by Michael S. Palmer
Man, oh man, oh man, I love the holiday season. Scrumpdiddilyumptious (technical term) feasts, family, fire places, friends, 'nog, and of course a pirate's bounty of deals on the latest and oh-so-greatest consumer high definition products released in 2010.
As it was last year, High-Def Digest's economic advisers have been working hard building a plan to right the world's economic woes and dastardly deficits:
CHEERLEADER WORLD…BUY HIGH-DEF!
Shocking, I know, that we would advise indulging the impulses of cine/audiophiles, but someone has to do it. And the entire content creation to retail sales food chain employs more people than you think. In fact, buying a new home theatre system complete with some Blu-rays is akin to charity work. You just invested in the economy. Well done, dear reader, well done.
Okay, joking aside, to ensure all my recommendations are home runs -- aka, equipment on which I would spend hard earned savings -- I recruited the help of Sean Tretiak of Home Theater Doctor in Redondo Beach, California. What makes Home Theater Doctor so great for me or any of our southern California readers is that Sean isn't a snob. Of course he wants to sell you premium and high-end products, but he'll work with any budget. For that, he earned my trust and as soon as I can afford to go back, my repeat business (he also inspired my 2009 Guide for Building Your High-Def Home Theater).
After a day with Sean, it's clear the AV world took another quick leap forward this year. 3D and Blu-ray are here in a big way of course. HDTVs and Blu-ray players are now portals to the internet. This year's AV Receivers are just like last year's, except they most likely have more HDMI inputs (which will allow 3D pass-through), a USB input for iPhones, and possibly even networking capabilities themselves. Let's dive in and stuff your stockings:
Black Friday Info. Boom! Your one-stop shop to nearly every retailer selling anything on Black Friday. The key this year, though, is to actually check out stores in these last days before the official shopping season. Because of the economy, there's a glut of flat screen TVs and, my friends, surplus means big savings on older 2D HDTVs. And, many 3DTVs are already being bundled with a 3D Blu-ray player and glasses.
Speaking of Bundles, keep in mind if you want Dreamworks titles like 'Shrek: The Whole Story' in 3D, you'll need to purchase a Samsung display. 'Avatar' fans will need to purchase a Panasonic display (this offer is good for those who are about to and have already purchased a Panasonic 3DTV). These exclusive bundle windows will most likely last twelve long months.
In the realm of displays, I'm actually not a huge fan of the door-buster deals common to Black Friday. They always seem like great deals, until you read the fine print. Most door-buster TVs are last year's leftover models which may lack new connectivity features, may be heavier and thicker and consume more power, or may feature lower resolutions and refresh rates than similarly sized televisions (remember: 1080p above 40/42 inches, and 720p for anything smaller works in most cases). Granted, if you're looking for that second or third HDTV for your basement, bedroom, kitchen, or wherever, the door-buster TVs are perfect for that. Go early, grab quickly, and enjoy. Just know that those TVs most likely shouldn't be your primary display if you're striving to get the most out of your high-definition world.
With Primary Display being our goal here, I tell friends and family to go plasma. I understand worries about burn-in, but it's simply not a problem anymore. I got my brother a sub-$1000 Hitachi a couple years ago and if anyone could possibly break a display technology, it'd be him. I'm happy to report the Hitachi's still in perfect condition, and plasma technology's only gotten better. Don't want to take my word for it? Fine, Consumer Reports said plasma was the best bet, and in most cases, plasma is what the Home Theater Doctor installs in customers' homes. Plasma is king of black levels (which help you get the most accurate colors) and refresh rates (I loathe the blur associated with my own LCD). With that in mind, let's look at some great flat-screens and projectors to make your holiday dreams come true:
LG 50PK550. 50 inches is where I draw the line between home cinema and too small. Others may feel differently, of course, and you're welcome to disagree, but 50 inches provides a cinematic experience close up and ample resolution across a large room. Here we have a great deal for a full 1080p 2D HDTV from LG, which costs less than $900. Or, for less than two grand, here's a monster 65-incher from Panasonic: TC-P65S2. To be fair, these TVs aren't the latest and greatest, but they're solid buys for anyone who doesn't care about 3D or internet streaming content (which most Blu-ray players do now anyway).
LG is also doing some amazing work in 3D. Priced under $1800, the LG 50PX950 is a THX-certified 50-incher that does full 1080p in 3D as well as internet streaming via WiFi. For less than $2600, LG also offers the similarly appointed 60-inch 60PX950.
