Watching Laserdiscs in the Digital Age:
A Guide to Getting the Best from Laserdisc Playback on a Digital Display


By Joshua Zyber
August 29, 2004


It's time to face up to the obvious. Laserdiscs had a terrific run in their day, but they have been surpassed in picture quality by DVD (audio quality is still up for debate). We're living in a digital age, and watching television is an entirely different experience than it used to be. On the current generation of high-definition digital displays, a well-mastered anamorphic DVD (not to mention real HDTV) viewed in progressive scan on a large screen can produce a remarkably vivid and film-like picture, much better than even the best laserdiscs in their prime. LD was a great product, but the world moves on.

Still, many of us have strong emotional attachments to our laserdisc collections. There is also plenty of exclusive content out there on LD that has not and may not ever make the transition to DVD (especially classic movies whose rights have changed hands multiple times). These are still good reasons for wanting to watch a laserdisc even in the present day and age. 

So now you've got a fancy new HDTV that has been fully tuned-up and calibrated for a fantastic DVD picture. You plug in your old laserdisc player, expecting that the better television will also make all of your old discs look their absolute best too. You turn it on, spin up your favorite disc, and..... yikes, massive disappointment sets in. The picture looks terrible. Was laserdisc always this bad, and we just didn't know any better at the time? How could we have ever thought this looks good?

To be perfectly honest, your reaction is normal, even expected. However, don't jump the gun just yet and throw out your player and entire movie collection. There are certain things you should know first, and steps that can be taken to improve the situation. Yes, it's true that some of these solutions have a cost, some of them are even rather expensive. Only you can decide whether you feel the investment is worth it. How much did you pay for that new TV? I bet it wasn't free, nor was the new progressive scan DVD player you bought to go with it. You didn't cheap-out on flimsy video cables, did you? I didn't think so. If you want to save it, your laserdisc collection will require a little bit of work to get looking its best, probably more so than DVDs, which are more of a plug-and-play format. Is it worth the time, effort, and money for an obsolete video technology? That's up to you. Many people will feel that it isn't, and will kick the old format to the curb. That is certainly their prerogative. Others will want to do everything they can to save their laserdisc collections, and for them I recommend the following guidelines.

STEP #1: DON'T PANIC!

Just because you get an awful picture when you first fire up the LD player does not mean that's as good as it's ever going to be. The dirty little secret with digital televisions is that they are no longer optimized for an analog video signal. If you were to play a laserdisc on two televisions of comparable size, an older mid-'90s analog RPTV and a modern HD set, the picture would likely look better on the old TV at first. This may sound counter-intuitive; isn't modern technology supposed to improve quality? Yes and no. A digital format played back on a digital display looks great. But something has been left behind.

Back in the day, engineers knew all the limitations of an analog composite video signal and designed their televisions to work around them as best as possible, in such ways as hiding low resolution scan-line structure. Today's televisions are more concerned with getting the most out of a digital component video source, which has different needs. Backwards compatibility with analog equipment is barely an afterthought. If you think laserdisc looks bad, check out cable TV on the same set. The larger the screen, the worse it looks. Of course, we expect cable to look bad. It's a poor-quality source. Laserdisc is supposed to be better. It is, but it still has some of the same inherent weaknesses, and requires extra consideration that you may not have had to think about when hooking up your DVD player. 

So yes, the picture you get right off the bat may look lousy, but don't panic. All is not necessarily lost.

STEP #2: SEPARATE CALIBRATION

The single most important thing you can do to improve laserdisc picture quality is hunt down a copy of the Video Essentials laserdisc and carefully calibrate your television for the LD signal. Laserdisc and DVD require separate calibration. You may have tuned up your set with an Avia DVD or similar and think it looks great, but the settings you've chosen for DVD may be radically different than what you'll need for laserdisc.

For one thing, laserdisc players output (and the discs are mastered for) a black level at 7.5 IRE. If you have a progressive scan DVD player, on the other hand, this will output black level at 0 IRE. The DVD picture is by default darker than the laserdisc picture. Calibrating your set by DVD standards means that you will be raising your Brightness and Contrast values higher to compensate for the darker picture. Therefore, when you play a laserdisc at the same settings the picture will look washed out and dull, and will have poor black levels. The image will lack the "pop" you see with a properly calibrated picture. The simple solution to this is to save separate settings for each format, properly adjusted by Video Essentials standards. This should restore a better contrast balance, improving depth and making the picture look a little more vibrant, with better color saturation. 

