May 2008

Watch the Changes

Big-screen television sets were once almost exclusively the property of the very affluent or the bad guys in apocalyptic sci-fi thrillers; now everyone has to have one of these bigger-is-better screens. But not all flat panels are created equal, at least not in this brave new world. Since the world of broadcast television is about to make a radical change, now just might be the time to consider purchasing a new television, not because you don’t want to be the last on your block to have one, but because these sets can really can make everything from serious movie-watching to casual boob-tubing more engaging.

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Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR4 LCD Television
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Esoteric UZ-1 DVD/Universal Disc Player
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Oppo DV-981HD Upsampling DVD Player

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Now, about this radical change just mentioned: In case you’ve been living under a rock the past few months and have missed the barrage of advertisements touting the impending changeover, be advised that, as of Feb. 17, 2009, all over-the-air analog broadcasting shall cease, rendering your old, non-digital sets useless. Well, not totally useless. You can drop 40 or 50 bucks on a converter box that will allow the digital signal over the air to perform on your old set. Uncle Sam is even playing Santa right now, offering a limited supply of $40 coupons good toward the purchase of said box. Check their website, www.dtv2009.gov, to apply for a coupon and to learn more about the switchover. Now, if you don’t rely on an antenna for your television signal to enter your set, i.e., you subscribe to cable or satellite, don’t worry, the set-top box your service provider provides will do the conversion.

By the way, the switch to all-digital television was not mandated so that we will all get a better picture for football and reality programming. Nope, but you have one guess, and if it does not include the words “money” and “greed,” then you are incorrect. Yes, it’s the communications giants who want to free up the airwaves, and digital TV uses less bandwidth than analog, so they can buy up more frequencies from the FCC (meaning from us taxpayers) and then turn around and resell it back to us with even more wonderful services we’ve never even dreamed of, or needed, thus far on our evolutionary path. Just wait a couple of years when this Pandora’s Box explodes.

Anyway, there is no absolute need to replace your set, even after next February when digital television will be crowned sole monarch. But since prices are falling and the technology is improving week by week, this just might be the year to chuck the 500-pound CRT set and check out the new stuff. However, the market is crowded with hundreds of sets, and showrooms overflow with wall-to-wall images of high-definition mountain climbing, NASCAR racing and mindless music videos. Don’t assume that the $400 set advertised as a loss leader in Sunday’s paper is going to give you a satisfactory picture, or last more than a few months. In this case, you get what you pay for, and though today’s prices will seem high a year from now, do you really want to wait? Be prepared to spend some reasonable jack, but the return on the investment can be worth it in hours of enhanced viewing of the hundreds of new jazz videos on the market, not to mention the joy you’ll experience becoming reacquainted with your favorite old flicks.

There is more confusion than clarity in this burgeoning category of the electronics industry. HD, HD-ready, 720, 1080, plasma, LCD, DLP, rear projection, direct view—these are just some of the terms you’ll be faced with. And while plasma and DLP have made great strides recently, LCD technology is the field showing the most improvement in the past two years. In fact, when we did a similar survey in 2006, we would have been hard-pressed to recommend an LCD set.

That has all changed. In fact, looking at all the sets on the market—and don’t get me wrong, there are many worthy ones out there—it seems the best bang for the buck in terms of overall picture quality, overall readiness for any near-future compatibility issues, overall reliability and just plain good design sense is the Sony Bravia XBR4 series—specifically in the present discussion, the 46-inch model, the XBR KDL-46XBR4 (sonystyle.com; suggested list, $3,000; street price, $2,499). I was able to live with this television for a glorious month and was extremely sad to see it get back on the truck to go home.

Not long ago a common complaint with HD sets was that, while high-def programming was spectacular on these TVs, standard def material often looked worse than on a “normal” television. Well, that is a thing of the past with many of today’s advanced digital video processors, which “upsample” all inputs to a high-definition image. The processor Sony incorporates in its current XBR lineup is one of the most sophisticated in the industry: the Bravia Engine PRO, which transformed even my old DVDs into something very nearly high-def. The absolute pinnacle of HD material is still a relative rarity, i.e., Blu-Ray discs of 1080p resolution, but since the competing HD-DVD format has given up the ghost, Sony and Blu-Ray are now poised to saturate the market with jaw-dropping-quality video.

In addition, the XBR sets offer 10-bit color instead of the more typical 8-bit, which opens up a color palette 64 times larger than 8-bit. So gradations of color we are not used to in our present TVs become visible, making the whole experience much more true to life; the expanded “x.v.Color” standard adds to the set’s ability to recreate colors more gracefully and naturally. I saw a demo of this a few years ago at the Consumer Electronics Show and could not believe my eyes. Having it available in such an affordable television is another reason choosing this set is really a no-brainer.

Another very important aspect of these sets is their solution to the sometimes jerky depiction of movement in some digital televisions. Sony has developed something they call Motionflow, which helps smooth out these sometimes bothersome artifacts—this is very cool.

Since I only had this set for a short time, I kept it rolling nearly ’round the clock. There was never a hiccup and the easy setup made getting it up and running a breeze. The set allows for three HDMI connections for Blu-Ray, HD-DVD and other technologies requiring this form of interconnect, including most HD cable and satellite boxes. But it also offers two component video inputs, three composite video inputs, an S-Video input and a PC audio and video input, plus five analog audio inputs. So connecting just about any and all of your gear to this set should be painless. In case you need more HDMI inputs, consider the OPPO HDMI switcher outlined below. Of course, all of this will be far quicker if you actually read the owner’s manual before you get going. Since today’s sets are far more complex than our old CRTs, this is really not an optional step: Read the stinking book.

