Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 3

3d1As part of my mini-series of blog posts and Slideshare slideshows regarding topics of common confusion in home theater, below I cover PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion.

This series features excerpts from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age.

  • Part 1: Volume in a zero dB world, updating firmware, and the disadvantages of Blu-ray
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

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Curt Robbins


Upscaling / Upconversion

As you’ve already learned, DVDs feature a video resolution of 480 horizontal lines. When compared to Blu-ray’s 1080 lines, DVDs seem pretty wimpy. But if you have a large (and expensive) DVD collection, you probably don’t want to simply trash or sell them. Re-purchasing your collection is frustrating and expensive. Damn you, double-edged pace of technology!

Most Blu-ray players (and many AV receivers) automatically apply something called upscaling, or upconversion (both terms are used interchangeably) to DVDs in an effort to make them 1) fit on a 1080 TV, so they’re not displayed as a little box in the center of the display panel, and 2) appear to be higher resolution than they actually are (by simulating 1080).

In a nutshell, this means the Blu-ray player analyzes the video content of a DVD and adds more lines, creating a pseudo-1080 image. While upconverted 480 video doesn’t look as good as the native 1080 display of Blu-ray content (with 1080 unique lines, featuring none of the pixel redundancy that comes with upscaling), it does look better than standard 480. In terms of the end result, upconversion for video is akin to matrixed surround sound for audio: It’s all about optimizing legacy media formats on modern-generation equipment. (To learn more about matrixed and discrete surround sound formats, see the Surround Sound chapter.)

The quality of upconversion is determined entirely by your equipment (the hardware and software running within it; see the Video Processing section below for more info). Better Blu-ray players do a superior job of upscaling than their less-expensive siblings. The $300-$600 players offered by companies like Denon, OPPO, Onkyo, Pioneer Elite, and Marantz will do a considerably nicer job of upconversion than an entry-level $80 Sony or Samsung unit (which aren’t the best suited for home theater environments).

A standard definition DVD will never look better than when upconverted on a home theater with a decent Blu-ray player. So what’s your takeaway? Don’t sell those old DVDs on Craigslist or relegate them to a dusty box in a closet! If you’re willing to tolerate the slight decrease in quality between upscaled DVDs and native Blu-ray content (which many people don’t even perceive), upconversion can help you avoid rebuying your DVD movie collection. Also consider that the majority of discs available from your local video rental store or library—even in 2014—are DVDs, not Blu-rays.

Real-World Upscaling

One study claims that 39% of viewers can’t tell the difference between standard-definition video (480 lines of resolution, as featured on DVDs and old camcorders) and high-definition content (1080 on Blu-ray discs or streamed via a service like Netflix). If this is even marginally true, an even greater percentage of consumers will be oblivious to the difference between an upscaled DVD featuring “fake” 1080 resolution and a Blu-ray disc producing the real thing. If you’re one of them, keep your eyes peeled for those grocery store bargain bins full of clearance DVDs. (Your local brick-and-mortar video store—if your community still has one—is another great source of discounted new and used DVDs.)

Video Processing

Your Blu-ray player’s video processing is handled by a dedicated computer chip (or set of chips) and special software stored on it. Many manufacturers utilize fairly generic, average processing chips—which don’t always produce the best results, especially when upscaling DVDs to 1080 resolution. More potent models feature special leading edge video processing technologies licensed from third-party companies, such as Marvell’s Qdeo and Silicon Image’s VRS ClearView.

Many popular Blu-ray models, including those from Cambridge Audio, OPPO, Onkyo, and Pioneer Elite, feature Qdeo processing. Note that there are several generations of Qdeo, so one from three years ago won’t be as good as what’s shipping on current models. OPPO’s top Darbee models feature VRS ClearView video processing and upscaling.

PCM vs. Bitstream

If you’re connecting your Blu-ray player to your receiver via HDMI, there are two options for how data is sent from the player to the receiver. The first, PCM (Pulse-code Modulation,  sometimes called LPCM), is when your Blu-ray player performs all decoding of the compressed audio on the disc (a variant of either Dolby or DTS). In this scheme, the fully decoded audio is sent to your receiver, then passed along to your speakers. Many receivers allow you to select PCM output from the same menu from which you choose DLP sound fields (and will indicate the mode by displaying “PCM” on the front panel).

