Flat Enough but not Black Enough

Recently I stood in a room full of new digital TVs from a major manufacturer and watched as a 42-inch set listing for $6999 was far outperformed by a 46-inch set selling for $1499. That was no surprise to me, but it may be to some of you.

Don?t blame the manufacturer. In this case it was Hitachi, which makes some of the best DTVs out there. Because the company is vertically integrated?making many of the parts that go into its products?Hitachi exercises an unusual amount of control over the performance of its television line. You could actually say, as the old song does, that nobody does it better.

So what?s the big secret that I?ve waited till the third paragraph to disclose? You?ve probably guessed already. The $6999 product was a flat-panel plasma display (42HDX61), while the $1499 product was a rear-projection set using a conventional three-tube light engine (46F510). The people at Hitachi are assuming that people will pay more than twice as much for a picture that isn?t quite as big or as good because the form factor of flat panels is just so much cooler. And of course they?re right.

Hitachi takes particular pride in making the parts underlying each set. Its plasmas use the company?s own ALiS technology. That stands for Alternate Lighting of Surfaces, a fancy way of saying that the pixels run in continuous vertical channels, versus the screen-door structure of conventional plasmas. Hitachi is almost equally proud of the cathode ray tubes in its less costly rear-projectors. Most manufacturers outsource the tubes in RPTVs?some even buy them from Hitachi. Anyway, both displays looked really good, and it?s safe to say the company did everything it could to make them that way.

In what way, then, did the cheaper tube set outperform the pricier plasma? The main disparity was in black level, or the reproduction of black and other dark colors. What the CRT-based projector rendered as true black the flat-panel set rendered as dark grey. In extreme cases?which this was not?a flat-panel display?s black-level deficiencies can be quite distracting. You?ll know what I mean when a dimly lit scene comes up and suddenly the charcoal-grey blotches link together, like an island archipelago, or some especially dismal paint-by-numbers painting.

Being a tech-aware kind of reader, you must be aware that tube-based sets routinely outperform newer and hipper display technologies in this respect. Doesn?t matter if the tube-based set is direct-view or projection, front or rear; or whether the newer type is based on plasma, DLP, or LCD technology. None of the new display technologies produce true black, which is best described as the absence of light. They have trouble differentiating between the darker stripes in a grey-scale test pattern, though the newer ones come closer than the first generation did.

Wait, there?s more. Though both sets were HD-worthy, the cheaper one also had greater sharpness and detail. Its native resolution was 1080 by 1920?better known as the 1080i HDTV format?while the more costly one had a pixel grid of 1024 by 1024. True, the 1080 by 1920 pixel set could only display about 90 percent of the 1080i format?s potential resolution due to the limits of the seven-inch tubes (it takes nine-inch tubes to do 1080i perfectly). Moreover, the vertical resolution of the plasma was within spitting distance of the 1080i standard (1024 vs. 1080)  though its horizontal resolution fell far short of the format?s potential (1024 vs. 1920). In any case, the tube-based projector had a fine-grained quality that stood up to close inspection?with seven-inch tubes, the scan lines slur together nicely?whereas I had to stand at least four or five feet from the plasma before the pixels blended.

Also in the line was another 42-inch plasma listing priced at $4299, about halfway between the premium plasma and the RP-HDTV. But that was a 480p display which doesn?t even qualify as HDTV. I wonder how many people assume that all plasmas are high-definition and end up buying a standard-definition model?

Despite the foregoing?a reader recently pointed out that I can sound a bit conspiratorial?I?m not suggesting that the TV-making industry is selling consumers a bill of goods. It would be more accurate to say that high-end video is being redefined and the new attitude is less performance-centric. New display technologies offer advantages that go beyond picture quality: convenience, elegance, a superior form factor. Consumers are willing to pay more for those advantages?a good thing, since plasmas, liquid crystal displays, and front or rear projectors based on LCD or DLP technology don?t come cheap!

Flat is in. Tubes are on their way out, superior black level notwithstanding. Hip consumers with big bank accounts tell us so. They?re voting with their dollars.

