Face Off: Big-Screen Smackdown

A four-way Face Off of 50-inch NTSC televisions.

In this age of high-definition/digital television, it might seem odd for us to be reviewing NTSC (aka analog) displays. After all, digital television (DTV) and its subgroup, high-definition television (HDTV), are the way of the future, destined to replace our analog NTSC system. However, even if you consider the current crop of digital programming adequate enough to warrant purchasing one of the newer, more-advanced ATSC (aka digital) displays, they're still fairly expensive. If you're looking to spend more than $3,000 on a display, we strongly suggest that you consider DTV or DTV-ready products. However, for those of us who didn't cash in our Internet stock options in time, there are some good deals to be had on big TVs, and, as usual, Home Theater is here to point you in the right direction.

This month, we've thrown four 50-inch analog rear-projection televisions in the ring so that you can see who comes out victorious and who gets smacked with a folding chair. These sets from Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, and Zenith don't have high-definition aspirations. They won't accept the higher scan rates of HDTV, progressive-scan DVDs, or your computer. Although they won't do pile drivers from the corner post, they will give you a big-screen image on a relatively shoestring budget. Priced at about $2,000 or less, these sets are considerably more affordable than their DTV-capable brethren, and they still include useful features like component inputs, dual RF inputs with an RF/cable-box loopthrough, and dual-tuner picture-in-picture.

The judging panel consisted of the usual suspects: audio editor Clint Walker, features editor Chris Lewis, and me. I acted as the monkey in the vertical black-and-white stripes, smacking the floor and counting to three. On the technical side, our reference Sony DVD changer was routed through an Extron composite video distribution amplifier that fed each TV an identical signal. Each display's picture controls (contrast, brightness, color, tint, sharpness, and color temperature) were adjusted to provide the most accurate image possible without requiring professional help. All picture enhancements, where available, were turned off, and light-output levels were matched within 1 foot-lambert. We played clips from several movies and images from test DVDs. Since none of the panelists expressed any concern over audio quality, we concentrated solely on picture performance, features, and ergonomics. With that, and a disappointing absence of bikini-clad females in high heels walking around with numbered cards over their heads, we were ready to rumble.