by Darryl Wilkinson
Editor-at-Large, Home Theater Magazine
Lions eating railroad workers in Africa – that’s the kind of thing that attracted the attention of the movie-going public back in the early 1950s. Well, lions eating railroad workers in Africa in 3D anyway. That was the subject of Bwana Devil, the first 3D Hollywood movie to attract any kind of mass audience attention. Fortunately, today we have much more high-brow 3D entertainment to entice us into staying home and watching 3D on our own HDTVs: Monsters vs. Aliens, Monster House, and Shrek 3D, to name just a few. Okay, so those titles might not be considered the highest of brows, but there’ll be plenty of titles, such as IMAX: Under the Sea and Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk, to tickle your intellectual bone in the near future.
So if any of those titles (even Bwana Devil) strike your three-dimensional fancy, you might be interested in knowing what it’s going to take to add that extra dimension to your home theater. The bad news is that 3D involves an entire ecosystem of components. In other words, you can’t simply replace your DVD player with a 3D Blu-ray player and instantly get 3D video in your system. The good news is that the prices of 3D-enabled gear don’t cost that much more than the equivalent 2D versions.
So, what exactly do you need to do 3D in your living room? You’ll need to build or add on to your system the following: a 3D HDTV; 3D glasses that are compatible with your TV; a 3D source, such as a 3D Blu-ray player; and (potentially) a new AV receiver and cables. While that may seem like a lot, don’t panic. We’ll take it one component at a time – just like you can do if you want to upgrade over time.
Let’s start with the 3D HDTV. One great thing about 3D technology is the fact that you can find plasma, LCD, rear projection, and front projection versions of 3D HDTVs. So no matter what your technological preference or special requirement, you’re almost certainly going to be able to find a 3D HDTV model that will work for you. And remember, all 3D HDTVs also play 2D video sources. In fact, in order for a TV to show a great 3D image, it also has to be able to display a great 2D picture. (The reverse, unfortunately, is true, too. Start with a TV that’s lousy at 2D and you’ll get lousy 3D, as well.) That means it’s perfectly okay to get a good 3D HDTV even before you get a 3D Blu-ray player or satellite box to use with it.
Aside from needing new equipment, the biggest drawback to 3D watching for most people is the requirement that each viewer must be wearing 3D glasses in order to get the 3D effect. As a matter of fact, it’s more important than that. Anyone who tries to watch a 3D movie without the glasses will quickly wind up with a whopping headache from trying to make sense of the burry images on the screen. Some 3D HDTVs come with as many as two pairs of glasses, while others don’t include any at all (but you’re welcome to buy as many as you want). Considering glasses can run as much as $150 – $200 (per pair!), this can be a very important issue – especially around sports playoffs time when you’re likely to invite friends over to watch a game. Unless you have enough glasses to go around, everyone is going to have to watch the game in 2D mode. Glasses, by the way, are not always compatible between 3D TV manufacturers. A pair of Sony 3D glasses, for example, might not work with a Mitsubishi 3D TV. This means that even if your neighbor owns a 3D HDTV, he can’t necessarily bring his glasses over to watch your 3D HDTV. XpanD and Monster are both going to be releasing universal glasses that will work with most brands of 3D HDTVs. XpanD’s glasses will even work in XpanD-equipped movie theaters, so you’ll be able to use your own personal XpanD glasses rather than the theater’s – if you ever decide to leave your own home theater, that is.
Once you have your 3D HDTV (and glasses), you’re going to need a source for 3D content. DIRECTV is already broadcasting several 3D channels, and Time Warner Cable has had a smattering of offerings so far. But for most of us, a 3D Blu-ray Disc player will be the most convenient and affordable source for 3D content. Just as prices have dropped dramatically on BD players in general, prices of 3D BD players already start at under $250. If you’re one of those lucky people who own a Sony PS3, a free firmware change can be done to upgrade your machine to make it 3D capable – although it may not fully support all 3D extra features. Unfortunately, older standalone BD players are not upgradeable.
Now that you have the two most important pieces in the 3D ecosystem (the 3D HDTV and the 3D source), you could begin watching 3D immediately – as long as you have an HDMI cable that’s capable of handling the bandwidth required by the 3D TV signal. It has to be HDMI, by the way. Analog video, component or otherwise, simply won’t do. If you’re buying a new cable, make sure it’s labeled “High Speed”; but you don’t need to rush out and buy a new cable automatically. If you have an existing HDMI cable, you might want to try it first to see if it works. If so, you’ve saved yourself a couple of bucks you can spend on a new BD movie or two.
Although you could use the speakers in the 3D HDTV and start watching a movie right away, it’s really better to hook everything up to a surround sound receiver in order to take advantage of the high definition audio signal present on most BD discs. In order to make sure everything works the way it should, your new receiver should be HDMI 1.4 ready. If you have an older AV receiver with HDMI 1.3, you might still be able to see a 3D picture when you pass the signal through your AVR, but you probably won’t have access to some of the special features. Don’t worry if you’re not ready to replace your AVR yet. There’s at least one way of connecting everything to get around this issue and get the best picture along with the best sound. Your salesperson is the best one to talk to about your particular situation.
So that’s what you need to bring yourself into the third dimension of television. If you’re putting together a brand new system, it’s relatively easy to make your home theater ready for 3D. If you’re upgrading one piece at a time, just make sure that each piece you add is 3D capable. Then once you have at least the 3D HDTV and 3D source, you’ll be able to start enjoying all the excitement of those 3D lion attacks in Bwana Devil…well, maybe Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs would be a better choice.