The tagline for this column is the electronics you lust for, and if there was ever a TV worth lusting for, it's the Pioneer PRO-FHD1. This top-of-the-line Elite-series 50-inch plasma features 1080p resolution in a sleek, black, piano gloss finish that exudes swank and plays well with a PlayStation 3. It retails for $10,000 but you can probably pick it up for less than $7,000, which is about three grand more than most high-end 50-inch plasmas cost these days. The PRO-FHD1 is hot stuff. But as pretty as it is sitting in our A/V room, going through testing, there's something not quite right about it. There's something missing. And it hurts.
That something is HDMI 1.3. Don't get me wrong: It's not the end of the world that the Pioneer PRO-FHD1 doesn't have HDMI 1.3. It's still a great TV, but when you're spending that kind of money, you want to feel like you're solidly in "ultimate" territory, and you're gonna stay there for at least a little while. We all know, of course, that technology develops quickly in the HDTV world, and that something better, cheaper, and sexier is always around the corner. But when someone goes ahead and launches an upgrade to a technology just as you're buying a high-end piece of A/V equipment, it can leave you with a bad case of buyer's remorse.
So, just what is HDMI 1.3 and what does it give you? Well, for those who haven't heard of HDMI, it stands for High-Definition Multimedia Interface and to quote our glossary, it's "a USB-like digital video connectivity standard designed as a successor to DVI that can transmit both digital audio and video signals while incorporating HDCP digital copy protection." It's also the highest-quality A/V connection available.
Virtually all of today's A/V devices that incorporate HDMI connectivity are limited to the HDMI 1.2 or earlier specifications, which have encountered their share of compatibility problems. (It isn't clear exactly who's to blame, but cable and satellite providers certainly haven't made their boxes as HDMI-friendly as they should be.) In theory, the HDMI 1.3 spec is supposed to offer better compatibility, but that's not what HDMI Licensing LLC, the group behind the connection, is touting these days. What it really wants you to know is that HDMI 1.3 offers twice the bandwidth (10.2Gbps vs. 4.95Gbps) as the current flavor of HDMI. Higher bandwidth permits manufacturers to pump a more potent A/V cocktail through the same size pipe--or in this case, cable.
If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of it all, you can read Senior Editor David Katzmaier's extensive blog post and CES preview that go over many of the specifics of HDMI 1.3. For brevity, I'll stick to the key ingredients in the new flavor, which include something called Deep Color (HDMI 1.3 supports 10-bit, 12-bit, and 16-bit color depths while HDMI 1.2 supports only 8-bit color), a wider color gamut, a new mini connector (for HD camcorders and still cameras), automatic A/V synching (so characters' lip movements accurately match the soundtrack), and support for new multichannel HD lossless audio formats such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-D Master Audio.
The Toshiba HD-AX2 HD-DVD player and the Sony PlayStation 3 are among the first devices to feature HDMI 1.3. In the short run, that won't mean all that much. For example, hook the PS3 up to the Pioneer PROFH-HD1--or any other HDMI-equipped TV--and it acts just like an HDMI 1.2 device--it's completely backward compatible. But down the road, if any 10-bit PS3 games or Blu-ray movies come out (currently, studios don't distribute content in 10-bit color depth, though most filmmaking is done in 10-bit video), you'll need a Deep Color TV to see the difference. For those keeping score, 8-bit color depth has 17 million colors while 10-bit has one billion. On paper, that sounds like a big difference and the folks at HDMI Licensing say that going from million of colors to billions "eliminates onscreen color banding for smooth tonal transitions and subtle gradations between colors, delivering more detailed and lifelike images."
Is HDMI 1.3 a deciding factor in your next TV purchase?
The reality, of course, is that the differences are probably going to be very subtle, something more akin to the differences between 1080i and 1080p
. But if I'm buying a top-of-the-line TV, who cares if the differences are subtle--at that price, I want the latest and greatest, I'm paying 200 percent more for a 10 percent performance boost. I need Deep Color support and the Pioneer PROFH-HD1 and other ultraexpensive models don't have it yet. Word is, however, new Deep Color sets will hit stores in the first half of '07. Forget about 1080p. Come January, at the Consumer Electronics trade show (CES) in Vegas, all you're going to be hearing is "Deep Color this, Deep Color that."
All in all, despite delving occasionally into the ridiculous acronym zone (in reference to the wider color gamut, which is separate from Deep Color altogether, we now have something called the xvYCC color standard), the video end of HDMI 1.3 is fairly straightforward. If you have the right output device, right source material, and right TV, in theory you're going to get a richer, more detailed picture. That's a lot of ifs, but the path seems easy enough to follow. Where things get truly convoluted, however, is on the audio side. I mentioned the two new lossless formats, DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, which promise the best possible audio quality, but there's also Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD, and DTS Encore, which all have higher quality than the standard Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks found on current DVDs. If you look on the back of a HD-DVD or Blu-ray disc, you'll notice that some discs may feature a lossless format and some don't.
What's pretty mind-boggling is what equipment you need to take advantage of all the new formats. For example, all Toshiba HD-DVD players can deliver the lossless formats regardless of their HDMI version, because they include internal decoders that allow them to send the audio, without affecting audio quality, via HDMI or analog multichannel outputs. Some non-HDMI 1.3 Blu-ray players, such as the Panasonic DMP-BD10, do not have that ability and currently can't handle lossless audio formats at all. I'm waiting to see the specs of the 1.3-equipped Blu-ray players that'll be announced at CES in January; hopefully they'll simply play everything. CES 2007 will undoubtedly introduce numerous HDMI 1.3 products, including A/V receivers and standard DVD players in addition to TVs and Blu-ray/HD-DVD players.
For most people, especially those working with tighter budgets and an urgency to buy a new HDTV now, HDMI 1.3 shouldn't influence your decision. But if you're an early adopter playing in the high-end or just looking for an excuse not to buy a new HDTV right this second, HDMI 1.3 is unfortunately one of those features probably worth waiting for. I just wish that, for all its potential performance benefits, I could be 100 percent certain that when I plugged an HDMI cable into two HDMI 1.3 devices everything would work properly 100 percent of the time. Chances are, that won't be the case.
Is HDMI 1.3 a deciding factor in your next TV purchase?