Monday, December 10, 2007

My plan for global home theater domination is nearly complete


Oh I'm sorry, did I say that out loud?

So a few weeks ago, we bought an HD-DVD player. A couple weeks after that we bought an HD TiVO, and had our little fun with our HD cable service.

Of course the problem is, we don't have an HDTV yet. We were planning on buying one this Christmas, but had to hold off because my contract extension hadn't been confirmed yet.

Well, it was confirmed last week; and as of last Thursday this little... or rather this quite large puppy, is rolling it's way towards our happy home:

That my friends, is the JVC 56" HD-ILA (LCoS) rear projection television, model number HD-56fh97.

But wait batman, I thought you were going to buy a Sharp Aquos LCD? Was ist los? Rear Projection? Isn't that like, totally '80s?

Nay friends; with LCoS technology, rear projection is in fact STILL the best choice for real home theater, and HD sports; at least outside of a dedicated theater room (where of course you want a real front projector).

Now, I've been on the LCD path for a while; and I was pretty much decided on the 52" Sharp Aquos 52D92U; which is generally the highest rated flat panel television you can get for under $5000.

It's gorgeous. It's also rather expensive, with street prices in the $3,000 to $3500 range from reputable sellers; which meant that I was going to have to wait at least a few more months if I wanted to pick it up.

One other problem though... I love the picture on this Sharp... BUT... Although this very high end $3500 LCD, the top of Sharps range in this size, has a 120hz refresh rate, and 4ms response time... There's STILL perceptible motion blur in fast action and text on screen, oversaturation of primary colors, and visible grayness in black areas.

See, my primary interest in watching an HDTV, is for spectacular movies; with a secondary task of giving me spectacular football.

It just so happens that movies with a lot of dark contrast (like most sci-fi, fantasy, and action movies - my favorite genres), and fast motion against detailed, colorful backgrounds (like say, football players running down field, and game information text) are the hardest images to display well; and the areas where LCD's have the most difficulty.

That's not to say the Aquos doesn't do a good job, but like literally every LCD yet made; these limitations are a part of the technology. Even the best rated LCDS, the new $8000 Pioneer sets, have some level of motion blurring, and very slightly greyish blacks.

So anyway, knowing that I would have several months to wait; I've been doing research, and reading reviews and recommendations from Sound and vision, home theater mag, ultimate AV, Consumer Reports and others.

Right now, your options for large screen HDTVs are front projection, Plasma, LCD, DLP, and LCoS (front projectors generally use one of the last three technologies).

Front projectors are used primarily in dedicated theater room setups, with very large silvered screens. They produce an image in the same way (or a similar way) that modern digital cinema projectors do; and there is no better way to experience a movie in your home, especially if you want a screen above 70". Unfortunately, they are quite expensive, somewhat noisy, and like all projection systems (including rear projection TVS by the way), in that they use powerful lamps, which will eventually burn out (typically speaking ever 3-5 years or so), and must be replaced, at the cost of $250-$500 per lamp (depending on the exact set). Finally, they require total darkness to function properly, so you really need to use them in a dedicated theater room.

Yes... that's right out for us I'm afraid.

Plasmas produce the best picture of the other options available; by individually illuminating tiny plasma cells in the screen, you can produce much truer blacks than with an LCD; while still maintaining sharp and bright colors, and a very bright picture overall. Unfortunately they are quite expensive in the larger screen sizes, they are susceptible to burn in (yes, still, though not as bad as they once were), and they have very reflective screens that are not great for use in areas with poor light control....

... like say, my living room; which has one mostly glass wall, and a semi-open back wall with the rest of the house lights shining through it. We generally watch movies in the dark, but the kids use that TV in the daytime, and we need to have something that you can easily see in uneven lighting conditions.

Oh and big, thin, flat, easily broken glass screens mixed with two kids, two cats, and two dogs... It's a concern.

Ok, so front projection and plasma are out, and LCD has issues and costs as we talked about already (and will some more in jsut a bit)... how about rear projection?

A lot of folks think of rear projection tvs as the huge, ugly, unreliable, not very sharp, or contrasty, or colorful, or bright big screen tvs they got used to in the 80s.

