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Shopping for a Flat Screen TV?

A quick guide to picture and sound

By Michael Antonoff

Flat panel sets (LCD or plasma) have replaced tube-based TVs. Widescreens have all but replaced the taller "full" screens (4:3) that we grew up with. Today's widescreens offer an aspect ratio of 16:9. At the same time high-definition screens have replaced conventional resolution TV's.

Here's a summary of the changes in TV screen resolution and shape:

Format Horizontal Lines of Resolution/Aspect Ratio
VCR (VHS) tapes
240i 4:3
Conventional (NTSC) TV
330i 4:3
DVD
480i or 480p (4:3 or 16:9)
Standard Definition – Digital TV
480i (4:3)
Enhanced Definition
480p (16:9)
High Definition (HDTV)
720p or 1080i (16:9)
Blu-ray Disc
1080p (16:9)

Interlaced vs. Progressive

When a full frame is composed by putting up alternate lines, it's an interlaced ("i") display. When the lines are put up consecutively, it's a progressive ("p") display. The best HDTV sets are progressive displays, but high-def broadcasts (over-the-air, cable, and satellite) are delivered in resolutions of either 720p (720 progressive lines) or 1080i (1,080 interlaced lines). Your HDTV set will be able to handle both formats.

Despite the wide aspect radio, an HDTV screen accommodates legacy (4:3) programs by exhibiting side panels or stretching the image. The former is preferable because it doesn't distort subjects in the picture.

Why does HD look so good?

It's all about the pixels. Pixels are the tiny picture elements that combine on the TV screen to form the images that we see. High definition wows you with up to 10 times the number of pixels compared to your old TV. The more pixels packed in the frame, the more detailed the picture.

Panasonic  TH-50PZ85U VIERA Plasma TV 50"

Two Types of Flat Panels

Displays have never been as large, flat, and affordable as they are now. Flat comes two ways: liquid crystal display (LCD) and Plasma. They both look bright even with the curtains open during the day. They typically come with a built-in tabletop stand or can be wall-mounted with an accessory. You don't have to sit directly in front of the screen for the best view. To get the most detail in the picture, choose a TV offering 1,080 lines of resolution piled high and 1,980 columns across. That equates to more than two million pixels. A 720p display won't give you as much resolution, but it will deliver a high definition picture for less money.

An LCD TV uses a backlight and valve-like crystals that twist behind colored filters to compose a picture; a plasma TV uses gas-filled cells that cause colored phosphors to glow. As manufacturers have improved their fabrication processes, performance differences between the two technologies have become less of an issue. You can't go wrong choosing either one, but you should look at both types and see if you have a personal preference. LCD and plasma TVs are available in all popular sizes.

Sony KDL-52XBR4 52" 16:9 BRAVIA XBR LCD 1080p HDTV Flat Panel Television

SOUND

Digital Audio

Equally as important as the picture is the sound. CD-quality audio accompanies programs not just in stereo but with discrete tracks for placement of dialog, music, and surround-sound effects across multiple speakers and a subwoofer. With a properly-equipped sound system, you'll hear what it's like to be in the middle of the action.

Sony DAV-IS10 450W 5.1-Channel Home Theater Micro System

HTiB Home Theater Systems

The most convenient and economical way to add the digital surround sound experience to your TV is with a "one-box" solution known as HTiB or Home Theater in a Box. All the necessary equipment including a receiver, satellite speakers, a center speaker, and a subwoofer are in the carton. The main differentiator among HTiB systems is that some incorporate DVD or Blu-ray players and others don't.

Sound System with Separate Components

If you have the space and want big sound to go along with that big-screen TV, then you should put together a system based on separate components. People who take home theater seriously take pride in selecting each piece. The payoff is that they can build a home theater that is the envy of everyone exiting the local Cineplex. The way to get that enveloping sound from your sources to your speakers is through a multi-channel A/V receiver that decodes the Dolby Digital audio information.

Sony  STR-DG720 7.1-Channel Home Theater Receiver

A/V Receiver

It combines a preamplifier, power amplifier, and terrestrial radio tuner in a single cabinet. A few models are also satellite radio-ready. It should have ample inputs and outputs for switching all your video and audio components.

Infinity  TSS-800PL Home Theater Speaker System (Platinum)

Speakers

For a full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound experience you will need five speakers plus a subwoofer (six speakers are required for Dolby 6.1 and so forth). Speakers are probably the single most important part of the home theater system – the sound you hear will only be as good as your speakers.

