The Home Theater Experience

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The TV

The first component you'll need for your home theater system will be a television set or digital projector, and a wide range of options is available. What's not optional, however, is a high definition-compatible set. This is the 21st century, friends, and any true home theater aficionado should choose an HD-compatible TV.

For starters, HD sets offer a much sharper picture when viewing DVD movies (a significant part of the home theater experience)--and of course, they present a fantastically good picture when tuned to an HD channel.

While standard TVs use 480 vertical scan lines to "draw" their images, HD sets offer either 720 progressive or 1080 interlaced scan lines. (Progressive scan is generally better for viewing fast-moving action.) The more lines a set uses, the more subtle details it can show in its picture.

(Beware, though: HD sets may not display standard-definition TV channels as clearly as conventional, non-HD sets can. Standard-definition broadcasts can often look a little less sharp on HD sets, due to the way HD TVs interpret the analog TV signal coming from cable or satellite TV tuners.)

Some HD sets also offer a wide-screen aspect ratio (16:9 versus the more squarish 4:3 ratio of standard TVs), which is much closer to what you're used to seeing in movie theaters. With these HD sets, you don't have to watch wide-screen movies with black, "letterbox" bars on the top and bottom of the screen--although to get a natural-looking picture, you will have to watch standard 4:3 broadcasts with black bars on the sides of the picture.

It's up to you whether you choose a wide-screen or standard display: Base your choice on whether you expect to view mostly wide-screen broadcasts and movies, and view both before making your purchase.

There is a dizzying array of HD sets and projectors to choose from, based on several different technologies that determine the screen size, the unit's price, and some other factors important to your home-theater experience. So here's a rundown of the different kinds of technologies you'll find in HD displays, and the tradeoffs of each. For a more thorough description of these technologies, see "A TV for Every Type." For more about HD, see the HDTV Answer Guide.

CRT TVs

These TVs use the same CRT (cathode ray tube) technology that TVs have used since the dawn of time (TV time, at least). Since they use a very well-established technology, they're pretty affordable--for instance, the 26-inch Samsung TX-P2675WH costs around $700, while the 30-inch Philips 30PW8402 goes for around $800. But the size of this type of TV is limited--even the biggest CRTs generally reach only 36 inches (40 inches in a few rare cases), which doesn't gives you the true, big-screen experience.

Plasma Sets

These are the creme de la creme of home theater TVs. They come in jumbo sizes--up to 60 inches diagonally, and bigger ones are on the way--and yet are only a few inches thick, so you can hang one on the wall like a high-tech masterpiece. What's more, an image displayed on a plasma screen--as with a CRT TV--can easily be seen from extremely wide viewing angles. Of course, all these perks come at a steep price--an entry-level plasma set, like the 32-inch Sony KE-32TS2, sells for about $2800, and bigger models like the Fujitsu P63XHA30WS, a 63-inch plasma, can cost over $20,000.

Also, while new technology mitigates the risk, plasma screens can suffer from image burn-in. That's where you'll see a faint but permanent mark left behind by an image that stays on screen for long periods of time, such as a static menu on a DVD you've forgotten to turn off, or the control panel for a video game.

LCD TVs

At first glance, LCD TVs look a lot like plasma sets. Built with technology found in flat-screen computer monitors, LCDs are only a few inches thick, so you can hang them on a wall or elsewhere in a room without using up much space. Unfortunately, though, LCD sets don't offer the jumbo screen sizes that plasma TVs do--for instance, the biggest LCD sets these days are 40 inches, which is definitely on the scrawny side when you want to emphasize the "theater" part of your home theater.

What's more, prices for large LCD TVs, such as the 37-inch Sharp Aquos (about $4000), are higher than plasma TVs, inch for inch. Another thing to consider: LCD TVs have narrower fields of view than plasma TVs. While they look great when you are looking straight at them, image quality drops off noticeably if you are sitting off to the side. Check out PC World's reviews of several good LCD TVs. For more on LCD TVs and plasma screens, see "Flat-Panel TVs: Time to Go Skinny?" and "How to Buy a Flat-Screen TV."

Rear-Projection CRT TVs

These are your best bet for getting a big HD picture without breaking the bank. Deep inside the set is something akin to an old-fashioned CRT TV tube that projects images onto the back of the screen. It's not the sexiest technology, but that's why it's relatively affordable--for instance, a 47-inch Panasonic PT-47X54 costs about $1250, and a 65-inch JVC AV-65WP94 goes for $3000. The drawback is that images on a projection TV can be hard to see in a sunny or brightly lit room, or when you're watching from anywhere wider than a 45-degree angle to the screen. Finally, these sets are pretty big and heavy--the bigger screens look like giant monoliths in most rooms, jutting out as much as 2.5 feet from a wall, and they are too large to fit in many entertainment centers.

DLP and LCD Rear-Projection TVs

A newer kind of projection TV forgoes CRT tubes for LCD and digital light-processing technologies, which are identical to those used by data projectors. These projection sets still don't look great in bright daylight, but they have better viewing angles than CRT projectors (though not nearly as good as a plasma set's), and they have a thinner form factor. For instance, the 42-inch Sony Grand Wega LCD TV is only 18 inches thick. But expect all these improvements over CRT-based sets to add more than $1000 to your bill. For more information, read "How to Buy a Rear-Projection TV."

At a Glance
  • Sony WEGA KF-42WE610 42'' LCD Projection TV

  • V Inc Bravo D2 DVD Player

  • Samsung TX-P2675WH 26

  • Philips 30PW8402

  • Sony WEGA KE32TS2 32'' Plasma TV

  • Fujitsu P63XHA30WS

  • Panasonic PT-47X54 47

  • JVC AV-65WP94

  • Panasonic PT-AE500U Projector

  • Sony Cineza VPL-HS10 LCD Projector

  • iVision HD Projector

  • Denon DVD-1200 DVD Player

  • Samsung DVD-HD841 DVD Player

  • Onkyo LS-V955 Home Theater

  • JVC TH-M55 Home Theater

  • Panasonic SC-HT700 Home Theater

  • Sharp AQUOS LC-37HV4U 37'' LCD TV

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