Not even close.

Todays DLP and LCoS sets are COMPLETELY different technology, and can produce images every bit as good as the direct view technologies of plasma and LCD. The best part is though, they do it at a fraction of the cost.

DLP is actually a very interesting technology. It uses one monochrome reflective microdisplay at half the horizonatl resolution of the screen (so a 1080p display is actually at 960x1080 instead of 1920x1080) and then uses millions of tiny, individually aimable micro-mirrors, and a high speed rotating color wheel to produce the image at full resolution and in color (a process which they call wobulation... no, seriously, they do).

DLP, like every other display technology, has a couple problems. Though it generally produces good blacks, it has a susceptibility to stray light from the colorwheel and millions of tiny mirrors; so they aren't as good as plasmas. Also that same stray light issue can cause some color smearing, or color rainbows to appear around the edges of objects for some viewers (especially those with astigmatism or who've had Lasik).

The wife has a severe astigmatism, and I'm planning on Lasik...

Right then... LCD it is; I'll just have to bite the bullet on price and motion blur...

Or maybe not...

In all my research the same theme kept popping up: Although serious videophiles didn't much care for DLP, they actually preferred the new 3 chip rear projection systems (Liquid Crystal On Silicon LCoS - sold as HD-ILA by JVC, and SXRD by Sony) to all but the very top end of plasma and LCD TVs.

So I started doing some more targeted research.

LCoS rear projection TVs reflect the projection lamp off of three (appx. 2" wide) microdisplays, to project all three primary color images simultaneously through a collimator lens. Each microdisplay is independently at full 1920x1080 resolution at 120hz or 150hz (or any number that is evenly divisible by 30 actually) progressive scan; and there are no wobulating mirrors or color wheels to reduce resolution, soften the image, produce rainbow artifacts, or produce a screen door effect.

This produces a clearer, sharper, brighter image than other projection technologies, with fewer image artifacts, and better color accuracy. Also, because there is no color wheel and no micro-mirrors, reliability and lifespan are increased, and noise and warm-up time are decreased as compared to DLP.

Also, because of the nature of the technology, the projection screens for LCoS use a much smaller grain structure, and present a very natural appearance as compared to DLP (or LCD for that matter, which can appear to be TOO sharp, and actually worsen the appearance of film based source programming).

Specifications on top end LCoS TVs are comparable to the highest end plasma and LCD tvs, with typical contrast ratios in excess of 3000:1; and contrast ratios when using auto iris controls to optimize black levels, as high as 10,000:1. LCoS sets can have brightness levels that are naturally variable (as film is, and direct view LCDs are not) from .01 foot lamberts, to over 100fl (over 10,000 to one); with neutral D6500K images from 27fl to 48fl (video reference standard is 30fl) depending on adjustments.

Most LCDs are naturally much brighter than 30fl at D6500K neutral gray (as in 45fl or more). This looks better in a brightly lit room, especially under fluorescents light; but can cause eyestrain and oversaturation of colors in darkness. Also, most LCDs cant produce an image as dark as .01fl, nor as bright as 100fl; because they are transmissive. In a direct view LCD, the light from the backlight is transmitted through the pixels; and light output is dependent on just how opaque, or how transparent, the pixels can get.

This is why direct view LCDs still can't quite show true black as well as other technologies can (though this is changing with dynamic LED based backlighting). They shine a VERY bright backlight through the screen to ensure bright whites and colors, but then depend on that same screen they shine through for colors, to block the light out completely for blacks.

Obviously, this is somewhat imperfect, with transmissive technologies typically having black levels 3 to 5 times higher than reflective technologies; which themselves are 5 to 10 times (or at least 5-10 times within the measuring tolerance) higher than direct emission technologies (such as CRT). Of course these are all still very low levels of light; but in scenes which have bright whites, and dark blacks simultaneously, this difference can be obvious.

