Category Archives: Technology

Dealing with awkward subtitle problems in Handbrake

I know very little about Handbrake; this is just some notes on what I personally do to reduce my confusion about why subtitles aren’t being ripped properly and manually fixing that, but I almost certainly can’t answer any questions about issues you might be having! This is just here in the hope that it might be useful to someone…

I’ve been on a long-running project to rip some of our DVDs to network attached storage, so that playing them is a much more pleasant experience: we can then easily play any of our DVDs around the flat without suffering cute-but-unusable DVD menus, condescending anti-piracy warnings or trashy trailers. With some DVDs that are already quite poor quality I’ll just image the disk and copy the ISO to the NAS, but in most cases I use Handbrake to transcode just the titles I want from the DVD using a codec with rather better compression than MPEG-2. There’s inevitably a loss of quality doing this transcoding, of course, but in most cases I don’t mind.

DVD Subtitles

One slightly vexing issue that sometimes comes up when doing this is what to do about the subtitle tracks on the DVD. For plenty of films or TV shows there aren’t any points at which you’d expect a subtitle to be shown, so you don’t need to worry about them. However, plenty of our DVDs do have brief sections in foreign languages, for example, that you’d expect to be subtitled.

There are various choices about how you can handle these when ripping, but I prefer what’s really the option that loses most information: “burning in” any subtitles that are there for the purposes of translating foreign language sections into English or are added for comic effect. “Burning in” these images from a subtitle track means that you’re overlaying the images before the source video is transcoded, so you can’t remove those subtitles or switch them to other languages afterwards. Obviously lots of people prefer not to burn in the subtitles for that reason, but I tend to do this because it means I’m not subject to the vagaries of how different video players handle subtitles, and these rips are only for my own personal use anyway.

As well as “burning in” subtitles, another concept you might need to know about is of “forced subtitles”. Any subtitles in a given subtitle track might be marked as “forced” – this is used to tell the DVD player to display these even if the person hasn’t chosen to see all subtitles from a particular subtitle track – the intended use of this is exactly for brief sections of foreign languages in films, as I understand it.

In most cases, what works fine in Handbrake for what I want to do is to use the “Foreign Audio Search” option in the “Subtitle List” tab, selecting “Burned In” and then guessing whether to tick the “Forced Subtitles Only” box or not – generally I’ll leave that unchecked, unless when I look at the list of available subtitles (under “Add”) there’s only one English language subtitle track, in which case it’s probably forcing subtitles for any foreign language sections that are subtitled. This option should look through all the subtitle tracks for ones that appear less than 10% of the time, look for forced subtitles, and make a sensible choice about what to use: the Handbrake documentation explains this.

However, there are various ways this can go wrong – the “Foreign Audio Search” option sometimes makes the wrong choice in peculiar ways – e.g. I’ve seen it pick the right track when you’re just ripping one chapter from a title, but the wrong one when you’ve selected all the chapters (!). Also, there’s just very little consistency in how DVD producers choose whether to mark subtitles as forced.

When it goes wrong, here’s the method I use to manually pick the right subtitle track to burn in – essentially this is to do the “Foreign Audio Search” scan on just one chapter that I know both has audio that should and should not be subtitled, look through the “Activity Log” to see the results of that scan, and then manually select the right subtitle track based on that.


To step through that in more detail, here’s what I’d do:

  • Select from the “Subtitle List” tab the “Foreign Audio Search” option, and add that to the subtitles list. It doesn’t matter what options you choose, since we’re just adding this to get the results of the search into the activity log.
  • Find a chapter in the title you want to rip that has some audio you’d want to have subtitles for, and some that you don’t want to be subtitled. (You can select multiple chapters to achieve this if you want – the point of just choosing a small number of chapters is only to make the scan quicker.) I’d normally do this by (a) knowing a bit of the film with such audio and (b) finding that in bit of the film in Totem, which conveniently shows the title and chapter number in the window title.
  • Select just those chapters to rip,  add them to the queue
  • Start encoding
  • Open the activity log window
  • Once the “subtitle scan” pass has completed (it should be the first thing that Handbrake does) scroll up in the activity log to find the lines that look something like this:

[13:35:12] Subtitle track 0 (id 0x20bd) ‘English’: 87 hits (0 forced)
[13:35:12] Subtitle track 1 (id 0x21bd) ‘English’: 89 hits (0 forced)
[13:35:12] Subtitle track 2 (id 0x22bd) ‘English’: 6 hits (0 forced)