Bitstream, on the other hand, means your Blu-ray player does the opposite, performing no decoding of the compressed audio of the disc, instead sending along the raw, encoded bitstream to your receiver, where the decoding takes place. In this case, the receiver will display the exact encoding method employed by the disc (Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, for example). The only disadvantage of bitstream is that any “secondary audio,” such as commentaries and other supplemental features of Blu-ray, will be lost. If you ever use these features, you obviously should lean on PCM.

Typically, both methods work equally well and, in practical applications, it doesn’t really matter which you employ. However, if you had a much nicer (and newer) Blu-ray player than receiver, you might choose to have it do the heavy lifting to improve the quality of the audio pumped into your speakers. If both your Blu-ray player and receiver are of relatively equal capability and age, the difference between these two schemes will almost certainly be negligible.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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Apple vs. Google: Where Focus Meets Buckshot

Apple’s success can be directly attributed to its intense focus on enticing design, superior build quality, and an overall excellent user experience. Yes, there’s the highly manipulated and hyperbole-laden product release press events. But despite all criticisms, few can deny that Apple’s products are either the best or among the very best available.

Unlike Google, Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC, and many other Android-fueled smartphone manufacturers, Apple puts its considerable R&D and channel partner weight behind only two models—the last generation iPhone 5C and 5S and the current 6 and 6 Plus.

Only Two

Likewise, in tablets, Apple offers only two, the iPad Mini and the full-size Air. Desktop computers? Only three models: Mac Mini, iMac, and the brawny Mac Pro. Laptops? MacBook Air and the venerable MacBook Pro, two of the most popular computers in the world. Regardless of the number of products it its stable, Apple’s intense focus on the user experience and overall quality of its gadgets is an inspiration to the CEOs of both small startups and multinational corporations alike.

One thing Apple doesn’t do, however, is moon shots. That’s the territory of Google and, more specifically, co-founder and 30x billionaire Sergey Brin. Google’s daredevil and left-leaning computer scientist “directs special projects,” according to Google’s official Management Team webpage. He’s also been described as an “enlightenment man” by The Economist.

apple vs google for twitterThe products of Brin’s efforts? Self-driving cars (legal to “drive” in California and Nevada), Google’s Project Loon, an internet delivery mechanism intended to help previously unserved regions of the world via what’s basically a high-altitude weather balloon, and the infamous and celebrity-endorsed Google Glass smart glasses (the owners of which, when wearing them in public, are said to be glassholes by the gadget’s critics).

Lab Experiments

I’d argue that Google Glass and Project Loon are really just lab experiments with an abundance of media exposure and good PR. This is despite the fact that Glass is now available for anyone to purchase. But at $1,500, it’s an expensive experiment in wearables on the part of customers, the pursuit of which defies the practical disposable income of most middle class consumers. The self-driving cars, however, are truly impressive. They do more than provide gee-whiz technology to a burgeoning generation of millennials who are less concerned with driving than the status of their social media lives. They disrupt—and in a big way.

As impressive as Google’s self-driving cars are, two of Google’s three major moon shots are currently unavailable to even the most well-heeled consumers. Apple’s products, meanwhile, can be purchased anywhere, including Walmart, Amazon, and Best Buy. Contrasting the two companies, in many ways, is truly comparing apples and oranges. Another difference between these tech titans is Google’s offering of affordable ultra-high-speed residential internet service in the form of Google Fiber. Unfortunately, this service is in only Austin, Kansas City, and Provo. Thus it, too, is basically unavailable to nearly all consumers.

apple logo for blogBut what about the largest, most important product category: Smartphones? The playing field was recently leveled when Apple released the significantly enlarged 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and it’s big brother, the 5.5-inch Plus variant (the first iPhone to sport a true 1080 display). While it could previously be argued that Apple had great hardware that wasn’t satisfying consumers’ desire for larger screens—driven primarily by our insatiable desire to consume video from YouTube, Netflix, and Facebook—this is no longer a pertinent argument.