Contrast values set too high will also have the unfortunate side effect of emphasizing video noise and other flaws in the analog signal (just as it would emphasize compression artifacts in a DVD picture if your Contrast was too high for that format), making the movie you watch look really grainy and ugly. Unfortunately, the Video Essentials test patterns for Contrast calibration are geared specifically for CRT displays, which cause blooming or geometric distortion at high settings. These patterns aren't much use for fixed panel digital displays such as LCD, DLP, or plasma. In this case, you'll just have to eyeball it. Lower your Contrast so that whites still look pure white, but fixed pattern noise doesn't jump out at you.

If your LD player offers the control, you will also wind up playing with digital noise reduction (DNR) variables to clean up a noisy analog signal. Composite video can be inherently noisy, and DNR can be a very good thing. But it also has its drawbacks. Adding too much DNR will soften and blur a movie image, as well as cause fine details to smear when in motion. That is obviously not a goal to aim for, as the DNR artifacts may be more distracting than the noise they were cleaning up. Some people dislike the look of DNR and turn it off entirely, but in my experience almost all laserdiscs require at least some measure of noise reduction. Just be sure you don't over-apply it. The better laserdisc players will offer separate control over the YNR and CNR variables. I find that generally it is best to keep YNR set low to avoid smearing, while CNR can be moved a little higher. The way that noise reduction reacts with a video image will vary from display type to display type, so you will probably have to play around with the settings to fine-tune them for that balance where noise in the signal is reduced without smearing important picture details.

STEP #3: CONNECTIONS

With DVD it's simple: Composite video is your weakest form of connection. S-video is always better than Composite, and Component is your best option (short of advanced direct-digital links such as DVI or HDMI). These are hard-and-fast rules, and always apply.

The story with laserdisc isn't so clear. The laserdisc signal is recorded in composite video form, and there is no such thing as a Component video connection on a laserdisc player (the Component outputs on LD/DVD combi players only work for the DVD portion). Naturally you'd think that S-video is your best bet if the player has an output for it. Not so fast. It doesn't work that way in the composite video realm. Sometimes the Composite connection is better. In fact, a lot of times the Composite connection is better. Your choice of S-video or Composite cable is dependent on which piece of equipment has the better comb filter built-in, the LD player or your TV.

Here is the rule you need to remember:

If your LD player has the better comb filter, use the S-video output.
If your TV has the better comb filter, use the Composite output.

The sad fact is that the comb filters built into most laserdisc players are really crappy by modern standards. The best type of filter is a 3D comb filter, which is only found in the top-of-the-line Pioneer Elite CLD-99 and a handful of the really exotic Japanese import machines. The 3-line 2D comb filter found in some of the other high end machines such as the CLD-D704 and Elite CLD-79 are decent but not great. Any kind of 2-line filter found in the mid-range LD players is going to be garbage. 

If you have a modern HDTV, odds are good that it may have a quality 3D comb filter built-in. If so, Composite Video is the connection type you want to use for laserdisc. If you aren't sure what type of filter your TV uses, try both cables and see which looks better. It could go either way. The Snell & Wilcox zone plate test pattern on Video Essentials is a good starting point to see which comb filter produces the worst artifacts.

STEP #4: BUY A BETTER LASERDISC PLAYER

Let's be blunt: Many laserdisc players are crap. Laserdisc picture quality is extremely dependent on the quality of the machine the disc is played on, much more so than DVD. There is a huge disparity between the entry-level LD players and high-end units. If you have an older or low-end player, you're going to get a soft and noisy picture. That's just the way it is. It probably won't get much better for you. As the saying goes, you can't get blood from a stone.

Any LD player built before 1990 needs to be replaced. Laserdisc technology didn't reach the zenith of its quality until the early to mid '90s. Any Sony LD player should be thrown in the garbage, no matter the year. Sony just had terrible luck with the LD format. Their players all stunk and had poor reliability, and the discs they pressed had a high rate of laser rot. Be wary of anything laserdisc-related that has the name Sony printed on it. Other hardware manufacturers put out LD players of varying quality (the Panasonic LX-900 is a pretty good one), but by and large the brand name to stick with is Pioneer. Pioneer put the most effort into developing and improving the LD format, and innovated almost all of the quality standards that made laserdisc the king of home theater movie-watching prior to DVD. 

