Shopping for consumer electronics can be a daunting experience. The information that is available is often biased towards the manufacturers who are trying to promote their product, or towards the vendors that are attempting to sell products that they carry in stock. In both cases, the best interests of the consumer are not at heart. The best way to ensure that your interests are put first is to become an educated buyer. Shopping for home theater equipment is not like shopping for a toaster.
The first step in purchasing consumer electronics is determining what the ultimate end use will be. Is the system to be used in the basement, on the main floor, or in the bedroom? Would you like surround sound? How far back are you sitting? Do the specifications matter or are you being misled?
Answering these questions prior to shopping on the Internet or walking into a store will allow a knowledgeable technical support specialist to better evaluate your needs. In this article we will provide a number of different scenarios that will hopefully provide some insight into the products that are available without causing you to fall asleep.
Section One: Through the Looking-Glass
Chapter One: Types of Televisions:
The first step is choosing a display. There are various forms of displays on the market. Generally, you will have a choice of a Plasma television, LCD television, CRT television, DLP television, or Video Projector. All of them have their good points and their negative points, which we will expand on throughout this article. We will start with the most common product, the CRT TV.
Cathode-Ray Tube Televisions have been on the market since the late 1930’s. These are the large, heavy televisions commonly found in every household. While they are now inexpensive compared to their counterparts on the market today, they are becoming more and more difficult to find as more and manufacturers have ceased their production. The largest CRT televisions produced are approximately 40” diagonal, and weigh close to four hundred pounds.
As mentioned, the major advantage of CRT Televisions is the price. Budget-conscious consumers looking for a television will find what they are looking for. Most of the time however, these purchases must be made in store. Purchasing a CRT TV on the Internet will likely negate any savings as there will be significant shipping costs incurred due to the size and weight of these products.
Disadvantages of a CRT Television include the depth of space that these units require, and their weight. The picture quality compared to comparable products on the market today is generally not as good in light of the fact that most CRT TV’s are not high-definition capable. Those few CRT televisions that are HDTV capable generally provide the best quality picture at the best price, trading off depth and weight for cost.
DLP Televisions and most rear-projection units in general, are available in sizes from 42” up to 80”. While they are the most cost-effective large screen high definition television available (at least initially), there are some significant drawbacks. These units are generally video projectors in a box with a bunch of mirrors. This means that you must replace the lamp periodically (within 2,000 – 8,000 hours). This can not only become expensive, but if the lamp is not available at the time you need it, you will not be able to use your television. Other disadvantages are the large footprint (from 12” – 30”), no ability to wall mount the television, and poor picture quality (due to the brightness of the television being reduced throughout the life of the lamp, and the narrow viewing angle). Finally, most rear projection televisions suffer from the Silk Screen Effect, which is described as being able to see the texture of the television screen in front of the image.
LCD TV’s are the newest type of television on the market. While historically, the technology has been around far longer than either plasma or CRT, it was not developed for consumer or commercial television usage until very recently. LCD Televisions run through an entire range of sizes, from 7” – 65”. There are a couple of larger LCD TV’s available; however they are only one-off prototypes at this point in time.
Generally, with few exceptions, most LCD Televisions on the market today are HDTV Ready. For consumers looking for thin high-definition televisions diagonally less than forty inches, LCD is where you want to be. The prices have dropped considerably in the last five years to the point where the product is now affordable, and the quality has improved significantly as well.
We generally do not recommend LCD TV’s larger than forty inches except in certain cases. This is due to the fact that in our experience, LCD Televisions experience issues with latency and color depth compared to other types of flat panel displays. There is no other flat panel competition with respect to smaller sized units, and LCD Televisions dominate this market.
Some LCD Televisions ship with integrated DVD players, which make them attractive as a complete turnkey solution. In addition, most if not all high-definition LCD TV’s can be used in conjunction with a personal computer or laptop, allowing for multiple monitor or simply a larger monitor display to work on. LCD technology also does not suffer from image retention, which makes them an ideal solution for digital signage and control room operations (However, in so stating that, those are commercial applications and we do not recommend using consumer products for commercial applications).
