI can be upgraded by increasing the capabilities of the ports without requiring buying new cables. To date, there have been several upgrades to the HDMI spec, the latest being 1.3. The most trumpeted new feature of HDMI 1.3 is the ability to pass the new lossless audio codecs, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA, directly from a player to a receiver without the player having to decode the audio first. This is all find and dandy except that this feature is actually optional for hardware that has a 1.3 port, and currently no hardware on the market supports it (including the Playstation 3). It's also a little redundant, because any player with this option would more than likely offer in-player decoding of the lossless audio, and can translate it into a PCM stream that can be sent over current versions of HDMI or analog outs. Of course, I'm sure more players will support this feature in the future, but if you can't splurge for a new HDMI 1.3 enabled receiver, these other solutions will get you lossless sound that is identical to what you would get with 1.3.
The other major benefit of HDMI 1.3 is its ability to support Deep Color, which is a new colorspace made available by the new display technologies replacing color tubes. In layman's terms, this means that HDMI can be used to display billions of colors, far more than it could before. There is one problem with this, though. Specifically, neither HD DVD or Blu-ray can actually use Deep Color, as it's not in their specs. As for DVD? Forget it. And I highly doubt cable will start using it anytime soon. So while Deep Color is certainly an excellent idea, it's not something that we can implement any time soon, and it is most certainly not a reason to pay extra money for a device that advertises it.
Interestingly, Toshiba has just announced a new HD DVD player, the A35, that is capable of sending lossless audio as a bitstream, while also advertising Deep Color capabilities. Considering it will come with built-in Dolby TrueHD decoding and analog outs, the first seems a little useless. If it's capable of sending encoded DTS-HD MA data via bitstream, then it might be a little more useful, except that I don't know of any HD DVDs encoded with DTS-HD MA. As for its claims of Deep Color, don't think twice about it. There's no content that an HD DVD player can read that offers Deep Color, so its inclusion in the A35 is nothing but a marketing gimmick designed to attract those who want the latest and the greatest without even knowing what it is.
In order to use the lossless audio capabilities of HDMI 1.3, you will also need a receiver with an HDMI 1.3 port. At the moment, the most notable receivers with 1.3 ports are being made by Onkyo. I myself have personally purchased the Onkyo TX-SR605, which features HDMI 1.3 and decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA, and have been quite pleased with it. However, other owners have complained of a popping noise heard during playback, so your mileage may vary. But keep in mind that any receiver with an HDMI port that is capable of separating the sound from the video stream will be able to play lossless audio if the player can decode it. And if your receiver doesn't even have HDMI, chances are it's got analog audio inputs that you can also use to get lossless from your player.
In the end, you want to get what's right for you. Not everyone has the latest in home theater technology, so you very well may not need HDMI 1.3 enabled devices, especially if the only reason you want to upgrade is for lossless audio. Hopefully this article will help people understand exactly what HDMI 1.3 entails, and whether or not they need it for their own homes.
There have been lots of exciting announcements from both formats recently. On the player front, Toshiba has announced its third generation players, due out in October. This line includes the A35 mentioned in the above article. Onkyo has also announced it will be releasing an HD DVD player, while Denon has announced support for Blu-ray.
From the studio end, Razor IMAX and Questar, two independent studios, have both announced Blu-ray support. The Weinstein Company is also planning to become format neutral. Universal, responding to rumors of an upcoming neutrality announcement, have restated their exclusive support for HD DVD. Disney has begun a nation-wide Blu-ray tour, setting up kiosks in malls to display the advantages the format has to offer. The tour dates are listed below. I've heard many excellent reports from the road shows Toshiba and Microsoft did for HD DVD, so hopefully this Disney tour will be of similar quality.
MALL TOUR DATES AND LOCATIONS:
-Westfield Topanga, Canoga Park, Calif.
-South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, Calif.
-Westfield North County, Escondido, Calif.
-Westfield San Francisco, San Francisco
-Washington Square, Portland, Ore.
-Westfield South Center, Seattle
-Mall of America, Bloomington, Minn.
-Orland Square, Orland Park, Ill.
-Westfield West County, St. Louis
-Tysons Corner Center, McLean, Va.
-Roosevelt Field, Garden City, N.Y.
-Burlington Mall, Burlington, Mass.
-King of Prussia, King of Prussia, Pa.
-Circle Centre, Indianapolis
-Lenox Square, Atlanta
-The Galleria, Houston
-Barton Creek Square, Austin
-Chandler Fashion Center, Chandler, Ariz.
While they're not immediately upcoming, there are a few releases of note worth mentioning.
First is the Spider-Man trilogy on Blu-ray. Released by Sony, this set debuts on October 30th and features all three films, including the theatrical and 2.1 cuts of Spider-Man 2. The first two films will not have their DVD special features ported over, but Spider-Man 3 will be a full 2-disc special edition.
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