We've 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 2013 Gift Guide to HD Gear & Demo Material!
by Michael S. Palmer
Happy holidays, HDD Readers!
The Christmas shopping season might have been cut short by a week, but decorations and trees are already for sale, my home office just got a new jazzy set of blue LED lights, and that one insane radio station in Los Angeles has been piping classic (and not-so-classic, ahem, Sir Paul) holiday tunes for at least a week. My question to you is this: are you ready for the back-to-back family reunions, forced workplace gatherings, and bloated parking lots? Neither am I. But, friends, here's our chance to live by the work hard, play hard motto. After busting our humps down the office and shopping for an endless list of family and friends, it's time for a little reward. It's time to get some new gear for the home theater.
First, let's talk Black Friday. Our sister site, Ben's Bargains, was nice enough to put together an all-in-one page cataloging fliers from the largest stores (electronics and otherwise) as well as a list of Best In-Store deals. The interesting trend this year is that, in addition to opening on Turkey Day itself, many retailers are treating an entire week or two as one great Black Friday. Likewise, Amazon isn't even bothering to wait for the 28th, so you can head over there right now to shop for deals. And the only thing better than Black Friday Amazon deals are Cyber Monday Amazon Deals (another day-turned-week).
However, as great as these deals seem, be cautious about so-called "Door Busters". Sure, it's fun to pick up some older Blu-rays at rock bottom prices, but generally the electronics themselves -- the displays, receivers, and Blu-ray players -- are at least year-old tech, and often lack features necessary for reproducing high quality picture and sound. That being said, as secondary setups for the home office or bedroom, these deals might be just right for you.
Also, as we reported last month, Panasonic's long reign as the king of Plasma televisions will come to an end when the company stops producing the technology on March 31, 2014. If you have ever considered owning a Panny plasma -- and reaping the benefits of superior black levels, contrast, color reproduction, and refresh rates -- the 2013 Holiday Shopping Season may be your last chance. Long live the King, the King is Dead!
Let's face it, the home cinema hobby has never been cheaper than it is these days, but not everyone can break the bank to get the biggest and the best. This annual HDD Gear Guide represents the finest products we've tested throughout the year at varying price points.
Bargain 3D: Panasonic VIERA ST60 Series
PRO: Other than a few filters and calibration menus like THX-mode, Panasonic's cheaper plasmas include most of the same technology from their current year flagship televisions. This means a 2013 ST60 is (in some ways) BETTER at reproducing inky black levels than my 2012 VT series. Pick up the 50-inch for less than a $1,000, a 55-inch model for under $1,300, a 60-inch version for under $1,500, or spring for the giant 65-incher for under $2200. The ST60 series also includes built-in WiFi with access to Viera Connect streaming services. There are certainly better televisions, and cheaper televisions, but there aren't any televisions that are bigger and better at these price points.
CON: As always, plasmas are constructed with a reflective glass panel, which aren't great in overly bright rooms. Active shutter 3D glasses are not included.
Screen Not Included: BenQ W1070 DLP Projector
PRO: The BenQ W1070 is an extremely affordable entry-level 3D home theater projector that's getting a lot of great reviews. For Less than $900, you don't have to settle for a baby-sized 65, 70, or even 80-inch display. That's right, with a projector, you can have as big a screen as your room dimensions (plus the projector's throw limitations) will allow. This single-chip DLP projector features 2,000 lumens, a 10,000 to 1 contrast ratio, and 2 HDMI 1.4a inputs. DLP technology is the least susceptible to "cross talk" when projecting 3D. There's even a SmartEco mode to save power and lamp life, which is rated to 6,000 hours.
CON: You have to purchase a screen and active shutter 3D glasses separately (screen prices vary; the glasses will run you $100 a pop). Projectors are best used in total or near darkness (dedicated home theaters, or space where you can control ambient light). And, according to AVS Forum, "being a single-chip DLP model, some people will see something called the rainbow effect—momentary red-green-blue rainbows trailing bright highlights on a dark background as you move your eyes around the screen."