Plasma televisions, much like their LCD brethren, are thin displays that can be wall mounted. Plasma Display Panels have been around since the mid-1960’s, but due to the initial high cost of production they have only become available to consumers within the last decade. Plasma Televisions are commonly available in sizes that range from 37” up to 65”. As with LCD TV’s, there are a few larger sets available, however they are either prototypes or unaffordable.
For consumer installations, we recommend Plasma TV Display Panels for any installation that exceeds 42”. Plasma Televisions present a brighter, clearer picture than anything else on the market, and their price point is now down to the point that they are affordable for most people. There are no latency issue, and the angle of view (in other words, how far off center that you can sit) for plasma televisions is 178 degrees.
A common fault of Plasma Televisions is the image retention, or screen burn-in. While this is not so much a problem with recent units compared to earlier generations, preventative maintenance is a good rule of thumb. While most manufacturers have built into their products an orbiter function or a white flash utility that helps prevent image retention, the best defense against screen burn-in to turn the television off when it is not in use (instead of leaving the paused movie onscreen that you are looking at) and allowing the image to slowly burn in.
Customers who are looking to install a home theater system will generally choose to purchase a video projection system. The trade-off between a video projector and a flat screen display is size versus quality. Whereas a video projector provides for a large screen size, typically in or around 106”, flat-screen displays offer nothing in that size range at a decent price.
Video Projectors have been steadily declining in price over the last few years, while increasing in quality. Less than five years ago video projectors were for the most part unaffordable and the customers were not getting the value due to the fact that the technology was not yet sufficiently developed. Nowadays, video projectors that offer full high definition resolution are commonplace, at a price that the average consumer would consider reasonable.
There are two technologies available to consumers when purchasing a video projector. The two technologies are DLP and LCD. DLP video projectors tend to be more expensive than their LCD counterparts, and are generally considered more of a choice for enthusiasts rather than the typical consumer. Developed by Texas Instruments, DLP technology often provides a softer, finer image than their LCD counterparts, with a higher contrast ratio. Video projectors based on LCD technology tend to be more affordable, while offering higher brightness and better color depth than the comparative DLP video projectors.
Chapter Two: Numbers, Numbers, Numbers.
For many people, narrowing down their choice of TV comes down to the price versus the features and specifications. In most cases, comparisons can be made between products using the published specs and various features. Understanding what these numbers mean is important.
The first number most people look at is the Contrast Ratio. The contrast ratio is a measure of the depth of color that a television has. Products that have a high contrast ratio should offer a greater depth of color than products that have a lower contrast ratio.
Unfortunately, this is often not the case. This is due to the fact that there is no universally approved method to measure contrast ratio. As a result, the numbers published can be determined by various means, thereby negating the usefulness of the published number. Until this is remedied, either by the contrast ratios being measured by an independent organization or an approved ISO testing standard is adopted, we do not recommend that the consumer employ the contrast ratio in determining what product that they choose to purchase.
The next number that consumers generally look at is Brightness. Brightness is measured in nits, which is described as the candelas per meter squared (cd/m2). One nit is equivalent to one cd/m2. Brightness is generally accepted as a standard test and can thusly be used when comparing between different makes and models of televisions. The higher the number, the brighter the television will be. Typically, video projectors and DLP TV’s offer lower brightness, and thus must be used in a darker room. LCD TV’s will offer decent brightness, with CRT and Plasma Televisions generally being the brightest units currently being produced.
Aspect Ratios are also standardized. Most televisions will offer either a 4:3 native aspect ratio or a 16:9 native aspect ratio. All HDTV’s are 16:9, otherwise known as widescreen. Older units, or standard definition televisions, offer a native 4:3 aspect ratio. The difference between the two numbers is that 4:3 is the more traditional “square” look, whereas 16:9 is the “rectangular” look. The 16:9 aspect ratio is also known as 1.78:1.
There are two other aspect ratios that are available, and while they bear mentioning they are generally not very popular. They are almost exclusively native to video projectors, and even then to obtain these aspect ratios it is often necessary to purchase an additional lens. These two aspect ratios are known as Letterbox and Cinemascope. Letterbox is 1.85:1 aspect ratio, whereas Cinemascope is a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
One of the most important numbers to look at is the native resolution. It is very easy to get confused, as you will generally see a number of different resolutions, often expressed by two different methods. The first method is the interlaced / progressive method. The second method is what we call the computer method. This method is a horizontal by vertical count of the pixels in the television.
