Answering a reader letter for a recent print issue provided an opportunity to look at how the flat panel TV has evolved since the demise of the best flat panel TVs yet devised, the gone but hardly forgotten Pioneer KURO line of plasmas. These sets looked better, and the measurements demonstrated that in many key respects, they were in fact better than the competition. In blacks and contrast, objective and subjective, we’ve not yet seen their equal let alone their better. My question is whether anyone is really trying any more. The KURO in a short time built an incredible reputation and brand equity and identification. To this day, when readers email me about these sets, they say “KURO,” not Pioneer or Pioneer Elite. That mark stuck with people. When the KURO walked the Earth the other manufacturers were forced to catch up. Within a short time LCD flat panel manufacturers had to answer, and they did. LCDs improved dramatically, primarily through the advent of full array local dimming. Blacks and contrast with LCDs suddenly stood where no LCD had stood before. When the KUROs were here it seemed LED backlighting with local dimming and the performance increases it afforded LCDs were the next big thing. But the KURO went away. Edge lighting came about and is far more prevalent than full array local dimming, making TVs almost iPhone thin. But these sets don’t compete with local dimmers in blacks and contrast and have uniformity issues that may bother purists. The full-array local dimmers are now apparently confined to premium models from LG and Sony, with only VIZIO offering more affordable models. Since thin has been in, there’s also been a massive fixation on Internet streaming apps and of course, 3D. Rumors persist that engineering talent from project KURO now resides at Panasonic, and that the next KURO-like performance will emerge from there. Panasonic’s latest plasmas are definitely the closest we’ve seen from plasmas, but they’re not quite at KURO level in blacks and contrast even though Panasonic has a full suite of Internet apps and excellent 3D.
In the next few issues we’re going to be diving headfirst into the emerging Google TV ecosystem in the form of Logitech’s Revue and a Sony Google TV-equipped BD player. It occurred to me in planning this coverage that I’ve seen some of this before. Just a few years ago this merging of the computer world with consumer electronics was called convergence by its proponents, and collision by its many detractors. Its first clumsy steps were really little more than dragging a full blown PC into your theater system and using your TV as a really big computer monitor with a wireless keyboard and/or mouse. Instead of enhancing functionality, it combined the worst aspects of both worlds. People using computers all day for business had no interest in taking all the issues with computer interfaces and mucking up their leisure time with it. In response to its failure to catch on in the home theater world, computer monitors got bigger, desktop audio systems got better, and the home theater and computer/Internet worlds each went to their respective rooms.
An industry colleague and I spent some time together the other day, and in kibbitzing about the state of the industry as we see it, he wondered aloud whether we’re now in the beginning of the end of the era of the AV receiver. Blu-ray players are now equipped with full decoding capabilities for both legacy lossy and full lossless Dolby and DTS audio. In addition to playing back Blu-ray Discs, these players are now full media hubs with hosts of streaming apps for both audio and video. Other set-top box media hub devices are entering the market as I write this, and some even integrate cable and satellite broadcast content into a unified interface that manages all of this content. It doesn’t seem a stretch to think these devices could evolve to include the base level audio decoding found in BD players, or that more with integrated BD drives will emerge. And full range wireless audio is something that’s been around the corner for some time, clearly a question of when not if. So, my colleague wondered, if you add powered loudspeaker systems with wireless capability into this equation is that a look at the future? The dazzling capabilities of the AV receiver are both its strength and weakness. AVRs are intimidating. How much of all that capability do people really bother to use? How many people could get by with a lot less capability in favor of usability? I don’t know the answers to these questions but found them provocative enough to bring to you, and get your opinion. Are these the end days of the AVR as we know it?
These last two weeks have been very tight to find blogging time, but this is too cool not to share even if it’s a copout in the form of a quickie to those keeping score at home. A Home Theater reader named Andrew Lambert just emailed over a link to this YouTube video of his dedicated home theater.