  • That means that subtitle track 2 is the right one, because there are subtitles for only some of the audio – the other two probably have subtitles for every line of dialogue, even if it’s in English. So, now we want to set up Handrake to rip the complete title but with that subtitle track added manually:
  • Remove the “Foreign Audio Search” option from the subtitle list.
  • Click “Add”  in the subtitle list tab, and select subtitle track 3 (n.b. not 2, since the graphical user interface (GUI) for Handbrake numbers subtitle tracks starting at 1, not 0.) Make sure you don’t select “Forced Subtitles Only” since the subtitles on that track aren’t forced (see “0 forced” in the output above).  (I would also select “Burn in” whenever adding a subtitle track manually like this, for the reasons discussed above – but you might well have different views about that.)
  • Then select all the chapters of the title, add the title to the queue and rip it as normal.

As other examples of things you might see in that list of “hits” in the results of the foreign audio search pass, consider the following:

[16:57:06] Subtitle track 0 (id 0x20bd) ‘English’: 77 hits (0 forced)
[16:57:06] Subtitle track 1 (id 0x21bd) ‘English’: 78 hits (0 forced)
[16:57:06] Subtitle track 14 (id 0x2ebd) ‘English’: 8 hits (8 forced)

In this example, it happens that the subtitles are “forced”, but it’s still clear that track 14 (0-based) is the one which just has the subtitles for the foreign language section, so I’d add track 15 (14 +1) manually in the GUI as above – and in this case it doesn’t matter whether you selected “Forced Subtitles Only” or not, since all of the subtitles on that track appear to be forced.

As a final example, you might see output like this:

[18:23:55] Subtitle track 0 (id 0x20bd) ‘English’: 92 hits (11 forced)

In that example there’s a single English subtitle track, which marks some subtitles as “forced” to indicate that those are for foreign language audio. In that case, in the GUI I would manually add subtitle track 1 (0 + 1) but would have to select the “Force Subtitles Only” option to avoid getting subtitles for everything.

Christmas Gift Ideas

Holiday gift guides seem to be almost exclusively terrible, particularly those aimed at “geeks”, whatever people think that means. In particular these lists are often split by gender, presumably because they’re written by (or pandering to) idiots. And they’re typically full of novelties or cute ideas that in practice will just occupy valuable space and you’d feel guilty about giving away or recycling. This post is my attempt to write a list of ideas which I think has (mostly) genuinely useful presents on it, based on things we’ve owned and used for a while.

I’m quite conflicted about this exercise, I should probably say. Different families and social groups have very different present-giving cultures, but for many people in a similarly lucky position to me, getting consumer items that you don’t really want, or a subtly wrong variant of something you do want, is worse than getting nothing at all, and much worse than the person giving money to a charity instead. That said, maybe these lists are useful as a basis for things people might suggest and discuss before giving as presents?

(There are quite a few Amazon affiliate links here, which I haven’t tried using in a blog post before. I imagine no one much will read or click on links in this post anyway, but if that bothers you, you’ve been warned, at least.)

Muji touchscreen gloves

You can get gloves with conductive material in the fingertips from loads of places nowadays, in fact. The idea is that you can use capacitive touch-screens, like those on your phone or tablet, without removing  your gloves. These Muji ones are pretty cheap, and work OK – I find you need a bit more pressure than without the gloves to get them to work, but it’s fine.

Non-contact infrared digital thermometer

These thermometers are brilliant for accurate and remote measurement of temperature. (This was a great recommendation from my colleague Paul.) I use mine quite a lot for things like cooking and checking the oven temperature, as well as measuring the surface temperature of my feet, how cold the walls are, etc. It has a LASER pointer as well to mark what you’re measuring the temperature of. I think this is very similar to the device used by Gale Boetticher in Breaking Bad when he’s making tea, if that means anything to you :)

Ear plugs for loud concerts and public transport

I’m sure that my hearing was somewhat damaged from gigs and nightclubs when I was younger; it always seemed to be particularly bad after going to small venues where the treble is far too powerful. (I wonder if this is because the sound engineers have damaged the higher ranges of their hearing over the course of their working lives and then compensate for that, damaging the customers’ hearing in the same way, and so on…)

To avoid further damage to my hearing nowadays, I always take ear plugs with a fairly flat frequency response along to gigs. They can never be ideal: you often get a huge amount of bass sound through bone conduction at loud gigs, and the ear plugs can’t do anything about that. It’s probably better to have rather too bassy sound than damage your hearing, though.

