Around 1945 or so, America’s socio-economic health was measured by personal wealth and the abundance of luxury items. It was a time of great prosperity for America. Every home had a car in the garage, a refrigerator in the kitchen and a college savings account for the children. But what really measured how well you were doing was the purchase of a home television set. As America began its climb towards economic recovery, home entertainment made its climb to become a dedicated marker of social status. No longer was a chicken in every pot the standard—a television in every living room was.
And it still is. In the nearly seventy-five years since the beginning of the home television invasion, TV consoles have progressed from the boxy 1948 Du Mont to the super-slim LCD and Plasma TVs of 2012. The technology has progressed from watching a 20” black-and-white screen with a picture that resembled scratchy images running more interference than the Cowboys defensive line, to 55”, 75” and even 165” screens in high-definition resolutions so real that you feel you could reach out and touch the images. TV audio has progressed from mono speakers attached to a cart-sized cabinet to surround sound systems that let you hear multi-channel sound so definitive that you can hear audio that creeps up behind you and walks past you while you clutch your microwaved popcorn and hold your breath in terrified amazement. And that’s just from watching the news.
But as far as the advancements have come, consumer knowledge of home entertainment systems is still pitiable. Witness any chain store during the holiday season and you’ll see salespeople point out the most minor achievement in audio or video as a “breakthrough," or watch as befuddled shoppers scratch their heads and even ask each other for advice. I saw a couple confused by the purchase of a 32” TV ask another couple what HDMI was, and their response? “It stands for High Deliverance Media Integration, and it only applies to people with cable TV.” And at that, they all walked away happy, beaming with pride at their new knowledge.
For the record—HDMI stands for High Definition Multimedia Interface, and it’s a way to deliver high-quality audio and video through the same terminal, using HDMI-specific cables, which can only be connected to other devices that have HDMI i/o terminals or connections. If you have an HDMI-capable DVD, Blu-ray or media player (including video game systems), and you have a TV with integrated speakers and an HDMI port, all you need is an HDMI cable and you’re ready to rock. If you’re missing any of those elements, not so much.
But even as of this writing, the technology behind home entertainment systems is changing as fast as a teenager’s Facebook page. What is the difference between LCD, LED and Plasma TVs? What is 4K Pass Through? What is OLED? And where did I leave the remote?
Rest easy, holiday-shopping warriors. We’ll give you a brief primer, some suggestions, and then turn you loose on the unsuspecting salespeople out there armed with some basic knowledge of what to look for in home entertainment. As a matter of fact, we’re going to cover a lot of ground, so much so that we’ll be doing a separate piece on Home Entertainment audio components. But for those of you looking for just a television and/or media purchase, please read on.
Ah, the television. How we love it. Some of us love it so much, we’ve dedicated our lives to it, watching it, growing up with it, being taught by it and sometimes, getting our hearts broken by it. I speak from experience. Television is of such vital importance to us that just until recently, before computers and the Internet kept us informed with up-to-the-minute reporting, the TV was our lifeline to the world. But the TV is still basically an entertainment outlet—and how our entertainment is delivered to us is still vitally important.
Let’s just get past the obvious—TV tubes are done. If you are still using a cathode-ray throwback to the pre-digital age, you, my friend, will get nothing from this article. Tube TVs are no longer being manufactured—they’ve been taken over by the flat-panel widescreen television. Why? Because flat screen TVs are cheaper to make, more ecologically sound to use and are just easier to fit into smaller spaces.
Let’s get some terminology in you first. LCD stands for liquid crystal display. Almost every consumer range TV and computer/laptop screen is an LCD. LCD screens are formed by manufacturing two layers of polarized glass as one piece. Liquid crystals then pass back and forth between the two pieces of glass and emit or block light, forming colors and giving you Kim Kardashian or Robert Pattison in full high-definition glory. It's basically technological jargon, and you shouldn’t concern yourself too much with what happens between the two pieces of glass anyway, because what happens in LCD, stays in LCD. Fluorescent lights (CCFL or Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lamps) at the back of the LCD panel give off the light necessary to interact with the liquid crystal diodes.
