Saturday, May 3, 2008

Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR4 LCD Digital Color TV

Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR4 LCD Digital Color TV Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR4 LCD Digital Color TV HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

Last year when I reviewed the 1080p Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR2 at our sister publication, it "really knocked me out." Now we have the new $3,599 Bravia KDL-46XBR4. It's spec'd for better black levels, a new, slick on-screen menu system, and 120Hz operation, a feature that can reduce image smear with moving images, which is one of the lingering problems of LCD display technology.

Cosmetically there's a dark gray bezel around the screen. This is surrounded by an aluminum-trimmed clear glass frame, which gives the image a suspended-in-space look. Optional bezels are available in a variety of contemporary, décor matching colors for an additional $300 each.

But all this framing results in a set that takes up more room than many models from other manufacturers with larger screens. If you have the room for it, however, and like the design (I find it distinctive in today's sea of anonymous, glossy black frames), the Sony's size won't matter.

The XBR4 offers a generous array of connections, including three HDMI inputs, two component connections, and an RGB input for a computer. The Sony does not have a CableCARD slot.

The Sony offers all the usual features of a fully equipped set, including multiple aspect ratios, a (code) programmable multi-component remote, Parental Lock, and standard video adjustments. PIP and P&P allow you to watch two sources either via the usual small image overlay (PIP) or side-by-side (P&P).

BRAVIA Theatre Sync enables communication and control of multiple components via HDMI. The other components must have Sony HDMI Control capability—which essentially means that this feature will be fully useful only through a system consisting entirely of new Sony components—apart from the speakers.

Sony's Digital Media Extender feature, or DMeX, offers a digital connection for adding such new but not yet available features as Sony's Bravia Internet Video Link, which is scheduled to offer, among other things, accessing of HDTV programming from the Internet. Once a DMeX accessory is installed it integrates seamlessly into the set's menus.

The XBR4's onboard audio system sounds better than I recall in last year's XBR2. Considering the physical limitations imposed by a thin, flat panel enclosure, it was surprisingly listenable for non-critical use.

Major Tom to Video Control
While the XBR4's controls are located on the side (as with many flat panel sets) you'll rarely use them. The remote can do the job better, and in addition to the set itself can control three other components. It's well laid out, has a positive feel, and most of its important functions are adjacent to a central joystick. Its buttons are also backlit, though the functions of many of them are not labeled on the buttons themselves, so the backlighting isn't always helpful.

The first thing you'll notice about the XBR4's setup and control operations is Sony's new XMB (Xross Media Bar) on-screen menus, similar what's used in the PlayStation3. I've encountered this system once before, but didn't fully appreciate it until now. It's a real improvement from past Sony sets, which often had me prematurely exiting the menu system.

Apart from the usual video adjustments (Brightness, Color, Contrast—or Picture, in Sonyese—etc.), the XBR4 offers a blizzard of additional bells and whistles, some useful in moderation, others best left off or in their default modes. If you want to learn more about them, either now or later, go to "Controls and Settings," near the end of this report, just prior to the Measurements section.

Puttin' on the Hz
One of the weaknesses of LCDs has been motion blur; the LCD elements simply do not respond to fast changes in the image as quickly as do other display technologies.

Operating at 120Hz as the XBR4 does rather than the more usual 60Hz can improve an LCD's motion performance. In the XBR4 the upconversion is controlled by the setting of the Motion Enhancer control, and Motionflow is Sony's moniker for the technology activated by the Motion Enhancer.

Converting a 1080p/60 or 1080p/24 source to 1080p/120 requires simulating the additional frames in some way, since they are not in the source. There are three ways to do this: interpolation of new frames, repeating the original frame multiple times, or making every other repeated frame a black frame. Motionflow creates these addition frames by the first method—temporal interpolation.

Motionflow adds either one interpolated frame for1080p/60 sources or four interpolated frames for 1080p/24 sources to each source frame to reach the 120Hz refresh rate required by the set's 120Hz operation. If you turn the Motion Enhancer off, each source frame is simply repeated as many times as needed to get to 120Hz, with no interpolation.

If the source contains 3/2 pulldown, such as 1080p/60 video from a film-based source, the 3/2 pulldown is not removed. Motionflow converts the 1080p/60 source directly to 1080p/120 by adding one interpolated frame to each source frame. If you turn the Motion Enhancer off, each source frame of a 1080p/60 signal is merely repeated once to reach a 120Hz refresh rate, but there is no frame interpolation.

I was a skeptic at first about all this 120Hz hullabaloo. But as implemented in Sony's Motion Enhancer, it really works.

While it didn't make a difference on all programming, when it did the effect could be dramatic. Chapter s 1 and 7 of Star Trek: Insurrection (a 480i, standard definition, DVD) are notorious torture tests with camera pans and difficult vertical edges prone to flicker. Without the Motion Enhancer flicker visibly mars these scenes, but the Motion Enhancer cleaned up both with aplomb.

Even with the opening title sequence of Invincible at 1080p/24 on Blu-ray the effect of the Motion Enhancer was also noticeable. In the pan over the stadium, the yardage lines run horizontally across the screen, and as the camera moves up past them they flicker badly as well. The Motion Enhancer eliminated these artifacts, demonstrating that it works on both horizontal and vertical motion, and that it can even eliminate some artifacts with 1080p/24 material.

The XBR4 exhibited no significant change in color, brightness, or contrast at angles up to about 45-degrees off center. There were subtle changes beyond that point, but the image remained highly watchable as far off axis as anyone is likely to sit and still be able to comfortably view the picture.

I did see some occasional posterization- that paint-by-numbers effect that turns smoothly graded shadows into stair steps- but mostly in cable sources where it was not possible to specifically blame the Sony. And I saw no obvious color shifts on black and white film—the source most revealing tests of color uniformity impurities.

But the Sony's deinterlacing and scaling performance, with a 480i input, was disappointing. It performed poorly on many of the difficult video processing torture tests on the HQV Benchmark DVD (with the set's CineMotion set to either Auto1 or Auto2). But it did pass the Coliseum flyover test in chapter 12 of Gladiator. Overall, however, the video processing in Sony's own VPL-AW15 LCD projector, reviewed here recently, performed far better. So do many upconverting DVD players.

Sony's processing performed much better, however, when converting 1080i sources to the set's 1080p resolution. It still did not recognize and deal with 3/2 pulldown, but it did perform the deinterlacing properly and only rarely showed video processing artifacts with a 1080i or 720p source.

This is an important point, as I did most of my watching of the XBR4 as you are likely to: either with native 720p, 1080i, or 1080p sources or with standard definition sources upconverted to those resolutions by a cable box or DVD, HD DVD, or Blu-ray player. I never had a serious need to input 480i or 480p.

Back on the upside, the Sony's black level and shadow detail were impressive—the best I've yet seen from an LCD. The occasional gray haze I noted on dark scenes in last year's XBR2s was rare, and then only on the darkest, lowest contrast scenes. Of the commercially available flat panel sets I've seen—LCD or plasma—only the new Pioneer plasmas, and to a lesser extent the latest Panasonic plasmas, excel this set.

I could live happily with the XBR4 over the long haul. It won me over in its balance of strengths: fine resolution with a canny juggling of smoothness and natural detail, outstanding color, a great assortment of useful (and yes, some not so useful) controls, and blacks that approach the best I've seen in a flat panel display.

The best looking BDs and HD DVDs were totally convincing, even in high contrast scenes with a mixture of light and dark. The Sony did a fine job with all of this, showing a wealth of shadow detail that's rare on flat panel displays. On exceptionally detailed discs like The Wild on Blu-ray, the detail brought out by the Sony—particularly in the animal fur—is amazing. The colors are also vivid and bright, but never over-the-top.

I didn't sit that close normally, of course, nor could I sit that close with standard definition material. Good DVDs looked fine on the Sony, however, at a more practical viewing distance. You could easily see the soft edges on Gladiator, from any distance, but from eight feet or so it produced a solidly enjoyable image. In fact, even the recent, standard definition documentary series The Universe, upconverted to 1080i by my cable box, was highly watchable.

I was also able to compare the Sony side-by-side with the Samsung LN-T5265F, recently reviewed. The Samsung's larger 52" screen was a little more immersive, and its resolution was, subjectively, just as impressive as the Sony's. But the XBR4's deeper, richer blacks gave its picture greater depth and punch.

You won't necessarily get the same results I did from the Sony by just plugging it in and turning it on. That's always been true of consumer video displays. But in this case it's definitely well worth the effort to get it right. I was impressed by last year's XBR2. I'm even more impressed by the XBR4. The only things I'd like to see are even deeper blacks and a bigger screen. Yes, the blacks here are very good, but I'll continue to want more until we have the blacks that once were available in the very best CRTs!

As for more screen area, if you need it there's always the 52" KDL-52XBR4. We haven't tested that one, but 46" isn't exactly tiny. And if you're moving up from a CRT set the KDL-46XBR4 will look positively huge. It will also look great. Highly recommended.

