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!