For Brighter Rooms: Samsung PNF8500 Series
PRO: Cnet called this "Samsung's best TV ever." Available in three sizes -- 51-inches, 60-inches, and 64-inches -- Samsung's much loved PNF8500 plasmas do Full HD 3D and include a built-in popup camera for Skype and gesture controls, Internet browsers, and software that can interact with your cable box as well as stream movies and TV from Netlfix, Vudu, CinemaNow (and many more). 4 pairs of active 3D glasses are included, and an optional Evolution Kit will allow the TV to replace its entire operating system in the future. Black levels are nearly as good as the Panasonics, but the PNF8500 series is much brighter than the standard plasma, making it a viable choice for rooms where ambient light is an issue.
CON: With a price range of $1,900 to $3,400 (at the time of this writing), the PNF8500 series is not cheap and its brightness abilities come at the sacrifice of black level performance.
Best Plasma Ever: Panasonic VIERA ZT60 Series
PRO: Finally! A TV with better black levels than the legendary Kuro. Panasonic's flagship ZT60 series is available in two sizes -- a 65-incher for under $3,400 and a 60-incher for under $2,900 and includes built-in WiFi, LAN, Bluetooth, THX 3D certification, ISFccc certification, VIERA Link for streaming content, and two pairs of active 3D glasses. Quite simply, this is the best plasma you can buy in 2013 and the best plasma Panasonic has ever made and this might be the last chance you will ever have to own a near-perfect display. Oh, and if you want to save a couple bucks, check out the Panasonic VT60 Series.
CON: It's pricey, and there is minor crosstalk with some 3D content.
Best Bang for Your Buck: Sony BDP-S5100
PRO: The Blu-ray player to beat in 2013. It costs less than $90, yet still features Full 3D 1080p playback, built-in "super Wi-Fi" (for faster speeds), DNLA certification, quick start & loading, and over 100 streaming apps like Netflix, Amazon Instant, Vudu, YouTube (new to Sony), Hulu Plus, Pandora, the Sony Entertainment Network (not new to Sony) and many more.
CON: No Skype, 4K upscaling, and only one HDMI out. Oh, and if you stack your gear (not recommended), nothing could go on top of this.
PRO: The Roku 3 and Apple TV offer "1080p" HD video streaming for movies and television. Each has hundreds of "channels" like HBO Go, MLB, Netflix, Amazon Instant, Vudu, Hulu Plus. The Roku 3 includes dual band Wi-Fi, an Ethernet port, a remote control with a headphone jack, and 7.1/5.1 audio pass-through. It also supports formats like MP4 (H.264) & MKV (H.264) video / AAC & MP3 audio / JPG & PNG image. In fact, you could say the only thing Roku 3 does NOT do... is work with iTunes.
For those who own Macs or have iTunes on their PCs, and have purchased music, TV, or movies through Apple, to stream this content to your HDTV and/or AV Receiver, you need the Apple TV. It doesn't have as many "channels" as Roku 3, but Apple boasts the largest rental inventory of HD movies on the net and over 90K TV episodes in HD. You can also connect an Apple TV to your iCloud account and use the Apple TV as a secondary display with the latest version of Mac OSX. The Apple TV also includes dual band Wi-Fi, an Ethernet port, a remote control, an HDMI out, and an optical digital audio out. It supports H.264 video, MPEG-4 video, Motion JPEG, AAC, protected AAC, MP3, Audible, Apple Losless, AIFF, WAV, and Dolby Digital 5.1 pass-through.
CON: Plenty, actually. While both of these media streamers offer great value as accessories, neither can compete with Blu-ray's inherent video and audio capabilities. Both streamers are capped at Dolby Digital Plus audio, though the Roku 3 can pass-through the 7.1 version. Also, I don't think either media stream does any form of 3D (they definitely don't do Blu-ray's Full HD 3D).
