Monday, December 17, 2007

Say Hello to "The Behemoth"

Rising above the city, blocking out the noonday sun, it warps the mighty redwoods and it towers over everyone --

That right there would be our new 61" HDTV.

It's BIG.

It's pretty too... but damn it's huge.

Two weeks ago I went through the while process of picking out a new HDTV; and that we'd settled on a three chip rear projection from JVC.

Last week I mentioned that the retailer I was going to purchase the JVC from screwed things up; and I wasn't able to get what I wanted at the price that I wanted.

Well, that problem didn't change the fact that I wanted a three chip rear projector; or how great the JVC was, so I started looking for other purchasing options.

Unfortunately, it was a discontinued model; and it's been replaced by a model that three items as expensive, so I had to find a retailer with new old stock. I ended up talking with about twenty different places, none of them had more than one or two in stock, and they were all at least $1900 plus $200+ shipping for it.

Well, at that price, I might as well have just gone ahead and bought a plasma or LCD.

Our other option for three chip LCoS was to go to Sony... now, I'm not a big Sony fan; in fact I really don't care to deal with them. They make everything as proprietary a pain in the ass as possible, just because they think they can.

Well, I hadn't really seriously researched the Sony; but it was still a three chip rear projector, and it was still a hell of a lot cheaper than a plasma or LCD of equivalent quality, so I decided to research the Sony options. I found that the reviews were generally comparable to the JVC, ad the pricing was from $1600 to $1800 plus shipping depending on the retailer.

Sony had another advantage, in that the TV was available locally at a reasonable price (from Costco, Best Buy, and Sams Club). Not quite an online price, but taking into account shipping etc... the difference was pretty small.

So, we headed out to take a look; ad honestly weren't all that impressed with the Sony. Oh sure, it was good (though I didn't think as good as the JVC), but I didn't like the connectivity options, and the picture was just, OK.

Costco had a couple Panasonic plasmas at blowout pricing, including a 5o" 1080p for $2300; and I was severely tempted. It was a great TV with a great picture; but it was also a little smaller than I wanted, and a bit more than I wanted to spend.

Right next to it though, they had a TV that I hadn't seriously considered.

Panasonic is promoting a new three chip LCD rear projection lineup, using a high power lamp technology similar to LED (it isn't actually an LED; but it doesn't use a conventional filament, or an HID arc like DLPs) that they are calling LiFi. It's a color corrected, and very bright, light source; but instead of the 3,000 to 5,000 hour lamp life of a DLP or LCoS set, the LiFi lamps have a 50,000 hour plus lamp life.

Basically, you never have to change the lamps.

Other than the light source, the tvs are conventional three chip LCD systems. To my mind better than DLP, but not quite as good as LCoS. THe biggest practical difference is that LCoS has a bit better black level, and a bit better off axis consistency.

Anyway, the 61" Panasonic PT-61LCZ70 was sitting there right next to the plasmas, and it looked pretty damned good. In fact, it looked a fair bit better than the Sony; especially from 7-9 feet back (my seating range).

The kicker though, was the pricing. List price on these is $2000, plus $300 for a stand. Costco is clearing these out for $1250 including the stand.

Well, we like the picture, and we certainly liked the price... plus it's Costco, who has the worlds best return policy; so what the hell, we took it home last week. OH and since I didnt need the stand, I sold it on craigslist the next day.

Now, the reviews on the set are mixed. They all rated the picture as excellent, with great quality and great connectivity options; but that color accuracy and black level were poor without calibration. Also pre-production samples apparently had a problem with lamp color cast stability (the color would change over time as the lamp wore in).

Well, I'll agree, out of the box with default settings, the color accuracy was poor. Honestly, if I had just plugged the TV in and watched stuff, without figuring out how to set the TV up proplery, it would have looked horrible and I would have been very dissatisfied.

Thankfully, I knew what to expect; and with a couple hours worth of effort, experimentation, and a calibration DVD; I was able to get black levels, and color accuracy as good as any other RPTV I've tried. There is still a little bit too much saturation in the greens and blues, but when I have the system professionally calibrated I'm sure they'll be able to fix that.

With the right display settings, I was able to get excellent brightness, sharpness, and color; with very deep, satisfying blacks without loss of shadow detail. I will say it took a hell of a lot of fiddling around to find the right combination of settings however; probably more time than the reviewers who mentioned poor black levels were willing to take. The TV has both an automatic, and a manual lmap and light level adjustment, with five different tweaks to the overall light output; and that alone took the most effort to figure out and set properly. Not coincidentally, it is also the most important setting or getting dark blacks without loss of detail.

Also important to note, each input, and each picture mode had to be set up individually (however at least each input and setting has it's own setting memory). This was a real pain in the butt without a question.

Now that said, the fact that there WERE all those controls, user accessible, and relatively easy to understand, is a good thing; as is the fact that all the settings were individual to an input and mode. A lot of televisions hide adjustments away in service menus only accessible to technicians etc; and some only allow one setting for the whole set, or the whole mode. HDTV input sources can vary greatly from SD-DV, and from HD-DVD sources; and all three really do require their own optimzation.

One irritation, that is unfortunately not specific to this TV; is that viewiing different sources form the same input; like say SDTV and HDTV from your set top box; also requires two different sets of settings to look as good as possible. You can compromise and get very good picture; but for the BEST picture, you need to readjsut whenever you switch from a standard def TV show to a high def one. THis is obviously inconvenient, and somewhat impractical. YOu could do it by setting different modes on the same input with different optimization settings; but only the custom mode (one per input) allows you full control over all your picture options, and thus can produce the absolute best quality picture.

As I said, it's an irritation, but it's one common to most every HDTV, and is inherent to the nature of the input sources.

Just as an example of picture quality; here is an un-enhanced (it's only been resized) photograph of my television screen. The slight noise and distortion is from my camera and lens, not the screen.

Football looks spectacular, movies look spectacular, HDTV looks great, regular DVDs upconverted look nearly as good as HD... and SD is SD. It will upconvert native signals and it does a decent job of it, but garbage in garbage out; and a good quality TV makes all the flaws in SD signals readily apparent.

Watching Cars (upconverted) or Shrek 3 (HD-DVD) giving a fully digital path for a fully digital image, the results are startling. The clarity is amazing, but because it is an RPTV and not an LCD, you never get that "artificial" or "hyper real" look. Everything looks natural and slightly filmlike.

Overall we're very happy with the set; and for the money I think we got excellent value.

Oh and did I mentioned it's damn big? I've slept on beds smaller than this thing.