Way back in the olden days (in TV years, that’s like…15 years ago) — well before the widescreen TV was popularized — we were blessed with the glorious digital picture and sound of the Laserdisc, which was ultimately replaced by the DVD. The appeal of both of these new formats was a higher resolution picture, true — but these digital discs also aimed to popularize something that folks weren’t yet warmed up to: widescreen. The benefit of a widescreen presentation is that it avoids chopping off the sides of a movie so that you don’t miss any of what the director intended you to see; but when played back on a standard 4:3 TV, widescreen comes with a side-effect that people did not respond well to initially: the dreaded “black bars.” Folks who bought 55-inch TVs roughly the size of Mack trucks were infuriated. Their thinking was, “what’s the point in having a huge screen if nearly 1/3 of it is going to wasted with these black bars?”
As you can imagine, the public got pretty excited at the idea of a widescreen TV when it was first introduced. Ideally, these new TVs with 16:9 aspect ratios would get rid of those stupid black bars when watching movies, right? You know the answer already: not always. The reason is that many movies are filmed in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio commonly referred to as CinemaScope. These ultra-wide movies come with black bars on the top and bottom because the image is just too wide to fit on our 16:9 TVs. So, what’s it going to take to ditch those black bars? The answer is an extra-wide 21:9 TV and — good news, folks — Vizio has finally begun selling them on its website.
We first saw Vizio’s 21:9 CinemaWide TV at CES 2011, where we were told the new sets would be available later that year. Obviously, that didn’t happen. Then, earlier this year at CES 2012, we were informed that a 50, 58 and 71-inch version of the new TV would come available in March and retail for $3500. Clearly, Vizio missed its self-instituted March deadline; but there is good news. Vizio is selling the 58-inch model right now at a special price of $2500 and –take our word for it — these 21:9 TVs look really cool. But, practically speaking, how cool are they, really?
Presently, 2.35:1 movies on Blu-ray disc are presented in 16:9 with the black bars on the top and bottom in 1920 x 1080 resolution. As such, some of the information on the disc is just black bars, which does the higher 2560 x 1080 resolution of these 21:9 TVs no good whatsoever. The TV actually ends up scaling this image in order to get rid of the black bars and fill the screen with the movie. That means that even though the TV now perfectly fits the movie’s shape, the image being shown is no longer a pixel for pixel match to the content. While most folks probably won’t notice the scaling effect, for the obsessive videophiles and cinephiles this sort of TV is most likely to appeal to, its going to be a problem.
This new 21:9 TV might also present a problem for those that would use this as an everyday TV and have a distaste for black bars. Since most of the HD content we watch is presented in 16:9, this 21:9 TV will have to place black bars on the sides of the image to maintain the right aspect ratio — or, shape — of most of the content we watch on a daily basis. Oh, and all that old-school 4:3 content still being broadcast by the networks (mostly ads) will be just a tiny square amongst a 21:9 sea of blackness.
Despite the limitations involved, we applaud Vizio for doing its part to try to bring this format to U.S. homes. It isn’t Vizio’s fault that nobody produces native 2.35:1 software yet — and why would they if there was no TV to support it? Right now Vizio and Philips are the only two companies offering such a TV, but if the software catches up and demand improves, maybe we’ll start seeing more CinemaScope-friendly displays hitting store shelves in the coming years.