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 2011 Gift Guide to HD Gear & Demo Material!
by Michael S. Palmer
Happy holidays, HDD Readers!
As it was last year (and two years ago), it's quickly becoming my favorite time of the year. In fact, my wife already made these awesome pumpkin deserts that weren't quite pie and not quite a muffin. Whatever they are, these sugary, waistband-busting delights fueled my search to bring you the heads up on some fun products worth wrapping up this year. I've tried to arrange everything within a three-tiered system of Bargain or Entry Level, Mid Range, and Flagship. In the case of speaker systems, the most expensive system I'm showing here is about $3,000, and in audiophile terms, that's still technically entry level so please excuse me there. I don't know many people in the market who spend $5,000 or more dollars on speakers. If you'd like to see automobile-priced speakers added to future reviews and list, please let me know in the forums.
The trend this year is rapidly dropping prices, Internet connectivity and, whether you care or not, 3D. Plasma is still the go-to flat panel display technology for a more accurate picture and colors, but LED LCD panels are incredibly bright (and super thin), so I've included one here. Keep in mind that the first two series mentions are terrific deals (for the huge sizes), but may have some image trade offs. The last two look amazing, but be prepared to pay for Quality.
Bargain 3D: Panasonic's ST30 Series.
What's to Love: The 50-inch TC P50ST30 will set you back less than $900 and features an incredible 2D and 3D imagery. Have more money to spend? There are 55, 60, and 65-inch models as well, with the flagship in the series, the P65ST30 costing just over $2,000. Definitely a bargain for a picture that looks this good while playing 3D in full 1080p to each eye (using active shutter glasses).
Potential Tradeoffs: This plasma series may be too dark for bright rooms, and no 3D glasses are included with the purchase (they cost over $100 each), so the bargain price may disappear if you have to supply 3D eyewear for an entire family.
For the Bright Room: LG's LW5600 Series.
What's to Love: The LW5600 series is affordable, light weight, thin, and blindingly bright. Seriously, straight out of the box, this is one of the brightest televisions I've ever seen. So much so that, without calibration, colors, details, and skin tones will be easily washed out. But, for a sunny room, it's perfect. The LW5600 series features Passive 3D technology, and ships with four pairs of glasses. Most likely, they're the very same ones you use (and usually toss out) at your local cinema. Once calibrated, 2D picture is crisp and vivid, and as an Internet capable TV, it has a host of apps and streaming services built in. The 47-inch model costs just over $1,000, and the 55-inch is a few greenbacks north of $1,300.
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. Also, I happen to be in the process of doing a full, extended review of the set and, in low light conditions, there is noticeable "blooming" or "light bleed" (light leaking out from behind the screen bezel) in all four corners. This might not bother all viewers, especially in well-lit conditions, but this could not be my reference TV. I would personally consider this series great for the bright family rooms, kids play rooms, or any type of secondary display. Picky viewers beware.
Perfect Colors: Samsung's PND800 Series.
What's to Love: The PND800 series is Samsung's flagship line, boasting supremely accurate colors, built-in WiFi with more apps and streaming services than their competitors, incredible 2D and 3D imagery, and it even looks good in fully lit rooms. Samsung also includes a dual-sided Bluetooth full QWERTY keyboard remote. The 51-inch model will set you back a little more than $1,400 and the huge 64-incher just over $2,400.
Potential Tradeoffs: These televisions are not cheap and 1080/24p source material (Blu-ray movies) may lose some black level performance. Also, there's no Amazon Instant if that happens to be your streaming service of choice.
Deepest Black Levels: Panasonic VT30 Series.
What's to Love: Panasonic's flagship VT30 series boasts the inkiest black levels of any plasma (and therefore, any flat panel) television available in 2011. It's still not quite KURO good, but it's damn close. For those not in the know, black levels are important because the closer the television can get to "true black" (aka the absence of light), colors look more accurate and depth and perceived-resolution improve. While last year's VT25 series suffered from a loss of black level capabilities over time, I've been following a fantastic article over at CNET where they kept track of how five high end plasma aged during their first year of use. The good news is that the VT30 series actually gets blacker (a good thing) as it ages. Pick up the 65-inch TC-P65VT30 for just under $3,000.
