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WIDEN YOUR HORIZONS

(or any other TV programmes for that matter....)

 

INTRO

Widescreen is coming to a TV near you, but should you wait for digital, or take the plunge right now? Rick Maybury has some thoughts on the matter, along with a selection of five widescreen sets, from compact 24-inchers to jumbo-sized 32-inch home cinema sets

 

COPY

One thing is certain, some day all televisions will have widescreen displays. The big question is, should you buy one now, or wait? Letterboxed films and programmes on terrestrial and satellite TV, as well as movies on tape and disc, definitely look better on a widescreen television. But what about compatibility with digital TV? If you wait will they get any cheaper and is it worth buying a set with a PAL Plus decoder?

 

A lot of questions but no simple answers, but maybe we can clear up a few points. Yes, digital TV is coming, but we’re still a few years away from regular scheduled broadcasts. It’ll happen within the lifetime of an analogue widescreen TV brought today, but set-top decoders will be available, to enable existing TVs to pick up digital transmissions, though it’s by no means certain they’ll be able to handle widescreen material as well. Look at it this way, by the time digital services are up and running and there’s anything worth watching, you’ll probably be thinking about buying a new TV anyway.

 

Sadly the future for PAL Plus broadcasting doesn’t look so good. The BBC say they’ll be taking the digital route to widescreen TV, but if it does suddenly (and quite unexpectedly) take-off, you can always get a plug-in decoder, they work any widescreen set. Widescreen TVs are getting cheaper, but there’s unlikely to be any sudden drop in price, so now is as good a time as any to buy. But which one?

 

The two key features are screen size and sound system. Until recently most widescreen sets were in the 28 to 36-inch range, smaller models are now becoming available, recognising the need for more compact designs, that are better suited to British living rooms. Widescreen displays smaller than 28-inches can lack impact, but it’s all relative. A smaller screen TV viewed from a closer distance looks the same size as a larger screen, seen from further away.

 

There’s a rough and ready way to work out the optimum screen size for your living room: just multiply the viewing distance in feet distance by four, to give you a screen size in inches (sorry it doesn’t work with metric measurements...). So for example, if you sit 9 feet from the TV you want a 36-inch screen; a viewing distance of 7 feet suggests a 28-inch screen, and so on.

 

All widescreen TVs have stereo sound systems and NICAM decoders, but a growing number also have Dolby Pro-Logic surround-sound decoders as well. It’s a very convenient way into home cinema, but it has to be said these ‘one-box’ home cinema systems are not as flexible, nor do they perform as well as most component or hi-fi based systems. On the plus side, surround-sound adds comparatively little to the cost of a TV these days.

 

REVIEWS

Grundig M82 169/9

The M82 169/9 is one serious-looking home cinema TV, and the Grundig name inspires a good deal of confidence, so it’s off to a good start. It has PAL Plus too, and it’s one of two IDTV (improved definition television) models in their range, which basically means it has a 100 Hz flicker-free display and some quirky digital effects. The set is based around their 32-inch super flat Megatron tube; the cabinet extends only a few centimetres beyond to the edges of the screen so it looks reasonably compact from the front, despite being one of the largest (and heaviest) widescreen around.

 

Installation is straightforward, the display and auto tuning systems are fast and reasonably efficient. Connections to the outside world are handled by a pair of SCART AV sockets and a bank of phono sockets with an S-Video connector, that should have been mounted on the front, alongside the headphone socket, but has somehow ended up on the back panel.

 

Despite the extensive use of digital video processing circuitry the primary display options are limited to standard 16:9, 4:3, and 4:3 expand. There’s remarkably few gimmicks too, and although it has a PIP (picture in picture) and multi-screen facilities, they’re quite basic, showing single updated still frames, rather than a full-motion sub-screens.

 

The tuner is not especially sensitive, it needs a good strong signal to get a clean, ghost-free picture. The flicker-free display is good though digital artefacts are visible and one display option produces a jerky ‘shuttering’ effect. Colour fidelity is good but errors do show up clearer on this big screen. PAL Plus is great but it clearly adds to the bill, and it’s a lot to pay to watch a couple of hours of widescreen programming each week...

