Always Worrying About the Wrong Thing

Not always, really, but a lot. So I like it when people start talking about something I consider important but largely overlooked — color, for example.

Maybe we take color for granted, or maybe it’s just too vague. The things people get hung up on in audio or video usually have numbers attached to them: TIM (percent), slew rate (volts per microsecond), jitter (picoseconds), phase shift (degrees), and so on and on. That’s just a short list of audio-related items that never actually mattered much, if they ever mattered at all, yet got tons of ink at one time or another. The perennial hot topic in video has been resolution. In the dark ages before HD, TV manufacturers touted lines of horizontal resolution, the more the better. So you would see TVs spec’d at, say, 800 lines of resolution, which was fine, except that there were no sources that delivered even half that. Now the buzz-spec is 1080p — not exactly the same situation, since we do have 1080p sources available, but when you see what a gorgeous picture you can get on a truly huge screen with a good 720p front projector you start to think perhaps it’s not the most important thing in the world, especially on something like a 32-inch LCD.

So I think, now that we’re securely in the high-def era, it’s high time for color accuracy to get its due. About 20 years ago, when I was an editor at High Fidelity magazine, we ran an article called “True Colors” explaining how TV manufacturers routinely sacrificed color fidelity for brightness. All TVs then used CRTs, which depend on red, green, and blue phosphors to generate light. Unfortunately, the most accurate phosphors, particularly for red and green, were not the brightest. And since brightness sold TVs, we got reds that shaded to orange and greens that shaded to yellow. Anyhow, once in a while probably every editor gets behind a story he expects to stir things up, get people talking, only to watch it disappear from view faster than an anvil off the side of a steamship. Which is just what happened to this one — nobody seemed to care, and we kept getting letters asking about lines of resolution.

It’s possible we were just ahead of our time, though. I noticed an article a few days ago in The New York Times about LED and laser light engines for microdisplay (DLP and LCoS) rear-projection TVs, which described their various benefits, including, prominently, their ability to deliver a much wider range of colors than previous technologies. That’s a big deal. Just getting away from CRTs was a step in the right direction. When I got my DLP HDTV a few years ago, I quickly became aware of various shades of red and green that I wasn’t used to seeing on TV — very nice. So I’m really looking forward to taking the next step, and believe you should be, too.

Are there characteristics of audio or video gear that you consider either overrated or overlooked? I’d like to hear what you think. —Michael Riggs