Specs lie. (Actually they just mislead us.)

hddlog2.gifIn a wonderful commentary article (rant) at High Def Digest, Joshua Zarber takes a moment to put down the hardware and the manuals and speak directly to the “number purists” among us and basically tells us to grow up.

He opens with a compliment to the fact that the technical prowess of end users has been wielded to the betterment of all consumers, by pointing out glaring problems and demanding fixes:5thel2.jpg

Sometimes this can be a great benefit, when knowledgeable users band together to analyze specific technical deficiencies that have occurred and share their feedback with the parties responsible, hopefully leading to improvements in the future…

“The Fifth Element was even remastered in significantly better quality as a direct result of owner feedback. That wouldn’t have happened had no one spoken up about it.

But goes on to take specific issue with those who tout specifications above all else:

On the flip side of that coin, we have countless cases of agenda-driven individuals attempting to use a partial understanding of technical matters as a bludgeon in arguments supposedly “proving” the superiority of one format over the other.

He takes the discussion to a point:

This “specs above all else” mentality has reared its ugly head again recently with the release of ‘Transformers’ … the soundtrack is only encoded in Dolby Digital Plus format, not a lossless codec [so] in the minds of many, this disc is a huge failure, and its soundtrack a pathetic disgrace for not including a TrueHD or PCM option.

And provides the counterpoint:speak24.png

…at least one working Hollywood sound mixer has voiced his opinion that, when played back on his professional dubbing stage, well-mastered Dolby Digital Plus soundtracks encoded at the high 1509 kb/s bit rate that Paramount uses can be audibly transparent to the studio masters…

[This] when tested on movies that he mixed himself and would presumably know better than anyone else.

But what use is the informed opinion of an expert in the field when it’s easier to just point to the specs list on the back of a disc’s packaging

Ad then he hammers it home:

If the audio codec alone were the only important criteria in sound quality, how could it be that a disc like “Dinosaur” with a 48 kHz / 24-bit PCM 5.1 track would sound so underwhelming? With specs like those, why isn’t that disc a spectacular audio showcase?

Somehow I doubt you’ll find too many critical listeners who would ever claim that “Dinosaur” sounds better than “Transformers”, but based on the specs, shouldn’t it? Perhaps it’s time we all realize that there’s more to quality than the specs can tell us.

Which brings me to my point.

Specifications, like statistics, lie:

There are three kinds of lies.
Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I constantly hear that AVCHD is better than HDV because it is a newer, better, more efficient codec. A Panasonic sales rep argued with me about this.

hsc1ufront.jpgWhile AVCHD may be a better codec, the camcorder the Panasonic rep held at NAB 2007 was clearly an inferior camcorder to the professional HDV camcorders from Sony that he was comparing it to. There’s a wide, wide margin between what the numbers in the manual say, and the actual images demonstrate to the critical eye. I’m not alone in this assessment:

…in our video tests, we have found [AVCHD] to produce video that is noisier than HDV but nearly as sharp, at around ½ the bit rate… HDV is more stable, superior in terms of performance, and… If picture quality and editability are your foremost concerns, HDV outclasses AVCHD by a wide margin.

brain.jpgMoreover, it matters far more the God-blessed talent embedded in the grey matter of the director, cinematographer and lighting designer, than it does the bit rate of the HD that is shot.

There’s quite a fervor about RED’s 12-megapixel images.
But HD DVD only shows me 2 Megapixel images on my screen at home.

Give a RED-1 to a typical parent to record their kid’s school play.
Give a DV camcorder to a Pro to shoot the same play.
Guess whose video will look better.

Many people get caught up in the specifications.
They are like a siren song of capability.
It’s too bad, because in the end,
Specs lie.

It is still up to us to produce quality content.



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3 thoughts on “Specs lie. (Actually they just mislead us.)

Add yours

  1. Great stuff as usual Anthony, however I’ll make one comment on why 12 Megapixels for acquisition (even for less than 2 Mpixel displays): Oversampling at source is a good thing. The quality all down the line is better. This is why an inexpensive HDV camcorder outclasses much more expensive SD camcorders when in SD mode. The HD source is oversampled for SD display.

    Oversampling at source is a very good thing.

    Your point about how misleading pure statistics are, is pure gold though.


  2. Insightful as always, Philip.

    Oversampling is indeed useful. However, All the camcorder manufacturers have demonstrated how pixel-shift, undersampling and interpolation can make undersampled images appear quite adequate. Elsewise the HVX-200 would look like the SD camcorder it really is.


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