Pioneer's players are arranged in a heirarchy by model number, from entry-level to high-end. The CLD-S104 and CLD-S201 were the bottom-of-the-barrel entry-level models. They had no dual-side playback, no video noise reduction, no digital memory for still frames on CLV discs, no S-video output, no AC-3 RF output, and no digital audio output whatsoever. 

The higher the model number, the higher-end the player:

CLD-D4xx < CLD-D5xx < CLD-D6xx < CLD-D7xx.

The CLD-D704 was the top-of-the-line player for Pioneer's "blue collar" line (Pioneer separates its products into a regular sales category and an "Elite" product line that has a more stylish cosmetic appearance and sometimes minor quality improvements). The D704 originally retailed for a whopping $1,499! Fortunately, these days it can be found on the second-hand market for around $250, a much better value (how much did you pay for your progressive scan DVD player?). 

The D704 is the best "bang for your buck" LD player available, and in my opinion it should be (along with its equivalent, the CLD-D703, which is the same player minus the Dolby Digital AC-3 output) the minimum standard required for LD playback on an HDTV. Anything below that and your quality level will be pretty dicey. If you have a couple hundred dollars available, I highly recommend seeking out one of these players.

The Pioneer Elite CLD-79 is internally the exact same player as the CLD-D704, with a shinier faceplate. If you can get a D704, there's really no need to upgrade to the CLD-79 unless you happen to like Pioneer's "Urushi" finish. Though if you can get a good deal on it, the 79 is basically the same machine.

In America, Pioneer only produced two steps above the D704/79: the Elite CLD-97 and the Elite CLD-99. These were both top-of-the-line players in their respective years, and the 99 is the only American LD player with a 3D comb filter. There are significant differences between these two machines, and many LD aficianados debate which is the better unit. In my opinion, the CLD-97 is better suited to analog displays, while the CLD-99 is better suited to digital displays. Both of these machines have excellent reputations and tend to sell for a lot more money than the better-value D704, usually in the range of $800-$1000. The CLD-99 is almost identical to the CLD-D704 except for its 3D comb filter, so if your HDTV has a 3D comb filter of its own, you might as well just buy the D704 and use a Composite cable.

If you're a really dedicated LD collector with more money to spend, the very best LD players were released only in the Japanese market and must be imported (you will also need a voltage convertor). The Pioneer LD-S9 is essentially a CLD-99 with a more advanced 3D comb filter never used in US players. It's an excellent machine. Then there's the best-of-the-best, the legendary Pioneer HLD-X9, which has the sharpest, most vibrant and least-noisy picture of any LD player I've ever seen. Watching a well-mastered laserdisc on this player is very close in picture quality to a non-anamorphic DVD. Unfortunately, both of these players are prohibitively expensive for average movie collectors (especially the X9, which was produced in low numbers and has been known to sell for over $4,000 USD). But if you're dedicated, and want the very best there is, this is what to look for.

For most others, as I said earlier the CLD-D704 is the best LD player value and is the model to seek out.

Regarding Pioneer's LD/DVD combi units, even though these were the last LD players that Pioneer designed and manufactured, that does not mean that they were the most advanced or best. In fact, as a rule I would not recommend them. Combi players are designed for convenience, not performance. Both the LD and DVD sections are based on mid-level electronics, the LD section from a CLD-D606 and the DVD section from one of Pioneer's first-generation non-progressive DVD players (which were filled with programming bugs). These combi units are overpriced and frankly not terribly good. The complicated mechanics inside also make them more prone to breaking down. You can do much better for a lot less money by purchasing separate LD and DVD players. 

STEP #5: DEINTERLACING

Alright, now you've got a better LD player, have chosen the right video cable, and have done separate calibration... and the picture is still not great. What's wrong now?

I warned you this might not be easy. Here's your new problem:

All NTSC video (whether laserdisc or DVD) is stored on disc in interlaced format. To be displayed on a progressive scan television, the video must be deinterlaced. For a detailed technical explanation of how progressive scan works, I recommend spending a few hours reading this article.

If you've read a couple paragraphs at that link and it feels like your head is going to explode, I'll boil it down for you. Video deinterlacing is done by chip called naturally enough a deinterlacer (sometimes known as a "line-doubler"). This deinterlacing can be done either inside the television or at the source. Some deinterlacing chips are better than others, sometimes much better. Unfortunately, the kind most television manufacturers put inside their sets are usually the bad ones. That is why it is recommended to buy a good progressive scan DVD player to do your deinterlacing for you, bypassing the chip inside the TV.

