Wednesday, February 14, 2007

HDTV: A Hands-On Primer

I've spent the last month wandering around lost in the world of high-definition television. We've had the same old 27" standard-def TV now for years, and lately I'm beginning to think that we ought to take the plunge into something a little more advanced. Mostly it's the fault of my buddy in Brainerd, who taunts me with his 50" plasma each time I go and visit. It's better than going to the theater. But the deal was sealed a month ago when we came back from our vacation and our house sitter--one of Susan's students, now a film major in Milwaukee--referred to our place as the "fabulous house with the 50 cent television." Gadget freak that I am, that was just too deep a cut to let go.

Susan has, naturally, been right there with me... like the prisoner is right there with the cop to whose wrist he's chained. She agreed to the deal so long as we found a cabinet in which she could conceal the TV and accoutrements altogether. Fine by me; I don't especially like to look at it when we're not watching a movie anyway. She thinks that big TV too easily equates to big TV appetite, and we didn't want to go there. But I do watch quite a lot of movies, and between my buddy's plasma and my computer screen, they just don't look so hot anymore on standard definition.

And so we were off and running.

There's a lot of stuff differentiating a modern television from the one I currently have. After a few decades where nothing seemed to change much, suddenly the whole field is advancing like a technological tsunami. My first discovery is that "high definition" refers not to a specific resolution, but to a resolution floor below which a screen does not qualify. There are several resolutions available which qualify as high definition, so question number one is how much resolution does one need? The current state of the art is called "1080p," where the number refers to the lines of vertical resolution per inch and the "p" refers to "progressive scan," the actual method of painting the picture on the screen. I found an excellent site on Cnet covering all the details about HDTV, seemingly written for exactly a schmoe like me. And from this site, and several discussions with sales people in the next few days, I learned that unless I was buying a monster screen (say, 65" or above) the difference between 1080p and 720p (the floor resolution necessary to achieve un-hyphenated high definition) is simply not visible. Most reasonable-sounding people agreed that the jump from standard definition to high definition is striking and immediately perceptible (something I found obvious even at a casual glance), but that the increases in resolution from there are much more subtle. And, true to form, the smaller and smaller gains cost more and more. Well and good. No reason to get silly about it, and ceding the 1080p dropped the price by about half. Neat.

Then we moved onto the question of which of three or four screen types to choose: plasma, LCD, projection, or an actual high definition projector. A projector is not workable in our room, so that's out. Our room is not particularly bright, but I never see projection TVs next to the other kinds without thinking they come off badly. They just don't seem to emanate the kind of light and energy of other formats. Perhaps in a big, dark basement theater room they'd be great, and really they seem biased toward larger sizes, kind of taking over where the plasmas and LCDs leave off. But they're not for our room, where I was looking in the 37" to 50" range.

And so I found myself, like most TV buyers, trying to decide between a plasma and an LCD. Like interlocking fingers, each format seems to offer certain strengths at the cost of some distinct weaknesses; your choice would depend on how you were going to use it. Plasmas offer a slightly better overall picture quality with better handling of dark colors, but with a risk of burn-in and a reputation for fragility. LCDs tend to have slightly higher native resolution, and there is no danger of burn-in. But they do not look as good off-center, and they do not handle dark colors / blacks very well. And LCDs tend to have a slower refresh rate, making action and fast motion a challenge. That's the theory, but in practice the two formats seem to have converged considerably in the past couple years, making this common wisdom rather provisional; and I was left at the end of my search thinking that there just wasn't much to choose between them. So maybe I ought to shop brand and let my brand choice determine my format.

I was narrowed down to a couple manufacturers before I began my search, barring some unseen deciding factor. I'm partial to Japanese electronics, and I've had really good luck with Panasonic stuff in the past. So that was my inclination from the outset. I've also had a bunch of Sony stuff, and it has been great, though with a couple exceptions. But in the world of TVs, Sony has always seemed to have the brightest, sharpest pictures, and these current sets are no exception. From a wall of TVs in a store, I came up again and again thinking that the Sony outdid everything else. But the Sonys command a premium, and the user reviews were no more glowing than those of the Panasonics I was looking at.

Having narrowed down my manufacturers, I then pared myself down to a couple specific models. I decided on either a 42" or 50" size, and after looking at a cardboard cutout in the living room we decided that a 50" was just outrageous for our room. So 42" it would be. (Actually, Susan was aghast at the 42" as well, but I managed to make peace with it.) And it then came to a duel between the award-winning Sony KDL-40XBR2 LCD and the Panasonic TH-PX600U plasma. The former cost a cool $800 more than the latter, and was 2" smaller, but was the stand-out on the wall o' TVs. The latter was very highly rated by editors and consumers (the Sony had a few negative consumer reviews) and was made by my preferred manufacturer. I could not judge its picture directly, as I only found one in person at the very end of my search--on purchase day, in fact, and there was no Sony XBR nearby. But it looked awesome.

So $800 won out.