An affluent consumer buying a modest bedroom set wants an LCD TV?a larger version of his laptop display?not a bulky direct-view tube TV. That same consumer is perfectly happy to trade some black-level performance and perhaps even some resolution for a flat-panel form factor when selecting a 50-something plasma for the living room. For the dedicated home theater he?s got in the basement, the notion of suspending a doghouse-sized CRT-based front-projector from the ceiling is passé. He?d prefer a smaller, sleeker DLP or LCD projector.

It doesn?t matter that this affluent consumer has all the space in the world. Even if his ?great room? is bigger than my whole apartment, he wants something flat because it?s sexier. If he were aware of the performance gap?and he might, since people like me make a living at screaming this stuff from our journalistic rooftops?he probably wouldn?t care.

Who would argue that just about any room looks better with a flat-panel display than with a hulking big box? I?ve been writing about television long enough to remember manufacturer line shows where the only products on display were tube-based, either direct-view sets or rear-projectors (front-projectors are sort of a separate discipline). I?d stand in a whole room full of ugly boxes with visible scan lines?this was back in the primitive analog era?and man, was it a depressing spectacle. Give me a showcase full of cool flat panels any day. Now I actually like what I write about!

Even big-box rear-projectors are benefiting from the microdisplay revolution (to use the latest jargon). More and more of them are using light engines based on LCD or DLP chips, as opposed to tubes. That doesn?t do much to change the set?s height or width but does work miracles for the depth and weight.

Hitachi showed several LCD-based RPTVs based on light engines designed at its own facility in Yokohama. All had reduced depth compared to CRT-driven models, so they took up less space when pushed against the wall. Some even had front faceplate designs that mimicked plasmas.

True, they wouldn?t save as much space as true flat panels?it?s hard to compete with a footprint of zero?but the tradeoff these slimmer rear-projectors offer between physical depth and black-level depth is further contributing to the tube?s downward-trending status. As an added benefit, chip-based projectors don?t suffer from such CRT pitfalls as burn-in (from video game use) or convergence problems (when the three tubes go out of alignment).

Never one to resist a dose of my own medicine, I?m in the market myself for a small TV to supplement my LCD-based front-projection system. The projector?s 72-inch-wide screen simply makes watching the news too traumatic (especially the way the world is going). Even when nothing has blown up that day, flurries of fast-moving commercials give me a headache. I?d rather reserve my projector for movies and do my TV watching on a smaller flat-panel set hung right below my projection screen.

I could spend just a few hundred of my scarce freelance-writer dollars for a great-looking direct-view HDTV?but no, I really have my heart set on a flat panel, especially given the space constraints of my New York City apartment. I can?t face watching the aftermath of a suicide bombing on even the smallest plasma, which would be 42 inches, so I?m going to buy an LCD TV, probably about 30 inches. So far the cheapest one I?ve found, the Pixa LT-300S, lists for $1999. Ouch! LCD TVs are even more expensive per square inch than plasmas.

Despite that fact, LCD TVs actually lag plasmas in performance?here we go again. This time the problem isn?t black level (they?re about equally deficient in that respect) or even resolution (many plasma and LCD panels more or less measure up to the 720 by 1280 HDTV format). The problem is that liquid crystals, acting as light valves, are lazy. Shoot ?em with electric current and the oblong crystals stand up and salute pretty quickly. But the process of settling down into their horizontal resting state is mechanical, not electrical, and they take their time lying down.

I know all this backward and forward and I just don?t care. Unfazed by the issues of refresh rate and black level, I?m buying myself an LCD-HDTV (as soon as I find the CableCARD-compatible model of my dreams). You couldn?t pay me to keep any tube-based display in my urban living room, which doubles as a home theater, and oh yes, as a home office too. Nope, give me the expensive one with the lousy black level and the lazy crystals. I want it flat and sexy. After all, I do have my standards.

What about yours? Quite a few of the tech-aggressive consumers reading this must be using flat-panel TVs. Tell us what kind you?ve got (plasma or LCD) and what you think of its limitations.

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