For High Def, Decision: Impossible

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, June 24, 2007

A sales guy at the electronics store tried to make a point about the relative picture quality of the high-end plasma and LCD TV sets lining the walls.

There isn't much of a difference, was his pitch. "It's not like you're going to have two of these sets sitting next to each other in your living room."

Sure, man -- nobody would ever do that. Except I just did. In the interest of trying to figure out how to get the clearest, sharpest picture, I went a little overboard. I now have several thousand dollars' worth of large, high-end TV sets and high-def DVD players on loan, crowding my living room.

Other articles in this section of the newspaper might remind you to balance your portfolio or help you manage your finances responsibly. But this column is aimed at those of us who consider a fling with credit card debt every time we glance at those electronics ads peeking out of the Sunday paper.

A couple of weeks ago, I made a few phone calls and got my hands on two of the better-reviewed, most expensive TV sets on the market -- a $3,600 Sony Bravia 46-inch LCD set and a $8,000 50-inch plasma set from Pioneer.

The idea was to create my own elaborate version of the Pepsi Challenge: Which set would people prefer? And which of the two competing next-generation movie formats, Blu-ray and HD DVD, is better?

To level the playing field, I picked one of the few flicks available on both formats, "Mission: Impossible 3," and watched chunks of it six times in a row while looking for differences on each screen and in each format. Then I invited some friends over a couple of nights last week and repeated the process a few times.

At this point, I see a singed-in profile of Tom Cruise on the backs of my eyeballs whenever I blink a few times, but that's the price of scientific research. I just wish the results were more conclusive.

Here's the deal: The highest TV picture resolution offered on the planet is called "1080p," a reference to the number of lines of resolution, but there isn't a lot of content available at this resolution. You might think regular DVDs look great on your big, honkin' high-def plasma TV, but you need a special "upconverting" DVD player -- a device that plays DVDs and uses clever technology to artificially fill out the picture to simulate high-definition. You may not be getting the best image if you own one of these sets.

Blu-ray and HD DVD both produce a picture quality high enough to take full advantage of 1080p. But some movie studios and tech companies support one technology, some support the other. Neither Blu-ray nor HD DVD takes up much shelf space at the local electronics store because not many titles are available in either format, but Blockbuster announced this past week that it will soon carry Blu-ray movies in more stores and largely ignore its competitor. Netflix offers both.

For this experiment, I used the Sony PlayStation 3's Blu-ray player and an HD DVD player that Microsoft offers for the Xbox 360, coupled with a remote switching device from Accell.

Which format will win this war is the Betamax vs. VHS showdown of this generation, you could say. It's a bit less interesting than that old rivalry, though, because most of us are still pretty happy with our DVD collections. That's one of the few solid conclusions I can draw from the big experiment.

Both sets delivered startlingly good pictures -- that much was unanimous. Most of my friends preferred the plasma TV, though a few liked the LCD screen better. The deciding factor for most came down to a preference for either the deeper black shades of the plasma or the general brightness of the LCD screen. (I didn't, for the record, tweak any of either TV's settings.)

I included an upconverting DVD player from a company called Oppo Digital and got the same conflicting verdicts. I was impressed by the player's picture quality, which one technophile friend pronounced "godlike" for its ability to generate what nearly appeared to be a full high-definition picture. On the other hand, another friend grumbled that he expected better.

When it came to trying to spot differences between Blu-ray and HD DVD, both formats won a round or two each from my test groups, but there was no hands-down winner. One of my friends -- who is such a techno-snob that he once complained about the quality of a jet my friends were planning to rent for a bachelor party -- ultimately preferred Blu-ray on the LCD TV and HD DVD on the plasma set.

And, finally, one friend said she couldn't tell the difference at all between any of the pictures I showed her in either of the formats on either screen.

There was only one recurring verdict I heard in running through this taste test a few times last week, first proffered last Sunday evening by Jim Burger, a reader who suggested the subject of this column. Burger, who owns a plasma TV and an upconverting DVD player, came over last week to check things out himself.

Yes, he said, he could tell some differences between the picture offered by the fancy upconverting DVD player and the new would-be DVD replacements. He also preferred the plasma. But no, he's still not impressed enough to reach for his wallet and buy Blu-ray or HD DVD.

"It's not worth all the hassle and the money" to upgrade to the new formats, he said. Most of my other high-def TV-owning friends said the same.

So much for the amateurs. Finally, I invited TV industry analyst Gary Arlen over. Arlen happens to be in the market for a new set, but I'm not sure I helped him with his shopping.

Arlen was quickly able to spot where the fancy DVD player tripped up in delivering crisp images during a visually complex scene that involved a staircase and a large crowd of people. He was most impressed by the way the HD DVD player handled the same scene on the plasma set. As far as the other big differences he noticed in the other scenes we looked at-- well, there weren't any.

"This confirms to me that, to any but the most avid video lover, it's hard to make a choice," he said. "I hate to say it, but they're all great. "

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