I am no agoraphobe. But I’m having trouble leaving my apartment, because when I do, I’m forced to stop staring at three high-definition flat-screen TV sets I arranged to borrow a week or so ago for this article. I feel the way those apes must have in 2001: A Space Odyssey: I’m being driven to jabbering ecstasy, my former docile acceptance of conventional TVs exploded by not one but three black-framed monoliths in my living room. Flat-screens display texture-rich, incandescently colorful visuals, of course. But these models, when hooked up to a high-def Blu-ray disc player, look even better than what you pay to see on the average cineplex screen. In a way, it’s a stacked comparison: You’re looking at images detailed enough to withstand being magnified to 50 feet wide (or more) in theaters, scaled down for viewing on an electronic device only about 50 inches wide. Of course they look super-detailed. But unfair or not, the psychological high-def edge over theater screens is irrefutable. As soon as you behold, for instance, Iron Man striding around Afghanistan with a million shiny reflective spots on his metallic skin, the jewel-like quality of the picture hits you like a Stark Industries missile. Obviously, the ongoing economic collapse has people thinking, No way am I shelling out for a top-notch flat-screen right now. But quality counts, and you’re not buying a single evening’s viewing pleasure — you’re buying a potential decade of eye-gasms.
Let’s first count the ways I love the two 46-inch-diagonal LCD sets. Their pictures are bright, hyper-sharp, and look good even in sun-drenched rooms. The Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR6 (46 inches diagonally, typical price: $2,200) uses some terrific picture-smoothing magic: Choose a function called Motion Enhancer from the slick menus, crank it to ”high,” and suddenly any film looks like a window onto reality. As the camera tracks through, say, a graveyard in Tim Burton’s puppet-animation opus The Nightmare Before Christmas, you can read every tombstone inscription and see every razor-thin stripe in Jack Skellington’s pin-striped suit. It’s as if you’re there, standing by the original miniature sets, instead of at home watching a film — a thrilling, addictive paradox.
Still, slick as this processing looks — and the Samsung LN46A650 (46 inches diagonally, typical price: $1,550) has a version of it too, called by a different jargony name — even the best LCD sets have trouble fully teasing out the details in dim or low-light footage (especially if you sit off to the side, which makes the picture wash out). Play a bright daytime-exterior movie scene on an LCD set, and it leaps off the screen. But both the Sony and the Samsung fall down noticeably on stuff like the cave-prison scenes in Iron Man, which come off muddy and murky — as if you’re watching a backlit cell-phone screen that’s inherently incapable of delineating true blackness.
So, how does the same sort of eye-squint material look on the Pioneer Elite Kuro Pro-111FD (50 inches diagonally, typical price: $4,500), a very expensive plasma set that has garnered some of the best reviews ever for a TV? No question — it’s a night-and-day difference. Forget the bad rap plasma still gets over early sets that had problems with fading phosphors and images that could linger like ghosts. The Kuro is miles ahead of that early technology, and by all accounts should prove robust and long-lived. If you watch movies in a darkened room hospitable to plasma’s optimal picture settings, the fine detail is unsurpassed. I torture-tested the Kuro with the molto chiaroscuro opening interior scenes of The Godfather, where Don Corleone receives wedding guests indoors, and saw things I never noticed before. I oohed and aahed at hitherto blurry wallpaper patterns and tuxedo fabrics, and purred at how sleek the fur looks on the cat the bemused Don keeps stroking. The Kuro’s inky dimensionality seems infinite. Yes, it’s the priciest item in this roundup. But there’s very good reason for that, and I now have the red, exhausted eyes to prove it. Sony and Samsung: A? Pioneer: A