The Videophile System Builder: HDTVs and soundbars for apartment dwellers

Apartment-home-theaterThe prospect of building a home theater excites consumers like few other home improvement projects, but once the calculator comes out and everything is figured into the final cost, the excitement level drops a few pegs. As we’ve shown with some of our recent home theater coverage, the sky is the limit when it comes to building a home theater system. Whether you have $6 million to spend or less than a $1,500 on a backyard system, there is clearly something for everyone.

As we have demonstrated with our Audiophile System Builder series, you don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to assemble a high-end audio system. We think the same reasoning applies to home theater. 

The reality is that most people don’t have the physical space or money for a large dedicated home theater with a 138-inch curved 2.35:1 screen or 84-inch Ultra HD 4K television, which means that our focus is going to be on those systems that will work well in small spaces like apartments, dens, media rooms, and even the bedroom. As a bonus, all of our system recommendations will include film suggestions that we have already reviewed and feel will show off your new system.

Our first three systems are designed for the apartment dweller with a budget of under $2,500 for an entire system. All three deliver spectacular image quality, the convenience of a sound bar, and streaming capabilities. 

Panasonic-TC-P50ST60 Tokyo Drifter

  • Panasonic TC-P50ST60 50-inch 3D Plasma HDTV – $1,000
  • Polk Audio SurroundBar 9000 IHT – $800
  • Samsung BD-F5900 Blu-ray 3D Player – $120
  • Roku 3 Streaming Box – $100
  • Tokyo Drifter Blu-ray (Criterion Collection) – $25
  • Blade Runner 30th Anniversary Blu-ray – $20

Total: $2,065

The past two years have been turbulent for Panasonic. The long-term viability of its consumer television division is unclear and with one of its largest panel plants in western Japan slated to close in 2014, it’s hard not to wonder if the company will be manufacturing its vaunted plasma HDTVs going forward into the future.  Still, there is no question that its current generation of plasma HDTVs is the best it has ever produced. 

Panasonic’s TC-P65ZT60 65-inch 3D plasma is the best looking HDTV we have ever seen and would be in our own home theaters if we could afford its $4,100 asking price, but we will deal with the ZT60 and the Samsung 64-inch F8500 plasma (its main competitor) in another installment.

The most exciting new product from Panasonic this year, aside from the highly praised VT60 and ZT60 models, is the affordable TC-P50ST60 50-inch 3D plasma, a set that offers absolutely gorgeous picture quality. The ST60 offers superior black levels and shadow detail, outstanding color accuracy, and tremendous value for the money, even if it is more expensive than its rivals from Samsung and LG. 

The one caveat with all of the Panasonic plasma HDTVs is they don’t love rooms with a lot of ambient light. If you live in an apartment and don’t suffer from this issue, there are few HDTVs that we like more.

SurroundBar-9000-IHTPolk Audio has been manufacturing some of the best sound bars we have tried for the past few years, and we are particularly impressed with the SurroundBar 9000 IHT which offers excellent sound quality, a powerful wireless subwoofer, and 4 inputs (2 x optical digital, 2 x 1/8-inch analog). The connectivity options on the 9000 IHT make it extremely versatile if you don’t want to run every component through your HDTV, and we like the ability to connect legacy components such as a tuner or VCR via the analog inputs.

The SurroundBar 9000 IHT is built like a tank, extremely easy to set-up, and, at 44-inches wide, looks smart underneath your 50-inch HDTV. 

When it comes to media streaming and playback of Blu-ray and DVDs, the Roku 3 and Samsung BD-F5900 are your best options if you are looking for the maximum number of services and absolute image quality at a reasonable price.

The Roku 3 gives you access to more than 700 channels of content, and we really like the new interface that makes it much easier to customize the viewing experience. Roku has gone for the jugular with the Roku 3 and we see no reason to suggest the AppleTV instead, unless you have consumed an entire pitcher of Apple Kool-Aid and can’t imagine life without access to iTunes on your HDTV.

