Saturday, July 07, 2007

Aiming Towards a New Living Room TV

Until last Sunday I had a 61" Samsung DLP rear-projector HDTV in my living room. A real behemoth, it took up one end of the room, what with its non-flat-panel bulk and the massive stand under it that raised it to the proper eye level, and that provided shelf space for the equipment that fed the TV its signals and routed sound to a set of home theater speakers.

The daughter of some good friends is just moving into a new house with her fiancé and they needed a TV ... so I sold them the Samsung DLP and threw in the stand and auxiliary gear as a housewarming gift.

And now I have an empty spot along the wall where the Samsung stood, just the right size for a 46" flat-panel HDTV to sit on its (included) mounting pedestal atop a sofa table that I already have in position to receive it.

The prime candidate right now to fill that spot is a Sony 46" BRAVIA® XBR® series LCD Flat Panel HDTV, model number KDL-46XBR2. Its little brother, a 40" KDL-40XBR2, now sits in my bedroom (see A New Bedroom HDTV for Me, Part I).

Although I complained in this blog (see A New Bedroom HDTV for Me, Part II and its multiple following posts) about the fact that the 40XBR2's panel brightness is uneven on certain supposedly uniform gray-scale test patterns, I find I virtually never notice non-uniformity on actual video material. All in all, the 40XBR2 has an outstanding 1080p picture, with nothing else really to complain about ... and I assure you, I do tend to get a little picky about picture defects.

I'm taking a minimalist approach to this one. When I bought the bedroom TV last year as well as, about three years ago, the 32" Hitachi plasma HDTV I have in my basement, I simply assumed I needed a multichannel audio setup to go with each TV. Plus, of course, a DVD player. Plus, naturally, a high-def cable box/DVR, which in the bedroom installation morphed into a TiVo Series3 DVR with two CableCARDs (see Three Cheers for TiVo Series3).

But with the new living room setup, I plan to forgo multichannel sound. I find that my ears are so bad — I have a hearing deficiency in the upper ranges — that I understand dialog best when I listen to audio coming from the bedroom TV's internal speakers.

I twigged to that when I did some experiments to see whether the bedroom Sony receives any audio signal at all from the TiVo Series3, given that the only signal path between the two is one HDMI cable. I knew that in theory, an HDMI connection is supposed to carry video and audio, both in digital form. But what if the TiVo Series3 didn't always send digital audio out on HDMI, or the TV didn't always use it?

I reckoned there should be no problem sending digital audio out to the TV if the channel I am watching is digital ... but what about the many cable channels that are still analog?

Or, what if the digital audio associated with the channel I'm tuned to is Dolby Digital 5.1? Will the TV be able to decode it?

In the case of an analog cable channel, there's no problem whatever. My assumption is that the TiVo Series3 digitizes the analog audio on the fly and outputs it in stereo ... as, I'm guessing, the digital format called "linear PCM" ("linear" means there's no digital compression; PCM stands for pulse code modulation).

In the case of Dolby Digital 5.1, the digital audio stream is probably being sent as-is to the TV, which handles it just fine.

In all cases, I hear perfectly adequate, quite understandable sound through the TV's excellent speakers. True, it's not surround sound, and there's not a lot of bass. But I don't really care.

That all means I can get away, wiring-wise, with:

  • plugging the TV into a wall outlet
  • plugging a second TiVo Series3 into the same outlet
  • hooking a TiVo wireless network adapter to the TiVo Series3 (the wireless connection allows downloading the TiVo program guide without the use of a phone line)
  • connecting the cable TV 75-ohm input feed cable to the TiVo Series3
  • running a single HDMI cable between the TiVo Series3 and the TV
... and that's it! That's the full extent of the wiring and cabling that will be needed. As I say, it's minimalist.

The two CableCARDs which I will thereafter have Comcast install in the new TiVo Series3, so that it can pick up digital channels, two at a time, won't need wires.

The only other thing I might get that needs wiring would be a DVD player — again, just a power-cord connection and an HDMI audio/video signal path to the TV.

I'm in no hurry to get the disc player. I figure it will be either an HD DVD player or a Blu-ray unit, for giving me high-def pictures. Or, ideally, if the high-def disc format war shows no sign of letting up, a combination player that handles both formats.

Right now, I feel the players from both camps are not ready for prime time. They cost too much, have too many missing features — some don't even play CDs — and take too long to boot up. I've seen one dual-standard combi player so far, from LG. The reviews say it lacks virtually all the niceties we have all come to expect from a video disc player. I can wait until these players have grown into a stable, no-problems maturity before I buy. Maybe next year.

