The Big-Box Chill

On my very first visit to Costco, I saw something that burned itself into my brain: a shopping cart loaded with baby formula, junk food, and a 23-inch flat-panel TV set. I felt the same way a fashionista would watching someone use an Armani shirt as a dust rag.

For most people, electronics are commodities to be selected with no more thought than you'd devote to choosing between Sizzlin' Picante Doritos and Hidden Valley Ranch Lay's. A/V geeks just can't do it that way, though. We want to take our TVs for a test drive before we lay down the Visa card.

But in today's warehouse-style stores, is it even possible to try before you buy? Armed with an assignment from soundandvisionmag.com, a detailed knowledge of the shopping terrain of the San Fernando Valley, and DVD and Blu-ray Disc copies of video guru Joe Kane's Digital Video Essentials, I decided to find out.

Best Buy, Worst Demos (Almost)

Truth be told, my first stop, Best Buy, didn't turn out to be the worst possible place to evaluate a TV. But it wasn't much better than the worst, and the subhead was so snappy I couldn't resist.

My local Best Buy, like others I've seen, places one row of TVs at about chest level for a 6-foot person, and mounts another row of TVs above that one so even Kobe Bryant couldn't reach them. Only one Panasonic model was connected to a DVD player (for a special demo Panasonic had concocted). When asked if I could connect a DVD player to one of the lower TVs, I was told, "No, we can't do that." All I could view was a special promotional clip from DISH Network, which the TVs received through a single RF cable each.

But I was able to play around with the picture settings on TVs in the lower row that had side-mounted controls. I couldn't reach the controls on the other TVs, and there wasn't a remote to be seen. The Best Buy employee/sales associate/cast member/whatever in the TV department told me they hide them in the back so they can't be stolen, and he offered to run in the back and get the remote for the Samsung 32-incher I indicated. He returned five minutes later with three remotes, unsure which one went with the TV I was checking out (though all three remotes worked on the TV).

The situation in my local Circuit City was almost identical. But Best Buy and Circuit seemed like veritable A/V playrooms compared with Wal-Mart. The store's bi-level display kept me from getting my mitts on half the TVs. There were no remotes available, and the sales associate replied with a disinterested "no" when I asked for a remote and if I could hook up a DVD player for a demo. I might as well have asked for a demo of one of the store's washing machines.

The best shopping experience I had, by far, was at Fry's Electronics. A remote control accompanied every single TV, attached by a coiled cable. (Weirdly, all the TVs, regardless of brand, were playing a demo clip with a Samsung logo in the lower right corner of the screen.) The staff member deflected my request to connect a DVD player for a demo, but told me I could play Video Essentials on any of the TVs featured on the end caps - each of which had its own DVD player connected. I sidled up to a big Sony on the end of an aisle, tapped the input button to switch to the DVD player, put my disc in, and within minutes had a test pattern up so I could tweak the contrast and brightness.

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