Subwoofer — The ".1" in Dolby 5.1 provides the LFE, low frequency effect of the thrilling, crucial bass punch.

Main/surround speakers — Full bandwidth, full range voice-matched speakers (sharing the same tonal characteristics), generally from the same manufacturer. These locate the action and the listener's relation to it. They put you in the movie.

Center channel — Handles most of the dialog and vocal tracks. Provides clean, clear speech and must be positioned either immediately above or below the screen for the most realistic natural effect.

High-Def Source Component

Samsung BD-P1400 Blu-ray Disc Player

Next-Gen Optical Disc Players (Blu-ray Disc)

Pumping out at least three or four times the amount of bits per second versus conventional DVD players, Blu-ray Disc players blow away the picture quality you've grown accustomed to seeing on DVD. Considering that Blu-ray players are compatible with your old discs, why not step up to a platform that can show off your high definition display in all its glory? Blu-ray is your best bet for enjoying high definition movies free of the excessive compression sometimes introduced via cable or satellite delivery as well as over-the-air stations in the business of delivering multiple channels in limited space.

ACCESSORIES

Once you've decided on all the major A/V pieces in your home theater including the TV display, video source components, receiver, and speakers, it's time to add the accessories that connect or support the equipment or enhance your enjoyment.

Monster Cable  400cv Advanced Performance Component Video Cable (13')  Monster Cable 1000HD Ultra-High Speed (10.2 Gbps) HDMI Male to HDMI Male Cable - 25'

Cables

A/V connections weren't created equally. To get a high definition picture on your HDTV, you should use one of its HDMI or component video inputs. The former is a digital connection that also delivers audio. The latter is typically a three-plug (red, green, and blue) cable combination that delivers just the picture.

For sound, you may need either a digital audio or stereo cable. Digital audio comes in two flavors: coaxial (also known as SPDIF) or optical (also known as Toslink).

Many HDTVs also contain a 15-hole VGA port, also known as a PC input. This is a way to connect a notebook computer, for example, directly to some TV screens. If you want external speaker sound, too, one solution is an audio cable with a single pin on the computer end and stereo for the TV.

Cables come in various lengths, but anything shorter than six-feet could cramp your placement options. Also, more expensive cables are typically better shielded and have sturdier connecting ends that can be reattached many more times.

 Monster-Power HTS 3600 Power Strip and Surge Protector

Power Supplies and Conditioners

"Dirty" electricity can interfere with the steady quality of your sound and picture; it can even damage your equipment or wipe out custom memory settings. Then, there's the possibility of an electrical storm or power outage wreaking havoc. That's why adding a power management component to your home theater helps protect your investment. A power conditioner and surge protector not only guards against magnetic interference and electrical spikes, but each unit comes with multiple outlets to accommodate your many A/V components.

 Harmony/Logitech H-1000 Advanced Universal Remote Control

Universal Remotes

Since virtually every piece of equipment in your home theater comes with its own remote, handheld controllers tend to multiply. The best way to fight remote clutter is with a universal remote. Ranging in price from tens of dollars to hundreds of dollars, a universal remote can be programmed to operate multiple brands of equipment. The least expensive remotes can be programmed by entering the code for each component. More sophisticated ones can learn the code from each dedicated remote pointed at it; and some can be programmed from your computer accessing the Interent. More sophisticated remotes sport LCDs with onscreen buttons that change according to the designated component. Though most remotes use line-of-sight infrared signals, others use RF signals that travel through walls and cabinets.

 Sanus VisionMount TV Wall Mount VMPL250b

Wall Mounts and Furniture

Plasma and flat-panel LCD televisions are so svelte that they can easily hug a wall, enabling another component to perch on the top shelf of an A/V rack instead of the TV. Some tilt or pivot and some are motorized. Though flat-panel TVs can generally stand up on their own via built-in stands (removable for wall mounting), you'll want some worthy furniture upon which to place your gorgeous new HDTV. Options include pedestal floor stands, mobile carts, and stationary racks. Look for ones that hide wires.

Bell'O High Gloss Black A/V System Furniture

Thanks for checking our quick guide to home theater systems. We will be taking an in-depth look at some of these components in the future, so stay tuned. Should you have any further questions about flat screens or home theater systems, we encourage you to contact us on the phone, online, or in person at our SuperStore in New York City. 1-800-947-9923.

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