Now that Apple has upped the ante by competing on size, it’s hard to knock advising consumers to simply purchase an iPhone and get on with their lives. In reality, Apple is actually offering three smartphone display sizes because it’s still selling the 4-inch iPhone 5 models. For those who prefer a smaller, more pocketable form factor, 2013’s iPhone 5S is an excellent choice, especially for those wanting the photo and video capturing capabilities of the iPhone 6 and the majority of its processing power. Those criticizing Apple’s prices as being prohibitively high need to wake up and smell the coffee; the iPhone 5C, the award-winning smartphone with a reputation for capturing excellent photos and superlative video, is available from nearly all carriers for free (subsidized on a two-year contract). If you can live with the smaller screen, last year’s 5C is the value leader, costing you nothing out-of-pocket.

Goodbye Bloatware

There’s also the fact, in no way insignificant, that Apple’s products completely lack bloatware and, in the interface department, are skin-free. While manufacturers like HTC, LG, and Samsung continue to tweak and augment their respective versions of Google’s Android mobile OS, Apple’s iOS is free of any carrier-loaded software “enhancements.”

In addition, updates to Apple’s mobile operating system are available immediately to its entire installed base of devices (including its tablets), whereas Android updates are provided by Google to phone manufacturers, which must then apply their own modifications, typically releasing them months later—or not at all (carriers are under no obligation to provide Android updates to their subscribers).

tim-cookFinally, one can’t help but analyze the situation from a business perspective. As Apple CEO Tim Cook recently pointed out (and ad-free social network Ello emphasizes), with Google and its free services, you’re the product. You and the data regarding your online preferences and behavior are the product sold by Google to advertisers (just like how Facebook operates). With Apple, including all of its services, you’re the customer. Apple in no way remarkets or sells the data regarding its customers to advertisers or third parties.

In the end, the mature stance is understanding that Apple and Google each possess distinct and contrasting strengths and weaknesses. Google takes a buckshot approach to its products and services, spreading its resources among a weird variety of both practical and, seemingly, impractical projects—which may or may not become available to consumers (there’s a reason Alyce Lomax at The Motley Fool called Google a “Jack of all trades, master of none”).

Apple, thinking different, focuses on the few painstakingly positioned models in each of its product categories, ensuring industry-leading quality, reliability, and customer satisfaction while sweating the details for each new product cycle.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Innovation: Not a Purple Pencil

Companies today are obsessed with innovation. As they should be. Call it a “paradigm shift,” “disruption,” or simply a “new age.” It’s all the same. If publish or perish is the mantra of academics, then smart companies should be preaching “disrupt or die.”

Marketing efforts prevail, however. Middle class consumers are continually told that the companies from which they purchase goods and services are innovative. But innovation isn’t a #2 pencil on which a company slaps a coat of purple instead of yellow paint. Innovation is a mechanical pencil you can re-use forever, simply purchasing new lead (especially when we’re running out of trees).

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Innovation isn’t a slightly better something, it’s a new something. True innovation from companies is customer-centric. It isn’t the Chevy Volt, with a battery pack cozying up to an internal combustion engine. It’s a fully electric Tesla Model S or a Nissan Leaf, with zero engine noise, more storage space, and connectivity to your smartphone. Disruption isn’t Comcast or Time Warner Cable offering on-demand video streaming or more digital channels. It’s Netflix and Vudu turning the industry upside down and encouraging cord cutting. Improving things for consumers isn’t Hewlett-Packard or Dell cranking out laptops with faster chips and higher resolution screens. It’s Apple, Samsung, and Google producing leading-edge mobile devices and wearables—and making them interactive with our homes and vehicles.

Innovation comes from companies like Netflix, Tesla Motors, Apple, and USAA. It was USAA, the financial services company serving primarily military customers, that introduced taking a photo of a cheque to deposit it. Why was it the little guy, USAA, that developed this consumer-friendly and extremely practical “technology”? Where were Bank of America and Citibank, with their voluminous resources? Probably on the golf course or lobbying in D.C., not forming research labs to produce such consumer-friendly and competition-smashing tech.

In a recent blog post, I discussed the lack of innovation in the auto industry. The proof? Nearly all cars seem the same. Most people I know can ride to lunch with a friend and, after returning, not be able to tell you the brand of car in which they were transported. Yet we can identify an iPad from across the street. While standardization is important, especially for safety, this reflects laziness among the executive ranks of so many companies. For the auto industry specifically, it seems they’d rather play copy cat than focus on real innovation. Innovation isn’t marketing BS. It’s customers and owners telling their co-workers and neighbors “You gotta get one of these!” When was the last time someone told you that regarding their car, lawn mower, or laptop computer?

