to a chair, unable to see or do anything else for the duration of the movie, then go to a real movie theater and at least get the benefit of seeing the real thing on a really big screen. Home theater can offer you a more relaxing, flexible environment, so there's no need to duplicate at home the punishing, limiting aspects of attending a movie theater. Plasma displays and direct view CRTs offer you these advantages over projection systems that require a screen in a dark room.
Second, plasma displays are comfortable to cuddle close to, whereas direct view CRTs are not. Since direct view CRTs are limited in size (the biggest is merely 40"), you have to get pretty close if you want to have that engrossing wide angle viewing experience. But it is visually fatiguing (and slightly dangerous) to sit close to direct view CRTs, due to their radiation which bombards your eyes (and your innards). On the other hand, plasma displays are very easy on the eyes, and are comfortable to watch intimately. This means that you can easily get that engrossing wide angle experience by sitting closer to a plasma. And if our recommended 60" plasma size is beyond your budget, you can simply get a 50" or 42" or even smaller plasma, and compensate by moving closer to it. With today's higher resolution plasma displays, and the consequently smaller pixel size this implies, you can move in surprisingly close and still not be bothered by the discrete pixelation. The best example is the new Revox 32", with an amazing 1024 x 852 resolution, and consequently pixels so small that you can comfortably dance cheek to cheek with the picture.
Third, the thin profile of a plasma display does make it blend into a room, especially a multi-function room, much more seamlessly than a huge deep box as required by direct view CRTs and integrated projection TVs. And there is a subtle psychological bonus which benefits that crucial factor of believability. In the ambient light of a multi-function room, you can easily see the huge, deep box that houses a large screen direct view CRT or integrated projection TV. That huge, deep box is like a separate person in the room, a stranger whose presence you can't visually ignore or forget. Somehow, your eye and brain can't stop seeing this huge object intruding within your room, even while you're trying to forget it and lose yourself in the content of what's portrayed on screen. Thus, this huge box object detracts from the total true believability of your visual experience. On the other hand, a plasma display is so thin that it looks like a window frame, a window onto another world beyond. With a plasma display, there is virtually no object beyond the portrayed image to look at, or to distract your eye/brain from the portrayed image. You see only the image. And thus a plasma display as an object does not detract from the believability, from your suspension of disbelief, as achieved by the image itself on screen. Since the quality of that image is so superb in the best plasma displays (from NEC and Revox), you simply get more believability and less distraction, than from any other type of display.
Fourth, plasma displays have fewer intrinsic artifacts than other displays, and with fewer artifacts to distract and irritate you, the naturalness and believability of the image from plasma is enhanced even further. Plasmas, in common with other fixed pixel displays, do not have the convergence misalignment problems that analog CRT units do (both direct view CRTs and CRT projection units). Convergence misalignment means that the three primary colors, sourced from three different guns, do not come precisely together at every spot over the screen area, so this misalignment produces small leakage halos of spurious color, especially at the borders of white areas. And plasmas also have the advantage over other fixed pixel displays, in that they do not have to fight off spurious artifacts like rainbows or screen doors.
Fifth, plasmas (and some other fixed pixel displays such as DLP) have the advantage over analog CRT displays (both direct view and projection) that they are inherently digital, and therefore can directly accept digital video signal input, without having to degrade it by a conversion to analog. Thus, the entire video playback chain can be free of signal degrading D-A and A-D conversions, for all digital video sources. These digital video sources include home theater personal computers (HTPCs) now, and hopefully soon also DVD and HDTV via appropriate digital video interfaces. The Revox and NEC plasmas can accept digital input from a computer now, and Revox also plans a DVI input for their forthcoming 60" plasma display.
Sixth, there's no fan noise. Projectors with hot high output lamps require cooling fans that are pretty noisy in CRT and DILA projectors, less so in DLP projectors. You might not be bothered by this fan noise in demos of fast action flicks with loud music and sound effects, but during all those quiet, relaxing films you hope to enjoy it could well be problematic, especially when the music stops and there's only dialogue. This fan noise is particularly bothersome in the usual home theater layout where both you and the projector are toward the center rear of the room. And when it is located close to you like this, it also detracts badly from the believability of the whole surround sound field, since the hoped for aural believability, that you have been transported out of your room to another venue, is unsustainable when there's a fan whirring next to your ear.
The only major drawback to plasma is expense. You pay for the drive circuitry in proportion to the number of pixels, and for the optical glass in proportion to the area of the screen. That multiplies up quickly. The spectacular new 60" plasma displays retail for about $30,000. But this could actually be a bargain. You'll save about $30,000 by not having to build a dedicated dark room for home theater in your house. So that's like getting your giant plasma display for free. Note also that a good quality CRT projector with 9" guns can easily cost you $30,000 or more, and it still requires you to build that dedicated dark room. DLP projectors run only about $12,000 to $15,000, and their state of the art is also improving rapidly, but they still haven't caught up to plasma, direct view CRT, and 9" CRT projectors in vividness and believability (see discussion below).
If $30,000 for a display is way beyond your budget, consider a 50" or even 42" plasma from NEC or Revox. Remember the amazingly believable image we saw on a 42" NEC with only 480 lines, when driven by a superb DVD 480p video stage like that in the Arcam FMJ DV27 player.
