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The Videophile System Builder II: Take a pass on 4K Ultra HD with these superior systems

LG-60LM7200-lifestyleAs much as we would love to hop behind 4K Ultra HD, the technology just isn’t ready for prime time. The reasons are many. Prices are extremely high, there’s no content worth recommending, and even if there was, there’s no content delivery system available – unless you count the bundled boxes offered by manufacturers as a stop-gap measure and justification for making such televisions. Then there’s the matter of the pipeline the content has to travel along – be it a new cable standard or increased Internet bandwidth – and the compression codec that will make it all fit down those pipelines. Honestly, folks, we are years – not months – from 4K Ultra HD going mainstream. 

Despite all the buzz surrounding 4K Ultra HD, it makes more sense to invest that $5,000 into a system that can deliver both amazing picture and sound…

As with any new format, there will be a group of early adopters who have to be the first person on their block to own a $40,000 85-inch Ultra HD 4K HDTV; and bless them for taking the hit for the rest of us. While upconverted 1080P content does look better on a 4K Ultra HD display at 80-inches and up, we think even $20,000 is too big a price to pay for such a marginal improvement. 

That brings us to the less expensive 50-65-inch 4K Ultra HD models that we’ll soon be seeing at electronics stores. At between $5,000 – $6,000, these sets start looking more approachable. But, at those screen sizes, the advantage of 4K Ultra HD’s pixel density is negligible, unless you’re watching native 4K content. See? We’re right back to square one. 

Despite all the buzz surrounding 4K Ultra HD, we maintain that it makes more sense to invest that $5,000 into a system that can deliver both amazing picture and sound, plus the necessary means to feed it with content. The three systems listed below deliver fantastic image and sound quality and tremendous value for your money. Let’s do this. 

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

• Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-inch 3D Plasma HDTV – $2,900
• Oppo BDP-103 Universal 3D Blu-ray Player – $500
• Roku 3 Media Streaming Box – $100
• Sonos PlayBar Wireless Soundbar – $700
• Sonos SUB – $700
Close Encounters of the Third Kind 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition Blu-ray – $42

Total: $4,942.00

Panasonic-Close-EncountersIf you have been following our Panasonic coverage this year, you are probably aware that there is a great deal of uncertainty in regard to the long-term viability of its consumer television division. Post-CES 2013, there were a number of stories originating out of Japan that the company had decided its 2013 plasma line-up would its last one and that, while they would support their huge customer base for the years to come in regard to service, the plug was literally being pulled on the technology – just in time for Panasonic to push OLED and 4K Ultra HD.

So when Panasonic invited us to its 2013 spring showcase, we wondered just how special the potentially-last generation of their plasma TVs could be? Bottom line – Panasonic has two of the best consumer HDTVs we’ve ever seen from any manufacturer at any price point. They’re that good.

The $4,000 TC-P65ZT60 65” 3D plasma may be the flagship model, but after taking a long hard look at the far more affordable 60” TC-P60VT60 and comparing the two with the same content, we think the vast majority of consumers would have a hard time telling the two images apart in a darkened room.

Both models feature Panasonic’s new 3000 focused field drive, 30,720 shades of gradation and the NeoPlasma Black 3000 panel. The more expensive ZT60 features a more advanced filter system, but the only reason we can see to recommend the more expensive model is if you have no control over the amount of ambient light in the room – an instance in which its brighter image will pay off.

Panasonic’s new “My Home” customizable interface is really easy to use, and we like the built-in camera and brand new remote that features swipe and voice controls. The VT60 is ISF-certified and can be calibrated to reproduce one of the most outstanding looking images that we’ve ever seen on an HDTV. Panasonic still supports active 1080p 3D with its products and the VT60 comes with two pairs of active 3D glasses.

The Oppo BDP-103 is built like a tank, reliable, quiet, and dramatically superior to any Blu-ray player from any of the leading manufacturers.

We were super impressed with the brand new Sonos PlayBar and SUB wireless soundbar system when we reviewed it earlier this year, and while it may not be our first choice to go along with such a great HDTV as the Panasonic, it fits nicely into our limited budget of only $5,000 for the entire system.

