State-of-the-Art Audio/Video Just Got Cheaper

Prices are falling on audio and video players, giving consumers top-shelf quality at bargain levels.
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This holiday season won't just be about better audio and video for less, it will be about better audio and video for waaaay less.

Thank the techno gods, with their wily ways of packing more gadget-y punch per black box inch, but the means to savor the absolute best in audio and video is now well within the means of even the entry-level TV junkie.

State-of-the-art, once $1,000-ish Blu-ray high definition disc players, like the

Sony

(SNE) - Get Report

BDP-s350, fell below the $500 mark earlier this year. And today's tight economic times have forced street prices lower still.

Aggressive retailers like

J&R Music World

are selling similar Sonys at a mere $260, which is cheaper than the $278.54 from supposedly-cheapest-in-the-land

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

.

Target

(TGT) - Get Report

is also into cheap Bu-rays. Here's a very nice

Philips

: the BDP7200 for an equally absurd $250. And then there are entry-level decks from makers like

Olevia

(BRLCQ)

, Memorex, Samsung and others. Just look a bit and you will find them.

But there is a catch: Sony and all the rest of the HD disc set face some hidden competition. Download video services like

Netflix

(NFLX) - Get Report

,

Blockbuster

(BBI) - Get Report

,

Amazon

(AMZN) - Get Report

and

CinemaNow

(SNIC)

all offer a perfectly reasonable HD experience using a broadband connection. Catalogues and quality are rich. So much so, that an early pioneer of online HD content, Santa Clara- based Vudu, announced in November that it was upping the number of HD movies to roughly a whopping 1,200, basically putting an entire video store's full of all things HD at your digital fingertips. And, to boot, the company also announced a new compression standard, dubbed HDx, staking a claim that it was the best HD experience ever via download.

I don't know about you, but when somebody talks that kind of tech street trash, I am not giving a free pass. So I put one of my favorite Blu-ray decks -- the

Denon

2500 BTCI ($999 ) -- side by side with a

Vudu

BX 100 ($299, $200 movie credit with a purchase from Best Buy) and ran both for several weeks.

Here's how this particular new media mud wrestle went down:

1. Blu-ray discs offer the absolute best quality, but not -- I repeat, not -- by a mile.

No doubt the Denon 2500 is a fabulous deck. And, again, no doubt, Blu-ray discs pack a simply ridiculous amount of wonderfully high-quality content. And on big screens, super-lush titles like "Speed Racer" are movie-theater quality. But even I, the reigning Mr. World Media Snob, had to admit that Blu-ray is not a quantum leap jump in viewing power over the download HDx content.

The fact is, Vudu's HDx spec does a dang good job rendering most imagery. Yes, shots with lots of action, like the Russian import "Mongol," did overwhelm the compression a bit at times. But on small screens, like the 26-inch Viewsonic LCD I tested, the Hdx experience was solid. Al Pacino's thriller "88 Minutes," which features real actors and not many computer-generated images, provided a solid night of home movie viewing.

Bottom line: Done right, download content can look damn good.

2. Download HD offers the most convenience, but again, not by a mile.

Yes, you really can get a Blockbuster's worth of stuff in your TV whenever you want. Release dates for download content are roughly concurrent with discs. And Vudu offers rent and buy options. But actually using the service is not as liquid as you would think: HDx files are so big and processing-intensive that they can take hours, sometimes four or five, to download. Vudu gets credit for softening that blow by allowing you to order HDx titles from its Web site many hours in advance if you so choose.

And the service's standard def viewing options can be watched pretty much instantly. But, strictly speaking, the best media experience is not an impulse buy. And it gets worse. The downloaded film does not come with the very nice DVD extras like directories, commentaries and deleted scenes. And it gets worse still: Download HDx from Vudu is NOT cheap. HDx titles that I watched ran $5.99 each or about double that of a disc at Blockbuster. Ouch.

Bottom line: Vudu HDx films are cool but they can be slow, skimpy on the extras and costly.

3. Both can be equally clumsy to use.

Nothing is perfect. Hey, this is technology. But even so, you can expect a consistent level of frustration across both formats. Though the Denon does a nice job relative to other players, all Blu-ray discs are much slower to load and boot than standard def DVDs. And once running, do not expect the same instant control over frames and ancillary content as you would in traditional decks. The media streams are just too large.

On the other hand, downloaded content from Vudu is compressed. And again, Vudu gets techno points for making its compression look so good. (Nerd break: The company says it is based on something called H.264, a riff on the MPEG 4 standard.) But the compression takes its toll: The movie is harder to control. Rewind features are jerky and finding your way through the film is awkward. And Vudu's elegant remote controller, while lovely to look at, takes some getting used to.

And the winner is?

Drum roll, please: For the cost-conscious media lover, I would go Vudu, but with a major caveat. Stick with the standard-def content. Here, movies cost the same as the standard def disc and look as good, if not, better. And the instant downloadableness of Vudu is the perfect onramp to the digital content superhighway for the average user.

But for the true, unabridged media snob, Blu-ray is clearly still the way to go. There is no beating the mix of this new generation of low-cost Blu-ray players, matched with a good supply of discs. Pound for pound, bit for bit, it is still best way to get great media quality.

Either way, don't let the dark market mood fool you. In many ways, we live in media golden age.

There is no reason to not go out -- or stay in, rather -- and enjoy it.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.