HDD Home Theater Connections: Year-End Wrap Up

Posted Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 01:10 PM PST by

by Daniel Hirshleifer

High Def Digest is dedicated to bringing you the best coverage of Blu-rays that you can find anywhere on the net, but no matter how great a disc is, it won't shine without a great home theater setup. People might balk at the thought of the time and cost involved, but we're here to tell you that updating your hardware doesn't have to be a painful experience. With that idea in mind, we proudly present a new column: HDD Home Theater Connections. We'll comb through all the new technology and present the best of it right here, month after month.

As 2012 comes to its end, we thought it appropriate to look back on a year of tech and select the best displays, players, accessories, gadgets, and anything else that caught our eye. We're going to focus our coverage on items that are generally affordable, so while there may be really great high end products on the market, those won't be what we're highlighting. Instead, we will focus on the best affordable tech, in the hopes that people who don't have unlimited funds will find it useful.

Best TVs of the Year

For the longest time, it seems like the focus for HDTVs was to get them slimmer, lighter, and cheaper. Within the last few years, manufacturers have reached many of those goals, meaning that now they can spend their time on design and picture quality. This year, there have been some great TVs in multiple categories that justify an upgrade without breaking the bank.

When it comes to flat panels, LCD and LED have grown by leaps and bounds, but to my mind, the leader in picture quality remains plasma. And when it comes to plasma, no one does it better than Panasonic. This year saw many strong televisions from Panasonic, including the top of the line VT50, but the PST50 is the real winner, coming in at half the price of the VT but with nearly rival picture quality. The PST50 has top-notch black levels, color reproduction, and tackles bright lighting without breaking a sweat. The model has gotten rave reviews across the board, and even several professional calibrators have piped up with praise for this display. It's well equipped with three HDMI ports, and SD slot, and wifi with a suite of VIERA connect apps such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Pandora, and more. You can even download an app to control the TV through your tablet or phone and share content between devices. The one downside is that although the display does offer good 3D support, there are no glasses included, and the active shutter glasses that work with it are not cheap.

Available in 50", 55", 60", and 65" models, the Panasonic TC-PST50 is simply the best bargain on the market, with the 50" currently going for just shy of a grand on Amazon. It's so good that I bought one for myself. Don't look at it as authorial bias, but rather a case of putting my money where my mouth is. I can tell you from personal experience that the PST50 is an absolute knockout of a television.

If plasma isn't your thing, you should take a look at Samsung's EH6000 line. It uses LED backlighting uniformly throughout the display and offers a sharp and uniform picture. The black levels won't compare to the Panasonic, nor does it offer Smart TV options (although you can jump over to the EH5300 line for that if you don't mind having a 60Hz TV versus the 120Hz refresh rate that the EH6000 line offers). The unit does offer built-in media playing capability through flash drives, however. The Samsungs are cheaper than the Panasonics, with the 55" model going for the same price as the corresponding 50" plasma, so if you want a little more size for the buck, this isn't a bad way to go. And if you're not interested in 3D, then don't worry—these televisions don't offer them.

If you've got a lot of space to fill, flat panels aren't going to do it. Oh, sure, manufacturers push massive flat screens, but they're prohibitively expensive, and mainly used for businesses. If you want a throw bigger than 65", it's probably time to start looking at projectors. Projectors start with a higher base price than a television, but given the sizes you can reach, the price per inch makes them a much better value. Also, by front projecting onto a screen, you get an experience that really puts the "theater" in home theater. The BenQ W7000 projector offers a pleasing picture at a 50,000:1 contrast ratio, with stellar 3D, and a good host of features often not seen on lower end projectors, and currently runs less than $2,000 on Amazon. Given that it can project up to 300 inches, that's an absolute steal. If you're just getting started in the world of projectors, you could do a lot worse than the BenQ W7000.

2012 is also the last year that Mitsubishi will be manufacturing consumer televisions. I personally had a Mitsubishi rear-projection DLP TV for many years, and I am very sad to hear they will no longer be competing. Mitsubishi's departure effectively ends the presence of rear-projection DLP and laser televisions in the home theater market. If you're a fan of either of those technologies, you might want to grab a new Mitsubishi set before retailers run out of stock.

Best Audio of the Year

As we all know, great sound can make a movie. Imagine a shootout without bass-heavy gunshots, or a musical without warm, expansive mid tones. Without the right receiver and speakers, even the best movie is going to feel decidedly underwhelming.

