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FEATURE

 

WIDESCREEN ROUNDUP

 

INTRO

Forget all this talk of digital television and the promise of widescreen TV some time in the future. It’s here right now, so what are you waiting for?

 

COPY

The shape or aspect ratio of most current TV picture tubes and video displays  -- traditionally 4 units wide by 3 units deep, or ‘4:3’ -- goes way back to the early days of cinema. The movie industry abandoned the so-called ‘Academy’ screen format more than half a century ago but vested interests and technical constraints has meant that the 4:3 shape lived on in television, though it’s days are now numbered.

 

Widescreen television technologies have been under more or less constant development for at least the past forty years but the first real sign of progress was in the late 1970s, when the Japanese began work on the ‘Hi-Vision’ widescreen HDTV system. The first scheduled broadcasts from satellites started in the mid 1980s.  Although technically impressive Hi-Vision has never progressed much beyond Japan’s borders.

 

A brief flurry of activity in Europe followed, with development of the MAC (multiplexed analogue component) transmission system and plans by the Eureka 95 consortium to implement the system Europe-wide. MAC, originally conceived for high-quality satellite transmissions,  promised a simple upgrade path to widescreen and high definition TV. Then in 1992 along came PALplus to muddy the already cloudy waters, 16:9 sets started appearing in the shops but confusion reigned and finally everything went on hold as it became clear that analogue television technology was ultimately a blind alley and the way forward was digital.

 

Until now the main justification for buying a widescreen TV has been the fairly consistent supply of unadulterated widescreen  films on tape and laserdisc, plus movies shown on terrestrial and satellite TV. All 16:9 TVs have a facility to electronically enlarge letterboxed material and 4:3 programmes, to fill the widescreen display. Unfortunately PALplus -- one of the most technically elegant widescreen solutions -- failed to take off in the UK and broadcasts have been limited to a few hours a week from Channel 4 and Granada. Elsewhere in Europe it has been quite successful, guaranteeing a small but welcome trickle of sets to the UK .

 

That brings us more or less up to date. We’re now entering a kind of widescreen limbo, were pretty certain that one day soon there will be dozens, possibly hundreds of digital TV channels in glorious widescreen. However, it will be some time before dedicated digital TVs reach the shops. There’s still plenty of technical and political issues to be settled, not least the terrifying prospect of separate decoder boxes for terrestrial and satellite broadcasts, though that now seems unlikely and a settlement is close. For the first year or so digital TV will come to us via our existing televisions, connected to set-top decoder boxes.

 

That is good news for anyone who has, or is thinking about buying a widescreen television right now. It removes the threat of obsolescence, and puts widescreen TV owners ahead of the game; they’ll be amongst the first to enjoy the promised feast of digital widescreen programming. The rest of us, with 4:3 sets will have to continue to live with letterboxed or panned and scanned pictures. 

 

The cost of widescreen televisions has been falling for some time now, and the choice has never been greater, but before you dash out, there’s a few points worth considering. If you’re going to buy a widescreen TV, get a big one. Apart from the fact that smaller 16:9 screens -- less than 28-inches, say --  lack impact, 4:3 pictures look a bit lost floating around on a widescreen display. Look out for models with a good range of display modes, that will be better able to cope with future developments. Conventional CRT-based widescreen TVs are big and heavy, so unless you’ve got several thousand pounds to spend on one of the latest flat plasma-screen TVs -- due out this year -- make sure you’ve got the room. Lastly, to get the most from widescreen you need a serious sound system, Dolby Pro Logic at the very least!

 

THE MANUFACTURERS

 

ALBA/BUSH

Following a brief excursion into the widescreen market in late 1994 Bush have since withdrawn their one and only model, the 28-inch WS5000. It was remarkable for being very cheap -- it sold for just £800, more than £200 cheaper than the competition. It was also quite basic, with only a limited range of display options. Picture quality was fairly average too, and the sound was best described as ‘rudimentary’. Nevertheless,  Bush gained valuable experience from the exercise and tell us they have plans to introduce a new model range ‘in the not too distant future’.

