HE 2006: Sony Prepares for Blu-Ray Disc Format Launch

HE 2006: The launch of the next-generation Blu-Ray disc format was a featured attraction at this weekend’s Home Entertainment 2006 (HE 2006) show in Los Angeles. HE 2006 is sponsored by Primedia, the publishers of Stereophile Magazine and is being held at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel at Los Angeles International Airport.

When you arrive at the show, you are greeted by Sony reps wearing what is supposed to be a video disc player, directing you to a demonstration room touting the features of the Blu-Ray disc. The demonstration includes viewing video clips from Sony Pictures films Lawrence of Arabia (which includes annotated maps of Lawrence’s journey) and the upcoming comedy Click with Adam Sandler as well as Disney’s Chicken Little.

During the demonstration, attendees are told about the key features of the Blu-Ray format and that the disc offers features “Beyond High Definition”. These include storage up to 100GB on a 4 layer disc and soon up to 200GB on an 8 layer disc, video bit rates up to 48Mbps, 1080p picture output, 8 channels of uncompressed audio, up to 32 streams of audio and a host of interactive features.

Sony Blu-Ray Products
Sony is preparing to launch a series of Blu-Ray and Blu-Ray related products in the weeks and months ahead as the Blu-Ray launch moves forward. While the first Blu-Ray product in the U.S., a Blu-Ray ROM or BD-ROM drive from Pioneer has already come to market, most people are awaiting the release of a Blu-Ray Disc player and Blu-Ray movie titles before they really consider the product launched.

To build interest, Sony announced at HE 2006 that 10 of their Sony Style stores around the country now have Blu-Ray disc demonstrations available for consumers to view. This includes their initial Blu-Ray Disc player, the BDP-S1 which has a suggested price of $999 and is projected to be available in mid August and their just announced STR DG-1000 Home Theater receiver which carries a list price of $799. There will be Sony Vaio desktop and laptop PCs with Blu-Ray disc drives included on the market soon.

The STR DG-1000 receiver is interesting since it is able to take the HDMI output from a Blu-Ray player, like the BDP-S1 and take the uncompressed audio signal from that output and play it back without down-conversion to 5.1 analog audio. I suspect that we will see more Home Theater processors and receivers offer this HDMI 5.1 or 7.1 uncompressed audio (depending on the Blu-Ray title) support in the near future. It’s certainly something that Home Theater buyers and Audio Fans will be looking for.

A Blu-Ray Event for the Media
To provide more information – and demonstrations – on the Blu-Ray format, members of the media were invited to a Blu-Ray Media event on Friday evening at the Sony Pictures Studios. There we heard from Benjamin Feingold, President of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, a long-time Blu-Ray Disc proponent as well as officials from Sony BMG Entertainment and Sony Electronics. The presentors noted that the DVD Video format has flattened out sales wise and it is now time in their view to move to a new, enhanced “platform” for video, movies, computing and gaming that “will last for the next 10 years”.

Comparing DVD to Blu-Ray
A highlight of the media event at Sony Pictures Studios was a viewing of clips from the movie Click (mentioned earlier) that showed scenes in both DVD Video resolution and Blu-Ray disc resolution on a 4K projector. The comparison proved rather dramatic with the Blu-Ray side of the screen showing much more detail and clarity in each scene. This could be a key selling point for the technology if such a comparison could be presented to consumers at the retail level. (It wouldn’t surprise me to see Sony and the Blu-Ray partners come out with a demo disc along these lines to make such a case).

Sony officials noted that they continue to believe that MPEG-2 encoding offers the sharpest and most “artifact free” transfers at the high data rates used by the Blu-Ray disc rather than the competing VC-1 and MPEG-4 encoding options. They also noted that with the 50Mb capacity of dual layer Blu-Ray discs, difficult scenes can use encoding rates of 40Mb/sec rather than the normal 25Mb/sec to further enhance video quality.

Blu-Ray Disc and Super Audio CD Support
Another interesting question that the Blu-Ray launch raises is whether Sony thinks that Super Audio CD (SA-CD) and Direct Stream Digital (DSD) have a future. At the show, Sony officials noted that the audio output on their new STR DG-1000 receiver is actually marked not “CD” but rather “SA-CD/CD” as one clue to their thinking along with their recent enhancement to the SACD mastering format. I also heard once again that the Super Audio CD playback feature as well as Blu-Ray Disc playback both continue to be part of the feature package for the upcoming Sony Playstation 3 product due out this November. And I was told that SACD playback was coming to a future edition of the Blu-Ray hardware platform. So this will be an interesting area to watch.

A Blu-Ray Disc of Hitch
To drive home the point that the launch of Blu-Ray Disc video titles is indeed around the corner on June 20th, members of the media were given a shrink wrapped copy of the Blu-Ray edition of Hitch starring Will Smith. Hitch will be one of 9 Blu-Ray Disc releases by Sony Pictures in the format’s first week. They will follow that with more Blu-Ray titles the following week and in July.

Interestingly, the Hitch Blu-Ray disc promotes not only the 1920 x 1080p video quality of the movie but also its 5.1 Channels of Uncompressed Audio on the front cover. There is no mention there of either the Dolby Digital or DTS audio formats. So it is clear that both 1080p video and the uncompressed audio possible with Blu-Ray will be key marketing points in the format’s release.

As for how the disc looks and sounds, I guess we will have to wait a few more weeks until the Samsung Blu-Ray player arrives on store shelves to really answer that question. But for now, the see-thru blue plastic box does look cool on the shelf.