Why You Should Avoid the $99 Blu-ray Players

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This holiday season, be prepared to see some extravagantly low prices on Blu-ray players. Perhaps even as low as US$99. If you've been thinking about making the leap from DVD to Blu-ray, they'll be a tempting option. However, buyer beware.

Every Macintosh user knows that there's a lower limit on quality components. If that weren't so, we'd be able to buy $299 MacBook Pros. And yet, when faced with the tantalizing option of a US$99 Blu-ray player during the holiday season, many will be nevertheless swayed.

Don't do it.

These Blu-ray players will likely be from China, considered entry-level, and will have labels from Magnavox or Sylvania, names that were bought up in the past for the sake of U.S. product awareness, but have little to do with the original companies.

While these Blu-ray players will, on the surface, conform to the "Blu-ray Bible" for manufacturers, there are additional considerations. If you've been reading the Mac Observer or other online technical publications, you know that there's always a gotcha. Always.

Terry Paullin

Terry Paullin

I contacted Terry Paullin, an expert in home theater and a writer for Widescreen Review magazine to get his take on the matter. I assumed that many of our readers would be asking the bottom line question: "If it's a Blu-ray player and conforms to the specs, then what's the problem with a $99 player?"

What to Consider

The most fundamental thing to consider is what's called a "balanced architecture." That means that all the components in a system should be of the same grade. For example, if you were going to design a data center that required seven 9s uptime, you wouldn't specify low end consumer-grade hard disks. Similarly, if you have a $3,000 Plasma, a $1,200 A/V receiver, you wouldn't want to introduce an out of grade player. And even if you haven't bothered with ISF calibration, you will notice the difference. Mr. Paullin explained:

" ...so in theory, you should be able to match any player to any display. A seasoned ISF calibrator, however, will always calibrate the display first with a signal generator and then hook up each source, one at a time, and see if the calibration has changed. If it has, it must be the source, and most BD players have output adjustments (color, tint, brightness, contrast, sharpness) available to the user, so that they can be brought in to match the display's fresh calibration."

The upshot is that you may end up with a Blu-ray player whose output tunability, if you will, can't be brought into visual sync with the HDTV calibration and the other source you may have. It'll be clearly obvious -- and annoying. Your whole Blu-ray experience may be spoiled. Mr. Paullin continued:

"There is a huge visual difference between low end and high end BD players. How much of that you actually get to see will depend on the quality of the rest of the system, most importantly, the display monitor."

So, for example, if you've bought a low end 32-inch LCD display from Magnavox at Wal-Mart on sale for $419, it's very likely that it cannot expose the deficiencies of a $99 Blu-ray player. But if you invested in a much higher quality display, you will see the difference compared to other HD sources such as a HD DVR, Apple TV, and so on. Of course, the output will still be better than that from a DVD, but maybe not as much as you had hoped.

Also, keep in mind that there is variability in the quality of transfers by the various studios. Widescreen review has been reviewing Blu-ray releases, and there is tremendous variability in the production techniques and quality control. Also, some inexpensive Blu-ray players may boast a formal 1080p output, but be unable to adapt to the variability in transfer techniques and also be unable to handle quality sound formats such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Of course, if you're running the sound into the TV's pitiful speakers instead of a quality A/V receiver that can decode that audio, then you won't care.

The Middle Ground

Finally, while there are top end Blu-ray players that cost thousands of dollars, Mr. Paullin sees a middle ground. Good quality consumer Blu-ray players from, for example, Sony, Samsung and Panasonic will still cost about $400 this year. Based on the expected lifetime of the unit and the number of viewings, Mr. Paullin calculated that the difference amounts to about 25 cents per viewing. Knowing that, one would certainly opt for the long term benefit of a quality $400 player.

There may be a place for $99 Blu-ray players, but for Apple customers who know that spending just a little more has huge benefits, these cheap Blu-ray units, like PCs, racing to the bottom of the spectrum, are likely to disappoint those who've invested in a good quality HDTV system.

Comments

ia.

