Monday, November 24, 2008

I Have a New Writing Gig!

I recently answered a call at Secrets of Home Theater and High-Fidelity to apply for a position as a contributing writer. To my surprise and excitement, I was hired a few weeks ago. My first technical article was posted today.

I'm looking forward to making more contributions to Secrets in the coming months. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tech Note: Iron Man on Blu-ray Disc

I recently received my copy of Iron Man on Blu-ray disc and made an interesting discovery. You may have read about this on forums already but I'm talking about it here for those that don't want to wade through the 3,000 post mega-threads on AVS. As you probably know, the Blu-ray release of Iron Man was recalled at the last minute due to an authoring error. Apparently, some reviewers had trouble with their pre-release copies. I found in my research that there is an old and new UPC code and the old one was covered by a decal when the disc was replaced by the manufacturer. Well, there is still a quirk with the replacement disc that I discovered when I viewed the film.

Iron Man includes an excellent Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Unfortunately those of us who own certain model receivers (Onkyo 805 in my case) will note that the sound lacks the punch and dynamic range we've come to expect from lossless sound mixes. I watched the entire movie and felt underwhelmed by the sound even when I turned it up quite high. I remembered an early review I'd read which said the standard Dolby Digital track actually had more punch and the TrueHD track was enabling Dynamic Range Compression automatically. I played the movie again checking the Late Night mode on my receiver. Sure enough, it was set to Auto. Turning it to Off made a huge improvement. I watched the movie through two more times and was much more impressed. I also discovered that powering down the receiver resets the Late Night mode on all TrueHD tracks to Auto. I have to manually turn it off for every Blu-ray that has Dolby TrueHD. Auto doesn't always mean compressed but Off is a guarantee that there won't be any range compression. I had always wondered why some TrueHD movies required a higher volume level than DTS Master Audio. I believe I now know why. By the way, this only applies if you're bitstreaming the audio. Analog or PCM won't exhibit this behavior.

Advice: check the Late Night setting on your receiver every time you watch a TrueHD enabled movie. You don't have to worry about DTS because Late Night mode is only for Dolby codecs. This may also not be the case for all receivers and processors. I believe Onkyo and Yamaha use the same DSP chips so you Yamaha owners might want to check this out the next time you watch Iron Man.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Samsung Color Management System

Samsung's newest flat panel TVs are quickly becoming a reference standard for calibrators. The user menu boasts the most complete set of adjustments I've seen outside a projector. There is even a comprehensive color management system (CMS). These controls are available on all Samsung 1080p TVs, LCD and plasma, 32 inches and up. As mentioned in other articles on this blog, there are also controls for gamma and white balance. It's so nice not to have to navigate an arcane service menu to find these adjustments. With the user menu, I can achieve a nearly perfect calibration in all respects. In this article, I'd like to focus on the CMS. I recently learned a new technique that has allowed me to achieve a high level of color depth and reality. Thanks to Doug Blackburn, Widescreen Review writer and ISF calibrator, for his research and instruction on the new Samsung CMS.

A CMS has two major goals: achieving the correct colors and the proper amount of each color. In layman's terms, you want the three primaries and three secondaries to match the SMPTE standards on the CIE triangle. This standard is also referred to as Rec 709 which is the HD color space. Most TVs with a CMS allow you move the color points to make this happen. What Samsung allows which is a real plus on a consumer TV, is adjustment of the luminance of each primary. There is a standard for that as well but most CMS equipped TVs won't allow adjustment of the color luminance independently. Below is a CIE chart from a 650-series LCD.

It's not absolutely perfect but I've never been closer on any other TV. What the CIE chart doesn't show is the luminance of each color. That is the third axis that I can now address thanks to Samsung. By using a luminance calculator, I can input the actual measurements of each color at 75IRE and find out what the luminance should be. My initial measurements on this TV showed the luminance levels to be about 20% too high for green and blue while red was almost perfect. You can see what needs to be done: the balance must be restored! By using the Custom mode in the Color Space menu, I can adjust each color individually. Once I dropped the luminance of green and blue, I had each color within .5fl of the correct number.

The net effect is a more realistic color representation. The "looking through a window" effect is heightened and the sense of depth and dimension in the image is greater. You see, low black levels aren't the only thing needed for a great image! Samsung has added a feature that makes their TVs truly capable of unprecedented image accuracy. Thanks to the ISF, the community of independent calibrators and probably influential internet forums like AVS, manufacturers are finally delivering displays that offer accurate image modes in addition to their retina-searing showroom ones. These latest Samsung panels can provide an image to rival any professional monitor. I have revisited the current-generation Samsung TVs I've calibrated to adjust the CMS and I now employ this technique on all Samsung flat panel calibrations.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Products and Services Pricing

Video System Calibration
An ISF calibration has one goal, to make your display match as closely as possible the SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) standards for video displays. These specs are used in the industry to master all content whether it be broadcast or disc based. The end result is that you will see the same image the director sees when the content is created. By improving the dynamic range and color fidelity of your display, you will see more detail, fewer video artifacts and a greater sense of dimension. You will also experience less eye fatigue as most displays come from the factory set to a retina-searing Dynamic mode to make them more attractive in showrooms. The standards set by SMPTE take human factors into account. After a few days with a calibrated display, you will wonder how you ever watched TV before!

All calibrations are full system calibrations and include the entire signal path. Source components are adjusted to the highest level of accuracy to match the display.

· LCD and Plasma panels - $300
· CRT direct-view - $300
· Rear-projection (all types) - $350
· Front-projection (all types) - $400

A full-system calibration includes:
· Setting correct Black and White levels
· Adjusting grayscale tracking to 6500K
· Correcting color decoding errors (Color and Tint)
· Removing artificial edge-enhancement (Sharpness)
· Correcting color primaries and secondaries where applicable
· Correcting geometry and aspect ratio
· Correcting convergence on CRT displays

My tools include:
· Accupel DVG-5000 Pattern Generator
· Spears and Munsil Benchmark Blu-ray Disc
· X-Rite EyeOne Pro Spectrophotometer
- X-Rite/SpectraCal C6 Tri-Stimulus Colorimeter
· CalMAN Professional Display Analysis Software
· ControlCAL ISFccc Calibration and Control Software
- Dell XPS Core i5 Laptop

Calibration is always done with instruments, using known reference test patterns, never by eye. Results are documented and stored. All settings are provided to the client and follow-up service is always available.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray Player Review

Since I am firmly committed to the Blu-ray format in my theater, it was only a matter of time before I felt the overwhelming need to add the format to my living room AV system. With more and more TV shows being released on hi-def disc I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy my favorites on DVD when they are available on Blu-ray. To that end, I recently installed Panasonic’s latest entry, the DMP-BD50.

The BD50 is Panasonic’s third generation player and its most feature-laden to date. In addition to all the excellent video playback features carried over from the BD30 it supports full PCM and 5.1 analog decoding of ALL lossless sound formats. This is the main reason I waited for this player rather than buying the less-expensive BD30 for my living room. The BD30 only supports lossless formats as bitstreams. You will need a decoding receiver like the Onkyo SR-805 to fully enjoy the improved sound Blu-ray has to offer. The BD50 works nicely with my Denon 3806 by converting all sound formats to LPCM which the receiver accepts through its HDMI 1.1 inputs.

Aside from the improved sound support, the BD50 appears identical to the BD30. Though I have not compared them side-by-side on the same display, I can see no difference in image quality between the two. I believe both players have the same video sections. Menus and setup are pretty much the same. 24fps and DVD upconversion to 1080p are supported and you can force both resolution and scan rate if your display doesn’t play nice. As I am still using an older 720p Samsung TV, I set the BD50 to 720p and 60hz. Sound setup was a bit different. In the Audio menu, you can specify the type of digital output independently for Dolby and DTS formats. These settings will hold for Blu-ray and DVD playback. This means if you’ve specified PCM for Dolby and DTS formats, your receiver will say “PCM” or “Multi Channel” whether you play a Blu-ray or a standard DVD. For those of you wondering, I can’t hear any difference between audio that’s bitstreamed or decoded to PCM. I certainly CAN hear a difference between compressed (Dolby Digital & DTS) audio and uncompressed audio (Dolby TrueHD & DTS-Master Audio). Detail and clarity are much better and the dynamic range of even an average soundtrack is larger than the best mixes on DVD. I don’t believe you have to have a killer system to enjoy the benefits of lossless sound. My living room is far from ideal and I don’t have expensive gear. I do know that the soundfield is larger, the sense of surround is greater and detail is improved. I know there are other media formats vying for your entertainment dollars but Blu-ray is the only one to offer such a huge improvement in audio quality.

As I stated, there seems to be no difference in image quality between the BD30 and the BD50. DVD upconversion isn’t too bad. It’s not the equal of a high-end processing solution like Anchor Bay or HQV but I think it does a better job than the cheap upconverting players I’ve encountered. It certainly beats the video processing in my Samsung DLP. I noticed a few combing artifacts and occasional jaggies but images were noise-free and color fidelity was excellent. There was no added edge enhancement and dynamic range was superb. Though this player did not ace the HQV test disc, I still would consider it an excellent DVD player. The next step up would be Oppo’s $400 983 or Denon’s $850 2930. The BD50 will play standard audio CDs but not DVD-Audio or SACD. It will play all burned media provided it has been finalized. It also accepts SD memory cards like the BD30 for viewing of photos and home videos.

