Editors' note: Toshiba has officially announced that it will stop producing HD DVD products, bringing an end to the format war. For that reason, CNET recommends that consumers should avoid buying this player for high-definition movie playback, as very few HD DVD discs will be produced in the future.
Back in January, we anointed LG's Super Multi Blu BH100 "Best in Show" at CES 2007, for being the first player to offer both Blu-ray and HD DVD playback in a single product. There's no doubt LG pulled off an impressive feat with the BH100, but whether or not it's a product worth buying is another story. After thoroughly testing the BH100, we learned a few things that gave us cause for concern: no CD playback, somewhat limited HD DVD functionality, and subpar soundtrack support, to name the main ones. The worst part, of course, is the $1,200 price tag, which means you could buy both a Blu-ray capable PS3 ($600) and an Xbox360 ($400) with the HD DVD add-on drive ($200) for the same price--and get two high-performance game consoles for "free."
Even with these shortcomings, the BH100 is a product worth consideration for those few people who can afford it. LG's Super Multi Blu outputs excellent image quality with both Blu-ray and HD DVD sources, and we really liked the design. While the $1,200 price tag seems high, it's a whole lot more palatable when you consider it against the current crop of standalone Blu-ray players, like the Panasonic DMP-BD10 ($1,300), the Pioneer BDP-HD1 ($1,500) and the Philips BDP9000 ($900)--and those players only handle Blu-ray. In a lot of ways, the BH100 is a good choice for a well-heeled home theater nut who wants to make the leap now--it's the only player to offer full compatibility with what at the moment looks to be the dominant high-def optical format (Blu-ray) as well as basic support for a format that might not make it for the long haul (HD DVD). The LG BH100 is far from perfect, but early adopters could do a whole lot worse.
One of the first things you might notice when you look at the BH100 is that there are absolutely zero buttons on the front panel, not even a button to open and close the disc tray. What are you to do when the remote goes missing? Well, there are actually five touch-sensitive buttons located on the top of the unit. This arrangement is stylish, but it introduces a slight design issue--you can't stack other components on top of the BH100 if you plan on using the buttons. The other problem we had is that the buttons don't stay lit up, which makes them a little difficult to see in a dark home theater environment. Aside from that, we were actually pleasantly surprised by how well the buttons work--sometimes touch-sensitive buttons can be finicky, but these were nearly flawless in their responses.
The remote that comes with the BH100 is also a cut above most clickers. We liked the button layout, and there was enough differentiation between the keys to navigate by feel once you've used it a bit. The remote is partially backlit--the directional controls light up, although it isn't that helpful since we never really need to see those buttons.
The standout feature of the BH100 is, of course, its ability to play both Blu-ray and HD DVD movies. This covers both cutting-edge high-def video formats, and the BH100 is also capable of playing standard DVDs, which means it's pretty much a comprehensive video disc player. On the other hand, the BH100 has essentially no support for audio discs. It can't play CDs or either of the niche high-resolution audio formats, SACD and DVD-Audio. Not being able to play CDs is a considerable drawback--it's annoying to need to have another player around to listen to your music collection.
While the BH100 is capable of playing HD DVD discs, it is not a fully compliant HD DVD player. The reason it's not fully compliant is that it does not support HDi interactive features. HDi is the technology that enables features such as some customized menus and picture-in-picture video commentary over the movie.
The lack of HDi is disappointing and costs the BH100 an official logo, but it's not the crippling limitation some early reports led us to believe. Menus for scene selection and other basic options still pop up while the movie is playing. The major difference is that instead of displaying customized graphics for the movie with thumbnail images, you get a generic menu and have to select the chapters by number. You can even access special features by browsing through the "Title" menu, but you don't have any idea what you're accessing when you select "Title 11". It's certainly not as slick as full HDi support and if you're big on special features it's probably not going to cut it. On the other hand, we'll admit that not having HDi has its charms--the BH100 starts playing HD DVD movies right away instead of going to a menu screen first, which we actually prefer.