LCoS uses a reflected light technology; where the projector lamp is bounced off the microdisplay chip to produce the image; and therefore the darkness of blacks isn't dependent on the light blocking ability of a semi translucent pixel; but rather the lack of light reflection off a black pixel. It still doesn't produce as true a black as a reference grade CRT (which have contrast ratios too high for the sensitivity of most measuring equipment) or the best plasmas (which have typical contrast ratios of as high as 15,000:1); but it's pretty close.

You do lose some of the saturation and brightness of the very brightest colors as compared to the best plasmas and LCDs; but this reflective display results in a more natural rendering; because the light is delivered to your eyes in a way closer to that of natural vision (where light is reflected off objects, not transmitted through them, or emitted from them). LCDs and plasmas can often have a "hyper-reality" look to them, because of that transmissive image production; where it feels like the picture is actually being projected into your eyes directly.

Though... some people actually prefer that hyper reality look. It can produce an almost 3D effect, and when watching high end animation (try Disneys "Cars" for an example), the impact is truly spectacular.

At this point, I decided I wanted to take a look. I visited a couple of Best Buys, and Frys; and saw the LCDs, plasma, DLPs, and LCoS sets I was generally interested in; both in bright floor environments, and in darkened viewing rooms.

There really is no substitute for doing this by the way. You can never really tell what a set is going to look like until you view it in variable lighting and viewing angle conditions.

Although I wasn't able to adjust the picture settings on any of the TVs I looked at (typically floor demo TVs are adjusted to ridiculously overbright, oversaturated, and oversharpened modes; because they make people say "ooooh pretty" on the showroom floor) I definitely got a good idea of the picture characteristics of the technologies, and specific models I was interested in.

What I found actually surprised me.

I went into this thinking I would greatly prefer the LCDs and plasmas over the Rear Projection TVs; and , for the DLPs, I was correct (DLPs all look slightly fuzzy and grainy to me, and tend to have poor color saturation to my mind) ; but the HD-ILA and SXRD sets I looked at were damn good.

Initially, I preferred the bright static images produced by the LCDs and plasmas on the brightly lit sales floor. Once I looked at football, and darker movies, in a darkened viewing room however; my preferences changed, and I thought the LCoS sets were producing a significantly better image than the LCDs, and all but the most expensive (as in well over $5000) plasmas.

And of course, although they were significantly more expensive than DLPs of the same size; the LCoS sets were all several hundred, to over $1000 cheaper than the equivalent LCD or Plasma options in the same range of price and quality.

So it was back again to research; this time looking at specific models.

Now size....

The biggest mistake people make with HDTVs is to buy too small; because they’re thinking of what is a comfortable viewing distance and angle for their old standard definition 4:3 interlaced TV.

There’s two ways to calculate optimum viewing distance. There’s the average angle rule of thumb, and theres the visual acuity calculation based method.

Using the average angle rule, with a 16:9 HDTV, optimal viewing distance is about 1.9 times the diagonal screen size; with the generally acceptable range being from 1.5 to 2.5 times the diagonal screen measurement.

Initially, the wife was ADAMANT that we buy something between 42” and 46”. She was absolutely convinced that anything larger would be “way too big”; because a 42” 16:9 TV looked “about the same size” as our 32” 4:3 TV.

I then showed her what HDTVs looked like in viewing environments, especially as compared to our current 32” 4:3 SDTV; and she started to listen to what I was saying, rather than her idea of what “huge” was.

Our living room is 28ft by 14ft, with a 9ft distance between our televisions position, and our primary seating positions. 9ft is 108”, so to keep that 1.5-2.5 screen size ratio, acceptable would be anything from a 44” to 72”; and the ideal would be 57”.

Based on this rough calculation, I decided to look for televisions between 46” and 61”, with the ideal range being 52"-58".

For a little more precision, you can use the visual acuity rule. To do so, take the actual height of the screen, and multiply it by 3.2 to get the optimal viewing distance for 1080p, or 4.8 for the optimal viewing distance for 720p (optimal for 480i is about 6.4).