The BD50 is one of the first Profile 2.0 players on the market. It has the required Ethernet connection on the back panel. It does not however have sufficient internal memory. For this, you must install an SD card. I did not test the BD-Live features of this player but I did install a memory card just in case. They’re so cheap now; you might just have one lying around the house!

Obviously, I am quite happy with this new player. At $599 it’s not cheap but the bleeding edge never is. I wasn’t sure I would be as thrilled with Blu-ray on a 50-inch 720p display as I am in the theater with its 92-inch screen but I am. The image quality is simply wonderful and the audio is equally amazing. There’s just nothing like an artifact-free color-saturated picture. It’s much more difficult to achieve that from Standard DVD. Even an average-quality Blu-ray is superior to the best DVD transfers. I’m all about removing video processing from the signal path whenever possible. Now we have a format that allows this and I think we need to embrace it. Of course there will be something better in the future but when is that not the case? Blu-ray is the best video and audio format going right now and is likely to be for the next few years. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to get the most out of your display right now!

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Samsung LN52A650 LCD Calibration

The competition in the flat-panel TV market has never been hotter and LCD has taken a commanding lead over plasma in recent years. While plasma still holds the edge in image quality, LCDs are so close as to be nearly indistinguishable from even the best plasmas. Samsung has taken a strong position with their latest line of displays including the 550, 650 and 750 models. The 650 includes a 120hz refresh rate and correct handling of 24p sources with 5:5 cadence. There are 4 HDMI inputs, 2 component inputs and an attractive bezel with a hint of red tint around the edges.

I calibrated only the digital inputs on this TV so I used the side-mounted HDMI port to plug in the signal generator. Initial measurements in Movie mode showed perfect color primaries and nearly perfect secondaries. I engaged the extremely handy blue-only mode in order to set the color and tint controls. This is far more accurate than using a blue filter. I wish all TVs had this feature. I displayed a color bar pattern and adjusted color until all bars showed a uniform blue. I didn’t have to adjust the tint control. Verifying the results with my color meter showed a perfectly aligned decoder. This took me all of 2 minutes, amazing! Levels at the default settings weren’t too far off but the gamma curve was a bit high at 2.34 yet I had downward room in brightness. Fortunately, there is a usable gamma control along with the backlight adjustment available on most LCDs. I lowered both brightness and backlight and raised gamma. I wound up at a gamma of 2.2. I was able to max contrast without a color shift or any crushing. Grayscale was also no problem with the included gain and cut controls. As always, if you want to adjust this yourself, use a color meter. The Warm2 color temp was pretty close. I was able to improve on the default settings resulting in Delta C readings under 1.0 from 20 to 100 IRE. Color accuracy and grayscale tracking on this TV is simply superb. It’s so refreshing to finally see TV manufacturers providing an accurate picture mode and the adjustments necessary to maintain it. Bravo Samsung!

After color and level calibration, I was anxious to test the various motion processing options. Samsung calls theirs Auto Motion. There are three levels in addition to the off setting. Off means there is simply 5:5 pulldown applied to incoming 60hz signals. From what I could tell watching actual content, this held true. Standard DVD looked suitably film-like. Even with correct motion processing, some titles will still show a little judder. The better the transfer, the less judder you will see. I viewed the THX-certified Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope. The opening scene with the Imperial star destroyer chasing Princess Leia’s blockade runner showed smooth motion and no artifacting. Turning on Auto Motion enabled the frame interpolation feature. While things became even smoother, it was no longer film-like. On the high setting, it was positively un-natural. It’s ultimately up to personal preference. I encourage clients to experiment with the different degrees of motion processing to decide which they like best. I prefer to retain the frame rates of the original film. With more interpolation, there is some artifacting. This shows up as occasional breakup of fast-moving objects, almost like a flash of macro-blocking. It’s not huge but it does catch the attention of a video geek like myself. Some however do prefer the interpolation. My only advice: try the different settings for a few days at a time. As with any aspect of calibration, it takes time to become accustomed to a change.

Since there are now only a few major companies selling plasma panels, LCD is pretty much taking over the market by default. This latest series of Samsung LCDs is the best competition for plasma I’ve seen yet. Plasma still holds the edge in black levels and viewing angle but LCDs can put out more light, are easier to mount on a wall and consume less energy. The latest panels also boast excellent color accuracy and grayscale tracking. The advanced motion processing features make them a perfect compliment to a shiny new blu-ray player. Even prices have come down to the point where it’s either a small or no price difference to choose LCD. For the typical living room with medium to high levels of ambient light, LCD is a better choice due to its high output and less-reflective screen. If you’re shopping for a new LCD, this Samsung is a great choice.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Samsung LN32A550 LCD Calibration

I continue to be impressed with Samsung’s line of LCD TVs. Ranging in size from 22 to 52 inches, there is a panel to fit any imaginable viewing situation. The LN32A550 is one of a very few 32 inch panels that have a 1080p native resolution. It also includes a myriad of calibration controls normally only found in flagship displays. There is a color management system, grayscale, gamma control and the usual host of defeatable enhancements.

I used the Movie picture mode for all inputs. This turns off all enhancements by default and sets a correct Rec 709 color space for HD signals. I recommend using all hi-def sources with this TV as the components will likely do a better job of scaling. A quality upconverting DVD like the Oppo line and a hi-def cable or satellite box set to 1080i are the best devices to use. De-interlacing of 1080i is good. I could see no difference in zone plate patterns when an Oppo 980 did the deinterlacing versus the TV doing it.

Calibration was a breeze as all controls are available in the user menu. Drilling down from the front page, there are many options in the Detailed Settings and Picture Options menus. My favorite feature is the Blue Only mode. This shuts off the Red and Green primaries allowing you to set color and tint accurately with a color bar pattern. It took me all of a minute to achieve almost perfect decoding on all HDMI inputs. Component inputs were not tested. Brightness and Contrast were set with ease. This is where it’s important to turn off enhancements like Dynamic Contrast and Black Adjust. These controls change levels as the picture changes and can produce many unwanted effects like floating blacks and color shifts in brighter scenes. Edge Enhancement should also be turned off. Surprisingly though, the Digital Noise Reduction feature works very well on the Auto setting. I used images from the HQV test disc to verify that noise was indeed reduced without softening the picture. Sharpness was set to 0 as well. Grayscale tracking was typical for an LCD but I was able to dial it to within 150k of D65. Gamma was 2.5 at the default setting. Lowering it one click brought it to 2.2. Interestingly, the gamma setting flattened the grayscale a bit, smoothing a dip at 60 IRE.

I was very happy with the final result. The image was punchy and color was spot-on. I couldn’t achieve a plasma-class black level but my minimum reading of .04fl was quite good. Perceived contrast was quite high as the 100 IRE field and window patterns measured over 80fl! I was able to max the Contrast control without crushing or causing a color shift. As this TV was in a mid to high light level room, these settings were appropriate. In a darker setting, one could turn down the Backlight to achieve better blacks. Real world on/off contrast was 2000:1 and ANSI was about 1600:1 - all in all, an excellent display and an attractive one too. The base and bezel are finished in a high-gloss piano black, very sexy! I highly recommend this TV. LCDs are appropriate in a room where lighting conditions are less controlled and there are hotspot reflections. The anti-glare properties of the screen are superior to plasma as is the overall light output. Given the image quality and large list of calibration controls, I’d rate Samsung LCD TVs as among the best in class.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Pioneer Elite PRO-950HD Plasma Calibration

Pioneer Elite PRO-950HD Plasma Calibration
I have calibrated several Pioneer Elite plasmas of late but I wanted to write about this one because it’s the first 720p model I’ve worked with. Besides resolution, the spec sheet reads identical to the 1080p models, the PRO-110 and 150. It employs the same screen filter and coating which contribute to its outstanding black-level performance. It also includes the same menu structure and high-quality video processing of its higher-resolution brethren. At 42 inches, this TV is perfect for smaller rooms. It has plenty of light output so it can be enjoyed in a wide variety of lighting conditions.

The calibration procedure was identical to the PRO-150FD (click here for my article) so I won’t reiterate it here. My main purpose with this article is to talk about the superb performance numbers I achieved. While other calibrators have stated they couldn’t measure black levels on these panels, I had not encountered this phenomenon. I could always measure at least .001 fl. This panel however would not register a black level reading. Even after raising brightness from the default (Pluge patterns did not show below-black until this was done), I could not measure the black level on any pattern. I check these numbers with a full-field 0 IRE and an ANSI contrast checkerboard. No part of the screen registered a reading. My instruments therefore returned an infinite on/off and ANSI contrast ratio! Gamma was still a solid 2.2. I viewed the Pluge patterns in low to mid-level room light. Patterns were generated by an Accupel HDG-3000.