1080p provides the highest native resolution currently available on the market today. These high-definition displays are capable of displaying 1920 pixels x 1080 pixels at 60 frames per second. This resolution is available on LCD televisions starting at 32” diagonal, and on plasma televisions starting at 50” diagonal. Many home theater video projectors also support this resolution.
1080i also refers to a native resolution of 1920 pixels x 1080 pixels, at 30 frames per second. The “I” in 1080i refers to interlaced, and the “P” in 1080p refers to progressive. The difference between the two is the frames per second. With progressive scanning, each line is scanned sequentially and displayed on the screen. With interlaced, each line is scanned alternatively and displayed on the screen. 1080i is a very common resolution, and is available on all high definition CRT Televisions, LCD TV’s, Plasma Televisions, and Video Projectors. In addition, with few exceptions, all high definition satellite and cable providers offer support for the 1080i resolution.
720p is the most common resolution available on the market today. These televisions have a native resolution of 1280 pixels x 720 pixels, at 60 frames per second. Any television or video projector that is capable of displaying a 1080p or 1080i signal is also capable of displaying a 720p signal. This high definition resolution is native to most LCD and Plasma TV’s starting at 19”, and all the way up. In addition, all video projectors that are capable of high definition will display this resolution. As with the 1080i resolution, all high definition capable satellite and cable receivers will output 720p resolution.
480p is the first native resolution in this chapter that is not classified as high definition. It is classified as EDTV, or enhanced definition television. The native resolution of 480p televisions is 848 pixels x 480 pixels at 60 frames per second. While the majority of these units are capable of displaying both a 1080i and 720p signal, they down convert the signal to 848 x 480. This does not necessarily look bad – in fact on some EDTV’s the output looked better than their native high definition counterparts. This resolution was available on some Plasma Televisions ranging in size from 37” – 46”, but for the most part has been discontinued as the prices for native high definition sets have fallen dramatically. There are still a few Video Projectors on the market that display this resolution natively. Progressive scan DVD players and non-high-definition satellite and cable boxes will output this resolution.
480i is the final resolution that you will generally see supported. 480i refers to a native resolution of 848 pixels x 480 pixels, at 30 frames per second. Older satellite and cable boxes as well at non-progressive scan DVD players output this resolution. The only products on the market today that employ 480i as a native resolution are CRT Televisions.
Chapter Three: What Goes Where?
Now that we have a basic background into the types of televisions available, and what the important numbers mean, we need to determine where you would like to put the unit, what size you will need, and what you are using it for. This chapter more than any other chapter is subjective; these are recommendations only based on years of experience.
Many people have a television in their bedroom. Usually it is an older CRT television, because as people upgrade their other rooms, the older televisions get shuffled down the priority line. As CRT televisions are becoming extinct, and with current models lasting longer and longer and not requiring an upgrade, the trend will change to the consumer actively shopping for a specific model for the bedroom. For the average bedroom, we generally recommend an LCD television 32” and under with an integrated progressive-scan DVD player. Depending on who your television provider is, an integrated Cable Card slot may be a nice add-on.
Ideally, a television for the bedroom should be a complete turnkey solution. Few people enjoy having external home theater gear (such as DVD players, speakers or amplifiers) in their bedroom, or televisions so large that they dominate the room. Manufacturers have responded by introducing products that cater specifically to this need.
The kitchen is another area of the home where people typically have difficulty determining what would work best. As kitchens are smaller areas, a television that offers close quarter viewing is best. Typically, under the cabinet LCD televisions or LCD televisions under 15” diagonal (with an under cabinet mount) fit the bill. In the kitchen countertop space is always at a premium and losing any of it because you have a television on the counter is unacceptable to most people.
