Sept. 26, 2011

Flat Screen Televisions

My friend Chris is moving into a new apartment in a couple weeks and he asked me the other day whether I had any suggestions on a new television for the place. As a home theater aficionado, I was only too happy to look into that pass along a few ideas.

Thinking ahead—as he does—Chris also shared the floor plan of his apartment to help narrow down an appropriate size set for the room. As it would happen, there are formulas for calculating an appropriate television size based off the dimensions of a room (or vice versa).

The short version is that one can roughly take the diagonal size of the screen and multiply it by 1.5 to get an approximate maximum distance that one would want to sit from the screen in order to be able to fully appreciate 1080p. (At distances past that, one loses starts to lose the ability to discern the finer details within a 1920×1080 image.)

So, I decided to run the numbers on Chris’ living room. The room is 15'9" × 17', although embarrassingly I couldn’t quite remember next to which wall he had wanted to place his television. No matter—once one divides those numbers in two (assuming that a couch may be placed halfway back within the room), that means that Chris’ couch would be approximately 8–9' back from whichever wall would be nearest the television.

I converted those distances to inches (96–110) just so that our final measurements, once we got there, would be appropriate for a television screen. From there, I divided each of those by 1.5 to get an optimum screen size of approximately 64–73 inches.

And here is where the compromises begin. Chris didn’t give me a specific budget, but I’m guessing he has some type of upper limit. And 65" televisions aren't cheap. As well, they can be rather heavy devices and I wasn’t sure whether that may be a factor.

Having said all that, I figured I’d go over a couple ideas, starting first with the cream of the crop and then offering a couple options that may be a bit more budget-friendly.

(But first, a quick caveat: Television manufacturers have ridiculous model-naming schemes. Rather than take an approach of assigning a single name to a series of models and appending a size, they tend to assign unique model numbers to each and every sub-model in their inventory. So, for the televisions below, I list both the specific model number of the television along with a wildcard mask (##) to convey the other sets in that series).

Top Pick: Panasonic’s TC-P65VT30 65" set. (TC-P##VT30 series)

This set isn’t cheap, but it’s a scorcher. C|Net praised the plasma as having the “deepest plasma black levels of the year” and crowned this “the best-performing TV we’ve tested in 2011.” As well, ConsumerSearch—a site that aggregates reviews— placed the 55" version of this set in their “Best 55-inch plasma TV” bucket.

Runner Up: Panasonic’s TC-P55VT30 55" set. (TC-P##VT30 series)

This one is basically the slightly-smaller sibling of 65" TC-P65VT30. With the same components going into this set (albeit with a skosh smaller screen), it’s sure to have fantastic picture quality like its bigger sibling.

Runner Up: Samsung’s PN51D8000 51" set. (PN##D8000 series)

Though this set may not have quite the black levels of Panasonic's finest, C|Net lauded this set for offering “the most accurate color of any TV we’ve ever reviewed.” ConsumerSearch chimed in as well, saying “[in] terms of color performance, there is no quibbling—it’s outstanding.

Closing Remarks

I think the sets here offer some good options, but even if you don’t go with one of these, I’d probably go with a plasma over an LCD-based set as they tend to offer better black levels.

As well, I happened to offer some links to B&H since I've received excellent service there, but I suppose you could order your television from anywhere. From whomever you buy it, though, I’d recommend opting for not just home delivery but also in-home setup or the like. Even if they don’t hook it up for you, just the act of unpacking it and placing it where you want it within the room could be handy (unless you really want to lift those 100-some pounds on your own).

March 6, 2011

Options for Thin Home Theater Receivers

My friend Dan lives in New York and he mentioned the other day that he wouldn’t mind a more minimal home theater receiver since his apartment doesn't have all that much room to begin with:

I currently have an insanely complicated home theater setup that takes up half my closet, connected by a rat’s nest of cables that I dare not touch lest I inexplicably lose the left audio channel on my Blu-ray player. It’s ridiculous, it’s completely overkill for my needs, and did I mention it takes up half my closet? My tiny, Manhattan-sized closet?

[…]

My home theater receiver is huge. Massive. It’s 10” tall, 20” deep, weighs 800 lbs, and probably draws more power than our air conditioner. Despite its long list of capabilities, it has but two jobs that are of any use to me: 1) switch between my various components, and 2) make things loud.

[…]

And so, I find myself looking for a replacement. Something small. Something elegant. Something that does what I need, and nothing more. […]

As I rather enjoy home theater stuff, I thought I’d try to come up with a few options for him.

What I soon discovered is that there aren’t many products in this category. Granted, you’d have several options if all you had needed was 2-channel (stereo) amplification. (I suppose they’re catering to systems that one might place on a bookshelf or the like.) On the other hand, when catering to a home theater, a receiver needs a separate amplifier for each of (at least) five channels; those extra amplifiers alone take up more space. In addition, it seems that there isn’t much demand for “bookshelf” home theaters and so multi-channel receivers typically use amplifiers that are beefy enough to fill medium-to-large rooms. (And beefier amplifiers take up yet more room.)

