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Home Theater Upgrade Diary Part 2: Audio and Video Components

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Continuing his series on the successes and problems of setting up a new home theater system, writer Michael Miller explains how he chose the audio and video components of his new home theater system — and how they worked out.

In Part 1 of this three-part series, I told you about my plans for a new home theater system. After deciding on what type of system to buy, it was time for the hard work—installing and configuring the main components.

The Television: Sony 60-inch LCD RPTV

We'll start with the visual centerpiece of my new home theater system: the television display. I wanted something in the 55–60-inch range, which meant going with some sort of rear projection set. (You can't find traditional CRT television sets anywhere near that big.)

Originally, I'd been thinking about a plasma flat panel display, but several factors ruled that out. First, the price; I'd anticipated prices for a 50-inch plasma dropping to $5,000 by this point in time, and that hasn't happened—at least not for quality sets. Second, the burn-in factor; plasma sets suffer from burn-in and ghosting of static images, and because I prefer to watch my 4:3 programming unstretched (with windowpanes on the side), I didn't want to risk burning in the pillars.

So my choice was down to some sort of rear projector. I ruled out a CRT projector as being too big and bulky and non-state-of-the-art, which narrowed things down to either DLP or LCD microdisplay technology. (At this point, LCoS isn't really a player.)

I did extensive viewing tests, and seriously considered one of Mitsubishi's DLP models. (I earlier ruled out Samsung's DLP sets, despite their popularity because I have trouble considering Samsung as a high-end alternative; this is strictly a personal issue for me, and not a knock on their products.) However, I'm one of those rare individuals who see "rainbows" resulting from the DLP's rotating color wheel. In addition, I tend to notice a significant amount of digital noise and artifacts in most DLP pictures, and I'm not overly fond of the artificially vivid colors typical of DLP technology. Bottom line, I wasn't sold on DLPs.

This led me to the LCD rear projectors. The most popular LCD RPTVs today are made by Sony, and it's easy to see why. To my eyes, Sony's LCD sets display a more natural, more film-like quality than that found on the DLP models. Plus, LCD sets don't generate rainbows—and, as far as I can tell, digital noise and artifacts are less of a problem. So Sony was my brand of choice.

I went with the 60-inch model KDF-60XS955, which cost around $3700. The XS line is a step-up line that offers slightly better color rendition and a greater variety of configuration options than Sony's base WEGA models. The setup controls proved especially useful when it came time to adjust the set for optimal picture quality.

The purchase made, it was time to take delivery. Right out of the box, the Sony was a joy to behold. At just 113 lbs., it's at least 100 pounds lighter than the 40-inch Mitsubishi CRT set it replaced; that's the difference between microdisplay projectors and old-style CRT models. Initial setup was a snap; it worked perfectly out of the box, minimal adjustments necessary. The dual NTSC/ATSC tuners and CableCARD capability meant I could use it on digital cable without a set top box if I so desired, although this ended up not being a viable option. (More on this when I discuss HDTV over cable Part 3 of this series.) Programming the tuner was as easy as pressing a button and letting it scan through the available channels; this took about 10 minutes, a little longer than I expected.

To obtain the best possible picture, I ventured into Sony's advanced setup menu. The first thing I changed was the overall picture mode setting. Sony offers three settings: Standard, Vivid, and Pro. The default setting, unfortunately, was Vivid, which might look good in a brightly lit retail display room, but is extreme overkill in any normal living room. I changed the picture mode to the Pro setting, where I could then access additional controls.

I could have adjusted the picture just by eyeballing the screen, but decided on a more professional approach, which entailed the use of the AVIA Guide to Home Theater DVD. The AVIA disc includes a number of adjustment screens and tests, and walks you step by step through the necessary procedures. Using the AVIA disc, I was able to really fine-tune all aspects of the picture. In my case, that meant increasing the contrast (picture) level to the max, slightly decreasing the brightness, and slightly increasing both color and sharpness. I then delved into the pro-level adjustments, tweaking the white balance via R-G-B gain and bias controls. I spent about a half-hour making these adjustments, and the resulting picture is stunning, with a perfect balance between whites and blacks and superb color rendition.

Another nice thing about the Sony is its plethora of video inputs. You get two coaxial inputs (which accept both NTSC and ATSC over-the-air digital signals), four sets of composite video/S-Video inputs, two sets of component video inputs, and two HDMI inputs. The HDMI inputs are a new thing, which enable a direct digital connection from a similar digital video source. In my case, I used the two HDMI inputs for my DVD player and my HD cable box; I connected my Media Center PC via component video.

You also get the standard stereo line audio outputs, as well as an optical digital audio output. This way you can feed the Dolby Digital signals from over-the-air HDTV broadcasts to your A/V receiver (or, in my case, the preamp/processor unit). Although the Sony has a fairly nice internal speaker system, this is something I always disable in favor of feeding the sound through the larger home theater surround sound system.

The Sony includes a number of advanced operating features that are pretty nifty, but unfortunately aren't usable when you're using an external tuner, such as a cable or satellite box. The most interesting is the twin picture option, which puts pictures from two different channels side-by-side on the screen. You can use the remote to resize each picture in relation to the other, which is a vast improvement over the traditional picture-in-picture control. Alas, this feature doesn't work when you're feeding the video signal from a cable set top box, which is a waste of attractive technology.

Other than that slight annoyance, which really isn't Sony's fault, I'm very pleased with the Sony rear projector. It's a very bright picture, even with all the living room lights on, and the picture quality—especially with an HDTV source—is simply stunning. Some people complain that LCD projectors don't offer true black levels, but Sony has obviously improved this aspect of performance in its current models; blacks look pretty darn black to me, especially after making adjustments with the AVIA disc.

For anyone investing in this type of set, my recommendation is to spend a few extra bucks and the necessary time to fine-tune the picture with the AVIA DVD. The difference between my fine-tuned picture and the picture out of the box is significant—as good as this set looked on the showroom floor, it looks twice as good when properly adjusted for my living room.

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