Performance in other areas was identical to the 1080p models. Color primaries were slightly oversaturated and decoding was error-free. Edge enhancement was easily defeated by reducing the sharpness control. I did encounter one interesting thing that I had not dealt with before. My client occasionally connects a computer to one of the TVs HDMI inputs to view photos. When connecting this way, there is no control over pixel clock or phase. The result is the TV displays a different portion of the computer’s desktop. To view the slideshow, my client has to drag the pictures off the top of the computer’s screen so they are visible on the TV. I can only speculate that this is a product of HDCP. The only workaround is to use the VGA port on the TV. This allows adjustment so you can sync the computer and the TV. It depends on what outputs are available on your computer.

In summary, I was most impressed with this TV. At a 42-inch screen size, 720p was a more than sufficient resolution for high-quality imaging. DVDs and high-def cable looked excellent as did the photos from a computer. At an MSRP of $2700, I consider this an excellent value in plasma TVs. Given that the cheapest 1080p model (the 50-inch PRO-110FD) has an MSRP of $6000, you’re only giving up a little screen size for a huge savings.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Onkyo TX-SR805 Surround Receiver Review

The AV receiver has become a critical component in any home theater. It is the hub through which your various source devices are able to feed their goodness to your display and loudspeaker system. With the proliferation of HDMI and new high resolution audio codecs, an advanced receiver or processor is a must to make the most of the latest sources like Blu-ray, hi-def TV and game consoles. Despite the poor design and planning behind HDMI, it looks like we’re stuck with the interface for the foreseeable future. At least when it does work it works well. The THX-certified SR805 sports three HDMI inputs and one output, all version 1.3a compatible. This means all advanced audio codecs are supported via bitstream input. If you have the appropriate Blu-ray player (like the Panasonic BD30 or one of the expensive new Denons) you can enjoy Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio (gads what a mouthful) decoded in the receiver. Though some may think it insignificant, it’s nice to know exactly what’s going on when your receiver’s front panel display says “Dolby TrueHD.”

Since the main function of your receiver is to output the best possible sound, let’s take a look at that first. The 805 is endowed with the same neutral and accurate audio reproduction available in all current-generation Japanese receivers. The source material is represented accurately and faithfully with no modification. I feel this is very important. As with video, I’d rather have an accurate starting point with the ability to adjust the image (in this case the audio image) to accepted standards. In the case of the 805, Audyssey room correction is the means to this end. Plugging in the included microphone starts the procedure. You can measure up to eight positions and the receiver will calculate speaker sizes, crossovers, delays and levels. It also applies an equalization curve. It’s important not to second-guess the system. When I had finished the approximately 30-minute routine, my mains and center had been set to large and my surrounds had been set to small with a 70Hz crossover. This surprised me as the center I have (Axiom VP150) is only rated down to 100Hz. I had to remind myself however that Audyssey measures room response in making its calculations. I can tell my room is bass-heavy just by speaking in it. I have acoustical treatments but they really only absorb the higher frequencies. Controlling bass requires mass and I don’t have the space or the budget for bass traps. Audyssey did a superb job of equalizing the bass to a nice and tight level. Even though I have a large sub (Axiom EP350v3), bass and LFE is never bloated or harsh. Loud bass is not necessarily good bass. If it isn’t controlled it becomes fatiguing. This is why the sound in most movie theaters is so poor. As with so many other aspects of home theater, balance is key.

The HDMI support on this receiver makes hookup very convenient. I have three transports in my rack, a Denon 2930, a Panasonic BD30 and an Oppo 980. They are all connected via HDMI and a single cable goes out to my projector. The only other cables I have plugged in are the speakers, IR and power. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to create such a large and heavy cable with such a weak connector. I had to route everything very carefully to avoid straining the inputs on both the receiver and the sources. The ports are fairly solid on the Onkyo and the Denon player but the Oppo and Panasonic players seem a bit flimsy to me. I am using Belden cables from Bluejeans for everything. The shorter runs are the more flexible stranded conductor type and the run to the projector (25 feet) is a 24AWG solid conductor cable. I have had zero problems so far. Though I have not used them, I have read many good things about Monoprice cables. There really is no need to buy expensive boutique HDMI cables. This all-HDMI connection arrangement allows me to use un-processed bitstreams for all formats from all transports. The Oppo 980 even supports DSD from SACD. I prefer this arrangement because I can use the receiver’s excellent audio processing to best advantage. The Audyssey correction is always in play and I have all the different DSP and surround modes available to me no matter what the source material.

The only other thing I had to do for initial setup is set the main speakers for bi-amp operation, and assign and rename the inputs. All digital inputs (HDMI, coax, optical) are assignable and can be renamed to anything you wish. You just have to remember what the original input name was if you use the included remote. A word about video: the SR805 will transcode all analog video to HDMI. It will also transcode composite and S-video to component. The nice thing is there is no video processing applied to incoming signals. That means the tasty 1080p/24 signal from your Blu-ray player will get to your display unmolested. You do need to be careful when shopping for receivers these days because many of them won’t allow a simple passthrough of the video signal. You will usually want the receiver first in the signal chain from after the source so you can get the soundtrack information. If you’re using an outboard video processor, it will have to go after the receiver unless it’s able to pass the audio streams properly. Do your homework before committing yourself.

The Onkyo TX-SR805 represents the state of the art in mid-priced receivers. There are comparable models from Marantz, Denon and Yamaha but they are all more expensive. At $1099 MSRP, this is by far the most bang-for-the-buck you can get. The competition is priced anywhere from $1399 to $1599. I just wish it had been available when I paid $1299 for a Denon 3806! For my small theater, I can’t imagine having a better hub for the system. It’s handling of all the latest audio formats is exemplary and as a video switch, it works perfectly. Just make sure you have about ten inches of shelf height available because it runs a bit hot. I haven’t had any signs of strain at high volume levels but good ventilation is always important. You might need a friend to help you get it in your rack as it weighs in at 65 pounds! Onkyo has really hit a homerun with this receiver. If they were to put the same level of features and value into a Blu-ray player, they could dominate the mid-price AV market. At this point in my AV journey, I’d have to spend far more money on high-end separates to see any improvement in quality. If you’re looking for a new receiver, you should audition the Onkyo. I bet you’ll end up buying it!

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Panasonic AE2000U Projector Review

If you’ve followed the progress of my new theater in my previous articles, you know the display is a Panasonic AE2000U projector. This unit is a 3 LCD design utilizing the same D7 C2Fine panels found in the Epson Ultra-Black series as well as the Sanyo line of home theater models. Native resolution is 1920x1080. There are 3 HDMI inputs which accept both 60 and 24Hz refresh rates. The projector’s actual refresh is 60Hz or 96Hz for 24p material. The cadence used for 24p is 4:4 where each frame is simply repeated 4 times. I’ll talk a bit more in detail about this later. Two component, one composite and one S-video input are also included. HDMI inputs are up to 1080p/60 compatible with Deep Color and xvYCC support. An backlit remote is included which controls all projector functions and is programmable for other devices. The projector responds very well when the remote is pointed at the screen. Also included is a 9-foot power cord. I was happy to see this as I am using a high shelf for the projector and the power is of course by the floor.

Installation is very easy and flexible with this unit. The throw range is quite large with the 2.0x zoom. You can project an image of 40” at 3’11” up to 200” at 39’4”. My theater uses a 92” Carada Brilliant White screen with a gain of 1.3. The throw distance is around 10’. Generous horizontal and vertical lens shift is available. You can go one full screen height above or below the lens axis. You can go about 40% off-center horizontally. The only caveat is if you max out one axis, you have less range on the other. There is rarely a reason to use horizontal shift for more than fine tuning however. I mounted my projector right around the height of the top of the screen and had no problem getting everything lined up. It’s critical for accurate geometry to have the projector and screen level and parallel in both planes. The front feet adjust independently for this purpose. I achieved a perfectly square and centered image. Focus from edge to edge was excellent with only the slightest aberration on the sides of a fine grid pattern. As with any 3-chip projector, convergence can be an issue and there is no adjustment for this available on the AE2000U. Fortunately, my unit had no problems. Color uniformity was excellent with only a barely perceptible green tint toward the right side. Focus and zoom are motorized so you can get right up to the screen and adjust them with the remote. Lens shift is accomplished with two dials on the top of the case. If you use a ceiling mount, these will point towards the floor.

The user menu has everything a tweaker (tweakaphile?) could ask for and more. You can fiddle to your heart's content and save all your work to one of 16 memories! The seven picture modes are labeled Dynamic, Normal, Color 1 and 2, and Cinema 1, 2 and 3. Color 1 measured almost perfectly to Rec 709. I did my initial calibration in this mode after running the lamp about 80 hours. All other parameters were very accurate and the projector was very easy to dial in. A complete set of grayscale controls are included as well as a three-point gamma control. I did all adjustments with the iris turned off. After calibration, I turned it on as it does improve shadow detail and black level quality. Though this projector won’t compete with a CRT or the new JVC RS2, its black level and gamma quality is superb, especially in my totally dark theater. There is a color management system which is quite unique. You display a target on the screen and sample a particular color. Then you can adjust Color, Tint and Brightness for that color. All you need to do is display a primary or secondary color pattern and adjust away! Unfortunately, this isn’t available in the Color 1 and 2 modes. After about a week of viewing, I decided to try adjusting the colors in Cinema 1. Initial measurements showed a bit of oversaturation but perfect decoding. After calibration, I was much happier with the overall image quality. I recommend Cinema 1 as the best mode for this display. If you have a color-neutral screen like the Carada, little adjustment is needed to the color space.

