Sony Goes Flat

With Sony's recent announcement that it is discontinuing production of all rear projection sets, both LCD and SXRD, in favor of its flat panel LCD Bravia line, the video display landscape is becoming noticeably thinner. Yes, many major companies—Panasonic, Samsung, and Mitsubishi among them, continue to turn out rear projection televisions. But is the handwriting on the wall for this type of display?

It's possible. Sales of such sets, known as microdisplays (as opposed to rear projection CRTs, which are now virtually gone from the market), have been shrinking, as more and more buyers grab ever-cheaper flat panel LCDs and plasmas. The big-box television, as a main feature in the living or family room, is no longer popular. It probably never was, but consumers tolerated it when that was the only practical way for them to get the big-screen experience at home.

It's a shame, really, because what rear projection sets lack in space appeal they make up for in value. I've just completed a review of the Sony KDS-50A3000, which may be up as you read this. If not, it will be soon. While this SXRD rear projection set can't quite match the overall quality of the best flat panels I've checked out recently, it lists for less than half the price.

In fact, rear projection sets in general offer a lot of value if you don't demand hang-on-the-wall flatness. The Sony, for example, provides a level of performance that will cost you a lot more in a flat panel. And the value quotient increases with screen size (though never assume that review comments about a 50-inch set can be directly applied to its larger siblings—there are just too many variables involved).

Fortunately, that review won't be obsolete as soon as it’s posted. Dealers will continue to have stocks of the set, and Sony will continue to support it with service as needed. In fact, there might just be some real buys out there in the next few weeks, not only from Sony, but from other manufacturers who must compete with Sony's closeout prices as we approach the Super Bowl and March Madness.

I also suspect that those other manufacturers will continue to build and support rear projection sets, at least for the foreseeable future. Mitsubishi, for example, continues to invest heavily in R&D for rear projection laser displays, and appears serious about bringing them to market.

Sony says it will continue to support front projection using its SXRD and LCD technologies. I worry, however, that the economies of scale that allowed them to bring out high-value SXRD front projectors over the past couple of years may now be compromised by the closing of the rear projection assembly lines. Or if further R&D on SXRD can be justified for front projectors alone now that the bigger payoff in rear projection sets is gone. And if makers of DLP rear projection sets eventually drop out, how might that affect the DLP front projector market? It will be interesting to see how this all pans out.