Second Opinion: Blu's Clues
by Al Griffin
I'd been eagerly looking forward to the arrival of a Blu-ray Disc player at Sound & Vision since - well, ever since the rival HD DVD format launched last April. But our first round of Blu-ray movie watching ended with executive editor Rob Sabin and I walking away disappointed and confused. After Samsung supplied with us a revised player with its noise reduction turned off, we spent considerable time doing A/B comparisons of discs on both machines. All in all, it was too many hours logged in the dark, but ultimately well worth it since the new player gave us a more transparent take on the current crop of Blu-ray discs.
Though the updated player wasn't the panacea we'd been hoping for, it turns out the Blu-ray format has better picture quality potential than our first viewing session led us to believe. For example, a beachfront scene from Lord of War (Lionsgate) where Nicolas Cage's character courts his model bride-to-be showed slightly punchier contrast, better detail, and more vibrant color on the revised BD-P1000. The change could mostly be seen in the creases, textures, and highlights of the actors' white clothing, which looked comparatively flat on the old player. Hitch (Sony) also displayed more detail and "pop" in several scenes, an improvement that lent greater visual depth to Kevin James' comic slob routine on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the difference between the Samsung players was most apparent on xXx (Sony). Played on the old model, a scene where Vin Diesel steals a senator's car looked coarse, grainy, and, for the most part, soft. The same pictures still looked grainy on the new, improved player, but the slight boost in picture detail it provided really helped bring the scene to life.
Although I wasn't thrilled with the inconsistent picture quality we observed on many Blu-ray discs, there were a handful of standouts. Viewed on the revised Samsung, Lord of War looked nice and punchy, with vibrant color and consistently sharp detail. And the grainy texture of the film stock used to shoot the movie - an obtrusive element during our first viewing - appeared better integrated with the picture this time around. This disc sits near the top of the current Blu-ray pile as an indication of what the format can do.
Memento (Sony), a good DVD to begin with, looked that much better on Blu-ray, with strong contrast and a crisp picture despite some occasional background noise. Close-ups of Guy Pearce's heavily tattooed flesh clearly revealed the texture of his skin underneath the ink - an eye-popping example of Blu-ray detail and as sharp an image as I've seen yet on a high-def disc. And Underworld: Evolution (Sony) looked very crisp overall, with solid, noise-free shadows in the movie's many dark scenes. The combination of deep, inky backgrounds and fine detail on the armor of the Death Dealers and Lycans during their battle scenes really gave the picture a three-dimensional effect.
But my enthusiasm for the first round of Blu-ray releases has to end there. Some other discs we watched - including The Fifth Element (Sony), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Lionsgate), and Crash (Lionsgate) - showed plenty of the scene-to-scene variation in picture detail we saw in Hitch and xXx, at times looking only marginally crisper than DVD versions of the same movies. And flat backgrounds in images from each of these titles were often mottled, grainy, and unstable, although the severity of those effects also varied from shot to shot. One or two other movies, such as the so-bad-I'm-embarrassed-to-be-watching-it Basic Instinct 2 (Sony), looked fairly clean overall, but the level of picture sharpness and clarity I've come to expect after watching HD DVD just wasn't there.
It's not likely we'll be able to get to the root of the variable quality of the first Blu-ray releases until we have a different player to check out from another manufacturer - and many more discs to view. Until then, I'd suggest you visit a store and do your own spot-check of Blu-ray and HD DVD before shelling out cash for a player. Toshiba's clunky first-gen models have their own peculiar ergonomic issues, but the picture quality of HD DVD is something to behold - a fact that was dramatically driven home when we finally got the chance to compare it to Blu-ray.
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