Buying a Home-Theater Display: What Looks Best to You?

Selecting a TV display to use with your home-theater system boils down to one, utterly subjective criterion: What looks best to you? Of course, few buyers get the chance to audition displays in their own home or home-theater environment. And environmental factors—such as distance from the display, ambient lighting, and background—have an effect on the appearance of onscreen images. To begin making your TV choice as an informed consumer, you need to have some basic technical background that you can use when you go shopping for your home-theater display.

When you enter your local electronics store, you'll see that you have a wide range of options and prices to consider. You also have no fewer than three types of displays to consider, each with its own subtypes and peculiarities. Comparing across types of displays is difficult, so the most essential choice you need to make is what type of display you want for your system. The three primary types of displays are direct-view, plasma/LCD, and projection.

Direct-View Displays
Direct-view TVs are those tube-TV displays that you probably grew up with. You can commonly find direct-view TVs in display sizes as large as 36". Good examples of this type of display are the Panasonic CT-32G8 32" Diagonal PanaBlack Stereo TV and the Phillips 32PT563S. Both are sub-$400 displays that give you decent picture quality in a traditional TV package. The Panasonic is the more basic of the two units, offering only two sets of A/V inputs (one front, one rear) and one S-Video input. The Phillips unit, which costs about 10 percent more, adds additional A/V inputs, an A/V output, and—most important—a component-video input that lets you use video devices (e.g., DVD players) that support such a high-end connection. Of course, if you plan to use S-Video to connect to your home-theater receiver, either display would work, and you're back to the essential "Which display looks better?" question.

The next step up the direct-view ladder is the flat-tube TV display. Fundamentally, the flat-tube design reduces glare on the display and limits the image distortion that the convex glass of a standard display causes. Flat-tube displays run in the $800-to-$1200 range, based on feature sets. A good example of this type of display is, at the lower price point, the Toshiba 36AF43 36-inch Flat Television. This unit includes three A/V inputs, two S-Video inputs, one component-video input, and one Coaxial RF input—plenty for most users. At the high end of the price range, you'll find products such as the Sony KV–36FS210 36" FD Trinitron WEGA. For the additional cost, you get three sets of A/V inputs, two S-Video inputs, two sets of component-video inputs, and a Coaxial RF input—enough input/output combinations for almost any situation. (Outputs include composite A/V with fixed and variable audio switching.) The Sony unit also provides dual tuners for picture-in-picture support, special circuitry to enhance 16x9 reproduction, and excellent speakers and audio amplifiers.

However, a caveat about the display's audio features: As you move up the price scale—and this is true of all the display types—you'll find that audio-reproduction capabilities become significantly more impressive. The catch-22 is that people who are spending big dollars on a video display probably intend to use it as the centerpiece of a home-theater system, which will have dedicated audio components, and therefore don't need exceptional audio built into their display unit.

The next step up is the HDTV-ready display. Generally, direct-view units that have HDTV capabilities run in the $800-to-$2000 range, although special deals are often available, such as the Advent HT2751A 27" High-Definition Television, which sells for less than $500. For a more revealing price comparison, look at the Sony KV–36HS510 36" Hi-Scan FD Trinitron WEGA TV, which costs $2600—about $800 more than the same unit without HDTV capability. For that additional $800, you get a display that provides high-quality 1080i capability, which lets you get the most from high-definition signal sources. This particular unit can convert a 720p signal to display in 1080i format. (The "p" stands for progressive scan, and the "i" stands for interlaced.) Additionally, the display can upgrade the video quality of a standard analog signal to 960i, giving the buyer a HD-like viewing experience with standard video signals.

Input capabilities also become more impressive. Because you've moved into the world of digital-video displays, you now get a DVI-HDTV interface—an all-digital connection with no analog conversion in the circuit. However, the display also provides a generous set of analog connection types, and you can use picture-in-picture technology to display both digital and analog video simultaneously.

In the entry-level $800 range, you'll find products such as the Samsung TXN3271HF 32" Premier Series DynaFlat Digital HDTV Monitor. At this price point and screen size, you don't get the DVI-HDTV interface, support for 720p signals, as many inputs, or the major upgrade to analog-signal capability of the Sony unit, which is $1000 more expensive.

Direct-view tube displays offer the least expensive entry point into the world of HDTV and digital video. Note that almost every display in this category requires a set-top converter to decode digital TV signals. These converters can cost as much as $600 above the cost of the display, although you can also find them as part of satellite TV boxes and digital cable equipment that you rent from the cable provider. For video sources such as DVD players, you'll most likely use component-video cables to connect.