Nonetheless, I did find a handful of options that I thought might work for Dan. I didn’t come across a single perfect product—for instance, some were small, but had a lot of buttons, while others were relatively larger but had few buttons— but I think there’re some promising options here.

I decided to use the Outlaw Audio 1050 in my bedroom (a 70 Wpc receiver) as a baseline for comparison. It’s served me well for many years, but more importantly for this discussion, its size and weight seemed to be fairly representative of an average receiver:

  • Width: 17 3/16"
  • Height: 6 1/8"
  • Depth: 14 5/16"
  • Weight: 36.3 lbs

Sherwood R-904N NetBoxx

  • Width: 17" (1% narrower than baseline)
  • Height: 2 7/8" (53% shorter)
  • Depth: 12" (16% shallower)
  • Weight: 10.3 lbs (72% lighter)
  • Power: 100 Wpc × 7 channels
  • Price: About $440

This receiver is clearly the leader in size (or lack thereof). While not the narrowest or the lightest of the bunch—those honors would fall to the Yamaha—this one is the shortest (height) and shallowest (depth). Unfortunately, though, this receiver has some design drawbacks that might be deal breakers for some:

The first complaint that I must mention is a styling issue related to the front display of the NetBoxx. The front of the unit is covered with very bright blue LEDs. During the day these LEDs are fairly innocuous; however placed in a dark room, they become extremely distracting. I don’t understand why Sherwood would put a dimmer option on the unit that only dims some of the LEDs. Because of this I would recommend placing the NetBoxx in a location out of sight, which is a shame as it’s otherwise an attractive unit. […]

Yamaha neoHD YMC-500

  • Width: 11 3/4" (32% narrower than baseline)
  • Height: 3 5/8" (41% shorter)
  • Depth: 12 3/8" (13% shallower)
  • Weight: 7.9 lbs (78% lighter)
  • Power: 35~50? Wpc × 5 channels (I had a hard time confirming the power output.)
  • Price: About $180

This is a pretty darn small receiver. It’s the narrowest (width) and lightest (weight) of the bunch, and even though the Sherwood beats it on height and depth, the Yamaha is only 3/4" taller and 3/8" deeper. This receiver also has the fewest front-panel buttons: 2 (volume knob & power button).

Oddly enough, I had some trouble confirming this receiver’s power output; the specifications I was able to find weren’t all that explicit in this regard, but the unit appears to either have 35 or 50 Wpc as best as I can figure.

If this type of minimalism were of interest, the YMC-500’s bigger brother, the YMC-700, might also be worth considering. Both models allow you to play music from your home network, but the YMC-700 (which goes for about $500) has built-in WiFi (rather than just an Ethernet port). Plus, Yamaha also offers an iPhone app that can control one’s YMC-700. (The app communicates over WiFi and so it works with the YMC-700 but not the YMC-500.)

Marantz NR1501

  • Width: 17 3/8" (1% wider than baseline)
  • Height: 4 3/16" (31% shorter)
  • Depth: 14 1/2" (1% deeper)
  • Weight: 19 lbs (48% lighter)
  • Power: 50 Wpc × 7 channels
  • Price: About $400

The Marantz may be the most traditional of the receivers here. While its dimensions might not be as low as the other receivers here, its height is only 9/16" taller than the next-shorest model (the Yamaha) and 1 5/6" taller than the shortest (the Sherwood). Even then, it’s still about 1/3 shorter than a standard receiver and about half the weight.

Even if the Marantz might not seem as impressive as the others when it comes to size, it does have a few things going for it. For one thing, its back panel includes 2 optical inputs (and 2 coax digital inputs). Granted, Dan mentioned only needing a single optical input (which the Sherwood and Yamaha have), although I can’t help but wonder if that second input might potentially come in handy if Dan were to ever get another device such as an X-Box or a TiVo.

Another potential advantage of the Marantz is its pedigree. Marantz is owned by D&M Holdings, a company that also owns Denon, McIntosh, and a few other brands. I’m not saying that Yamaha is a slouch—although I have my suspicions about Sherwood—but Marantz is a brand that’s known for its attention to detail and build quality. I would expect any of their equipment to last for many years.

Additional Thoughts

There may not be a clear winner here, but there may be a receiver that’s best for you depending on the features that you value most.

I would only consider the Sherwood if sheer size is your utmost concern. It’s not the lightest of the bunch, but it’s definitely the shortest. On the other hand, I’m a bit skeeved out by its build quality—if they’re already screwed up the blue LEDs across the front, how much else might be sub-par?

For most people, I think it comes down to the Yamaha and the Marantz. On one hand, the Yamaha is the cheaper of the two ($180 vs. $400), but on the other hand, the YMC-700 (which goes for $500) seems like a justifiable step-up considering that model’s WiFi streaming (née Ethernet) and iPhone app support. So, depending on which Yamaha model you’d be putting up against the Marantz, it could be a toss-up between those two brands on price.