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The Fremont, California manufacturing facility now occupied by Tesla Motors was previously a GM/Toyota partnership. This is wonderfully symbolic of the changes we’re about to witness in the auto industry. If you think disruption is just Pandora and Snapchat, think again. Let competitors partner on bland products that motivate consumers to say meh and dread the experience of a visit to their local car dealership or Best Buy. Meanwhile, companies like Tesla Motors, Netflix, Apple, and Google will build the new world atop the boneyard of the old dinosaurs. It’s the phoenix from the ashes, and it’s happening right in front of us.

Don’t partner with your competitors—defeat them. Innovate, disrupt, and blow the other guys away. Yes, there are valid opportunities for “coopetition.” Industry consortiums and standards groups are sometimes essential to progress in the marketplace and the interoperability of products and services from different companies. But allowing the accountants to navigate the ship, relying on economies of scale and rationalized partnerships with your enemies is short-term, borderline desperate thinking.

In today’s world, true innovation is disruptive, sustainable, and genuinely enticing to consumers. The only reason most of us aren’t parking a Tesla Model S in our garage is because of the relatively high cost (a topic about which co-founder and CEO Elon Musk has been very honest). But what about 2017, when Tesla introduces it’s roughly $35,000 Model 3? What about when Nissan gets the Leaf to crank out more than 200 miles from a single charge? What? You don’t want a car that produces virtually no sound, features more storage, produces no harmful exhaust, is super-sporty and fast, and costs a fraction of what’s required for gas-powered vehicles to fuel and maintain? Please forgive my cavalier attitude, but I’d say you’re freaking nuts.

If the company for which you work desires to survive and thrive in the 21st century, it must embrace this spirit of ultra-competitive and reality-based innovation. If it doesn’t, the new guys are going to be purchasing your office building or manufacturing facility to produce what middle class consumers really want—and your company will be relegated to nothing more than an obscure Wikipedia entry.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Auto Industry: Slow on Tech Innovation

It’s the time of year in America when our kids are back in school and the auto industry has released next year’s models, so let’s talk about consumer tech in cars. It’s nice that even some entry-level automobiles feature cool tech like Bluetooth, backup cameras (mandatory in all cars sold in the United States by 2018), and in-built wireless technologies like 4G. But why do I always get the feeling that the auto industry is continually dragging its heels, always playing catch up with mobile devices and all the wireless tech with which we’re surrounded on a daily basis?

With consumers habituated to fast upgrade cycles for items like smartphones and personal computers, why is the auto industry so bloody slow when it comes to jumping on the same bandwagon? Just like the consumer electronics industry, car companies release new models every year, so they certainly have the opportunity.

tesla model s replacement for blogI can almost understand a conspiracy theorist who might insist that auto manufacturers are colluding in their seeming refusal to embrace new tech and interoperability between our mobile devices and their products. Yes, there was Microsoft Sync in Ford’s automobiles (RIP) and Apple has introduced CarPlay, which began rolling out in a few 2014 models (and works only with Apple’s products; this isn’t an industry standard). But this still feels more like a push from tech titans like Apple and Microsoft than true innovation from the auto industry itself. Simply connecting to our existing mobile devices is part of the equation, but where’s the “gee whiz” stuff?

Where is the Angry Birds or Snapchat of automobiles?

Yes, I do like “new” technologies like LED taillights, adaptive cruise control, and computer-controlled suspension systems. But we’re talking innovation here. While uber-cool, these are tech that have been around for a long time. In fact, it’s a sign of how slow the automobile industry is not only to innovate, but simply to roll out existing technologies based on past innovations. While LED lights are finally beginning to trickle down to even entry-level cars, nice tricks like laser-based adaptive cruise control and sci-fi-inspired head-up displays are still the territory of luxury vehicles.

