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HOME ENTERTAINMENT PRODUCTS – TIPS BEFORE YOU BUY

The great home entertainment revolution enables us to enjoy movies that are no longer in cinemas, either for the first time like classics from the past – or for an encore. But with the new technologies come new headaches and the need for buyers to be increasingly well informed. As a service to our movie loving readers, we have commissioned Ben Hooft of Sound Digital to give you some tips and suggest best buys – before the mad Christmas rush to buy, overwhelms the need to know.

Christmas is rapidly approaching and this year the range of home entertainment technology has grown ever larger and ever more perplexing. At the average department store now you’ll see at least 20 to 30 flat panel screens on display. On top of that there will be around 15 Digital Set Top Boxes, 12 DVD Recorders and 10 Personal Video Recorders (aka PVR with a built-in Hard Disk Drive). Which is the best one to buy on any given budget is an almost impossible question for the average person to answer – this only exacerbated by the fact that many sales staff don’t fully understand what they’re selling either.

With the thought of the blind leading the blind coming to mind it’s an excellent time for a crash course in the latest home entertainment technology. This is for all you readers who don’t know your HDMI from your HDTV (& even if you do you may pick up a few pointers).

TELEVISION
First off the block if you’re salivating at the thought of a new flat panel screen on your wall this Christmas there are a few things you should know before you get that credit card out. As of now there are two main players on the flat panel market – Plasma Display Panel (PDP) and Liquid Crystal Display (LCD). Both have their pros and cons.

PDP PROS
Generally higher contrast ratio than LCD – meaning brighter whites & blacker blacks
Typically handles fast movement better than LCD

PDP CONS
Higher power usage than LCD
Inherent risk of image burn-in if a static image is left on-screen too long (a static DVD menu or video game for instance)
Majority of PDP screens (at least in my experience) suffer from an artifact known as low level-noise - noticeable grain in the black or dark parts of the image
Only one True High Definition (1080x1920) model on the market – made by Pioneer with a RRP reminiscent of a new small car, a whopping $14,995!

LCD PROS
Lower power usage than PDP
No risk of image burn-in
No low level noise
Higher availability & far cheaper prices for True HD – they start at around the $5,000 mark

LCD CONS
Generally lower contrast ratio than PDP – meaning whites are not as bright & blacks are not as black
Lower quality models cannot handle fast movement very well with the image tending to smear – while this is being improved with every generation there are still many cheaper models on the market which are particularly bad
Lower quality screens can have a limited viewing angle –to see the image properly you need to sit directly in front of the screen (not good for families where there are several people watching at one time)

As a side note it’s worth noting around 50% or more of screens on the Australian market still have only analog television tuners built-in so you’ll need an additional Digital Set Top Box to watch 16:9 Widescreen Digital TV (aka DVB - Digital Video Broadcast). If you’re purchasing a screen I strongly urge you to hunt around for one with a built-in DVB tuner – it will make life a lot easier for you.

FLAT PANEL PURCHASE TIPS
Resolution – the more resolution the better – 1024x768 is good but if you have any interest in future proofing 1080x1920 is the way to go
Contrast ratio – if you’re planning to use the screen in a brightly lit room a higher contrast ratio is better (i.e. 10,000:1)
If the screen is to be a major or long term investment for you make sure it has a HDMI connection (or at least DVI) – you’ll regret it otherwise (read on for further info on HDMI)
With LCD, check the response time in the specifications (referred to in milliseconds) – the faster the better – 8ms is good, 4ms is even better
With LCD also check the viewing angle – have a look in store & make sure the picture doesn’t disappear as soon as you move your head – unfortunately this is something you have to see with your own eyes as it’s seldom mentioned in specifications

BEST BUYS
PDP – Fujitsu
With complete confidence I can say that Fujitsu have the best image quality of all PDP screens. Not only do their PDP screens make a good quality DVD look great but they also make a crap quality DVD look good! I didn’t think that was possible but Fujitsu have done it. They’re also one of the few remaining manufacturers making PDP screens in Japan (always a good sign).

LCD – Sony
The recently released Sony ‘X Series’ range offer True HD resolution (1080x1920) and have built-in HDTV tuners – the first and currently only True HD television range on the Australian market! The Sony LCD screens offer excellent colour reproduction, a large array of inputs & last time I checked they were still made in Japan.

DVD RECORDERS & PERSONAL VIDEO RECORDERS (PVR)
The humble VHS recorder might still be alive & well but compared to the latest home recording technology it’s well and truly the equivalent of the Model T Ford. That said, the new technology has yet to fully mature so you may want to reconsider making too an expensive purchase. As of now only one DVD Recorder on the Australian market has a Digital Television Tuner (DVB) - it’s made by DGTEC & it also sports a 250GB HDD – the rest have only analog tuners and that includes the models with a HDD. This essentially means they’re still Model T Fords but with air conditioning and power steering! With only an analog tuner (or even a composite video input) any recording made of broadcast TV will have image quality not much better than a good VCR.

