Tuning Fork

I am an HDTV curmudgeon. It s not that I don t want one. I even know where I d put it. Rather, it s that I don t want to pay for one. In fact, the very idea of spending upwards of $3,000 for a big-screen flat panel TV kind of pisses me off. Besides, I have two young boys who like to play football in the basement next to my perfect spot. Coming home to find my brand new flat panel TV face down like a drunk at CES—I m not sure I could take it without hurtin' someone.

But it s not just the cost. I also don t believe the quality of flat panel HDTVs is up to snuff. Admittedly, I don t have the facilities to test every single one on the market—my wife would kill me. So I rely on three things: my eyes, word of mouth and Consumer Reports. I don t know if you ve seen the latest issue dedicated to HDTV, but the results aren t very impressive.


Let s look at Plasma first. Plasma is the top choice of flat-panel buyers. It offers the largest screen size—42 inches on up—and is generally cheaper per inch than larger LCDs. Well, according to CR s rating system, the highest scoring plasma, a 50-inch model from Panasonic, scored only a 70 out of 100. Virtually every other model was well below that number. And the off brands, well, there s no need to even discuss them. Aside from the quality issue—and the potential for burn-in, no matter what manufacturers say—these things also weigh a ton. I damn near threw my back out trying to help move one at a trade show last year.

Not surprisingly, LCDs scored even worse in the CR testing. The highest score among the larger models—in this case, 37 inches—was a pathetic 52, scored by an LG TV. There is absolutely no way I m going to spend $3,500 on a TV that s only half as good as it should be.

Now I can already hear some of you early adopters out there justifying your purchase. Yeah, but my set looks great. Or How can you be influenced so much by a magazine? Well, I m also influenced by my eyes, and what I ve seen has not been great. Colors vary, blacks are blackish, response times can be slow and viewing angles—let s just say you d better have a lot of room directly in front of the set.

But what about the new 1080p sets, you ask? Surely they will close the quality gap. Frankly, if I m not willing to pay $3500 for a 1080i LCD, I m sure as hell not going to pay $1,000 to $2,000 more for 1080p.

You see my dilemma.

Meanwhile, America s insatiable desire to have its HDTV seems unlikely to let up any time soon—and manufacturers are gearing up to meet demand. Matsushita, Panasonic s parent company and the world s top plasma seller, recently announced it would build a $1.6 billion plant dedicated solely to plasmas. LG, Samsung and a joint venture known as Fujitsu Hitachi Display have also announced they intend to step up plasma production to meet demand, which is expected to exceed 25 million panels by 2010.

Japanese giant Sony, on the other hand, announced last year it was phasing out plasmas in 2007 to focus on LCDs. The company has already teamed with Samsung to open a joint LCD manufacturing plant in Korea. One of the fist bi-products of that venture was Sony s Bravia line, a big seller in Costco that helped the company regain the number one position in LCD TV sales, according to DisplaySearch. To give some idea where the company thinks the market s headed—Stan Glasgow, Sony s guru of glass, has said the company was actively exploring OLED (organic light emitting diodes) as its preferred technology for larger flat panels. OLEDs are brighter and offer better contrast than LCDs, and do not require a backlight. Alas, Glasgow did not specify when those products would make it to market.

On the less-than-bright side, while the aforementioned companies continue their drive to dominate the flat panel market, there s a good chance there will be a glut of product, says analyst Koichi Hariya of Mizuho Securities in Japan. And that s when prices could reach a point where even a curmudgeon considers buying in. The price where I can justify a purchase: $1,000 for a 42-inch TV. Until then, I ll remain content to sit in my not-quite-ivory tower, watching letter-boxed movies on my 20-year-old, 27-inch Trinitron or my $250, 27-inch Toshiba, and checking out this week s electronics circulars.

Brian L. Clark is a reporter and consultant on all things digital, runs the The Tech Enthusiast s Network, and writes for Money,Men s Health, and Laptop.