We've once again researched and tested the top equipment available, watched all the latest Blu-rays on the market, and scoured the net for the very best deals, all to give you HDD's 2012 Gift Guide to HD Gear & Demo Material!
by Michael S. Palmer
Happy holidays, HDD Readers!
Tis the season where you best be on the lookout for new HD gear for your loved ones (or yourself!). 2012 has been an exciting high definition year for me, personally. A few months ago, I purchased the 3D Plasma display of my dreams, a Panny VT50 along with a new 3D-capable AVR. For enthusiasts like us, other than your very first HD purchase, I'm not sure if there's anything better than swapping out aging gear for the latest and gee-whiz greatest. When I was a kid, we had the same TV for what felt like centuries, and then, when we did go out and get a new one, chances are we placed it right on top of the old TV because it was too heavy to remove. But everything changes so quickly these days... Blu-ray version 1.0 to 2.0. HDMI 1.1 to 1.4a. 3D. 4K capabilities. It's hard to keep up with the technology itself, let alone the cost of constant upgrades.
So we wait. Years go by. Prices plummet. And finally, when we can't takes it no more, a trip to the store to research the 2012 HD Gear Gift Guide turns into an cat n' mouse dance of haggling and epic credit card bills. Enough about me, though. I want to let you guys know about some excellent 2012 gear at a few different price points. Everything here is top notch in terms of image and sound, and includes all the latest Internet connectivity, streaming, and 3D capabilities.
Friends, I hope this is your year for an upgrade. I hope you love what you get. I hope you inspire passion in others to care about picture and sound. But most of all, thank you for reading our humble site.
Thank you for loving film and television.
Bargain 3D: Panasonic's ST50 Series.
What's to Love: Other than a few filters, calibration menus, appearance, and THX-mode, Panasonic's cheaper plasmas include most of the same technology from their flagship televisions. According to CNET, the ST50 series outperforms black levels on most 2011 plasmas, and you can pick up one for less than $1,000 (for the 50-incher) and less than $2,000 (for the 65-incher). They also include built-in WiFi with access to Vierra Connect streaming services. The ST50 series are available in the following sizes: 50-inches, 55-inches, 60-inches, and 65-inches.
Potential Tradeoffs: There are certainly better televisions, and cheaper televisions, but there aren't any televisions that are bigger and better at these price points. As always, plasmas are constructed with a reflective glass panel, which isn't great in overly bright rooms.
For the Bright Room: LG's Cinema Screen LM6700 Series.
What's to Love: Light and bright, the beautifully styled LG LM6700 series TVs are Internet ready, ship with six pairs of passive 3D glasses, and features 4 HDMI inputs. They do need a bit of calibration to tone down the factory defaults, but once set up right, these TVs look sharp and don't suffer from terrible amounts of light bleed. The 55-inch LG-55LM6700 will set you back just under $1,500, and the smaller 47-inch LG-47LM6700 just over a grand.
Potential Tradeoffs: Passive 3D technology may be a little easier on the eyes than Active Shutter glasses, but there's a trade off in resolution, which may be noticeable to some viewers.
Best Overall Picture Quality: Panasonic VT50 Series.
What's to Love: Panasonic's flagship VT50 series boasts the inkiest black levels of any plasma television available in 2012. It's still not quite KURO good, but it's damn close. The VT50 is built with a single sheet of glass, making the display appear slim and futuristic. The built-in ambient filter also helps reduce reflections. I just purchased one of these, and the 3D experience is truly immersive and breathtaking (check out the 3D demos listed below). I tested a passive 3D TV last year for this list, but didn't love the loss in resolution. Some active shutter glasses give me headaches, but I've watched full two to three hour movies on this TV and enjoyed every minute. Incredible picture and black levels, I can't recommend this display enough. The 65-inch TC-P65VT50 is under $3,400 and the 55-inch TC-P55VT50 is under $2,300.
Potential Tradeoffs: It's pricy, does not come with any $80/pair 3D glasses, the included plastic stand is surprisingly flimsy, there is minor crosstalk with 3D content, and side-facing HDMI inputs are annoying.
Better Black Levels than Kuro: Sharp Elite PRO-X5FD LED TVs.