Moving throughout the house, the living room is our next area. The living room is generally an open area which benefits from the presence of a television greater than 42” diagonal. This is subjective, however and of course based on your room size and how far away you are sitting from the television. If you are sitting within ten feet of your display, a 42” plasma television is ideal. If your couch is between ten and twenty feet away from the television screen, a 50” plasma television would be our recommendation. Beyond twenty feet, you may want to consider a TV larger than 60”. How do we come up with these distances and numbers? Jump down to the end of this chapter, and we will explain it in greater detail.
We generally recommend turnkey plasma televisions for the living room, as people tend to prefer this room sanitized from any external home theater gear. We define a “turnkey” product as a television that you can unpack, plug in, turn it on and it is ready to use.
Alternatively, if you do enjoy true surround sound and do not mind some components (such as a DVD player etc…) in the living room, you could consider a setup that employs in-wall speakers. In-wall or in-ceiling speakers, if installed correctly, sound just as good as external speakers. You will however need to find a home for a subwoofer, as in-wall subwoofers are difficult to find (and typically do not sound as good as their external counterparts). Keep in mind that there are many different manufacturers of speakers, and to obtain the best possible sound you must be able to listen to any speakers prior to purchasing them. Section Two contains more information on receivers, speakers, and audio setup in general.
The room most similar to the living room is the family room. For all intents and purposes, the same opinions apply with respect to selecting a display device. Depending on your room setup, you may elect to install a video projector. If you choose this particular route, however, you must ensure that you have absolute control over your lighting environment. Video projectors typically prefer low-light environments, which makes it necessary to have the ability to block the sun out during the day and keep the lights off during viewing hours.
The room in your home that offers the most versatility is the basement. There are so many different home theater permutations that can be employed that it would take another entire article to peruse through them all. In so saying that, however, for people interested in enjoying a true home theater experience, the basement is the best place for it. This is due to the fact that the basement is often the largest room in your home, can be insulated from sound easier than any other room, and it is not very difficult to control the lighting.
Given the factors mentioned in the paragraph above, we recommend installing a video projector in the basement. It is the best room for it, without question. There are a number of factors that go into selecting a video projector that will not only best fit your needs, but also work within your budget. In this respect it is definitely an asset to be able to consult with a certified home theater installer or persons intimately knowledgeable about home theater setup. These individuals will have some questions about your preferences, your basement setup, and your budget. We have prepared a small tutorial on selecting a home theater projector and the questions that will need to be answered in Chapter Six: Selecting a Home Theater Video Projector.
The only room left is the bathroom. If you have to put a TV in the bathroom, isn’t that overdoing it a bit?
We promised to explain how we came up with the viewing distances for the various displays. Truthfully, it is a measure and a mixture of both common sense and science. While it is not within the scope of this document to explain the intricacies of photometry (The science of measurement of light in terms of its apparent brightness to the human eye) and radiometry (The science of measurement of light in terms of absolute power), these are the two sciences that are specifically involved in providing a mathematical calculation to determine the ideal distance from the display device for viewing.
From a common sense standpoint, the best analogy that we could provide is to imagine yourself in a conventional movie theater. You do not want to be in the front row, because you are too close and the picture is overbearing. Conversely, you do not want to be in back row, because you are too far away from the screen and the picture appears too small.
Finally, taking into consideration your room size, you do not want to purchase a panel that is too large, as you will find it overbearing. While a flat panel television can easily be the centerpiece of the room, if it is too large it will be esthetically unbearable. This paragraph is sound advice for any room that you have a display device in with the exception of a dedicated home theater room. Notwithstanding the former paragraph with respect to sitting distance, your dedicated home theater is the one location in your home where bigger is generally accepted as better.
Once again, as mentioned, the recommendations in this chapter are based only upon our experience and trends that we have observed throughout the years. Your personal preferences may be vastly different. This is the one chapter that should probably have been written with gray ink (…and would have been, if it would not make it so hard to read).
Chapter Four: Connections
Televisions and Video Projectors now ship with a myriad of connections and connectors – and the most poignant questions are what do you need and why do you need it. To start at the beginning, we will list the connection types from the worst quality to the best quality.
Composite video is a combined video signal that contains the luminance, hue, and saturation data on a single cable. This is the lowest grade of video signal used by most video equipment. The typical connector is a single RCA Jack with a Yellow marking. Composite video is poor in quality and is only used as a last resort. In no circumstances is it recommended to run a plasma, LCD TV or video projector with composite video, due to the fact that it will only feed approximately 250 lines of resolution.