Video processing in the AE2000U is fair but not stellar. I engaged the Cinema Reality option to check out the inverse-telecine capability from standard DVD. Judder was reduced as expected but the overall image was softer when fed a 1080i signal from a Denon 2930CI. I preferred the picture with the Denon set to output 1080p. Even though there is some judder, the increased detail and almost total absence of artifacts is a worthwhile tradeoff. There is also a Detail Clarity control which I left on. It does a good job of reducing noise without softening the image.

Blu-ray image quality is simply amazing. If anyone is on the fence about whether to go for a new player, you won’t be if you see a movie on a quality 1080p display. It’s not just the increased resolution that’s in play here. It’s the total absence of video processing required to display the image. Blu-ray movies are almost exclusively encoded at 1080p/24. The data is decoded from the disc and output without modification. The AE2000U accepts the signal, does the YCbCr to RGB conversion and displays the signal at 96Hz. The appearance of an artifact-free and judder-free image must be seen to be appreciated. There is no more film-like display than this. Even real film must be projected under the correct conditions (mechanically sound projector, unworn print, color accurate light source) to approach what I’m seeing in my theater. The only drawback is how I’m going to afford to upgrade my entire DVD library to Blu-ray!

Obviously, I’m very happy with my purchase. If you’re looking for a comparison to the Epson 1080UB, here it is: these projectors are identical in image quality. I measured the same black levels from the AE2000U as I did from an Epson UB. You could pretty much toss a coin to decide which one to buy. The Panasonic is a bit quieter than the Epson but most people would not hear the difference unless the projector is right overhead. The only other difference is the Panasonic has an H-Fit aspect mode that will support an anamorphic lens setup. Doing a constant-height system with the Epson would require an external video processor. Other than that feature, you won’t be sorry with either projector. I’ve had the theater running for a few weeks now and I can say with certainty that I won’t be going back to a movie theater for the foreseeable future. The large high-quality image coupled with the amazing sound make for an experience far above any I’ve ever had in a commercial theater. There’s nothing like having an intimate space with the movie literally filling the entire space both visually and sonically with no extraneous sound whatsoever. Stay tuned for my Onkyo SR805 receiver review.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Pioneer Elite PRO-150FD Plasma Calibration

The Pioneer Elite line of plasma TVs has always represented the pinnacle of the technology. These displays are truly deserving of the title “reference.” The build quality, image accuracy and features of these displays are truly without peer. The latest generation of this line is called Kuro (the Japanese word for black), and with good reason. Pioneer has really gone after the holy grail of display attributes with the lowest black levels this side of a professional CRT. The PRO-150 is the 60-inch version of this panel. As this TV is very large (duh!) Pioneer thoughtfully made the side-mounted speakers removable. The bezel is a high-gloss piano black as is the pedestal stand which looks like a heavy glass plate (it’s actually Lucite). Four HDMI inputs are included along with one each of component, composite and s-video.

The glass for this panel is the same as used by the non-Elite models. Both lines also incorporate the same excellent video processing. The similarities end there. The Elite panels have a different front screen element to provide even higher contrast. In practice the difference between the Elite and non-Elite’s contrast ratios is small. It can be measured but not really seen. The main reason to go for the Elite is its more extensive calibration controls. There is a complete color management system and full grayscale controls. There are seven picture modes but for calibration purposes, I only explored two, Cinema and User. One of the first things I do with any display is measure the different picture modes to determine which one has the most accurate colorspace. There are also different picture “enhancements” in play but Cinema or Movie modes generally turn these options off. On the Pioneer I found the Cinema mode to be the closest to Rec 709 with nearly spot-on color decoding. I did attempt to adjust the color gamut with the Color Management system in User mode. I was able to achieve a perfect CIE chart but not without a tradeoff. When I attempted to adjust grayscale, I found it impossible to achieve decent tracking. I finally settled on Cinema with its almost-perfect color so I could have perfect grayscale tracking. The default Gamma setting of 2 produced a perfect 2.2 curve. It’s interesting to note that this curve remained correct regardless of the changes I made in other areas. It’s nice to see adjustments not interact for a change!

The other major area I addressed with this TV was motion processing. Since this display accepts 24p input and supports a correct-multiple refresh rate of 72Hz, I wanted to be sure and set up the signal path from the client’s Blu-ray player correctly. Blu-ray output is a no-brainer. Set the player for 1080p/24 and enjoy judder-free and artifact-free playback from hi-def discs. For standard DVD though, I experimented with 1080i. The only way to engage inverse-telecine in any TV or video processor is to feed in an interlaced signal. The processor reverses the 3:2 pulldown and tosses out the extra frame effectively giving 24p playback. Unfortunately, this combination did not look as detailed to me as feeding the TV 1080p/60. The judder was reduced but the image was softer. If you sit far enough from the display, the softness would not be a problem but my client was about 10 feet away and he preferred the 1080p signal. I experienced the same thing with my Panasonic projector. This demonstrates to me that there is still a need for high-quality standard DVD players. As we’ll all be watching NTSC for the foreseeable future, we need a good player to handle that format for displays that just get better and better every year. I’m really hoping a manufacturer will step up and produce a player that supports 1080p/24 output from standard DVD. This to me is the final frontier for NTSC video. Currently, the only way to do this properly is with an outboard video processor. To the Pioneer’s credit, motion processing of 60Hz signals was excellent. Zone Plate patterns showed virtually no loss of resolution. Even though judder was present, it was far less noticeable because detail was preserved during pans.

Obviously the end result of the calibration was superb. Even though this TV is better out-of-box than most, it most certainly benefits from a precise, instrumented calibration. Finding the right balance of picture modes, colorspace, decoding, levels, gamma and motion processing is the key to having the best possible image. Luckily with the Pioneer Elite, no compromises are needed. You really can have your cake and eat it too with this display. Yes, it’s very expensive. I believe the MSRP of the PRO-150FD is currently $7500. For the absolute best plasma display available however, I can’t really call it overpriced. Even the Panasonic commercial 65-inch panel is $6000. Big glass is big bucks! For anyone wanting the ultimate plasma, look no further than Pioneer Elite. It really is the best direct-view TV out there. If you can’t quite justify a $7500 TV though, don’t feel like you’re settling for a non-Elite Pioneer or a Panasonic. They are excellent displays sure to please even discriminating videophiles (like me!). It is my privilege however, to have the hands-on experience with the Elites that I do. They are a pleasure to work on. To quote Ferris Bueller, “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one of these up!”

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Panasonic DMP-BD30 Blu-ray Player Review

Blu-ray is here! Now that the format war is over, I can confidently commit to an optical disc hi-def format. You can read about my aborted attempt at a dual-format player here. For an MSRP of $499 (I got it for $399 at Amazon), you can enjoy hi-def bliss in your own theater. The BD30 supports 24p video output and bitstreaming of lossless sound formats to a compatible receiver. It will also upconvert standard DVD to 1080p/60 if you wish. This player will play pretty much any shiny disc except SACD and DVD-Audio. AVCHD support for hi-def camcorders is included as well. This format allows HD video to be encoded on a standard DVD or an SD card. For audio output there are 5.1 analog output jacks provided as well as coax and optical digital and of course, HDMI. This player will not decode lossless sound formats internally. It should be considered an audio transport to be used with a receiver or processor capable of decoding Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Fortunately, the Onkyo SR805 in my rack is one such product. I will post a review of that unit shortly.

Ergonomically, the unit is pretty typical of disc players. The front panel has 2 flip-down doors, one hiding controls and the SD slot and one hiding the disc transport. Fortunately, you don’t have to manually open the disc door to insert or eject a disc like you did on the BD10. I’m not sure why Panasonic chose to put the eject button on the opposite side from the disc tray, strange. My only real complaint about this player is the blue light in the top center of the front panel. This little light is about an inch wide and shines an extremely bright blue. Oddly, you can dim the panel display in the setup menu but not this annoying light. I will probably put a piece of black tape or cloth over this as it is within my peripheral vision when I’m watching a movie. (**Update 3-29** To turn off the light, enter the Setup menu, choose "Display" then "SD Card LED Control." Turning this option off turns off the blue light. Thanks to Widescreen Review for this info.) The remote is decent though without a backlight, it’s pretty much useless in a darkened theater. I couldn’t wait to set the player up with my Harmony 890.

Before I dive into the playback results, a word about 24p: once you’ve experienced a movie without judder or cadence-related artifacts, you’ll never want to go back. I highly recommend a display capable of displaying 24p. Note my use of the term “displaying.” Some TVs will accept a 24p signal and display it at 60 or 120 hertz. This completely defeats the purpose of having a 24p capable player. My projector displays 24p signals at 96 hertz. Look for a refresh rate that is a multiple of 24. Pioneer plasmas can refresh at 72 hertz while the latest Panasonic commercial plasmas support a 48 hertz refresh rate. The resulting smooth and artifact free cadence really brings movie watching to whole new level.