Soundtrack support on the BH100, on the other hand, is a significant issue. The biggest disappointment is that it cannot deliver the latest high-definition audio soundtracks over digital outputs. Specifically, DTS-HD and Dolby Digital Plus are dialed down just standard DTS and Dolby Digital when output over the HDMI connection. If uncompressed linear PCM is encoded on the disc, output over HDMI is limited to two channels. And although you can get five channel DTS-HD, Dolby Digital Plus, and linear PCM to pass via the BH100's analog multichannel outputs, they cannot pass Dolby TrueHD in surround sound at all--all Dolby TrueHD soundtracks are output in stereo over analog and digital connections. Taken together, these audio limitations are deal breakers for audiophiles looking to take advantage of the better sound quality on Blu-ray and HD DVD discs.
Connectivity is average for a high-definition disc player. The main connection is the HDMI output, which is capable of carrying both high-definition video and multichannel audio. Other video outputs include a component video output and a composite video output--there's no S-Video output, which is abnormal, but not a major omission considering the high-end target audience. In addition to the HDMI output, there are also both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, as well as a 5.1 multichannel analog output. Rounding out the rest of the connectivity is an Ethernet jack, although it's referred to as a service port reserved for authorized service purposes only.
Using the HDMI output, the BH100 is capable of outputting HD DVDs and Blu-ray discs in 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p resolution. That's technically correct, but there's a pretty significant snag--the BH100 only outputs 1080p in 24 frames per second, which is a format that very few TVs can handle. It's a somewhat strange decision on LG's part, but at the same time it's not a deal breaker. Almost all HDTVs will deinterlace the 1080i signal to 1080p, so as long as your TV's 1080i deinterlacing is up to par, 1080i will look as good as 1080p. For DVDs, the BH100 can upscale to 480p, 720p, and 1080i.
Blu-ray playback from the BH100 is excellent, as we've come to expect from nearly all Blu-ray players. The detail and colors of Blu-ray discs are a huge jump up from DVD, especially when experienced on a big screen where the difference is even more visible. That being said, the BH100 isn't necessarily any better or worse than any of the other players we tested in terms of image quality--we've largely felt that all Blu-ray players we've seen offer extremely similar video quality with almost no discernable differences.
For example, we looked at Tears of the Sun, an excellent looking Blu-ray title. In Chapter 6, there are some very detailed close-ups of Bruce Willis in the jungle and the image from the BH100 looked excellent on the three displays we were looking at--the Pioneer Pro-FHD1, Panasonic TH-50PX77U, and the Sony KDL-52XBR2. We switched over to the PS3 and watched the same sequence and saw virtually no difference. We also took a look at The Ant Bully, and the BH100 had no problem putting out a very sharp and colorful image. Again, switching to the PS3 exhibited essentially no differences.
One of the bigger issues with first generation Blu-ray players is actually their operational speed. The BH100 is a little slow in this regard, with it taking 35 seconds from the moment we pressed the drive closed to the point where an image comes on the screen. On the other hand, chapter skips are very fast, rivaling even the PS3, which is something we haven't seen from other Blu-ray players.
In terms of compatibility, we played several discs from our extensive Blu-ray and HD DVD library, and didn't run into any problems. Blu-ray discs like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and The Descent--which can often give players problems because of their BD-Java content--worked without a hitch.
HD DVD performance
Putting aside its HDi limitations, we took a look at the BH100 from a pure picture quality perspective. Like its Blu-ray performance, the BH100 delivers an excellent picture with HD DVDs. We started off watching the extremely sharp-looking The Hulk, and the BH100 had no problem outputting an impressive picture. There was tons of detail, and even if the CGI hulk looked a little fake, all the close ups of real people looked fantastic. We compared its performance to Toshiba's HD-A1 and again saw very little difference between the two players. We also looked at Swordfish, and again we saw no difference in the detail in between the BH100 and the Toshiba HD-XA2 on close-ups of John Travolta.