 

The matchbox sized rear channel speakers are a joke; one-legged men at arse-kicking parties spring to mind. Place them more than a few feet from your ears and you can barely hear them. DPL performance is actually quite good, replace those speakers with something sensible and it’s capable of halfway-decent sound.

                                               

DATA STREAM

Price     £2800  

Features           32-inch (76cm) screen, 100Hz display, PAL Plus 99-channels, digital video processing, NICAM, fastext, auto tuning, sleep timer, picture in picture, parental lock, PAL, NTSC, SECAM display, 4-mode DSP,     

Sockets            2 x SCART AV, line audio out (phono), front AV inputs (phono & S-Video), headphone (minijack)

 

Pros: good widescreen performance, clean looks

Cons: daft rear speakers, price

 

HC Rating  78%

Grundig International, telephone (01788) 577155

 

 

Mitsubishi CT-32BW1

This is Mitsubishi’s first widescreen TV, and it’s a real kitchen sink job! It’s got the lot, including a 32-inch screen, Dolby Pro Logic sound, multiple display formats (16:9, 14:9) and a Panorama mode, for stretching 4:3 material to fill the width of the screen. It’s big, hopefully Mitsubishi will have some smaller models soon, not everyone has the room (or strong enough floorboards) to take this monster. Part of the reason it’s so heavy is the matching stand, which contains the centre front and sub-woofer speakers. The set is mounted on a motorised swivel base, that turns the TV through 30 degrees, to get the best viewing angle, lots of fun, practical too.

 

Mitsubishi have gone way over the top with the picture enhancements and adjustments, there’s almost too much to play with, including: deep breath... sharpness, colour temperature, tint, noise reduction, scan velocity modulation, dynamic comb filter, AV memory, viewing distance, room light sensor and resolution, not to mention colour, brightness, contrast signal booster, colour system and standard. It has two tuners, with a picture in picture (PIP) or picture out of picture (POP) sub screen showing a second channel, or channels; the PIP or POP screen can also be frozen, strobed or used to scan through stored channels.

 

Tuning is semi-automatic, it’s surprisingly slow and button-intensive on a TV this sophisticated. Picture quality can be excellent, with clean, bright colours, high black level contrast and good picture geometry in all display modes, though it can take a lot of fiddling about to get there. The rear surround channel suffers from the usual lack of power, and it might run out of steam in a really large room, but Pro-Logic resolution and accuracy are both better than average

 

DATA STREAM

Price     £2500  

Features           32-inch (78cm) screen, 100-channels, Panorama & autoview display systems, Dolby Pro-Logic surround, fastext, NICAM, 4-mode DSP, bass enhancement, twin picture in picture/picture out of picture (PIP/POP), motorised swivel base, 4-AV memories, child lock, off-timer, multi-standard receiver and display (PAL/SECAM  BG, DK, I & L), NTSC 3.58 & 4.43, digital signal processing and noise reduction, console supplied  

Sockets            4 x SCART AV, speaker terminals, front AV inputs (phono and S-Video), headphone socket (minijack)

 

Pros:                Great picture and sound, plenty of useful gadgets, and that wacky motorised stand!

Cons:                The price is about the only thing that could possibly put you off

 

HC Rating 80%

Mitsubishi Electric UK Ltd, telephone  (017072) 76100

 

 

Nokia    SFN7296PP                                                     

Nokia have been in there, plugging away with widescreen TVs, virtually since day-one. Their experience shows and the SFN 7296PP is a highly refined collection of up-to-the-minute technologies that includes Dolby Pro-Logic Surround, 5-mode digital sound processing, picture-in-picture, multiple display formats, one of the most advanced fastext systems around with a 512 page memory, a brilliant on-screen display, and PAL Plus.

 

The on-screen display steals the show, the graphics are stunning, menus slide gracefully from the bottom of the screen, selections are made using just four cursor keys and an OK button. It’s a model of simplicity, highly intuitive and incredibly easy to use. In fact the remote handset has so few buttons we thought we’d been given the wrong one... There are some concealed buttons, behind a sliding flap but 90% of the functions -- and there’s no shortage of those -- can be controlled from the four cursor buttons. It’s adequately supplied with AV inputs, there’s two SCARTs on the back, and a set of sockets on the front for camcorders and video game consoles.