We expect a culture of affordable innovation from companies like Google, Apple, and Samsung. It’s the foundation of their existence. But the fact that they have to push their tech on the auto industry is sad. Yes, really cool technology is expensive and auto manufacturers don’t want to reduce their already sometimes razor-thin profit margins. I get it. But we also know that truly innovative tech becomes considerably less expensive as more consumers jump on the bandwagon. Any manufacturer that decides to roll out a given technology (LED taillights, for example) across it’s entire catalog will experience such per-unit price discounts that the cost of this tech should not be its primary concern. What should be? Beating the competition by satisfying the tech lust of middle class consumers. But if recession-strapped Americans gobbling up $600 iPads at unheard of rates isn’t enough to convince auto execs of this, what is?

Where are the advanced sound systems that use basic acoustic science to drown out road noise and vastly improve our listening experience? Where is the uttered “down window” that prevents me from taking my hands off the wheel? Just the fact that so many cars manufactured today lack auto-on headlamps is enough to make you cry. Unfortunately, auto industry executives just don’t seem to get it. At least not when it comes to innovations that satisfy consumer demand and recognize dominant social trends.

It’s nice to know that if you were frozen in a cryogenic chamber 35 years ago and awoke today, you could capably drive a 2014 or 2015 model car. Yes, we need standardization. But when I jump in a friend’s sedan and we cruise down the road and I can’t even tell who manufactured the vehicle without looking at its badging, I think we have a problem.

nissan leaf for linkedinWith the distinct exception of Toyota’s Prius hybrid, Nissan’s all-electric LEAF, and anything from Tesla, cars seem to totally lack differentiation. Sometimes it feels like they’re all manufactured by one huge World Car Corp. and they simply offer a wide range of shapes, sizes, luxury levels, and prices. This is especially painful given the price of automobiles. Really, Buick and Kia, the best you can do is Bluetooth, LED lights, and a crappy, difficult-to-navigate touch screen on the dashboard?

Voice navigation and head-up displays are probably the most promising uses of new-tech we’ve seen in a while. Both improve driver attention where it matters: At the road. And both are way-cool and enticing features. But while many of us actually have Bluetooth or backup cameras in our vehicles, how many can control the music or air conditioning in our cars with our voice?

Exactly.

This is probably one of my lousiest blog posts in terms of educating readers or making a good point (like me, chances are you’re simply angrier now). I’m basically just whining. But at $20,000 to $60,000, the value proposition for tech in cars is among the lowest of any consumer purchase. Considering how much we spend on personal transportation, I think we’re all entitled to a bit of whining—whether you drive a Toyota Yaris or a BMW M5.

I sincerely love that Google, Ford, and Volvo are doing some incredible things with advanced perimeter sensing, collision avoidance, and automated parking in their quest for better safety and, eventually, fully autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars make for great headlines in the media. But while we salivate over this future tech, the cars actually sitting in our driveways aren’t that much different from models from ten or even fifteen years ago—and none of us would use a cell phone or computer from 15 years ago, would we?

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Curt Robbins

[See also Time for Tesla and Electric Car Adoption: Not Why You Think.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Smartphone Display Size: Two Perspectives

Of all the modern mobile devices available to consumers, smartphones surely grab the lion’s share of both headlines and water cooler chatter. Not even the revered new kid on the block, the tablet, can keep as much of our collective attention as its smaller cousin. However, this back pocket technology can be confusing for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, smartphones are such a dynamic and rapidly moving target. You can be a genius regarding the latest smartphone functions and technologies, but two years later you’ll barely be familiar with available models and won’t recognize half the acronyms.

Yes, stalwarts like the iPhone and top Android models like Samsung’s Galaxy, HTC’s One, and LG’s G3 will probably be around for years to come. They’re all great and can easily make you very happy. Most will serve loyally for the duration of a two-year service contract. If treated politely, they will last well into a second life as a hand-me-down for a teen or whoever buys it on Craigslist.

iphoneBut how do you cut through the marketing and product review hype, manifested as a thick fog of new age corporate babble, hipster imagery, and obscure acronyms, to purchase a phone that’s best for you and your lifestyle? How do you escape the primitive and illogical concept of a phone that’s “best” and instead seek out one that’s most appropriate—all while potentially costing you less than many competitors?

Simple. Determine your priorities.