Right about now, you’re saying, “Aha! I knew that! The couple in the store told me that.” Whatever. But where it gets tricky is with LED TVs. LED TVs are not powered by fluorescent lights—their light source is Light Emitting Diodes (LEDS—this will be on the test people, pay attention). LEDs use less power, and because they are smaller, LED TVs can be much thinner than LCD TVs. But there's even a split between types of LED TVs—backlit and edge-lit. Backlit means the LEDs are in the back, and edge-lit TVs, like the Sharp LC-70LE640U, means the LEDs are manufactured around the edge of the TV. The advantages of backlit over edge-lit are higher color contrast, truer black representation and price. Even better, yet more confusing—another factor is whether or not the TV uses white LEDs or RGB LEDs (red, green and blue). RGB LEDs produce a clearer and more dynamic picture than white LEDs. While we’re at it, let me throw OLEDs at you (“o” for organic, not Oprah). OLEDs produce truer blacks and wider viewing angles than traditional LEDs, but they are pricey.
Okay, we'll hold your hand through this.
Plasma screen TVs have been around for a while, watching jealously as their LCD and LED cousins battle it out for floor space at the chain stores. But there are advantages that plasma has over LCD/LEDs. But first, a tech lesson.
Plasma TV technology sounds like sci-fi. You take two pieces of glass, press them together real hard, but leave a tiny gap between them. Then you inject phosphorous gas between the two pieces of glass, slap a frame on it, pack it with a remote control and enjoy. Sounds simple, but plasma technology is much more complicated than light emitting diodes. The gas fires off at different intervals, producing reds, greens and blues, the three primary colors needed to produce every other color.
What are the disadvantages to this Buck Rogers-esque technology? One of the disadvantages is screen burn. This is the burning of static images that remain on the screen for a long period of time. For that reason, plasma TVs are not very video-game friendly, as kids tend to leave their games on for long periods of time, even though you yell at them and rattle the monthly electricity bill in their faces. Because plasma still uses heat transference, the chances of screen burn is still prevalent with plasma, although new orbital pixel technology is making some headway into combating this.
But there are advantages. You get much truer color saturation with plasma, and deeper blacks and grays. You also get a better viewing angle, so when deciding where people will sit to watch TV, you have more options. You also get better motion tracking on fast-moving images, which is why plasma TVs have long been a mainstay in man-caves, where sports TV watching and nacho consumption are still at record levels. Check out the Panasonic TC-P55VT50 SMART VIERA 55" Full HD 3D Plasma HDTV for an example.
So you have your eyes on a 55” backlit LED HDTV, but now what? The most important thing after determining the size of the screen is considering the resolution. HD is 1366 x 768 resolution—a very high-definition picture indeed. But is it enough? Consider that a Full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution may run you a couple of bucks more, but what you’re getting is the highest quality output available right now (more on 4K Pass Through in a minute). There are even TVs with Apple-Retina-like IPS screens (in-plane switching—the same technology of glass panel construction used on newer generation Apple iPads and MacBooks) like the Panasonic TC-L47WT50 47" VIERA 3D LED TV. Do you want this? Trust me, if this edge-to-edge glass panel construction is in your budget, you want it. You also want to pay attention to the screen’s refresh rate. The standard 60 Hz rate found on most TVs is fine, but refresh rates of 120 Hz and even 240 Hz make a significant difference when viewing fast-action or sports scenes. Football games look exceptionally good on higher refresh rates, even if your team is down by two touchdowns.
There are those who believe 3D is a fad, and those who believe that 3D is here to stay. The prices for 3D and 3D-enhanced TVs has dropped, so if you don’t mind dropping a few more Benjies for 3D, why not? Some parents still have legitimate concerns about 3D technology and eye strain. These people would definitely fall in the “no 3D for me, thank you” category. But the television manufacturing industry is still a firm believer that 3D may be here a while, so you may still be able to pick up a 3D TV for far less than you think. One of the 3D TVs that caught our eye is the Sony KDL55HX750 55" BRAVIA LED Internet TV. Internet TV capable, true 3D and 5.1 channel audio out.
You want HDMI. Don’t even think you don’t. HDMI is the standard now. Almost every TV sold after 2007 has HDMI, which allows you to watch high-definition content on your TV. HDMI delivers both HD sound and video through one cable. Other connections include component, composite and even VGA (on selected models, so the TV can be used as a computer monitor).
Check out the chart below for a roundup of TVs and their capabilities.
So, you've got your fancy high-definition TV, your tub of microwave popcorn and your remote. And a blank screen. First things first—check with your cable company to make sure they offer free HDTV channels on your system. Once you’ve done that, make sure you pick up HDMI or component cables (the pecking order for connections from best to not great: HDMI, component, composite, RF, tin can with wires.