The next step up in signal quality from Composite Video, S-Video separates the luminance part of a video image from the color part. This provides a clearer picture due to the fact that each portion of the video signal is assigned its own processing channel. The S-Video connector is a Mini-Din 4 Y/C. S-Video is primarily used on S-VHS VCRs, satellite dishes (non-HDTV) and DVDs where the target connection (example, your television set) will not accept component connections. S-Video will run a 480i signal, but not a 480p signal.
Component video is a high-grade analog video signal that separates the three basic components of a video signal (luminance, hue, saturation). Component video is often displayed as Y, Pb, Pr, or Y, Cb, Cr. The typical connectors are three RCA Jacks with Green, Blue, and Red markings. This system is used primarily on DVD players and HDTV receivers. A component video connection is capable of accepting full high-definition signals up to 1080p. In so saying that, however, many sources will not output a 1080p signal via component video. The maximum resolution that these sources will output is 720p, or 1080i.
RGB (VGA) is one of the purest forms of component video with separate color and luminance signals for each of the Red, Green, and Blue components. RGB is the standard signal type used on most computers. It is represented as a 15-Pin connector (Three rows of five pins each). This input can also accept a component video connection, using a RCA to VGA cable. This is very useful if you need to feed multiple high definition signals into your television without using any external video processing equipment.
DVI is a hybrid analog/digital 24-pin connection that is commonly available on most televisions. DVI (Digital Video Interface) is a specification created by the Digital Display Working Group (DDWG) to accommodate analog and digital monitors with a single connector. There are three different DVI configurations: DVI-A, designed for analog signals, DVI-D, designed for digital signals, and DVI-I (integrated), which was designed for both analog and digital signals. DVI is an option on many Plasma displays. A DVI connection can also be adapted to feed RGB (VGA) connections as well as HDMI connections.
RGBHV (5 BNC) is an uncommon connector that is found primarily on commercial or professionally installed display panels or video projectors. It consists of five connectors, namely Red, Green, Blue, Horizontal Shift, and Vertical Shift. This connector can be used to display both component and VGA connections (with a VGA-5BNC adapter cable). As with the RGB input, this connector is useful if you need to run multiple sources directly to your television.
The primary connector that is employed nowadays is HDMI. HDMI is a digital multimedia interface capable of displaying maximum picture and sound through a singular interconnect. It is the connection that is most commonly used today. HDMI has gone through many revisions since it was introduced in 2002, and we could write an entire article unto itself explaining the different versions as well as their relative importance.
Along with DVI, HDMI offers a true digital signal. The major difference between HDMI and DVI is that DVI does not offer any sort of audio support, whereas HDMI offers support for high bandwidth digital audio. At the time of this writing, the latest revision of HDMI is v1.3, and ensuring that any product that you purchase is at least compliant to this version is important. Please see Section Four: HDMI Explained for a more in-depth explanation of HDMI.
Chapter Five: Branding
So far, we have stayed away from particular brands throughout the article, hoping to provide you with a clearer picture on what to purchase. The actual brand name or manufacturer of the products that you choose is important for a couple of reasons.
We recommend that you choose a manufacturer that you have heard of. Choosing an off-brand product because it may be cheaper is not necessarily recommended due to the fact that you may require warranty on your product, and it provides you with the peace of mind that you know that you will be taken care of. If you do purchase a product from a lesser-known manufacturer, make sure you know how the warranty works prior to your purchase, or consider purchasing an extended warranty. In addition, find out how the support works after the warranty period has ended.
If you already have a particular brand in your home, and you are happy with it, we recommend that you maintain that brand partiality. It sounds like an odd thing to do but if you purchase another brand, you will find yourself constantly comparing the two units, wondering which one looks better. Thusly, one television will become your favorite and you won’t get any (or as much) enjoyment out of the second TV.
Chapter Six: Selecting a Home Theater Video Projector
As we mentioned in Chapter Three, selecting the correct video projector for your new home theater can be tricky, and may involve employing the services of a professional home theater consultant. In any event, prior to researching the various technologies and brands, there are some basic questions that you must have answers for.
