If you want the best possible video and audio experience in your home theater, there is no better source than Blu-ray Discs?in fact, nothing else equals the super-sharp video and awesome audio you get from Blu-ray. But I get many questions about how to connect a Blu-ray player for optimum performance, so I thought I’d spell it out here. (Don’t be intimidated by the diagram above; it shows lots of possible connections between lots of home-theater devices. This article covers only the connections between the Blu-ray player in the center, A/V receiver on the left, and TV at the top.)
The best way to connect a Blu-ray player to the rest of your system is also the simplest?a single HDMI cable from the player’s HDMI output to one of the HDMI inputs on you’re A/V receiver or preamp/processor. (Of course, you’ll also connect the HDMI output from the AVR or pre/pro to the TV.) If you don’t have an AVR or pre/pro, you can connect the player’s HDMI output directly to the TV, but you won’t hear the full benefit of Blu-ray’s lossless audio formats, which are called DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. You won’t even hear surround sound, only 2-channel audio from the TV’s typically lousy internal speakers.
I’m often asked if expensive HDMI cables are worth the investment. In my opinion, generally not, especially if the cable length is relatively short?say, under 6 feet. If you must use an HDMI cable longer than that, spending more on a high-grade cable might avoid things like flashing points of light in the image known as “sparklies.” Most recommendations for the maximum HDMI cable length are 15 to 20 feet, but some manufacturers claim their cables will work just fine with longer lengths, and we’ve used 25-foot Monster cables successfully. If you must run a very long cable, you’ll need to invest in a system that converts HDMI to coax cable or optical fiber and back to HDMI at the other end.
If you have a 3D-capable Blu-ray player, AVR or pre/pro, and TV, the HDMI connection is exactly the same as described above. But if the AVR or pre/pro is not 3D-capable?that is, it can’t pass 3D signals from the player to the TV?you’ll have to connect the player’s HDMI output directly to the TV’s HDMI input if you want to watch 3D content.
What about the audio in that case? A few higher-end Blu-ray players have two HDMI outputs for just such a situation?one is connected to the TV and the other is connected to the AVR or pre/pro, which decodes the audio. For players with one HDMI output, the best solution is a device called an HDMI splitter, which accepts one HDMI input and splits it to two outputs, one of which goes to the TV while the other goes to the AVR or pre/pro. But be careful?some splitters, especially older models, won’t pass 3D signals. We’ve also seen splitters that pass video consistently but not audio.
Interestingly, some audiophiles insist that a coaxial digital-audio connection, which uses an RCA connector color-coded orange, provides better sound for 2-channel music from CDs than HDMI. They also claim that coax sounds better than an optical digital-audio connection for reasons too technical to get into here.
If you use the same player for video and CD playback, you can test this for yourself. Connect the HDMI and coax outputs from the player to your AVR or pre/pro, assign them to different inputs, and compare them to your heart’s content. (Most players send a signal from their HDMI and digital-audio outputs simultaneously, but some don’t, making instantaneous comparison impossible.) In most systems, chances are that you won’t hear a difference, but if you do, use the connection that sounds better to you. In any event, be sure to use HDMI for Blu-ray so you can hear the high-resolution lossless audio formats.
Component Video & Digital Audio
If your AVR, pre/pro, and/or TV have no HDMI inputs, the next-best video connection is called component, which consists of three RCA connectors color-coded red, green, and blue. Older Blu-ray players can send high-definition video signals at 1080i, which isn’t as good as the 1080p you’ll get with HDMI, but it’s better than no HD at all.
Unfortunately, most players made in 2011 and later cannot send high-def signals of any kind from their component-video outputs, only standard-def 480i. This was mandated to plug the so-called “analog hole” that allows pirates to make copies of HD content using this connection. (As Matthew Moskovciak points out in his cnet blog, this does nothing to stop piracy, since you can easily rip Blu-rays digitally.) And starting in 2014, Blu-ray players are mandated to omit component-video outputs altogether, though some manufacturers are starting to do this already.
If you have a 2011 or later Blu-ray player, there’s no point using the component output?upgrade your other equipment so you can use HDMI. If you have an older Blu-ray player, you can connect its component-video output to the AVR or pre/pro or directly to the TV itself.
A component-video connection carries no audio, so you’ll need to connect the player’s coaxial or optical digital audio output to the AVR or pre/pro. In this case, you’ll hear surround sound in the older Dolby Digital or DTS formats, both of which are “lossy,” which means they discard lots of the audio information and therefore do not sound as good as Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio.
If you have no AVR or pre/pro and must connect directly to the TV, you’ll have to use the player’s 2-channel analog-audio outputs, which are RCA connectors color-coded red and white. No TV we’ve seen has a digital-audio input. In this case, you’ll hear 2-channel audio from the TV’s cheesy speakers.
Multichannel Analog Audio
Some players?usually higher-end models?have a multichannel analog-audio output with six or eight RCA connectors that provide 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound. If you have such a player and an AVR or pre/pro with a corresponding input, you can connect the player’s multichannel analog output to it. In this case, the player decodes the audio, including DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD in their full glory.
You can use the multichannel analog output instead of the coax or optical digital-audio output in conjunction with the component-video output, and depending on your system, you’ll probably hear better sound quality. Some audiophiles actually prefer this type of connection even over HDMI audio. However, the multichannel analog input on many AVRs and pre/pros bypasses all processing, including things like bass management, which lets you redirect the low frequencies to the subwoofer. Some players perform some of these functions, but their setup options are typically much more limited than those in a good AVR or pre/pro. Also, this connection requires six or eight separate cables, which is cumbersome.
Most modern Blu-ray players provide the ability to stream content from the Internet. To do this, you need to connect the player’s Ethernet port to your home-network router. Alternatively, some players offer WiFi capabilities as well, either built-in or by using an optional dongle connected to the Ethernet port.
You should now be able to select the best type of connection from your Blu-ray player to the rest of your system. All that’s left is to enjoy the pristine picture and superb sound that Blu-ray offers modern home-theater owners.