The ones I’ve linked to from the heading have switchable filters for different levels of sound attenuation – the ones I have don’t have that feature, but in retrospect it would have been nice if they did.

I carry these in my bag all the time, and it’s also frequently useful for blocking out sound on public transport as well, to give yourself some peace and quiet.

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B

I think it’s always possible to think of a fun new project that a Raspberry Pi would be useful for, and the Pi 3 is a big step forward from the previous models, having Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built-in.

I really like the lovely Pimoroni cases, like these, which I got for our Pi 3, and they do other nice accessories.

A good battery charger

NiMH rechargeable batteries are really good nowadays, and save you quite a bit of money if you have lots of devices that use AA / AAA batteries. We got this battery charger in part because I believe it is the same model, albeit with different branding, as the Wirecutter’s “Also Great” pick – it has more features than their basic suggestion. (There’s a useful FAQ for it in an Amazon review of the US version.) Although the UI isn’t very intuitive, you can use the device to calculate the capacity of your existing batteries, which is really helpful – when we first got it I went through all of our existing rechargeable batteries to work out which were worth keeping and which should be replaced.

“The Knot Shop Man” books

My friend and colleague Dave Whiteland wrote an amazing of series of books called “The Knot Shop Man”, which are described as being for “smart children or thoughtful adults”. The theme of knots runs through all the books (which you can read in any order) and they come bound up in a very special knot. (After finishing reading them, you should try to retie it. :)) Not enough people know about these books, and I think the ones he’s selling at the moment are limited in quantity.

A Network Attached Storage device

If you don’t have any Network Attached Storage, I think you’ll be surprised at how soon you come to rely on it, both for backups and for storing music and videos on to stream to your phone, TV, or whatever.

For me, one of the Synology 2 drive bay boxes seemed about right, and it’s been brilliant so far. (Another of my excellent colleagues, Zarino, wrote a blog post about the initial setup of these.)

An AeroPress coffee maker

This is our favourite way of making coffee, for one or possibly two people.

A cut-resistant glove

If you have one of those excellent Microplane graters or a mandoline and are as clumsy as me, you’re probably familiar with the experience of accidentally slicing your hands when using them. You can partially solve this problem with a cut-resistant glove. (I say “partially” because this then shifts the problem to “remembering to use the cut-resistant glove”.)

A Mu folding-plug charger

These are a lovely design, which makes a UK 3-pin plug take up less space by letting you fold it away, and provides 2.4A USB port.

Butchery course at the Ginger Pig

Presents that are experiences rather than things-that-take-up-physical-space often work out well. An interesting one of these we did is a course in butchery at the Ginger Pig – you can do a class on pork, beef or lamb and you get both a big meal and a lot of meat to take away, as well as learning about what each cut of meat is good for.

Bluetooth keyboard

I really try to avoid using Bluetooth, because, well, it’s terrible, and gives me flashbacks to the worst job I ever had, working on “personal area networking”. But this keyboard has actually been pretty good – you can have it paired to three different devices and swap between them easily. (It doesn’t seem to be easy to find a keyboard that can be paired with more than three devices, but maybe someone knows of one.)

Bose noise-cancelling headphones

(I have an earlier version of these, but the QC25 seems to be the current equivalent.) I gather that headphone connoisseurs don’t particularly rate the sound quality of these, but basically everyone agrees that the noise cancelling is amazing. (The sounds seems great to me, for what it’s worth, but I’m not an audiophile.) For long coach, train and plane trips they’re fabulous, if quite bulky to take with you. They are expensive, though.

Sliding webcam covers

This is a set of 5 little sliding webcam covers. The idea is that if someone malicious gains remote access to your computer, then the impact if they can also see everything from your webcam is much worse than if they can’t. These little windows are really cheap and mean that you can just open the webcam window when you actually need it.

A bumper case and screen protector for your phone

I think I probably drop my phone about once a day, but haven’t had smashed its screen yet, thanks to having a good bumper case and screen protector. The Ringke Fusion line of bumper cases (which they seem to do for most current phones) are the ones I’ve used for a while, and as a very clumsy person I can testify that they protect your smartphone very well.