The first question is about your budget. How much to you wish to spend on your projector, including all taxes? Projector prices range from very affordable to ridiculously overpriced, often with very little physical differences separating the products save for name brand. Keep that number to yourself, there is no need to give it out to anybody trying to sell you something. Simply put, their recommendations will either be affordable, or not affordable.
The next question will likely be about the distance that you are sitting away from the video projector screen. This will allow your consultant to determine the correct size of the screen that you should consider purchasing, as well as how bright the video projector should be. As we mentioned previously, you do not want to have a screen that is too large, as the effect will be similar to sitting in the front row of a movie theater. On the flipside, you will be disappointed if you purchase a screen that is too small.
Your video projector selection will also hinge upon if you have the ability to control the lighting within your home theater. The generally accepted rule is that the darker you can make the room, the better. That in of itself will allow you to choose from a much more diverse range of video projectors. If you are unable to control the lighting, or the amount of sunlight in the room, then you will have to choose a high lumens video projector. Otherwise, the image on the screen will appear washed out.
The next question that needs to be answered is to do with the two major technologies available with respect to video projection units. These two technologies are LCD or DLP. While your system integrator or home theater consultant will generally have a preference, it is important to know the basic differences to enable you to make the best possible selection.
In short, video projectors that employ LCD technology tend to produce very vivid images with respect to color depth, and tend to be brighter. They are also more cost efficient. DLP video projectors, while not significantly more expensive, tend to produce a softer, finer image than their LCD counterparts. They do not offer the same amount of brightness, which makes it all that much more important for you to be able to control the room environment if you decide to go with DLP technology.
The drawbacks between the two technologies are few are far between nowadays. Up until 2005, LCD video projectors were notorious for having the screen-door effect. The screen-door effect (also known as fixed-noise pattern) is where fine lines (that are visible) separate the video projectors’ pixels. Nowadays, due to the invention of 3LCD technology, there is no more screen door effect.
DLP projectors were notorious for possessing a phenomenon known as the rainbow effect. The rainbow effect can best be described as a visible breakdown of the primary red, blue, and green colors within the projected DLP image. In some instances, after only a few minutes of viewing, some people would feel eye strain and start to suffer headaches. With the invention of the faster color wheels and three-chip DLP systems, the rainbow effect today is almost non-existent.
Technical stuff aside, your viewing preferences are also critical to selecting the right video projector. If you are a sports fan and would like some light in the room, then we recommend a higher lumens video projector. If you are a movie buff and prefer little to no light in your theater, then a video projector with less lumens will work very well. Also, do you watch a lot of television or do you spend the majority of your time playing video games? This is important because it will narrow down the selection of your video projector to either a native 720p/1080i projector or a 1080p native video projector. All high definition television programming is delivered in 720p or 1080i, and this will likely not change in the short term. With respect to a 1080p signal, the only three sources that can reproduce this resolution accurately are a personal computer, an HD-DVD player (which includes the Microsoft X-Box 360 gaming console), or a Blu-Ray player (which includes the Sony PlayStation 3 gaming console). In a sentence, if the majority of your viewing consists of 720p/1080i, choose a video projector that matches that resolution. If the bulk of your viewing will be 1080p, then you will want to consider the more expensive video projector.
Finally, when selecting a home theater video projector, you must keep in mind the native aspect ratio. While we touched on aspect ratios in Chapter Two, we did not mention why they are important. Most of your home theater viewing will be done in a 16:9 aspect ratio. Most portable media (such as DVD, HD-DVD, or Blu-Ray) is encoded in widescreen format. Most high-definition broadcasts are 16:9 as well, and your personal computer can be configured to output 16:9. Regardless of the video projector that you choose, it is highly recommended that its native aspect ratio be 16:9 to match the majority of the media currently on the market. If you choose a video projector that has a native aspect ratio of 4:3, you will have light bars on the top and bottom of your video projector screen when viewing native 16:9 programming.
A quick note about video projector screens. The video projector screen must have the same aspect ratio as the video projector itself. If they are mismatched, then you will receive light bars overlapping the screen border and onto your wall. A future article will explain video projection screens in greater detail.