Now, on to the playback results. Blu-ray discs, not surprisingly, look stunning on my Panasonic AE2000U projector and Carada 92-inch screen. Detail and color are simply on another level even from hi-def TV. There is simply no comparison of a quality Blu-ray image to cable or satellite HD. Since compression is minimal and bandwidth is plentiful, the image rivals that of a movie theater. In fact it handily surpasses the film quality available in my area of the country (Orange County, New York). DVD upconversion is decent though I much prefer the image from my Denon 2930CI. I’ve added one of these excellent players to my theater to support my standard-def movie collection. I would say though on a 50-inch or smaller display, the DVD playback of the BD30 is above average. I’d say you’d have to go with at least an Oppo 983 with its ABT video processor to surpass the Panasonics DVD image quality. Audio from this player is also superb. Of course, in bitstream mode it’s simply passing the data to the receiver for decoding. The advantages of a direct signal path with only one digital to analog conversion are clear. Sonic detail from movie soundtracks is the best I’ve ever heard. I’m hearing subtle things in familiar titles I’ve not heard before. Blu-ray discs with lossless soundtracks are even more impressive. Once you’ve heard a well-mastered disc in TrueHD or DTS Master Audio, Dolby Digital won’t be quite the same. The speaker system in my theater is the same Axiom M60, VP150, QS8 and EP350 setup that I use in the living room. Between the improvements I’ve made in electronics and room acoustics, I can now say with confidence that I’ve surpassed the sound quality available in all but the best movie theaters. There is no harshness or fatigue. Dialog is clear and tight. There is a huge dynamic range yet I’m never straining to hear detail or reaching for the volume control when the louder dynamics are in play.

I realize that at $499, many still consider Blu-ray to be too expensive. It’s a shame that the industry isn’t willing to get players down to the sub-$200 range at this time. For us early-adopters however, it’s a great time to be a videophile. I only wish there were more Blu-ray titles! They are slowly getting out there. I’ve already purchased a few movies that I previously owned on DVD. To me, it’s well worth it for the improvement in image and sound quality. Before Blu-ray, images and sound this good couldn’t be achieved even on the most expensive equipment available. Now you can have 1080p and lossless sound for only $499! The only caveat with this player is you must pair it with an HDMI 1.3a capable receiver to realize its full audio potential. This isn’t too hard though with the excellent Onkyo SR805 selling for under $1000. With today’s quality hi-def displays available at ever-lowering prices, it’s easy logic to have the best hi-def source available to maximize performance. The Panasonic BD30 advances the art and science of video to a very high level. You won’t be disappointed!

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Mancave is Alive!

As you may have already deduced, the mancave is now a full-blown theater. To see how the room evolved into its present form, check out this article. I've posted pictures below:

Here is a close view of the front speakers, Axiom M60, VP150 center and EP350v3 sub.

This is the focal point, a 92-inch Carada Criterion screen. The viewing area is 80"x45", 16:9 aspect ratio. Believe me, it's worth the extra $100 for the Criterion frame. It's super-stiff for a perfectly flat screen surface. It looks like a giant flat-panel TV!

Another view of the screen and front speakers. The center channel stand is by Axiom also. They will provide custom heights for no extra cost, really nice. All speakers and the stand are on spikes included by Axiom.

Here is the gear rack. It's a flexi built according to these instructions. It's amazingly solid. I put the acorn nuts on the bottom to act as feet. This makes the rack easy to pull out to reach the rear jack panels. The setup you see here is 100% digital. Only HDMI cables are used to connect the three source components. The Onkyo SR805 receiver is THX certified and decodes all lossless sound formats. It also features 8-point Audyssey room correction.

A closeup of the source components. On top is an Oppo 980 for SACD transport. This player outputs DSD over HDMI for a mere $169, amazing! The Panasonic BD-30 does a super job with Blu-ray and outputs all lossless sound formats as a bitstream. The only thing I don't like about it is that bright blue light on the front. Unfortunately, there's no way to turn it off. You can just see the Denon 2930CI peeking out below. This is still the best player out there for DVD upconversion. It's also built like a tank. I wish there were a Blu-ray player as good for under $1000. Is anyone out there listening?

Two views of the Axiom QS8 surround speaker. This a quad-pole design with midrange drivers on the top and bottom and tweeters on the vertical faces. These surrounds sound great in almost any placement position, they are very forgiving. The conduit below is cable raceway from Home Depot. It comes in white plastic with double-stick tape on the back. Stick to the wall, insert cable and paint for a finished look.

This is the shelf-mounted Panasonic AE2000U projector. This is a 3-LCD design using the latest Epson C2fine panels. Black levels are superb and the overall image is stunning. Adjustments are many and a near-perfect calibration can be achieved. Stay tuned for a full review and calibration report.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sony KDS-60A3000 Calibration

History is replete with examples of products that were discontinued just when the manufacturer got them right. The latest victim of this injustice is Sony’s SXRD line of rear-projection TVs. These displays have always had benchmark status starting back with the Qualia series and its lower-priced successors, A2000, A2020 and A3000. Only the A3000 really got everything right. All the aspects of a quality TV are there; stable black levels, accurate color, good optics, 1080p/24 capability and correct gamma. Previous sets had most of these qualities but the A3000 finally had something I’d not seen since the last XBR960 I calibrated: accurate primary and secondary colors. This was the first Sony display, in my experience, with correct color out of the box.

My client was running his sources through an Anthem Statement D2 processor. This unit has Gennum VXP video processing so I ran my patterns through it to be sure of accurate results. As with most Sony TVs, all the controls needed are in the user menu. I started by setting the iris to a fixed aperture so it wouldn’t affect gamma and black level measurements. All enhancements were turned off. Black levels remained stable throughout the complete luminance range. Color space was left on standard. This set like many others supports an extended gamut (xvYCC) but no content is encoded with this colorspace. Engaging the wider gamut results in a cartoon-like picture with overblown color saturation. I did find use for the Live Color control. With the control set on medium, the CIE points were almost perfect and color separation seemed better. Since it had a positive effect, I left it on. Previous Sony products with this control do not benefit from its use.

Grayscale was easy to dial in with user menu controls as well. Tracking was within 100k of D65 after calibration, excellent performance. Gamma improved greatly from 1.7 to 2.1 after calibration. The gamma control did not have a positive effect so I left it off. Using it served only to raise the bottom of the curve. All adjustments were made with the Iris set on minimum. This ultimately hurt peak light output so I set in on Auto 2. Shadow detail was still excellent but peak luminance doubled to over 21 foot-lamberts. A 0 IRE field measured .008 fl for a contrast ratio of 2725:1. This was an ideal range for the room the TV was in. This TV is capable of prodigious light output but in a darkened room, anything over 20 fl will result in viewing fatigue. If ambient light had been an issue in this case, I would have opened up the iris to a larger, fixed aperture. I am a fan of automatic irises when you don’t see their operation. This is the case with the A3000. You don’t see the iris doing its thing when viewing content. Black level quality and shadow detail are excellent and you only notice the iris if you turn it off.

Once all adjustments to the Sony were complete, I dialed in the different sources using the Anthem’s adjustments. The Gennum VXP video processor has controls for everything except color management and grayscale. Small tweaks were made to brightness and some of the edge enhancement controls. DVD from the clients Oppo player was excellent and HDDVD played from an Xbox 360 looked stunning. Once you’ve experienced Blu-ray or HDDVD, you won’t want to watch any other format! For anyone considering a big TV like this, please hurry. Since Sony has ceased manufacturing this model, they won’t last long. I’ve seen them selling for under $2000. Imagine a 60-inch TV for under 2 grand! This has to be the video bargain of the century. As of today (March 9), Circuit City no longer has them in stock. If you already have one of these excellent displays, grab an extra bulb and consider a professional calibration. You should have no problem getting many years out of this TV.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Epson Home Cinema 1080UB Calibration

This projector is one of the heavy hitters in the hot sub-$3000 1080p projector market. I wrote about the Panasonic AE1000U recently and the AE2000U just found its way into my own theater, review to follow. This unit like the others in its class uses the latest C2Fine LCD panels from Epson. These panels offer superb black levels and a tack-sharp image as their top features. This unit did not disappoint in either area.

The menu system is quite large and covers every possible calibration control required. There are cuts and gains for grayscale, color management, 9-point gamma, lamp brightness, iris on/off, position and overscan and a very useful multi-level sharpness control.

I began with basic level adjustments. This projector really does render superb blacks. Pluge patterns were fully resolved with the setup level on 0 IRE. This allows passing below black and above white signals which are present in most DVD and Blu-ray content. I was able to fine-tune the color gamut using the excellent color management system which offers Hue, Saturation and Brightness for all six colors. Once I had made adjustments to cyan and magenta, the gamut and color decoding were right on the money.