As a screen protector I’m currently using one of the “Invisible Defender Glass” models.

A strangely unpopular feature of AV receivers: HDMI-CEC remote control pass-through

We had a couple of power cuts in quick succession recently, and the fluctuations in power around that time killed our old AV receiver. ¹ (If you’re not sure what such a device is for, I’ve described how we use it in footnote 2.) In shopping for a replacement, I thought that to a reasonable approximation I only needed to look at one feature:

  • How many HDMI inputs does it have?

… since having at least 5 is useful, and plenty of the cheaper devices on the market only have inputs for 3 or 4 HDMI devices.

But this turned out to be naïve. I’d just assumed that all AV receivers would have the second most important feature I actually want, which is:

  • HDMI-CEC remote control pass-through. This means that when you press the arrow keys, play, pause, etc. on the AV receiver’s remote control, those commands are sent to the HDMI input device that’s currently active.

Why is that useful? In our case, because two of the connected devices are a Raspberry Pi (running Kodi) and a Playstation 4, both which can be controlled this way just from the AV receiver’s remote control. ³ Without this feature we’d need to get an IR receiver for the Raspberry Pi or have a Bluetooth keyboard by the sofa, and use the PS4’s Dualshock 4 controller, which isn’t great as a remote control – the shoulder buttons tend to get pushed when you put it down. Even if we got those alternatives controllers, it’d mean two additional remote controls to juggle.

However, I’ve discovered the expensive way that this fantastically useful feature is:

  • Very variably supported – even devices that claim to support HDMI-CEC don’t necessarily do the remote control pass-through.
  • Not widely known about – the two otherwise well-informed people I spoke to at Richer Sounds hadn’t even heard of this feature.
  • Not typically listed in manufacturers’ specifications, so it’s very hard to tell if a device you’re going to buy will actually support it.

I don’t understand

Clearly I’m missing something about the world of home cinema / Hi-Fi, otherwise more people would know and care about this feature.

The number of different remote controls you need is one of the most obvious ways that usability of home cinema systems tends to be awful. Is it the case that most of the people in the market for AV receivers don’t care about this? Do they live with people who aren’t Hi-Fi enthusiasts, and how do those people deal with it?

Theory 1 – they live with the complexity

Perhaps they just live with the complexity: they keep four or five remote controls around all the time, and effectively write an operations manual for their families or house guests who might need to try something as extraordinary as, I dunno, watching TV, or using Netflix.

Theory 2 – typically people have few input devices

Maybe people are OK with two or three remote controls, and this usability problem only becomes really bad when you end up needing four or five. (I don’t buy this, really – even with two or three remote controls the situation’s pretty bad.)

Theory 3 – more people use all-in-one remotes than I expect

Of course, you can buy all-in-one remote controls that can be taught the IR signals sent by any of your existing remote controls so that they can be sent from one device. Maybe these are much more popular than I imagine? I can’t think of anyone I know who has one, but obviously that’s not a very representative sample.

The problems with an all-in-one IR remote control for us would be that (a) the PS4 controller uses Bluetooth, so it wouldn’t work for that, and (b) we’d still need to get an IR receiver + remote for the Raspberry Pi.

In any case, these devices seems so inelegant compared to the HDMI-CEC solution – why should the remote control have to preserve the state indicating which device’s IR codes should be sent? With the CEC approach, the AV receiver knows which source is active and it should send the command to.

30 Rock - "St Valentine's Day" mention of universal remote controls
Included only because if there’s even a tangential reference in 30 Rock to what you’re talking about, you should include it…

Theory 3 – there’s some other solution I don’t know about

This seems quite likely, and if it’s correct, I’d really like to know what the answer is! Maybe everyone with several media players connected to their AV receiver these days is controlling them with terrible iPad apps, or telekinesis or something.

Not very clear conclusions

My guess is that usability by non-experts has never been a big concern to manufacturers of relatively expensive AV equipment; usability isn’t their central concern in the way that it is for Amazon or Zipcar, say. Their market seems to care a lot about things that matter little to me (e.g. huge numbers of surround speakers, differences in audio quality that are difficult to detect, etc.) and maybe they think that their target market just doesn’t care about the inconvenience of needing five or so remote controls in reach.

