Musings of a PC

Thoughts about Windows, TV and technology in general

Converting Blu-Rays to high quality MP4s

Those of you who have followed my occasional blog postings will know that I have a home theatre setup with a Hush PC running Windows 7 with Media Center and a Synology NAS to store full rips of DVDs and Blu-Rays. I use Media Browser as the front-end to all of my stored videos.

Recently, however, two factors have led me to become increasingly frustrated with this configuration:

  1. ArcSoft’s Total Media Theatre does not play well in conjunction with Media Browser. The more recent versions of MB have improved the situation but TMT 5 just doesn’t play well. I don’t know if it is the fact that my hardware is now getting a bit old or because TMT 5 just isn’t a good bit of software.
  2. Some of the Blu-Rays recently purchased are protected by Cinavia. If you haven’t come across this before, it is an audio watermark designed in such a way that if you play a copy of the content rather than an original source, playback is supposed to stop after a period of time with an error. Now, the version of TMT 5 I was using had not had Cinavia support added but the Blu-Rays wouldn’t play properly, if at all, so I was left wondering if there was a change in the way the discs were being created that my version of TMT 5 was choking on. Upgrading TMT to the most recent version would introduce Cinavia support, which would then totally prevent me from using ripped copies.

So I’ve been researching the various options available to me, focussing mostly on HandBrake. This is a great, free piece of software that does a fantastic job of taking various source material (DVD, Blu-Ray and others) and converting to MP4. It does one job and it does it really well. It does not include any capability for defeating copy protection but I use AnyDVD HD for that.

Now I know that converting Blu-Rays to a different compressed format – both audio and video – is going to lose me some fidelity, and I know that I’ll lose functionality as well, such as the ability to dynamically turn subtitles on and off, or select different audio streams, etc. There are ways to solve this, such as using different containers such as MKV, but Windows 7 doesn’t support MKV natively and I didn’t want to install any more software onto the media PC. According to reports I’ve read, it is possible that the Cinavia watermark survives the transcoding but Windows 7 doesn’t provide any support for Cinavia :-).

Here are the settings I ultimately ended up with:

  • Normal preset
  • Video tab: select Fast Decode. I found this necessary to stop the media PC occasionally choking on the playback.
  • Audio tab: add an audio track of your choice with the codec set to AAC (faac) and mixdown set to 5.1 Channels.
  • Subtitles tab: if your Blu-Ray has any foreign language in it (e.g. Avatar, Star Wars I, Salt, etc), you can choose to have the English subtitles for those sections burned into the video image. This requires a copy of the nightly build of HandBrake and not the stable build at this time (0.9.8 doesn’t support this feature). Just add Foreign Audio Scan, select Forced Only and Burn In. It should be noted that enabling this feature will result in longer processing time as HB then has to scan through the video to see where the subtitles get turned on and off in order to determine if there are any foreign language subtitles to select.

That’s it. I found the resulting video and audio to be of very high quality.

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