Next I turned my attention to gamma and grayscale. As automatic irises play havoc with gamma measurements, I turned it off temporarily. My approach is to achieve a correct curve without the iris then turn it on viewing actual content to check black level detail. The 9-point gamma adjustment was really handy as I couldn’t achieve 2.2 even with the control set on 2.4! I lowered every point with the most adjustment in the low and mid areas. I finally settled on 2.12. Any higher and black would start to crush. The net effect was positive after I re-engaged the iris. Blacks were very inky with great shadow detail. The image really popped. This is one of the real justifications for a precise and thorough calibration. Without test equipment, it would be impossible to find the best balance between good black levels and a correct gamma curve.

Grayscale was a snap to adjust with a full set of cuts and gains available. Tracking was excellent, within 100k and under 0.5 DeltaC*. I checked the grayscale with both windows and full fields. This projector had excellent panel alignment and color uniformity. There was no perceptible variation across the screen.

With the proliferation of Blu-ray players outputting 24p and a compatible display such as this one, it pays to spend time with some motion patterns to ensure you’ve got everything set up correctly. This projector has excellent video processing so I wanted to take advantage of its inverse-telecine de-interlacing ability. This means setting the SD DVD player to output 1080i. The projector correctly discards the extra fields created by 3:2 pulldown and makes 24p from 60i. The end result is judder-free motion from standard DVD. Blu-ray output is obviously set to 1080p/24. Unless you have a really good SD DVD player or an outboard video processor, I recommend sending a compatible display 1080i whenever possible.

My customary post-calibration reality check was quite enjoyable. In fact, it stretched to about an hour of watching scenes from different movies! Switching back and forth between Blu-ray and DVD versions of The Fifth Element really showed off the projector’s excellent image and excellent video processing. The Blu-ray was obviously superior but the DVD looked great too. Even though Blu-ray has won the war, we’ll be watching DVDs for a few years to come. It pays to consider this when purchasing any display or player. This particular system had an Oppo 981 for DVD. I recommend this or the more expensive Denon 2930CI. None of the currently available Blu-ray players can upconvert DVD as well as the Oppo or Denon units. A projector like this deserves the best sources available. For anyone considering a new projector, you won’t be disappointed with the Epson 1080UB. With superior projectors costing at least 3 times as much, you’ll have plenty of cash left over for a calibration and some quality source components.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hitachi 51F500 Calibration

Though requests for CRT calibrations are less frequent these days, I always enjoy the unique qualities these TVs possess. I also enjoy the before and after effect. A CRT can really be transformed into a superb and accurate display capable of very high image quality. This TV is very similar to the F510 model but with a more limited user menu. The service menu however has all the same controls available in its extensive ISF mode to achieve a spectacular image.

When I arrived on site, this TV really need some work. Color was quite flat and the image was very soft. I began with a full manual convergence. I displayed the set’s internal grid and worked my way from the center spiraling outwards. This can be tricky because the guns are defocused during this operation. You really have to get up close and personal with the screen to see what you’re doing. It’s a painstaking process but quite necessary. After about 45 minutes, I was finished. The results were immediately apparent. Clarity was greatly improved and some color had returned to the image.

Moving on to the calibration portion; primaries measured very accurately as with most quality CRTs. The service menu allows turning off the individual guns so aligning the decoder was a breeze. Turning off several options in service eliminated the red and green push inherent in these TVs. Black levels were also very stable at all light levels. This TV has an excellent power supply. This is the most important component in any CRT or plasma display. An inferior power supply will allow black levels to change as light output or APL increases. Grayscale unfortunately was nowhere close, even on the Warm color temp setting. It was so blue, several IREs measured beyond the limit of my metering software (18,000K!). Fortunately, this was easy to fix in service. There are 3 color temp memories, high, medium and standard. I adjusted the standard one to D65.

Once the grayscale and decoder were dialed in a final tweak of brightness and contrast brought the image up to a very high standard. One small surprise: the Scan Velocity Modulation control actually made a positive improvement in image clarity. With Sharpness set to 0, the SVM did improve the picture without introducing any ringing. I usually leave these sorts of options turned off but in this case, Hitachi got it right.

We checked out the results with some hi-def satellite and Blu-ray from a Panasonic BD30. Both sources did a super job at rendering 1080i, the set’s native resolution. Blu-ray content was artifact-free and looked simply stunning. Color depth and dynamic range were every bit the equal of the best plasma panels out there. For those wondering, this TV had not been modified in any way. I have encountered some of these units where clients had lined the cabinet with light-absorbing Duvetyne and or removed the screen cover to cut glare. These mods can show an improvement but in the right viewing environment, they are not necessary. My client’s room had good light control so there were no issues with reflections on the screen or stray light entering the cabinet.

My client has owned this TV for 4 years and plans to hang on to it for a few more. With proper maintenance and adjustment, this is a totally reasonable goal. The image quality is top-notch and the TV is well-constructed. I would recommend adjusting convergence every 6 months and follow-up calibrations every 12-18 months to anyone looking to get a few more miles out of one of these TVs. The DVI (HDMI on the 510) connection is HDCP compliant so current HDMI sources will work. If you have one of these displays in good working order, consider an ISF calibration before you toss it out. You might be pleasantly surprised at the results!

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Choosing Components for Front-Projection

Now that my mancave has evolved into a theater, I have had to expand my research into front-projection systems. I use the word system because that’s exactly what it is. There is a projector and screen of course but there is a sometimes forgotten element - the room. Before you spend one dime, you have to know the exact conditions of the room; light control, mounting positions for projector and screen, wall and ceiling construction and of course, throw distance.

Ideally, a theater should have total light control. You should be able to make it totally dark. This includes light leaks around the entry door which can be considerable. Windows can be covered with blackout curtains but the best method is some sort of panel or shutter. In my case, I used acoustic panels to both cover the windows and act as sound treatment. To seal the door, I used some thin rubber strips in the door frame and a sweep for the door’s bottom edge. Not only is light sealed out but sound transmission through the door is nearly eliminated.

My next order of business was choosing a screen. I knew I wanted a fixed-frame screen for a few reasons. Since the room is a theater, I don’t need to retract the screen at any time. I also wanted a wide, light absorbing frame. Lastly, the highest image quality comes with a perfectly flat screen. I chose Carada based on excellent reviews, value and design. Their Criterion Series screens have a 3.25” wide by 1.5” deep extruded aluminum frame covered with a velvet-like material they call “Black Hole Trim.” They are not exaggerating about this. It really does absorb all light. I’ll be able to take the image right to the edge when I have the projector set up. This frame is extremely stiff. The screen can’t help but be perfectly flat. The mounting system allows the screen to hang on a bracket so if the wall isn’t flat (mine certainly isn’t) the screen still will be. The screen material is also important. Carada offers three: high-contrast gray, cinema white and brilliant white. The gray has a gain of .8 and will improve contrast at the expense of light output. Black levels will be very good with this material. Cinema white has a 1.0 gain which means it will be completely neutral. Brilliant white (my choice) has a gain of 1.4. I do like bright whites and 1.4 is not such a large increase in light output. Given that I measured .02fl on a 0 IRE field from an AE1000, a gain of 1.4 will give me .028fl, still quite black!

My choices in projectors started with price. I wanted to spend under $3000. Fortunately, there are many excellent models to choose from. The top models from Epson, Panasonic, Sanyo and Mitsubishi all have just the right attributes for a small theater like mine. Using the excellent throw distance calculator on, I determined the Panasonic AE2000U could project a 92” image within my possible throw of about 11 feet. I also thought very hard about mounting options. Certainly a ceiling mount would work but I have some obstacles. The walls in my house are old-world plaster making stud finding a real challenge. I certainly would need to attach a ceiling mount to the joist for safety’s sake. I also have an 8’6” ceiling in the theater. Putting the projector that high would be too far above the screen top for my taste. Even though the Panasonic has a large vertical lens shift range, I’d rather keep the projector closer to screen center for better uniformity. I decided to go with a shelf about 6 feet high. The shelf gives me another bonus: adjustability. To achieve the best image, you need to have the projector and screen perfectly on plane both vertically and horizontally. You can do this with a ceiling mount but you have to be sure to buy one that allows pitch, yaw and rotation adjustments.

There are of course other considerations with projector models, namely, black level quality, color accuracy, image clarity and light output. While the SMPTE standard for cinema is 16 foot-lamberts with no film in the projector, many professionals are recommending 20fl peak. The Panasonic AE2000U can achieve this. By using the formula: fl=(lumens/screen area in square feet)*gain, a peak reading of 402 lumens with a 92”, 16:9 (25 square feet), 1.4 gain screen yields 22.5fl, more than enough. The color accuracy is certainly there with the 2000 and black levels are superb. This projector uses the same D7 C2fine panels as the Epson Ultra-Black series. Black levels I measured from an AE1000U were the same as a good plasma panel.

My final consideration is the room’s construction. As I said, my walls are plaster and therefore more difficult to work with than drywall. I have the added challenge of mounting the screen over a window. The window is totally covered with black acoustic panels and I’ll be covering the rest of the wall behind the screen with black burlap. This will absorb any light that shines through the screen material. These reflections can alter the color if your walls are not perfectly color-neutral. Many installers use either flat black paint or black carpet to do solve this problem. To find studs to support the projector shelf and screen brackets, I’ll drill small holes. The location for the shelf is right over an electrical outlet. There is a stud on one side or the other which I’ll confirm by removing the wall plate. Once I confirm the stud’s location, I’ll use 3.5” lag bolts to secure everything.