In terms of a mobile gadget like a smartphone, these priorities pertain to digital media. Specifically, images and video. Smartphones are single-handedly crushing the camera and camcorder markets. Consumers are choosing to replace their point-and-shoot and even high-end, bulky DSLR cameras with svelt smartphones. This is a real validation of the fact that some smartphones are very good at capturing data, such as photos and high-definition video (including super-slick panoramic images). Premium models like the iPhone, Google Nexus 5, and Motorola Moto X (as well as many others) all capture high-resolution photos and high-definition video (sometimes with stereo sound). It’s the type of stuff that you can display on a huge 70-inch TV hanging on your wall and say “Wow, that looks really great.”

Smartphones are increasingly good at displaying a variety of media, specifically video and photos. Larger displays (even from traditionally conservative Apple) are allowing smartphones to better accommodate high-definition video sources from Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu Plus. Stereo speakers are helping improve the audio portion of the equation, even though this is still the Achilles heel of mobile device media playback (and one reason headphones are so popular).

Choosing the best phone for your particular needs, and getting the best deal on it, is a matter of determining which function—capture or display—is most important to you.

Samsung-Galaxy-S5-3Personally, I favor capture, not display. However, I’m also the unofficial family archivist, an amateur photographer, and work out of my home office (where, if I want to consume video, I’ll use Chromecast or AirPlay to toss it up on a 60-inch plasma display with subwoofer-enhanced surround sound). I capture tons of video and photos and grab a few on nearly a daily basis. For me, the size of the display (the current obsession of the marketing efforts of so many smartphone companies) isn’t very important. Because most consumers upgrade their smartphones every two years, along with their service contract, a given model will typically provide only a couple years of service. However, the audio, video, and images captured by your smartphone will be archived for (hopefully) hundreds of years. (To learn how to preserve your data for centuries, check out my Understanding Personal Data Security book.)

Because I’m so picky about the quality of the media I capture and the memories of friends, family, and special events that are so precious, I really have little regard for the size of a smartphone screen. In fact, larger phones are more cumbersome and less comfortable stored someplace like the back of my jeans or in a jacket breast pocket. And less comfortable means I’ll be less likely to have the device on me. Meaning fewer Kodak moments.

If you’re a person who travels a lot or, for whatever reason, spends lot of time sitting around sucking down a variety of media, a smartphone with a larger, higher-quality display (OLED technology is a big winner among the Android phones) and a nice set of in-ear headphones might best serve you. If, however, you’re more like me and it’s all about the media you capture and plan to keep forever, a phone with a smaller display—but superlative camera and camcorder functions (like the iPhone 5S and 6 variants)—is the ticket. After all, what you capture amounts to more than mere photos and videos. These are the digital heirlooms that you’ll pass on to your children and grandchildren.

As the PR machines choke and sputter and everyone gets excited about the latest generation of the most popular smartphones in our annual hypefest of product introductions, remember that sometimes smaller is better. All you really care about might come down to capture quality, not video playback. Besides, think of all the money you can save buying last year’s model instead of that fancy new-and-improved toy, ala nothing more than a bigger display that’s helping write all the headlines for lazy journalists and bloggers and eating up your disposable income.

Happy shopping and choose wisely, grasshoppa.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Plasma

3d1[On October 28, LG announced that it is ending plasma display panel production. As you will learn below, LG was the last major manufacturer of plasma displays. Thus, this announcement effectively kills plasma display tech as we know it. Let’s hope OLED prices fall quickly for those who are in the market for a new TV.]


In early 2014, Panasonic—the Japanese manufacturer of what many reviewers and consumers considered to be the best collection of plasma display panels on the market—announced that it would cease production of these videophile-satisfying models. In official press releases, the company said this move would allow it to focus on 4K (Ultra HD), advanced LED designs, and next-generation OLED. The company cited low demand for plasma models and a need to refocus resources on future standards.

This was the 2:00 am last call at the home theater hobbyist’s saloon. Hard core videophiles quickly revamped their upgrade plans, examining their budgets and trying to decide if they wanted to purchase one final brand new Panasonic plasma TV before none were left to be had.

Later, in July 2014, Samsung announced that it would also cease production of plasma displays, similarly citing low demand and a desire to focus its resources in other areas. LG, the last man standing and lone producer of plasma panels, at the time said in official statements that it would continue to produce plasma sets “as long as there is a demand.” I see. Well, it just so happens that a couple of months earlier, in May, president of LG Electronics Japan, Lee Gyu-hong, explained in an interview with a Japanese news outlet that the company might stop making plasma TVs altogether if sales continued to slump.