The VT60 cries out for a dedicated 5.1 system from SVS or PSB, but combined with a quality A/V receiver from Marantz or Denon, the price tag for this system would quickly climb to almost $8,000. If you can swing an additional $600 over the price of the Sonos system, we enthusiastically recommend the recently reviewed SoloCinema XTR sound bar/subwoofer system from Definitive Technology. It’s the only sound bar we have ever tried that actually comes close to genuine surround sound.

On the playback front, we are more than willing to take the heat for recommending the $500 Oppo BDP-103 Universal 3D Blu-ray player, which has no competition from any video player under $1,200 – the price of its more expensive sibling, the Oppo BDP-105 Universal 3D Blu-ray player. Not only does the Oppo deliver reference-quality video performance and 4K video upscaling, it’s one of the best sounding CD players and HD media streaming devices we’ve ever heard.

The BDP-103 is built like a tank, reliable, quiet, and dramatically superior to any Blu-ray player from any of the leading manufacturers. Add a Roku 3 media streaming box to this system and you gain access to more than 700+ channels of content for under $100.

Steven Spielberg has made a lot of great films over the years and while some of his recent work such as War of the Worlds, was decidedly inane, he really cut his chops with the intelligent and thrilling, Close Encounters of the Third Kind starring Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffault, and Melinda Dillon. The Blu-ray features deep black levels and a wonderfully engaging soundtrack. It’s one of the best sci-fi films ever made about humanity not being alone in the universe and proof that filmmakers don’t have to flatten world capitals to tell a great story.

Apocalypse Now

• Samsung PN60F8500AF 60-inch 3D Plasma – $2,900
• Oppo BDP-103 Universal 3D Blu-ray Player – $500
• Roku 3 Streaming Media Player – $100
• MartinLogan Motion Vision Soundbar – $1,500
Apocalypse Now Full-Disclosure version – $20

Total: $5,020.00

Samsung-ApocalypseAt its glitzy rock ‘n roll studded affair in lower Manhattan earlier this year, Samsung gave the media a much closer look at its $40,000 84-inch Ultra HD 4K HDTV. As impressive as the giant swing set was, the product that really captured our attention was the PN60F8500AF 60-inch 3D plasma. Not only was the timing of its release absolutely perfect for the folks at Samsung (coincidentally around the same time its rival, Panasonic, was attempting to dispel rumors that it was getting out of plasma altogether), but the finished product looked so good it became the must-review product of 2013.

As good as LED technology has become, we are still firm believers in the image quality of a well-designed plasma TV. There is no question that the folks at Samsung have taken a huge step forward with this stellar looking product. It offers black levels that are, as far as this writer is concerned,  on par with the Panasonic VT60 plasma. We still give the edge to the Panasonic ZT60 in a darkened room, but the Samsung wins convincingly if most of your viewing takes place during daylight hours in an exposed room.

Samsung’s Smart Hub makes it easy to organize your favorite channels, apps, music, videos, and photographs, and we are quite smitten with Samsung’s Smart TV interface, which allows you to navigate using swipe gestures and voice recognition.

There are still bugs that need to be worked out and one admittedly looks rather strange speaking into a remote and conducting a virtual symphony with their hands to find content, but we like where the technology is headed. It’s not quite Tom Cruise investigating pre-crime in Minority Report, but the idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.

Apocalypse Now on a really good HDTV or projector…the experience should be near the top of your movie-watching to-do list.

A television as good as the PN60F8500AF requires a reference quality source such as the Oppo BDP-103 and we firmly believe that your $500 is well spent as nothing better is coming down the pike for Blu-ray anytime soon. It may seem silly to spend that much money on a Blu-ray player when you can pick one up at Costco for $130, but the reality is that the BDP-103 delivers both audio and video playback quality that is significantly better. Why bother spending $3,000 on a HDTV if you are not going to see it perform at the highest possible level?

When you spend sixty percent of your budget on the television, that doesn’t leave a lot of funds for a top-quality surround system, but we think the MartinLogan Motion Vision soundbar will more than impress as long as your den or living room doesn’t qualify as cavernous. The Motion Vision won’t recreate the illusion of surround sound as convincingly as the more expensive Definitive Technology SoloCinema XTR, but it delivers soundtracks with more than enough resolution and impact to qualify as one of the best we’ve tested so far.