All this information is out there in various places on the internet. Hopefully, this will tie together a few things for those of you interested in going to front-projection. Prices and quality have never been better and you don’t need a huge room to have a huge screen. I’ll never have to go to the movies again!

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Panasonic TH-42PH9UK Pro Plasma Calibration

The plasma market is dominated by just 2 manufacturers, Panasonic and Pioneer. I have already covered the Kuro 5010FD and the Panasonic PZ700U. The third TV vying for alpha status in this hot segment is the professional line of Panasonic plasmas. There are 720p and 1080p models ranging from 37 to 103 inches. Today’s subject is the 42-inch, 720p PH9UK.

The pro-Panasonic models are strictly monitors. There is no internal tuner or speakers. You can buy add-on speakers which bolt to the sides of the panel for about $600. You’ll also need to add a pedestal stand or a wall-mount bracket. Inputs are customizable with 3 slots for “blades” or terminal boards. You can have different combinations of HDMI and analog inputs to suit your particular system. The newest models, the PF10 series, come with a dual HDMI board that accepts 24p signals. This particular PH9 had a single HDMI input and a component input, both of which I calibrated.

Each input has its own memory for all settings which is very nice. There are a complete set of controls in the user menu for grayscale and gamma. In addition you can adjust image size and position for each scan rate independently. Upon setting up my pattern generator, the first thing I noticed was the extremely stable black levels. There was no visible change in the pluge patterns as I moved through different APL patterns. The DC restoration was every bit the equal of a Pioneer Kuro. Color primaries were slightly oversaturated but the decoding was spot on at factory defaults. Rec 709 colorspace was used for all scan rates. Grayscale was fair at the warm color temp setting. Once the white balance controls were adjusted, tracking was within 100k of D65 from 20-100 IRE. There are only red and blue controls for high and low but they were sufficient to achieve a nearly perfect grayscale. The newer models have a full set of RGB cuts and gains. There is a gamma control which has 4 settings. Default is 2.2 but to actually achieve a 2.2 gamma, I had to set it on 2.4. The gamma curve was absolutely perfect at all scan rates on both component and HDMI. I was able to set contrast fairly high without any color shift. This gave me a bright, punchy image upon completion of my work.

The end result was a reference-quality image for both HD and SD. These panels are used professionally as mastering monitors for a good reason. The video processing on this panel is excellent. It did quite well with the motion tests on Avia Pro. Upconversion of SD material was very good. Since this panel is actually 1366x768, all material is scaled including 720p content. It will accept 1080i signals. I can’t help but recommend this and all pro-Panasonic panels as the value leader. A 50-inch PF10UK can be had for under $2500, accepts 1080p/24 and is a rugged, well-built TV. The 720p panels are even cheaper with the 50-inch coming in at under $1500. You can’t go wrong with any panel from either Panasonic or Pioneer. But you’re looking for the most display for the money and you don’t need speakers or a tuner, the pro-Panasonics can’t be beat.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Panasonic AE1000U LCD Projector Calibration

The 1080p projector market is white-hot these days with several superb units priced at under $3000. Even one year ago, this was almost unheard of. Epson, Sanyo, Mitsubishi and the subject of today's article, Panasonic, all make models. The model I calibrated is the AE1000U. It has been recently replaced by the AE2000U. This unit uses a new LCD panel set and is slightly brighter. In fact, the 2000 uses the same panels as the new Epson HC1080UB. But I digress: The AE1000U has every possible calibration control available in the user menu. You have complete control over color primaries and secondaries, grayscale, and a neat 3-point gamma control. There is also a waveform monitor that makes setting black and white levels very easy. You can have the waveform on the screen while you navigate through the various menus and make your adjustments.

The AE1000U has 2 HDMI inputs as well as component, s-video and composite inputs. There is also an RS-232 port for control systems. There is no IR hookup but the receiver on the front of the unit is very sensitive. I had no trouble bouncing the remote off the screen to control the projector. My client had the projector ceiling mounted with about a 12-foot throw to a 100-inch Da-Lite fixed-frame screen. I measured the screen's gain at 1.1

First up was geometry. It's important to have the image perfectly positioned without visible distortion. There are horizontal and vertical lens shift controls for this purpose. There is also a 2x zoom for lots of flexibility in sizing and placement. Vertical shift range is one-half screen height above or below the screen. Using the extremes of the vertical shift will limit the horizontal shift. This is not an issue if you place the projector's center-mounted lens within a few inches of screen center. Once image geometry was set, the calibration was pretty much the same as a direct-view display. Black and white levels were set with pluge patterns and checked with the waveform monitor. I measured gamma before grayscale calibration and came up with a disappointing 1.71. After turning off the dynamic iris, it improved to 2.0. I was able to get it to 2.2 with the 3-point gamma control, which has sliders for high, mid and low. I only needed to lower the low control to get a perfect curve. Given this result, I left the iris off permanently.

Grayscale was no problem with the complete set of RGB gains and cuts available. Color decoding allows several approaches. You can adjust the primaries with the color management system. This involves displaying a pattern, a 75% color window works for me; then setting a target to adjust. You can tweak the color, tint and brightness of the primaries (or any other color for that matter) this way. After some very small adjustments to the color profile, I had a perfectly aligned decoder and primaries and secondaries were spot-on. At this point, I should talk about the different picture modes. The 2 to be concerned with are Cinema 1 and Color 1. Cinema 1 is claimed to be "Hollywood style colors" in the manual. It places a filter in the light path that darkens the image. It also appeared to me to introduce a slight yellow shift. Color 1 does not use the filter and is pretty much right on Rec 709, HD standard. Obviously, I left it on Color 1. The other modes are progessively less accurate.

When I was finished, I was able to save the settings in the first of the AE1000U's 8 memories. There are also 3 memories for the color profile should you wish to have multiple color gamuts available. My client's sources were an HD cable box and a Toshiba A20 HD-DVD player. The image simply leapt off the screen! Planet Earth in HD-DVD looked simply stunning. I cued up a scene where a colorfully-clad base jumper jumps into a giant cave shaft in the middle of the South American jungle. The blackness of the hole was very impressive. Any stigma LCD projectors might have had about black quality was not apparent with this model. In fact, I measured the minimum black level on a 0IRE field at .02fl. This is in the same range as any plasma I've measured. Max light output was 14fl, plenty bright for a totally dark room and a 10-foot seating distance.

I can't imagine a better projector for a small theater than this Panasonic. Other reviews I've read seem to bear this out. This projector is also the quietest I've ever worked on. You have to put your ear right up to it to hear the cooling fan. The color is very accurate, the gamma is perfect and dynamic range is very wide. At this point, I plan to add an AE2000U to my personal theater. For the same or less money than a quality 50-inch plasma TV, you can go front projection. I guess for me 92 is the new 50! Stay tuned for an article I'm preparing on my selection process for a projector and screen. There are many factors to consider when choosing the right equipment for your theater. Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Importance of Seating in Home Theater Design

I recently got the recliners pictured below delivered for my mancave project. I ordered them from the Theater Seat Store. I can't say buying furniture without trying it out first is the smartest thing I've ever done but they looked just perfect in the photos on the vendor's website and sure enough, they are! All seating surfaces are leather and the padding has the ideal firmness. They recline quite far back as you can see and can still be set pretty close to the wall. The chairs are made by Vanguard HTS and are called Charlize.

One warning about Theater Seat Store. They are a good company and their prices are very reasonable. Their shipping method however was not clearly spelled out. They advertise free shipping and it was indeed free. The problem arose when Fedex Freight called to schedule the delivery. They informed me that it was curbside only. The driver would be alone and he would not bring the 2 immense boxes weighing about 150 pounds into my house. I had to arrange for a friend to come over and help me. They do offer a "white glove service" which costs 10% of the purchase price. For that fee, they will bring the furniture in and unpack it for you. If you buy from Theater Seat Store, just be sure to have some strong help available when your seats arrive.

Once the seats were in place, I spent some quality time sitting in them and envisioning the display area at the front of the room. I had planned to build a flexi-rack to accomodate all the electronics with the center channel speaker and plasma panel on top. I say "had" because after staring at the wall for awhile, I had a revelation: why not a projector? I had considered a projector a few months ago and dismissed the idea based on cost and thinking "do I really want to sit 10 feet from a 92-inch screen?" I found a white sheet and folded it so it would match the dimensions of a 92-inch, 16:9 screen (80" x 45"). I taped it up on the wall and had my wife join me for a look. After about 1 minute, she said "why can't we get a projector?" Honest, this really happened. This is a milestone in WAF (wife acceptance factor) history.

