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The transforming digital living room

We’re in the midst of the biggest transformation of living room entertainment since the radio console replaced the family sing-along.  By Michael Rogers.
Big picture, big sound, DVD players, and lots of cables -- the living room of today.
Big picture, big sound, DVD players, and lots of cables -- the living room of today.Bob King / KRT file
/ Source: Special to

We’re in the midst of the biggest transformation of living room entertainment since the radio console replaced the family sing-along.  What’s more remarkable is how many changes we’re seeing -- all at once -- in the way home entertainment is conveyed, played and displayed.  In short, if you haven’t lately strolled through your local consumer electronics emporium, then you have some catching up to do.  But in the end, you’re going to end up with a private entertainment pavilion that would dwarf the dreams of 18th century royalty.

In the living room it all begins with the image. Larger screens are the inevitable result of the move to high definition television, and the old-fashioned cathode ray tube is being lost in the transition: as screen widths go up, those old glass tubes get awfully large.  But if you don’t mind their size and weight, cathode ray tubes still provide superb and cost effective HDTV in fairly large screen sizes, as in the 34 inch Toshiba Cinema Series HD 34HF84.

Go much beyond that size and you’re looking at plasma, LCD and projection sets.  Plasma screens are an excellent and well-established technology with great black levels (a key element in picture quality) and wide viewing angles; Panasonic’s units, such as the 42” HD TH-42PX25U/P get consistently good reviews. And prices are rapidly dropping, due to both production over-capacity and overblown fears about “burn-in” (easy to avoid: just don’t leave the set on overnight with a single motionless picture on screen). 

LCDs are coming up quickly as plasma competitors, although they are still more costly and not quite up to plasma’s richness of image.  But LCD’s capacity for extremely high resolution, as in the Sharp’s LC37GD4U,will likely trump plasma in the long run.  A surprise contender for space in the living room is the new generation of rear-projection sets.  These aren’t the huge boxes with the fuzzy images that once lurked in the corner of the local sports bar.  This new breed uses microdisplay technology such as DLP (digital light processing) or LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) to create HD images on screens in the 50 inch range and larger—in sets that are less than 18 inches deep.  They are also generally a bit cheaper than comparable plasma or LCD versions, as in Samsung’s new HL-P5085W. 

Once you have your screen, what to connect?  The biggest news in video is the advent of the DVR -- the hard-disk-based digital video recorders pioneered by TiVo but now duplicated, with varying levels of quality, in everything from cable and satellite TV boxes to DVD recorders to Media Center personal computers.  TiVo’s software is widely seen as the most elegant and user-friendly of the bunch, but its competitors are relentless.  One way or another, there’s a DVR in your future: the logical (and vastly more useful) replacement for the VCR.  (And if you’d still like both a DVR and a VCR, there’s the JVC HMHDS1U.)    

And of course, you’ll need a DVD player for movies. DVDs with high definition video are on the way, but as of now manufacturers are still battling over two competing standards. As long as that remains the case, consumers should steer clear.  Just make sure that the DVD player you buy is progressive-scan, and you’ll still be viewing images far sharper than anything you’ve previously seen on a television screen—for astonishingly low prices, as with the Sony DVP-NS575P. 

Audio is the other big change in the living room environment. Suddenly you’re being offered systems that provide surround sound with 5.1, 6.1, even 7.1 speakers.  (The decimal doesn’t mean you get 1/10 of a speaker -- it indicates that one of the speakers is a subwoofer for deep bass notes.)  For now you’re probably well-served with a 5.1 speaker system, but there’s no harm in buying a receiver that will support a few additional speakers down the line. With that many speakers, it’s crucial that they are properly balanced, and sophisticated receivers like the Yamaha RXV657 now have the ability to “listen” to themselves and adjust for appropriate surround balance. 

Setting up a home theater system can be a remarkably confusing sea of cables and connectors -- hence the recent popularity of “home theater in a box” (HTIB) which gives you all the components you need plus easy connection directions.  Even so, when you’re talking about five or six speakers, you’re looking at a lot of wires running through your living room.  Thus soon we’ll see a number of home theater systems with wireless speakers; Sony’s DAV-FR10W is an early example. (Wireless is also going to be very important for distributing audio and video from your living room to other rooms in the house; more on that in a later installment.)

Bring on the 'media server'
The newest component to enter the living room is the so-called “media server” -- basically a giant hard drive on which you can store both video and audio files.  At the moment media servers are still evolving out of the personal computer world, as with Hewlett Packard’s top-of-the-line z557 Digital Entertainment Center.  Media servers can offer a multitude of functions, ranging from an HD television tuner and DVR functionality to DVD recording and playback.  One caveat, however: when users begin to play their MP3 files through the living room’s high quality surround sound systems, the results may prove distinctly disappointing.  As media servers catch on, expect a big market for upgraded audio files in the years ahead.

One final question: how are you going to control all these boxes?  The answer, of course, is via remote control, but that’s where it can get complicated.  If you purchase a home theater in a box and add other components that are all from the same manufacturer, you may be able to get along with the remote control that’s originally provided.  But if your audio-video empire gets at all complex, you may want to look at a more sophisticated remote control with “macro” abilities, so that a single button push adjusts a number of components simultaneously.  Folks with plenty of programming patience swear by the Philips Pronto series, such as the TSU3000; the Harmony line, a relative new-comer, uses a simple Web-based wizard to program the unit.

The remainder of this decade will see an unprecedented makeover of living room entertainment -- an even bigger shift than the introduction of audio CDs produced back in the Eighties. The key concept to keep in mind is that everything will be connected.  In the living room of the future, each component needs to play well -- and also to play well with others.