This new Sony has outstanding resolution, and solves a lot of issues of LCDs past. Motion blur isn't an issue and the XBR4 has the best blacks I've yet seen on an LCD. On top of that, although performance with 480i/p sources is mediocre, processing with other sources is superlative. This is an excellent flat panel TV.

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Mitsubishi LT-46144 LCD Flat Panel HDTV

Mitsubishi LT-46144 LCD Flat Panel HDTV Mitsubishi LT-46144 LCD Flat Panel HDTV Mitsubishi LT-46144 LCD Flat Panel HDTV Mitsubishi LT-46144 LCD Flat Panel HDTV Mitsubishi LT-46144 LCD Flat Panel HDTV HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

Mitsubishi's new LT-46144 ($3,699), at 46 inches, is one of the higher-end sets in the Mitsubishi lineup of flat panels. Not surprisingly, it's a 1920x1080p design. 1080p so dominates today's market in larger sets that most manufacturers don't even bother to mention it on the front page of their owner's manuals. But there's more to this set than its now nearly universal 1080p resolution.

The Mitsubishi has a swivel base that allows for a 30-degree offset to either side. Its flat black frame is thinner than most on the top and sides, but wider at the bottom to accommodate the thin slot where the sound exits.

The sound is one of the set's weaker links, with a very obvious, canned coloration that makes people sound like they have serious head colds. Plan on an external sound system for any serious listening.

A major feature here is 120Hz operation. Mitsubishi calls this "Smooth120Hz," and it's available only on the company's 144- and 244-series sets. It doubles video's standard 60Hz frame rate to 120Hz, which is claimed to produce less motion blur (a particular weakness of LCD flat panel displays). The added frame is not simply repeated, but interpolated using a Mitsubishi-developed algorithm.

The set will also accept and display a 1080p/24 source, such ad Blu-ray or HD DVD. However, rather than the optimum technique of upconverting 1080p/24 to 1080p/120 directly, to match the native 120Hz frame rate of the set, 1080p/24 inputs are first converted to 1080p/60 by adding 3/2 pulldown. The set then handles the signal as it would any 1080p/60 input by frame-doubling it to1080p/120.

The set has three HDMI 1.3 inputs. While Mitsubishi states that these inputs are therefore "compatible with" the Deep Color and x.v.Color features of HDMI 1.3. There is no commercially available program material with those features at present, apart from the outputs of a few camcorders.

The LT-46144 also supports Mitsubishi's NetCommand, which "seamlessly integrates selected older A/V products with new and future digital products." The set also supports NetCommand for HDMI, which expands this function to operate through the HDMI link for devices that are interconnected via HDMI. I did not test either the vanilla or HDMI versions of NetCommand for this review.

There are also two antenna inputs, coaxial digital and L/R analog audio outputs to feed sound from the set's onboard ATSC and NTSC digital tuners to your outboard sound system, and an IR emitter for use with the NetCommand feature.

There is no CableCARD slot here, nor any PIP or POP. This is the third set I've reviewed recently that lacks both of these features. I smell a trend.

A side panel contains an additional component input with L/R audio, plus a USB port that can be used to view digital pictures.

The HDMI inputs are buried deep within a recess on the back panel. This would only be a minor inconvenience if not for the fact that there's a bump in the rear panel so close to one of the HDMI inputs that the cable exiting from it must be bent immediately below the plug. Many HDMI cables do not like to be bent sharply.

You cannot select inputs directly but rather must choose them from a menu. Mitsubishi's Easy Connect auto input sensing feature, however, makes this less painless than usual by prompting you to assign a name to a source when you connect it (from a pre-set list). It then ignores unused inputs on the input selection menu.

There's the usual assortment of video controls: Contrast, Brightness, Color, Tint, and Sharpness. There's also a Backlight control and a two-position color temperature adjustment—High and Low. No other color temperature adjustments are provided in the user menus, and a code-protected service menu provides only overall adjustments for red, green, and blue (for both the High and Low color temp options), not the more desirable, separate controls for the low and high end of the brightness range.

The lack of other exotic video controls typical of much of Mitsubishi's competition is not necessarily a negative. Those offbeat controls can give newbies the opportunity to mess up the picture, while leaving more experienced users—and reviewers—scratching their heads trying to find some odd combination of settings that can improve the picture.

There are four Picture Modes: Brilliant, Game, Bright, and Natural. (Game is available only when you name an input either Game or PC.) Only some of these can be adjusted separately for each input. I obtained roughly equivalent performance at first from Bright and Natural, given appropriate adjustments to the user controls, but Natural eventually pulled ahead. Natural, when well calibrated and adjusted, performed as well or better than any other mode.

The partially backlit Mitsubishi remote is fine, with conveniently positioned, well-sized buttons. It can control four other products in normal operation when programmed with the right codes, and more if you can use it in conjunction with Mitsubishi's NetCommand feature.

Many new LCDs are producing black levels that are exceptional compared to LCD's recent past. They're not yet the equal of the best plasmas or microdisplays, but nevertheless very impressive for a technology that was limited to medium grays as blacks not so long ago.

For a movie fan, if a set can't reproduce believable blacks then nothing else it does matters. And the Mitsubishi is right up there with the best LCD flat panels I've seen in this regard. Not the best I've seen and measured from all flat panel technologies, but fully satisfying on 95% of the program material I watched.

Out of the box, the Low color temperature was too cool, ranging in its Low setting from just over 6900K to about 7200K rather than the 6500K (or, more precisely, D6500) standard. Many competitors can't even get that close, or choose not to.

A calibration did improve this by a worthwhile margin. While I did occasionally sense a hint of excess green, it was elusive. Both flesh tones and green foliage (two of the most difficult colors to reproduce believably since we all see them every day—unless you live in the Sahara desert) were very convincing.

Mitsubishi's PerfectColor offers only a single dimension of adjustment (saturation) rather than the more common practice with this sort of feature, which is to offer saturation and hue adjustments. I did find that I could move both the primary and secondary color points and thereby significantly improve the accuracy of the set's color gamut, but only by using the right test tools (see "Measurements").

The color was consistently vivid but at the same time subtle and refined. It went over the top only if the program material demanded it.

Given a good HD source, the set was also crisply detailed. Yes, even at the zero setting of the Sharpness control there was a trace of white-line edge enhancement remaining on test patterns, but this was never obvious on real program material.

One of the best-looking Blu-ray Discs I have is a demo produced last year by Pioneer. Every bit of it looked strikingly good on the Mitsubishi. The detail was superb, the colors rich and believable, and the underlying black level more than sufficient to give the image a convincing sense of depth.

Two pressing issues with LCDs in general are motion blur and off-axis viewing. As it turned out, the 120Hz feature was not a complete cure; the recently reviewed 60Hz Sharp LC-52D64U did a better job—but only with its motion compensation features turned on. Some motion blur was clearly evident on both sets, but it was more easily visible on the Mitsubishi. But these torture tests are brutal at isolating this problem. In all of my viewing of normal program material on the Mitsubishi I was never distracted by motion blur.

The Mitsubishi can't completely escape LCD's typical off-axis viewing limitations, but it's better than most I've seen. The falloff in quality up to at least 45 degrees is not severe. The image remains very watchable at this angle. Most viewers will not notice the resulting degradation, visible as a slight loss of contrast.

The set's color uniformity was respectable for an LCD. I could see some slight discolorations if I looked hard enough on appropriate test patterns, but the black and white material I watched looked—appropriately—black and white.

But two problems intruded on the otherwise impressive performance of this set, one of them curable by a work-around, the other perhaps intractable.

The first of these was poor video processing from a 480i source to the set's native 1080p. It failed about half of the deinterlacing/scaling tests we typically use.

If you regularly use an upconverting DVD player, however, and use the upconversion in a set-top-box for standard definition television programming, this will not be an issue for you. But for such a high-end set Mitsubishi should be able to offer video processing at least as good as a two-year old Pioneer upconverting player!

On the plus side, however, the Mitsubishi's 1080i-to-1080p deinterlacing is good. Not great—it does not recognize 3:2 pulldown- but that's a limitation common to most of the sets I've tested.

The second problem is more troubling. On some scenes I saw a persistent flow of horizontal bands that moved rapidly from the bottom to the top of the screen. This "strobing" was subtle but once spotted could not be ignored. It was invisible on bright scenes and in very dark areas, but obvious on scenes of low-mid brightness in patches of solid color or gray. Complex foreground action rarely showed it, but backgrounds did. The strobing could also be seen clearly in medium gray test patterns.

The problem did not resemble hum bars, and I have not experienced it with any other set reviewed under the same circumstances. This included the Sharp LC-52D64U, which I was able to view side-by-side with the Mitsubishi on the same program material.

The strobing issue must temper my recommendation of this set. It's a problem that most users will see, and many may be mentally unable to tune out.

Which is unfortunate, since the Mitsubishi LT-46144 otherwise drew me in with its compelling performance. And while the best new plasmas I've tested can do somewhat better, particularly in producing black levels that no LCD I've yet seen can touch, those sets (particularly the new Pioneers) can cost more, raise concerns about burn-in—a non-issue with LCDs- and offer less brightness than a good LCD for those who feel the need for it.