But the current champion in 3D flat panel world? The Panasonic TC-P65VT25. At 65-inches, this full 1080p 3D TV features a 600hz refresh rate, internet access to streaming services like Netflix, included 3D glasses, and starting in December, exclusive access to the 'Avatar' 3D Blu-ray release. It costs around $4300.
If 65 inches is too small for your home cinema, look into these projector options:
JVC Professional's Reference Series. Not only recommended by Home Theater Doctor, but also HDD's own Josh Zyber who owns an ancestor to these three newer models: Starting at $4,495, the DLA-RS40OU is a 3D-ready projector with a 50,000:1 native contrast ratio. For $7,995, the 3D-ready DLA-RS50OU bumps that native contrast ratio up to 70,000:1 and adds THX certification. Both the RS40OU and RS50OU need the purchase of $180/pair active shutter glasses and an $80 IR emitter to display 3D content. The king-daddy in JVC Pro's reference series, the $11,995 DLA-RS60OU is also THX-certified, boasts a native contrast ratio of 100,000:1, and includes an IR emitter along with two pairs of active shutter glasses. All three projectors should be available this month.
Epson's PowerLite Pro Cinema Series. Perhaps 3D isn't your thing, but if you're interested in trying out Constant Height Projection, Epson is debuting three new sub-$7000 projectors that may just be for you. Currently, Constant Height Projection requires the extra cost of an anamorphic lens, and processing or scaling to readjust stretched or squished pixels. No matter how good the glass, or how magical the processor, there's always a chance of marginalizing the image in this scenario. But Epson has a new idea. Instead of requiring an additional lens (though there is built-in processing for use with one), the Epson PowerLite Pro Cinema Series features a motorized lens with position memory. This means you can have two lens positions -- one for a 16:9 set up, and then with the click of a button, you can zoom out, and refocus for a 2.35:1 screen. No lens or processors necessary and all your pixels remain untouched and unmodified as the filmmakers intended. The only draw back to keep in mind: this set up is for a dedicated home theatre environment where the front of the room has proper masking (because it still projects 2.35:1 Blu-ray's "black bars"). The 21000, 31000, and 61000 Epson PowerLite Pro Cinema Series projectors should be available in December.
REMINDER: in case anyone is confused, ALL 3D televisions and projectors play 2D content and do a damned find job of it. Moving along…
BLU-RAY DISC PLAYERS & SCALERS
For those who aren't bundling along with the purchase of a 3DTV (remember: if you want 3D, you'll need the glasses to match your TV brand, not your BD player), or simply are in the market for a new Blu-ray player that is capable of 3D should you ever upgrade your display, here are some great models to choose from:
Sony has two affordable 3D models, the BDP-S470 and the BDP-S570. They're pretty much the same -- offering full 3D 1080p, internal audio decoding or bit streaming, and internet streaming -- except the BDP-S570 cost $30 more than the S470 because it has built-in WiFi. Pick up the BDP-S470 for around $150, or the BDP-S570 for around $180.
Marantz UD5005. Higher end buyers will appreciate the video and audio processing aboard this 3D-ready universal Blu-ray Disc player. It features a wired Ethernet port for Netflix streaming, built-in memory for BD-Live, and plays just about every disc available on the market. Selling under $500, the UD5005 should be available mid-December.
Also, a few of our readers asked about recommended scalers and video processors last year, so I spoke to Sean at Home Theater Doctor about them. He mentioned the Sencore Radiance line which runs from $2000-$5000 because installers and owners are able to manipulate and achieve 100% accurate colors. But, he also questioned the need for these in the high-def world. No processing or scaling is going to make older standard definition content look like high definition. Blu-ray's 1080p digital picture doesn’t need any enhancements since its already at native resolution. And, if you purchase a quality Blu-ray disc player from companies like Denon or Marantz, they've already included excellent video processing for DVD playback.
