Utopia Theater: What's Wrong With This Picture?

Out-of-the-box product failure is an unfortunate fact of life for both consumers and reviewers. Failure curves for most consumer-electronics products spike early and then drop sharply to residual levels (unless they're lemons) until late in their life expectancies when they once again begin to rise, though gradually this time.

Add the usual drop-kick handling during shipping and you can safely assume that if your new AV receiver, DVD player, or television is going to send up blue smoke signals, it will do so when you unpack it or shortly thereafter. If it happens to you, don't show your ignorance in the return process by bitching, "I know stuff breaks, but right out of the box?" Because the answer is, "yeah."

When something fails to power up or starts to sizzle and belch acrid smoke, you know it's defective. But put yourself in a reviewer's shoes when something functions properly but doesn't perform well. Take my shoes, for example: I recently reviewed the Hitachi 50VX915 LCD RPTV, which didn't look so hot, even after calibration. No performance parameter was so out of whack that I would characterize it as defective, so I chose not to contact the manufacturer.

I figured this was a representative sample of what a consumer might get out of the box—not as good as some, but maybe better than others. Sample-to-sample variation is another CE fact of life that's often not talked about: The less expensive a product, the greater the variability among samples, though in the digital age, that variability is thankfully narrowing somewhat.

Judging by what I see in people's homes, most consumers would think the picture I got from the Hitachi was just fine, and they would not report it as being defective—or even in need of adjustment, and that's before ISF calibration.

The risk reviewers run by contacting the manufacturer is that they will receive a tweaked sample that is not representative of what consumers will get. Or, in the case of the small high-performance audio companies I work with for Stereophile, a reviewer won't get another sample at all because the product is as intended and now they've let on that they don't like it!

Recently, I attended Hitachi's line show in New York (before anyone at Hitachi had seen my review), where Hitachi America's senior product manager Bill Whelan showed me the upcoming version of the set I'd reviewed. Many of the things I complained about had been improved: The picture was brighter, the contrast ratio was higher, and the color performance was better. Whelan mentioned other improvements to the new set that seemed to validate my decision to review the sample as delivered, yet when the review reached him, he told UAV editor Tom Norton he felt the set was "not right," and asked if he could supply another sample of the same model.

TJN did take a look at a second sample, and his findings were not that different from mine (though he didn't see as much of a green bias I did). As a result, I believe my sample was representative, and I made the correct decision to go ahead with my review. It wasn't "defective" per se, and it was a unit that a consumer might have ended up with. I like the folks at Hitachi America—I own one of their rear-projection CRT sets, and they've been very nice to me. But as I said in my last column, my job is to evaluate products without fear or favor, and I trust they understand that.

Speaking of CRT-based sets, the industry is determined to dumb them down and eventually phase them out, which is one reason I treasure the top-of-the-line Hitachi set I've got, with its wide-neck CRTs. I wouldn't trade the overall quality of the 65-inch picture it produces for that of any other technology I've seen. In fact, I'll gladly give up some resolution to get creamy, film-like images and deep, rich blacks. But with CRT-based RPTVs becoming the bottom feeders in the marketplace, Hitachi can no longer afford to put those wide-neck CRTs in their sets. At the line show, I was assured that the company will continue building CRT-based RPTVs as long as there's a market for them since, unlike most companies, Hitachi builds the guns and the lenses in-house.

One reason CRT-based sets are held in such low regard is ignorant mainstream writers. In a recent New York Times article about the growing market for factory-refurbished products, the author wrote, "The core refurb customer is someone who wants plasma living on a cathode-ray-tube budget." The clueless reader translates that to mean, "plasma is for the rich, CRT is for the poor." Who aspires to own what the poor are relegated to?

This reminds me of when the CD was introduced and equally clueless scribes wrote the equivalent of "CD living on an LP budget" as if the CD, simply by being new, was a better-sounding technology. It is the rich man today who was smart enough to hold on to his record collection!