 

BANG & OLUFSEN

No company profile of B&O is complete without mentioning their well-earned reputation for producing stylish, sometimes idiosyncratic but always memorable audio and video products. That’s clearly evident on their first widescreen TV, which made its UK debut back in late 1995, and is still going strong. B&O are a technically innovative company and were the first to integrate a widescreen TV with a VCR. However, unlike their larger competitors, they tend to have a relatively slow turnover of models within their range. Their current model line up is likely to be with us for some time, though a larger 32-inch model is a distinct possibility.

 

FERGUSON AND THOMSON

Ferguson were the third company to market widescreen television in the UK,  following hard on the heels of Philips and Nokia. They began with the WS28 and WS32 in 1993 and have kept up a steady stream of new models ever since. However, Thomson who own the brand, have decided to drop the Feguson name from their widescreen TVs to concentrate on their own range. Ferguson widescreen TVs were always good value for money, well featured and amongst the top performers in their price range. Latterly their sets were styled by French designer Philipe Starcke who’s minimalist concepts live on in the Thomson range.

 

GRUNDIG

The German manufacturer Grundig, until recently part of the mighty Philips empire, have been involved in widescreen TV almost since day-one. Their British presence has been kept fairly low-key, they preferred to concentrate on their own domestic market and other European countries, that have more widescreen services and traditionally have shown a broader acceptance of company’s prestige -- some might say expensive -- products. According to our archives their first widescreen model sold here was the ST70.169/9, launched in early 1993. This 68cm (27-inch) set had a recommended selling price of £1300 but it lacked any real killer features, and only a relatively small number were sold.

 

HITACHI

Hitachi were one of the pioneers of widescreen technology in Japan and they produce a wide range of TVs and video products for home consumption but they’ve only recently become involved with the European market, selling 16:9 TVs in Germany since 1994. At the beginning of this year they launched their first 16:9 set in Britain, if all goes well others will doubtless follow. 

 

JVC

JVC are another company that have adopted a wait-and-see policy for the UK and Europe. Like a lot of other Japanese consumer electronics companies they’ve been key players in developing the technology. They have built up a sizeable range of products for their own home market, but have only just begun to ship 16:9 PAL TVs to British stores. JVC were one of the first to introduce the ‘panorama’ or stretch display mode facility. This electronically stretches the sides of a 4:3 image, to fill a widescreen display, leaving the centre of the picture unaffected and reducing the need to crop the top and bottom edges of the image.

 

LOEWE

German tongue-twisters Loewe (say ‘ler-vey’) have dipped in and out of the UK market in the past few years. They’re back again, this time their prestigious range of top-end TVs, distributed by Linn Products. Loewe are actually one of the world’s oldest consumer electronics companies and claim to have invented the integrated circuit back in 1926, though it takes a good deal of imagination to compare their innovative  triple function valve with a modern-day silicon microchip... Their involvement with widescreen TV goes way back too, they introduced their first model in Germany in 1991.

 

MITSUBISHI

Mitsubishi have been heavily involved in the Hi-Vision project in Japan and are one of the world’s largest picture tube manufacturers. In the mid 1980s they developed a 40-inch widescreen CRT -- then the worlds largest --  for professional studio monitors. Mitsubishi are fairly recent newcomers to the UK and European 16:9 scene, launching their first widescreen sets last year. Characteristically they’ve pursued a value for money approach, with plenty of interesting features on their PAL sets, and above average AV performance.    

 

NOKIA

Nokia were one of the leading lights in the Eureka 95 project, (developing MAC widescreen and HDTV technologies), the second company to launch widescreen TVs in Britain, and the first with a PALplus set. Their first 16:9 TV, the 36F8C appeared in early 1992. Back then it had the distinction of being the cheapest 16:9 TV on the market. The original launch price was £2650, which was remarkably good value for a 36-inch TV. The Nokia saga took an unexpected twist last year with the announcement that their TV division has been sold to Akai’s parent company. Akai say the range is currently under review and it is likely the 24, 28 & 32-inch models will continue for the time being, with the two larger models available with Dolby Pro Logic surround sound systems. Full details are expected to be announced in March

 

PANASONIC

It’s a familiar story. Panasonic are no strangers to 16:9 TV. They’ve been busily making widescreen and high definition TVs and goodness knows what else, for punters in the old country since the early 1980s, but they’ve only recently got around to Europe and the UK. Their first 16:9 TV appeared in UK showrooms last year; that, and the models that have followed are loaded with digital video processing circuitry and lots of advanced features. 