Interestingly enough, Home Theater Doctor says they like to supply customers with THX-certified TVs to ensure proper calibration standards, but are less sold on THX in the AV Receiver market because the only way to use THX is via post-processing. In the lossless and uncompressed audio landscape, why would anyone wish to alter something that's already bit-for-bit what the artist intended? In catering to audiophiles, Home Theater Doctor is in the camp of leaving all the extra processing in the Off position. Here's a few very capable AV Receivers to fit a few different budgets:
Denon DHT-591BA Home Theater System. Not really a home theatre in a box, this package deal features a Denon AV Receiver with a Boston Acoustic 5.1 speaker package (including 4 satellites, 1 center channel, and a 100w powered sub) for less than $600. The Receiver has four 1.4a compliant HDMI inputs (which allow 3D pass-through), Audyssey MultEQ dynamic room acoustic correction, and offers 75-watts x 5 channels of amplification.
Marantz SR5005. For less than $800, step up to the world of 7.1 movies and music. The SR5005 features four 1.4a compliant HDMI inputs (which allow 3D pass-through), Audyssey MultEQ, Audyssey Dynamic Volume, Dolby ProLogic IIz (which offers optional front height channels), and 100-watts x 7 channels of amplification with a THD rating of 0.08%.
Onkyo TX-NR5008. For double the price, we get double the HDMI inputs (8 total, all 1.4a compliant for 3D pass through), 145-watts x 9 channels of amplification with a THD rating of 0.05%. The $1700 TX-NR5008 is also THX Ultra2 Plus and ISF certified, as well as firmware upgradable via USB or Ethernet.
SOUND BARS, SUBS, & SPEAKERS
This is definitely a hard category for recommendations. Not all ears work the same way -- what I love may sound off to you, and vice-versa. Plus, there are so many speakers available today from sound bars to satellites to full range towers. There's even a company that builds "invisible speakers" which are installed in walls and painted over. All of this to say there are many, many options, and no one answer will work for every home theatre setup (or every wife…am I right, fellas? hi-ooooh!). Most important before you buy speakers, though, is listening to them in person before making a purchase. For a couple options you may not have heard of, check out these products:
Atlantic Technology FS-7.0-GLB. Sound bars are for those who simply can't run all those wires (a bedroom perhaps). This $800 model from Atlantic Technologies is a 7-channel surround bar with seven discrete inputs and two double voice coil 4x6 front channel drivers. You might not get the full 7.1 feeling of speakers all over the room, but every channel gets a separate discrete driver for some really solid performance. But, you'll need a subwoofer too…
Martin Logan's Dynamo 500 and 700 Subs have you covered. For $495, the Dynamo 500 uses an internal 120-Watt amplifier to power a 10-inch polypropylene cone. For $695, the Dynamo 700 is a wireless-ready sub (for use with the Martin Logan SWT-1 Subwoofer Wireless Transmitter, $120) whose 10-inch diaphragm is powered by an internal 300-Watt amplifier. Further, if you want to hide the Dynamo 700 in a cabinet, it can easily be converted from the standard down-firing configuration to a front-firing without any tools.
Vandersteen Speakers. They're not new for this year, and to some eyes, they're not pretty. But they sound oh-so-sweet. Vandersteens are the speakers Home Theater Doctor recommends most highly, but they aren't cheap. A 5.1 system featuring a VCC2 wall mountable center speaker, a pair of 1C front towers, a pair of VSM1 on-wall surrounds, and a Martin Logan Grotto Sub will set you back a cool $5,000. If you want 7.1, add in another set of the $1,000/pair surround speakers for a $6,000 price tag. Pretty expensive, no? We haven't even touched Vandersteen Model 5A front towers which sell for around $17,000/pair (but at least they have build-in subs).
No surround sound system is complete without a few finishing details:
Monoprice is the only place I shop for accessories like speaker wire, HDMI cables and flat panel wall mounts. Accessories are usually 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.
Also, 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?). Everyone here already knows about the Logitech Harmony series. I recommend them to friends and family because they have a number of affordable models and are so easy to configure. But be aware I've had a couple of them break on me sooner than I would have liked. For more complicated or in-wall setups, remember you'll need to switch to a remote that uses "RF" transmission and does not require line-of-sight like most / cheaper "IR" remotes. Logitech has these as well, starting with the 900 series, but I personally haven't used one.
For those who have some real cash to burn, let me introduce you to RTI. RTI uses RF to access an XP-8 remote control processor which controls all of your home theatre gear via wired IR inputs or RS-232 ports. These systems not only control home cinemas, but whole houses. The processor alone will cost you $1700 and the wand style remote is an earth-shattering $900. Though, within the next few months RTI is debuting an iPad app which will allow your entire home cinema run off an Apple tablet instead of a traditional remote. Ahhh, the wave of the future…today.