For music alone, I suppose people who care about usability (but not necessarily open standards) are well served by iPhone docks with active speakers, or systems like Sonos. I’m not sure if there are corresponding solutions that are easier for people to use if you have multiple media sources that include video too.

For the moment, I’m a bit torn between:

  • Returning the current replacement receiver I bought (a Denon model that advertises HDMI-CEC support, but doesn’t send the remote control commands, grrr), which  a hassle, and probably involves explaining this blog post to people at Richer Sounds, which I don’t relish. Then trying to find a replacement that does support this feature.
  • Living with the additional complexity. Something that would mitigate that problem a bit would be getting the PS4 universal remote control, which is a bit like an all-in-one remote that also speaks the PS4’s bluetooth controller protocol. We’d need to get an IR receiver / remote control for the Raspberry Pi, too, of course.

Anyway, this all seems very unsatisfactory to me, but maybe I’m missing something really obvious.


¹  One lesson from this experience, which in retrospect should have been obvious, is that if you have a surge-protected extension lead with a “SURGE PROTECTED WHEN LIT” indicator light, it’s not doing any surge protection if that light’s off — it being off typically means it’s protected you from some surge in the past and isn’t providing protection any more; some kind of fuse in it has blown.

²  For me, the AV receiver takes the place that my old Hi-Fi amplifier used to play: it’s an amplifier that the good speakers are plugged into. However, the AV receiver also sends its video output to the TV, and all its inputs are HDMI, which can carry audio and / or video, as opposed to just audio. So the AV receiver is the only device plugged into our TV, and the input devices that send it audio and video to the receiver are:

  • A PlayStation 4, for games, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, DVDs and Blu-Rays.
  • A Raspberry Pi running Kodi, for playing audio files and films and TV that I’ve ripped.
  • A Chromecast, which we stream music and YouTube video to.
  • A TiVo, for random broadcast TV
  • An occasionally connected laptop, via an HDMI to MiniDisplayPort cable, for LuckyVoice at home :)

So basically it’s a way of having audio and video on the best output devices in the flat, no matter what the input source is.

³  I’m making it sound like the remote control pass-through worked perfectly with our old AV receiver; that’s not quite the case. The one big annoyance was that there was no way to do the equivalent of pressing the “Playstation” button on the PS4’s DualShock 4 controller, which you need to turn it on and select a user. Otherwise it did basically send all the commands we needed for watching streaming video, DVDs and Blu-Rays on the PS4, and everything we needed to operate Kodi from day-to-day.

⁴  I gather from hearsay that HDMI-CEC support in general is a bit of mess: whether it’s because the specification isn’t strict enough or manufacturers are just implementing it very differently isn’t clear to me. Maybe someone can summarize that? (We’ve certainly had problems in the past with the power state change signals causing devices to power on again after you’ve just shut another one down, for example.) Still, the remote control pass-through worked well for us.

⁵  I asked Denon whether I was just missing a menu option to turn on support for HDMI-CEC remote control pass-through, and it seems that I wasn’t – here’s how that correspondence went:

I recently bought a Denon AVR-X2300W AV receiver, which claims in the specification on your website to support HDMI-CEC.  However, the feature of HDMI-CEC that I really need doesn’t seem to be working: remote control pass-through.

To be clear, this means that when I use arrow buttons, play button, etc. on the AVR-X2300W’s remote control, those commands should be sent to the current HDMI source device. This doesn’t work, although I have Setup > Video > HDMI Setup > HDMI Control set to “On”. I can’t see any other option in that menu that might turn on that particular feature of HDMI-CEC.

This is a really crucial feature for me, and it worked fine on the (much cheaper!) Yamaha AV receiver I had previously. Is there some other option I need to select to enable HDMI-CEC remote control pass-through or any way to get this to work?

I’d appreciate any information you can give me about this – if this feature is not supported I may have to return it to the shop :(

Many thanks,

And I got this reply:

Thank you for your inquiry.

CEC protocol is a standard but its mandatory definitions do not include many features and functionality. These are considered as extended features and may or may not be implemented by different manufacturers. You maybe simply experiencing the difference in different manufacturers implementation of CEC. As a consumer the only potential solution for this would be ensuring that all equipment is running on the latest version of firmware.  ( relevant settings should also be made on the equipment ). As extended features are not guaranteed you may need to use  alternative methods for control.

Apologies for any inconvenience.

DENON Customer Support