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FEATURE

 

GETTING THE BEST PICTURE

 

INTRO/STANDFIRST

For a lot of people home cinema still brings to mind images of bobble-hatted enthusiasts, with ancient 35mm projectors and second-hand cinema seats in converted garages. Those of you who read last months introduction to the nuts and bolts of home cinema technology will know better.  In Part Two weíre going to be concentrating on the visual side of things and answering questions like, is size important, is front better than rear, and can you improve your performance? The answers are: no, it depends and yes, but if you want the full picture, read on...

 

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SECTION 1, DIRECT VIEW TELEVISIONS

Televisions are unquestionably the most diverse group of electronic devices. More than a dozen display technologies are in use at the moment, screen sizes vary from a couple of inches to more than 200 inches and you can spend anything from £50 to £5000 on one, and thatís just the domestic models! Home cinema sorts the wheat from the chaff. To begin with, weíre only interested in systems capable of delivering high-quality pictures with a screen sizes of 25-inches or larger. Cost is a major consideration, flexibility is important, it also has to be maintenance-free, long-lived and easy to use.

 

The cathode ray tube (CRT) fulfils all of those criteria. The core technology may be over 100 years old, but you can be sure that when something better and cheaper comes along, weíll know about it. CRTs have their minus points though. They are big, heavy and mechanically fragile, which imposes a physical limit on their size. The largest screen for domestic use is 37-inches, though even that is pushing it and most manufacturers prefer to stick with models 32-inches or smaller.

 

Whilst weíre on the subject of size, a few words on what the numbers actually mean. Screens are measured diagonally, sizes quoted in inches refer to the outside dimensions of the picture tube, not the size of the picture. Nowadays most manufacturers use the far more meaningful Ďvisibleí screen measurement, i.e. ĎV68cmí which translates to a 28-inch tube in old money.

 

This is also a good opportunity to consider aspect ratio. The majority of TVs are based on the shape of cinema screens up until the early 1950s. The proportions of the ĎAcademyí screen as it is known, is always four units wide by three units deep -- irrespective of the size -- otherwise known as a 4:3 aspect ratio. The trend now is towards Ďwidescreení displays, which closely resemble the shape of todayís cinema screen, with an aspect ratio of 16:9. This will become the de-facto shape of TV within the next ten years as multi-channel digital television takes over. If you want a widescreen TV now go ahead, but it might be better to wait a year or two, when prices should start to fall.

 

Choosing the right screen size is important for your viewing comfort and cinematic enjoyment. Aim for the largest screen you can afford, and find room for but donít go mad, especially if you have a very small living room. Two simple rules of thumb can help you decide. Multiply the viewing distance in feet by four, to give you a screen width in inches. (If you sit 7 feet from the screen, 28-inches is the ideal screen size). The approved British Standards method (BS 5876), suggests dividing viewing distance by 6, to give the optimum screen height.

 

When auditioning TVs in the shop or showroom, look for reflections from lights and windows; in general flatter screens (FSTs) produce fewer reflections. Darker screens often have better contrast and check the picture across a range of brightness settings..

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

Samsung WS-3220PF, 28-inch 16:9, £1500

Budget widescreen TV, good picture for the price. NICAM but no surround sound facilities

 

Mitsubishi CT-29BV1BD, V68cm 4:3, £850

Superbly well-specified Dolby Pro Logic TV, great picture quality and plenty of extras

 

Sony KV-29F1, V68cm 4:3, £650

The super flat Trinitron picture tube gives one of the sharpest, brightest pictures in the business

 

SECTION 2, REAR PROJECTION TELEVISIONS

Rear screen projection television takes over where CRTs leave off.  Most models look just like giant TVs, though surprisingly many of them take up less floor-space than a typical 25-inch CRT television. Inside the box you will find one of two projection technologies. Most models use high intensity CRT projection tubes -- three of them, one for each primary colour --  that shine onto the backside of the translucent screen, via a series of lenses and mirrors. The new kid on the block is LCD back projection. These sets have three small LCD elements -- again, one for each colour. Each element is like one of the small screens found in pocket TVs. A powerful light is shone through the screen, then through lenses and mirrors onto the back of the screen.