I do plan more detailed reports on the projection setup in the near future but for now, here is the updated gear list:

Panasonic AE2000U LCD projector
Carada 92" Brilliant White screen (1.4 gain)
Panasonic BD30 Blu-ray player (just arrived today in fact)
Oppo 980 DVD player
Lumagen Vision HDP video processor
Onkyo TX-SR805 surround receiver
Axiom Epic 60 surround speaker system

As you can see, the seating makes a real difference in how you perceive a viewing environment. Because of my experience, I recommend making chairs among the first purchases. I originally designed this room around a purpose: ultimate sound and light control to allow me to choose any display I wished. The seating really changed my vision from a viewing room into a screening room. Oh yes, the cost, I did mention that earlier. It seems that the sub-$3000 portion of the projector market is white-hot right now. Epson, Panasonic, Sanyo, Mitsubishi and Optoma all have superb units boasting full 1080p and excellent image quality. Thanks to the information at Projector, I chose the Panasonic. My choice of the Carada screen was based on quality for the money. The reviews on it were all exemplary and the value is the best in the business. You can read more about there products here.

I'd better end this article before I get too far off topic. My advice: choose your seating and get it in your theater before you commit to any display. You may find the chairs will tell you how the rest of the room should be done. Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Pioneer Plasma 5010FD Calibration

Much has been written in praise of the current line of Pioneer plasmas called Kuro. These TVs are reputed to have contrast ratios and black levels comparable to CRTs. I can say after spending some quality time with a 5010FD that this reputation is well-earned. The 5010 is part of a line that includes 42 and 50-inch 720p panels and 50 and 60-inch 1080p panels. Each variant is available as an Elite model as well. The 5010 is the 50-inch 1080p, non-Elite version. The glass and video processing is the same across all the 1080p sets. The Elite TVs add more adjustments and more precise setup at the factory. They also have a different screen coating to improve contrast and ambient light rejection. They also add $1000 to the retail price!

My subject today is the calibration of a 5010FD. Sources were a satellite tuner and a Denon DVD player, both connected via HDMI. The client had made no adjustments prior to my visit so I was starting with an out-of-the-box TV. There are the usual picture modes but only Movie and User allow access to all adjustments. These are in a sub-menu called Pro Adjust. I started in Movie mode. All enhancements were turned off. I immediately found a lot of interaction between Brightness, Contrast and the 3 Gamma settings. I also discovered differences in grayscale and gamma between Movie and User modes. Staying with User mode, I optimized Brightness and Contrast and achieved the best Gamma with setting 1. After adjusting Color and Tint with my CA6X analyzer, I found the grayscale to be within a whisker of D65 without having adjusted any Gains or Cuts. These controls are available in service but they just weren't necessary in this case. I really took my time to maximize the overall contrast ratio. In the end, I achieved a perfect gamma of 2.2, a grayscale within 150k of D65 and an ANSI contrast ratio of 448:1. Some of the black squares in the pattern read below .005 foot-lamberts, the lower limit of my meter! 100 IRE measured 21.97 fL with a full field and 49.5 fL with a window. This is the highest contrast I've ever measured. This was with a fully-resolved Pluge pattern and nearly perfect color accuracy.

Moving on to the DVD player, I noticed a change in gamma when I copied my new settings to its input. I tried changing to the Movie mode and things greatly improved. Gamma was back at 2.2 and the grayscale was again within 150k of D65. The player was a Denon 1940, an excellent player in the $350 range. A few tweaks to the other controls to dial in the player and my job was done.

All in all, this was a very pleasurable calibration. This TV is extremely well-made and color accuracy is obviously a priority for Pioneer. I still believe it benefits from professional calibration (of course!). There are interactions between most of the controls and without the benefit of instruments and experience, it's easy to become lost. This is truly a high-end video display. Why not set it up for maximum performance? One side note: this is one of the few displays on the market that supports 24p input, displaying the signal at 72 Hz. This makes it a perfect display for hi-def disc players that output 1080p/24. A new Blu-ray player is the perfect match for this excellent TV. Pioneer has really raised the bar with the Kuro line.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Samsung BD-UP5000 Mini-Review

I got this player in from Crutchfield sooner than expected. Rumors had it shipping in mid-January but it showed up on December 19 while I was away. I finally had time to hook it up last weekend. I'm calling this a mini-review because I didn't test the player completely. I had no HD or Blu-ray discs on hand. I decided to do a thorough test using Avia Pro patterns and some familiar DVD content.

This is a dual-format optical disc player. It supports HD-DVD, Blu-ray and DVD as well as CD audio. It features HQV video processing via the Silicon Optix Reon VX chip. It is advertised to support the Blu-ray Final Profile 1.1 as well as Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS, DTS HD, Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio. It features output at every resolution from 480i (analog only) to 1080p and it will output 1080p/24 to a compatible display. It will scale DVDs to 1080p over HDMI only. The component output will play HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs up to 1080i if the Image Restraint Token is not present (no current titles have this). It has an Ethernet port for interactive content and firmware updates. The chassis is identical to the Blu-ray only BD-P1400 player. A shiny black finish (which shows fingerprints if you even think about touching it) covers the entire box, front, top and sides. Interestingly, my player had many fingerprints on it when I unpacked it. There were no other signs that it was used however. I guess the factory worker who boxed it didn't wear gloves that day! Rear-panel connections include HDMI, Component Video, Composite Video and S-Video. There are optical and coaxial digital audio outputs and stereo and 7.1 channel analog audio outs. The overall look is attractive and would certainly look good in any rack.

In this section I'll only report what I tested. There are some other issues which I'll highlight later that I didn't test but are well documented on the AVS Forum in this thread. I hooked up to my Samsung DLP via HDMI and connected a coax cable to my Denon 3806 for audio. I powered on the player after the TV to be sure of a correct HDMI handshake. I had read this player was fussy about the EDID of the display so I didn't want to cause any problems. The player correctly reported all my available resolutions. I set it for 720p and set the audio to Bitstream audiophile. This ensured a direct bitstream of Dolby Digital for decoding in the receiver. I began with Lost Season 3 on DVD. I chose this because my wife and I had just spent the last 2 weeks watching this (our favorite show) so it was familiar and fresh on the brain. I immediately noticed a difference from my reference player, the Denon 2930CI. Unfortunately it was for the worse. Blacks appeared somewhat crushed, color was a bit flat and the overall image seemed a tad soft. This surprised me as both this player and my Denon use the same HQV video processor! Sound quality was excellent. I detected no difference in audio from my Denon player.

After about 20 minutes of Lost, I reached for Avia Pro to view some test patterns. My suspicions about black crush were confirmed. The bottom end was mostly gone. I also noticed the grayscale was not a uniform color of gray. There were color errors at several IRE levels. A smooth ramp pattern showed this even more. At least 15% of the grayscale had a noticable color shift. Some parts were blue, some red and some green. I ran a luma pattern that shows black pluge bars on the left and a steadily increasing field on the right. By the 50% level, the pluge bars had disappeared. My TV does float black levels normally but this player seemed to intensify the effect! I was able to cure the black crush by raising Brightness 5 clicks. This did not affect the color shifts in the grayscale. To the player's credit, it aced all the HQV tests for motion processing and noise reduction. Silicon Optix really does make an excellent product. I just don't think it was implemented well in this player.

Another issue which I found inexcusable was the player's lack of an Auto-Squeeze aspect mode. Even cheap players have this. When playing a 4:3 DVD on a 16:9 TV, the player will automatically change the output aspect ratio so as not to stretch 4:3 content. This player will stretch whether you want it to or not! You can change the aspect on your display if you want but not all TVs support a 4:3 mode over HDMI. It's also very inconvenient when you're watching mixed content like DVD featurettes which change aspect ratios midstream.

After verifying the test patterns again with my Denon player (they were fine and dandy), I decided to return the player to Crutchfield. They are an excellent company to deal with. Their 30-day return policy includes return shipping on their dime so I wasn't out a cent.

Other Things I've Learned
There's a great FAQ on this player compiled by a poster on AVS. Click here to check it out. I'll give you a few of the more important points. DTS HD Master Audio is not yet supported. Dolby TrueHD is only output over 2 channels. Final Profile 1.1 is not supported in firmware. These issued are supposed to be addressed with the first firmware update coming in the next few weeks. There have been reports of various Blu-ray titles not working properly with this player. It is interesting to me (and others) that only Crutchfield, Circuit City and Best Buy seem to have this player for sale. Amazon is telling pre-order customers February 15. Could this be some sort of soft launch or public beta? Who can say?

Needless to say, I am disappointed in this player. I really wanted a one-box solution for all movie formats. I've spent the last 2 days re-thinking my new system and I've come to the realization that I'm going to have to live with 3 players going through a Lumagen video processor to achieve the imaging nirvana I'm seeking. The last straw was the discovery that the 5000 doesn't output 480i over HDMI. This is a must if I'm to use it as a transport for DVD. My new plan is to use an Oppo 970 and separate HD and Blu-ray players. I'm leaning toward the Panasonic BD-30 for Blu-ray and the Toshiba HD-A35 for HD. The cost of the Panny/Toshiba combo is about the same as the Samsung 5000 so no loss there. I have plenty of HDMI switching capability with my new Onkyo 805 receiver and the Lumagen HDP. For now, Samsung still has some work to do to make the BD-UP5000 ready for prime time.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!