The Mitsubishi comes closer than I ever expected from an LCD in providing a completely satisfying balance of black level and shadow detail, color, and resolution in one very appealing package.

This Mitsubishi has excellent resolution, good color out of the box, and impressive blacks and shadow detail for an LCD, but the horizontal strobing from bottom to top on mid-brightness images is too problematic for this set to earn a recommendation.

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HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

Like a Volvo; boxy, but good. I have to say this TV surprised me, although, to be honest, it really shouldn't have. At first glance, there is nothing to set it apart from the innumerable other LCDs on the market. It has a narrow black bezel, it's thin, it's bright, has a remote, turns on; you know, all that stuff that LCDs usually do. Then I started throwing test material at it, and it started doing things that LCDs typically don't but JVC TVs typically do. And I mean that in a good way.

But First. . .
Not to sound harsh, but this TV has a nice personality—the kind of TV that other TVs bring along to make themselves look prettier. I lied, that was pretty harsh. It's not that it looks bad, it's just kinda. . . blocky. The remote is from the same end of the gene pool. It looks like it should light up, but it doesn't. I'll forgive everything about the remote, however, because it has direct input access. Granted, the buttons are just labeled V1 through V5 and don't tell you what each input actually is (like HDMI 1), but I'll take it. Interestingly, the V3 input is what JVC calls a "Smart Input." This means you can plug in a composite, an S-video, and a component source all in V3, and the TV will select whichever one is active. So, if your receiver doesn't transcode (convert everything to one type of output), you can run all the output wires to this input, and the TV will display what's playing without your having to change the video input. Simple, yet convenient.

The menus, in typical JVC fashion, are, shall we say, utilitarian. I know menu aesthetics don't matter, but when you're paying several grand for a product, you want the user interface to look cool. You get controls for most of what you'd want, including color temperature, noise reduction, and Energy Saver mode.

Green, or Just Not Bright
You'd expect something called Energy Saver mode to adjust the backlight. At least, that's what I'd expect it to do. And in fact, to some degree, it does. The energy-saving aspect of the Energy Saver mode is really just an energy limiter. It limits how bright the LCD will display. No matter what mode you enable or disable (including Smart Picture and Dynamic Gamma), the LT-47X788 tracks the incoming video signal and dims or brightens the picture depending on how bright or dim the image is. Thus, our full-on/full-off contrast-ratio measurements are completely unrealistic, as this type of tracking fools the test. You wish a flat panel had an 11,370:1 contrast ratio. The concern for this kind of brightness riding is that you'd see the image pulse when the brightness level changes. I saw this happen occasionally, but it wasn't as noticeable as you'd expect. If it bothers you, you can turn down the Energy Saver mode to lower the maximum brightness, but you can't turn off the feature entirely.

If you look at the measurements as a whole, apart from the misleading full-on/full-off numbers, you can see that the panel itself is rather impressive. A black level of 0.010 foot-lamberts is excellent for any TV. LCDs almost always have a nearly identical ANSI contrast rating and full-on/full-off, so if we extrapolate on that, the LT-47X788's 1,753:1 is well above average for an LCD. With actual video, nonetheless, the results aren't quite as impressive as the numbers suggest. Because the panel is constantly riding with the video signal, you rarely, if ever, get 0.010 ft-L. It looks much higher. Color is pretty accurate, with green being slightly undersaturated. It's interesting that a TV company would err on this side (instead of oversaturated), but the result is a more accurate-looking display than most.

But the Real Treat
Where this LCD performs like a JVC is in the processing. Very few companies pay such close attention to video processing as JVC. Since the beginning of our 1080i deinterlacing tests, nearly every JVC display has passed with flying colors. The only other company that pays this close attention and has such a success rate is Pioneer, and their displays are a lot more expensive. Sure enough, with the HQV Benchmark HD DVD, the LT-47X788 deinterlaces 1080i correctly and picks up the 3:2 sequence with 1080i on both types of HD inputs. Check Gary Merson's HDTV feature on page 42 to see how few TVs actually do this correctly.

With 480i, the JVC picks up the 3:2 quickly with synthetic material. However, with the Gladiator test clip, it's oddly slower and even loses it at one point. This is probably just a quirk; with other DVD content, it looked fine. With the rotating-bar pattern on the HQV DVD, the JVC was excellent. It went well into the green before major jagged edges appeared. This is far better than most displays. The waving-flag scene, which tests video processing (as opposed to the 3:2 tests for film processing), is above average, although I've seen better.

Scaling 480i, like with the often used Fifth Element clip, was a little noisy and not as well detailed as I've seen. I set the built-in digital video noise-reduction feature to Auto, which helped with the noise and didn't seem to further soften the image much. That said, you'll see more detail from your DVDs with a good upconverting DVD player.

The LT-47X788 is capable of reproducing a one-pixel-on/one-pixel-off pattern with both HDMI and component inputs. Two disappointments are some slight banding and noise that, in this case, are interrelated. With the component input, there are steps instead of a smooth ramp from light to dark. The space between these steps has some noise. So, with regular video, shadows will seem noisier than brighter areas, which typically have very little noise. The dip in the gray-scale tracking at the low end (as you'll notice in the measurements box) becomes visible with certain content, which I'll get to in a minute.

As is typical with LCDs, there is some motion blur. The LT-47X788 doesn't have 120-hertz refresh or any of the new fancy backlighting technologies, but JVC claims a 4.5-millisecond response time. As I wrote about in the GearWorks column in the July 2007 issue (also online), response time is only one aspect of the motion-blur problem. So while the LT-47X788 isn't quite as good as panels with these new technologies (or any plasma, for that matter), it is better than most of the old-school 60-Hz designs. Still, if you are sensitive to motion blur, LCD isn't for you.

Also typical of LCDs is poor off-axis viewing. Slide off a little to the side or, even worse, up or down, and the black level comes up, and the color saturation goes down. It's not too bad for an LCD, but if you have a wide seating area or want to mount your TV high up, plasma would be a better choice.

The Terror That Flaps in the Night
The HD DVD of Batman Begins offers several scenes to test this panel's attributes. Liam Neeson's beard during chapter 2 subtly loses detail as he sways back and forth. When he's still, you can make out each strand; when he moves, not so much. This scene, and those that follow, go from light to dark quite often, but any pulsing of the backlight was hard to notice. However, your mileage may vary, depending on video content. The poor gray-scale tracking is visible a few chapters later, in a scene in which Mr. Wayne consoles young Bruce. In this fairly dim scene, Wayne's face is noticeably redder than the darker background or the brighter-lit Bruce. But these are just the negatives. On the plus side, the image is relatively free of noise, quite punchy (and bright), and, for the most part, the color accuracy is quite good.

All told, this display shows JVC's care in processing, exhibits strong performance from the glass, and includes all of LCD's usual trappings. In other words, it deinterlaces 1080i correctly, picks up the 3:2 sequence with 1080i, has decent video processing, and has a decent black level and contrast ratio—even if you take the electronic trickery out of the equation. Sure, it still has some motion blur and poor off-axis performance, but so do all LCDs. Therefore, as I mentioned, this TV surprised me, but it really shouldn't have. It's a JVC LCD.

• Processing the way it should be
• Excellent black level

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Samsung LN-T5281F LCD 1080p HDTV

Samsung LN-T5281F LCD 1080p HDTV Samsung LN-T5281F LCD 1080p HDTV Samsung LN-T5281F LCD 1080p HDTV Samsung LN-T5281F LCD 1080p HDTV Samsung LN-T5281F LCD 1080p HDTV HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

Big things are happening with LCD flat panel televisions. New developments like LCD motion lag compensation and LED backlighting, manufacturers are attacking some of the well-known shortcomings of that technology.

The LN-T5281F ($4,499) not only uses LED backlighting, it also employs an innovative new technique aimed at improving blacks and contrast called "local dimming," which dims the LEDs that light the screen in localized areas. Samsung is so high on this technique it claims an attention-grabbing 500,000:1 contrast ratio. So, let's see if it delivers!

Design and Features
If you use a tabletop setup rather than a wall mount, the set comes pre-attached to a stand that swivels a specified 20 degrees in either direction (I measured closer to 30 degrees).

The LN-T5281F has a highly reflective screen. It's more like that of plasma glass than the diffusive screens found in most LCD televisions. Many LCD computer monitors now use shiny screens to provide a punchier, brighter image, and that might be the intent here. But you'll need to position the set carefully relative to the viewing position to avoid distracting reflections.

The only increasingly common feature it does not include is 120Hz operation. Most of the Samsung's main features and operating characteristics, including inputs, picture modes, video controls, aspect ratios, remote, and more, are identical to those of Samsung's LN-T5265F, which I reviewed recently. Rather than plow over that ground again, I'll refer you to the discussion of the features and controls in that review. My preferences—the features I used and the ones I chose not to—were essentially the same here. This included the use of a modified Movie mode for nearly all of my viewing and measurements.