 

PHILIPS

Philips, another founding member of Eureka 95 project, were the first TV manufacturer to launch a widescreen set in this country, in early 1992. The 8906 was an impressive beast, it had a 36-inch screen, the sticking-out speakers and a mighty stand made it look even bigger than it was. The price then was an eye-watering £3500 (when £3500 was worth £3500...) and it was loaded with goodies, including a 100Hz display, multi-screen display and twin tuners, so you could watch two channels at once. Philips continue to play a leading role in widescreen TV development in Europe and are now heavily involved in digital TV technology.

 

SAMSUNG

Samsung are the first of the Korean CE manufacturers to become involved in widescreen TV in Europe and the UK. This underlines the rapid advances they’ve made in the past few years and they are now catching up fast with their Japanese neighbours. The more widescreen-friendly far-Eastern market has given Samsung considerable experience with the technology, and they’re also one of the regions largest CRT manufacturers. Their first prototype 16:9 set was shown at a London trade show in early 1994. They launched three PAL 16:9 TVs in the UK last year, the range included a 24-inch model which has subsequently been withdrawn.

 

SANYO

Sanyo have just launched their first 16:9 TV, earlier this year. Like most other Japanese companies they have a history with analogue widescreen and HDTV in the Far East, and have been waiting patiently for the rest of the world to catch up, albeit with the Europeans and Americans following a very different path to the Japanese analogue Hi-Vision system.

 

SONY

Sony’s widescreen pedigree is impeccable. In addition to pioneering Hi-Vision in Japan, both on the consumer side, and with professional and broadcast equipment, they’re also the world’s largest manufacture of widescreen picture tubes, and are due to begin making 16:9 CRTs in their rapidly expanding tube plant in Wales later this year. Sony missed the first wave of 16:9 TVs in Europe, their first PAL set didn’t appear until 1994 (the rarely seen and long forgotten KVW2812), but they made up for it in 1995 with the launch of no less than five 16:9 TVs including the first sub-20-inch model.  

 

TOSHIBA

Toshiba in the UK have traditionally adopted a fairly lukewarm attitude towards widescreen TV, preferring to extol the virtues of their large home cinema models, and their pivotal role in the development of TVs with built-in surround sound systems. That is in spite of acquiring a healthy share of the consumer and broadcast widescreen market in Japan. However, they finally relented last year, with the announcement of their first 16:9 TV, the very favourable reception it has had with reviewers should ensure it won’t be their last.

 

WIDESCREEN TVs

 

B&O

Avant, 28/70, £3500

This is what happens when the Scandinavian style-meisters get their hands on a TV! Is it a domestic appliance, living-room sculpture or a work of art? No matter, it makes great pictures and the built-in VCR is a nice touch. So too is the modular construction, with optional plug-in cards for surround sound and satellite reception.

 

GRUNDIG

M82-169/9 IDTV, 32/76, £1800

Available with or without PALplus and Dolby Pro Logic, this is a bit of a monster. A bit heavy-handed with the digital processing, pictures can look a bit grainy sometimes, and Grundig have been rather mean with the widescreen display modes. Excellent PALplus performance though.

 

M70-1690 DPL IDTV, 28/70, £1300

M70-1690 FT LOG, 28/70, £900

These two share the same Megatron picture tube and chassis but the dearer IDTV model has a 100Hz display, on-board Dolby Pro Logic, advanced on-screen displays with ‘instruction book’ and five channel audio system. The FT model has all the basics though, including NICAM, fastext and multi-system receiver.

