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The Well-Wired Home

Unless you spend hours researching obscure acronyms online, home electronics gets more confusing every day. Here’s what to do about three key purchases: your TV, your radio, and your phone.

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Flat-Screen TV
Plasma or LCD?

What You Need to Know
If you’ve been sitting on the flat-screen fence, it’s a good time to jump off. The biggest price drop has already happened: On average, prices fell more than 20 percent last year; a $9,600 50-inch Hitachi plasma can now be had for $4,300. Although prices will continue to drop at a projected 10 to 15 percent annual rate, you can buy now and feel safe that you won’t look like a fool in a few months.

And the shift to high-definition television is finally happening, with networks airing 4,800 hours this year, including Lost and ER (on cable, much of ESPN is already HD, as is HBO). Many flat-screens have HDTV as standard, so you’ll get a better as well as bigger picture.

If you decide to buy a flat-screen TV, the main choice you’ll face is, plasma or LCD? Aficionados debate the two technologies endlessly. All you need to know is that unless you play video games constantly, plasma is the way to go. LCDs have a slightly clearer picture, but plasma is cheaper and bigger (up to 70 inches, as opposed to 50). Don’t be scared off by stories of “image burn” on plasmas (which happens when the pixels inside the TV get hot enough to scorch an image that’s been displayed for several hours—say, Super Mario or CNN’s ticker—permanently onto the screen). You can easily avoid this with a screen saver (built in on some models)—or by just turning the damn TV off occasionally.

Unless you have a dedicated home theater, stick to the 42-to-55-inch range. Get an HDTV tuner built in so you don’t have to buy an extra box. Same goes for a surround-sound decoder, which lets you hook up the TV to multiple speakers. Forget a space-hogging stand. Get a multidirectional wall mount instead.

When you judge picture quality, stand about ten feet away to check brightness and contrast. Look at the edges of the images as they move. If they bleed, go to another TV.

What You Don’t Need to Know
During your research, you’ll encounter many sci-fi-sounding terms. Cd/m2 refers to screen brightness: Understand that this count should be high (at least 400:1), that’s all. Don’t worry about aspect ratios—they refer to the dimensions of your TV’s wide-screen mode. Ditto for progressive scanning, which makes the picture richer—most HDTVs have it.

Don’t worry about how thin the TV is: They’re all just inches thick. Ignore talk of calibration and the ISF to optimize color. TVs come with adjustable presets. If you’re fussy, call a professional to set perfect tones.

Sales folk will hawk home-theater systems and treat you as an audiophile. But not everyone needs surround sound. Live with the TV speakers for a month, then decide if they’re good enough. You can always install more later. Unless you live in the suburbs, don’t bother with rear-projection HDTVs. They’re inexpensive but too big for most New York apartments. And don’t worry about SED or OLED TVs—the next generation of flat-screen technology—until at least 2006, when the price will come down.

(1) Best
Hitachi 55HDX61 55-inch plasma HDTV, $8,000
Terrific brightness and contrast, excellent speakers, and all the trimmings (Sixth Avenue Electronics; 201-489-0666).

(2) Very Good
Toshiba 42HPX84 42-inch plasma HDTV, $4,500
The cinema series is Toshiba’s best. You can’t do better for the price (J&R Music & Computer World; 800-806-1115).

(3) Budget
Norcent PT4231 EDTV, $1,700
Enhanced-definition is still better than regular (if not as good as true HD). This 42-inch model has decent stereo speakers and a ton of inputs (B&H Photo; 212-239-7765).


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