But there are some important additions to the LN-T5281F. The biggest, gee-whiz new feature is LED SmartLighting. This uses LEDs for backlighting rather than the fluorescents most common in LCD sets. Samsung's LED implementation goes even further with the local dimming technique referred to in the opening. The LEDs are positioned behind the panel in a number of clusters that can be illuminated independently depending on the amount of light required in each area of the picture.

Local dimming is roughly similar in its effect to a dynamic iris in a projector, with several important differences. The dimming here can be done by area, rather than in response to the overall average picture level. When the LEDs shut down, they turn off completely, rendering a darker black than even the best CRTs. And LEDs can turn on and off much faster than any dynamic, mechanical iris.

So does this local dimming duplicate the performance of a good CRT? Not quite, but even if Samsung's claimed peak dynamic contrast ratio of 500,000:1 is a bit unrealistic, what I saw from this set on dark images was often startling.

The brightness of the LEDs can be set with the Backlight control. Unlike the Brightness and Contrast controls, which operate on the bottom and top of the brightness range independently (though here as in most sets there is some inevitable overlap), a Backlight control raises or lowers the brightness of the image across the entire output range. Lower settings—which provide the best picture, also reduce energy consumption. I found a setting of 3 (out of 10) fine for most programming. But you might prefer a setting a bit higher for news or sports, or if the room is brightly lit. But higher Backlight settings can reduce the richness of dark scenes.

The set also has another new feature called LED Motion Plus. When turned on, LED Motion Plus cycles the backlighting rapidly from top to bottom, in eight groups of horizontal rows for each frame. This is done in such a way that the backlight is off or nearly off during the fraction of a second that the LCD response is lagging, limiting the visibility of the lag.

Because the backlight is fixed at 10 when LED Motion Plus is on, and I prefer to have control of the backlighting, I did most of my viewing with this feature turned off.

Dark Victory
Yes, I know, that's the title of a classic but depressing Bette Davis weeper. But as used here it's anything but depressing. This Samsung has the deepest blacks I've yet seen from an LCD television. In fact, with a full screen, video black image viewed in total darkness you often can't tell if the set is on or off; the screen is as dark as the frame and the surrounding blackness of the room!

LED SmartLighting also includes the Samsung's local dimming feature, described earlier. It can increase the contrast between light and dark areas of the picture by illuminating areas of the image selectively. While it can't make the dark areas quite as deep as you'll see when the screen is entirely black, it's still very effective. There was some visible brightening of the areas immediately around white titles on a black background, but this is likely unavoidable if the local dimming is done at anything short of the pixel level!

You can see the effect of LED SmartLighting for yourself, particularly on scenes with a mix of dark and light areas. Turn it off and the dark areas become lighter, with more than a hint of the "gray haze" that affects digital displays with less than the best black levels. Turn it back on and the haze disappears.

On some material it required a delicate balancing of the brightness and gamma controls to provide the best combination of deep blacks and shadow detail. A one step change on either control could sometimes make the difference between an acceptable image and a compelling one.

But even in dark scenes where I felt that there should perhaps be more detail in the deep shadows, the Samsung's blacks could be striking. A great example of this is the below decks scenes near the beginning of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. As a crewman conducts a night inspection around the sleeping sailors and idle cannons, he carries only a dim lamp to light his way. On most digital displays you can see the important details in these scenes, but the surrounding gloom is often a dark to medium gray rather than inky black, depending on the quality of the set. On the Samsung, these dark areas are near total black, and while you can't see very deep into them, all the important details are visible in each shot. You really have to see this quality in a darkened room to appreciate how much it can enhances the dramatic effect of the scene.

Great blacks, combined with the Samsung's more than generous (but, when properly set up, not excessive) brightness also give the LN-T5281F's picture impressive depth. This varies from program-to-program and, not surprisingly, is most effective with computer animation. But in my experience of video displays, this set's subjective depth has only been exceeded (barely) by a few projectors and, among flat panel digital displays, the newest Pioneer plasmas.

Overall Performance
I'll start with the down side. The Samsung's shiny screen is also the source of a common LCD problem: degraded off-axis viewing. The image washout starts to become serious beyond about 20 degrees. Good seats for viewing the Samsung will be located at all positions on, say, a typical three-seat sofa positioned about 10 feet from the set (the closer you sit, the narrower the best viewing width). But the middle seat will always be the best in the house.

A less significant problem was poor operation with at least one an effect I call the "red splotch." On some program material shadows appeared crimson red. This was most often visible on Caucasian skin, where the shadows should have been gray or grayish pink. It usually could be attributed at least in part to the program material, but I did see it more often on the Samsung than on other sets I've tested recently. But it occurred only rarely.

The Samsung's deinterlacing and scaling of 480i inputs up to its native 1080p, including its recognition of 3/2 pulldown, was mediocre at best. This was particularly true of test patterns and challenging program material.

The Samsung earned a far better score in the HD video processing tests. Both its film and video 1080i-to-1080p deinterlacing were excellent, including (on film-based programming) recognition of 3/2 pulldown.

And there was more good stuff. The Samsung's color was very accurate, particularly after calibration. It was also free of significant uniformity issues; black and white movies showed no obvious color contamination anywhere on the screen.

Yes, there were reasonable variations in both flesh tones and greens on different program material, but these are common to most sources. Sometimes the color from the Samsung was exceptionally vivid—the first season of Star Trek, just released on HD DVD, popped with bright colors that I don't remember ever seeing on past broadcasts of the show. But the more natural, subdued colors of many current HD programs, such as House, were also properly reproduced. Speaking of House, the title character's scruffy look is getting a bit out of hand this year, and the Samsung's sharp, crisp picture made that all too clear.

Feed the set a high quality HD source and you'll know it. Period dramas like the absolutely final, last, definitive, ultimate cut of Oliver Stone's Alexander on Blu-ray, or Pride and Prejudice on HD DVD, provided enough eye-candy and detail on the Samsung to keep me going for another 10 pages of description—but I'll avoid the temptation.

High-definition popped on the Samsung in a way that literally compelled me to watch many HD commercials rather than fast forwarding through them on my cable DVR. And while standard definition on the Samsung also looked better than average on all but the most cruddy cable channels, those HD commercials made me want to force advertisers who still air standard definition ads to sit down and watch HD on a Samsung to see what HD ads are doing for their competitors.

The Samsung will accept a 1080p/24 input, but it converts it internally to 1080p/60 prior to display. Whether you will be better off simply changing the output resolution on your high-definition player to 1080p/60 to begin with will depend on which device—the player or the set—does a better job in converting 1080p/24 to 1080p/60. It's likely you won't see any difference.

As in the Samsung LN-T5265F, the LN-T5281F was better than average in avoiding image lag or smear, once a nagging problem with LCD displays. It was good without the LED Motion Plus feature engaged and somewhat better with it—though the difference was much more obvious on special test scenes than with most program material. Plasma still wins out for the lowest image lag of any digital display technology, but I was never bothered by it on the Samsung—even when watching fast moving sports.

I was fortunate to have the Pioneer PDP-6010FD 60" plasma in-house at the same time as this Samsung. While there were only a few days of overlap and the comparo took place before the Samsung had its full color temperature calibration, it was long enough for me to spend time with both displays side-by-side.

I found little to choose from between the two sets with respect to color quality, noise, and that hard-to-define "wow" factor (apart from the obvious difference in screen size). The Pioneer scored higher with its SD video processing, though not by much. But it was a tossup on HD deinterlacing, where both sets deinterlaced 1080i to 1080p well and both dealt properly with 3/2 pulldown on film-based material.

The Pioneer makes better use of film-based, 24p material, by turning it into 72Hz. As noted earlier, the Samsung simply converts it into 1080p/60 by adding 3/2 pulldown.

Despite the fact that the Pioneer turned in a slightly worse result in the HDMI resolution tests, particularly at the maximum HD burst test at 37.1MHz (more on the Samsung's test results in the Measurements section, below), the Samsung sometimes looked a hair less sharp. But I do mean a hair; if I hadn't seen the two sets side-by-side, I'd never have suspected any differences.

The Pioneer was the winner in both its off-axis and motion performance. Plasmas are, by nature, more like direct view CRTs than any other new display technology (apart perhaps for the stillborn SED) with respect to their off-axis viewing quality and resistance to motion lag. So it was no surprise that the Pioneer was the clear winner in both of these categories, though the differences were much more obvious in the off-axis category.

But depending on the program material, the Pioneer plasma drew roughly twice the power (350-400W) as the LCD Samsung (under 200W) with the same program material (tested with a Watts Up Power Analyzer).

While the Samsung could be set up to be considerably brighter than the Pioneer, the differences were subtle at more realistic levels, such as the settings I used. The only exception, which favored the Samsung, was on scenes demanding high brightness over the entire screen. That is, in general, a strength of LCD and a weakness of plasma, though I never found it to be a serious limitation of the Pioneer.

