When the Federal Communications Commission approved the ATSC digital broadcast standard in December 1996, most consumers shrugged as the pundits (us at Home Theater included) heralded the greatest advance in television since the introduction of color in the 1950s. Time has proven us right. With six times the detail of standard-definition video, HDTV has been both a revelation and a revolution. For those who care about picture quality, one quick look was enough to know the world had changed, and we were never going back.
Eleven years ago, in the fall of 2000, the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times published a long freelance article I wrote announcing the birth of digital cinema. Digital projection for large venues was mostly a dream at the time, but the technology existed and had been proven to provide satisfying images for the average moviegoer. Meanwhile, digital cinema’s biggest booster, filmmaker George Lucas, had just finished shooting Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones in 1080p/24-frame-per-second digital using a cutting-edge camera developed by Sony and Panavision. It was the first major motion picture to be shot entirely in video.
Flat-panel HDTVs have undergone rapid changes in technology and pricing. There are now two types of 3D systems for you to decide between, screen sizes have continued to inch up, prices have come down, and the battle between LCD and plasma for image-quality supremacy has heated up, with the latest generation of top-line LED models challenging plasma’s long-held position at the top of the enthusiast heap.
I’ve given a lot of thought lately to our Top Picks list and what it should take for a product to achieve Top Picks status. This is no small matter. Most of us on the edit staff have counted on magazines just like this one to help direct our purchases, so we take the responsibility seriously. Home Theater’s list of best products needs to reflect the highest standards we can apply—and to be presented in a fashion that’s intuitive and useful.
A lot of consumer electronics editors and reviewers have a love-hate relationship with product ratings. The love side comes from knowing they make readers happy. Assuming the ratings structure is well thought out (that is, simple and easy to understand) and the ratings are applied with fairness and accuracy, they wrap the whole product up in a nice little ball and tell you, at a quick glance, whether it's a winner, loser, or in-betweener. Perhaps most important, a good rating, or a good rating coupled with a seal of approval like our Top Picks designation, is validation that the product is worthy of the money you plan to spend on it. Given the sea of black boxes, identically thin TVs, and similar speaker systems out there, we recognize that giving you this validation is really the essence of our job at Home Theater.
Price: $600 At A Glance: Excellent tonality • Good imaging • Cumbersome WiFi setup
I've never been a big fan of paying for brand names for their own sake. Build quality? Yes. Performance? Absolutely. Aesthetics? Sure. Ease of use? Certainly. Each of those has value, and it often makes sense to pay more, even a lot more, for any one of them. But sometimes, in the course of shopping for whatever, you encounter an entry from a well-respected or even elite brand that at first glance seems so outlandishly priced you have stop and wonder: what am I really paying for here?
Suffice to say that was me when Bowers & Wilkins first suggested I take a little ride with the Zeppelin Air, the company's $600 iPod dock...
Polk Audio has introduced its first-ever headphones, and they hope you'll take 'em on the road, or to the gym, the court, or anywhere else you play, practice, or get fit.
The company's four new UltraFit Performance headphones, which range in price from $50 to $100, were designed from the ground up to provide high quality sonics in a highly durable and sports-friendly package that resists falling from the ear or falling apart when worn for rigorous activities. Three in-ear models include the UltraFit 500 ($49.95), the UltraFit 1000 ($69.95), and the UltraFit 3000 (pictured, $99.95). A fourth over-the-air model, the UltraFit 2000 (also pictured, $69.95), features an airframe design with a behind-the-neck reflective wraparound headband.
Canadian audio manufacturer Bryston Ltd. was showing off its soon to be released SP3 surround processor at CEDIA 2011. Taking a purist approach, there's no video processing to potentially muck up the audio signal, but the unit provides convenient HDMI v1.4 video pass through from each of seven HDMI inputs, and should a higher HDMI version ever be required, modular construction insures that a factory upgrade can do the trick. The prototype on display was a 7.1-channel model that decodes all the latest Blu-ray codecs and steers the audio to either balanced or RCA outputs. There's also a pair of AES/EBU inputs and a USB input along with the usual mix of analog and digital stereo inputs. Bryston sales VP James Tanner said the SP3 uses all discreet Class A circuitry in its analog stages for optimal sound quality, and great care was taken in the circuit topology to keep incoming video signals away from the audio, including dedicated power supplies for the video and audio circuits with no shared common grounds. Price is expected to be $9,500 when the SP3 ships at the end of September.
Manufacturers of control systems and many other products have embraced the iPad in a big way, building apps that turn these small flatpanel computers into easy-to-use, high powered touchscreen controllers. But the iPad's (or iPhone's) strength as a do-it-all device is also a weakness if you're going to use it as a remote control. The reality is that these multipurpose machines can be quite inconvenient if at the moment you need to switch an input on your receiver or press the Pause button for your disc player your tablet isn't woken up, unlocked, and running the correct page of the control app in its open window. And that assumes the device hasn't walked away altogether with another family member who needs it for web browsing or a round of Fruit Ninja. RTI's solution, believe it or not, is a second inexpensive remote to keep around as a backup. The new SURFiR ($149, shown next to the iPad) is an option for anyone using one of RTI's controllers and the company's RTIPanel app for Apple iDevices. Unlike the company's usual remotes, the SURFiR requires no programming, and system commands you execute with it automatically update the RTIPanel display—the two track each other. Apps are great, but if you're busy looking at email and just want to make a quick volume adjustment, the SURFiR companion remote is intended to provide quick, easy, tactile control at low cost.
Sanus showed off a revision of its value-priced ready-to-assemble Basics Series furniture line with an attractive new feature: tool-less construction. Really, not even a screwdriver. The screws and screw cams/posts of yesteryear have been replaced with a combination of internally hinged parts (such as drawers) that are already partially constructed and simply fold out to their final shape, and easy-to-use lever cams that pull the final pieces together and hold strong. The new designs both speed and simplify construction—something to celebrate if you've ever pieced one of these together the old way.