This is the sad reality of the marketplace. Unfortunately, home theater hobbyists and quality-sensitive movie buffs—the type of folks who typically would choose a plasma display over its technically inferior LED cousin—aren’t the majority of the market. Despite their liberal spending habits for items like home theater receivers and widescreen display panels, this demographic was simply too small a slice of the pie to influence the few remaining manufacturers of plasma displays to continue production.

In the spring of 2013, I purchased two Panasonic plasma units, a 50-inch model and a 60-incher. They were 2012 models on which I got a killer end-of-model-year deal at one of Best Buy’s Magnolia stores. I’m extremely happy with these units, whether they’re playing streaming video from Netflix or true 1080 content from a Blu-ray disc. After only a year-and-a-half of ownership, and with a viable catalog of readily available 4K content still more theory than reality, I’m not yet compelled to replace either of these TVs.

plasma display panelWhile I’m sad to see plasma depart retailer showrooms, I also know—from the technology industry and Silicon Valley culture overall—that it’s just a matter of time until something becomes affordable that blows away both LED and plasma. And that technology would be OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode, or Organic LED).

OLED sets can be amazingly thin. We’re talking 4 mm thin, like the spine of a magazine! When it comes to video, OLED models feature better everything. Black levels, refresh rates, color uniformity, off-angle viewing, color saturation…you name it, it’s better on OLED. These models can also produce a nearly infinite contrast ratio (if you want to see this with your own eyes, take a look at one of the OLED-equipped smartphones from LG, HTC, or Samsung). OLED is simply the next step in the evolution of home entertainment display technology. I can’t wait to fill my house with OLEDs. (If you want to learn more about OLED and how it stacks up to other display options, including front projection, check out Home Theater for the Internet Age.)

Of course, nobody in the middle class is going to be filling their homes with OLED display panels until the costs come down. Originally priced at close to $20,000, Samsung and LG are currently selling OLED sets for $10,000 for a 55-incher and $7,000 for a curved 55-inch model, respectively (ironically, LG’s flat 55-inch OLED model is more expensive at $10,000). LG also sells a 65-inch 4K curved (yuck) OLED model for $12,000 retail. This is the first 4K OLED model to break the 55-inch barrier. (It’s been very difficult for manufacturers to produce mass quantities of defect-free, larger-size OLED panels. This explains why the display tech was introduced in devices featuring the smallest, most easily manufactured screens: Smartphones.)

Slowly, but surely—especially as more 4K content becomes available and manufacturing processes improve yields—4K OLED models will come down in price. Just like the chicken and the egg, baby step by baby step, OLED models will become more affordable. For a short period, 1080 OLED models will be offered at very enticing prices. However, I recommend that you forego these killer deals for a true 4K OLED TV that will future-proof you for years to come. It’s going to be a long time before an affordable technology superior to OLED emerges and a resolution greater than 4K becomes standard.

Why no 4K plasma models? Unfortunately, the marriage of Ultra HD and plasma is, from a practical, profit-making manufacturing perspective, very difficult. In a nutshell, it’s cost-prohibitive for companies like Panasonic, Sony, LG, and Samsung to produce plasma sets at the higher resolution of 4K. In fact, 4K is the primary reason that every manufacturer is abandoning plasma production. 4K is their mantra—and plasma doesn’t go there.

Yes, cry a tear for resolution-impaired plasma tech and, if you’re so inclined, sob over the loss of your favorite Panasonic or Samsung model. But don’t fear a lack of innovation among display manufacturers or a slowdown in the evolution of consumer display technology. As long as you have a 1080 plasma (or LED) TV that makes you happy for the next three to five years, hold out for a 4K OLED panel in the size you want. Don’t jump on a 4K LED set, which is really just a half-baked bridge technology intended to help keep display panel manufacturers funded until 4K OLED TVs—the ultimate destination, in my humble opinion—become affordable and go mass market. And when that happens, OLED will make all other display technologies obsolete.

See ya, plasma. It was great knowin’ ya. But don’t fret for me. OLED and I are going to get along great. We just can’t afford to live in the same neighborhood right now.

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Curt Robbins

[Originally published August 23; updated November 9.]

[See also Home Theater Basics, Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics, and Take My Remote, Please.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.