It was a close run in black level, but ultimately I had to come down on the side of the Pioneer. Despite the fact that the Pioneer never went completely black on fades between scenes, and the Samsung could, the Pioneer worked better for me in some very dark, low contrast program material. Samsung's local dimming can provide little or no benefit for such scenes, since there are seldom any areas that can be selectively lit. This is the only type of material in which the Samsung reverted to that gray haze look. A good example of this is a night scene in a church in Saving Private Ryan. On the Samsung, the image had a rather flat, grayish, subtly washed-out appearance. On the Pioneer, the actor's faces popped just enough, in front of deeply shadowed backgrounds, to give this difficult scene a reasonable sense of depth.

While the Samsung is not perfect in every respect, no video display is. But with stunning reproduction of the deepest blacks, great color, fine detail, and overall excellent performance on every type of program material, both HD and SD, the LN-T5281F is the best flat panel LCD I've yet reviewed.

• Superbly rich, inky blacks, good (but not exceptional) shadow detail
• Sharp, crisp image without enhancement
• Accurate color and excellent resolution

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Denon DHT-487DV Home Theater in a Box

Denon DHT-487DV Home Theater in a Box Denon DHT-487DV Home Theater in a Box Denon DHT-487DV Home Theater in a Box Denon DHT-487DV Home Theater in a Box Denon DHT-487DV Home Theater in a Box HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

An HTIB you can grow to love. Denon has a long and venerable history in the audio/video industry, including much of the pioneering work in the field of digital audio. Fitting of that tradition, Denon was, for many years, a brand reserved solely for the audiophile (later followed by the videophile) who frequented the high-end shops. This was a no-nonsense era for Denon, and its designers and engineers eschewed flashy features and other niceties, such as easy-to-use menus.

Much has changed in recent history. While you can still find plenty of Denon products at independent specialty stores, you'll also find Denon on the shelves of Circuit City and at the Magnolia Home Theater departments popping up in Best Buy stores all over the country. In order to appeal to these new market segments, the Denon folks have had to make their gear a bit friendlier to the average consumer. Fortunately, along the way Denon has resisted the temptation to skimp on quality in the death march that is the chase for the ever lower price point.

One thing a Denon devotee of days passed would never have expected to see is a Denon HTIB, but with home theater's popularity this was inevitable. In the case of the $699 DHT-487DV, it's more like HTCiB (Home Theater Components in a Box) than the typical HTIB because what you'll find inside the outer box are two separately boxed components – the AVR-487 A/V receiver and DVD-557 DVD player – along with another box containing the system's speakers.

Denon doesn't sell speakers separately in the U.S., so the speaker package is unique to the DHT-487DV (and the DVD-less DHT-487XP system). The DVD-557, however, is the entry-level $169 single-DVD player taken straight out of Denon's regular line. The AVR-487 AV receiver isn't in the current receiver line, but it's a near spitting-image of the $299 AVR-587, with the main difference being fewer 75-watt amplifier channels (five versus seven).

When you look at the price and start opening the boxes, it's immediately apparent what a bargain this more-than-the-minimum HTIB is- the receiver alone weighs more than some HTIBs on the market (okay, that's an exaggeration – but not by much). The list of features is pretty impressive, too. The AVR-487 has component video switching for two sources, a set of 5.1-channel analog audio inputs, A/B speaker switching, dual coaxial and optical digital audio inputs (each is assignable to a different input, too), an input for an optional Denon iPod dock, plus XM satellite capability (with an optional XM mini-tuner and home dock). While the available processing modes are pretty standard for a receiver in this class, the range of parameter adjustments within each mode is impressive. Basically, although it's packaged as part of an HTIB, this receiver can slide into most living rooms and keep its head held high.

The receiver's video mate, the DVD-557, is a single-disc progressive-scan DVD player with an HDMI (1.1) output that can upconvert to 720p or 1080i. It'll also play MP3 and WMA discs. While it's not as impressive a find as the receiver, it's a well-built, excellent performing piece of gear that most of us would be quite content to own.

That brings us to the speakers. True to form for almost every HTIB made by human hands, it's here that the system begins to show some weaknesses.

The DHT-AVR487DV includes four small satellites (each with a 3.6-inch mid-bass driver and a 0.75-inch tweeter), a slightly larger center channel (dual mid-bass drivers and a tweeter), plus a separate subwoofer with a 100-watt, built-in amplifier. The sub uses an eight-inch down-firing driver with a large forward-firing port. Interestingly, there are no speaker-level inputs on the subwoofer; it only accepts a low-level signal from the receiver's subwoofer output. The adjustable volume and crossover controls can be bypassed when the sub is set up as LFE only.

The speakers, subwoofer included, are all very pedestrian looking with flat-black vinyl-wrapped cabinets. The satellites have black-cloth grilles. The subwoofer, however, does not have a grille, leaving the large port plainly visible – and possibly the receptacle for small toys and other items donated by toddlers in the family.

Listening to two-channel music on the front satellites for an extended period of time can be a bit fatiguing, as the high frequency from those 0.75-inch dome tweeters is a little strident. Because of the thin-wall construction of the speaker cabinets, there's quite a bit of resonant vibration that tends to give the midrange a hollowness that masks fine sonic details. Kathy Kosins, who normally would be described as sultry chanteuse on her Go Slow CD, comes across more like a nasal, chain-smoking singer in some run down honky-tonk bar.

The deficiencies are less noticeable with movies, although the overall performance is a little thin. Bond's exploits in Casino Royale are still exciting, but they don't seem as big or as bold as they would with a more robust speaker system. Although, the subwoofer won't win any awards for its ability to produce the lowest bass frequencies, I did find it difficult to cause the sub to bottom out or distort noticeably, even during the intense depth charge scene in U-571 – a segment that's caused problems for much more expensive subs.

One of the things I like most about the DHT-487DV overall is the fact that it's a package with electronics put together from individual off-the-shelf components. That's great from a performance standpoint. The downside, however, is it makes for a system that's more difficult to operate than it should be.

The most egregious example is the receiver's remote control. It could well be the most complicated, most unintuitive, most annoying universal remote control ever to find its way into a receiver box. Main functions are on the front of the remote, but there's a hinged cover on the back that hides other important function buttons, including a number pad and buttons for switching DSP modes. There are also buttons on the front and back for Zone 2 use despite the fact that this system doesn't support multizone operation. Plan on buying something like a basic Harmony remote, and you'll be much happier in the long run.

Surprising too is the factory default for speaker size, which is set to "Large" for the front mains, despite the quite evident fact that the speakers included with the system are definitely "Small". The crossover point for the subwoofer will need to be increased from the preset 80Hz, too.

In spite of the painful remote control and a few other oddities, this is one of the better HTIB systems you can buy for under $700. True, the speakers are a compromise, but they're better than most you'll find with an HTIB. The core parts of the system, the receiver and DVD player, on the other hand, are true components that can – and do – compete on the shelves next to other components in their category. Each is good enough to build a home theater system around – and you can certainly use the AVR-487 as the basis for a much more elaborate system in the future.

AVR-487 excellent AVR to build on
Terrific upconverting DVD player with HDMI
Inputs for iPod dock and XM compatibility

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Sony DAV-HDX500 BRAVIA Theater System

Sony DAV-HDX500 BRAVIA Theater System Sony DAV-HDX500 BRAVIA Theater System Sony DAV-HDX500 BRAVIA Theater System Sony DAV-HDX500 BRAVIA Theater System Sony DAV-HDX500 BRAVIA Theater System HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

This Sony HTiB does the listening for you. Sony may not have invented the Home Theater in a Box, but it's certainly gone a long way in perfecting the concept. Where most companies make just a couple of HTiBs, Sony has close to a dozen ranging from a cute "1000-Watt" system with a five-disc changer and bookshelf speakers costing $299 all the way up to a 780-Watt $1,999 package that includes floorstanding front speakers, wireless rear speakers, and a DVD/ CD/SACD player. With so many choices, we wondered, what could we get from Sony for five hundred bucks? They answered the question by sending us the DAV-HDX500 BRAVIA Theater System.

The DAV-HDX500 is an HTiB built around an all-in-one receiver/DVD changer that Sony generously rates as putting out143-Watts per channel (x 5) plus an additional 285-Watts for the subwoofer – but that's at 10% THD. The receiver/DVD changer includes an AM/FM tuner, auto speaker calibration, and an HDMI output with upconversion to 720p or 1080i. There are inputs for an additional A/V source, an audio-only source, and an optional XM satellite radio antenna. Two Digital Media Ports on the back allow you to connect Sony Digital Media Port accessories, such as a Bluetooth Interface ($80) or a Walkman cradle ($50), both of which are currently available. Future accessories will include an iPod Dock ($100) and a Wi-Fi Client ($200). That's a pretty impressive range of features and inputs for a sub-$500 HTiB.

For years, one of Sony's strong points has been the industrial design of the gear it makes, and this HTiB is no exception. Rather than incorporate a standard flat front faceplate that looks both boring and cheap, Sony chose to endow the DAV-HDX500 with a cool-looking, split-level front panel. The main display is visible on the recessed top half while the DVD drawer, transport buttons, and volume control are located on a silver strip that extends outward about half an inch. Although the buttons are small, they're spaced well enough apart from one another, making it very easy to operate the system without the remote control.