3D for Older AVRs: Panasonic DMP-BDT330
PRO: For less than $170, Panasonic's BDT330 is an affordable and impressive Blu-ray Disc player capable of 3D playback and 4K upscaling for Ultra HD TVs. This DNLA certified player also features 2 HDMI outputs (one for audio to a pre HDMI 1.4 A/V Receiver), and built-in Wi-Fi for access to its own Internet browser as well as VIERA Connect for streaming services such as Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Instant, etc. The BDT330 is also NT File System (NTFS) compatible to stream all sorts of media -- Jpeg, FLAC, MP3, WMA, AVCHD, WVMV -- from connected external hard disk drives.
CON: If you don't need 4K upscaling, NTFS, or dual HDMI outputs, the Sony model above is half the price with most of the same features and performance specs
Platinum Performance: OPPO BDP-103D
PRO: The BDP-103D Universal 3D Darbee Edition is a lot like last year's BDP-103 -- 3D playback, the ability to play just about any digital file, 7.1 analog audio outputs -- but now includes Darbee Visual Presence, or DVP, which enhances detail, color, and contrast. Oppo has long been the top tier choice for stand alone Blu-ray Disc players and this one is no different. It includes 4K upscaling, true 1080/24p and Full 3D video output, and dual HDMI outputs as well as dual HDMI inputs to run other sources through the player's video processor and DVP. Constant Height Image fans may also find use for the player's vertical stretch mode.
CON: At $599, Oppo Blu-ray players are more expensive than many stand alone units and some think this sort of visual processing is nothing more than Blu-ray snake oil.
Entry Level Bargain: Sony STR-DN840
PRO: Cnet called the 7.2 channel Sony STR-DN840 "the best AV receiver value of the year" and I'm inclined to agree. This 150W x 7 channels receiver is DNLA compliant and boasts built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and AirPlay to easily stream music over the internet, your local network, or directly from compatible devices. Network music services include Pandora, Music Unlimited, Slacker, and vTuner. With Airplay, you can not only stream music from iTunes, but also from iPhone/Pod/Pad apps like Spotify and iHeart Radio. All 6 of the STR-DN840's HDMI inputs are 3D and 4K capable and the 1 HDMI output supports the Audio Return Channel.
CON: Sony receivers are wonderfully simple to operate and set up, but they tend to have higher Total Harmonic Distortion than some listeners, reviewers, and dealers like at increased volumes. In this case, the ST-DN8040 has a 0.9% THD, where as others on this list are at 0.05%.
The Mid-Level Performer: Onkyo TX-NR828
PRO: Onkyo's latest 7.2 channel receiver costs less than $900 and is THX Select 2 Plus certified. It includes built-in Wi-Fi for Pandora and Spotify streaming, Audyssey MultEQ room calibration software, Dolby Pro Logic IIz and Audyssey DSC sound processing, 8 HDMI inputs and 2 HDMI outputs (one supports Audio Return Channel) with 3D and 4K pass-through, 4K upscaling for digital and analog inputs, and 130W for all 7 channels.
CON: Unless you have an extremely large listening environment, need more than two powered zones, or have a 9.2 surround set up... very little. For this much power at this price, the NR828 is, arguably, a bargain.
Powerful Sound: Yamaha RX-A3020
PRO: Yamaha's top-of-the-line AVENTAGE RX-A3020 is an absolute beast and costs less than $1,700. With 150W x 9 channels plus 2 subwoofer pre-outs, you can upgrade 7.1 channel Blu-rays to a room-filling 9.2 with technologies like Dolby Digital PLIIz and DTS Neo:X. It also features 7 HDMI inputs and 2 HDMI outs (#2 is to stream music and video to zone 2) capable of 3D and Audio Return Channel, 4K upscaling and pass-through, AirPlay, Internet streaming, and YPAO R.S.C. Sound Optimization. This thing even has pre-outs for a more expansive 11.2 channels and Subwoofer Trim to avoid LFE overlap with the front channels.
CON: Sure, it's not cheap, but given the price to performance ratio, this A3020 is an absolute stunner.
