RCA Scenium HDLP50W151

After a brief flirtation with LCoS, Thomson has chosen Texas Instruments' DLP for their high-end RCA Scenium line of rear-projection televisions. Even CRT fans must admit that DLP has some advantages. It usually produces a sharper, brighter image than any but the best, most expensive CRT designs. Big-screen DLP models are smaller and weigh less than their tube-based counterparts. And it's even possible to build DLP sets that are almost as shallow as plasmas. Thomson plans to introduce such thin DLP models this fall.

The 50-inch-diagonal Scenium HDLP50W151 isn't hang-on-the-wall flat, but a more conventional, DLP-based rear-projection design. Nevertheless, at just over 15 inches deep, it will take up a lot less real estate than even the smallest RP CRT. And while Thomson doesn't specify the Scenium's precise weight, our informal lift test suggests that it's most certainly less than 100 pounds.

Inside, Outside
The HDLP50W151 is loaded with features. The onboard tuner, for both standard NTSC and DTV programming, will receive signals from an over-the-air antenna and unscrambled cable stations. Scrambled cable stations, and satellite reception of any kind, still requires the appropriate set-top box.

Along with the usual features found in any television, the Scenium brings its own variations and additions. There's an unusually thorough program guide, Guide Plus+, which includes both analog and DTV stations. The partially illuminated remote can be programmed to operate five additional components in addition to the TV, and a learning feature lets the user program additional control functions for them. With an optional keyboard, a cable modem or DSL, and an Internet service provider, you can surf the Net on this set, thanks to the included Ethernet connection and onboard Web browser.

Two DTVLink (IEEE1394) jacks permit recording to an outboard hard-disk drive, D-VHS VCR, or other future digital recording device, as long as the device supports the 5C copy-protection standard.

The many video controls can be set independently for each input, and they provide the usual tweaks (Black Level, Contrast, Color, Tint, Sharpness). There are useful additional controls (Color Warmth, Film Mode, Horizontal and Vertical Position), and several that are best turned off (Auto Color, Edge Enhancement, Green Stretch, Contrast Expand).

The audio system is adequate for noncritical use and provides plenty of controls to play with, including a seven-band equalizer. A set of audio inputs lets you use the onboard speakers for the center channel—not something we recommend, but perhaps useful in a pinch.

Like all digital RCA DLP Scenium projectors, the HDLP50W151 uses a bulb that must be replaced periodically. Typically, such bulbs last about 2,000 hours and cost $200 - $400 to replace, at this time. However, an RCA spokesperson predicts that the price will drop dramatically by the replacement time.

As delivered, the Contrast control for all of the Scenium's video modes was set at 100%. This produced a peak output of 205 footlamberts (!)—bright enough to stun a moth at 10 paces. Even when I backed off to a 35% contrast setting and changed the two-position lamp control to Economy, it still measured 66fL.

Many will find the Scenium's bright picture great for Saturday-afternoon football—and it will certainly stand out on a showroom floor. But some will find it overbearing when watching a movie in subdued room lighting. And dropping the contrast low enough to compensate—say, much below 25%—produced a drab, flat, uninvolving image.

But set the Scenium's Contrast control at 35–50% and the other controls accordingly, and you'll get a bright, colorful, reasonably crisp picture. High-definition really demonstrated what this set can do, and a recent CBS broadcast of The Patriot, received via the set's onboard HD tuner, looked genuinely pristine.

But a number of other problems, both ergonomic and visual, kept limiting my enjoyment. The color temperature deviated from the standard at any user setting and could not be calibrated (see the "Calibration" sidebar). Blacks and shadow detail were visibly and measurably better than those on the Sony Grand Wega KF-50WE610 LCD RPTV, reviewed elsewhere in this issue. But it was still difficult to get a fully satisfactory level of shadow detail on the Scenium in dark scenes without subtly washing out the image.

The picture also had noticeable digital artifacts with a 480i source, particularly visible on test patterns—including serious moiré on the chrominance sweep. These disappeared when I switched to 480p from my Panasonic DVD-RP56 DVD player, which suggests problems with the set's onboard deinterlacer. The picture was also noticeably sharper with a 480p component input, and even better with DVI. But I also had more DVI compatibility problems than with many displays. A Monster DVI cable didn't work at all, and the image had a subtle but visible vertical jitter with the DVI output of my Marantz DVD-8400 DVD player.

A 480p input also locks the set into anamorphic mode; that is, a 4:3 or non-enhanced letterbox source at 480p can't be displayed without geometric distortion. And anamorphic images, even in the Scenium's proper aspect ratio setting, were stretched vertically by 3%. Intermittent rainbows were also quite visible—as we've often found to be the case with very bright, single-chip DLP designs.

The Scenium would not accept a 720p input—bizarre for a set with a native vertical resolution of 720. It would display 720p programming received by its onboard tuner, but not from an outside source into its component or DVI inputs.

Finally, the onscreen menus covered too much of the screen. While they can be set to be partially translucent, they still got in the way when I tried to judge the effects of changes in the video controls.

All in all, I have mixed feelings about the RCA Scenium HDLP50W151. In the best circumstances, it can produce a bright, colorful image; if you need a set for a brightly lit room, or maybe even a sun porch, this one should be on your list. The basic design appears sound, but it would be vastly more appealing with better blacks, a more film-friendly light output, and some way to readily calibrate the color temperature in the field.