The big picture
High-definition widescreen tube TVs don't always have to carry a big price
Published: Tuesday, January 28, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 27, 2003 at 10:01 p.m.
Whoever said that money can't buy happiness has obviously never bought a high-end home theater system.
Once you're snuggled into an $800 recliner among $5,000 surround-sound speakers, watching a great movie on your $10,000 high-definition plasma screen, it's almost impossible not to cheer up at least a little bit.
Unfortunately, not many people outside Oprah's tax bracket ever get that chance.
It's possible, though, to buy yourself most of that pleasure for a fraction of the price, thanks to an emerging product category that most people have probably never heard of: high-definition widescreen tube TVs.
They may not be as glamorous as the plasma screens that you can hang on the wall like high-tech moose heads, but you can buy one of these sets without having to work two jobs.
Tube sets (also called direct-view sets) offer blacker blacks and punchier color than plasma screens, yet better viewing angles and brightness than rear-projection sets (those huge, boxy things found in basement family rooms).
But until recently, all tube sets had a squarish screen, with a width-height ratio of 4:3. Unfortunately, movies aren't square - they're rectangular, usually with a width-height ratio of 16:9.
When movie buffs watch a DVD on a regular TV, they have two equally unappetizing choices: either miserably contemplate the 25 percent of the picture that's lost beyond the sides of the square screen, or watch the movie in a shrunken horizontal strip with black bars above and below.
Plenty of people could not care less about chopped-off movies. Others, though, are deeply disturbed. If, reading about this conundrum, you are standing on your chair, shaking the newspaper and screaming, "Yes! Yes!," then a widescreen tube TV may be just the ticket.
Fidelity and clarity
The Panasonic CT34WX52, Toshiba 34HDX82, Philips 34PW9818 and Sony KV-34XBR800, for example, are all heavy, silver-toned, sharp-edged machines that show 34 inches of spectacular color fidelity and clarity.
The Sony, with the most real-looking picture, and the Philips, with the longest feature list, cost $2,500; you can find the Toshiba and Panasonic for $1,800 to $2,000.
Most companies also offer 30-inch models in the $1,500 range. Of course, if you buy online, watch out for shipping charges.
(For reasons of cost, weight and complexity, 34 inches is the largest screen size now offered in this category. RCA's two-year-old, recently discontinued F38310 had a 38-inch screen, but room reflections in its rounded glass were occasionally a problem. RCA now makes 34-inch flat-glass models like its rivals.)
Each comes with a universal remote control that conveniently includes DVD buttons (Play, Stop, Rewind and so on), but some are more usable than others.
Panasonic's remote is illuminated, but its 54 buttons are nearly overwhelming; Sony's isn't backlighted, but with only 36 buttons, it's much easier to get around.
(Its DVD playback buttons are hidden away behind a flip door.)
Each model offers plenty of component, composite and S-video inputs (for DVD players, VCRs, satellite receivers, and so on), and even front-panel inputs for a camcorder.
The Sony and Toshiba sets even include a DVI (Digital Visual Interface) connector, which helps to future-proof your investment; it permits super-high-quality connections with current high-definition (HD) DirecTV satellite receivers, and will mate with forthcoming HD cable boxes, DVD players and so on.
Once everything is hooked up, most of the remotes require repeated presses on a Source button to cycle through your video sources in sequence. Each set lets you rename your inputs (so you see "VCR" or "DVD" on the screen, rather than "Input 1" and "Input 2"), but only the Toshiba's remote has dedicated buttons for each input.
The manufacturers assume that anyone who would spend $2,000 on a TV has an external sound system.
But for everyone else, the Philips unit takes the cake. It contains six built-in speakers (including a subwoofer) and even a built-in Dolby decoder.
What that means is that the TV itself can serve as the center, front left and front right speakers of a complete five-channel surround-sound system; all you have to buy and connect are the two rear speakers.
Not all sources of video that you'll be watching on these sets are created equal. DVDs, for example, look spectacular, especially the ones labeled "Enhanced for wide-screen" or "Anamorphic wide-screen." Something about the way they fill your field of vision makes them more immersive and captivating.
Widescreen tube TVs are also HD monitors, meaning that they can deliver the stunningly clear, detailed, wide-screen picture of high-definition TV broadcasts.
The widescreen aspect of HD does wonders not only for movies, but also for sports: in a single camera shot, you can see many more hockey players, the pitcher, the batter and the runner on first, the football players behind the line of scrimmage, and so on.
Cable TV can look awful on HDTV
The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that all American television broadcasters switch to a digital signal by the end of 2006. But so far, few people get HDTV.
After all, you need a box called an HD tuner (about $350) to see HD shows, plus access to an HD signal. The major networks generally broadcast in high definition during prime time, as do certain satellite-dish channels.
But 70 percent of Americans get their TV by cable, and the cable companies have only just begun HDTV broadcasting in certain cities.
So until 2006, what people will probably watch most of the time is regular, square, low-definition television, using cable, satellite or antenna. This is where things get complicated.
For example, how should your widescreen TV screen handle traditional square broadcasts? As it turns out, you have a choice.
You can view the square image in the center of the rectangular screen, flanked by vertical bars. You can have the square picture stretched horizontally as though it's on a state-of-the-art sheet of Silly Putty.
Or you can enlarge the image so much that it fills the rectangular screen from edge to edge horizontally - but gets lopped off at the top and bottom. (Who would ever choose this option?)
Fortunately, every set offers a fourth setting: They cleverly stretch the square picture disproportionately more at the outer edges, leaving the center of the frame relatively undistorted.
(Remember that a 34-inch rectangular screen, measured diagonally, is actually much shorter than a 34-inch square one. But this "smart stretch" mode helps compensate for the loss of size by making every show look like a wide-screen movie.)
Incidentally, when you look at these sets in the store, you should know that they virtually always display an HDTV signal or DVD. You will never see a cable broadcast.
That's because cable TV can look awful on an HDTV set. When amplified by line-doubling circuitry (which tries to endow normal TV with high resolution), weak cable signals can display shimmering dots and stair-stepped diagonal lines, as if you are watching through a sheet of mosquito netting.
The four sets reviewed here offer controls explicitly designed to reduce this "video noise," but they are not always completely successful. If some of your cable channels seem fuzzy, lobby your cable company to hurry up with its HDTV transition.
In time, these sets will feature built-in HDTV tuners, larger screen sizes and lower prices.
But even now, widescreen tube sets constitute an unsung niche that is worthy of a close look. They offer sensational picture quality, shaped properly for movies and HDTV, at a lower cost than flat panels and most rear-projection sets.
All of these models are beauties, but some standouts emerge: the Sony for its picture quality and DVI connector, for example, and the Philips for its long list of bells and whistles (picture zoom-in, multiple pictures-in-picture, a detail enhancer called Pixel Plus, a leveler that keeps the speaker volume constant as you change channels, and so on).
Of course, those also happen to be the most expensive sets. If you're not such a purist, you'll find that the Toshiba and Panasonic models offer an extremely desirable feature of their own: a price that's about $600 lower.
No matter which you choose, though, one thing is for sure: Even if money can't buy happiness, it sure can buy a really nice TV.
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