 

It comes as standard with a pair of decent-sized speakers for the rear channels, the model we’ve been looking at also had an extra pair of front channel speakers and a stand, taking the price to £1500; the basic set and speakers costs just £1300. Surprisingly there’s no centre channel speaker output, that’s handled by the built-in speakers when external speakers are used for the stereo channels. There’s a useful set of display modes, that cover most eventualities though it can be time-consuming to find the right one for some sources. PAL Plus selection is automatic; it doesn’t happen very often, given the paucity of programming, but when it does the quality is most impressive. Picture performance is very good, the display is sharp and clearly defined in all modes, though it has difficulty achieving solid blacks, nevertheless colours are vibrant and detailed and there’s sufficient adjustments to cater for most viewing conditions.

 

Using the sets on-board stereo speakers for the centre channel results in slightly unfocussed dialogue and rear-channel separation is not as tight as some sets we’ve heard but most effects are well presented and it has a good solid bass output. A very potent argument for widescreen, PAL Plus facility hasn’t affected the price -- Nokia are virtually giving it away -- it’s just a shame there’s so little watch; overall a great set and good value for money.

 

DATA STREAM

Price     £1500  

Features           28-inch (66cm) screen, 99 channels, NICAM, 512-page fastext, 5-mode DSP, PAL Plus

Sockets            2 x SCART AV, line-audio out (phono), front and rear speaker terminals (2-pin DIN), front AV inputs (phono & S-Video), headphone (3.5mm minijack)

 

Pros:    good picture and  sound, excellent text and graphics and it’s a bargain!

Cons:    no centre channel or line-outputs, woolly surround, otherwise it’s a peach!

 

HC Rating 90%

Nokia Consumer Electronics, telephone (01793) 644223

 

Philips 24PW6321,                                                                   

Philips are keen to avoid too many comparisons between their new 24-inch widescreen set and larger home cinema models, and the reason is fairly obvious.  Normal 4:3 pictures looks dreadfully small in relation to the size of the cabinet, smaller even that you would get on a typical 21-inch TV, however, flick it into widescreen mode -- there’s four to choose from - and it bursts into life.

 

Getting it up and running poses no problems, after selecting the correct language and country from the installation menu the auto-tuning system searches out all locally available broadcasts, after which they can be easily sorted into the required order. The on-screen display system works well, and makes intelligent use of the coloured fastext buttons to select various functions. The display mode button could have been a little more accessible, though, it’s hidden under a hinged flap on the top of the remote, right next to a hair-trigger on/standby button.

 

In addition to 16:9 and 14:9 and 4:3 display formats there’s a 4:3 inflate setting, that puffs the picture up, to fill the screen, and a 4:3 stretch setting that reduces the amount of cropping at the top and bottom of the picture, by electronically expanding the sides of the picture. This results in some distortion in the outer thirds of the picture which can be a little disconcerting, especially when people’s heads are involved..

 

The sound system is fairly routine. It has NICAM, and a spatial or stereo-wide effect, and three equaliser modes (there’s manual tone controls as well), that come under the heading ‘smart control’ they’re optimised for speech, music or theatre sound. The two smart control button also select pre-set picture options, called rich, soft or natural, which all manage to degrade the image in one way or another.

 

Design and layout are uncontentious, but the cabinet feels surprisingly flimsy, especially the top panel, which buckles alarmingly under even slight pressure; it probably wouldn’t survive anyone inadvertently leaning or pressing down on it.

 

Small screens like this one always look good, the line structure becomes almost invisible, resulting in a clear bright picture. It makes a lot of difference on enlarged 4:3 and letterboxed material, where the inevitable loss of resolution is barely noticeable. NICAM and stereo sound system are quite good, the soundstage is fairly small and bass content is limited, but it’s lively, detailed, and perfectly capable of filling a small room.  

