Are You Ready for Some HDTV? Page 3

When I lowered the lights, I was immediately struck by the Toshiba's picture - it looked bright and punchy even though my adjustments had reduced contrast to more than half its initial value. Images were very clear and sharp not only from HDTV broadcasts but from DVDs and standard-definition broadcasts as well. The picture from Warner's excellent new DVD of Citizen Kane looked pristine, with dense yet detailed shadows and a wide range of silvery tones between blackest black and whitest white.

I was also impressed with the set's subtle color rendition. In the scene from Antitrust where Milo (Ryan Phillipe) first arrives at the Microsoft-like NURV corporate campus, the green of the surrounding foliage and the orange of the construction equipment came across vividly, but without any sacrifice of flesh tones. Here and in the scenes that followed, Milo's skin retained its pale, neutral appearance.

One gripe I had with the first couple of generations of high-def sets was poor line-doubler performance. Judging by the three sets in this comparison, it looks like I no longer have cause to complain. The 2:3 pulldown function of the Toshiba's line doubler allowed it to deliver seamless image quality with DVD movies. (Actually, it's a bit more than a line doubler, creating a 540-line progressive signal from a standard interlaced video input.) In the opening scene of Star Trek: Insurrection (my usual line-doubler torture test), diagonal edges looked solid and straight.

I did notice a slight artifact that was mostly visible on flat surfaces in backgrounds. In the excavation scene from Columbia TriStar's new Superbit version of The Fifth Element, for example, the sand-colored walls of the temple were mottled with faint red and green patches. (Superbit DVDs are said to have superior video quality because they use a bit rate for encoding the video that's roughly twice the rate used for standard DVDs.) When I switched from a DVD player with only an interlaced output to a progressive-scan player, the patches were still there, so it's not a fault of the set's line doubler. The problem was mainly visible when I sat close to the screen. When I sat at a more typical distance, the glitch was no longer as apparent.

The Toshiba did a great job of displaying high-def programs. In that Arkansas/ South Carolina game, the stripes in the referees' black-and-white uniforms looked utterly solid, and I could detect differences between the red hues in the Arkansas players' uniforms and in their helmets. The fine mesh of the players' shirts also came across clearly - I could even see where the fabric was soaked with sweat.

With its good looks, compact profile, and overall impressive image quality, Toshiba's 50HX81 is a competitor to watch this season. Despite a slightly smaller screen, it gave the other sets a serious run for their money on the high-def front. If you're ready to step up to the HDTV big league, odds are you'll like the 50HX81.

Pioneer SD-533HD5 Part of Pioneer's regular TV line, the 53-inch SD-533HD5 ($3,499) lacks the glossy piano-black finish you'll find on the company's more expensive Elite series sets. But there's a lot about this HDTV monitor that makes it special. Measuring 243/4 inches deep, it isn't as shallow as the Toshiba, though it's still slim enough to fit snugly against a wall. Its looks are standard issue, with a line of control buttons located directly below the screen beside a small flip-up panel hiding an A/V input.

Comparing the 533HD5 feature for feature with a similar-size Elite set, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference. In addition to displaying 1080i-format HDTV programs, it offers a built-in line doubler with 2:3 pulldown, a 64-point convergence adjustment, and defeatable SVM for each of its fully adjustable picture presets. There's also three-level video noise-reduction and a enhanced black-level setting designed to extend the set's overall contrast. The rear panel has plentiful inputs, including two sets of wideband component-video jacks and a 15-pin D-sub connector for hooking up an HDTV tuner (it won't accept VGA, SVGA, or XGA signals from your computer, however).