 

HITACHI

CT-8300TN, 28/70, £1200

Hot off the production line, this is Hitachi’s first widescreen set for the UK. Top features include advanced digital video processing circuitry, super flat black picture tube, built-in sub-woofer and a two-speaker 3D sound system incorporating a Dolby Pro Logic decoder. Active cordless infra red rear effects speakers are available as an optional extra

 

JVC

AV-32WX1EK, 32/76, £1700

AV-28WX1EK, 28/70, £1000

Differentiated only by screen size (and price) these two sets are superbly well specified and produce a crackingly good picture. They have a fine assortment of widescreen display options, including Panoramic stretch. A built-in Dolby Pro Logic decoder is used to create JVC’s 3D Phonic spatial sound from the TVs built-in speakers, a full surround upgrade is possible.

 

LOEWE

ART 20-100, 32/76, £3600

Said to look good from any angle, it’s certainly a very dramatic shape, that’s difficult to ignore. This vast monolith of a TV rakes back slightly, for the optimum viewing angle. Pin-sharp pictures from a 100Hz display and the big speakers and powerful amp ensure a full, well rounded sound. It’s good but a tad pricey, even for art...

 

ERGO 6581 32/76, £2850

Another designer TV, this time a slightly less radical design though the price is still quite steep. Based around the same Q2100 chassis as the ART 20-100 it also has a 100Hz display, digital video processing circuitry, picture in picture facilities and a punchy sound system, driving four speakers.

 

MITSUBISHI

CT-32CW1BD,  32/76, £2000

CT-28BW2B, 28/70, £850 (DPL version £1000)

Following the successful introduction of the CT-32W1BD last year Mitsubishi have brought out a more modestly proportioned 28-inch version. Same well thought out spec, this time with Dolby Pro Logic surround sound available as an option. Great picture, great sound, great value.

 

PANASONIC

TX-W28D1, 28/70, £1400

Introduced last year and destined to continue for a while yet, this is a sophisticated design with 100Hz display and extensive digital system management, for improved reliability and consistent performance. Digital circuitry is also used for video noise reduction and image processing, for a clearer, sharper picture, and multi-standard capabilities.

 

TXW28D2DP, 28/70, £1200

TXW32D2DP, 32/76, £1700

Two new widescreen models from Panasonic, this time with Dolby Pro Logic as standard, and ‘Wide Digital Plus’ circuitry, which improves picture definition in the widescreen mode, reduces flicker and jerky movement. Both sets use Panasonic s new ‘Quintrix’ tube with increased brightness, sharper focus, better colour fidelity and contrast.

 

PHILIPS

24PW6321, 24/57, £800

Small, cheap and rather basic. This little 24-incher would be okay for bedroom viewing but the screen is simply not big enough for serious home cinema use. Sadly 4:3 pictures are not much larger than you’d get on a 20-inch TV. Nevertheless, picture and sound quality are both good.

 

28PW9512, 28/70, £1200

A respectably priced PALplus set, with the bonus of Dolby Pro Logic sound and a 100Hz display. A slightly bulbous shape, not especially pretty to look at but picture performance is good. The digital video processing can sometimes make its presence felt on scenes with a lot of fast movement. Fair to middling sound and generally good value.

 

28PW9631, 28/70, £1400

32PW9631, 32/76, £1850

Two top-end models, based on the same chassis, with 28 or 32-inch picture tubes; the 32-inch model also has twin tuners. The styling is quite elegant and they’ve got a useful list of features, that includes 100Hz displays, DPL sound, lots of digital picture enhancements and a 40 page teletext memory. Worth considering.

 

46P912A, 46/110, £2700

Still available! This 47-inch back projector is getting on a bit. It was launched around three years ago and was memorable for having motorised shutters inside the screen, to control the width of the image. A reasonable picture, but in common with most other back projection televisions, the viewing angle is quite shallow.

 

SAMSUNG

WS2820PF, 28/70, £1000

WS3220PF, 32/76, £1500

Samsung started out with three 16:9 TVs last year, they’ve since dropped the 24-inch model. The 28 and 32-inch sets share a common set of features, which includes five display modes, 3D spatial sound and five audio modes. Picture quality is good though some digital artefacts are evident. Sound quality is fine but 3D sound lacks impact.

 

SANYO

28WP1, 28/66, £1200

Sanyo sneaked this one into their ‘97 line-up with very little fuss, possibly to test out the widescreen waters. The specification looks good, with Dolby Pro Logic surround sound, a beefy audio system, a full set of digital picture processing systems and a very smooth cabinet design. 