Potential Tradeoffs: The most expensive TV in the bunch. Also, the CNET article also said the VT30's color temperature can change over time, so you'll want to make sure to recalibrate your settings for this, or any other, TV as it ages -- every six months to a year. Good advice for any display, really.
BLU-RAY DISC PLAYERS
The truth about Blu-ray players is that most, if not all, deliver perfect picture and sound (well, depending on the source material and encode) during Blu-ray playback. HDMI-transmitted digital signals either arrive, or they don't. So, when picking out a Blu-ray player in 2011, the toughest decision about what to buy isn't really about image quality, but rather about budget and included features. How much do you have to spend, and what's really important to you -- things like streaming apps, games, disc loading speed?
Affordably Full Featured: Sony BDP-S580.
What's to Love: You can pick up an S580 3D Blu-ray player for under $130, and it comes with WiFi (as well as an Ethernet port for a wired connection) and a host of great apps like Pandora, Netflix, Vudu, Amazon etc. There's also a free Media Remote app for your iOS and Android devices. The 3D works great, and it loads much quicker than most 2011 Blu-ray players. There's an equally impressive / more expensive model, the S780, but the main difference is built-in 2D-3D conversion which, in my humble opinion, is a waste of money.
Potential Tradeoffs: Not really much, especially at this price point (though, for about $10-20 dollars more, you can pick up the slightly faster Panasonic model below). Some people don't like Sony's XMB navigation interface, and I've heard Netflix streaming cover art can be a little small.
Speed Demon: Panasonic DMP-BDT210.
What's to Love: A CNET Editor's Choice winner, the BDT210 is the fastest loading 3D Blu-ray player available today -- movies load in as little as 7 seconds (finally back at DVD speeds…that only took 5 years!), and as always, 3D and 2D imagery are perfect. The BDT210 is a steal at just under $140. It features a touch-free sensor for ejecting discs, Skype capabilities, and WiFI -- with most of the standard video and audio streaming services like Amazon Instant, which is not available on our next selection. Also, for about $35 more, you can pick up the Panasonic BDT310, which includes an extra HDMI output for those who do not have an AV Receiver with 1.4a / 3D passthrough. Lastly, if you buy either the BDT210 or BDT310, Panasonic will mail you a copy of 'Avatar 3D'.
Potential Tradeoffs: It's missing a few streaming service like Hulu Plus and, if you're a baseball fan, MLB.TV.
A Versatile All Star: Sony PS3.
What's to Love: Sony's PlayStation 3 is the gift that keeps on giving. It plays Blu-ray movies in 2D and 3D (now with DTS-HD MA support), plays high definition video games, streams all sorts of content from your home network and/or the Internet, has access to MLB.TV and NFL Season Ticket in HD, remains most upgradeable player on the market, and it's available at three price points: 1) a $249.99 160GB system that includes one DualShock 3controller (and a $50 promotional gift card if you buy it on Amazon). 2) a $299.99 320GB PS3 Uncharted 3 Bundle (includes one system, one DualShock 3 controller, one copy of 'Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception') that saves you $10 on the cost of both the system and the game. And 3) a $299 320GB PS3 Move Bundle (includes one DualShock 3 controller, one PlayStation Move motion controller, one PlayStation Eye camera, 'Sport Champion's Blu-ray game, and a PlayStation Move game demos disc). Different systems for different levels of buyers, but sure to be an amazing present.
Potential Tradeoffs: As of today, the PS3 still does not support Dolby TrueHD while playing 3D Blu-rays. That means no 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon – 3D' or 'Megamind - 3D' or 'Kung Fu Panda 2 - 3D' until they get around to fixing this with another firmware update (we're currently at 3.73), which they most likely will do in the not too distant future. Until then, Dolby TrueHD soundtracks will play in Dolby Digital. Also, there is no included remote control, so there is the added expensive of buying Sony's Bluetooth remote or, if you're a Logitech Harmony remote user, the terrific Logitech Harmony PS3 Adapter. Lastly, as they age, some PS3's suffer from fan noise, and if the system overheats, they can fry the circuit board (see Yellow Light of Death). Personally, my fat PS3 (circa 2008) is quiet and works perfectly.
