Which high-end television is best?

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Dec. 1 2004 1:38 PM

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Which high-end television is best?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

A widescreen, high-definition television tops America's holiday wish list this year. Too bad shopping for one is so confusing. Many gift buyers head for the store with visions of plasma screens dancing in their heads only to find another kind of flat screen, the LCD, grabbing their attention. Once they start looking around a little more, they notice an alphabet goulash of thin-screen options: DLP, D-ILA, LCoS, SXRD. What do they all mean? Which type of HDTV is best? And what about HDTV itself—is it really better than the much-cheaper E DTV?

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist, also writes about home theater for The Perfect Vision and other publications.

It's enough to make you go home and cuddle up with your 10-year-old Trinitron. But don't do that. Herewith, Slate's guide through the high-def maze.

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How much should you spend? Count on $1,500 at the very least—for the more exotic technologies, expect to spend much more. Samsung does make a 27-inch HD model powered by an old-fashioned picture tube (more about this later) for $700. But, except in very small rooms, the picture is too small and too dim to make much of an impact.

What about EDTV? No. EDTVs (enhanced- definition televisions) may seem like a bargain, but they're a waste. High-definition has two special qualities. First, HD broadcasts are usually in widescreen; on a widescreen television, the image fills the entire screen (no horizontal black bars on the top and bottom). Second, an HD image consists of 1,080 horizontal lines (or 720 lines that get scanned twice as fast) compared with standard TV's 480 lines. More lines mean a more detailed, cohesive, and color-saturated image. An EDTV receives high-def signals, but it displays them in standard definition. You get the wide screen, but not the extraordinary detail. In fact, because the screen is bigger than an ordinary television yet displays the same number of lines, the picture can sometimes be fuzzy, craggly—just bad. (For more about HD and ED, click here.)

Pioneer plasma
Pioneer plasma

Plasma: Plasma televisions are everyone's dream ticket—flat, bright, and the niftiest-looking piece of furniture in the history of consumer electronics. Two-and-a-half years ago, I predicted that by now plasma's bugs would be vanquished and the prices slashed. Well, plasmas are cheaper and better, but they're not yet trouble-free or particularly cheap. Any plasma worth owning will set you back at least $5,000 retail—a really good one will cost you double that.

Plasmas have two inherent advantages and one inherent flaw. The advantages: First, they give off a staggering amount of light, so the image looks clear even in uncurtained daylight. Second, you can watch plasmas from any angle and the picture remains just as sharp—a distinct advantage if you watch television with lots of friends.

The flaw: "burn-in." If you spend a lot of time watching a channel with an on-screen logo (or a news crawl), the logo's outlines will brand a permanent shadow on that area of the screen. If you watch a lot of non-HD programs, which have square images, the vertical black bars on both sides of your widescreen will burn in, too. There are ways to minimize this risk (click here) but no way to eliminate it.

One thing to keep in mind when you're blown away by a plasma screen in an electronics store showroom is the Finding Nemo factor. HD tape loops with lots of bright lights and bold colors—nature documentaries, football games, space capsules orbiting the Earth, and especially digital cartoons like Finding Nemo—make almost any plasma TV look fabulous. Plasmas have more trouble presenting complex colors, especially in dimly lit scenes. They also have a tendency to make black look like dark gray.

The latest models are getting better at compensating for plasma's weaknesses. (For a technical explanation, click here.) At a trade show a couple months ago, I stood in front of a 43-inch Pioneer Elite PRO-920HD for 20 minutes watching a DVD of Spider-Man, a movie with lots of very dark scenes. The detail, the contrasts, the gradations of gray, and the distinctions between objects and shadows were all superb. I found nothing to complain about except the price: $10,500. (It's possible to find it now for as little as $7,000.) The 42-inch Panasonic TH-42PX25, at $5,500 (on sale at Amazon for $3,800), is impressive, too. But on most plasmas cheaper than $5,000, Finding Nemo will look great; Spider-Man and many other live-action DVDs and non-HD television shows will not.

Sony LCD
Sony LCD

LCD: LCD (liquid-crystal display) flat panels have one big advantage over plasmas: no burn-in. Otherwise, there's little to be said for them. Inch for inch, they're more expensive than plasmas. They make black colors look even lighter gray than plasmas. Fast-moving objects tend to look blurry and jumpy. They're also prone to the "screen-door effect"—you can sometimes see the gridlines that separate each pixel. Sony's 46-inch Qualia 005 LCD panel, due out this spring, is stunningly vivid; it makes all other LCDs, and most plasmas, look like mush. The price, though, will be about $12,000.

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