I was able to buy a surround sound system and still have a bunch of money left over from the price of the Sony alone. Speaking of which, I've always been really skeptical of surround sound. As an aural person, I'm totally on board with the value of high-fidelity sound generally. Movies are made with elaborate soundtracks of music and sound effects, and I've always noted what an effect a film's sounds have on the viewing experience. Hearing the full range of frequencies and dynamic range makes a difference. But this business of having speakers behind you so that "the action surrounds you" just seems like bullshit. It's not virtual reality; you're not really convinced that you're there in person. Whereas stereo (in music or voices) gives separation and a sense of space and life to sound, I just don't see how sound from beside or behind you makes anything like a similar step. It's a gimmick.

Our thousand-year-old DVD player and satellite box play thru an old Altec-Lansing computer satellite / subwoofer sound system, which delivers passable sound (not hi-fi, but certainly better than the TV's single 2" driver) but has no ability to be controlled remotely. That high dynamic range DVD soundtrack is a pain in the ass, involving several trips per movie from the sofa to the speakers to make adjustments. So the business of replacing aged DVD player and half-baked sound system without acquiring a huge rack of players and tuners and processors and amplifiers seemed best handled with what is acronymically-called HTIB, for "Home Theatre In a Box." These are all-in-one solutions that offer middling sonic performance and minimal connective options in exchange for simplicity and cleanliness. You basically can't get one of these without the whole surround sound bullshit, so I'm dipping my foot in those waters as well. And maybe I'll become a convert. Not having really played with Dolby 5.1 before, maybe I'll decide my prejudices were unfounded.

Lastly, I have to say that I purchased things online and felt badly about this later on. I had gone to numerous stores over the past couple months to compare picture qualities and to check prices, and I can't shake the feeling that if everyone bought as I did there would be no stores to go to. But my TV cost another $500 in the local store, and another hundred bucks for tax. That's almost half again more than I paid for it. It was just more than I could swallow. The guy at Best Buy said I could wait around for a sale (though he never saw it below its current price), but if they could sell it to me for that price at one time, why not all the time? I guess they have overhead that an online retailer doesn't. Here's a good time to kick me when I'm down; I feel crappy that the almighty dollar won out here, but five hundred of them?

Nothing arrives for a while yet, so we'll follow up (if there's any point in following up).


Dzesika said...

Ooh, welcome to the world of big TVs! I totally miss the 42" that I used to have in my office; that was probably the only bearable thing about my last job.

I think you probably did the right thing with the plasma. Sure, LCD probably wins out in the end, but if you want to go the whole hog like that, wait until Sharp's 65" gets to enough of a rate of production that non-royalty can afford it. Which will probably be about five years. :)

Jeffy said...

Don't you know how to make us all jealous!

I think that you got it right in choosing a plasma. The downsides of plasmas were never all that big, and they have been reduced over time, and their advantages over LCD are worthwhile. The ability to get true blacks is very nice, as is the wide viewing angle. Plus I think that the colors seem more realistic on plasmas. Plasmas never had any more burn-in problem than plain old CRTs, and we never really worry about it on those (other than computers that might have static images on them all the time), so I don't think that is any real issue at all. The main benefit of LCDs was that they were cheaper (although not necessarily for the same size), but that is no longer the case, so they don't have many points in their favor anymore.

From what I have read it sounds like Panasonic makes some of the best plasmas out there, and their prices are pretty good too.

I think I share many of your views on surround sound, and like you I've been considering getting a home theater system in spite of that. I have the added problem of no good place to put the surround speakers, so I've been trying to find a 2.1 channel system that simulates 5.1 channels that is in my price range. Even though the surround bit seems pretty bogus I do think I would appreciate getting a center channel to clearly carry the dialog in movies.

I also share your feeling of guilt over buying online. It does seem that when one makes use of the local showroom to check out the various models it is only fair to give them the sale, but that can really be a big premium to pay. I wouldn't feel too bad about it, even though they made no money off you, your shopping cost them nothing.

I'd be interested to see the final setup in your home. A 42" display can be a hard thing to hide in a cabinet. Maybe instead of hiding it you need to just have it display a slide show of art or your photos when not "in use".

So, now that you have hi-def, what are you going to feed it? You'll probably need to start thinking about a hi-def DVD player, but that purchase may have to wait until the porn industry has settled on a winner in the HD/Blu-Ray war.

wunelle said...

I think for now I'll just be happy to see the higher resolution (though not true high def) of DVDs. Down the road I'm thinking of maybe a Playstation 3, since they play Blue-Ray discs as well. Why not get gaming capability as well? We do have a high-def update on our Dish Network coming, but they offer (for now) only limited channels this way. I know the program choices will grow in time.

This will all be another phase, after Susan is out of shock!

Anonymous said...

Have you gotten it yet? I'll be knockin' at your door to check it out as soon as you have it set up. Or do you need some help setting it up?

I agree with Jeffy: the colors seem "truer" on a plasma than on the LCD. The colors on the LCD in the store certainly pop, but when the day is done, I want a picture that seems real.

Good choice! But I would have opted for the 50"!

A. Random

wunelle said...

Yep, it's here. I got it set up yesterday, though I don't yet have any HD sources to look at. The current satellite is SD, and I didn't even bother hooking up the DVD player, as there is a new one coming. (Plus my old DVD player does not have an HDMI output, and I don't have any other cables.)

You guys are welcome over any time!