Do You Want to Watch TV, or Do You Want to Have a Full-On Home-Theater Experience?
How do you make your television-watching experience the best that it can be? Add a few essential accessories to upgrade the sound and picture quality, improve your comfort, and make the whole setup easier to use. (And while you're at it, stop watching those awful reality shows. I don't care if they are broadcast in high definition.) Here are some HDTV accessories to watch for, along with some tips on what to take into account when you go shopping for them.
Home-Theater Receiver: Onkyo TX-SR805
I recommend getting a receiver that can decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio sound tracks from Blu-ray Disc. One such receiver is the Onkyo TX-SR805; another is its not-yet-released successor, the TX-SR806. Some Blu-ray Disc players will decode high-definition audio tracks and send them on to your receiver, but you'll get better audio quality if you arrange to have your best piece of audio equipment--your receiver--handle the decoding.
Some low-end receivers will output only video, not audio, through HDMI. In that case, if you want to listen to audio through the TV, you must connect an additional digital audio cable (most TVs do accept such inputs, fortunately). That's not a problem if you listen to audio exclusively through speakers connected to the receiver; but if you're trying to minimize the number of cables in your setup, look for a receiver with HDMI audio capabilities.
Blu-ray Disc Player: Philips BDP7200/37
If you own an HDTV--and especially if you own a 1080p-capable set--you'll really enjoy watching video from a Blu-ray Disc player such as the Philips BDP7200/37, the top-ranked model on our latest chart of Blu-ray players.
Pay especially close attention to competing players' audio and video output capabilities. As I mentioned in connection with home-theater receivers (see slide one), you’ll get optimum audio quality if you let your best piece of equipment--usually your receiver--perform the Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio decoding (the high-definition audio formats used on Blu-ray Disc recordings). But doing so requires that your Blu-ray Disc player be able to output in Bitstream format. If it outputs only in PCM format, either the player itself is doing the decoding or the player can't decode those formats at all. That’s not horrible--you won’t hold your ears in pain--but if you’ve read this far, you’re striving for perfection, right?
Game Console: Sony PlayStation 3
To take full advantage of your big high-definition screen, you'll need to ditch your Atari 2600 for something with a little more power. The Sony PlayStation 3 has the goods, with 1080p game play and a built-in Blu-ray player. And if you're not a gamer, consider that the PS3's image quality for Blu-ray playback was about average compared with the dedicated set-top players we tested recently--and at $400 for the least-expensive PS3, the price is lower than for most set-top players.
Satellite TV Subscription
Want 1080p content (other than Blu-ray Disc) to go with your 1080p television? Get a satellite dish.
Earlier this month, the Dish Network began offering a pay-per-view movie--yes, just one movie--in 1080p resolution. Its main satellite-television competitor, DirecTV, announced that it will begin offering movies in 1080p later this year.
Of course, the amount of compression that Dish and DirecTV use will have a huge impact on the image quality at your end--a 1080p program that's subjected to heavy compression may look worse than a lightly compressed 1080i program. And the amount of 1080p content available will likely be very limited, too, because no television networks currently broadcast in 1080p. So you'll be limited to watching movies, not TV shows, in 1080p. But for the satellite services, it's a step in the right direction--and one that the cable television industry hasn't yet taken.
Digital Video Recorder: TiVo HD
You could use your cable or satellite company's digital video recorder to record shows, of course; but TiVo's DVRs have much nicer interfaces--and if you run out of room for shows, you can add storage via their eSATA ports. Capacity is of particular concern with high-definition content, which gobbles gigabytes like a teenager does Big Macs.
The other nice thing about adding the TiVo HD to your home-theater setup is that, because TiVos use CableCards, you don't have to use your cable company's cable box. Instead, the CableCards decrypt the signal from the cable company. You might even save a couple bucks a month because you won't have to rent a box (but you'll give it back and then some when you pay TiVo's monthly fee). TiVo hasn't said anything yet about whether it will update its products to use Tru2Way cards.
Universal Remote: Logitech Harmony One
The average U.S. household owns 5.3 remote controls, according my unscientific survey of friends’ living-room coffee tables. Furthermore, only 1.3 persons per household know which equipment those remotes control, and 0.2 person per household knows how to work any particular remote. But a universal remote like the Logitech Harmony One can control them all, leaving you to learn how to work the buttons on (and avoid misplacing) only one device. Of course, to gain command of such a hydra-headed beast, you may have to take a remote-obedience class.
The Harmony One is a $250 device with a 2.2-inch color touch screen. You can download button assignments from Logitech's online database of more than 225,000 devices, after which, you can listen to music by touching a single button. Turn on the TV, the receiver, and the Blu-ray player, and harmonize their settings for cooperative play by pressing just one button. You are the alpha potato of your household!
