This holiday season is expected to be a great one for the home theater industry. With prices falling, retailers and analysts alike are betting that this is the year consumers will be buying one of those newfangled flat-screen TVs, and quite possibly a surround-sound system to go with it.
I’ve gotten a number of requests asking me what I think is the best new TV to buy. There is, of course, no one answer: As with most technology these days, what you should get is going to depend on your needs, taste and budget. Here are some general guidelines:
First, prices are always dropping, so accept that whatever you buy will be cheaper a few months from now and move on. If you want a new TV, buy one. If you want to wait, don't regret your decision.
Plasma vs. LCD: I like both. Plasmas are supposed to deliver better black levels, but they’re very heavy to carry, install, etc. LCDs (like big laptop screens) can produce incredible pictures as well. I must admit that when it came time to buy one, I went with an LCD.
You should plan to be happy with a major purchase like this for years to come, so do at least think about getting a high-definition TV. Sets that deliver full high-definition picture are labeled HD. Sets with with resolution that are close to HD, but not quite, are termed extra-definition or ED. These sets are cheaper and can produce amazing pictures, but they're not full HD and are usually labeled "HD-compatible" instead.
The real way to tell is to look at the resolution numbers for the screen. If both horizontal and vertical resolution are greater than 720, for example 1280 x 768, you have an HD screen. A resolution of 1920 X 1200 is even better and, of course, more expensive. You choice depends on your pocketbook, whether you’re buying just to buy a flat-screen and whether you’ll feel comfortable knowing there’s something a little better that you could have had.
When it comes time to buy, do your homework. Go to the stores to see which sets look good to you and then check out prices online and compare -- don’t forget to include taxes and delivery. You might also want to look up specific models at Consumer Reports or other specialty Web sites, which can review dozens of models at a time. If prices are similar online and at your local retailer, a local store might be a better bargain if it delivers, installs the set and helps get rid of the huge box.
Panasonic and Pioneer plasmas have gotten raves recently. Check out the Panasonic TH-42PD25U. It’s an ED model, but it gets raves from everyone. You can probably find it for less that $2,500. As for HD plasma, try to find Pioneer’s PDP-4340HD. I’ve seen the Pioneer selling for just under $3,500.
When it comes to flat-screen LCDs, there are a number of companies making them but in nearly every test result I’ve checked, Sharp LCDs come out on top. LCDs usually cost a little more than plasmas. Sharp’s biggest, their LC-45GX6U is very expensive: $8,500 retail price. I suggest their 37-inch HDTV (my personal favorite) or their top-rated LC-32GD4U, with a 32-inch screen and online prices below $3,000.
If you can deal with a large box TV there are some terrific bargains.
In a large room projection TVs probably offer the best bargains around. Also, while large compared to flat screens, new technologies are making projection TVs smaller all the time. Hitachi has been churning out some of the best looking HD rear-projectors around. Check out their 50V500 with prices under $3,000, along with some terrific ones from Sony and Mitsubishi.
Picture tube TVs have been around forever and for a good reason: they get the picture right. With these sets, now called "direct-view", the bigger the screen size the bigger the picture tube and the box which holds it. They’re really heavy, too. But if you want to see great HDTV pictures check out Sony’s KD-34XBR960. You should find prices under $2,000.
And if that’s too much to spend, I loved Samsung’s TNX-2670WHF when I reviewed it awhile back. Selling for less than $800, this 26-inch screen is a near perfect set for a small room or bedroom.
With so many DVD players on the market the prices are getting ridiculous. I’ve seen really cheap ones selling for as little as $29. My advice here: You get what you pay for. Go for a unit that provides better than warehouse-store quality, especially if you're spending a small fortune on an HD TV.
Want a high quality DVD player that can also double as a CD/SACD/DVD-Audio player in your home theater? Check out the Pioneer DV-578A-S with a suggested retail price of $199.99 and street prices as low as $125. It does it all.
Movie theater audio
My recommendation: go and listen. Play action movies. Play love stories. Play TV shows. Play a favorite CD (bring one with you). Listen carefully. Buy the one which sounds best to your ears.
As for brands, usually the big electronics firms that make the high-end TVs produce some pretty good sounding surround-sound systems. Also check out some of the more interesting one-speaker (and a subwoofer), surround-sound systems I’ve written about. Niro systems (owned by Mr. Nakamichi-san) have some great-sounding models starting at $450.
And, if that’s too much, there’s always the terrific Radio Shack’s Single-Point Surround-Sound Speaker system. Terrific for a small room, Model 40-5034 sells for $99.99.
Rise and shine
Finally, just a word about clock radios. They’re a bedroom item which usually gets short shrift. Usually, a nice-looking plastic one from the drugstore is what you wake-up to each morning. Why not wake up to something that sounds terrific?
Tivoli Audio’s Model 3 AM-FM clock radio sounds fantastic. It sells for $199.99 and you can add an optional second speaker ($49.99) for stereo. There’s even a second speaker with a second alarm clock ($99.99). You can also add a sub-woofer ($79.99) for a little more bass. The sound quality rivals some very expensive living-room hi-fi systems I’ve heard.
Better yet, you can put your name on the list for their brand-new clock-radio with Sirius satellite radio built-in ($299.99). They expect to start shipping in time for Christmas delivery. I’m hoping Santa has one of these for me in his bag this holiday season.
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