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Which high-end television is best?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

A widescreen, high-definition television tops America’s holiday wish list this year. Too bad shopping for one is so confusing. Many gift buyers head for the store with visions of plasma screens dancing in their heads only to find another kind of flat screen, the LCD, grabbing their attention. Once they start looking around a little more, they notice an alphabet goulash of thin-screen options: DLP, D-ILA, LCoS, SXRD. What do they all mean? Which type of HDTV is best? And what about HDTV itself—is it really better than the much-cheaper E DTV?

It’s enough to make you go home and cuddle up with your 10-year-old Trinitron. But don’t do that. Herewith, Slate’s guide through the high-def maze.

How much should you spend? Count on $1,500 at the very least—for the more exotic technologies, expect to spend much more. Samsung does make a 27-inch HD model powered by an old-fashioned picture tube (more about this later) for $700. But, except in very small rooms, the picture is too small and too dim to make much of an impact.

What about EDTV? No. EDTVs (enhanced- definition televisions) may seem like a bargain, but they’re a waste. High-definition has two special qualities. First, HD broadcasts are usually in widescreen; on a widescreen television, the image fills the entire screen (no horizontal black bars on the top and bottom). Second, an HD image consists of 1,080 horizontal lines (or 720 lines that get scanned twice as fast) compared with standard TV’s 480 lines. More lines mean a more detailed, cohesive, and color-saturated image. An EDTV receives high-def signals, but it displays them in standard definition. You get the wide screen, but not the extraordinary detail. In fact, because the screen is bigger than an ordinary television yet displays the same number of lines, the picture can sometimes be fuzzy, craggly—just bad. (For more about HD and ED, click here.)

Pioneer plasma
Pioneer plasma

Plasma: Plasma televisions are everyone’s dream ticket—flat, bright, and the niftiest-looking piece of furniture in the history of consumer electronics. Two-and-a-half years ago, I predicted that by now plasma’s bugs would be vanquished and the prices slashed. Well, plasmas are cheaper and better, but they’re not yet trouble-free or particularly cheap. Any plasma worth owning will set you back at least $5,000 retail—a really good one will cost you double that.

Plasmas have two inherent advantages and one inherent flaw. The advantages: First, they give off a staggering amount of light, so the image looks clear even in uncurtained daylight. Second, you can watch plasmas from any angle and the picture remains just as sharp—a distinct advantage if you watch television with lots of friends.

The flaw: “burn-in.” If you spend a lot of time watching a channel with an on-screen logo (or a news crawl), the logo’s outlines will brand a permanent shadow on that area of the screen. If you watch a lot of non-HD programs, which have square images, the vertical black bars on both sides of your widescreen will burn in, too. There are ways to minimize this risk (click here) but no way to eliminate it.

One thing to keep in mind when you’re blown away by a plasma screen in an electronics store showroom is the Finding Nemo factor. HD tape loops with lots of bright lights and bold colors—nature documentaries, football games, space capsules orbiting the Earth, and especially digital cartoons like Finding Nemo—make almost any plasma TV look fabulous. Plasmas have more trouble presenting complex colors, especially in dimly lit scenes. They also have a tendency to make black look like dark gray.

The latest models are getting better at compensating for plasma’s weaknesses. (For a technical explanation, click here.) At a trade show a couple months ago, I stood in front of a 43-inch Pioneer Elite PRO-920HD for 20 minutes watching a DVD of Spider-Man, a movie with lots of very dark scenes. The detail, the contrasts, the gradations of gray, and the distinctions between objects and shadows were all superb. I found nothing to complain about except the price: $10,500. (It’s possible to find it now for as little as $7,000.) The 42-inch Panasonic TH-42PX25, at $5,500 (on sale at Amazon for $3,800), is impressive, too. But on most plasmas cheaper than $5,000, Finding Nemo will look great; Spider-Man and many other live-action DVDs and non-HD television shows will not.

Sony LCD
Sony LCD

LCD: LCD (liquid-crystal display) flat panels have one big advantage over plasmas: no burn-in. Otherwise, there’s little to be said for them. Inch for inch, they’re more expensive than plasmas. They make black colors look even lighter gray than plasmas. Fast-moving objects tend to look blurry and jumpy. They’re also prone to the “screen-door effect”—you can sometimes see the gridlines that separate each pixel. Sony’s 46-inch Qualia 005 LCD panel, due out this spring, is stunningly vivid; it makes all other LCDs, and most plasmas, look like mush. The price, though, will be about $12,000.