The Motion Vision does not come with a subwoofer; MartinLogan offers those separately for additional cost, but the need for it will depend on your room and whether you feel the bottom end is lacking. Should you decide to add a subwoofer to the Motion Vision, prepare to spend anywhere between $500-$1,000.

If you have never watched Francis Ford Coppola’s mesmerizing Apocalypse Now on a really good HDTV or projector, the experience should be near the top of your movie-watching to-do list. Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness drags in a few sections, but the combat sequences are as strange as they are hauntingly beautiful and the soundtrack is without peer.

Tron Legacy

• LG 60LM7200 60-inch Cinema 3D LED HDTV – $1,700
• Oppo BDP-103 Universal 3D Blu-ray Player – $500
• Roku 3 Media Streaming Player – $100
• Definitive Technology SoloCinema XTR Soundbar/Subwoofer – $2,000
Tron Legacy Blu-ray – $26

Total: $4,326.00

LG-TronSometimes you have to smile when the underdog delivers a really outstanding product for less money and it makes the larger players nervous. There is the occasional HDTV from Vizio that makes us take a second look at Costco, but the true hidden gems are currently being manufactured by the folks over at LG. The people who snicker at that are the same folks who thought Sony would always be on top; and we know how that turned out.

LG’s product line-up is quite extensive and we’ve certainly noticed that the prices keep ticking upward, but we can’t imagine anyone disliking the image quality of the 60-inch 60LM7200 Cinema 3D 1080p LED Smart TV, which retails for $1,700. Not only does the 60LM7200 deliver excellent light uniformity, solid black levels, and one of the best applications of passive 3D on any HDTV we’ve viewed so far, it also looks like it belongs in the big leagues with the top models from Panasonic and Samsung.

LG’s interface has also grown up and is now fairly intuitive. We’re still not sold on the Magic Remote, but the 60LM7200 is one of the easiest HDTVs to surf the web on and there are more than enough apps on this HDTV to make it a strong entertainment hub. When you combine the 60LM7200 with the Roku 3, you pretty much have access to almost every relevant media streaming app available.

The LG is also DLNA-certified, which makes accessing content on your home network easy, although we wish LG would simplify its overall interface and take away some options that don’t get used a lot.

We’re still not sold on the Magic Remote, but the 60LM7200 is one of the easiest HDTVs to surf the web on, and there are more than enough apps on this HDTV to make it a strong entertainment hub.

As much as we don’t love 3D Blu-ray, the LG makes a rather convincing argument for passive 3D with a bright image that really pops with minimal crosstalk. LG also supplies 6 pairs of glasses with each 60LM7200 –  making 3D truly affordable for families with children.

Just add our favorite Oppo BDP-103 Universal 3D Blu-ray player and a Roku 3 to the package and you’re ready to enjoy 2D and 3D films.

While the budget in this scenario would allow for a quality entry-level dedicated 5.1 system, we think the Definitive Technology SoloCinema XRT soundbar makes more sense for a number of reasons. The SoloCinema XTR  is one of the only sound bars available that can process both DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, and it comes with 3 HDMI 1.4 inputs, making it the most versatile product in the category.

The SoloCinema XTR is also one of the only sound bars that even comes close to simulating genuine surround sound with an immersive presentation that can energize even the largest listening rooms. We can’t think of another sound bar that offers the same level of transparency, bass response, and spatial depth regardless of price. Minus a horrendously cheap plastic remote that doesn’t belong with $300 products, let alone a $2,000 sound bar, the SoloCinema XTR has to be considered the best all-around performer in the category and it’s a perfect match for any of the HDTVs we’ve discussed in this installment.

Disney generated a lot of interest when it released its much anticipated sequel to Tron, and while Tron Legacy didn’t exactly live up to the hype due to its weak script, it did look rather spectacular even if Disney didn’t exactly push the 3D envelope. Daft Punk’s gorgeous electronic score was the most memorable part for many fans and the HD surround codec will demonstrate the resolution and dynamic capabilities of the SoloCinema XTR quite well.

Rather than spend $5,000 on a brand new 4K Ultra HDTV, focus on building the best possible home theater you can afford that will allow you to enjoy your favorite films and television programs for many years to come. With almost no content to watch and very limited options in regard to playback sources, don’t get caught up in the early hype before the time is truly right to invest in the next new thing. 

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