The first of High-Def Digest’s annual holiday gift guides has arrived. This installment focuses on HD Gear, and a few choice titles for testing out your new favorite things.
by Michael S. Palmer
‘Tis the season, my friends. A favorite, festive time. For charity. Goodwill. And, bless us all, a chance to toss a new toy
under our tree into our family rooms.
Hard to believe it’s upon us already, but next week is Thanksgiving, which fires off the holiday shopping season’s official opening salvo: Black Friday. A day of deals to be followed by a month-long shop-a-thon, where by the most experienced may survive only through sheer will and a steady Cinnabun diet.
But thing’s are tough, I know. The economy did a cannonball into an empty swimming pool, and now we’re all doing our best to recover while indulging out HD addictions. But the worst is over. It’s time to pull together, learn from the past, and jumpstart our future. Which is why, on this historic day, we are starting a brand new campaign:
SAVE AMERICA. BUY HIGH-DEF!
This is patriotism, people. Pure and simple. Purchase a high definition home theater system to watch a Blu-ray Disc or play a video game, and you employ the millions who designed, built, shipped, sold, and installed your gear. Not to mention the thousands of names on the credits of that epic film or game franchise based on your favorite best selling novel. And don’t forget the fnancial obligations of handsome high-def writers and reviewers.
With our civil duties properly outlined, it’s time to prepare. First: Budget, budget, budget. Remember, we’re in the “want” category of life (as opposed to “need”) so save your pennies first, then spend only what you have.
Second: Research is key. In the crowded, frenzied malls of the season, you don’t have the time to park the car, let alone properly demo gear. So head to the stores in advance, ask friends, read reviews (or helpful holiday shopping guides written by handsome high-def writers), and above all, loving shopper, listen to your husband/wife/kids to see what they really want this year.
TO BLACK FRIDAY OR NOT TO BLACK FRIDAY?
The Bard’s most famous question (or close approximation there of) for those who now have their list of wants. Black Friday Info is your go-to source for all sales on the day. But is it really worth it to spend a night on an icy sidewalk outside sears? The truth is, Black Friday is just a marketing gimmick. And like all things that worked well to bring out droves of potential consumers, it’s no longer limited to one day a year.
Amazon starts “Black Friday” this Monday, November 23 with a week of deals (as always, Amazon is the place to be for free shipping and no sales tax (unless you live in Washington state)). Beyond that, most stores are going to be riddled with sales for the rest of the year. The key is to look out for the products you already want, and cross check the major retailers to find the best price (many have price-matching policies, which create easy one-stop shopping).
With our list in hand, it’s time to get shopping, and save money while doing it. Here’s a list of fantastic gear I’d ask Santa for this year as well as recommend to my friends and family. I know everyone’s budget is different, so I've tried to find entry, mid, and high-end options to help start or improve your home theater set up (as usual, faithful readers, add your own suggestions to the forums!):
Remember the golden rule: below 40 inches, don’t worry about 1080p because you’ll probably be sitting too far away to tell the difference. I always tell my friends to get the biggest TV they can afford/fit because with HD, you’ll always want more.
Sony Bravia KDL-40V5100. At around $879, this 40-inch, entry-level LCD has a solid picture, and 120hz.
JVC LT-46P300. Find this 46-inch LCD for just over $1,000. Another entry-level model, this one is pretty big, has a good picture, and an easy-to-use built-in iPod/iPhone dock which can be hooked to your home theater receiver via the TV’s Dolby Digital out on the back.
Panasonic TC-P54V10. This massive 54-inch plasma sells for $2,399, is Internet ready, and according to CNET delivered “the overall best picture quality of any flat-panel HDTV we’ve tested so far this year.” Plasmas excel at deep, rich black levels, and it won’t have the same motion flicker that bothers some LCD owners.
Mitsubishi 737 Series. The last of the rear projection DLP. If you don’t need to hang something on a wall, and want “bigger for cheaper,” look for this series at 60 inches for as little as $1,200. The whopping 82-incher sells for $4,500 (forklift not included).
Sony Bravia KDL-52XBR10. At 52-inches and $3,999, the super thin XBR10 featuring 240Hz anti-blur technology is Sony’s flagship LED-LCD. Not only does this HDTV have every adjustment imaginable, but it has built-in web capabilities, and wireless high-def hookup. Simply mount this flat panel on the wall (and over the power outlet). Then, hook up the separate “Media Box” to your receivers, Blu-ray Disc players, and cable boxes. Simple. No need to run or hide cables.
BLU-RAY DISC PLAYERS
LG BD370. A well priced, fully functional Profile 2.0 Blu-ray Disc player, the BD370 retails for $150, and can be hardwired with a broadband Internet connection for access to streaming content such as Netflix, YouTube, and CinemaNow.
LG BD390. At $270, the BD390 is the older brother. Same great picture and sound, but the BD 390 has a built-in Wi-Fi abilities, and includes access to Vudu’s On Demand streaming service. Vudu’s “HDX” encoded movies look and sound almost as good as the Blu-rays you’re watching.
Sony PlayStation 3. At $299 for the newer slim, the PS3 is an amazing, versatile machine. Still, in my opinion, the best console around. Not only is it a wireless Internet ready Blu-ray disc player, it has its own web browser, a huge hard drive to act as a media server, and, oh yeah, it plays video games.
