Why You Should Avoid the $99 Blu-ray Players

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.