Roku-3The Roku 3 can be turbo-charged with a number of apps including Twonky Beam and Plex server which makes it the all-around option for iOS and Android-users.

Selecting a Blu-ray 3D player in 2013 is actually somewhat of a crap-shoot because none of the competing models in the $150-$200 range really offer a significant improvement over the others when it comes to image quality.

We have been rather partial over the years to the DMP-BDT200 series from Panasonic but for 2013 we think consumers should steer clear and opt for a Samsung BD-F5900 Blu-ray 3D player if their budget is limited to under $150. The Samsung players have proven to be reliable, offer excellent image quality, and we like the interface which is easy to use.

Our two film selections could not be any different if we tried, but both films look absolutely spectacular on the Panasonic TC-P50ST60 HDTV. Seijun Suziki’s inconsistent gangster film doesn’t always make sense and the story could certainly move along with greater pace, but the imagery is just first-rate and we have a hard time believing that Quentin Tarantino wasn’t influenced by this film on a number of levels. The color accuracy of the Panasonic does this vibrant print justice and it’s a visual treat.

We are still waiting for the definitive looking version of Blade Runner (we doubt that a cleaner looking version exists but one can always hope), but it is clearly a film that looks better on plasma than on LCD/LED and one can only admire the black levels and shadow detail on a HDTV as good as the Panasonic with this film.

Samsung-PN51F5500AF Oldboy

  • Samsung PN51F5500AF 51-inch 3D Plasma HDTV – $890
  • Sonos PlayBar Soundbar – $700
  • Sonos SUB – $700
  • Samsung BD-F5900 Blu-ray 3D Player – $120
  • Oldboy Blu-ray – $30
  • I Saw the Devil Blu-ray – $10

Total: $2,450

If you’ve got any qualms going with Panasonic out of concern that it may not be supported in a few years, the PN51F5500AF 51-inch 3D plasma from Samsung is a great alternative, and costs less to boot. The Samsung is certainly inferior to the ST60 model when it comes to black levels, but the gap has narrowed over the years. Samsung has clearly figured out how to manufacture a really good plasma TV with plenty of bells and whistles and a superior interface.

Samsung’s Smart Hub and Smart TV are second to none in terms of its user interface and how easy it is to organize all of your favorite channels, apps, photos, and other media. The PN51F5500AF also offers the ability to control the HDTV, and even surf the Internet via voice commands and hand gestures.

If being able to transfer content from your smart device to your HDTV matters to you, then you’ll appreciate Samsung’s AllShare technology which allows you to transfer videos, music, and photos from your Samsung device to the television. AllShare also works via the cloud so it’s rather easy to transfer media to the HDTV while away on vacation which will be quite popular with parents who may want to send a video to their children while being watched by the grandparents at home.

A television as advanced as the PN51F5500AF requires an audio system that is just as cool and we absolutely love the new Sonos PlayBar in this set-up. The $700 PlayBar is certainly not the most advanced soundbar available in terms of supported surround sound codecs or HDMI connections, but we absolutely loved the sound quality when we had the opportunity to review the Sonos earlier this year.

Sonos-PlayBar-SoundbarThe PlayBar is limited to only one digital input; which may not bother most users who will be running everything through the HDTV, but we think Sonos made a mistake not offering a second in the case where a consumer runs out of inputs on the back of the television.

What makes the PlayBar unique is that users can expand the system to a true 5.1 wireless set-up by adding a Sonos SUB and a pair of Sonos Play:3 wireless loudspeakers. The additional loudspeakers turn this $700 system into a $2,000 investment and while that is a huge step-up in price in the context of this system, the investment doesn’t have to take place all at once.

The $700 wireless SUB is a brilliant concept that works extremely well with the PlayBar, plus it’s a lot easier to place than most subwoofers. Depending on the size of your living room or den, the SUB may be more than you need, but it will make a noticeable difference when listening to music or watching films.

