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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.

Do I need a 1080p TV?

Blu-ray players let you select the resolution that best matches your TV. When you pair a Blu-ray player with a 1080p display, you’ll enjoy the most detailed picture possible. But you’ll still get an impressive HD picture with a 720p or 1080i set.

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 sameDolby® 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.

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?

While Blu-ray players can support a variety of audio formats, they’re not necessarily required to. All Blu-ray players must support Dolby Digital, DTS, and PCM. However, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD High Resolution and DTS-HD Master Audio are all optional — the players don’t have to support them. So if you want to enjoy the greater detail that the new audio formats deliver, be sure to choose a player that can handle them.

Most Blu-ray players can decode Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD internally. 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.

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 October 2009, 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).

Blu-ray Profiles

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 quite a few discs with these new features are currently available. However, the initial batch of Blu-ray players were not required to support this added functionality. Instead, Blu-ray players are generally grouped into three categories, known as “profiles,” that define what their capabilities are.

  • Profile 1 Version 1.0 The basic Blu-ray profile. All Blu-ray players released before November 1, 2007 fit into this profile.
  • Profile 1 Version 1.1 (also known as Final Standard Profile). Adds secondary audio and video decoders for BonusView (picture-in-picture) support. This can be used for things like director’s commentary. 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 in this profile 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.
  • Profile 2 (also known as BD-Live). Includes all of the functions of Profile 1 Version 1.1, but increases local storage capacity to 1GB. Players in this profile must also include an Internet connection. This lets you connect the player directly to the Internet to access bonus material available on some Blu-ray movies. Some movie studios also use this capability for things like online games and chat.

If you have a Profile 1 Version 1.0 player (any player released before November 1, 2007), be advised that it’s not upgradeable to Version 1.1 because these players lack the hardware necessary to decode the secondary audio and video streams (Sony’s PlayStation® 3 is an exception). The good news is that movies with the new Version 1.1 features will still play in Version 1.0 players — you just won’t have access to the BonusView features. Also, only about half the players currently available support BD-Live. While Profile 1 Version 1.1 is the new standard, Profile 2.0 will most likely remain optional.

Netflix®, Pandora®, 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, 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 on creating a home network in our article. 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 stored on your computer, or stock information and weather reports.

Other considerations

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. 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.

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