One minor drawback to plasma is that the plasma cells reportedly buzz slightly at high altitudes (a sound similar to corona discharge). This is reportedly being worked on in alternate models designed for folks in Denver and Santa Fe.
-- DLP Projectors
DLP projectors have also come a long way in recent years, and more exciting progress is just over the horizon, which should fully realize the capabilities of this system. In an analog CRT source, whether direct view or projection, the light actually comes from cathode ray tubes. On the other hand, with a DLP (as well as LCD) projector, the light source is a conventional projector lamp putting out white light. This white light is then modulated by a device, to produce discrete pixels on screen in various colors. In a DLP projector, the modulating device is a tiny chip from Texas Instruments (TI) containing thousands of little reflective mirrors, each separate mirror being responsible for one pixel on screen (thus, the rows and columns of the mirror array correspond to the rows and columns of pixels on screen). These little mirrors can each independently swivel, to reflect incoming light (from the lamp) toward the screen image or away from it, and for a certain percentage of each duty cycle time period, thus achieving modulation of luminance (brightness). In consumer DLP projectors, the light shone upon this mirror array alternately comprises each of the three primary colors in turn (as determined by a rotating segmented color filter between the lamp and the mirror array). So the swiveling little mirrors get to determine the intensity, in rapid sequence, of each of the three primary colors constituting the image, thereby being able to create a range of colors for each pixel projected onto your screen.
Early DLP projectors were challenged by artifacts such as rainbows. These artifacts originated from the fact that the color filter wheel wasn't spinning the primary color segments fast enough for the eye/brain to always successfully integrate the three successive primary colors into a single new combination color. So in certain tricky portions of certain scenes you'd see rainbows on screen instead of the intended combination color. This problem has now been essentially solved, by engineering upgraded DLP systems having color filter wheels with more segments spinning faster.
Another challenge has been resolution. Earlier chipset combinations, offered to OEMs making economical consumer TV sets, did not achieve the 720p resolution needed to credibly portray HDTV. But a recently released version of TI's HD-1 mirror chip features 1280 x 720 resolution, and also features a native 16:9 aspect ratio, to optimally present widescreen images. This new chip version is becoming available in the latest DLP projectors, including the Sharp 9000, the new Marantz VP-12S1, the new Sim2 HT300, and the forthcoming Dwin TransVision 2.
Another challenge has been brightness and contrast. Brightness is limited by factors such as the amount of lamp heat that can be dissipated in a small projector package without excessive fan noise, lamp life, lamp expense, etc. Brightness is now also limited by the fact that the lamp intensity must be divided sequentially among three colors, and is wasted during that part of each duty cycle when each mirror is turned away, in order to modulate luminance. Contrast is limited by factors such as the limited 10 degree angle by which mirrors are turned away from the screen for their off or black state (this limited angle might still allow some light leakage toward the screen).
In the latest 16:9 HD-1 mirror chip version, achievable contrast and brightness ahs been improved over previous DLP implementations, to the point where DLP can now be taken seriously by the videophile, and is not limited to consumer mass market products (DLP projectors are also used in some movie theaters, but they are a whole different and much more expensive breed, with three mirror chips instead of one, optics to combine light paths, and intense lamps and cooling systems). Reportedly, the new DLP projectors can achieve contrast ratios up to 1000:1.
With their new improvements in resolution, brightness, contrast, and rainbow reduction, the new DLP projectors from Sharp, Marantz, Sim2, and Dwin are very enjoyable. The video performance of all of them is very good, and about equally so. Each projector has certain unique feature advantages, which may decide the pick for you (the Dwin, for example, features a prism-less light path, and will sport a DVI input).
Incidentally, Stewart's new Firehawk screen was used extensively. It helps DLP projectors by enhancing both contrast and brightness (the previous Stewart model, the Greyhawk, enhanced contrast but at the expense of poorer brightness; gain on the Firehawk is rated at 1.35 vs. the Greyhawk's .95, and the Firehawk's background is said to be an even darker gray than the Greyhawk's, to enhance contrast even better).
But even these latest DLP projectors don't quite give you the vividness, image pop, and three dimensional modeling that we see in the best CRT projectors, plasma displays, and direct view CRTs. Even in a totally darkened room, and on a Stewart Firehawk screen, scenes look slightly flat and two dimensional. We think that the DLP technology needs to ramp up one more step in contrast and in color/luminance gradation before it can achieve the same amazing believability you can get from these other displays at their best.
The good news is that these next steps forward in DLP technology are already in the pipeline. The first further improvement is reportedly going to be a virtual doubling of contrast, to 2000:1, from the same mirror chip, evidently by changing other components or operating parameters. The second improvement will be a mirror chip that can swivel the mirrors 12 degrees instead of 10 degrees, which should improve contrast. Regrettably, this technological improvement is reportedly scheduled to be implemented first in TI's integrated chip set intended for consumer grade TV sets, and only later will it trickle up to the discrete chips employed in high end videophile gear. The third improvement, already officially announced by TI, is a new optical system called sequential color recapture (SCR). It features a color wheel with continuous spirals rather than radial segments, and the purpose is to utilize a higher percentage of the light output from the lamp, again to achieve yet higher brightness and/or contrast. However, we understand that this new SCR technology has encountered some bugs during development, so its implementation will be delayed somewhat. These improvements should close the remaining gap, and allow DLP to realize its full potential as a premium video imaging system.