 

DATA STREAM

Price     £800    

Features           24-inch (57cm) screen, NICAM, fastext, 69 channels, multi-lingual on-screen display, auto-tuning, 16:9, 14:9, stretch and inflate display modes, spatial sound, parental lock, sleep timer, programmable function keys, ‘smart control’ (rich, soft, natural or personal picture settings and speech, music, theatre or personal sound setting)

Sockets            2 x SCART AV connectors, line audio in (phono), side-mounted  AV inputs (phono and S-Video), headphones (minijack)         

 

Pros: it’s small and cute with a great picture and fair to middling sound

Cons: flimsy cabinet and edge distortion on stretch 4:3 pictures

 

HC Rating 85%

Philips Consumer Electronics, telephone 0181-689 4444

 

 

Sony KV24WS

Sony’s entry into the widescreen TV market last year was no toe-in-the-water exercise, they launched five models, including a neat little 16-incher for video games, a 32-inch home cinema set and the KV24WS, we’re looking at here. The screen is a modest 24-inches, and the feature list is equally restrained. It has the basics --  NICAM and fastext -- but little else that could be described as a luxury, unless you count spatial sound, sleep timer or the parental lock. It’s a plump little chap, the fat backside and wide-set speakers make it appear bigger than it actually is; it’s not too bad when the whole screen is lit up but a 4:3 picture looks a bit lost, floating in the middle of a big black box.

 

The tuner has automatic and manual set-up options; the teletext decoder takes care of channel-naming and it’s a relatively simple job to rearrange the order. AV connections comprise two SCART sockets and variable-level audio output phonos on the back panel (the latter can be use to drive external speakers); on the front, behind a hinged flap there’s an S-Video input socket, composite video and line audio phonos, plus a headphone jack. 

 

Picture and sound adjustments are controlled from colour-coded menus. The remote handset is a reversible design, with a full set of TV and VCR controls on one side, and a less intimidating assortment of frequently-used functions on the reverse. There are four viewing modes: normal 4:3, ‘smart’ which stretches a 4:3 display to fill the screen widthways, ‘wide’ for 16:9 images, and ‘zoom’ which expands a letterboxed 4:3 picture to fill the screen. 

 

Picture performance from the Trinitron tube is impeccable and being small helps improve the sharpness of expanded 4:3 material. Images are crisply defined, colours are clean and accurately resolved, with very little noise; the contrast range is good, whites are bright, blacks are, well, black... Stereo imaging is fairly average, in spite of the well-placed speakers, the spatial effect helps, though it cannot make up for the fairly thin bass response. A tad expensive for what it is but if you’re a Sony fan with deep pockets, who’s short on space, it’s worth considering.

 

DATA STREAM

Price     £900    

Features           24-inch (57cm) screen, 60-channels, NICAM, fastext, Spectrum sound, sleep timer, parental lock, stand supplied

Sockets            2 x SCART AV, variable audio out (phono), front AV inputs (phono and S-Video), headphone (minijack)

 

Pros: excellent picture, easy to use

Cons: pricey, few facilities, unflattering cosmetics

 

HC Rating 82%

Sony UK Ltd, telephone (01635) 873322

 

SUMMARY

With such a broad range of screen sizes, prices and features there’s no bottom-line as such. We selected these five models to illustrate the growing diversity of the widescreen TV market, and the trend towards smaller screen sizes, lower prices and more carefully thought out specifications. 

 

Nevertheless, if we have a favourite then it has to be the Nokia 7296, which is great value for money, and the 28-inch screen is arguably the most appropriate size for the UK market, which still classes 22-inch TVs as ‘large-screen’. Picture and sound are okay, not quite the best, but PAL Plus -- which doesn’t seem to have bumped up the price -- is excellent, when it’s available. It has the quickest teletext system in the business, thanks to a 512-page memory, the chunky speakers deliver a big sound that compliments the picture and the clever on-screen displays are so good they’re almost worth watching when there’s nothing else on... 

 

Now for those two 32-inch monsters. The Mitsubishi CT-32BW1 is a real stonker. Performance and facilities are outstanding; the DPL sound system will appeal to those reluctant to go the separates route and the motorised swivel base is just about the best toy we’ve seen on a TV in a long time, great for kids of all ages! But what about the price? Two and a half grand is hardly small change, and if the gadgets and sound system aren’t that important to you, then there are a few cheaper 32-inchers around worth considering.  Needless to say that doesn’t include the Grundig M82 169/9 which is getting on for £2800. This should have been a real show-stopper, it’s a great-looking TV, it oozes class and it’s got the lot, including PAL Plus, Dolby Pro-Logic and the 100Hz flicker-free display but it’s let down by ridiculously small rear-channel speakers, a tad too much on-screen evidence of the digital processing and the whopping great price.