The Entry Level Bargain: Onkyo TX-NR509.
What's to Love: For less than $350, we have a networkable 5.1 AVR with 80w (x 5 channels) of power, 4 3D-ready HDMI inputs, iPod compatibility, Internet Streaming (vTuner, Mediafly, Pandora, Slacker, Rhapsody), and it decodes all the modern HD Audio codecs. If you have a few extra bucks and want 7.2 capabilities, check out the THX Select 2 Plus certified TX-NR609, which serves up 100w/channel and includes support for 4K upscaling.
Potential Tradeoffs: 5.1 channels and 4 HDMI inputs might not be enough for everyone. Especially when considering more and more theatrical movies are being mixed in 7.1.
The Mid-Level Performer: Denon AVR-2112ci.
What's to love: For right around $600, this 7.1 receiver (90 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. Some will argue the AVR-1912 is the better deal, but for about $50 more, the 2112ci includes an extra year of warranty and Audyssey's MultEQ XT calibration software.
Potential Tradeoffs: The 2212ci is less powerful than -- and doesn't have as many digital or analog inputs, nor the fancy, newer GUI of -- the 2312ci (or 3312ci).
The Beast: Marantz SR7005.
What's to Love: 125 watts times 7 channels with six 1.4a (3D capabile) HDMI inputs and 2 selectable HDMI outs, streaming on your home network or Internet, 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, nor built-in AirPlay.
Big Sound; Bargain Price: Pioneer SP-PK21BS.
What's to Love: Simply put, there isn't a better sounding 5.1 speaker system available for under $400. Or if there is, I haven't heard it. These speakers can play loud without distorting and can compete with some systems costing double. I just called Pioneer to confirm they still have the package for sale (there is no Buy Now option on the above link, though all the speakers are available separately), and while the DB8 subwoofers are currently out of stock, they are anticipating shipping more the week of December 5th. If you have a few extra bucks, you want to consider upgrading the system's center channel (to this). To purchase, simply call Pioneer. They have free shipping (!), and actual human beings answer the phone.
Potential Tradeoffs: These speakers are bulky (an alternative is the 5.1 Energy Classic Theater System) so they might not be right for all living rooms.
Mid Level Monitors: The Boston Acoustics A 25 speaker System.
What's to Love: This is a well rounded monitor-sized speaker system. The design is simple and appealing, and the sound is terrific. From blistering highs to rumbling bass with solid mid range as well. I've had nothing but a great experience with Boston Acoustics; as I write this, my 14-year-old desktop 2.1 system is going strong, and my first ever 5.1 system (circa 2000) still gets daily use over at a buddy's house.
Note: I couldn't find the "system" for purchase as a package, but it's not a big deal. Surf over to the Boston Acoustics A Series Loudspeaker page and combine four A25 Monitors ($149.99 each) for 5.1 (or six for 7.1), one A 225C Center Channel ($249.99 each), and one ASW 250 Subwoofer ($349.99 each). The result is a $1,200 5.1 system (or a $1,500 7.1 system). There are also smaller monitors, floorstanding models, and a larger subwoofer in this series for you to mix and match should you be so inclined. And Boston Acoustics offers free shipping. If you're looking to save a few dollars, you should also check out the Last Years / Refurbished Models page.
Potential Tradeoffs: Monitors can't deliver the power of full range floorstanding speakers.
Wireless and Well Reviewed: the Aperion Intimus 4T Summit Wireless 7.1 System (5.1 system pictured).
What's to Love: $3,000 is all that stands between you and a wireless 7.1 system. What's amazing about this set is that each speaker has its own built-in amplifier, so its compact wireless transmitter can replace your AVR (it has three 3D-ready HDMI inputs). It decodes all the modern HD audio codecs with ease and set up is simple: plug in the speakers, press a few buttons, and the system calibrates itself. There's even a MyZone button on the remote that will recalibrate the system in six seconds to make wherever you're sitting the system's sweet spot.
