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Getting the big picture on the tube

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule


Getting the big picture on the tube

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1990, The Syracuse Newspapers

Living color? Click.

Sharp and clear? Click.

Stereo sound on each side of the screen? Double click.

But life-size?

Gulp! Television is usually anything but. A 19-inch screen-the size that most of us watch-is pretty small. Even a 27-inch or 31-inch screen is just a fraction of the size of real-life scenes in broadcasts and on videotape.

This isn't a problem if TV is just another evening diversion. But if we're serious about our fun and we want our video entertainment to be as realistic as possible, we have to make it life-size.

And that, of course, means we'd have to spend more—usually, a lot more than we'd ordinarily pay for a regular console TV. Since the Cheapskate frowns on spending even a penny more than necessary for anything, the idea of big-screen television seems to be one of those goals that true skinflints could never reach.

But even the Cheapskate falls prey to the idea that art is long and credit cards are fleeting. And so if you can afford just one major home video purchase this time around, you should consider a big-screen TV.

They come in screen sizes ranging from 35 inches to 120 inches—that's 10 feet, pardner—and cost anywhere from $2,000 to the level of "if you have to ask, you can't afford it."

There are three basic types:

Direct-view TVs. These are just like regular TVs, except that they're bigger. Because their picture tubes are extra beefy, and because they need massive shielding, these sets are usually very heavy. Picture sizes range between 30 inches and 40 inches.

Drawbacks: They're expensive, and their pictures aren't really all that large.

Rear-projection TVs. These are what most people think of when they refer to big-screen sets. Many brands are available, and discounts can bring average prices down below $2,000.

Drawbacks: They're often not very bright if you sit off to the side, and the picture from that angle can be ruined by ghost images coming from the lens behind the screen.

Front-projection TVs. These give the best picture, all other things being equal (which they usually aren't, unfortunately). In principle, they work just like movie projectors, except for the three separate, colored light beams that front-projection sets usually have. Drawback: They take up a lot of space unless you have a high ceiling and can hang the projector there (but be warned that your viewing room could end up looking like a tavern).

When the first successful big-screen TVs were introduced in the 1970s, the only video playback device that could show off the advanced picture quality of the new sets was a laser disc player. That's right-laser video discs have been around for almost 20 years.

These days, a laser disc player is still the best way to feed a proper video diet to your giant TV. Prices have been falling while features have been rising, and you should be able to buy one for $400 to $600. That's not in true Cheapskate territory, but it's getting close. One caution: Make sure the laser-disc player isn't an old model being sold out of outmoded warehouse stock; many models from a few years back were not able to play the digital sound tracks that are becoming standard on laser video discs.

A little more expensive but still skirting the edge of cheapness is the new breed of "combi" players, which will play audio compact discs and laser video discs. The last one I tried was able to play 3-inch, 5-inch, 8-inch, 10-inch and 12-inch discs-overkill, perhaps, but a great conversation piece.

Big-as-life video is only part of a home theater. The rest comes from good stereo sound, with your loudspeakers placed on each side of the screen. The first two types of big-screen sets mentioned above come with stereo speakers built in, but they're seldom any good. The third type, front projection, almost always needs external speakers for proper audio.

However, you shouldn't just hook up your own speakers directly to the TV.

It won't have enough power to make them sound very loud. Instead, find the left and right audio output jacks on your TV-nearly all big-screen sets have them-and run cables from those jacks to your stereo amplifier or receiver. You can use the "aux" input or the "tuner" input of your stereo. (Or you can use a "tape" input if you don't have a cassette deck hooked up to it.)

If your TV doesn't have audio outputs, you can use the ones on the VCR instead. All VCRs that have stereo tuners also have left and right audio output jacks.

That's all you need for a home theater. Add a popcorn machine-or just toss some kernels in a brown paper bag and stick it in the microwave-and you're all set. Who knows—you might even be able to charge admission.

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