If all you want from Blu-ray is a picture and some accompanying sound, you could get away with a regular ol' TV, as long as it has a standard AV input (yellow, red, and white plugs). But the only reason you should pay extra for Blu-ray is to take advantage of the more immersive and intense movie-watching experience. To do that, you'll need more equipment. Here's a quick cheat sheet to help you figure out what you need.
HDTV: The big advantage to Blu-ray is high-definition video, which means you'll need an HDTV to enjoy it on. While the improvements in picture quality are noticeable on virtually any size HDTV, in our opinion the difference really stands out on screens 40 inches and up, assuming normal seating distances. If you're looking to get the most out of Blu-ray, we'd recommend buying a relatively big screen.
You may be surprised by this next piece of advice: 1080p isn't that important for getting the most out of Blu-ray. At a standard seating distance from a 50- or 58-inch TV, you just won't see a difference between a 1080p and 720p HDTV--trust us, we've tried. That's not as much of a factor for new HDTV buyers, as almost all large HDTVs are 1080p now, but if you have an older HDTV and want to take advantage of Blu-ray, don't feel like you need to upgrade. The major exception to this rule is with projectors, where you will see a difference on giant 100-plus-inch screens.
AV receiver: We've mentioned high-definition video, but Blu-ray also allows for high-resolution audio. To listen to the new high-resolution soundtracks at their highest fidelity you'll need an AV receiver, but you don't need a new receiver with onboard decoding. Here are the four most common scenarios:
- I don't have a receiver: Well, you'll need to buy an AV receiver to take advantage of the new soundtrack formats, but the good news is that many affordable AV receivers now include Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding. While it's not essential if you have a receiver with onboard decoding for those formats, it's probably worth getting anyway in case any future electronics use those formats. Check out our list of top AV receivers for a recommendation.
- I have an AV receiver, but it doesn't have HDMI inputs: As along as your receiver has analog multichannel inputs, you can still use it to listen to the new high-resolution audio formats. In this case, you'll need a Blu-ray player that has onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, plus multichannel analog outputs. Luckily we've done a roundup of Blu-ray players with 7.1 analog outputs if you have an older receiver.
- I have an HDMI receiver, but it doesn't decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio: You can use this receiver to listen to the new soundtracks, but you need a Blu-ray player with onboard decoding for the new soundtracks. Players with onboard decoding are much more common now.
- I have an HDMI receiver with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio: Great, you have the most flexibility. If your Blu-ray player doesn't have onboard decoding, but has bit stream output, set it for bit stream output and let your receiver do the decoding. If your Blu-ray player has onboard decoding, then you can choose either option and they'll both sound the same.
It's worth mentioning that if you're not an audiophile, there's nothing wrong with using either the optical or coaxial digital audio connector. You won't get the true resolution of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, but the sound will still be in 5.1 surround and you probably won't notice the difference.
Surround-sound speakers: You're not getting the full Blu-ray experience unless you have a surround-sound speaker system. While that used to mean you'd be stuck with big boxy speakers, our list of the best home theater speakers includes plenty of smaller, top-performer speaker packages for décor-minded buyers. And if you really don't want a bunch of speakers and wires in your living room, you can opt for a single-speaker surround-sound option, although you won't be getting the full Blu-ray experience.
HDMI cables: It's something easy to forget when you're buying all your equipment, but you need a way to hook it all up, too. The easiest way to connect your Blu-ray player to your HDTV and AV receiver is to use an HDMI cable, which is capable of carrying both 1080p HD video and high-resolution audio. The most important thing to remember with HDMI cables is don't pay extra for HDMI cables. In fact, you should never pay more than $10 for a standard 6-foot HDMI cable, as there's absolutely no difference in quality. If you want the full scoop on why to buy cheap HDMI cables, check out our Quick guide to HDMI cables.
It's also worth mentioning that you don't need to use an HDMI cable to get high-definition video from your Blu-ray player, although we recommend going HDMI if you can. For older high-def displays that don't support HDMI, every Blu-ray player includes a component video output, which can output Blu-ray Discs at 1080i and DVDs at 480p.