The Perfect Vision reviews a lot of video gear—and video displays especially. We cover as much ground in our reviews as we can and offer as many comparisons among technologies as we can, but we also keep our word counts tight and move fast so we can cover as many products for you as possible. So every once in a while it’s nice to stretch our legs a little bit, get outside of the review process, and comment on what’s happening in the ever-changing, quickly evolving world of display technology.
In this article I’m going to offer an overview of the knowledge we’ve gleaned from our experiences living with currently available display technologies, focusing on movie-enthusiast- level performance. I’m going to talk about where we are now and where we are headed in the near future.
I ripped off that line from Randy Tomlinson’s review of Sony’s stunning KV- 34XBR960 in Issue 63, which is an excellent place to start. Sony’s ultra-high-resolution Super Fine Pitch tube has practically reinvented the CRT at a time when it’s about to go away. This is a broadcast-quality picture, now selling at retail for $1899! We reviewed this 34" direct-view set, as well as three 30" direct-view CRTs from major manufacturers, and found that with the exception of form factor, size (both the screen and the box), and light output, the CRT direct-view, allegedly in its last days as a viable technology, dominates its flat-panel counterparts in virtually every aspect of image quality. In particular, CRTs have practically infinite contrast ratio as a result of their ability to do blacks that are, in the words of Spinal Tap’s immortal Derek Smalls, “none more black.” What’s more, CRTs do colors that are strikingly more vibrant and far more natural-looking than their digital competitors.
Both of these attributes have earned the CRT direct-view ardent support from movie lovers. Fans of this technology also admire its striking clarity and depth, which is enhanced in some ways by its forgiving nature with the artifacts that plague many broadcast signals. CRT beam spots are tightly focused in the center and gently fade out at the edges. Pixels are digital in every respect, crisp and uniform from edge to edge with no soft fade to hide the warts. Ruthless, in a word.
But the reasons the CRT is being shown the door are still there. Although the images are sumptuous, CRT screen sizes aren’t big enough for most dedicated-theater environments— 16:9 direct-view CRTs top out at a den-sized 34" diagonal. Worse, in spite of their diminutive screen sizes, CRTs have big, deep room footprints and often tip the scales at a backspraining 200 pounds or more.
CRTs are a hard bargain, but if you can get around these issues, your eyes will feast on breathtaking, natural images other technologies can’t equal. And the category is at its zenith with respect to quality. CRTs are better than ever, but it may be now or never for buying one.
TV hanging on their wall and those who want to have a cool flat-panel TV hanging on their wall. Flat panels are the CE industry’s “It” girl, and all sales projections indicate spectacular growth in this category in the next few years. As you’ve gathered from what I wrote above, flat panels solve some of the CRT’s problems, but fall down by comparison in other ways. Let’s look at the two currently prevalent flavors of flat panel: plasma and LCD.
A funny thing happened a couple of years ago when the plasma panel was poised to take over the Earth. The LCD flat panel roared onto the scene out of nowhere, with the help of some very aggressive marketing. I’ll leave it to the marketing guys to convince you which of these panels has a longer life-span. I’m more interested in performance, and I think you should be more interested in which technology’s set of tradeoffs works best for you.
Plasmas are available in smaller sizes, but 42" is where the action starts, and, while we’re seeing some prototypes of larger models, 60" diagonal is roughly where it ends. The 42" models represent a sweet spot in manufacturing efficiency and it’s showing at retail. These things are getting cheaper every day, with attractive, HD-pixel-count models starting at $2000.
In addition to hanging a larger image on the wall with a 4" profile, plasma light output typically outshines CRT and is eclipsed only by LCD flat panels. But that prodigious light output comes at a price. While plasma’s combination of light output and high resolution is dazzling with bright, video-based material like HD sporting events, it has always struggled to make the convincing blacks and shadow details that draw movie lovers to CRTs. This has prevented us in the past from recommending plasmas as a primary display for a theater environment, relegating them to use as bedroom or secondary displays. In the last year or so, however, we’ve seen the first plasma panels with the black-level/contrast-ratio chops to make them worthy of recommendation to movie nuts. We obviously hope to see this trend continue.