Utopia Theater: Homage to a 20-Year-Old TV

Can two decades with the same TV really cause separation anxiety?

NAD's legendary 20-inch MR20 video monitor cost $800 in 1984. That's approximately $1400 in today's dollars—enough to get you a 57-inch high-definition monitor, such as Toshiba's 57H83 RPTV, which a local retailer recently advertised for $1398.

Yet while it was expensive, and despite its minuscule (by today's standards) screen size, the NAD MR20 was not overpriced. Twenty years later, it remains one of the most innovative, audacious, and imaginative video products ever made. I got one in 1984, and its picture quality remains unrivaled by any current standard-definition television I've seen—but that's only part of the story.

Spending $800 on a television was hardly on my radar screen in 1984, but a chance encounter at that year's Consumer Electronics Show with Peter Tribeman, then head of NAD (and more recently with Atlantic Technology and Outlaw Audio), got me the set.

Tribeman had been a fan of my 1970s radio show and the commercials I'd written, produced, and voiced for Boston-area record-store chains New England Music City and Cheap Thrills, and audio retailers Atlantis Sound and K&L Sound. Though we'd never met, he spied the name on my badge and stopped me in a hallway. This consumer-electronics visionary was so proud of his new video baby, and had derived so much pleasure from my radio work, that he flat-out told me he was going to send me an MR20 as a gift. I was flattered. And because I wasn't yet writing about consumer electronics and didn't have to worry about conflicts of interest, I gratefully accepted.

A few weeks later, a heavy box containing the 75-pound television arrived. Compared to my 11-year-old, 15-inch Sony Trinitron, the NAD looked enormous. Beyond that, its picture was startlingly flat and square, thanks to a revolutionary new Toshiba picture tube. Flat and square are commonplace today; in 1984, they seemed miraculous.

The MR20 was more like a piece of high-end hi-fi gear than a mere TV. It had one of the then-new MTS stereo tuners and an LED-based digital channel display. It featured multiple audio/video inputs and outputs, including an AV input on the front panel. All of these were selectable via front-panel pushbuttons, the selected input identified by an LED. There were multiple cable and antenna inputs, and even a front-panel computer/game switch—in 1984.

Other controls—all of them hidden behind a swing-down door on the front panel—included the usual color and tint knobs, along with ones labeled Picture and Black Level instead of Brightness and Contrast. That was probably the first time professional monitor nomenclature had been used on a consumer set.

The MR20 was designed to provide good sound along with its picture—whether you connected speakers to its built-in stereo amplifier, or used its stereo audio outputs to listen through your stereo system, then an almost revolutionary idea. The MR20 had Bass, Treble, and Balance controls, and may have been the first set to incorporate electronic volume and tuning controls: Push the Up arrow to increase the volume, the Down arrow to lower it. Same with changing stations on the cable-ready tuner. These may sound like big nothings to younger readers, but 20 years ago, a TV set with video inputs for use with the new video cassette recorders, and stereo sound for recording to the new Beta Hi-Fi format, were major innovations.

But even without these features, the MR20 would have been amazing for its stunning audio/video performance alone. Back then, I didn't know a black level from a red push, but having seen calibrated video monitors in studios during the making of Animalypics and Tron, I knew how good NTSC TV could look. Now I had what appeared to be that level of performance at home—just in time to watch TV coverage of the 1984 Olympics, in Los Angeles. Hearing TV through the NAD was equally startling—and not just because it was now in stereo. NAD is, after all, a sound company; it had made sure to include good-sounding audio circuits along with the video. Familiar TV shows had never looked or sounded so good.

In addition to its considerable cost in dollars, there was another price to pay for a set packed with the MR20's innovation: unreliability. Early MR20s were plagued with problems; shortly after mine arrived, it went dark and required a chassis transplant. After that, the set served me flawlessly for a decade. Then the flyback transformer failed. I got a new one from NAD for around $100 and replaced it myself. An ISF Calibration soon after that made the picture better than ever.

Today, 20 years after I got it, the MR20's picture still amazes. Peter Tribeman was correct when he told me, in 1984, that nearly 100% of consumers had never seen or heard how good television could be, and that once they did, at least the well-heeled ones would spend extra to get it. But good as the MR20 was and still is—it continues to do yeoman service in the bedroom—time marches on, and I'll soon retire it in favor of something hi-def. Still, I'm just not sure I can bring myself to sell Peter Tribeman's pioneering set.