Obviously, a progressive scan DVD player isn't going to help your laserdisc collection out much. Unfortunately, there were never any progressive scan laserdisc players ever manufactured. The format died out before there was much need for such a thing. What to do? Now is the time to start looking for an external line-doubler. You can buy a box that does the deinterlacing for you. You plug the LD player (or, if you want to, the DVD player and other sources too) into the line-doubler, it deinterlaces the signal, then you plug this into the TV. 

Like anything, line-doublers vary in quality and cost. The good ones usually aren't cheap. I recommend the iScan line of products from DVDO. iScan products use the superior Silicon Image deinterlacing chip and are, if not exactly cheap, at least reasonably affordable. Faroudja also produces excellent deinterlacing solutions, but their standalone video processors tend to come at a higher price.

A note of warning: Many HDTV models have a design flaw whereby they automatically lock into 16:9 stretch mode on any incoming progressive scan signal. This is not a problem for an anamorphically enhanced DVD, but any non-anamorphic source (such as a 4:3 DVD or a laserdisc) will be stretched and distorted, and the TV will not let you correct this except by sending an interlaced signal instead. This basically negates the effectiveness of using an external line-doubler, unless the doubler offers aspect ratio control to counter this flaw. In the DVDO line, the iScan Plus v2 and iScan Pro have a feature that will pillarbox a 4:3 picture in the center of a 16:9 screen, but will not allow you to zoom a non-anamorphic letterbox picture to fill the screen. For that, you would need the more expensive iScan Ultra or higher. 

STEP #6: SCALING

You've tried a line-doubler, and the results are better but you're still hoping for more. Now we're in the hard-core territory. You need a video scaler.

A video scaler, in addition to deinterlacing, will take a standard-definition video signal and upconvert it to a selected resolution of your choosing. If you have a CRT-based set, usually this means your choice of 480p (standard-def progressive scan, the same a line-doubler would give you), sometimes 540p, occasionally 720p, or often 1080i. You want to select the one that works best with your display type. This may involve playing around with the various options until you find the one that looks best. 

Please note that scaling does not add real picture detail to a video image. Upscaling a standard-definition picture to 1080i does not make it real HD quality. Instead, by interpolating pixels a scaler fills in the empty spaces between scan lines with new pixels that blend in with those surrounding them. When done properly, the result is a picture that looks fuller and more stable, with no visible scan lines even when magnified to a very large screen size. But it's not magic; you can't plug an EP-speed VHS recording into a scaler and make it look like stunning high-definition, regardless of how many pixels you add.

Other types of digital display such as DLP, LCD, and plasma will have pre-defined native resolutions. Sometimes these can be common computer resolutions such as VGA (640x480), SVGA (800x600), XGA (1024x768), or SXGA (1280x1024). Other times you'll get oddball resolutions like 825x480, 1366x768, 1365x1024, or 1440x1152. With this type of display, any input signal of any resolution must be scaled to the set's native resolution. Usually this is done by the scaling chip inside the TV. Just like with deinterlacers, the hardware manufacturers often default to cheap and mediocre-quality chips. A DVD's digital signal is usually clean enough that you get a good picture regardless, but a noisy analog signal like laserdisc can trip up the scaling process and give you all sorts of problems. In this case, an external scaler can help. It will scale directly to the native resolution of the display, bypassing the set's internal chip.

Video scaling is a complicated process and does not come cheaply. Good scalers are expensive. Anything that seems like a really good deal is probably going to be garbage quality. You desperately want to avoid any scaler that will add edge enhancement ringing to a video image, or other artifacts such as pixelation, smearing, or ghosting. 

Again, I am partial to DVDO's iScan line of products, and have written a full review of their $1,499 iScan-HD video scaler. Lumagen also makes a good selection of scaling products, and their (at the time of this writing, soon to be released) VisionHDP model has comparable features and the same price tag as the iScan-HD.

Another (sometimes cheaper) option is to use a computer to do the scaling for you. Some home theater enthusiasts build dedicated "HTPCs" to do all of their video processing. This can have both advantages (lower price, more flexibility and control over how the image is processed) and drawbacks (a tremendous amount of effort and a good deal of computer programming knowledge are usually required). Personally, I'm a home theater buff who's had to learn all this stuff from scratch, but I'm not an engineer. The HTPC route wasn't for me. Your mileage may vary. If you'd like to learn more about how to build an HTPC, start by browsing the discussion boards at AVSForum.