Why height? Mostly because it’s what we perceive to be the most important dimension of an image. We judge our scale of images based on how tall they are, not by how wide. If you take a picture of a man six feet tall, and keep him centered in the frame; you can extend the sides of that frame out as far as you want, the man will still “look normal”. Make the frame 30 feet wide, and you will still perceive the mans size as “normal”. Take that same picture, and extend the top and bottom, leaving the man the same; you will perceive the man as looking smaller and smaller. It’s just the way we humans are visually wired.

When we were all on tube TVs, the most popular “living room” sizes were 27” and 32”. A lot of us still have 32” tv’s sitting in our main viewing area. The actual screen height of a 32” 4:3 TV, is equal to about 20”, for an optimal viewing distance in SD, of 128” or 10.75 feet; which is typical of many living room viewing distances.

With a 16:9 TV though, as I said, our perception of size is different. A 16:9 TV displaying an SD signal would need to be 42” diagonal to “look as big” as a 32” 4:3 TV, and to have the same optimum viewing distance at the same resolution.

Of course, as you increase the resolution, the optimal viewing distance goes down. Since most of us don’t much want to change our viewing position (living rooms not notable for having mobile walls and such) that means going up in screen size.

We were very happy with our viewing position at 9ft, on our current TV; and we don't want to move our furniture; so we needed to optimize for that distance.

The actual screen height of a 56” 16:9 TV is 27.45”; so the optimal viewing distance for 1080p/i content is 88” (7’4"), and the optimal viewing distance for 720p is 132” (11'). If we average the two, we come up with 110” or…

Well, whadya know… just a bit over 9 feet.

So, now I had a specific size range I was interested in, 46"-61" with an ideal of 52" to 58"; and I had a set of minimum requirements

1. True 1080p with 1080p input over HDMI, and native 480i/p and 720i/p input support
2. At least two HDMI ports
3. Good quality of upscaling, de-interlacing, and 3:2 pulldown
4. Auto iris, and manual iris and gamma controls (giving a dynamic contrast ration of 10,000:1)
5. D6500K color corrected lighting with a native contrast ratio of at least 3000:1
6. PC input preferred
7. A narrow bezel design, with unobtrusive speakers, black preferred
8. Useful color correction and calibration controls
9. A large variety of inputs
10. A cable card slot

This list of requirements left me with about a dozen models to sort through; when I found exactly what I wanted.

The reviews on the JVC TheaterPro series were all uniformly excellent. The three models in the series 56", 61", and 70" were all essentially identical but for screen size; and in every case I found was either the top rated, or second from top rated television in their size class (though they all noted that the sets needed to be calibrated out of the box for best color performance).

The TheaterPros were actually originally designed as reference monitors; and were sold under JVCs pro studio line starting in 2004. In 2006, they added the frilly consumer features, and announced them as consumer models as the FH and FN96 models (the FH, which I've purchased, has a black bezel, and an RS232 serial port, for professional home automation and home theater integration. The FN does not.). The updated 97 models models were announced in late 2006, and introduced in early 2007; and most of the major AV mags rated them as their best pick in class, or at least in their top five in class for the year.

What really sealed the deal for me though?

I started looking for prices. The 56" FH97s were announced at $3299 list; and went down to $2699 street. Then, this past September, JVC introduced a new 58" ultraslim (only 11" thick, and wallmountable) model that was otherwise technically identical to the 56". At that point, they decided to discontinue the 56, and reduced the MSRP to $2699 for closeout.

Well, when they discontinued it, street prices dropped to $1800 or so; but I managed to find one retailer (a top rated retailer on bizrate, paypal seller ratings, and resellerratings) blowing it out for $1299 with free shipping.

At that point, I was waiting for my contract renewal to come through to pull the trigger; and I was just hoping they didn't sell out before it happened. Last Thursday was finally the day, and it turned out none too soon, because it was the very last unopened one they had in stock (never take a floor model LCD, plasma, or projection TV. They lose significant life out on the floor).

In theory, the set will be here this Friday; though I haven't been able to confirm a dropoff time yet. I can't wait to see the Patriots crush the Jets in 56" 1080p glory.

Just two final steps... a new receiver (my current system doesn't switch HDMI), and new speakers to go with it (of course those final steps are going to be more expensive than everything else combined).