What I think it comes down to is size & minimalism vs. capability & pedigree. The Yamaha is certainly the smaller overall and its front facia—with just two buttons—is also sparser. Still, the Marantz has a few more inputs (which may come in handy if you get more devices) and it also has a clear 50 Wpc × 7 channels. (The Yamaha’s specifications were somewhat unclear, but it appears to have either 35 or 50 Wpc. Even so, that’s across 5 channels rather than the Marantz’ 7.)

If I were in Dan’s shoes, I might lean toward the Marantz. All the same, the Yamaha would not be a bad choice either.

May 14, 2009

Blu-ray Discs for Home Theater Demos

My friend Mike recently asked for some suggestions on Blu-ray discs for demoing one’s home theater setup:

Could you recommend a Blu-ray movie that would make a good “demo” to show off the capabilities of a new A/V system? From the few Blu-ray movies I&Rsquo;ve seen, the encoding quality varies dramatically from disc to disc. I’m sure that some of the variation is due to lower quality or older original film stock, but even a few “new’ movies sometimes have picture quality more like DVD than Blu-ray.

For that, I’ve found The Blu-Ray Picture Quality Thread at AVSForum to be rather handy. There, commenters suggest rankings for movies and the thread maintainers aggregate those into overall rankings. More specifically, they group movies into six categories from best to worst:

  • Tier 0 — Blu (Reference): Blu-ray titles in this tier consistently offer reference level high-definition picture quality.

  • Tier 1 — Gold (Excellent): Blu-rays in this tier are demo-worthy and exhibit many of the same image qualities as titles in tier zero, albeit with a few qualifications.

  • Tier 2 — Silver (Good): The titles in this tier are representative of good picture quality that is above-average and a significant upgrade over standard definition.

  • Tier 3 — Bronze (Average): The titles in this tier are representative of average picture quality considering all Blu-rays.

  • Tier 4 — Copper (Below Average): The titles in this tier typically represent below-average picture quality that is subpar for the Blu-ray format.

  • Tier 5 — Coal (Unacceptable): The titles in this tier have severe limitations in their picture quality that is strongly underwhelming compared to the average Blu-ray.

In general, a good approach might be to look over the list, particularly the movies in the “Blu” and “Gold” tiers, and pick out a few flicks that you personally enjoy.

Just to get things started, here’re a few that I might go for:

Baraka (Tier 0 — Blu): As High-Def Digest put it in their review:

The 1080p/VC-1 transfer is framed at the original 2.20:1 aspect ratio of its 70mm source. The image is very sharp and detailed, often breathtakingly so. Even the widest of master shots exhibit a tremendous clarity throughout the frame. Facial expressions can be read on individuals within a huge crowd. Colors are vivid, yet always natural, without looking digitally manipulated. […]

The Dark Knight (Tier ‘1.25’ — Gold): Also from a review at High-Def Digest:

Don’t worry — ‘The Dark Knight’ does not disappoint. Easily Warner's flagship title for the year — if not the most highly-anticipated Blu-ray of all-time — this is a superlative 1080p/VC-1 encode that is guaranteed to be the new demo disc of choice in home theaters around the world.

The Fall (Tier ‘1.25’ — Gold): And, again, from a High-Def Digest review:

‘The Fall’ features a stunning, near-flawless 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that’s ripe with vibrant primaries, lush bronzed tones, and exquisitely inky blacks. Contrast is spot on and never buckles under the intensity of the beating sun or the low lighting of Alexandria’s hospital. Detail is remarkable and precise as well. Every cracked rock, parched patch of skin, and tattered costume reveals fine textures and minute imperfections that simply could not be achieved on DVD. […]

In addition to the scores in that AVSForum thread, there're also lists published elsewhere such as this 10 Best Movies to Show Off Your Home Theater article from PCWorld.com. On the plus-side, those types of articles often suggest specific chapters within movies, which can be handy, but on the other hand, they do eventually become dated as more movies come out.

For instance, that article offers these scene suggestions for Baraka and The Dark Knight respectively:

[Baraka]

Chapter 1: After some stunning shots of mountains, the camera zeros in on a monkey sitting in a hot spring, surrounded by snow. I found myself looking at one hair wiggling in the wind.

Chapter 4: As the camera slowly moves across terraced gardens, you feel the movement. When it glides through a tunnel, people’s voices seem to come from all around you. When it finds a large crowd of men performing a “monkey” chant, it just stuns you. […]

[The Dark Knight]

Chapter 1: After nearly a minute of logos, you get an astonishingly clear and detailed IMAX cityscape, bringing you into a weirdly funny yet shockingly violent bank robbery. Shot entirely in bright daylight, it’s crystal clear.

Chapter 20 and 21: A big chase, this one at night, shot in IMAX and showing plenty of shadow detail. It also shows a big rig turning over. And the sounds, coming from all directions, show why Dolby 5.1 was invented. At 1 hour and 16 minutes into the film, gunshots fire all around you. Duck! […]

In the end, it’s up to you. There’re plenty of good discs at the AVSForum thread and if you find a movie that you like within, say, the Blu (Tier 0) or Gold (Tier 1) groups, I think you’ll be off to a good start.