 

The two 24-inch models are clearly not in the same league as their larger cousins when it comes to sound performance. They’re both fairly ordinary stereo sets, and it’s no coincidence that they each have spatial effect modes, to compensate for the confined stereo soundstage, created by the relatively close-set speakers. Small cabinets also mean smaller speakers and limited bass capabilities, though it’s arguable that these sets will tend to be used in smaller rooms and bedsits, where wall-penetrating bass sounds might be unwelcome. There’s no getting away from it, the widescreen effect is diminished on these sets, and they look slightly ridiculous showing titchy  4:3 pictures, but the small screen does wonders for picture quality. Line structure is almost invisible and noise is less apparent, giving the image added depth and definition, that dramatically reduces the quality losses of letterboxed films and programmes shown in 16:9 format. Of the two sets the Philips 24PW6321 has the edge on price and facilities, though Sony still rule the roost when it comes to picture quality.

 

BOX COPY 1

TOP TIPS

 

* Match the screen size to the room and seating positions

 

* Most Dolby Pro-Logic models work best in small to average sized rooms, if you’re trying to create a home cinema in a larger room it might be better to use separate surround-sound components and speakers

 

* 100Hz models are worth considering if you’re troubled by screen flicker, it can be more apparent on larger widescreen sets

 

* Widescreen TVs generally have plenty of AV inputs, but there are exceptions; you’ll need at least two SCARTs on the back, and a front-mounted AV terminal is a good idea, especially if you’ve got a camcorder or video game console

 

* The stereo speakers on many widescreen TVs are squitty little things that create a thin, wispy soundstage; sets with connections for external speakers earn extra points

 

BOX COPY 2

JARGON BUSTER

 

ASPECT RATIO

Essentially the shape of a TV screen, based on the relationship of its width to the height. Thus a conventional TV screen has an aspect ratio of 4:3, in other words it is 4 units wide by 3 units deep. A widescreen TV display has an aspect ratio of 16:9, which is close to the shape of a cinema screen

 

CTI

Colour transient improvement: electronic circuit used to improve sharpness and reduce blurring along vertical edges in a picture

 

COMB FILTER

Electronic circuit used to reduce the annoying moiré effects in a PAL TV picture, most noticeable in highly patterned areas

 

DOLBY PRO-LOGIC

Four-channel surround-sound system, additional speakers, placed behind and in front of the viewing position literally surround the viewer with sounds and effects, recorded on the soundtracks of  many recent movies and a growing number of TV programmes

 

DSP

Digital sound processing: electronic circuit, normally used in conjunction with extra surround sound speakers, that creates a variety of spatial effects, simulating the acoustics of large and small spaces

 

NICAM

Near instantaneously companded audio multiplexing: digital stereo TV sound system, capable of near CD quality, used by BBC and ITV companies

 

NTSC

National Television Standards Committee: 525-line/60Hz colour TV system used in North America, Japan and parts of the far East

 

PAL

Phase Alternate Line: 625-line/50Hz colour TV system used in the UK and throughout most of Europe, with the exception of France and some former Eastern bloc countries, who use the SECAM (Sequential Coleur a'Memoire) system

 

PAL PLUS

Widescreen broadcasting system, compatible with existing 4:3 receivers. Extra signals, used to create widescreen image, are contained within the black borders at the top and bottom of a letterboxed picture

 

BOX COPY 3

TABLE/CONCLUSION

Make/Model

££s

Screen Size

PALplus

Sockets

Score

Grundig M82 169/9

£2800

32in/76cm

yes

2S,H

78%

Mitsubishi CT32BW1

£2500

32in/78cm

--

4S,F,H,E

80%

Nokia SFN7296PP

£1500

28in/66cm

yes

2S,F,H,E

90%

Philips 24PW6321

£800

24in/57cm

--

2S,F

85%

Sony KV24WS

£900

24in/57cm

--

2S,F,H,E

82%

 

Key: audio -- N = NICAM, D = Dolby Pro-Logic, P = pseudo-surround/DSP, S= spatial; sockets - S = SCART, F = front AV inputs, H = headphone, E = external speakers

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1996 1001

 

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