 

SONY

KV16WT1, 16/36, £400 (NICAM KV16WS1, 16/36, £450)

Currently the smallest 16:9 TVs available in the UK. Both sets are aimed at the video games market. They’re much too small for satisfactory home cinema use. It’s worth paying the extra £50 for the NICAM version, in any case most video games have stereo sound.

 

KV24WX1, 24/57, £800

KV28WX1, 28/67, £900

These two entry-level widescreen sets both have Super Trinitron tubes, NICAM sound systems and fastext, but not a lot else. Picture quality is better than average and the larger set is worth considering for home cinema duties; the 24-inch model is too small to be of much use outside the bedroom.

 

KV24WS2, 24/57, £1000

KV28WS2 , 28/67, £1100

Dolby Pro Logic on a 24-inch widescreen TV is a bit of an extravagance. It makes more sense on the 28-inch variant though, which like its smaller stablemate has automatically adjusted brightness, contrast and colour, according to ambient lighting conditions, and advanced operating systems and on-screen displays.

 

KV32WX2, 32/76, £2000

KV32WS4, 32/76, £2500

The main differences between these two sets is the provision of Dolby Pro Logic, PALplus and twin tuners (for 2-channel PIP), on the dearer model. They both share the same chassis, with a feature list that includes 100Hz displays, IQ picture and operating systems plus multi-standard capabilities.

 

KL37W1, 37/88, £3800

KL50W1, 50/120, £5000

This pair of LCD back projectors have 37 and 51-inch screens. They’re both very compact, with footprint smaller than most 28 to 32-inch CRT TVs. Picture quality is good head-on, though the image deteriorates from the sides. They have fairly basic sound facilities, but with screens this big a high performance surround system is a must.

 

THOMSON

60DXC68U, 24/58, £800

70DXC668U, 28/76, £1000

The hand of Philipe Starcke is clearly evident on this pair of strikingly angular TVs, a theme that’s followed through to the stand. The 24-incher is a bit too small for serious viewing but the 28-inch model is a good home cinema starter set, with a very sharp, detailed picture and reasonable sound

 

81DXC669DLU, 32/76, £1400

Our current favourite widescreen TV, a real value for money model, benefiting from an outstanding picture, and solid sound, from the on-board Dolby Pro Logic decoder. It’s a multi standard design, with a very informative on-screen display and lots of useful gadgets. Recommended.

 

TOSHIBA

32W6DB, 32/76, £2000

Toshiba have entered the widescreen market with all guns blazing. The 32W6 has a 100Hz display, comprehensive digital picture processing, a seven speaker 55 watt (RMS) Dolby Pro Logic surround sound system and a 500 page teletext memory. It’s big and it’s brash, with top-notch AV performance.

 

BOX COPY 1

Top five widescreen videos

 

* Baraka

Sorry Rob, I don’t know anything about this one, could you pen 30 words?

 

* Jaws

An ocean full of action, this movie simply cannot muster the same kind of menace and suspense on a squitty little 4:3 screen. See it in widescreen and you’ll think twice about taking a bath...

 

* The Hunt for Red October

Let’s face it, submarines are 16:9 shaped. You need the full widescreen treatment to appreciate this kind of action movie, that jumps between vast set-piece shots and claustrophobic interiors

 

* Close Encounters of the Third Kind

When the humungous alien mother-ship makes its decent on the Devil’s Tower you’ll be ducking for cover if you watch this movie on a large widescreen TV, anything else and you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about....

 

* Blade runner

A masterpiece of a movie, that was never meant to be see in anything less than its full screen width. The spectacular sets, effects and Harrison Ford’s best performance to date, fit uncomfortably into the confines of a 4:3 screen

 

BOX COPY 2

Top five widescreen Laserdiscs

 

* Close Encounters of the Third Kind

So many of this movie’s set-piece effects depend on the full width of the screen. Laserdisc really brings them alive, and without significant loss of detail, when the picture is blown up to fill a 16:9 screen

 

* Apocalypse Now

The famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ scene, with the choppers laying down the napalm, will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention and salute when you see it on a widescreen set, with a good surround system

 

* Stargate

Loads of brilliant effects and some spectacular panoramic shots make full use of the screen area. You can even forget the thin storyline and wooden acting, just look at the pictures, and feel the sounds.

