Are You Ready for Some HDTV? Page 4

In addition to its Full (16:9) display mode, the set offers a number of options for displaying standard 4:3 images, including Normal, NaturalWide, CinemaWide, and a zoom mode. CinemaWide strikes a good compromise between the other two wide modes, which tend to blow up or stretch images to an extreme degree. Like other widescreen TVs, the Pioneer's Normal 4:3 mode displays images at center screen with gray side panels. However, I found the panels distractingly bright - a problem I was able to fix through an adjustment in the set's hidden service menu (see "In the Lab" below).

The Pioneer's remote control is large, but the ample surface area is needed to hold all its control buttons. Although the keypad isn't backlit, many of the buttons glow in the dark. One thing I liked about the remote was the direct-input buttons, which let you switch sources with a single button push. The remote can also be set up to control other devices, including a DVD player, a VCR, a cable box, and a satellite/HDTV tuner.

Pioneer's menus are packed with options, making initial setup fairly lengthy and involved. You'll first need to adjust convergence for each of the five display modes, and with 64 adjustment points, that can take awhile. But when you finally kick back and survey the results of your efforts, it will all seem worth it.

Along with a User mode that you can customize for each of the TV's inputs, the Pioneer offers three picture presets: Standard, Reference Theater, and Game. User modes can include color-temperature adjustments and on/off selections for Pure Cinema 2:3 pulldown and SVM. Such a wide range of setup options is pretty rare, making this set appealing to inveterate tweakers who want every last detail perfect. Too bad Pioneer's poorly translated manual is so confusing.

With Citizen Kane, the Pioneer's shadow detail seemed less finely drawn than the Toshiba's, but it rendered intermediate gray tones accurately. And being able to shut off SVM meant there was no edge enhancement to detract from the filmlike presentation. When I used a standard interlaced DVD player and turned on the TV's Pure Cinema 2:3 pulldown processing, Pioneer's line doubler performed extremely well. The haystacks in the opening of Star Trek: Insurrection and the riot of diagonal lines and edges in the establishing shot that follows looked solid and noise-free.

The Pioneer's color rendition was also very good. A slight red push from its color decoder caused faces in The Fifth Element to look flushed, but this was remedied somewhat by backing off the color control a notch. In a scene from Antitrust where Milo sneaks into the NURV "nursery" to steal code, the Lego-block furniture retained its intense colors even though the scene is dimly lit.

When I switched back to the South Carolina/Arkansas game, the wide, stadium-embracing shots looked fantastic on the Pioneer's expansive screen. Instead of a blurred-out faceless mass, there was a degree of individuation to the thousands of fans filling the stadium - something you'd never see in a standard TV broadcast. Of the three sets, the Pioneer did the best job of conveying fine textures and gradations of color. I could easily make out subtle shades of brown and green in the field, as well as the shades of crimson on Holtz's face as he barked commands at his players.

Pioneer has scored a touchdown with the SD-533HD5. If you're a tweaky type who appreciates a wide variety of setup features for optimizing image quality, this is definitely the set for you. Now if they'd only get to work on that manual . . . .

Hitachi 53SWX10B At 55 3/4 inches high, Hitachi's 53SWX10B ($3,499) is the most imposing set of the bunch. Its cabinet also measures a few inches deeper than those of the other two sets, requiring a more serious commitment of living-room space. But not all aspects of the Hitachi scream, "I'm a huge technology statement!" The cabinet is a soft-toned gray, the front A/V input is hidden beneath a flip-up panel, and the few control buttons around its face are small and slightly recessed. Turn down the lights, and you'll hardly notice it's there.

The 53SWX10B displays 1080i-format HDTV programs and gives you the option of converting 720p broadcasts (the kind being broadcast by ABC's digital stations) to either 1080i or 540p format. Other features include Magic Focus automatic convergence, a built-in line doubler with 2:3 pulldown, black-level expansion, and the ability to turn off SVM.

Hitachi went hog wild with audio features on this set. It has a built-in Dolby Digital decoder, optical and coaxial digital inputs, and left, center, and right speakers each powered by a 12-watt amp. There's also a subwoofer output and a set of 12-watt speaker-level surround channel outputs, making the 53SWX10B a near-complete 5.1-channel audio system.