 

Back projection TVs are available from 37-inches to 55-inches, and beyond, though the really large models are intended for commercial display applications and unlike their smaller, domestic cousins, rarely have tuners, audio systems or features like teletext etc.

 

All back projection televisions have narrow viewing angles. How much of a problem this is depends on the layout of your viewing room. Back projectors are best seen head-on, from the sides, at angles of more than 45 degrees from the centre line, the picture starts to disappear. Image brightness used to be a problem though itís less of an issue nowadays with more powerful display tubes and projection bulbs, even so most models are at their best in a semi-darkened room.

 

Projection TVs need more frequent maintenance than ordinary tube televisions. Older models with high-intensity CRTs may require frequent adjustment, to ensure the three images are precisely aligned, though Ďconvergenceí is now set automatically on many recent sets. Another  point to bear in mind is the longevity of the projection tubes and the cost of replacement, which could be significant if youíre a real telly addict.  LCD projects normally require far less attention, the bulbs need to be replaced, though some of the latest types can last for up to ten years. Maybe so, but if they do pop, they can cost up to £200 to replace.

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

Pioneer SD-M1407, 40-inches CRT, 4:3, £3600

A firm favourite with home cinema enthusiasts, remarkably compact for its size

 

Sony KL37W1 37-inch, triple LCD 16:9, £3800

One of the first and so far the best LCD back projectors; remarkably slim and well specified

 

Toshiba 55PJ6DB, 55-inches, CRT, 4:3, £3500

55-inches of pure picture power, a big bright image, that even manages to looks good well-lit rooms

 

SECTION 3, FRONT PROJECTION TELEVISIONS

If you have a seriously large room, and a monster 55-inch screen simply isnít big enough, then what you need is a front projector. Front projectors are not just about huge displays though. Most of them are fairly compact and can solve all kinds of space or room layout problems. Projectors can be suspended from the ceiling, or mounted in, on, or behind rear walls.

 

Front projectors, like rear projectors, either use high-intensity CRTs or LCD elements. However, LCD projectors are available with single or triple elements; the former are a lot cheaper, but produce a noticeably coarser picture.  

 

Image brightness may cause difficulties, especially on larger screens. For the best results they really need to be installed in a dark or semi-dark room. Most front video projectors are simply that. In other words, thatís all you get. A few models have rudimentary mono sound systems but theyíre mostly only suitable for monitoring. No models, as far as weíre aware, have built-in TV tuners either, so you will have to make alternative arrangements. Then thereís the screen. Unless you have a large empty white wall you can use, you will need some kind of screen, but what to do with it, when itís not in use? The usual solution is to use a retractable or roller-blind type screen, but inevitably this all adds to the complication, and cost. The attendant hassle means front projectors are not very convenient, simply to watch a spot of TV, if you have to lower or erect the screen, darken the room, and fire up the tuner and audio systems.

 

In general the larger a video image gets, the more obvious the line structure becomes visible. There are solutions, a device called a line-doubler generates extra picture lines, to fill in the gaps. A line doubler make them up, by analysing the content of the lines either side of the gap. The process, called interpolation, effectively guesses what should be there. Itís a complex business, using many digital microcircuits; line doublers are now becoming cheaper, but if you want to stay at the cutting edge, you should be thinking in terms of line triplers, and even line quadruplers, which are now becoming available.

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

Sanyo PLC-400, 150-inches, 3 x LCD, 4:3, £2467

Compact and affordable, a clean, well defined image up to 100 inches and beyond

 

Sharp XG-378SE, 150-inches, 3 x LCD 4:3, £3525

Powerful table-top model, multi role and multi-standard, with VGA computer input

 

Sony VPL-W400QM, 200-inches, 3 x LCD, 16:9, £6461

Smart-looking, bright too, worth considering for really large screens

 

SECTION 4, SATELLITE SYSTEMS

Satellite television has become an increasingly important source of material for the home cinema. Movies transmitted via satellite generally carry the original theatrical soundtrack, with embedded surround sound information. Satellite television in the UK is on the brink of a major revolution, with the launch of a vast number of digital channels, planned for later this year, however, the present analogue systems are likely to remain in place until well into the next decade.