Plasma and LCD Displays
Plasma and LCD displays are the flat panels of the display world, giving you a screen that is rarely more than 4" or 5" deep. The smaller units of the flat-panel category are typically LCD displays, similar to the displays on notebook computers. The larger units are plasma displays, which support significantly higher contrast capabilities than LCD panels. For consumer TV viewing, plasma displays have advantages that are apparent when you compare them with LCD displays in terms of color depth, contrast, and ability to display motion. Advantages of plasma displays include the ability to support all high-definition video resolutions, excellent color saturation and rendering thanks to support for 16 million colors, and easy support for all input standards. The flat screen offers a 160-degree viewing angle, no scan lines, and native widescreen aspect ratio. Price advantages fall on the side of LCD panels, although the only screen size at which they commonly compete is 40".

The Toshiba 32HL83 32-inch HD LCD Television is a good example of a large LCD panel display. The unit supports 720p and 1080i HD display resolutions, automatically converts 480i signals to 1080i HD for a better viewing experience, has a 500:1 contrast ratio, offers both digital-video and analog input support, and costs just under $4000—more than twice the cost of the top-of-the-line direct-view tube TVs that have a similar display size.

Size is a key concern: The doubling of the cost buys you a display that requires significantly less space and offers a variety of mounting options, including wall hanging. The 32HL83 weighs just over 60 pounds and is less than 6" deep. A tube display in that size range weighs about 200 pounds and requires a strong stand and about 2' of mounting depth.

At the top of the flat-panel display product line, you'll find units such as the Panasonic TH-50PX20U/P 50" Diagonal HDTV Plasma Display. This plasma display has a contrast ratio of 3000:1, supports every HD resolution standard, and provides every conceivable type of input connection, including DVI-HDTV, PC VGA, and the latest standard in the digital video display world, High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI)—a very high bandwidth, all digital video interface. The display also includes built-in intelligence that constantly adjusts images for the best possible display quality. Because the unit is a plasma display, you won't see any scan lines or hotspots, which are noticeable on other types of displays. This Panasonic unit represents the current state of the art in direct-view display technology. And users are paying for this cutting-edge technology: This unit sells for just under $9000, and comparable units are available in sizes as large as 60", with proportional price tags.

Projection Displays
Before the availability of plasma displays, your only options for display sizes larger than about 40" were projection TVs. Front and rear projection options still exist and have improved over the past few years. Let's take a look at rear-projection technology and save front projection for another day.

Rear-projection displays use CRT, LCD, or digital light processing (DLP) panels to project images that create the single image that you view on the screen. The current hot technology, DLP, is fairly expensive. High-end DLP rear-projection units use three panels. At lower prices, some units will use only one panel that flashes through the three colors (RGB) to produce the viewable image.

Rear-projection displays are commonly available in sizes ranging from 40" to 65" and, for the most part, are currently available as HDTV-ready at prices ranging from $1200 to $5000. If you're considering a rear-projection display, be sure to pay closest attention to the unit specifications rather than the display size. For example, Panasonic offers the PT-50LC13 50" Diagonal Widescreen Multimedia Projection Display with DVI and PIP for just under $3500 and the PT-53WX53 53" Diagonal Widescreen Projection HDTV Monitor with DVI and PIP for under $2000. The lower-priced display, despite its larger display size, offers significantly less screen resolution (850 lines vs. 1280 lines), uses older display technology (CRT vs. LCD), and requires almost twice the depth (25" vs. 15"). So the additional cost of the 50" rear-projection display buys you better resolution, longer life (LCD panels have very long service life), and better packaging.

Depending on your needs (and space requirements), some excellent values are available in large rear-projection units. For example, the Toshiba 65H93 65" Integrated HDTV Projection TV includes an HDTV tuner (which you would need to purchase separately for most display units), supports multiple display resolutions, and features most of the bells and whistles of higher-priced units, although it uses the older CRT technology, making it over 2' deep. But with its 61" display image, the optimal viewing distance is about 18', so it would require a large room anyway.

Other Considerations
Buying the appropriate display for your home-theater system requires many considerations. You need to be aware of the limitations or requirements of your home-theater space before you purchase any type of display. Aside from spatial requirements, budgetary considerations are often paramount in the real world. Deciding how much you can afford to spend on a display should be a choice you make while you design your system. The cost effectiveness of a tube display might be offset by the need for a size larger than is available, or the display-size availability of a rear-projection unit might be offset by the overall size of the display and enclosure.

You need to weigh these and many other considerations before you set foot in your local electronics store to buy a large video display. Also, despite the wealth of information and availability of products on the Internet, I don't suggest that you purchase any video display sight unseen. The viewing experience is incredibly subjective, and all the greatest technical specifications in the world mean little if you simply don't like the way the display looks.

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