 

* Sense And Sensibility

Stunning cinematography and the English countryside -- a compelling argument for widescreen if ever there was one. This superbly well engineered laserdisc version manages to capture every minute nuance of Austens classic

 

* Orlando

Another one for Rob to fill in...

 

BOX COPY 3

HE TOP FIVE

 

* Thomson 81DXC69DLU, £1400

Thirty-two inches of home cinema excellence, and it’ll keep you on the right side of the bank manager too. It’s well specified, with Dolby Pro Logic sound and a good selection of display modes. Great value!

 

* B&O Avant, £3700

Dramatic, bold, brave even; B&O’s Avant is certainly unique, and it’s the first modular 16:9 TV. It comes with a stereo VCR built-in, and the option for a plug-in DPL decoder, satellite tuner and motorised dish controller.

 

* JVC AV28WX1EK, £1000

Widescreen and surround-sound, without the tears. This compact receiver delivers a great picture with some amazing sounds, courtesy of JVCs 3D Phonic audio system, which can be upgraded to full Dolby Pro Logic operation

           

* Samsung WS-3220PF, £1500

You get plenty of bangs for your bucks with this competitively priced 32-inch set. Picture quality is good too, even in difficult conditions. Well worth considering as a partner for a top-notch surround sound system

 

* Sony KL-37HW1, £3800

In spite of having a 37-inch screen this outstanding LCD back projector actually takes up less floorspace than most ordinary 24-inch TVs. Brilliant, pin-sharp images, ideal for those with larger rooms, and a few bob to spare...

 

BOX COPY 4

A FLAT FUTURE?

Flat widescreen TVs that you can hang on the wall are about to become a reality! Yes, yes you’ve heard it all before, many times probably, but this time it looks like happening, though you’re going to need a fairly substantial wall, and deep pockets...

 

We’ve got Plasma screens to thank this time. They’re a kind of hybrid CRT, that uses a gas plasma discharge to excite a faceplate covered in coloured phosphor dots. Immediately behind the screen there’s a display matrix, that controls the high energy plasma. Plasma screens have similar characteristics to conventional CRTs, and unlike LCD panels or back projectors, do not suffer from shallow viewing angles. The only minus points are that at this stage of the game are that they’re very, very expensive, and because they’re made of glass, they’re still quite heavy.

 

To help reduce the strain most manufacturers are keeping the screen and display electronics separate from the power supply, tuner and AV interconnections; this also helps cut down on the number of unsightly cables dangling from the bottom of the set.

 

Grundig, Panasonic and Sony are poised to launched PAL standard widescreen Plasma TVs this year. Prices for these first generation sets are likely to be in the £3000 to £5000 bracket, but if they catch on that should come down quite quickly.

 

BOX COPY 5

Multi-channel surround-sound systems, like the every popular Dolby Pro Logic, aims to immerse the viewer in a sea of sound and effects. A basic system has four channels heard through five speakers, placed in front of and behind (or to the side) of the viewing position.

 

The three front speakers carry normal right and left stereo, the one in the middle is used mainly for dialogue. Two speakers at the back are for the sound effects channel, or a combination of sound from the other channels, to create a mood or atmosphere. All four channels are contained with a normal stereo soundtrack, it’s the Dolby Pro Logic decoder’s job to unscramble them, and feed the outputs to a multi-channel amplifier and on to the speakers.

 

Original cinema surround soundtracks are retained by most recent movies released on tape or laserdisc. Surround sound information also survives intact when transmitted by terrestrial or satellite broadcasters.

 

TVs with built-in DPL decoders are very convenient and easy to set-up, but the speakers supplied are usually fairly small. Most manufacturers rely on the TV’s own stereo speakers for the right and left channels, resulting in a fairly confined soundstage, that can lack drama. For best results consider a separate AV system, with a powered sub-woofer to really bring those blockbusters alive!

 

Ó R.Maybury 1997 0901

 

 

 

 

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