So, here’s a little slice of the Editor’s life. I live in the Pacific Northwest and work from home, traveling to Home Theater’s Los Angeles offices about a week per month to close each print issue. Last week and next week are back to back closes for HT’s December issue and the massive Buyer’s Guide annual. Coming home from these work trips, after catching up with the family my favorite ritual is opening up my stack of packages that inevitably arrive in my absence, which always includes my supplementary/impulse buys from Amazon. Yes, movies and music.
Everyone seems to have a “for” or “against” position on 3D. In my last Blog most who chimed in were against. Very against. But what I’m wondering is, when people say they don’t like 3D, are they referring to the artistic merit of 3D or the technical limitations of many 3D presentations?
Price: $16,470 (as tested) At A Glance: One-of-a-kind, best-in-class movie interface • Very expensive • Music management not at same level • Blu-ray playback currently cumbersome • Standout pure performance
Escape Physical Media
Going back several years, I remember my first reaction to learning of the Kaleidescape paradigm. Then, media servers didn’t exist, and a Kaleidescape starter system cost a startling $30,000. On paper, it looked like its principal novelty was ripping and playing back DVD movies without having to load a disc into a player. My first thought was something like, “Wow, life is really expensive for people who don’t want to get up and walk a few feet to grab a disc and put it into a DVD player.” Of course, this was exceptionally ignorant and shortsighted. My cynicism lasted roughly two and a half to three seconds into actually using a Kaleidescape system. Much like the Apple products that are so near and dear to my heart, Kaleidescape’s power is in the interface. The library management and organization is a metadata-enriched, best-in-class experience. It’s about changing the way you browse and experience your content at least as much as it’s about storing your digital content on a server. What’s better still, it’s dead simple to use. You could hand the remote to your mom, and she’d be watching a movie in seconds. But power users can dig deeper and find movies by their favorite actors, directors, genres, and more.
Yes, 3D is upon us and with it has come a surprising promotional turn of events. To grab your 3D dollars TV manufacturers are lining up as many hot titles as exclusives as they can get their hands on, including four of the hottest 3D titles of the holiday shopping season: Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, and Shrek Forever After (and really, how far behind can an announcement be for a 3D exclusive on Toy Story 3?). All of these Blu-ray 3D titles, and others, can only be obtained by consumers who buy a 3DTV and Blu-ray 3D player in a bundle from certain manufacturers.
Price: $14,995 At A Glance: Superb color performance • Potential for zero-drift performance over time • Detail and contrast strong, but not state of the art • Expensive
Solid-State Front Projection
Digital projection is finally digital. Yes, we’ve been looking at projected images made of discrete pixels created by digital imaging chips for the last decade or so. But in one essential aspect, digital projection has remained in the analog domain. The lamps that drive light through these projectors and onto our screens have been 100-percent analog. Even when they’re new, the performance of these lamps can adversely affect color fidelity, gamma, and gray-scale tracking. They also determine the overall light output the projector is capable of. As the lamp ages, virtually all of these critical aspects of performance drift somewhat. In the better designs, the change is mostly benign. But there’s no denying that any lamp-driven projector’s light output drops over time, and multi-hundred-dollar lamp replacements every 2,000 hours or so are a fact of life. Until now.
Price: $1,999 At A Glance: Reference-quality picture and sound • Anchor Bay video processing • Slow disc access and load times
A Chip Off the Flagship’s Block?
Denon turned the Blu-ray world on end when it introduced the $4,500 DVD-A1UDCI universal Blu-ray player (HT, October 2009). At 41 pounds, that player is overbuilt for an A/V receiver. It played all past and current high-end audio and video formats and offered astonishing pure audio and video performance and the most impressive host of performance-enhancing features we’ve yet seen on a Blu-ray player. But ergonomically, it was sluggish loading and playing Blu-ray Discs. When you consider that, along with the hefty price tag and the superlative performance we’ve seen from lower-priced players, Denon’s flagship rated too low on the value scale to earn an unqualified Home Theater Top Pick. Now comes Denon’s DBP-4010UDCI, another universal Blu-ray Disc player. This player has an impressive number of performance-oriented features, and at $1,999, it’s less than half the flagship’s price. So, at this lower price point, is this Denon a solid choice in a high-end-priced player?