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Loewe Articos 55 DLP rear-projection

Digital Light Projection televisions are racing to become the new standard of the digital age; several companies have embraced them with the fervor of the converted. Plasma and LCD televisions are making their own bids for dominance. But these days, most manufacturers are saying little about CRT-based television, which remains the biggest-selling technology—by reason of price, picture quality, and consumer familiarity.

Loewe has been making CRT TVs in Germany since the dawn of television. They broke into the American market with high-end, direct-view CRT sets in the late 1990s, and their present product line still includes three CRTs. The Articos 55 is Loewe's first DLP product—in fact, it's the company's first rear-projection product of any kind, part of a product line that includes a plasma but no LCD displays (at least for sale in the US). Loewe notes that optics expert Carl Zeiss helped develop the Articos 55's light engine. At 55 inches, measured diagonally across the 16:9 screen, it's the largest display Loewe has manufactured.

Basics
The handsome Articos 55 comes in basalt or platinum (read: black or silver). The basalt model costs $7500, the platinum $500 less. Control buttons and an auxiliary S-video input are along the left side, so the faceplate is uncluttered. In the center is a silver-rimmed hole that looks something like a tiny porthole. Deep behind it is the power indicator light, which glows red or green, depending on whether the set is off or on.

The Articos is just under 20 inches deep, so fits easily atop a table. Some might choose to buy the optional motorized swivel base ($1000) as well—off-axis, the picture vibrancy drops markedly.

The remote control is sleek and attractive. At the top, a red LCD window lists several control functions that can be toggled with a button. Below are a variety of quite small buttons whose functions are printed on the button surfaces in tiny type that's not easy to read. Other than its LCD window, the remote is not backlit or designed to even glow in the dark. It does offer interesting functionality, however: Properly programmed, it can control the Articos 55 with one set of buttons and a VCR or DVD player with another.

As with most DLP sets, the Articos' lamp took a full 60 seconds to reach peak brightness. When it's turned off, black bars advance from left and right, to simulate closing curtains—an interesting fillip.

When Loewe introduced its first direct-view sets to the American market a few years ago, the initial reviews offered warm praise for their picture quality but rapped the company for not offering the full range of inputs that enthusiasts have come to expect on high-end TVs. Loewe appears to have taken that complaint to heart; the Articos has as full a panoply of inputs as any one-piece display I've seen recently, among them two component (both of which are able to accept any signal from 480i on up), one DVI-HDCP, an RGB, and an RS-232.

When you turn it on for the first time, the Articos leads you through a comprehensive setup program that even includes graphics showing you how to install your cables. You can turn the setup program off once it pops up, but beware: Until you run the channel-select program, the setup menu will come up every time you turn on the TV.

The set's native 1280x720 resolution is determined by the Texas Instruments HD2 high-definition DLP chip that powers it. The Articos also includes all the normal features associated with high-end displays: 3:2 pulldown correction and a four-level digital comb filter, for use with composite inputs. The Articos offers five aspect ratios—4:3, 16:9, Panorama, Cinema, and Zoom—and automatically resets itself when presented with a letterboxed or anamorphic DVD.

How It Looked
When I turned it on straight out of the box, the Articos 55 was a mess. Colors were horribly askew; blacks looked brown, whites were blue. Jamie Wilson, of Overture Audio/Video in Delaware, came by to calibrate it, and with more than a little effort, he managed to bring the color balance in line. But after more work using the service menu, he was not entirely able to stabilize the darkest, near-black levels; they still had a hint of red.

My first impression of the Articos was one of brightness—a hallmark of DLPs. This means that the set can be watched even with some ambient light. Even after calibration, the Articos was obviously brighter than any plasma I've had in for review.

The colors, once adjusted, were rich and largely true; some popped out with a vibrancy that was quite pleasing. That, along with the brightness, will help the Articos dominate any room in which it sits—55 inches is a very large screen.

The horizontal resolution was superb. Using frequency-sweep test patterns that display ever finer lines from left to right, the Loewe was able to resolve everything, down to the finest line.

Every maker of a new-technology television, be it DLP, plasma, LCD, or LCoS, boasts of fantastic contrast ratios. Loewe claims the Articos' contrast ratio to be an estimable 1500:1, a claim I wasn't able to measure. But I was easily able to judge the set's ability to display black. A reliable and consistent test is title 17, chapter 26 of the Video Essentials test DVD, which shows three black bars—video black and 5% and 10% above video black, or black, blacker, blackest—in a white field. A good CRT display can differentiate all three bars, the differences visible even from a normal viewing distance of some feet away.

The Loewe's performance bettered that of some plasmas I've reviewed—it could differentiate all three black bars. But the difference between the two darkest bars was so slight that I could see it only from very close up. From a normal viewing distance of about 10 feet, it was difficult to discern any differences among the three bars. That means a viewer will not be able to see details in shades of gray-black in some scenes.

The ability to display deep blacks is a fundamental requirement of any set that you expect to deliver the best possible picture. Looked at narrowly, a weakness in black level means that you won't be able to discern details in dark scenes. But there's a larger problem: Without rich blacks, the picture looks weak and washed-out. A set's ability to portray black is not just a nicety, but fundamentally important.

The Loewe did not look washed-out; its blacks were strong enough to avoid that. But the result of its still-mediocre black level was that the pictures looked flat; it simply could not offer the punch and energy that a good CRT can provide. But this may be a weakness of the DLP technology—at least as used in a rear-projection set—not of Loewe's implementation of it.

Another common weakness of the digital televisions I've seen, no matter the technology, is the scaler—the circuitry that converts a 480-line interlaced signal to a progressive picture of whatever resolution the set hopes to display—in this case, 1280x720. (That's the lowest resolution that can officially qualify as HDTV.) For most companies, the most challenging part of the scaling process is the conversion of a signal from interlaced to progressive. This is a critical requirement: A poor scaler can cripple an otherwise excellent TV. No matter how good the picture is otherwise, if it's filled with scaling errors—jagged lines, twittery moiré, rampant video noise—those problems can overwhelm a set's other assets.

The Articos 55's scaler was troubled. When I review a set, I usually first run through the various test patterns on Video Essentials. Those tests showed that the Articos had more trouble with video noise than with jagged lines. Crosshatch patterns showed only the tiniest stair-step aberrations. A scaling-error test at the bottom left of one of the Snell & Wilcox zone plates (title 20, chapter 2) normally shows vibrating jagged lines. On the Articos, the box was simply a boiling square of hash—I could detect no line or pattern within the box. The result: a noisy picture.

I played my favorite test for scaling errors, the opening temple scene in The Fifth Element, when an Egyptian boy on a donkey rides through the desert and dashes up a ramp into the temple. On the Articos, as the camera panned, the sand was alive with errors and noise that made it seem to be jumping around. And the diagonal boards of the ramp simply could not resolve themselves.

I hooked up the Articos to my high-definition tuner and watched some live HD from a local PBS station. The resolution was impressive. The color palette expanded, just as it should, to encompass a broader range of colors than an NTSC picture is able to display. As usual, the scaling errors that burdened conventional pictures remained in high-definition, but they seemed more muted.

Finally, I watched Once Upon a Time in Mexico, an excellent DVD transfer that was originally shot with high-definition digital cameras. Watching critically, I couldn't help but see the video noise, but after a while I was drawn into the movie. The Articos gave a credible, even pleasurable performance, despite the limitations of its scaler and black level.

Conclusion
Some of the failings of the Articos 55 may be endemic to DLP technology, and given that, no rear-projection DLP could perform much better. This is Loewe's very first rear-projection television; in some ways, it's an impressive start.

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