Speaking of the remote control, the one included here is unfortunately typical of most Sony system remotes. It's filled with tiny buttons, many of which do double duty and therefore have double labels. Using it may be an engineer's delight, but it's an average Joe's distress. It's long, feels awkward in your hand, and the only TVs it will operate are compatible Sony models. This is not a family-friendly remote control.

The five-disc DVD changer is a front loading type, not a carousel. The video output can be upconverted to 720p or 1080i, and the image quality with DVDs is consistent with those I've seen in the $150 range. The time it takes to change discs is a bit longer than you'd experience with a carousel. It's pretty noisy when changing discs, but you won't be listening to music while the mechanism is operating anyway.

The front left and right speakers are two-way monitor-types. They're skinny, tall, and look high-tech when used with the included pedestal stands (thin silver tubes with large, flat, circular bases). They can also be mounted on the wall where they'll look like most other plasma-matching, on-wall speakers.

The center channel, in contrast, is tiny – so much so that it looks like it doesn't belong with the system. Whereas the main speakers are over 33-inches tall and almost 4.5-inches wide, the itty bitty center speaker is under two inches tall and only 15.25-inches wide. Put two stacks of three DVD cases side-by-side, and you'll have almost exactly the size of the front face of the center channel – although the speaker is only about half as deep (approximately 2.5-inches).The rear speakers are small, too, but not so much so that you'll do a double take when you first see them. All the speakers are silver with black metal grilles. Like the fronts, the center and rears can be wall-mounted using keyhole slots.

The size of the subwoofer is about average for an HTiB in the same price range and has a cabinet that's predominantly black with a silver trim ring around the front and a black metal grille that cosmetically matches the other speakers. There's a large port – with a thin silver ring around it to highlight the fact that it's there – on the front of the sub. The metal grille, by the way, is especially nice to have on the subwoofer since it's going to live down low where toddlers are amazingly adept at finding things to push, pull, prod, and poke. That metal grille will certainly save the bass driver itself from damage, but I think Sony made a mistake by not similarly protecting the port which is big enough to make a great hiding place for Hot Wheels cars, half-eaten crackers, and maybe the family gerbil.

Setting up the system is incredibly easy. Sony uses special color-coded speaker wire connectors on the back of the receiver/DVD player, so you plug those in and connect the wire with the matching color at the end to the appropriate speaker. Since the amplifier for the subwoofer is in the receiver/DVD player, there's no power cord to plug in. That's nice because it means you can place the sub anywhere that looks good, sounds good, and/or you can easily run the speaker wire to. Unfortunately, since the system doesn't include a low-level subwoofer output or the ability to set the system's processor/crossover to "no subwoofer", it will be hard to upgrade the speakers later on if you get the inclination to do so.

After the speakers are in place, you connect the included microphone to the jack on the front of the receiver/DVD changer. In the calibration menus, you can choose from several different system configurations ranging from the standard three-front-andāļŒ-two-back (plus subwoofer) arrangement to one that has all the speakers lined up on the front wall. While that's a thought sure to make any true home theater lover sick, I give Sony credit for including it since for some people that might be the only way they can set up the system. After that it only takes the automatic circuitry a couple of minutes of pops, clicks, and thumps before it's ready to go.

I found the calibration routine to be pretty accurate when it came to setting the delays as well as the volume levels. With the exception of the tiny center channel, I was almost ready to say that the dawn of a new era in the HTiB world was about to begin. That was before I sat down to do some serious listening to the system.

Don't misunderstand. When compared to most of what's on the market in the under-$500 range, the DAV-HDX500 is a solid contender when it comes to performance. It's just that, in my opinion, Sony has made the same mistake that almost all companies do with their HTiBs: they scrimped on the sound quality of the speakers.

The center channel offers a clue. It's just too small to do the job the way it really ought to be done. Because it, and the rest of the speakers, can't handle much in the way of bass response, the subwoofer is crossed over at a frequency that's high enough to make it easily localizable in the room. (One way to minimize this, of course, is to set up the subwoofer on the same wall as close to the main speakers as you can.) The bass is a bit boomy, but it's as good – and maybe a bit better – than what you'll hear with other $500 HTiBs. No, it's not going to knock you out of your chair, but you'd have to spend $500 or more just on the subwoofer for that kind of experience.

The main speakers tend to resonate a bit in the vocal range giving them a slightly hollow sound. It's not so noticeable with movies, but it became more obvious with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's Live concert DVD. The highs are a bit aggressive, which can put you slightly on edge when you're watching a movie like Monster House that has lots of high-frequency creaks and cracks. On the other hand, the cannon bombardment scene early in Master & Commander and the circle of drums scene in House of the Flying Daggers were both reproduced very well with a nice sense of space.

All things considered, especially the price point, I've got to give the DAV-HDX500 pretty high marks relative to its competitors. It's a fun system to use (except for that blasted remote), and the auto calibration makes getting the best sound possible out of the system as brainless as possible. It looks good, and if you're a Sony TV owner, it'll look especially nice next to your TV. I wish the speakers sounded a bit better, but that's a common knock against HTiBs, anyway. All in all, it's a good value in a one-box system.

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Onkyo HT-SR800 Home Theater in a Box

Onkyo HT-SR800 Home Theater in a Box 
Onkyo HT-SR800 Home Theater in a Box 
Onkyo HT-SR800 Home Theater in a Box 
Onkyo HT-SR800 Home Theater in a Box 
Onkyo HT-SR800 Home Theater in a Box 
HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

Multiple sweet spots from one sweet system. It's hard to get too excited about most inexpensive HTiBs. That's not to say a system has to cost a lot to be a great value. In fact, there are plenty of one-box-fits-all systems that pack a lot of punch for what you pay. But there's usually so much emphasis on quantity of features that the quality often suffers. In some cases, the system is a hodgepodge of gear thrown together by a manufacturer that sees how popular HTiBs are with the general public and doesn't want to miss out on grabbing its share of the pie.

So when an HTiB system comes along that's both reasonably priced and spanking good in terms of sound quality and loaded with useful features, I jump up from my perch on the couch and scream, "Praise the Lord and pass the remote!" (This is followed rather quickly by other members of my family yelling at me to sit down and be quiet.)

Onkyo's new $599 HT-SR800 7.1-channel Home Theater System is one of those exclamatory systems, and anyone interested in a system with serious substance rather than fancy fluffiness needs to take a look at it. Here's why.

First of all, it's a full 7.1-channel system. That alone makes it somewhat unusual when it comes to HTiBs. More unusual is the fact that it comes with all seven of the necessary bookshelf speakers, plus a powered subwoofer, to make a complete 7.1 system. But Onkyo doesn't lock you in to using it or losing it if you decide you'd be happier with a 5.1-channel system. The HT-R550 A/V receiver that's part of the system let's you configure it to run the "extra" pair of speakers and amp channels as a separate stereo pair in another location in your home or apartment.

As a matter of fact, you can also set up your main home theater as a 7.1-channel system using the included speakers and wire an additional pair of speakers to the Speaker Set B connections. When the Speaker Set B button on the front of the receiver is off, you'll hear 7.1-channels in your home theater. When Speaker Set B is turned on, the main system drops to 5.1. Based on past experience, I don't think a lot of people will take advantage of this feature; but the fact that it's even there is a clue to how much thought Onkyo put into the design of the system.

Although it is part of an HTiB, the HT-R550 is designed first and foremost as a full-fledged A/V receiver, with plenty of A/V inputs and outputs. It includes plenty of digital audio inputs, component video inputs, and even a full set of multichannel analog audio inputs for use with an SACD or DVD-Audio player. It would have been nice to see pre-amp outputs for all channels, but at least Onkyo included a subwoofer pre-out. Regardless, the amplifiers are substantial enough to use with a variety of other speakers when you're ready to move up.

Another big bonus with the HT-SR800 system is the inclusion of switching for two HDMI sources. Of course, switching for a lot more HDMI sources – more are headed our way every day – would have been great, but at least you can switch between two. Plus, both HDMI inputs support up to 1080p resolutions. You can only use the HDMI inputs for video (that's pretty standard for gear in this price range at the moment), so it's a good thing the receiver has those four digital inputs (two each optical and coaxial). [Just note that neither Toslink optical nor coaxial digital audio connections are capable of carrying next-gen audio from Blu-ray or HD DVD at full resolution, either as native bitstreams or multichannel PCM signals- Ed.].

The HT-R550 is also XM and Sirius satellite radio ready, so all you have to do is add the respective (optional) antennae and subscribe. XM sometimes broadcasts Neural Surround-encoded material, and the Neural Surround decoder built into the Onkyo receiver will let you hear those broadcasts in all their discrete-5.1-channel glory. For iPod owners, Onkyo makes an optional dock that provides control of the iPod from the receiver.