So stuffing what. If it plays, it plays.

ilikeimac

Disappointing interview. I was hoping for insights that were comprehensible to the layman. Mr. Paullin is quite vague and buzzword laden. He looks and sounds like the salesmen at Conns.

And nowhere does the article mention what I think must be the most noticeable negative user experience in cheap Blu-ray players: the 3 minutes of waiting after inserting a disc. I’m told most cheap players take quite a while to “initialize” or “buffer” or “decode” (which I reckon is a euphemism for “unlock DRM”) a disc before they can start playing it. Apparently there exist high end systems that can do it in 5 seconds.

Anyway, I’m holding out on Blu-ray. I’m not much of a audio or video quality snob; DVD looks great to me and I can rip my DVDs, which is a huge win.

cb50dc

I was hoping for insights that were comprehensible to the layman. Mr. Paullin is quite vague and buzzword laden.

I’m sorta with you in that I’m not at all an audio/videophile or an electrical engineer. I generally wait at least a couple of years before buying new tech stuff, just to let the quality stabilize reasonably at overall much lower prices, specifically so as not to worry about the bottom feeders like this. From the main couple of paragraphs quoted, I got the idea, and then JM’s “upshot” did confirm and simplify what I thought it meant.

marcsten

The bottom line is if you are running a recent (within the last two years) 1080p monitor, there is big difference in picture quality between DVD and BD. People who say there isn’t usually have not sat and watched one. Even my 12 year old squawks about watching DVDs based on the reduced definition. But it all comes down to the monitor. Cheap BD player buyers are asking for trouble down the road with firmware issues and equipment failures.

SunnyGuy53

So what if some kids squawk about DVDs. They’re not exactly film critics.
My kids could never watch black&white; films—but that never stopped me
from enjoying that treasure trove of film.

When your kid gets old enough to earn his own money, let him spend it
on a Blu-ray player. In the meantime, watch what YOU want to watch.

Films weren’t improved by colorization; nor are they improved by Blu-ray, imo.

At least films that have plots. Your mileage may vary.

Sunny Guy

Bregalad

There are people who calibrate their TVs? Obviously such people would never consider buying a $99 BD player.

I can see how others might be tempted to move “up” to Blu-Ray if the cost was no higher than replacing our old DVD players with up-converting ones. Those of us with young kids have no need for anything better than DVD quality though. Even if the Madagascar DVD was merely broadcast TV picture and sound they’d still want to watch it every other day.

It will take a perfect storm (not being satisfied with DVD, having enough money to buy new hardware, Hollywood making more than a half dozen good movies per year) to make me to care about Blu-Ray. If that ever happens Blu-Ray may have already given way to something else.

Terrin

Americans need to start being patriots by buying products build in the US and other countries that respect people and treats them as such. Free Trade is not free for anyone but the rich.

Tim

Checked some of the on line reviews of Wal-Mart’s $98 BluRay, and it sounds like a good idea to buy an extended warranty, if available.

Joel

Those shiny discs are so, so…20th century. Soon they’ll all be replaced by digital downloads. I can’t remember the last time I put a DVD in the Mac Mini that serves as my media center. If I did it was to rip it to my on-disk collection and I finished ripping my library ages ago. Now, if I want to ‘rent’ a movie, it’s usually through iTunes or Cablevision. Itune’s HD is fine with me - I know it’s 720 but I’m neither an audio nor a videophile.

Dave

So, if you have a $3000 TV set, are a video connoisseur, don’t buy a $99 Blu-ray player.

Thank you for these pearls of wisdom.

Guess what- MOST PEOPLE DO NOT OWN 1080p TV’S.

The big thing holding Blu-ray back is that, to take full advantage, you have to buy a new TV to use your new player. In fact, it really needs to be above 50”. That’s a pretty expensive proposition, for what is for most people a marginal improvement.

This is why a $99 option makes perfect sense. I have a 32” 720p TV, but I might- that is, might- consider Blu-ray at this price point. But the reality is, a $50 upconverting DVD player is almost as good for someone like me.

And yes, physical media is on the way out. I have an AppleTV box, and can rent any recent movie in HD if I want to, without leaving my couch.