Yet I'm planning for a disc player eventually. Paired with the TiVo, it will become the second (and hopefully last) piece of gear that I will need to feed the new TV. So where will the two boxes go?

Actually, I have space for them in a corner near the TV. The only sticking point is that they have to be elevated so nearby furniture won't block the IR remotes' sightlines to them.

I don't really need a rack unit that has low shelves that will never be used — so I've decided on a wooden display pedestal with cherry laminate finish from Dick Blick Art Materials. I'll be getting the one that is 24" tall, shown at the left in the photo to the right.

The pedestal, with shipping, costs under $200. Its horizontal surface is 15" square — not quite wide enough for a TiVo Series3. So I'm going to top it with a 1/2"-thick, 15" x 18" clear acrylic cut sheet surface, about $40 from JMK Displays after routing and polishing of its edges.

Unfortunately, the wooden pedestal is not slated to ship until August 20. Oh, well ... that leaves me with time on my hands to consider opting not for the KDL-46XBR2 but for the newest Sony on the block: a 1080p KDL-46XBR4 46" BRAVIA® XBR® series LCD Flat Panel HDTV.

(The relevant page on the Sony website listing the KDL-46XBR2 and KDL-46XBR4, among Sony's other LCD flat panels, is here.)

The new, "shipping in August" KDL-46XBR4 model updates the KDL-46XBR2 with several new bells and whistles. (I take it that that shipping timeframe, which could easily slip, refers to 8/31/2007, and not a day earlier.) The main new feature seems to be the ability to interface with a Blu-ray player or other high-def source device that sends 1080p video out on HDMI at a rate of 24 fps (24 frames per second).

24 fps is exactly the frame rate of motion picture film. It is also the frame rate at which the film's 1080p video transfer is recorded on a Blu-ray or HD DVD disc. Yet most 1080p HDTVs need to have the 1080p/24 on the disc converted to 1080p/60 within the disc player. These HDTVs can handle 1080p/60 input, that is, but not 1080p/24. The conversion to 1080p/60 compromises the smoothness of motion in the on-screen image.

With the upcoming KDL-46XBR4 in the picture, as I understand it, a Blu-ray player can send it unconverted 1080p/24 on HDMI. The TV will upgrade the 1080p/24 internally to a 120-fps frame rate. 120 fps is exactly five times 24 fps, so the upgrade is straightforward. Still, in doing the frame rate upconversion, the KDL-46XBR4 is supposed to optimize the moving picture's on-screen smoothness even further. This is due to what Sony is calling its Motionflow™ High Frame Rate technology.

The new Sony KDL-46XBR4 is also future-proof by virtue of its supporting the new HDMI standard, version 1.3. HDMI 1.3 is faster than the current 1.2 and supports all of the fancy new digital-audio formats that Blu-ray and HD DVD discs can optionally provide. Of course, that does not necessarily mean the new KDL-46XBR4 can decode them all! Time will tell on that. (Nor does it mean that the currently available Blu-ray or HD DVD players can read the most advanced of the new audio formats, if they are present on the disc, and export them as-is to external gear.)

Another nicety of the KDL-46XBR4, vis-a-vis the KDL-46XBR2, is that both the internal video signal processing path of the KDL-46XBR4 and the output display panel support 10 bits (not the usual 8 or 9 bits) for each of the three primary colors, red, green, and blue. That means colors on screen that are more accurate than usual, with more subtle gradations, and with less "banding." Banding, also called "false contouring," is the tendency for solid-color areas in the scene to separate into visually discernible bands or strips because their most finely graded shadings are compromised by digital signal processing.

Unfortunately, the announced price for the KDL-46XBR4 is a whopping $3,599.99. The KDL-46XBR2, now in closeout status, can be had for $2,969.99 at Best Buy as of today, 7/7/07. It can be bought from online discounters for as little as $2,409.50, with no tax and free shipping (click here for a list of price quotes from

There is also a KDL-46XBR3 model, which is just like the KDL-46XBR2 except for having a black bezel and mounting pedestal. For the privilege of having that extra touch of elegance, Best Buy Online charges you fully $3,599.99, with an "in store only" caveat. (In other words, you can't put the KDL-46XBR3 in your cyber shopping cart and see its discounted price. Hopefully it costs less in the store itself.) The best online price for the KDL-46XBR3 (click here) is currently $2,619.50.

Accordingly, it looks as if opting for the new KDL-46XBR4 would cost me up to an extra grand! Is it worth it? That's a question I seem to have plenty of time to ponder.

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