Cable box with HDTV channels? Check. TV? Check. HDMI cable? Check. Plug everything in, and find that there’s nothing worth watching on TV. Now what?
Consider a connected media player. A connected media player covers DVD players, Blu-ray players, video game systems and media boxes like Slingbox, Roku or Apple TV. There’s a wide variety of media devices available (even video game systems like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 can serve as streaming media players) and all of them will add a level of enjoyment just past that offered by your cable company.
But now, we have to get into which media player is your choice for the holidays. Like televisions, the technology behind media players has grown by leaps and bounds. But like TVs, there is a pecking order when it comes to picture quality.
A standard DVD player can enhance your viewing experience, and when paired with a high-defintion TV, it can be almost cinema-like in its quality. But when shooting for the highest-quality performance, nothing beats Blu-ray for an outstanding consumer-level experience. In order to fit movies onto a DVD or Blu-ray, the movie has to be compressed. In the early days of compression technology, DVDs did a poor job with compression, especially with light sources. Two early examples were a scene in a well-known movie where a subway train pulls into the station, and the front headlights on the train appeared as squares. The compression was so rough that it could not process a globular sphere of light. Another example was a movie in which tornados were so terribly rendered that once you saw it, you couldn’t unsee it.
On a 1080p HDTV, a DVD doesn’t have enough room for the conversion and can only scan about 480 of the 1080 lines. A Blu-ray disc has more than five times the space than a standard DVD, and produces a much smoother compression with almost completely lossless audio.
But some times, even a standard Blu-ray player simply won’t do. Upscale options that include players like the Sony BDP-S590 Blu-ray Disc Player do even more—they’re fully networked 3D capable media devices that play Blu-ray discs and stream media from your home network right to your TV. The Panasonic DMP-BDT320 Blu-ray Disc Player is also a multimedia powerhouse. It includes built in Wi-Fi, streaming capabilities and 2D to 3D upscaling for select discs and compatible devices. The Samsung BD-E5900 Blu-ray Disc Player is unique in that it features (besides built in Wi-Fi and full 3D) a disc-to-digital option that lets you feed your DVD player into the unit, then makes that content available to other users. Using the Flixster service, you can then register your movie and enjoy it at any time. The Toshiba BDX3300 Blu-ray Disc Player has many of the same features, and includes USB port for peripheral connection of flash drives for access to even more stored content. The LG Electronics BP320 Blu-ray Disc Player is similarly equipped, and includes a CD-to-USB option that lets you record CDs to an attached USB flash drive.
So, you realize that you want something more than a massive 75” HDTV can offer, but where do you turn? After 55”, LCD TVs can get pricey. And we don’t mean I’m-using-my-tax-return-for-something-for-me pricey. We mean I-simply-can’t-shell-out-$10,000-or-more-for-a-TV-that-I-will-primarily-use-to-watch-the-evening-news pricey.
What about that empty wall that you refuse to paint? Because there is another option. And it could really use a wall like that.
Home Theater projectors are a kind of renaissance approach to home theater. They offer the following, in hierarchal order: a true cinema-like experience, great picture quality and insane bragging rights. Although some models are not as expensive as large HDTVs, they do involve some commitment. You simply don’t just run out, buy a projector and come back expecting the Home Entertainment fairies to set it up. Projectors take work, maintenance and some skill to fulfill their duty as a media hub.
Like TVs, you want full 1080p resolution and HDMI connectivity. Unlike TVs, you’re looking for a high lumen count, long lamp life, and at least a three panel LCD projection system, like the Mitsubishi HC4000 HD Projector. Some are 3D ready, like the Optoma Technology HD66 Home Theater Projector, which also features a true 16:9 aspect ratio (widescreen—always look for a 16:9 ratio in everything—4:3 means its set for standard television viewing, and you won’t be able to view movies in the size they for which were meant).
High-end projectors feature 4K pass through (I told you I would get to it), which simply put, is way more resolution than you need. 4K refers to its base 4096 x 2160 pixels, which is four times the high-definition resolution of 1080p (1920x1080 pixels). Many movie production companies are now using 4K as the standard for shooting.
What it means to the consumer is that 4K projectors can have incredibly sharp pictures at much higher sizes. Some of the projectors can project on to screen sizes of 300” (7.6 m) diagonal. With 4K, the loss of clarity should be minimal.
Check out the chart below for a roundup of projectors and their capabilities, and check back with us soon as we show you how to turn that great home entertainment system into a great-sounding entertainment system.
Or you can always ask the shopper next to you. Good luck with that.