 

Analogue receiving equipment is now absurdly cheap -- systems are actually being given away by some retailers, though you usually have to buy something else first. Freebie and cheapie system deals normally involve signing up to a yearís subscription contract, to the full BSKYB movie channel package.

 

There really isnít a great deal of variation in picture quality between the various satellite receivers currently available. In fact the design and installation of the dish and its LNB has a much greater impact. It pays to have a system installed by a firm who is a member of the CAI (Confederation of Aerial Industries). Nevertheless, there is a lot you can do to ensure a tip-top picture. Do not use the RF or aerial output loop to connect the receiver to the TV, use a SCART connection, and either route it via the VCR -- so you can record or time-shift STV programmes in stereo -- or connect the VCR to the appropriate socket on the back of the satellite receiver. 

 

Most satellite receivers are factory tuned but itís worth shortlisting features like manual and fine tuning. A few models have picture controls or presets (brightness, contrast etc.), these are worth having as there can be quite significant differences in the levels between satellite and terrestrial pictures.  

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

Pace Prima, under £100, (with mandatory BSKYB subscription)

The best of the cheapie deals with sufficient sockets and audio facilities for a basic home cinema set-up

 

Grundig GRD300, £250

One of the best mid-range models, well specified with above average picture and sound facilities

 

Nokia SAT 1800S, £300

Excellent all rounder, equally at home with the Astra channels, or hooked up to a steerable dish, for multi-satellite reception

 

SECTION 5, VIDEO RECORDERS 500

After the television the next most hard-working component in a home cinema system is the VCR. VHS video recorders have been with us for over twenty years and the picture quality on the better mid-range and top-end NICAM stereo models is about as good as it is going to get. Thereís quite a few home cinema features to look out for, but first a couple of Ďdontísí. There is absolutely no point in buying a mono VCR, and avoid machines from companies you havenít heard of. Stick with the major Europe and and Japanese brands and you canít go far wrong.

 

Picture and sound performance are clearly very important, so look out for machines with advanced picture processing and noise reduction circuitry. Tape-tuning systems, that automatically adjust recording and playback circuitry to suit the grade of tape being used, is another good sign. Nevertheless, take most performance claims with a pinch of salt, and conversely, be aware that not all manufacturers make a song and dance about every feature. Some apparently quite modestly-equipped machines can have excellent picture quality.

 

Deck speed and agility are good indicators of a machineís mechanical components. If you get the chance during a demo, switch replay speed and direction during playback, check how quickly and noisily it responds.  Donít be afraid to tap the case during playback, give any machine with a jumpy picture a very wide berth.

 

Trick play stability is important, jittery still frame and noise bars during fast picture search should be a thing of the past, but if you want to say goodbye to them altogether, take a look at any of JVCís Dynamic Drum machines. 

 

Donít even think about VCRs with only one SCART socket, if you want to avoid connectivity headaches later on. Multi-brand TV remotes can be very useful, so too is satellite control, especially if you time-shift a lot of satellite TV material. However, in both cases double check the manuals for the brands supported, and donít take salespersons glib assurances that it will work with your equipment too seriously. NTSC replay is handy if you have friends or relatives in the US or Japan. Front mounted AV input sockets are a boon, especially if thereís a video game enthusiast or camcorder fan in the family. It makes temporary hook-ups so much easier.

 

You may be wondering why we havenít mentioned Super VHS. On a good day, with the wind in the right direction, on a good quality TV with the right connections, it is possible to spot some small improvements on test patterns. The bottom line is that normal off-tape and off-air recordings do not look significantly better than some VHS machines, costing half as much as the cheapest S-VHS VCRs. Super VHS starts to make sense if you have a camcorder. Most machines have a range of useful editing features, but for straightforward home cinema use the higher cost can be hard to justify. 

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

 

Akai VS-G745, VHS, £280

Itís a bargain! A NICAM VCR for less than £300, with the kind of AV performance that puts some £400 VCRs to shame

 

JVC HR-DD845, VHS, £400

Outstanding Dynamic Drum machine, pin-sharp picture and sound, plus some really useful home cinema extras

 

SECTION 6, IMPROVING PICTURE QUALITY 500

If youíre not about to rush out and buy a new TV or video recorder thereís still plenty you can do, to ensure you get the very best picture and sound performance from your equipment. Small, gradual reductions in video and audio quality can go completely unnoticed, especially if they happen over a period of weeks or months. One of the main culprits are rooftop TV aerials. They can be blown or knocked off-bonk by strong winds and heavy birds. Moisture and airborne gunk gets into the cables and connections, and the elements get at the elements, leading to rusting and corrosion. TV aerials donít last forever, so itís not a bad idea to have yours checked, and if necessary replaced every five to eight years.

