Monday, February 25, 2013

Home Theater Review

After about a year's worth of half-hearted shopping, I finally pulled the trigger on a family Christmas present: a new home theater system. The principal components are: a Panasonic P55ST50 3D Plasma television, a Boston Acoustics 5.1 sound system with a Denon AVR-1513 receiver, a Sony BDP-S590 3D Blu-ray player, and (compliments of Time Warner) a Samsung SMT-H3270 HD DVR.

I'll give some details about the operation of this system in this and subsequent posts, but I want to start with this: 3D Blu-ray ROCKS!!! Really. I can't imagine why anyone would watch an action-adventure or animation movie any other way, and I say this as someone who doesn't normally get excited by action-adventure movies. I had read reviews by people less than enamored with 3D. Some of my extended family doesn't like it, and even I thought it was a little gimmicky watching it in the store. But now that I can see it in a darkened room across a 55" screen, I am not ashamed to say that I am enrapture by the visual experience it delivers.

For some reason, I had got in my head early on that LED was the better technology, but my experience in the showroom didn't support it. The 120Hz and even 240Hz televisions (about my price range for LEDs) would show noticealbe screen jitter during dramatic camera pans. Happily, our 600Hz plasma shows none of that. The tradeoff is that the TV pulls almost 3 amps and kicks out a fair amount of heat -- not an issue in the winter, but I'll have to let you know about summer. Also, plasma screens aren't as bright as LED screens, and are only suitable for darkened rooms. But with these caveats, Plasma delivers far better viewing quality for the dollar.

And while I'm at it: 5.1 surround sound ROCKS!!! Yes, I know that I'm about 20 years late to this particular party. Again, my earlier experience was . . . well, not "meh" exactly -- I thought it was cool enough -- but it wasn't until the good salesmen at Best Buy cranked up their demo system during the final battle of The Avengers that it became something I wanted for myself. Now that it's in my media room . . . more superheros, please.

Content is tricky. 3D Blu-ray disks sell at a premium. Netflix doesn't carry them, and I've watched every 3D disk that Family Video has that isn't a horror movie. There are some streaming services -- I think PS3 owners can buy and stream them through their consoles -- but they don't have quite the quality. Time Warner gave a few days worth of free premium cable when I swapped out my box, and HBO and Showtime have on-demand 3D content. But it only works well during low-bandwidth segments; once the images start to change quickly, it becomes difficult to tell exactly what's happening.

Blu-ray quickly ruins you for lesser formats. I happened to catch a few minutes of a Harry Potter DVD my kids were watching, and not only did the images seem flat, but I started to notice the compression artifacts around the edges. I never would have thought that I would ever look at DVDs and think "poor quality".

I am vaguely curious if the complexity of the interface has run away from the average person. For instance, each of my devices -- the TV, the receiver, the Blu-ray, and the cable box -- came with its own remote control. The receiver and TV remotes are single-device remotes. The Blu-ray remote can turn on the television, but this doesn't help much without controlling the receiver. Only the cable box remote can be programmed to operate all the devices to a limited extent.

To help us overcome these limitations, the good salesmen at Best Buy sold us a fifth remote: a Logitech Harmony 650. This remote is fully programmable via USB cable. Via the accompanying software, the commands for any set of devices can be loaded. But don't worry if any command is missing: the remote has a receiving antenna on the back that can store and save any IR signal from any remote and assign that command to any button, either on the body of the remote or in the menus on the LCD screen. Sets of commands are wrapped into single buttons named "Watch TV" (turn on the TV, receiver, cable box) and "Watch a Movie" (turn on the TV, receiver, and Blu-ray).

Now, all this functionality is about as simple as anyone could expect. But let's face it, this is all a long way from even my now-retired 10-year-old CRT, let alone the televisions of my youth. And on at least two occasions, the complexity kicked my ass. The first was in setting up the sound system. The dozens of settings on the Denon on-screen menus didn't seem to match up with spec sheets for the Boston Acoustic speakers that came in the same box! So with the exception of entering the room dimensions and picking a listening "sweet spot" therein, I pretty much left it on the default settings. Like I said, it sounds awesome, but I'll always wonder if there is something I'm missing.

The second ass-kick was the bad picture I was getting from standard Blu-ray. The tech support technician had me change a bunch of settings on the TV, and now it works. But I had only a limited understanding of what those settings were, and there was no way I was going to figure out on my own what they should be. And if screwing with them keeps you from playing Blu-ray, then why on earth make them adjustable, let alone not making them the default settings. Blu-ray isn't that new a technology.


Anonymous said...

This is great. Thank you for sharing.

- home theater Newton

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. Now I can confirm that I don't want any of that junk. Except that remote sounds awesome.

I have always thought blue ray was just too much definition. It makes everything look like it is CGI instead of helping to blend the boundaries between live action and CGI.

I probably should get a new 5.1 or even 7.1 speaker system. I'm still just using stereo.

Why don't high end TV sets have that built in?

Dr. Φ said...

I have always thought blue ray was just too much definition.

That's defensible. The blu ray experience was weirdly vertiginous early on. But I got used to it.

heresolong said...

Wondering about home 3-D vs theater 3-D. I saw my first 3-D movie at the theater the other day (The Hobbit) and wasn't impressed. I didn't like how the backgrounds were always vaguely out of focus so you were almost forced to watch whatever the director wanted you to watch. Your eyes couldn't wander, you couldn't enjoy the scenery, etc. It was a bit weird and I won't pay the extra again, I don't think.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I've hated the 3D fad of the last few years. I also hate ultra-realistic high-def, by the way, that makes you feel like you're actually in the room with the actors. There's such a thing as too much of feeling like you're actually there.