Potential Tradeoffs: $3,000 is a lot of money for many buyers (and if you can afford to spend that money on speakers alone, running wire behind walls should be in the cards too). And, wireless speakers aren't technically wireless -- you still need to find power outlets for each speaker and subwoofer. If you've already invested in a pricy AVR, you may not wish to make it useless. 3 HDMI inputs is limiting in this day and age. And Audiophiles may bristle at 96khz/24bit audio resolution bandwidth cap.
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, and most modern audio and video signals are digital, meaning it all arrives, or doesn't.
Universal Remotes: Logitech Harmony Link.
What's to Love: I really enjoy my Harmony One and PS3 Adapter, but there's a new system I'm itching to try out in the very near future. The Logitech Harmony Link is a small networkable device / iOS app combination that controls your home cinema system (the device is an IR mini blaster). With so many TVs, BD players, and AVRs now have their own proprietary apps, the simplicity of the programmable remote seems to be in jeopardy. But for $100, anyone in the house with an iOS Device can control the home theatre. Seems like a great idea.
Potential Tradeoffs: I've read some reviews saying it's not quite ready yet. I suppose this happens with many first generation products. Research before you buy. I hope to report back soon with a review.
Now that you've picked up some awesome, 3D capable gear, it's time to show it off and test it out. Here's a sampling of my favorite 2011 discs (thus far) in the audio and/or video departments:
HDD's Aaron Peck already covered classics, but the one title he's missed (because it's just coming out now) is 'Mutiny on the Bounty'. The 70mm epic (and long awaited HD-DVD holdout) starring Marlon Brando is another Blu-ray catalog stunner from Warner Bros. Keep your eyes peeled for more 2011 Holiday Gift Guides
In the 5.1 spectrum of things, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2' is a must own audio and video release, an exciting action blockbuster, and a fitting finale to the epic series. There's also a 3D Best Buy exclusive available now as well as an 8 Film Collection, but the full mega-ultra-super edition won't be available until next year. Also, I want to give a shout out to the best found footage film of the year, 'Troll Hunter', a fun horror/action film from Norway about… well, hunting trolls. The audio and video are surprisingly good, and the monsters look great.
Next, let's talk about 7.1. Personally, I can't get enough of the format. Most likely this is because I'm getting use out of the money I invested in two extra speakers, but overall, I love hearing more detail in places I've never before. It's truly enveloping, and this year is filled with a number of great releases. 'The Art of Flight' is a fun action sports film with beautiful cinematography. We're currently giving away three copies on The Bonus View, so maybe you can win a free gift for someone you love! 'Transfomers: Dark of the Moon' is an assault on the senses (in both the good and bad way) with perhaps the best soundtrack I've heard on Blu-ray to date, but buyer beware, a 3D edition is in the works. 'Super 8', while imperfect, is another sonic thrill ride highlighted by wall shacking train crash. Lastly, while folks have been arguing about the 'Jurassic Park' transfers, the 7.1 Audio is the highlight of the set.
3D has been expanding this year with a number of excellent releases. 'Tron Legacy' was the year's first stunner (though it does feature some 2D-only scenes), followed by the 'Toy Story Trilogy', 'How to Train Your Dragon', 'Megamind', 'Cars 2', the severely underrated 'Rio', and 'Tangled'. While they all looked amazing in 3D, 'Dragon' is interesting because it's been remixed into 7.1 for the 3D Blu-ray. And 'Megamind', which I personally found hilarious despite a troublesome 2D transfer, looks even better in 3D. While most of the excellent 3D releases are of the CGI animated variety, I have to admit I was shocked by how well 'Lion King' and 'Beauty and the Beast' turned into three-dimensional experience. A lot of fun here, and two more kick ass 7.1 soundtracks.
Well, that's all we have, dear readers. What's your dream gear or demo disc for this holiday season? Hit up the forums to let us know! Now, I'm off to get more of those delicious pumpkin goodies...