What's to Love: From what I've seen and read, this is the best looking LED TV on the market, with black levels and contrast that outperforms even the old Kuros. The massive 70-inch Pro-70X5FD, and the 60-inch Pro-60X5FD will set you back around $5,000 and $4,600, respectively, and includes two pairs of 3D glasses.
Potential Tradeoffs: The most expensive model listed here, the X5FD might be overkill and it doesn't perform as well at off-angles than the aformentioned plasmas.
BLU-RAY DISC PLAYERS
Best Bang for Your Buck: Panasonic DMP-BDT220.
What's to Love: Much like last year's BDT210, the Panasonic BDT220 loads Blu-rays faster than just about any standalone machine, plays back 3D content and, thru Viera Connect and built-in WiFi, includes all the best streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Amazon, Pandora, Skype, and MLB.tv. There's also an front panel SD card slot and USB input. CNET calls it the "best Blu-ray value of 2012". Pick one up for less than $100.
Potential Tradeoffs: No support for DivX, Xvid, or subscription music services like Spotify.
The Gold Standard: OPPO BDP-103
What's to Love: Brand new for this year, the BDP-103 includes everything we love about Oppo BD players -- 3D playback, the ability to play just about any digital file, 7.1 analog audio outputs -- but its Marvell Qdeo video processor is capable of upscaling video to 4K. There are also dual HDMI outputs as well as dual inputs to take advantage of the audio and video processing on board. Through in unmatched build quality, Netflix/Pandora/Vudu streaming, and Vertical Stretch Mode for constant height projection setups, and this is an outstanding Blu-ray player. [FYI, if you're big on importing titles, for a few hundred dollars more, you can get a Region Free OPPO BDP-93.]
Potential Tradeoffs: At $499, Oppo Blu-ray players are more expensive than many stand alone units.
The Entry Level Bargain: Onkyo TX-NR616.
What's to Love: For less than $350, we have a networkable 7.2 AVR with 115w (x 7 channels) of power, 8 3D-ready HDMI inputs, iPod compatibility, Internet Streaming (vTuner, Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM, Rhapsody, Last.fm), and it decodes all the modern HD Audio codecs. If that weren't enough, there's also THX Select 2 Plus certification, MHL HDMI port for portable electronics, and 4K upscaling.
Potential Tradeoffs: No built-in AirPlay.
The Mid-Level Performer: Denon AVR-2113ci.
What's to love: For right around $650, this 7.1 receiver (95 watts per channel) features AirPlay, 6 3D-ready HDMI inputs, FLAC HD Decoding, streaming (Pandora, Flickr, Rhapsody), GUI overlay, and decodes all the modern codecs including Dolby Pro Logic IIz. Some will argue the AVR-1913 is the better deal, but for about $70 more, the 2113ci includes an extra year of warranty, Audyssey's MultEQ XT calibration software, powered Zone 2 audio, and 4K upscaling.
Potential Tradeoffs: Less powerful than the cheaper Onkyo and the more expensive Denon 2313ci.
The Beast: Marantz SR7007.
What's to Love: 125 watts times 7.2 channels with seven 1.4a (3D capabile) HDMI inputs and three selectable HDMI outs, streaming on your home network or Internet, 4K video upscaling, built-in AirPlay multiple room calibration software options, and some higher end connections for remote control systems. This AVR will blow the doors off all but the largest media rooms.
Potential Tradeoffs: Well, there's no built-in power for 9 or 11 channels of sound.
A Portable Pocket Projector: Nikon Coolpix S1200pj
What's to Love: This compact Nikon digicam is not only a 14.1 megapixel camera capable of recording 720p HD video, but it includes a built-in projector capable of creating up to a 60-inch screen from a distance of about 10 feet. There's also an adaptor cable that allows you to run the projector from your iPad, iPod, or iPhone. That way you can play any movie or TV show stored on your iDevice in addition to the picture and video content on the camera itself.
Potential Tradeoffs: Definitely not intended for Blu-ray viewing, the screen size isn't exactly mind blowing and it's not full 1080p projection.
What's to Love: Monoprice is my go to supplier for all cables and connectors. They're cheap and well made. Relative newcomer Amazon Basics has some good prices as well (though not as much of a selection).