Color Calibration System
Back when HDTVs cost $5000, spending another few hundred bucks to bring in a professional calibrator to make a house call to fine-tune your set seemed like a good investment. But now that some pretty large HDTVs cost $1000 or less, few people want to spend half again as much on a visit from Dr. Lookgood.
You could opt instead for a hardware calibration device such as Datacolor's $200 SpyderTV (pictured), which includes a colorimeter, test patterns on a DVD, and software that runs on your PC or laptop (though some videophiles prefer to use the colorimeter with third-party software such as HCFR 2.0.1).
But you can perform a simple and reasonably effective calibration for almost nothing: Look through your DVD collection for a title carrying the THX logo; its presence on a DVD case may indicate that the disc includes free calibration test patterns (though you'll still have to send off for a pair of special glasses, for $4.50). See our story "How to Calibrate Your HDTV" for more options.
Datacolor Spyder TV: Latest Prices
Bias Lighting: CinemaQuest Ideal-Lume
Most of the sets on display at your local electronics store have their brightness settings turned up to 11 for that cool eye-searing effect. But once you get the set home and turn down the lights to watch a movie, the screen will look even brighter--you may feel as though you can fry eggs on your corneas. To moderate the difference between darkness (your living room) and the bright screen--and thereby prevent eyestrain--you need to add some "bias" lighting.
For several years, Philips has made HDTVs with bias lighting; called Ambilight, the system throws light of different colors onto the wall around and behind the TV; the colors change depending on the content on the screen.
But you can add "bias lighting" to any set by using one of CinemaQuest's Ideal-Lumes products. These fluorescent lights don't change colors as Philips's sets do, but mounted on the back of your set, they produce a similar eye-sparing effect. One disadvantage of the Ideal-Lumes is that they plug into an AC outlet, rather than into your TV, so you have to turn them on manually every time you turn on your TV (or you have to use the switched outlet on the back of your cable box or home-theater receiver). Another alternative is to use a current-sensing power strip to snap the lights on automatically when you turn on your TV.
Or you can go really old-school and position a table lamp behind your TV set.
Wall Mount: Samsung WMN-5090
Samsung's WMN-5090 wall mount uses motors for tilting and swiveling, and it connects to your television's RS-232 port so that you can adjust the screen's movements via on-screen controls. It can store three positions in its memory, too, which means that you can program it with one setting for when you're watching from the couch, another for when you're watching from the kitchen, and another for when you just want to discourage other people from watching it, for example. The wall mount automatically senses where the wall is to prevent the set from crashing into it.
Unfortunately, this particular model works only with 40- to 52-inch Samsung plasma and LCD sets that are equipped with an EX-Link connection, and it costs about $800. But it'll wow your guests and scare your cat.
For more details on what to look for in a wall mount, read Dan Tynan's Gadget Freak column about them. Dan says that you should plan on spending at least $200 for a low-end mount, $250 or more for one that tilts, and $550 or more on one that articulates--that is, extends out from the wall and swivels from side to side.
HDMI and Component Cables
Several companies have done very well for themselves by selling obscenely expensive cables for HDTVs--HDMI and component cables especially, because those are the primary means of carrying high-definition signals. But do you need to spend hundreds of dollars on a cable to connect your rented cable box to your $1000 TV? We tested both types of cables a couple years ago and concluded that you can get good image quality without liquidating your collection of classic Furbys to pay for it. In fact, we saw no difference in image quality between a set of $31 cables and a set that cost $300. Read our test report, and then make the sensible decision: Buy inexpensive cables such as those offered by Startech, one of the companies whose cables we tested.
Startech HDMI Cable: Latest Prices
Easy Chair: La-Z-Boy Cool Chair
I fantasize about building a pneumatic tube system in my house similar to those used in bank drive-ups to deliver beer bottles (I don't drink canned beer, and I'm sure you don't either) to the table beside my easy chair. I haven’t yet summoned the energy to invent it, however, and until I do, I might as well fantasize about more attainable mechanisms, such as the La-Z-Boy Cool Chair.
La-Z-Boy has a history of making chairs that are more than chairs but less than soul mates; its Microsoft WebTV Plus Recliner incorporated a wireless keyboard with a WebTV receiver; but alas, that model has gone the way of the pterodactyl with the 32-foot wingspan. The company's Cool Chair has a built-in fridge (along with a massaging mechanism); unfortunately, I have been able to find them offered for sale only in the United Kingdom.
Another choice: Berkline Furniture's 45004 Custom Home Theater seating, which features power reclining, lighted cup holders, and an optional ButtKicker audio transducer to transmit bass rumblings directly to your rear end.
Today's Best Tech Deals
Picked by TechHive's Editors