DLP has several nice advantages over other projection systems. The single light projection source (as opposed to three for projection CRT) allows the whole projector to be a compact, stylish unit. The moderate heat of the single lamp allows the fan to be much quieter than CRT and DILA projectors. There's an expense advantage, since the best consumer DLP projectors cost half (or less) of what really good CRT projectors cost. There are no convergence alignment problems, as there can be with three gun CRTs. Now that DLP has essentially cured its rainbow artifacts, it has an artifact advantage over LCD projectors, which seem to still exhibit some of their indigenous screen door artifacts. DLP is intrinsically digital, so, like plasma displays, it can take advantage of an all digital video signal path (with no signal degrading D-A and A-D conversions), whereas today's CRTs and LCDs are intrinsically analog. Of course, being a discrete component projection system (as opposed to an integrated projection TV set), DLP does require you to devote a dedicated room that you've made truly dark.
DLP is inherently a good technology. The new generation of high end DLP projectors from Dwin, Marantz, Sim2, and Sharp are very good performers, and we look forward to the next generation achieving true excellence.
Incidentally, you may notice that we don't mention Runco products. That's because, according to numerous sources, Runco has a very shabby reputation in this industry. Reportedly, they merely rebadge or rebox other manufacturers' products, never innovating or making anything themselves, but nevertheless taking credit for these products as though they were their own (Runco's full page ad headlines trumpet themselves as innovators). That plagiaristic pretense in itself would be anathema to an industry where companies take pride in developing cutting edge innovative technology themselves, on your behalf. Furthermore, Runco reportedly jacks up the price of the products they rebadge, screwing the consumer by grabbing more bucks for the same item while pretending it's a different item (one example cited was the Sharp 9000 DLP projector, which you can buy as a Sharp for about $10,000, or which you can buy as reboxed as a so-called Runco for about $18,000). That would be anathema to an industry that takes pride in offering the consumer high product value for the dollar, and such inflationary deception gives the industry a bad name. Of course, if you the consumer could see that the Runco unit was simply a Sharp 9000 with another badge, you wouldn't pay nearly twice the price just to get the Runco sticker on the same unit. That's why Runco would have to fool you with the game of hiding the same innards in a different box, and pretending this is an original and different product, so they can persuade you that you're getting something different and should pay much more. Finally, to add insult to injury, Runco also reportedly lies about inflated specs of its products (one example cited was the phony high contrast spec reportedly claimed for Runco's re-boxed Sharp 9000, which somehow is magically much higher than the actual Sharp 9000 inside the Runco box). If this story is true, then it seems clear that Runco must be making up specs out of thin air, to differentiate their reboxed Sharp from the actual Sharp with which it is in fact identical, and to justify to the consumer why you should pay nearly twice as much for the Runco reboxing. Specmanship is a race, and sometimes a game, but baldface lying, pretending your unit has much better specs than a supposedly different competing unit that is in fact the same unit, just to justify inflating the price a lot, sets a bad public example for an industry that wants and needs the trust and confidence of the consumer. A number of sources have told us the same or similar stories about Runco, so we're inclined to attach some credence to them. We don't depend on Runco (or anyone else) for advertising revenue, so we can take the ethical course of simply declining to recommend Runco products. Note that some Runco-badged products might perform very well, since Runco might be skilled at cherry picking from competing products, but the same product from the actual original manufacturer would perform just as well, and you could probably save a lot of money by buying the very same product without the Runco badge added.
-- Projection CRT and DILA
If you're going to the trouble of putting up with the expense, fan noise, and intrusive bulk of a CRT or DILA unit, you might as well do it right. Faroudja's superb demo of 1080p movies was sourced from a 9" CRT projector and a JVC high end DILA projector.
In CRT projectors, this means getting a projector with 9" CRTs instead of 7" CRTs, for the improved resolution, brightness, and overall superior image quality they can deliver. From the examples we've seen in 9" CRT projectors, we would pick a Sony.
In DILA units, JVC-Hughes makes professional high end units where the sky is the limit in terms of awesome light output, resolution, color rendition, and expense (think $60,000 to $200,000). We can tell you here that the $200,000 unit looks even better than the $60,000, but you knew that already, and this knowledge isn't going to do you much good unless you have a spare $200,000 in your pocket.
There's a world of professional projectors, used for auditorium work, which far outclass the achievements of consumer video for home theater, even videophile grade gear. It's exciting to explore this professional world, but its cost and performance goes beyond the budget and needs of most home theaters.
-- Direct View CRT
The old fashioned CRT television monitor, the boob tube that started it all, is still pre-eminent in many important aspects of image quality.
Its dynamic range, both in luminance and color, impressively surpasses anything you can bounce off a screen, regardless of your projector type or room treatment. It's much like the difference
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