Potential Tradeoffs: None. I can't say it enough… you save boatloads NOT buying big box store wires and cabling for your system. Audiophile-super-cables? Please. Audiophiles have been tricked in listening tests over and over again.
Universal Remotes: Logitech Harmony Touch Universal Remote.
What's to Love: I really enjoy my Harmony One and PS3 Adapter even though my PS3 Adapter is on the fritz (who knew something that just sits on a shelf could break?), but this year's new Harmony remote features an all new touch screen configuration with a customizable interface for each of your devices and/or activities. Another nice feature is that it doesn't require software installed on your computer, but utilizes MyHarmony.com.
Potential Tradeoffs: No RF support for this model and those used to previous Logitech software may take some time to learn the new system.
Now that you've picked up awesome new gear -- and calibrated picture and sound with something like 'Disney WOW World of Wonder' -- it's time to show it off and test it out. 2012 has been a fantastic year for Blu-ray, with a rising number of reference quality video and audio presentation. A figurative and literal Holy Grail of classic titles from Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean are now available. Here's a sampling of my favorite 2012 discs in the audio and/or video departments:
Box Sets and Classics. We're still in the middle of reviewing all the titles from 'Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection' and 'Bond 50', but these pricey collections offer many firsttime Blu-ray presentations of our favorite movies. Hitchcock fans will also enjoy seperate releases of 'Strangers on a Train' and 'Dial M for Murder', which is the first '50s-era 3D film I've ever seen. 'Lawrence of Arabia', after years of Sony's hard restoration work, is not only one of the best action movies ever filmed, but an absolute Blu-ray stunner. 'Sunset Boulevard', Billy Wilder's scathing tragic tale of behind-the-scenes Hollywood looks gorgeous. Lastly, 'Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures' confirmed that Adventure only has one true name. The films practically look brand new.
5.1 audio. Fewer and fewer blockbuster films are being produced with 5.1 surround sound thanks to the advent of 7.1 and Dolby ATMOS theatrical surround formats, but there are a few must-haves that will show off your system. 'The Dark Knight Rises' (also available in full trilogy form) mirrors its IMAX presentation by alternating between 2.40:1 and 1.78:1 aspect ratios; the native IMAX footage looks gah-mazing and the reference quality soundtrack is bombastic. 'The Raid: Redemption' is an uber violent martial arts movie that will delight your inner Kung Fu master. 'The Grey' is a poetic look at a broken man's struggle against his guilt and the wolves hunting him. Though not for everyone, I can't recommend it enough. And though it won't win any audio awards, save for a few moments of rumbling thunder, 'Ted' looks pretty darn snazzy as well -- you'll never believe the foul-mouthed stuff teddy bear is a fully CGI creation.
7.1 audio. Most of the awesome 7.1 sound mixes are also available in 3D, one paragraph below. 'Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol' includes reference quality audio that is dynamic and immersive throughout (the only complaint is, unlike TDKR, its IMAX-filmed scenes are not 1.78:1 aspect ratio). Also, while I wasn't sure whether to list these under classics, but since I needed more 2D 7.1 options, 'E.T.' and 'JAWS' have been born again with modern 7.1 mixes. Not to say that they're completely different experiences, simply what we loved about the original with a little bit more of an immersive feel.
3D. I've become a little 3D-obsessed, personally, because I finally purchased my first 3D display. What a year for the format. Computer animated movies are always guaranteed demo material. Favorites like 'UP' and 'Finding Nemo' join newer productions like the merry 'Arthur Christmas', the fate-changing 'Brave' -- which you can watch with the Dolby-prepared Audio Lover's Guide -- and suprisingly hilarious 'Madagascar 3'. As a stop-motion film, 'The Pirates! Band of Misfits' is a delightful, family romp. If live action is more your style, 'Avatar' is finally available to non-Pansonic customers, and 'Titanic' might be the best post-conversion ever done. 2012 blockbusters 'Prometheus' and 'The Avengers' feature stunning imagery and killer sound mixes. Lastly, don't forget to check out the best 3D Halloween Movies.
Well, the HD Gear & Demo Gift Guide for 2012 , dear readers. What's your dream gear or demo disc for this holiday season? Hit up the forums to let us know what your giving, or getting, or both!