And then get ready for an amazing ride. I was able to enjoy Miles, Metheny, Sonny Boy Williamson, Keith Jarrett, Mingus, Hendrix and many more legendary artists in stunning video performances with a clarity and vivacity I’ve only experienced on the “big screen” in a theater prior to this. Of course, the work of directors Kubrick, Jarmusch, the Coens and Coppola all took on a more revealing appearance as well, thanks to this amazing XBR set.

I looked at many other televisions in prepping for this column and some did certain things better than this one: some plasmas had better blacks, some LCDs were more affordable and so on. But, dollar for dollar—both for enjoyment today and for tomorrow—I saw no other choice that surpassed this Sony XBR4 in overall performance, compatibility and price. It is a television for the lover of film and music as art, but still allows for the evil deliciousness of Desperate Housewives to appear in its most devilish Sunday best. Yep, this is the set I want all for my very own.

For program sources I used a couple of fantastic disc players that span a wide spectrum of price points. The Oppo DV-981HD (oppodigital.com; $229, online sales only) is hands down the best digital player bargain available today. For this modest amount of money you get world-class DVD playback, including upsampling of conventional discs to 1080p, Faroudja digital processing (Faroudja makes the processors in many of today’s state-of-the-art video players and processors), as well as a universal music disc player for playback of CD, SACD, DVD-Audio, MP3 discs and so on. Short of Blu-Ray or HD-DVD discs, this machine will play just about anything.

And it does it all very well. Many audiophiles have bought this machine just for its CD playback quality. But throw in the astonishing video performance and it’s hard not to recommend this slim unit. The video processing capabilities are far beyond those of any other similarly priced box and, if you are on a budget, this is the player to buy; even if you never use the video section, it’s a winner. But for top-of-the-heap performance at a rock-bottom price, the Oppo is the only realistic choice.

As mentioned previously, if you have several HDMI components and want to keep them connected simultaneously (many TVs offer only one or two HDMI inputs), then employing an HDMI switch is a must. Oppo offers another true bargain in this category as well: the HM-31 HDMI switch ($99, online sales only), which allows for connecting three HDMI components into one input on your set. It is HDMI 1.3 certified, which means it meets all the latest standards for this all-in-one video-audio connection scheme, so all the quality inherent in your discs and components will be maintained through the chain. And this is a good thing.

Higher up the evolutionary ladder of today’s finest disc players is the Esoteric UZ-1 (teac.com/esoteric; $5,300). This is not only a visually captivating device, but its performance quality is likewise spellbinding. It does everything the Oppo does, but just that much better, which, considering how nice the Oppo is, says quite a lot.

Esoteric is the high-performance brand from industry stalwart TEAC. For years I’ve luxuriated in the sound of Esoteric’s various demonstration rooms at the Consumer Electronics Show and have never left their demos without feeling musically sated and fulfilled; their lineup of disc players, transports and processors is second to none. Now that they are featuring all-in-one players (one-box units with transport and DAC), they have become more accessible, financially speaking, and so it’s time to rave about them in more detail here.

Esoteric products are decidedly over-engineered and that is also a good thing: Built like tanks, they will perform at incredible levels—way beyond the ordinary—for years and years. Since Esoteric engineers and builds everything itself (most manufacturers outsource transports and other component parts), it ensures that every nuance of construction, engineering and manufacturing fits extremely exacting tolerances. And it shows. The machined aluminum faceplate, chassis and disc tray reveal a solidity and durability not found in any other machine. Confidence-inspiring, to say the least.

The sound? Well, the sound is the sound of music: Pianos are rock-solid, timbre and pitch-wise; cymbals ring like the clear brass they are; drums possess punch and drive; and bass? Well, it gets down to where it should with tunefulness and roundness, with just the right amount of percussive string attack to announce that low, low follow-up from the body of the instrument. Reality to the max. The Esoteric player allows the music to envelop you, to hypnotize you, to hold your attention. You can’t ask for better.

But this is a video column, so let’s comment on that as well. The UZ-1 upsamples standard discs to 1080p and also uses a Faroudja processor. But the bar is so much higher with this unit. And the UZ-1 leaps right over that bar, scoring a perfect 10. Some inferior players allow jaggy edges to appear when playing certain types of motion-intensive material. Not so with this unit. I never sensed a bit of jerkiness in movement or instability of an image, and video “noise” was undetectable. Instead, the image was silky smooth, but still absolutely clear and focused. The effect is more like viewing film on a screen in contrast to the images we have become used to with standard-def sets and DVDs, in which the scan lines intrude on our illusion of reality. Sit back with a classic film or jazz performance and be transported to another world; the effect is that breathtaking.

Esoteric has packaged a wealth of benefits into the UZ-1, a tidy, diminutive package with a surprisingly powerful punch. To surpass this level of performance to any meaningful level would be difficult and would require a much larger monetary commitment—and a bevy of separate components requiring much more space. The performance, compactness and ease of operation make the Esoteric UZ-1 an absolute stunner in its top-shelf, ethereal category.

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