Receivers used to be a simple device designed to pass sound to a set of speakers. But with the advent of lossless sound, music streaming, HDMI cables, and other entertainment innovations, receivers are now essential hubs that connect the various elements of your home theater to make a cohesive whole. These days, choosing the right receiver can mean the difference between frustration and perfection. Budget receivers are frequently lacking in inputs, features, or both, but the Sony STRDN1030 is a powerful, full-featured receiver that comes at a reasonable price. This 7.2 receiver has 145 watts per channel, five HDMI inputs with 3D pass through and audio return channel. More importantly, it has built in wifi and Bluetooth for wireless streaming from other devices, as well as connecting to music services like Pandora and Slacker. Some reviews have noted that while the Sony is quite loaded with features, it has a poor user interface that can be difficult to navigate. The STRDN1030 normally retails for $500, but right now is going for $100 off at Amazon.

Another alternative is the Onkyo NR line of receivers. Their wattage ratings are lower, but at the levels we're talking about you won't hear any appreciable difference. What you will notice is the difference in price. The TX-NR414 5.1 channel receiver goes for under $300, while the TX-NR515 7.2 channel model is currently available for a hundred less than the sale price on the Sony. These receivers don’t have built-in wifi, but you can buy a dongle that adds such functionality for $25. The one thing this won't add is AirPlay, which the Sony has built in, although the Onkyo has a USB port that you can plug your iPod into, and even is preset to control an Apple TV, which does offer AirPlay. The Onkyos do have more HDMI inputs than the Sony, and Onkyo is a generally well-regarded name in the A/V field, although their unit reliability could be better.

Of course, once you get your shiny new receiver you'll need some speakers to pump out all that delicious sound. A lot of hay is being made about sound bars these days, which offer decent sound without requiring a receiver, but the convenience is more than outweighed by the loss of sound quality. To really bring your home theater alive, you need a true surround sound system. You might be tempted to buy a home theater in a box, which gives you a receiver and 5.1 set of speakers, but you'll almost certainly get a subpar receiver along with poor speakers. Instead, consider something like the Energy Take Classic 5.1 set of speakers. This $400 set of speakers has a small footprint, but large sound. It's the best-reviewed budget speaker set on the market for the price. $400 might seem a bit steep if you just spent a comparable amount on a new receiver, effectively doubling the price of your purchase, but if you don't get quality speakers, you might as well have wasted the money you spent on the receiver.

All The Rest

Now that you have all the big components in place, you'll need a few more items to really make things complete: Devices to play content, something to control all these devices, and cables to connect them all.

There are more ways to view media today than ever before. For a comprehensive rundown of different devices, check out our article on streaming services. If you want to play Blu-rays, the Playstation 3 is a powerful, versatile system that allows you to play Blu-ray, video games, and use multiple streaming services. To keep prices down, you could skip the PS3 and go for a Panasonic DMP-BDT220, which offers great Blu-ray playback, wifi for access to streaming services, and 3D support. It's currently going for $100 at Amazon.

If, like me, you have an ever-growing army of devices in your home theater, a universal remote is an essential addition to keep everything simplified. When it comes to universal remotes, there's only one name you need concern yourself with: Logitech. The Logitech Harmony line of remotes has ruled the roost for years. In fact, their products are so thoroughly entrenched as the industry leader that they haven't updated their selection in quite a long time. In October they released the Harmony Touch. While previous remotes like the Harmony One, the Harmony 900, and Harmony 1100 all had touch screens, the Touch is designed to maximize screen space and reducing physical buttons while maintaining a traditional form factor. The touchscreen is more advanced and interactive than previous Harmony remotes, and you can finally program it without plugging the accessory into a computer, a great boon that will save you a lot of time.

However, at over $200, the Harmony Touch and other similar remotes can be a price you don't want to pay after spending so much to overhaul your system. And it's a price you may not need to pay. A lot of smart phones and tablets have apps that can interact with the various devices in your home theater. A 7-inch Samsung Tab is cheaper than most Harmony remotes and can do much more than just interact with your TV. If you subscribe to streaming services, you can view them on your phone or tablet when you're not at home, or in another room. The downside is that not every device will have a remote app, so you may still have to use the supplied remotes every once in a while.

Finally, let's not forget cables. Most new TVs and players will have built-in wifi, so you probably won't have to deal with too many Ethernet cables. HDMI is the standard connection for home theaters, as it passes HD sound and picture in one cable. If you're planning on having a 3D setup, you'll want to make sure you have HDMI 1.4 all the way along your connection chain. One interesting new wrinkle in the HDMI game is the introduction of Redmere technology. Redmere cables are much thinner than normal HDMI cables, about as thick as a USB cable. This is great for cable management, as HDMI cables can normally be a pain to organize. This is even more important if you're using long runs of cables, because HDMI cables need to be thicker as they get longer, but Redmere cables can stay just as thin at any length. Of course, they aren't as cheap as normal cables, but if you need thin cables, the technology is now available.

This past year has seen a lot of great technological releases. Who knows what we'll see in 2013? What we do know is that if it's gear, and if it's good, you'll be hearing about it at HDD Home Theater Connections!

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Tags: Industry Trends, High-Def Retailing, HDD Home Theater Connections, Daniel Hirshleifer (all tags)