There's one more major, and I mean really major, feature built into the receiver, but since it affects the speakers let's move on to them first. As I've mentioned, the system comes complete with seven satellites and a subwoofer. All of the speakers, except for the subwoofer, of course, are designed to be used on either stands or shelves, or they can be wall-mounted. The three two-way front speakers are virtually identical, as are the four single-driver surround/back speakers. The subwoofer uses a down-firing 10" driver in a front-ported cabinet.

On the whole, the speaker package is okay, although nowhere near the high caliber of the receiver. That's okay because this system is obviously aimed at the consumer who's interested in value and performance, not glitz. Usually, such a person has thoughts of upgrading over time as his or her budget allows – and this is a system that's ripe with possibilities for upgrading.

When first set up, the speakers had a noticeable resonance in the mid-frequencies and were a bit aggressive and harsh in the high end. The subwoofer was nothing to write home about, but it was passable and equal in most respects to the quality of the rest of the speaker package.

This is where the really exciting part comes in. Onkyo says the HT-SR800 is the first HTiB system to use an Audyssey room-correction technology specifically designed for integrated systems. That's truly hot, and it gives this system the extra boost that catapults it over most of the competing systems on the market.

Audyssey technology, if you're not familiar with it, uses complex processing algorithms that tailor the system's sound to your particular room – and it provides a "sweet spot" for more than one listening position. There are various levels of Audyssey processing, and you can buy a standalone processor for several thousand dollars that will work with the most outrageous systems. This Onkyo HTiB uses a less elaborate version called Audyssey 2EQ.

Like other systems with built-in calibration technologies, the HT-SR800 lets you set up the speakers, place the included microphone in the listening position, and push the calibration button. The system takes care of the rest. There's no hassle with menus and setting speaker sizes, distances, and etc. Using Audyssey 2EQ, however, will take a little longer than most (about 10 minutes) because it needs to go through the entire calibration process for three listening positions – which means you have to move the microphone to each seat for separate testing.

The result of this little bit of extra work is well worth the effort. In this case, what starts as a lackluster speaker system becomes something that's pretty darn good – certainly better than the rest of the HTiBs I've heard in this price range. The aggressive highs were mellowed, the mid-bass resonance was greatly reduced, and the subwoofer, although still not spectacular, was tighter and had more oomph. In addition, the delays were right on, so the surround effects seamlessly meshed with the front channels. And, as promised, the sweet spot opened up from a center-of-the-couch position to one that encompassed the entire couch. (Of course, no one else could hear how good it sounded because I was still shouting about how impressed I was!)

Some will complain that $599 only buys a 7.1-channel receiver and the associated speakers. It's not really a Home Theater in a Box if it doesn't include a DVD player, right? Maybe so, but even if you add on $150 for a decent entry-level DVD player (and you can definitely find name-brand machines for less), you're still looking at – and listening to– one of the best HTiBs we've experienced for the money. If you are into performance and would like to have the possibility of upgrading, this one's highly recommended.

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Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i

Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i 
Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i 
Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i 
Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i 
Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i 
HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

CD and radio in a box—iPod out back. More than half a century of audio evolution has produced this modest box. Its grandparents are the high-end radios of the 1950s. Its parents are of the CD generation, a 1980s format increasingly viewed as archaic by the latest generation of listeners. And it accommodates the iPod, although it keeps the latest audio revolution literally at arm's length, in a separate docking device that plugs into the back of the system. The retrofit brings an already successful product family closer to being up to date.

CD and iPod aside, the CD 745i's radio section is strictly AM/ FM. It does not support satellite or digital terrestrial broadcasting. That doesn't make it a bad investment by any means. Analog AM and FM radio have a long future in store—there is no digital transition underway in radio, as there is with digital television broadcasting. But look elsewhere (and prepare to spend more) if you need Sirius, XM, or HD Radio.

Ton of Fun
My first impression when I lifted the CD 745i out of the carton was, "Wow, this thing weighs a ton"—if a ton were 12 pounds. The power supply is built in, so there is no wall wart hanging from the power cord. The unit sports some curves at the sides but otherwise makes little attempt to prettify itself.

This "2.1 speaker design," as Cambridge calls it, places a pair of 2-inch, full-range drivers at the edges of the front panel. Their grilles are detachable, although the product's appearance doesn't improve if you remove them. A 4-inch "powered subwoofer" is built into the bottom—you can see it through its hard plastic grille beneath the right speaker. A port is underneath the hard plastic grille centered at the bottom rear. A "frequency-contoured" amplifier that delivers 13 watts powers the sub. Each of the main channels receives 4.5 watts.

My review sample came in black with a gray center panel; the white version is all white. The front panel is pure business. At first glance, there seem to be a lot of buttons, but sometimes that makes a product easier to use. The manual is only 35 pages long, and that includes vast acreage of white space. The closest the user interface gets to intricacy is the jog button, which cycles through bass, treble, and loudness controls, the latter of which provides further boosting to both bass and treble at low volumes. Also in the jog menu is a three-position control that switches among standard stereo imaging, "Wide" stereo, and mono.

Centered horizontally on the front panel, there is a CD slot at the top and a large volume knob on the bottom. To the right of the knob are transport controls identified by icons embossed into the buttons. Unfortunately, they are not distinguished in any other way (that is, by size, shape, color, or layout). The legends that surround the controls spell out their alternate uses. To the left of the volume knob are eight preset buttons. They also have alternate uses, such as CD mode and folder navigation. Two more pairs of buttons, relating to clock radio functions, flank the backlit white fluorescent display. A traditional snooze bar is the only top-panel control. It doubles as a mute button.

The supplied membrane-type remote control has 29 buttons. Here is where Cambridge's design sense kicks in. The control layout is shrewdly asymmetrical and uses background shading to group functions together, such as volume, transport, navigation, alarms, and presets.

On the back panel are only AM and FM antenna inputs, plus a 3.5-millimeter minijack and a 2.5-mm minijack that serve as line and power connections for the iPod dock. The headphone and auxiliary line-in minijacks are located on the front panel for easier access—you needn't grope around the back of the unit when you want to plug in another source (like, say, my SanDisk player).

The display can show text from RDS (Radio Data Service), from CDs, or from tagged MP3/WMA files. It dims in the dark, which actually makes it easier to read in a darkened room. You can set the sleep delay in 15-minute increments up to two hours.

At 19 inches, the docking-station cable is just long enough to allow for placement on top of the unit or perhaps on an adjacent shelf. It is hard-wired into the dock. Cambridge only supplies two docking adapters. Neither of the adapters fit my first-generation iPod nano. There is a slot behind the dock; Cambridge put it there as a parking place for the remote. I thought of an alternate use: If you've got his and hers nanos, you might keep both connected simultaneously, using the back slot and auxiliary minijack for the second player.

My first review unit did not have a functioning CD drive. The slot was obstructed, the mechanism having apparently come loose during shipment. The second unit they sent worked fine. Don't let this worry you—Cambridge maintains a 45-day no-questions-asked, total-satisfaction return policy.

No-Sweat Setup
Could I set the time without consulting the manual? Temptation came in the form of a clock icon printed next to a pair of plus/minus buttons. I pressed the plus button, the display read "time set," and I kept pressing until the time was correct. With a tremendous feeling of satisfaction, I proceeded to play a CD.

A natural piano sound came with my first CD selection, Scriabin's Piano Sonatas 1, 6, and 8, performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Number 6 is perfect Halloween music. The composer dreaded it so much, he never performed it, describing it as "nightmarish" and "unclean." The Decca release is one of the few early digital recordings that I've found to be consistently pleasing over the years, with a dark and smooth piano sound immersed in the ambience of London's Kingsway and Walthamstow Halls. The CD 745i kept the left half of the keyboard in pretty good proportion to the right. A quality component system would outperform the Cambridge, but most compact systems of similar size and price that I'm familiar with would not.

Michel Camilo's Spirit of the Moment, a jazz-piano-trio recording, didn't get to strut its 5.1-channel SACD soundtrack when I slipped it into the Cambridge. But the hybrid disc's CD layer immediately surprised me in the system's Wide mode, with a limited but noticeable degree of stereo separation that extended about a foot beyond the sides of the 14-inch-wide unit. The Wide mode didn't add any noticeable coloration to the overall sound, so I left it on. Camilo's piano and Dafnis Prieto's drum sound were about as substantial as anything I've heard from a small plastic-clad product—the CD 745i sounds larger than it looks. If Charles Flores' string-bass lines were not perfectly even, neither did they exhibit any glaring gaps.

Vintage alternative rock didn't faze the CD 745i at all. Superunknown, the Soundgarden classic, blasted comfortably from 10 feet away with the volume set at 20 out of 30 increments. A trace of hardness marred the moody perfection of "Black Hole Sun" at top volume. The system can conquer even a fairly large room for background listening. But, for serious listening, it would fare best in a smaller room.

When I plugged in my iPod nano, I worried at first about the lack of a nano docking adapter—my player stood unsupported in the dock. However, I stopped worrying when I realized that I could navigate the menus and operate the transport controls from the Cambridge remote without touching the iPod. The menus were visible on the iPod itself, and the iPod screen lit up to make them more readable. The CD 745i's main display showed only "Player" and the clock when the iPod was playing. When I fed it a CD-R containing tagged MP3 files, though, it did display the track and performer names.