We have seen reports at places like AVS Forum about the BH100 occasionally stuttering on playback, and we did run into a few hiccups with HD DVD playback. For example, on The Hulk we noticed that playback stuttered for about half a second early in the film, and then later we encountered three consecutive stutters, each lasting at least a second. Of course, it might have been dust on the disc, but it looked clean to our eyes. This isn't quite a deal breaker--and for the most part we didn't encounter many playback problems--but home theater buffs expecting perfection might want to go for a standalone option. For what it's worth, we have not experienced similar issues with our Toshiba HD-A1, which we've used extensively.
HD DVD load times were sluggish, clocking in at about 43 seconds to load The Hulk. This is faster than the sloth-like HD-A1, but it's still slow for anyone used to using a standard DVD player.
As mentioned before, one of the displays we used during testing is the Pioneer Pro-FHD1. The Pro-FHD1 is one of the few displays capable of accepting a 1080p/24 signal, and it can also change its refresh rate to 72Hz. Technical details aside, the supposed benefit of this combination is that the 24fps output paired with a compatible display can decrease judder.
We've tried a similar combination once before (with the Pioneer BDP-HD1), and felt that it actually increased the amount of judder. With the BH100, our observations were nearly identical. For example, with the BH100 in 1080p/24 mode and the Pro-FHD1 set to ADV on (which activates the 72hz refresh rate), we watched Chapter 4 of Aeon Flux on Blu-ray, from 18:24-18:36. During this scene, the camera pans over a large white wall and we clearly observed more judder on the bottom edge of the wall. Additionally, as it pans over the entire complex, we could also easily make out increased judder on the building on the left side. Aeon Flux is also available on HD DVD, and we watched the same sequence, with the same configuration, with identical results. The same scene in 1080i/60 mode, with ADV off on the Pioneer, has noticeably less judder--especially on the building on the left, which is almost judder free. Unfortunately we didn't have any other displays capable of displaying 1080p/24 on hand, but we can report that at least in this configuration it didn't deliver increased performance.
Standard DVD performance
Of course, the BH100 is also capable of playing regular DVDs, as well as upscaling them to HD resolutions such as 720p and 1080i. We started off testing its standard definition DVD performance by looking at Silicon Optix's HQV test suite. The BH100 started off well, with it easily handling a resolution test that demonstrates its ability to pass the full detail of DVD. Moving forward, however, was more disappointing. The BH100 wasn't bad, but it provided only middling performance. For example, on a test with a rotating bar, it became unstable earlier than many other players, and some test footage of a waving flag was full of jaggies. It also wasn't able to pass a 2:3 pull-down test that consists of a racecar driving by grandstands. While it would initially and correctly lock into film mode in under a second, it wasn't able to stay locked, which resulted in occasional moire in the grandstands.
The tendency to slip out of film mode showed in content material. At 2:05 in the intro of Seabiscuit, the camera pans over a still photo of several cars in a lot and we saw it slip out of film mode several times, which resulted in jagged edges visible on the roof of every car. To the credit of the BH100, it mostly handles the rest of the introduction well, but when it does mess up, the effect is pretty drastic.
We were disappointed to see that the BH100 did not have aspect ratio control. Some HDTVs, such as the HP LC3760N and the Philips 42PF9831D, do not have aspect-ratio control when fed high-def sources, so it's nice to have the player handle it. This is not an issue for most high-quality DVDs, which are anamorphic, but non-anamorphic wide-screen discs will look distorted via the BH100. We tested this with Carlito's Way and unfortunately found no way to change the aspect ratio--so we were stuck with a stretched image.
The BH100 was also pretty slow loading standard DVDs, with Seabiscuit taking about 35 seconds to load.
Our standard advice for HD DVD and Blu-ray players has been to wait before buying them because they're very expensive now and nobody quite knows how the format war is going to shake out. Of course, the BH100 solves the format war problem by playing both sides, but its own shortcomings make it difficult to recommend to anyone looking to future-proof their home theater setup. If you can deal with the soundtrack limitations, the lack of HDi interactivity features and the need to keep another CD player around, the BH100 delivers excellent video quality and the ability to play both HD DVD and Blu-ray from a single player--which is currently an exclusive feature. Otherwise, it's probably wise to hold off for a more complete dual-format player.