Samsung's 50-inch DLP thin screen
Samsung’s 50-inch DLP thin screen  

Rear-projection televisions: So far we’ve talked only about flat panels. There are also thin-screen HDTVs that are about a foot deep (and that deep only at the center of the set). RPTVs don’t get half the buzz of the flat panels, but they’re considerably cheaper and, in many ways, better. The most popular rear-projection sets use LCD technology that’s similar to the flat-panel versions. The difference: Rather than emitting light, these televisions get their light from a projector behind the screen. Sony’s 42-inch KF42-WE610 Grand Wega, which costs less than $2,500, isn’t bad at all. Blacks aren’t quite black and the screen door is sometimes visible, but these flaws are less pronounced than on the flat panels.

Often better still are rear-projection TVs that use DLP (digital light processing) technology. Samsung’s 50-inch HLP-5063W, retailing for $3,500 and often discounted, is an excellent buy. Blacks are black, colors are natural, contrasts are subtle. Another great thing about the DLP sets is that there’s no wear or deterioration.Spend a couple hundred dollars for a new bulb every few years, and it’s like you’ve got a brand new television. DLP’s main drawback is that it uses a “color wheel” to project the full color spectrum. In scenes with fast movement, you can sometimes see a “rainbow effect” (colors blurring into one another). Some people are bothered by this; others barely notice it.

The most promising thin-screen rear-projection sets use still-newer technologies based on LCoS (liquid-crystal-on-silicon) chips. JVC has a variation called D-ILA (Direct-Drive Image Light Amplification); Sony’s is called SXRD (Silicon X-tal [Crystal] Reflective Display). The principle here is similar to DLP, except the pixels are packed more densely. Since there’s less space between pixels, light gets absorbed more efficiently, which creates a richer and more seamless image—no screen doors or rainbows. And, like the DLPs, they never wear out.

JVC’s D-ILA—the 52-inch HD-52Z575 and 61-inch HD-61Z575, which retail for $4,500 and $5,500 respectively—are both startling. Among new-tech TVs, they’re surpassed only by Sony’s 70-inch (!) Qualia 006 SXRD. At $10,000, the Qualia 006 (you might also see it called the XBR1000) might seem a bit pricey, but given its size and quality, it really isn’t. (Smaller, and presumably cheaper, models should be out in a year or so.)

The blacks aren’t quite as black as those of very good DLPs, and the image gets a bit dim if you watch from way to the side (though less so than with other rear-projection televisions). But once those problems get fixed, LCoS, D-ILA, and SXRD could render plasma obsolete. (For more on DLP and LCoS technology, click here.)

Really big screens: If you need a picture that’s 6-feet to 10-feet wide, or even larger, then you need a front projector. Front projectors beam light onto a screen that can either be pulled down from the ceiling or set up and taken away. Most of these projectors are fairly compact—some of the LCD and DLP models could fit in your palm—and they can all be hung from a ceiling, attached to a back wall, or set up on a table. Sony makes a very good high-def LCD projector for $3,000. Samsung’s superb DLP projector—one of the best high-end televisions of any sort—costs $12,000. JVC’s D-ILA projector costs about $13,000, and Sony’s SXRD model costs as much as $30,000. Good screens cost from $500 on up.

The drawback of all front projectors is that you have to use them in the dark. Outside light interferes with the projector’s lamp, making the image look faded. This may soon change. Sony has developed a black screen equipped with a filter that reflects the projector’s light and disperses light from windows and room lamps. (For a photograph of the effect, click here.) Sony hasn’t set a release date or a price for its black screen, but it might transform the entire marketplace. You could watch movies or high-def broadcasts on a very big screen in a normal living room, with the lights on, and not have a television taking up any space at all.

The old picture tube: Don’t forget about the cathode-ray picture tube—for color fidelity, contrasts, detail, and black blacks, the stalwart old tube still beats the newfangled microchips. Cathode-ray-tube front projectors are extremely expensive (over $25,000) and hard to set up. CRT rear projectors are enormous and clunky. CRT “direct-view” televisions (a high-def version of the kind of set you’ve had for decades) can’t put out enough light to sustain a widescreen image larger than 34 inches diagonally. However, if you have lots of space, Sony and Toshiba sell rear-projection CRT sets with huge screens—51 inches and more—for $1,500 to $2,000 or so. If a 34-inch direct-view TV is big enough, Sony’s direct-view XBR910 (also $1,500-$2,000), is a gem—maybe the best TV on the market.

One last suggestion: Whatever kind of HDTV you buy, spend another $300 to get it calibrated properly. The settings from the factory—for color, contrast, and so forth—are almost always wrong. You can do some tweaking yourself using a test DVD. But for the fine points, you need a specialist—preferably one certified by the Imaging Science Foundation. Otherwise, it’s like buying a Steinway without bothering to get it tuned.