FM-radio play revealed some boominess in voices, both male and female; I used my longtime reference standards, NPR and WNYC FM. (I listen to them daily on a variety of radios.) I knocked the nine-position bass control down one or two increments from the center position, and that eliminated the boominess. This plumping of the midbass wasn't as noticeable (or at all objectionable) with music. FM reception on my reference station was accompanied by relatively little noise, even in stereo mode. Many other radios deliver it cleanly only in mono. Even more impressive, the radio achieved this high level of performance using its internal FM antenna. I never even bothered to connect the external one.

At $400, the Cambridge CD 745i isn't exactly cheap. Although it won't win any beauty contests, it is considerately designed, and its FM reception is among the strongest I'm aware of. Add CD and iPod capability—the latter at no extra cost, despite the dock being an external piece—and you've got the makings of a tidy little compact system. I can think of at least one blood relative who uses a similar Cambridge SoundWorks product as a primary audio system—a working musician, no less. You might be equally happy with it.

• AM/FM, CD slot, and external iPod dock (supplied)
• Good tonal balance for music
• Strong bass, perhaps overly so on some vocals

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Harman Kardon HS 300 Integrated Home Theater System

Harman Kardon HS 300 Integrated Home Theater System Harman Kardon HS 300 Integrated Home Theater System Harman Kardon HS 300 Integrated Home Theater System Harman Kardon HS 300 Integrated Home Theater System Harman Kardon HS 300 Integrated Home Theater System HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

Every day, I wash with Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap. A soap- formulating virtuoso, the late doctor was also mad as a hatter—the Magic Soap packaging is festooned with peculiarly uplifting wisdom in voluminous fine print. Prominent is the phrase, "all one." The Harman Kardon HS 300 is an all-one kind of system, uniting a DVD-receiver with four satellite speakers, a center-channel speaker, and a subwoofer. I'm not trying to imply that Dr. Harman has any particular kinship with Dr. Bronner, apart from both boasting Doctor for a first name. This quaint lead, now completed, was the easiest three minutes of work I've ever done.

The Floating DVD-Receiver
The satellite speakers are modest, silver-gray plastic tubes with 3-inch paper-cone woofers (and therefore not much bass), as well as the sweet titanium-laminate tweeter that JBL uses in some of their other speakers. They rest on small, black plastic pedestals or optional stands and can also be wall mounted. The center is an exact match for the satellites, which is good. The only exception is the location of the pedestal. It's on the side of the speaker, so you can place it horizontally.

Although the satellites are nothing special to look at, the HS 300 is not devoid of visual interest. The DVD-receiver is something special. In lieu of the four modest rubber feet you'd expect, it rests on two transparent plastic strips, one in front and one in back. Thus, it seems to float above whatever surface it rests on.

What enables the receiver and DVD drive to exist in such a svelte unit is Class D digital amplifier technology. It dissipates less energy in the form of heat, so it's more efficient than the Class A/B amplifiers that drive most receivers. That enables it to be built into a smaller chassis, with (in this case) ventilation holes only at the sides. After several hours of operation, the unit ran warm but not hot. Power is rated at 35 watts per channel into 6 ohms. If this were specified in the standard manner with 8 ohms, the number of watts would be lower (see the measurements box). However, as with all packaged systems, the speakers are designed to work with the included amp, so this is rather academic.

The design might be almost too rigorously minimalist. Only two buttons grace the top front edge, power and eject, and the only control on the front panel is the volume knob—a black circle surrounded in blue backlighting. Because it's set flush with the front panel, you operate it with your thumb, which really is more fun than it sounds. This set of controls is sufficient to turn on the system, insert a disc, and set the volume. But you can't switch sources (to, say, AM/FM or an external audio input) or surround modes. For that, you need the remote.

Although its menu graphics are actually better looking to me than those in Harman Kardon's standalone receivers, the system has its ergonomic quirks. For instance, as I was setting volume levels with test tones, I found something I haven't seen before. The onscreen display responded to level changes, while the tones themselves did not. Only when I locked in the levels did they change audibly. This added a couple of minutes to the setup process, but it wasn't exactly a deal breaker.

Menu navigation required the programmable remote control's setup key to get in (natch), but the OSD key to get out (not so obvious). The remote's power button only turned the unit off—to turn it on, I used the source-select keys.

For the high-definition-conscious viewer, the DVD section upconverts to 1080i, 720p, or 480p. The control menu duplicates standard TV controls such as brightness, contrast, and so on. Connectivity-wise, the system has some notable limitations. There is an HDMI output to feed a video display but no HDMI ins. There are no 5.1-channel analog jacks, either—no inputs to accept an SACD or Blu-ray or HD DVD player, and no outputs to feed a bigger multichannel amp. Nonetheless, limiting as they may be, none of these omissions are unusual in this market segment.

Harman supplies cables for the speakers and sub. The speaker cable is fairly slender stuff (the manufacturer says it's 16-gauge). My 12-gauge reference cable is thicker, but I used the supplied cable because the system was designed to work with it.

Killer Bees, Psychos, and Scandals
Even within the organic framework of its design—with speakers specifically matched to the amp and vice versa—most movies required more than half of the receiver's volume setting, or gain, to keep dialogue at an adequate level. The exception was Apocalypto, for which half of the system's volume setting was plenty—although there was no English-language dialogue to serve as an intelligibility test. Mel Gibson will never win a humanitarian-of-the-year award, but he and his sound designers deserve credit for an especially eventful soundtrack, here experienced in DTS. In addition to the predictable war drums, various scenes regaled me with the roar of a crowd, a waterfall, a bee attack, and many other memorable moments. The system could have delivered the jungle ambience more vividly; then again, I was keeping the volume at half-mast to keep the effects from bombarding me too aggressively.

THR3E was more typical, running at two-thirds of potential maximum gain. The psycho killer that the film profiles was into explosions, and again, I needed ways to reduce the low-frequency effects' intensity. This time, I opened up the volume and knocked down the sub level a bit. This proved to be a durable set of choices, although deep voices were slightly starved in their bottom octaves. With a modestly priced system, there are always tradeoffs. In this case, it's a strong dependence on the sub, because the satellites have little bass of their own. Unfortunately, that tends to call a lot more unwanted attention to the crossover between sats and sub.

But what the system did well, it did extremely well, as I discovered when a delightful Philip Glass soundtrack ushered in Notes on a Scandal, starring Cate Blanchett as the young teacher who falls into the web of a sinister Judi Dench. The latter's voice trickled out of the speakers like dulce de leche. I was surprised at the sheer beauty the system could conjure from Glass' orchestral score, which urges on the story line like a Greek chorus and finishes the credits with the tinkle and thunder of celesta playing in unison with tympani. True, the tympani sounded flabbier than it would in a higher-end system, but I was more than satisfied. My estimation of the system slowly rose as I learned to live within its limitations.

The DVD-Audio Acid Test
Digital amps being what they are, an evolving technology, there is an art to voicing a system based on them. Open up the top end too much, and the highs and mids take on a slightly blurry or glazed quality—what I think of as the Class D sound. But starve the top end, and the system becomes unsatisfyingly vague and reticent. Harman Kardon hit the bull's-eye, as the music tests (often more revealing than cinematic listening) revealed.

Because the HS 300 is DVD-Audio compatible, the toughest test I could throw at it was an orchestral recording in that moribund, high-resolution format. There's only one such disc in my collection, but it's a great one: Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin, performed by The Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra with Marin Alsop. The string sound was unexpectedly good. If I hadn't previously heard the disc through my reference system, I'd never have suspected that some depth was missing. In terms of comfort level and overall beauty, the system aced this tough test.

It did not do as well with the Byrds album Turn! Turn! Turn! My CD is a 1996 Sony Super Bit Mapping release—in other words, far better than a first-generation CD, though perhaps not as good as the most recent technology would allow. The chiming guitars were there, of course, but the gorgeous harmony vocals needed more texture and better separation. Given how good the DVD-Audio disc had sounded, this might be less a problem with the amp and more a limitation of the system's digital processing for 16-bit recordings. But I can only speculate.

Regardless, a Chesky jazz recording came across well. West of 5th—with pianist Hank Jones, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Jimmy Cobb—is a hybrid SACD title. Because the HS 300 doesn't play SACD, I listened to the CD layer and did so in an un-Chesky-approved manner, using the Dolby Pro Logic II music mode. This is my standard procedure for all two-channel recordings. One advantage of listening this way is that DPLII routes more information to the center than Chesky's multichannel mixes typically do. The disc's character was easy pickings for the receiver. It delivered a full, slightly opaque but pleasing sound.

The Harman Kardon HS 300 delivered good performance for what is, by "in a box" standards, a moderately high price. There are plenty of cheaper systems out there, and a few of them are also good. Still, they're outclassed by the sleek looks of this one's DVD-receiver. This may be the integrated home theater solution for you.

• Four identical satellites, a nearly identical center, and sub
• DVD/receiver with digital amp
• Energy efficient, self-sufficient

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