This is the third time in as many years that I've asked the pressing question: Is it time to buy a high-definition television set? It's the first time I can answer, without many caveats: Yes, go for it.
Picture quality has gone way up, and prices have gone way down. True, this has been the unabated trend for the past three years. But I think we have now reached a point where the better sets are so good, and their prices are so low (relative to where they were), that further improvements will take place more slowly, and less dramatically, than those not just of the past year but of the past few months.
Earlier this month, I went to the annual press-and-industry expo of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association. This is where the major HDTV and home-theater manufacturers show off their new wares for the fall season. Using my Slate buying guide from last December as a template, here is a report of what I saw.
Plasmas: Those bright, wide, flat screens are still the coolest-looking rectangles in the history of consumer electronics. Last December I wrote, "Any plasma worth owning will set you back at least $5,000 retail—a really good one will cost you double that." This year, there were good plasmas for $3,000 retail—and really, really good ones for well under $5,000.
Like last year, I was particularly impressed with the plasmas made by Pioneer and Panasonic. Many plasmas don't distinguish dark colors very well (blacks, blues, greens, and shadows tend to look alike). But these companies' screens stand out in detail, color, contrast, and the ability to make black objects look black. Last year, a 43-inch Pioneer plasma cost $10,500. This year, the improved follow-up, the Pioneer PRO-930HD, retails for $5,000. Likewise, Panasonic's 42-incher retailed for $5,500 last year. Its successor, the TH-42PX50U, costs $3,000—and a much-improved set, the TH-42PX500U, retails for $3,500.
LCD panels: Last year, I waved off plasma's flat-screen competitor, the liquid-crystal-display panel. For all of plasma's problems, flat LCDs are prone to worse maladies. Black looks light gray, fast-moving objects seem blurry and jumpy, and all images are prone to the "screen-door effect"—you can sometimes see the gridlines that separate each pixel. That's still the case with most of this year's crop, but not nearly to the same degree.
Sony—the star of this year's expo (see more below)—introduced its Bravia series, LCD flat panels that cost $3,500 for a 40-inch screen, $2,700 for a 32-inch, and $2,000 for a 26-inch. Unlike earlier models, you can watch the Bravias from way off to the side with no distortion or loss of light. Again, the picture isn't as black, bright, or smooth as that of the better plasmas, but it's definitely watchable, even pleasurable.
In January Sony previewed its Qualia 005, an LCD flat panel that used a different kind of technology for backlighting. Now the 005 is on the market. It looks amazing. I don't think I've seen more vivid colors on any television. The problem: It costs $15,000 ($3,000 more than originally estimated), a bit much for a 46-inch screen.
Rear-projection TVs and the beginning of true high-definition: First, let us review what "high-definition TV" means. Images on old-fashioned, analog televisions have 480 horizontal lines; first, the even-numbered lines get scanned, then the odd-numbered lines. This is called "interlaced scanning," so the resolution of these TVs is 480i. Digital televisions scan all the lines at once—a process known as "progressive scanning"—so their resolution is 480p. High-definition televisions either have 1,080 lines with interlaced scanning (1080i) or 720 lines with progressive scanning (720p). More lines mean a more solid, detailed, color-saturated picture; progressive scanning means a picture that moves more smoothly.
The big news at this year's CEDIA was the introduction of several televisions and projectors that scan images not at 1080i or 720p but at 1080p. The result, all other things equal, is richer detail and smoother action scenes—a picture that's livelier, more immediate, more real.