 

Television tuning and picture processing systems have become a lot more sophisticated but than can still creep out of alignment. Check picture settings from time to time, not just brightness and contrast; a lot of models now have sharpness and tint controls, buried deep in the menus. Make sure they havenít drifted or been fiddled around with. If your TV is a fairly recent model itís not a bad idea to run the auto-installation routine once a year or so. Itís possible that new, more powerful transmitters may have come on stream in your area; you might even come across Channel 5... When was the last time you cleaned the screen? A good going-over with a quality glass cleaner, preferably one with anti-static additives, will cut through the crud and bring back the shine.

 

This is a good time to check your connections. When AV systems evolve all kind of horrible things happen around the back panels. Replace any iffy, cheapo or freebie SCART and phono leads. Why not treat yourself to some gold-plated cables; donít worry if they donít have an instant impact on AV performance, the plating will resist corrosion better and slow down any future deterioration. This can be a problem in a smoky or damp atmospheres. If nothing else tidy up all the cables, why not label them, so you will be able to integrate new components, or track down faults that much quicker.

 

Isnít it about time you gave your VCR a Spring clean? This is vitally important if you play a lot of rental tapes. They come with all sorts of unwelcome baggage, including dust and gunge from the previous renterís VCR, and sticky-fingered kids. Itís a good idea to give a VCR a run-through with a quality dry cleaner tape every few months. ĎWetí cleaners, that use a alcohol-based solvents, are best kept in reserve for really serious cases of contamination.

 

Look after your software. Optical discs are especially vulnerable to scratches and surface grime, so always put them back in their cases when youíve finished with them, and avoid leaving discs in players. Heat from the machineís innards can warp the plastic. Tapes should also be put away after use, and don't forget to keep them well away from strong magnets or indeed any electrical appliances.

 

THE ULTIMATE PICTURE

Good though it is, video is a long way behind film, when it comes to resolution and colour rendition. Video also has a distinct texture -- it becomes even more noticeable on larger screens or displays; some died in the wool movie fans find it extremely irritating.

 

So what are the chances of going the whole hog, and installing a 35mm projector, screen and sound system in your living room? Getting hold of the hardware shouldnít be too difficult. Old cinemas are closing down all the time, and projectors pop up in specialist auctions now and again, sometimes selling for a few hundred pounds or for a fraction of what they originally cost. You can forget buying a new one though, unless youíve recently had all five numbers and the bonus ball...

 

However, the big problem is getting hold of prints of movies on general release. Theyíre simply not available to the public, outside of the authorised distributions systems, at least, not legally. Once they come out of the cinema thatís another matter and prints can be obtained by recognised film societies. There are scores of them, up and down the country, in most large towns. They flourish in areas where there are no cinemas nearby. Some of them even operate in members homes. If you want to find out more then you should get in touch with the BFFS (British Federation of Film Societies, they can be reached on: 0171-734 9300.

 

JARGON BUSTER 200

 

FST

Flatter, squarer tube

 

LCD

Liquid crystal display

 

LNB

Low-noise block-converter, the widget stuck out on the arm in front of the dish.

 

NICAM

Near instantaneously companded audio multiplexing --  high performance  digital stereo sound system used by the BBC and ITV companies, capable of near CD sound quality

 

NTSC

National Standards Television Committee -- colour TV system used in US and parts of the far East, with 525-line/60Hz display.

 

PAL

Phase Alternate Line -- 625-line/50Hz colour TV system used in UK and throughout much of Europe

 

SCART

Syndicat des Constructeurs d'Appareils Radio Recepteurs et Televiseurs -- Euro standard 21-pin connector system, used on VCRs, TVs and satellite tuners, carrying audio and video information, control and switching signals

 

---end---

” R. Maybury 1997 1812

 

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