STEP #7: DUBBING TO DVD

When all else fails, you may want to look into the prospect of dubbing your favorite laserdisc content over to recordable DVD. What's the point in that, you ask? First, there's the obvious advantage, that it will allow you to play the LD content back through your DVD player, which hopefully is a good progressive scan model with a quality deinterlacing chip.  Beyond that, with a lot of work it is sometimes actually possible to make a DVD copy look better than the LD original. 

Since when are copies ever better than originals? Today's sophisticated video editing software has a number of advanced features and video filters that may enable you to adjust and clean-up a noisy analog signal before you burn it to DVD. You can also use scaling features to stretch a non-anamorphic letterbox laserdisc into anamorphic proportions; this won't add real picture detail resolution, but it will allow you to watch the content in progressive scan on a display that locks all progressive signals into 16:9 stretch mode. 

DVD authoring can be a terribly complicated process and usually involves a great deal of trial-and-error work, but if the idea interests you I recommend starting with this lengthy thread from the AVSForum archive.

STEP #8: SETTING EXPECTATIONS 

Here's the bottom line: Even the very best laserdisc played on the very best laserdisc player, routed through the very best video scaler and connected to the very best television, will never look as good as a well-mastered anamorphic DVD on the same set. It just isn't going to happen. The format doesn't have the resolution to compete, and its composite video signal is hampered by the limitations of its antiquated design. 

Don't get me wrong, I still love laserdiscs and I will cherish my LD collection forever. But we have to be realistic here. DVD just looks better, as it damn well should considering that the technology is 20 years newer. It's call progress and, as Martha Stewart would say, "It's a good thing". We should be, and most of us are, grateful for the advances that DVD has brought us, and we will be even more thrilled when the next generation of high definition video discs finally come along. 

That said, laserdiscs still hold a special place in many of our hearts, and they deserve to be seen in their best light. The above steps should help, but the biggest hurdle to be overcome is in setting our expectations. What it comes down to is that laserdiscs just look different than DVDs. They have a different look, a different feel, and a different texture. The image may be softer, and there may be a bit more grain or noise, but laserdisc is still a high-quality format and is capable of producing a pleasant movie-watching experience. It's like comparing CD to vinyl. Sure, CD is technically the better format in a number of ways, but even despite the occasional pops or crackle a vinyl record has a certain warmth and richness to it that digital technology has yet to fully replicate. The same can be said for laserdisc and DVD. Maybe a laserdisc picture is a little noisy, but no digital compression means no compression artifacts, the bane of DVD technology. It's all a matter of which type of artifact distracts you more. Digital video when compressed too much also has a tendency to smooth away subtle gradations in color shadings in favor of bolder, more primary colors, which can be appealing on a superficial level, but uncompressed analog video is sometimes able to bring out the whole spectrum with broader range. 

It may take some work, but it is possible to get a good laserdisc picture on a large digital display. For my part, I run a Japanese LD-S9 laserdisc player through an iScan-HD into my NEC LT-240 DLP front projector, which shines onto a 6-foot wide screen. Well-mastered laserdiscs are perfectly watchable on that screen size. Sadly, not every laserdisc is as well-mastered as it should be, and the noisy pressings that look bad even on a small screen are only going to look worse the larger you go. But those that were quality presentations hold up very well. I often like to fool new friends by playing a scene from the Austin Powers LD to show off the projector, then when they are suitably impressed reveal that it wasn't even a DVD they were watching. It works every time.

It was a lot of effort and no small amount of expense to get to that point, but because my laserdisc collection is important to me it was worth the hassle. If you happen to feel similarly, I hope the information presented above helps get you to that same place where you are satisfied that you have done all that is possible, and are content with the results. 


August 2008 Addendum:

I've had a number of people ask me to update this article since first writing it. To be honest, the basics of the piece still apply today. The only things that have really changed are the names and models of the latest hardware. The DVDO and Lumagen lines of video scalers are currently a few generations ahead of the models mentioned above, and they have new competition from a host of other companies with comparable products. The old standalone "line-doublers" are virtually extinct, in favor of all-in-one "video processors". These days, it is also more common to find quality video processing technology being built into HDTVs and even A/V receivers, whereas that was incredibly rare a few years ago. 

However, the essential concepts laid out in the article are still the same, and there isn't much more I can add. 
 

Further questions?
Email: jzyber @ mind spring . com (remove spaces)


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