The Flagship: Denon AVR-4520CI
PRO: This monster of an A/V Receiver really does it all. 150W x 9 channels, 2 subwoofer outs, 0.05% THD, 3D and 4K pass-through, 4K upscaling, support for all sorts of streaming music including Apple's wonderful AirPlay, Audyssey MultEQ XT32 calibration software, four-zone capability, 7 HDMI inputs, 3 HDMI outputs (2 parallel, 1 discrete), and the ability to decode or process every home cinema sound format today, including DTS-HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Pro Logic IIz, and DTS Neo:X.
CON: Well, there's no THX certification and there is no native 9.1 or 9.2 surround sound format. Also, for this much money, I was able to put together a full 7.1 surround sound system. Some reviews have also preferred the sound quality of the less expensive Yamaha listed above.
The Starter Package: Onkyo HT-S5600
PRO: The Onkyo HT-S5600 is an impressive little system that costs less than $600 and not only includes a full 7.1 channel speaker system, but also a 130W per channel Onkyo AV Receiver to power the whole thing. That's a heck of a deal for someone just starting out and, because this isn't some home-theater-in-a-box with proprietary wiring, you can upgrade the system as needed. The S5600 boasts 4 HDMI inputs, full support for 3D and modern surround sound decoding like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA, Bluetooth Streaming Ready (needs an optional adapter), 2 USB ports to connect an iPod/iPhone or hard drive, Audyssey MultEQ room calibration software, a powered Zone 2, and Overlaid Menus.
CON: 4 isn't very many HDMI inputs, the sub does not have its own power, the THD is a full 1%, and I would avoid using the supplied cables and wiring.
Surround for One: TRITTON Pro+ 5.1 Headset
PRO: I first read about the sub-$200 Mad Catz Tritton 5.1 Headphones (for Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, and Xbox One) when I edited a review over on Ben's Bargains. This is no sound processing gimmick, the Tritton Pros are a true 5.1 sound experience with "eight precision-balanced" and individually adjustable speakers (four separate drivers). And thanks to the included Decoder Box and removable, flexible microphone, the Tritton 5.1s aren't just for gaming. You can enjoy music and movies in full 5.1 surround sound and as loud as you want... while the rest of the house sleeps none-the-wiser.
CON: Headphones will never be able to compete with a room full of great-sounding speakers and, of course, you can't exactly share the experience with others. Limited to lossy Dolby Digital and to 5.1 channels.
Compact & Powerful: Boston Acoustics A25
PRO: Here's a flexible bookshelf surround sound system from the venerable Boston Acoustics that's great for watching movies. Combine one A 225C Center Channel ($249) with four to six A 25 Compact Bookshelf Speakers ($149/each) and one ASW250 10-inch powered sub to make a $1194 5.1-system (pictured) OR a $1492 7.1-setup. Each bookshelf boasts a single 5.25-inch two-way woofer and a 1-inch soft dome tweeter, and the center channel doubles up on the two-way woofers, delivering clean highs and a clear mid range. Though the satellites are never going to reproduce deep LFE, that's where the 10-inch 250W powered subwoofer comes in to provide thundering bass tones present in blockbuster cinema and dynamic musical recordings.
CON: It's a lot of money to pay for a system that lacks full range towers.
Build Your Own: Wharfedale Diamond 10 Series
PRO: The Wharfedale Diamond 10 Series is well reviewed and has been around for a couple years now. Given that some speakers can cost more than fully loaded new cars, the Diamond 10s are still considered "entry-level." The product line includes Bookshelf Speakers (the $299/pr Diamond 10.0, $349/pr Diamond 10.1, & $499/pr Diamond 10.2), Tower Speakers (the $649/pr Diamond 10.3, $799/pr Diamond 10.4, $949/pr Diamond 10.5, $999/pr Diamond 10.6, & $1,299/pr Diamond 10.7), Center Channels (the $299 Diamond 10.CS & $449 Diamond 10.CM), and Powered Subs (the $500 Diamond 10.GX & $599 Diamond 10.MX). Customize to your budget, but you could get a bookshelf 5.1 system for as little as $1400, or drop up to $3350 on a 7.1 system with full range front towers and the larger bookshelf speakers. Finishes include black, cherry, and rosewood.