The other major pitfall of DVD Recorders has always been the many different recordable DVD formats – there’s DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/+RW, DVD-RAM & now there’s dual-layer DVD–R & DVD+R media as well. Luckily most recorders now handle a couple or even all of the above formats so it’s not the problem it once was. That said, if you do have the choice, use DVD+R & DVD+RW media. One reason is they provide the best compatibility with other DVD players. The other reason is DVD+RW is the only format that allows you to record to the disc, play it on another player and then continue recording without finalizing the disc. All other formats require you to finalize the disc before you can play it in another DVD player! The least compatible format is DVD-RAM – if you want to share your recordings don’t use DVD-RAM.

Personal Video Recorders on the other hand are a bit further ahead in the game. They offer up to two built-in DVB tuners (Standard Definition or High Definition) which record direct to a built-in Hard Disk Drive (HDD) – just like the one found in your PC. On top of the obvious benefits in video & audio quality, the PVR offers something totally inconceivable for the VCR – the ability to pause live TV. That’s right – it’s the 75 minute mark in Rugby League Grand Final, the phone rings & you have to answer it – with a PVR you can stop time for a couple of minutes (or a couple of hours) & continue watching when you hang up the phone, it’s that simple. The disadvantage of PVRs (with the notable exception of the previously mentioned DGTEC machine) is the inability to archive programs you record – you can keep your favourite recordings for as long as you like but eventually you’ll fill up the HDD & then you need to start erasing.

FINAL DVD & PVR BUYING TIPS
If you can live without the ability to archive then a PVR is definitely the way to go. Most are very easy to use, they don’t need tapes or discs & you can pause live TV. PVRs start from as little as $200 – or you can spend $1000 & get a Sony PVR with two HD tuners & a really big HDD. If you really, really want a DVD Recorder it may be worthwhile waiting until more models with DVB tuners become available otherwise check out the DGTEC machine.

HDMI
HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) is a revolutionary new type of interconnecting cable (see pic of cable plug) that promises to make the ordeal of connecting up your home entertainment system a breeze. The main advantages of HDMI are: All audio & video signals are sent digitally down the one cable – this makes connecting equipment much easier as well as reducing the spaghetti of cables which often accompany a home theatre.
No loss of quality or interference through the cable as the signal is entirely 1’s & 0’s.
Future-proofed by design. HDMI has been designed to handle all current audio visual requirements with plenty of room left over for future demands. For the sole benefit of the tech-heads out there, as of the latest HDMI specification, Version 1.3, HDMI has a bandwidth of 10 Gbps (Gigabits per second) – that’s more than 20 times higher than USB 2.0!
Most flat panel screens on the market now have HDMI (or DVI - an older but HDMI compatible standard) but there’s still a large number that don’t. I strongly urge that you purchase a screen with a HDMI connection. Even if you don’t plan to use it straight away – you will almost certainly need it in the years to come.

HIGH DEFINITION
We now arrive at High Definition (known simply as HD) – this is a term that is used far too often for my liking, thanks in no small part to some poor decisions made by the federal government in regards to digital television. HD offers four times the resolution of DVD which on a high quality LCD screen is like looking through a window at only a metre away. True HD has a resolution of 1080x1920 – that’s 1080 pixels vertically by 1920 pixels horizontally (DVD is 576x720). Note my use of the term True HD. This is a point I cannot emphasize enough. The fact is that the majority of screens on the Australian market that claim to be HD are not True HD – most in fact have only half True HD resolution. Only a handful of screens from Sharp, LG, Phillips, Pioneer and now Sony offer True HD resolution – but be warned they’re premium models with premium price tags.

So, are the extra dollars worth the extra resolution? Well, if your pockets are deep enough then definitely yes. To get the full benefit of HDTV broadcast, the new HDV Video Cameras and not to mention HD-DVD & Blu-Ray, you’ll need a screen with 1080x1920 resolution. If you’re thinking that you’ll never get into Blu-ray keep in mind that Sony’s new PS3, due out before the year’s end, will play Blu-Ray movies.

WHAT'S AROUND THE CORNER?

There’s always new technology on the way, so I feel compelled to tell you what’s around the corner before you mortgage your house to buy that new big screen you’ve been secretly eyeing during lunch breaks. The Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display (SED) is a revolutionary flat panel hybrid display based on the 50+ year old CRT technology (that’s Cathode Ray Tube or Cumbersome yet Robust Technology as I like to call it) that promises to blow both PDP and LCD out of the water (in terms of image quality). Preliminary tests of SED technology have demonstrated inherently high contrast ratios with far better black reproduction than either PDP or LCD as well as a response time faster than the best LCD to boot. The first SED screens are tentatively due for release sometime next year.

Footnote: To give you some indication of how fast technology is turning over Sony have in the last week (late October 2006) also released a DVD Recorder (with a built-in HDD) that features a DVB tuner. So that now makes two DVD Recorders with Digital Television Tuners on the Australian market, with more to come I'm sure.

Published November 2, 2006
 

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Ben Hooft is a sound & video engineer for Sound Digital, and a director of the company, a Sydney based specialist in home entertainment installation & calibration/maximisation. With nearly a decade of experience in the world of audio, Ben has been likened to “the Horse Whisperer of home entertainment”. Sound Digital : (02) 9929 1767

One of these images is of Ben Hooft...the other is a close up of an HDMI cable plug







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