Resolution Revolution

It’s finally time to buy an HDTV.

This is the third time in as many years that I’ve asked the pressing question: Is it time to buy a high-definition television set? It’s the first time I can answer, without many caveats: Yes, go for it.

Picture quality has gone way up, and prices have gone way down. True, this has been the unabated trend for the past three years. But I think we have now reached a point where the better sets are so good, and their prices are so low (relative to where they were), that further improvements will take place more slowly, and less dramatically, than those not just of the past year but of the past few months.

Earlier this month, I went to the annual press-and-industry expo of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association. This is where the major HDTV and home-theater manufacturers show off their new wares for the fall season. Using my Slate buying guide from last December as a template, here is a report of what I saw.

Plasmas: Those bright, wide, flat screens are still the coolest-looking rectangles in the history of consumer electronics. Last December I wrote, “Any plasma worth owning will set you back at least $5,000 retail—a really good one will cost you double that.” This year, there were good plasmas for $3,000 retail—and really, really good ones for well under $5,000.

Panasonic’s TH-42PX50U

Like last year, I was particularly impressed with the plasmas made by Pioneer and Panasonic. Many plasmas don’t distinguish dark colors very well (blacks, blues, greens, and shadows tend to look alike). But these companies’ screens stand out in detail, color, contrast, and the ability to make black objects look black. Last year, a 43-inch Pioneer plasma cost $10,500. This year, the improved follow-up, the Pioneer PRO-930HD, retails for $5,000. Likewise, Panasonic’s 42-incher retailed for $5,500 last year. Its successor, the TH-42PX50U, costs $3,000—and a much-improved set, the TH-42PX500U, retails for $3,500.

LCD panels: Last year, I waved off plasma’s flat-screen competitor, the liquid-crystal-display panel. For all of plasma’s problems, flat LCDs are prone to worse maladies. Black looks light gray, fast-moving objects seem blurry and jumpy, and all images are prone to the “screen-door effect”—you can sometimes see the gridlines that separate each pixel. That’s still the case with most of this year’s crop, but not nearly to the same degree.

Sony—the star of this year’s expo (see more below)—introduced its Bravia series, LCD flat panels that cost $3,500 for a 40-inch screen, $2,700 for a 32-inch, and $2,000 for a 26-inch. Unlike earlier models, you can watch the Bravias from way off to the side with no distortion or loss of light. Again, the picture isn’t as black, bright, or smooth as that of the better plasmas, but it’s definitely watchable, even pleasurable.

In January Sony previewed its Qualia 005, an LCD flat panel that used a different kind of technology for backlighting. Now the 005 is on the market. It looks amazing. I don’t think I’ve seen more vivid colors on any television. The problem: It costs $15,000 ($3,000 more than originally estimated), a bit much for a 46-inch screen.

Rear-projection TVs and the beginning of true high-definition: First, let us review what “high-definition TV” means. Images on old-fashioned, analog televisions have 480 horizontal lines; first, the even-numbered lines get scanned, then the odd-numbered lines. This is called “interlaced scanning,” so the resolution of these TVs is 480i. Digital televisions scan all the lines at once—a process known as “progressive scanning”—so their resolution is 480p. High-definition televisions either have 1,080 lines with interlaced scanning (1080i) or 720 lines with progressive scanning (720p). More lines mean a more solid, detailed, color-saturated picture; progressive scanning means a picture that moves more smoothly.

The big news at this year’s CEDIA was the introduction of several televisions and projectors that scan images not at 1080i or 720p but at 1080p. The result, all other things equal, is richer detail and smoother action scenes—a picture that’s livelier, more immediate, more real.

Sony’s Grand WEGA KDS-R60XBR1

Again, Sony was particularly impressive. Last year, I raved about the $13,000 70-inch Qualia 006 rear-projection monitor, which used a new technology called SXRD. * (For more on SXRD and other rear-projection tech, click here.) This year, Sony displayed two new 1080p SXRD monitors, the 60-inch Grand WEGA KDS-R60XBR1 for $5,000 and the 50-inch Grand WEGA KDS-R50XBR1 for $4,000. (That’s 70 percent of the Qualia’s size for 30 percent of the price!) *

I found myself wandering back into the Sony booth several times a day to get another look at that R50, wondering if the price—amazingly low for what it is—might tumble a bit more by the holidays. (Given the plunging prices everywhere, I have a feeling it might.) The colors, contrasts, and level of detail beat every other TV at the show, except perhaps the Qualia 005. In fact, Sony’s 50-inch and 60-inch models are better than the 70-inch original; you can watch them from way off to the side with very little harm to the picture. (However, as with all rear-projection TVs, the light diminishes greatly from below; if you like to watch television while lying on the floor, plasma—or the conventional cathode-ray tube—is the way to go.)

Nearly as fine were JVC’s 1080p D-ILA televisions—a 56-inch model for $4,000, a 61-inch for $4,500, and a 70-inch for $6,000. These are $500 to $1,000 cheaper than last year’s comparably sized 720p models!

One thing to note: Rear-projection televisions are not flat. Their light comes from a projector implanted in the back of the TV, which of course requires space. These sets range from 12 to 18 inches deep, though this bulk protrudes only from the rear center. They have streamlined designs, so from straight-on as well as from well to the sides, the sets look flat. Unless you want to hang your television on the wall, don’t dismiss rear projection. (They also weigh a lot less than plasmas and are nearly indestructible; replace the projector lamp every few years, and they last forever, at least in theory.)

Front projectors:  If you want a big, big picture and have a bank account to match, consider a projector that can beam a bright light on a screen 8 to 12 feet wide. 1080p has entered this realm as well. Last year, Sony introduced a $30,000 SXRD front projector. * This year, they stunned everybody with the almost-as-good 1080p VPL-VW100 for $10,000.

Yamaha went one better with the $12,500 DPX-1300 DLP projector, which uses a Silicon Optix chip that greatly enhances picture quality. Unless you’re willing to spend $30,000 or higher—at which point DVDs and HDTV start to look very much like cinema—you needn’t look elsewhere.

Remnants of the past: Last year, I noted that if you didn’t need a screen larger than 34 inches, there was no better set than Sony’s $2,200 XBR910, a high-definition TV utilizing a cathode-ray tube (aka “picture tube”). I saw no CRT televisions at this year’s expo—the first time that’s been the case. It’s nonetheless worth noting that Sony has upgraded the 910 to the XBR960. I’ve seen it on the Internet for as little as $1,600, and the picture is still terrific. It’s HDTV’s best bargain.

The future: The week after the CEDIA expo, Toshiba and Canon showed off a 50-inch monitor utilizing a new technology called SED—surface-conduction electron-emitter display. The screen’s as flat as plasma and the picture has the colors and contrasts of CRT. By all accounts, it looks amazing—better than any plasma or rear-projection TV at CEDIA. According to industry insiders, SED TVs will hit the market sometime next year. Initially, they’ll cost a few thousand dollars more than comparably sized plasmas, but by 2007 or 2008 the price will plummet.

And so, there is still solace for the late adopter. If you won’t buy a new television till the tube on your 20-year-old Trinitron burns out, impress your high-tech friends by telling them that you’re waiting for SED.

* Correction, September 27, 2005: This piece originally understated the price of a year-old Sony television and overstated the price of a year-old Sony projector. The Qualia 006 rear-projection television sold for $13,000, not $10,000. Sony’s SXRD front projector sold for $30,000, not $40,000. Click here to return to the first corrected sentence.