Now that you've survived black Friday, picked up a new display, 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. Though this clearly isn't a complete list of all the great 2010 Blu-ray releases, here’s a handful of must buysto get you started:
For those who have already dipped into 3D:
'A Christmas Carol'. A rousing rendition of a yule tide classic that'll have you hooked from the opening shot. Perfect for the season and for any HDTV, 3D or not. I picked up my 4-disc edition (3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy) last night for a sweet $18 by price matching it down from $35 to $28 (the bestbuy.com price as of today) and then using a $10 Disney Movie Rewards Coupon.
'Monster House'. A call back to the "Steven Spielberg Presents" films of the early 1980s, 'Monster House' is another motion capture animated film. It's exciting, terrifying, and hilarious.
And because 2D Blu-ray is still awesome as-is:
'Alien Anthology'. One of the most complete franchise boxed sets ever. Granted, two of the films included aren't necessarily amazing, but the 'Alien' and 'Aliens' are genre classics (horror and action, respectively), and they have never, ever, ever looked or sounded better.
'Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition'. For the fan who wants it all (in two dimensions). The April release was instant eye-candy demo material, and now audiences can choose three different cuts of the film. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio is perfect, and the special features go on for hours. This is what Blu-ray was made for. And to those who don't like it? No worries, there's tons of great stuff for you too, but this movie is awesome and deserves every single penny of business it's done.
'Road to Perdition'. And THIS is what Blu-ray was made for (I may say this a few more times). Despite being produced within the last 10 years, this lush transfer is dripping in the decadent film textures and grain of classic Hollywood thanks to the cinematography from Oscar winner, Conrad Hall. The audio, featuring a score by Thomas Newman, is outstanding.
'Se7en'. A perfect thriller; a genre-bending game-changer; David Fincher coming into his own after a terrible studio experience (See above!). This modern classic has been treated to a slick re-master for high definition, complete with an engrossing 7.1 audio mix.
'Back to the Future Trilogy'. Because this was my favorite movie when I was a kid. The series as a whole is great; the first film, like 'Se7en', is perfect. Universal Home Entertainment pulled out all the stops on this set (except for designing an easy to open case) and its great to see the now 25-year-old series looking better than ever.
'Moulin Rouge!'. The most successful 19th century bohemian-inspired, modern-rock scored, farce/musical/tragedy ever made! This movie is a stunner on Blu-ray, living in splashes of color and textured production design. The music roars, the fast pacing makes your head spin, and at the end of the day, you'll never experience anything quite like this…ever again.
'Bridge on the River Kwai'. This is one to watch with a father or grandfather. Because this too is what Blu-ray is made for: classic studio catalog releases, re-mastered with care, and in some cases, looking better on your HDTV than they ever did in the cinema. For anyone who hasn't seen this movie, RUN to the nearest store and purchase immediately. It's a fascinating action/thriller/character study with an unforgettable third act (hint, it involves a bridge).
'The Sound of Music'. Because mothers and grandmothers will love Blu-ray as much a boys. This a stunning 5-star picture from Fox Home Entertainment allowing this musical to shine in home cinemas. And, you get to sing along!
'Inception'. Okay, this one's a guess because I haven't seen the disc which streets on December 7. But, there's no way this summer's saving grace from a heaping pile of forgettable dreck is going to be anything less than perfect. Blind buy day one is my game plan.
TV fans, don't think I've forgotten you. 'Sons of Anarchy' looks fantastic on Blu-ray, as does 'Dexter', but for my money, there is one show that reigns above them all: 'LOST'. Concluding its history-making series run, we've got two different Blu-ray releases to choose from in 2010. For those who have been collecting for a while, there is 'Lost: the Complete Sixth and Final Season', or to anyone who has never seen the show, dive in and pick up 'Lost: The Complete Collection'.
Well, that about sums it up for this year. A very special thanks goes out to Sean at Home Theater Doctor for all his advice (So-Cal readers, check 'em out). Now that you've seen what I would put in my house (at various budgets), what about you? What's on your wish list? What are your must-have displays, AV Receivers, speakers, gadgets, demo discs, etc? Hit up the forums and let me know. I'd love to drool over delicate electrical devices with you.
Go hunt for deals and let's all enjoy some freakin' high definition!