CON: I always recommend a demo before buying, but it might be hard to track these down for an in-person listen. Also, that's a lot of money to spend on speakers ("entry level" label be damned!).
Bargain Cables: Monoprice & Amazon Basics
PRO: Monoprice is my go to supplier for all cables and connectors. They're cheap, well made, and have a long warranty. Amazon Basics has some good prices as well.
CON: None. I can't say this 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 Ultimate
PRO: I really enjoy my Harmony One, but when my PS3 Adapter crapped out, I decided to get a stand alone 3D Blu-ray player so I wouldn't need any short-lived accessories. The Harmony Ultimate is the new flagship model, which takes last year's Harmony Touch and adds the Harmony Hub (pictured above) to help send RF, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and IR commands to various devices that can be hidden in closed. The Ultimate also controls up to 15 devices (compatible with 220K products). If you're familiar with previous Harmony remotes, you know by now that you program the remote via the web on MyHarmony.com, but the Ultimate no longer need that annoying USB cable to connect to a computer for updates and reprogramming. There's also a free app for Android and iOS smartphones (no tablet yet).
CON: The touch screen is the star of the show, which means for some people, button placement -- play, pause,fast forward, record -- will seem awkward. Also, given the price, some buyers might want to try out the $120 Harmony Smart Control System, which features the Harmony Hub and a remote control with no touch screen -- the Smart Control System encourages use of the free Harmony smartphone app, so that too is a little awkward in that to get access to your custom buttons, you need to fiddle with multiple devices.
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.
Box Sets, TV, and Classics
While 2012 might have been a Holy Grail of classics Blu-rays, here are some of 2013's fantastic collector's and/or multi-disc sets. Looking at these titles, I personally can't wait to pick up 'Breaking Bad: The Complete Series'. It's impossible to live up to its growing hype, but BB is one of the best (and most consistent) television series ever produced. And the packaging is really, really cool. Also I just saw 'Saving Mr. Banks', which is a wonderful look into the true magic behind 'Mary Poppins', which has never looked this good on home video.
2D / 5.1 SURROUND SOUND DEMOS
Though most displays can do 3D, and many receivers are pumping out 7.1 channels of lossless surround, here are a few movies with reference or near-reference 2D video presentations to show off your new gear to family and friends. Adults will roar with laughter at the End Times (as in 'The World's...' and 'This is the...'). 'The Impossible' and 'The Right Stuff' are impossibly suspenseful. 'Skyfall' and 'Cloud Atlas' are visual works of art. And finally, 'Planes' might be just a carbon copy of 'Cars', but the kids will dig it and it's gorgeously rendered (FYI, it has a 7.1 sound mix, but the demo quality here is really on the picture side).
3D DEMO DISCS
Here are 2013's absolute best stereo 3D presentations. It's no surprise most of these titles are CGI animated blockbusters that were carefully crafted for the format. Ang Lee's 'Life of Pi' was produced in stereo 3D and raised the bar for all other (CGI-augmented) live action 3D films. It's a visual masterpiece. 2013 should also be remembered as the year of the excellent post-conversion with titles like 'Jurassic Park', 'Wizard of Oz', and 'Pacific Rim' (the best conversion to date, 'Gravity', will debut on Blu-ray next year).
7.1 SURROUND SOUND DEMOS
Some argue we're living in an age where surround sound tracks are too busy and too loud, but seriously, screw that. I just dropped mad coin on seven speakers, a subwoofer, and a receiver to power the whole system. I want to rattle the walls and feel movies in my bones (and take my sonic revenge against the guy who lives under me and only listens to dubstep). Joking aside, these titles all have epically good sound mixes that range from over-the-top bombastic to delicately precise. Want your friends to love Blu-ray as much as you do? Buy all of these, pick out the best parts, and invite them over. You'll have more converts than a Southern Baptist Revival.
Well, that's it for the 2013 HD Gear & Demo Gift Guide, 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!