Secrets Q & A

Blu-ray Player for Older AV Processor?

Question:
I have a JBL Synthesis AV2 processor with HDMI 1.1 and eight RCA analog-audio inputs. I want to buy a new Blu-ray player, but I've been told conflicting info about what outputs the player needs to send 7.1 channels of HD audio to the AVP. I have been told that HDMI 1.1 will only accept 5.1 channels from a player, and to get all 7.1 channels, I need a player with eight RCA outputs. Other sources say the AVP should be able to handle 7.1 channels via HDMI 1.1. Which true?

I am looking at the Sony BDP-S790 player, which doesn't have eight outputs, only HDMI 1.4, versus the Oppo BDP-103 and 105. Which do you like best?

- John Baldino
Orange, CT

Answer:
All versions of HDMI, starting with 1.0, can convey up to eight channels of PCM (pulse-code modulation) digital audio. This is the same type of uncompressed digital audio as found on CDs, and it is often included on Blu-rays as well.

However, HDMI 1.1 cannot convey DTS-HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD—the so-called HD audio bitstreams. That capability is available only with HDMI 1.3 and later. HDMI 1.1 can carry "regular" DTS and Dolby Digital, but these are lossy audio formats—that is, audio information is lost when it is encoded in these formats. By contrast, no information is lost if audio is encoded in DTS-HD MA or Dolby TrueHD, so these formats are called lossless.

To get the full benefit of DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD with the AV2, you need a Blu-ray player that can decode these formats internally. Then, the decoded audio data can be sent to the AV2 as PCM via HDMI or as analog via the eight RCA connections. This approach has the added advantage of letting you hear the secondary audio—commentary, menu sounds, etc.—mixed with the main movie soundtrack. If you could send DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD bitstreams, many players do not mix the secondary audio into the main soundtrack in this case.

Unfortunately, the AV2 can accept up to 5.1 channels of PCM via HDMI, not 7.1; this is a limitation of the AV2, not HDMI 1.1. Therefore, the only way to hear all 7.1 channels from discs that offer them is to connect the eight analog audio outputs of a Blu-ray player to the eight analog inputs of the AV2.

Without question, my favorite Blu-ray players are the Oppo BDP-103 and 105, and both have eight analog RCA outputs and can decode DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD internally. The only difference between them is that the 105 provides upgraded analog audio performance for twice the price ($1000 versus $500). This is important for audiophiles who prefer analog connections. If you count yourself among them, it's probably worth the extra money to go for the BDP-105 and use the eight analog connections to the AV2.

Even the BDP-103 is pretty expensive as Blu-ray players go, but both models offer just about every feature you might want. For example, they can play any current optical disc out there, including CD, Blu-ray, SACD, and DVD-Audio, as well as many different types of AV files from a USB storage device and streaming online content via wired or wireless connection.

They also offer features and capabilities not found in many other players, such as 4K upscaling using the highly regarded Marvell Qdeo processor, 2D-to-3D conversion, an HDMI/MHL input for playing A/V content from other HDMI sources as well as Android and other MHL-compatible devices, and two HDMI outputs.

Why would you need two HDMI outputs? Mostly for 3D. If the system's AV receiver or processor can't pass 3D video on to the display (which the AV2 can't), you can use one output to send video directly to the display and the other output to send audio to the receiver or processor.

Finally, Oppo's customer service and response to bugs and incompatibilities in its firmware are second to none.

At $250—half the price of the BDP-103—the Sony BDP-S790 actually offers many of the same features as the BDP-103, including built-in WiFi, 4K upscaling, 2D-to-3D conversion, online streaming, SACD playback (not DVD-A), and two HDMI outputs (no input). It can decode DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD internally, but as you point out, it has no multichannel analog output, only 2-channel. So the only way to hear the full impact of DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD multichannel soundtracks is to have the player decode them internally and send PCM to the AV2 via HDMI, which will work with 5.1-channel soundtracks, but not 7.1 as I mentioned earlier.

Since you have a JBL Synthesis AV2, I assume the rest of your system is pretty high-end. If so, and if you really want to hear 7.1-channel soundtracks with no downmixing to 5.1, I recommend the Oppo BDP-105 using the eight analog connections. If that's too expensive, the BDP-103 will do a perfectly good job with its eight analog outputs.