Back in 1950, life was simple. DuMont dominated the television universe with its majestically sprawling, aptly named Royal Sovereign. It boasted a 30-inch screen, the largest black-and-white picture tube ever produced. It was the best TV on the market. Period.
Now there is no "best," just a bewildering variety of choices: Will that be projection? Front or rear? Will that be flat screen? Liquid crystal display or plasma? Or would you prefer a good old cathode-ray tube?
"Which technology is better?" asks Chris Martens, editor and publisher of the electronic audio-video review AVguide Monthly (www.avguide.com). "There's no right answer. I'm not equivocating. No display format excels in every parameter, such as sharpness, brightness, contrast, black levels and viewing angle. You have to pick and choose depending on your viewing habits and environment."
Front projectors support a wider screen size--up to 300 inches--and most closely approximate a real theater experience. But they use two separate components, the projector and the screen, and require a darkened room.
Rear projection units combine the projector and screen in a single, compact unit and are bright enough to use in daylight. They can have a narrow viewing angle, so the image looks best when viewed straight on.
Flat-panel displays give a bright image, whether viewed straight-on or at an angle. Plasma screens comprise millions of gas-filled cells that stimulate a colored phosphor coating in response to an electric current, making the phosphor glow. In liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, light shines behind a layer of liquid-crystal cells. The cells act as shutters, opening or closing in response to an electric current to let the light through or block it. Plasma TVs and many LCDs are thin enough to hang on the wall.
The Federal Communications Commission has proposed that all television stations switch from analog to digital signals by the end of 2006, as digital is a more efficient way of using an already crowded broadcast spectrum. There are three levels of digital television:
* SDTV (Standard Definition TV) eliminates annoying analog snow and ghosting and offers DVD-like resolution and surround sound.
* EDTV (Enhanced Definition TV) creates a more detailed picture and can reproduce Dolby Digital audio.
* HDTV has the highest resolution and can handle motion better, adding a stable, film-like quality. Traditional TVs use a 4:3 aspect ratio, meaning that the picture is three units high and four units wide. HDTV has a wider "letterbox" format with a 16:9 ratio that resembles the look of movies.
For cathode-ray tube diehards, Sony still produces a letterbox-format, 34-inch set. While the demise of the CRT is imminent, this century-old technology still has the edge in reproducing blacks, shadow detail and making motion look smooth. This summer, Sony shut down production of its 40-inch Trinitron WEGA, the biggest CRT on the market. "It had an old-type, four-to-three aspect ratio," says Greg Pass, president of SuperVision Audio Video at the Pacific Design Center.
"At that size, the glass tube was very expensive to make," he says. "They didn't want to change the factory for a dying technology. Ten years ago, I met a lot of film directors and cinematographers who said, 'I can't look at anything that's not a CRT.' Today, I hardly meet 'tweaks' like that."
Things You Should Know
1. Hanging your flat-screen TV high on the wall, such as above the mantelpiece, is not a comfortable viewing angle despite what the ads suggest.
2. Rear-projection TVs are becoming thin enough to be a lower-cost alternative to plasma and LCD displays. RCA will soon introduce a rear projector about 7 inches deep.
3. No TV looks its best right out of the box. To get the best picture, you might need the help of a professional calibrator with Imaging Science Foundation training.
What It Will Cost
When the sky's the limit
$8,999: InFocus ScreenPlay 7205
$2,172: Stewart Model A ElectriScreen LX060V
This is the first home-theater projector to feature a new high-definition Mustang HD II chip from Texas Instruments for brighter whites and blacker blacks. As for the screen, Stewart builds them to order, so this is a ballpark price for a motorized, roll-down version measuring 48 inches wide and 36 inches high.
Middle of the road
$5,995 Sim2 Seleco Domino 20 DLP projector
$900 Draper Clarion M1300 screen with Vel-Tex
The Domino projector offers complete compatibility with all video sources and devices. The 63-inch-wide Draper Clarion screen features a viewing surface that is stretched tightly over a self-concealing aluminum frame. Vel-Tex, a velvety black textile, cuts reflections to virtually zero.
Down to earth
$899: Dell 2200MP DLP projector
$478 Da-Lite 60-inch Insta-Theater screen
This 60-inch-wide system is one of the best bargains in home theater. The screen does not require permanent installation so it, like the projector, can be stored easily.
$3,500 Samsung HL-P5063W
Projector and screen are combined in one compact unit and are bright enough to work well in a room with ambient light.
Sky's the limit
LG 71-inch plasma MW-71PY10 (price not yet released, but expected to be in the tens of thousands)
Two failsafe circuits prevent the dreaded plasma "burn-in" from objects such as a network logo.
Middle of the road
$8,499: Sharp 45-inch LC-45GX6U AQUOS LCD
Sharp's behemoth has a 60,000-hour-life backlight, double the life expectancy of similarly sized plasma models.
Down to earth
$2,799: Gateway 42-inch Ultrabright Plasma TV
Vibrant colors and good value.
Da-Lite Screen Co., (800) 622-3737, www.Da-lite.com; Dell, (800) 284-DELL; Draper, (800) 238-7999, www.draperinc.com; Gateway, www.gateway.com; LG Electronics, www.lgusa.com; Samsung (800) SAMSUNG, www.samsung.com; Sharp Electronics Corp., www.sharpusa.com; Sim2, (954) 442-2999, www.sim2.com; Sony KDL-42XBR950, $9,999, (877) 865-SONY, www.sonystyle.com; Stewart Filmscreen, Torrance; SuperVision Audio Video, Los Angeles, (877) AVSYSTEM, www.supervisionav.com; Imaging Science Foundation, www.imagingscience.com.
OTHER RESOURCES: Trade associations include Custom Electronic Design & Installation Assn., www.cedia.net; National Systems Contractors Assn., www.nsca.org. Reviews: www.audiorevolution.com. Motorized drapery/window treatments: Solar Shading Systems, (800) 432-7526, www.solarshadingsystems.com. Custom lift and mechanical elevator systems: J & R Engineering, (818) 842-3393.
Produced by Barbara Thornburg; Styled by Tristam Steinberg