With your new home theater ready to go, take a trip to the dark side of human nature and enjoy two of our favorite psychological thrillers starring Korean screen legend, Min-sik Choi. Both Oldboy and I Saw the Devil have attained cult classic status with international audiences, and with Hollywood’s adaptation of Oldboy slated for an October 2013 release, you will most certainly want to see the original before the new film is out. Neither film is appropriate for children, so save them for when the kids are asleep and you need to be knocked down a few pegs.

LG50LALEDPaths of Glory

  • LG 50LA6200 50-inch Cinema 3D LED Smart HDTV – $890
  • Atlantic Technology PB-235 H-PAS Powerbar – $900
  • Atlantic Technology SB-900 Subwoofer – $350
  • LG BP530 Blu-ray 3D Player – $130
  • Roku 3 Streaming Box – $100
  • Paths of Glory Blu-ray (Criterion Collection) – $27
  • Dr. Strangelove Blu-ray – $14

Total: $2,411

LG has made enormous strides with its HDTVs over the past few years. We went pretty crazy for the LM6700 series last year which offered very good picture quality, superb media streaming performance, and the best looking application of passive 3D that we have seen so far.

One of our favorite models from LG doesn’t get a lot of attention, but the 50-inch 50LA6200 Cinema 3D LED Smart HDTV is a great bargain at $890 online. The LG may not deliver the deep black levels of its rivals from Panasonic and Samsung, but it certainly has the edge when watching content in rooms with a lot of ambient light.

The 50LA6200 produces a bright, detailed, and sharp image that is quite impressive with HD content. LG has also worked with the folks at ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) to create two ISF day/night modes that maximize the image potential of the television via calibration.

LG has also refreshed its user interface and while not as sexy looking as Samsung’s Smart Hub, it is easy to navigate and customize. The 50LA6200 offers three HDMI 1.4 inputs, 3 USB 3.0/2.0 inputs, and support for MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) which is useful if you want to transfer content from your smart device and charge it at the same time.

LG-BP530-Blu-ray-3d

The LG is strong on the streaming end with support for Wi-Fi, DLNA, Windows 8, Skype, MHL, NFC, and LG Cloud. The HDTV also offers premium apps such as Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Facebook, and Twitter.

As much as we don’t love 3D at home unless you are watching films on a very large screen, LG has done a great job making Blu-ray 3D watchable and affordable for families. Passive 3D isn’t our personal format of choice as you lose 540 lines of resolution, but the LG’s image is remarkably brighter than any active 3D panel and that is going to appeal to families who may set-up this HDTV in a living room with a lot of ambient light. Children may not care about the resolution of the image, but they will respond negatively if the picture is too dark. LG provides 4 pairs of glasses with its 3D HDTVs, which are really easy to replace if necessary.

One of the most underrated soundbars that we’ve ever heard is the Atlantic Technology PB-235 H-PAS Powerbar which retails for $900. Is it expensive? Absolutely. Does it compete with some of the more expensive sound bars like the Definitive Technology SoloCinema XRT or MartinLogan Motion Vision which are considerably more expensive? Amazingly, it does and that’s without the addition of a subwoofer.

PB-235-H-PAS-PowerbarWe still think the PB-235 H-PAS sounds better when you add the SB-900 subwoofer to the system, but for people who don’t want to annoy their neighbors, this soundbar plays cleanly down to around 50Hz and that’s rather remarkable when you consider that most soundbars are designed to roll-off between 120-100Hz. The PB-235 H-PAS sounds great with both movies and music and it’s extremely simple to use.

When it comes to streaming and media playback, stick with the Roku 3 and the really affordable LG BP530 Blu-ray 3D player with this system. The LG BP530 operates seamlessly with its larger sibling and the Roku pushes enough content to make it well worth its asking price.

Two classics from director Stanley Kubrick round off this excellent package including the brilliant Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove which will show off the LG’s excellent black levels and sharpness.

 

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