My Road to HD

For years I've watched with envy as others purchased their high definition flat screen televisions. Then a few weeks before Christmas my wife remarked that HD televisions had come down in price and would we be interested in purchasing one? Yes we would. We're big movie watchers and have grown to love our PVR for prime time shows. Those two areas were reason enough for me to jump into the fray. We were suddenly exposed to a world of a thousand flatscreen models and several add-on options. I decided to try to use my eyes to discern the possible differences in models with a quick trip to Best Buy.

Plasma or LCD

The debate starts at a rather large fork in the road. LCD or Plasma? Plasma has traditionally been heralded for its price, larger size and great contrast or rather, keeping the blacks really black. The downside is ghosting and screen burn in. LCDs traditionally have poor contrast ratios, suffer from a trailing effect and have been more expensive, but all that seems to have disappeared based on my research. My wife and I decided that for the size of our place a 42" would be the largest size we could accomodate, so we thought we'd lean towards LCDs.

120HZ

The first thing we noticed when looking at LCDs is that the cheaper models (below $1,000) suffered from digital artifacting or jaggies around the edge of fast moving objects. What seemed to be the difference? Refresh rate. Or to be more specific, 120HZ.

At 60HZ fast motion in a scene seems to manifest itself in the form of jaggies around objects. At 120HZ the digital artifacting disappeared. I figured if we were going to spend a significant amount of money on a television that we would have for years we should spend a bit more to make sure the image looked clear.

Reviews

Once we narrowed it down to an 120HZ LCD we did some online research using Amazon.com reviews. Fortunately 120HZ is a big selling feature. So much so that Amazon lists it in the title of their LCDs so it was easy to search for "LCD 120HZ" to get a rather wide selection of reviews. Being a guy I of course wanted the largest TV I could get so I was concentrating up around the 40" and 42" range. LG, Sharp, Samsung and Sony seemed to consistently get between 4 and 5 star reviews. The LG Scarlett series which is LGs 120HZ models seemed to have some of the highest scores. So it was back to Best Buy with my wife to validate the reviews.

Image Quality

In the end, it's your eye that does the talking. We honed in on 120HZ LCD models for the side by side test. I was surprised that for me the LG Scarletts did not appear to have the best picture but it came down to theĀ  Samsung versus the Sony Bravias. In the end, for us, the Sony Bravias looked the best.

Price

Since we were at Best Buy we decided to fan out to the other nearby box stores to get the best price. Trying to get big box stores to match on price is crazy because if it's not on the competitors website they won't believe you can get the lower price. Also, if you're looking to buy a Sony, the Sonystyle store won't be able to match prices.

I decided to call G&G Electronics out in Scarborough. I had purchased equipment years ago from Gary who owns G&G and got great prices. Gary did not dissappoint.

The Package

Going in we wanted to buy the Sony Bravia KDL-40WL140. Gary offered us Sony's new KDL-40XBR6 at a substantial discount (still higher than the 40WL140) but with a Rogers HD PVR for only $20 for the first six months (Sony pays Rogers for six months of a yearly rental). The XBR model had 10bit colour versus the WL's 8bit, so better colour, and the XBR has a better built in speaker. Since we didn't have a surround system in the budget for this round the better sound was also attractive. The XBR also has a thinner bezel so the TV actually takes up slightly less visual room. We had difficulty comparing the WL140 with the XBR6 as they were running different content. The picture on the XBR6 was running a Blue-ray disk while the WL140 was on HDNet. The XBR6 looked better but I now realize that television runs at 1080i as opposed to Blue-rays 1080p. In the end we decided the XBR6 was probably the better television and the difference in price was worth it. I would suggest if you're comparing ensure the source content is identical. The 40XBR6 it was!

Blue-ray and the Accessories

Gary to help sweeten the deal was attempting to disway us from purchasing a Blue-ray player to save money and afford the better model. He explained that he didn't own one himself and watched all his movies on Rogers Pay Per View. Something in my gut, or perhaps just my technolust was telling me to get the Blue-ray. Plus, we have a small DVD collection and since our previous DVD player was integrated with our old TV we needed a new player if we wanted to watch them at all. So it was a Rogers HD PVR and a Blue-ray player.

We purchased the Sony BDP-S550. In addition to playing Blue-ray discs it also plays DVDs and upconverts them to high definition. Not quite as good as a HD movie but better than a standard DVD player. What most impressed me about high definition playback was Blue-ray movies at 1080P. Sorry Gary, I can tell the difference.

Once we got the Rogers HD PVR authorized and up and running I could immediately see the difference. 1080i or 720p are excellent quality compared to standard definition but 1080p movies are incredibly sharp and free of digital artifacts. It's probably the combination of only 720 lines of interlaced video compared with 1080 combined with additional compression that Rogers puts on the signal that weakens the quality. In the end the clarity of Blue-ray really blew me away. I'm sure when next year's budget for a 7.1 surround sound system kicks in I'll appreciate the audio as well.

I purchased The Dark Knight for our first Blue-ray title and the IMAX content Christopher Nolan shot really shines. Now I'm waiting for Contact, the Star Wars series and the Star Trek series to come out on Blue-ray. The Pixar movies I suspect will look fantastic as well.

Sharpness

I think I found out what we liked so much about the Sony Bravias though I would have to return to the store to test this theory. Most of the competing sets seemed to be too sharp. That is, we saw too many of the pixels which seemed unatural to us. The Sony Bravia didn't seem to suffer from this and gave us a more pleasing image to watch. Upon renting our first Blue-ray we noticed up close an image that was still slightly more pixely than we liked. It quickly dawned on me that this was probably the default sharpness setting. A quick adjustment to slightly dull down the sharpness and we were very pleased.

I suggest when shopping that you access the sharpness settings first and move up and down the dial to make sure the image your looking at isn't the result of some over-eagar techie thinking the sharpest setting is the best for the shopper. While you're at it, if the colour also doesn't look right try exploring those settings. The Bravia by default has Vivid mode which boosts the saturation and provides for some very colourful but very unatural images. We dropped ours to Standard colour when we hooked it up.

Bravia Motion Enhancer

In addition to a Vivid colour mode the Bravias have a Motion Enhancer option that is turned on by default. Both my wife and I noticed that when watching certain content the actors seemed to pop out from the background. I think I've traced this back to the Motion Enhancer which we disabled. Motion Enhancer gets the image to 120HZ through interpolation rather than just repeating the frame multiple times but there is some sort of visual effect that we find distracting.

HDTV

What has disappointed me most about this experience has been the lack of available HD channels and programming on Rogers, or rather in general. It has been almost 12 years since CBS first broadcast in HD and I'm surprised how slowly the market has been to react. Unless you're a sports nut the content lives mainly in prime time. The slow uptake by consumers probably due to cost, the chicken and egg problem and the high cost of HD television sets. I'm hopeful that since we purchased a higher quality 1080p set which has proven very capable by the Blue-ray content that we'll have this set for a while as shows continue to roll over to HD.

Should I Buy?

If you're not into sports on television and don't watch a lot of movies at home you may be dissapointed by the poorer quality image of standard definition shows on an HD set. That said, if you're only watching prime time most of your shows may be in HD. Check your television guide for the HD channels and see if your shows have an HD indicator on them (Rogers shows this for the HD channels in the on-screen guide).

If you're a movie fan then I highly recommend moving up to Blue-ray for the superior picture.