Sheldon

This is the dumbest article I have ever read on MO.  TP I challenge you to put your money where your mouth is and A/B test BP players to TV’s.  Unless you have 1080P vision any differences are so minimal that a $300 difference price difference makes every difference to the average home user.  Shame on you for your inaccurate report of facts.  Shame on MO for reporting it.

Dave

One other strike against blu-Ray; last time I checked, DVD players didn’t require periodic firmware updates.

Dad spends 4 , 5, 600 bucks on a BD player, and within 3 or 6 months it will no longer play new disks?

You’ve got to be kidding me.

This is the “Microsoft-ification” of the home video experience- take something that has historically “just worked” - and turn it into something which requires perpetual fiddling.

No thanks.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

John, Nice FUD piece. I’ll have to remember the next time I put in an HDTV for a friend or relative to bring along a stud finder and call it my “color calibrator” so that it looks like I’m way more knowledgeable than they’ll ever be.

And Terrin… You, my friend, are a moron. Unless you were joking. Then, you’re a genius.

Brian

Terry,  why don’t you calibrate your picture instead?  seems the color balance is way off..  douche bag -  what is the point of your article??????

a

Mac parts are not made in the U.S. either.  Read the labels: Designed by Apple in California, made in ___________(insert cheap production country here).  Not to mention that my late 2008 model aluminum macbook is on its third logic board, the tech center here is routinely sent parts that do not completely function properly, etc etc.

Apple costs a lot because they make things pretty and they make things all work together well.  They have a fan base, basically. 
Apple is probably only alive anymore because of the iPod.
I’m writing this on my 24” aluminum iMac, so I’m not trying to be biased… but so what if they’re $99?  I can already find them online for $89… why not buy a cheap online one for even $49 day after thanksgiving?  buy two or three, for when they break tongue laugh.
Or sell to the guy from this article, since he’ll pay more for it. :-D

John Martellaro

In summary, there were three takeaways from this article:
1. $99 Blu-ray players likely can’t be adjusted to provide a satisfactory color balance.
2. $99 Blu-ray players are best paired with low cost displays that can’t reveal their weaknesses. “There is a place for $99 players…”
3. There is a middle ground between $99 and $4,500 Blu-ray players. Those in the $400 suggested retail range will be satisfactory for the vast majority of customers with good HDTV equipment and displays. They can provide a decent experience with or without ISF calibration.

That’s all I wanted to say in that short article.
-JM

toke

$400 for bd-player?
Long time investment?
Well, how about those $200 players that used tocost $400 half a year ago?
Are they now after half an year bad, slow, low quality?
Pretty nice to save a quarter every time when watching a movie!

bluevoter

You might be right about low-cost Blu-Ray players, but I wouldn’t trust Terry Paullin as far as I could throw him.  He has a background as a sales executive for enterprise software (in the 1980’s and early 1990’s before running CrossCheck).  On one occasion, he left his employer completely in the lurch by resigning and getting the entire sales force (15-20 people) to resign with him.  I consider that move to be so unprofessional as to disqualify him as an expert on anything other than treason and insubordination.

H.T. Terry

I find it hilarious that a handful of bloggers who have probably never seen a Blu-Ray player and HD monitor properly set up, allege to have superior ?facts?! Here?s a fact. For the last 10 years I have taught Imaging Science. In the last 17 years I have set-up and calibrated nearly 800 theatres. I ?put my money where my mouth is? every day. I have seen everything from very modest to outrageously expensive, and here?s a shocker ?? there IS a difference! To suggest that the ?differences are so minimal? from a $99 player to one that costs 5X as much, defies rational consumer marketing 101, not to mention common sense. If Sheldon truly believes that, let?s hope that the problem is with his vision, and he should run, not walk, to the nearest Lenscrafters. Modern Optometry can fix that one. If that?s not the case, sadly, no doctor I know can fix stupid.
And Dave, the Q1 C.E.A. (Consumer Electronics Association)report said that currently 55% of American households DO have HDTVs, so, indeed MOST Americans CAN take advantage of a Blu-Ray player! And Bluevoter, you clearly have no facts at all.

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