Finding a great, multi-feature receiver is pretty easy, and quite affordable. In addition to the brands and models listed below, check out Harmon/Kardon, Pioneer, Yamaha, and Integra for great, modern AVRs (or audio/video receivers capable of HDMI video/audio content used in Blu-ray and even cable or satellite boxes).
Denon AVR 1610. At $379, this is a great entry-level machine. It has 3 HDMI inputs, and can decode all the newer HD audio codecs into stunning 5.1 surround sound, 75 watts per channel @ 0.08% THD (total harmonic distortion).
Denon AVR 2310. For $849, one gets 5 HDMI inputs, 7.1 surround sound capabilities, 105 watts per channel @ 0.08% THD and bells n’ whistles like Audyssey MutlEQ and Dolby’s new ProLogic IIz. Personally speaking, I have last year’s model, the 2309, and I can’t turn it up loud enough.
Onkyo TX-NR5007. For $2,295, one gets this monster of an AVR: THX Ultra2 Plus certified, 8 HDMI inputs, new technologies like Dolby Volume and ProLogic IIz, and a staggering 9.2 channels of surround sound with 145 watts per channel @.05% THD.
There are literally so many choices out there, it should always be noted that speakers are best tested out by each individual buyer. If you don’t like these, check out Infinity, Definitive Technology, Martin Logan, and Klipsch. There’s something for everyone, and the main lesson here is simple:
Never use your TV’s own speakers. They’re cheap, and can never compare to a 5.1 surround sound experience.
Boston Acoustics SoundWare XS 5.1 Speaker System. Your choice of black or white finishes, this is the perfect little system for someone just starting out in surround sound, or who needs to save on space. Take it home for $499.99.
HSU Research HB-1 MK2 5.1 package. Home Theater Sound’s 2008 product of the year, this set for mid-sized rooms provides outstanding performance at a bargain. Priced online direct from HSU, pick these up for as little as $1149 (for the satin black finish), which includes 1 HC-1 MK2 center, 4 HB-1 MK2s bookshelf speakers, and 1 VTF-1 Sub.
Kef iQ Series 7.1 Speaker System. Britain’s own Kef Speakers are fantastic. Deep lows, clean mids, and mountainous highs. Checking around online (using 2 iQ90 fronts, 1 iQ60C center, 4 iQ30 surrounds, and the PSW2500BL Sub), bring home Kef in 7.1 channels for $2320. There are cheaper options as well (smaller fronts, or less surrounds), but these are world class speakers for a fair price.
In the speaker world, there is no budget limitations (Revel’s Ultima2 Salon2 front Towers are ONLY $21,998 per pair!). Above are some, albeit pricey, “entry-level” surround sound systems featuring quality satellite, bookshelf, and floor standing speakers. But I implore you to only buy when you hear what you love and can’t live with out. Happy hunting.
No surround sound system is complete without a few finishing details:
Monoprice is a great place to save on all sorts of accessories, including speaker wire, HDMI cables and flat panel wall mounts. Accessories are like printing money for local retailers. They’re hugely overpriced, and you’ll save when you remember to NEVER BUY MONSTER CABLE. Do they work well? Of course, but why buy name brands when the Monoprice version works just as well, yet sells for a 10th of the price? It’s okay, I’ll wait for your answer.
Don’t forget a universal, computer programmable remote to easily run the whole system (the technical term is making it “wife proof” because who really wants to figure out what each of the 7 remotes on the coffee table actually do?). The Logitech Harmony series is excellent. I have owned the 550 and 880. The Harmony One, at under $200, is easy to program, illuminates in the dark and includes a rechargeable battery, but remember: if you want to run your PlayStation 3 using a Harmony remote, you will need the $60 “PS3 Adaptor” to go along with it.
MOVIE & GAME DEMOS.
Now that you have your first system, or maybe you’ve just brought home a new Blu-ray Disc Player, video game console, or surround sound system, it’s time for the best part: DEMO!!! Time to show yourself and your family that there will be no buyers’ remorse for this money well spent because if there’s one way to win over high-def converts, it’s to simply let the technology speak for itself. Here’s a handful of must buys for cinema and gaming enthusiasts:
‘Star Trek’ is out now, and this action/special features packed reboot soars in high definition.
‘The Godfather Collection’has never looked this good, classic cinema lovers.
‘Up ’ might be the newest Pixar release, but this year alone they’ve released (or re-released) ‘Monsters, Inc.’, ‘Cars’, and ‘A Bug’s Life’ on Blu-ray disc. Not only do these movies represent the finest digital picture and sound, but Pixar continues to make the best movies of any year. There’s no better way to gather as a family, than over heartwarming adventures that connect to every generation with equal appeal.
‘Taken’ is a visceral ride for adult-oriented action junkies, and along those lines, watch the opening studio logos for ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’. Viewing the movie itself may cause brain damage, but kudos to the sound engineers for engaging the viewer on every flying star as they whoosh across the screen and settle around the word “Paramount.” It’s stunning.
As for gaming, look no further for stunning graphics than these bestsellers and new releases: ‘Madden 10’, ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’, ‘Gran Turismo 5: Prologue’ (the most realistic driving graphics I’ve ever seen, courtesy of the PS3), ‘HALO 3: ODST’, ‘Assassin’s Creed 2’, and ‘Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’.
Happy hunting. Happy saving. And Happy Holidays, dearest readers, from all of us at High-Def Digest. And remember, always:
SAVE AMERICA. BUY HIGH-DEF!