TV Options Terrifying Me. Please Help.

Can anyone help a newbie home theatre shopper terrified of making an expensive mistake? While shopping today, I saw a Marantz (40") and Fujitsu flat panel plasma, HD compatible monitors looking quite good with an HD TV signal and a football game. I DIDN'T like the price tag ($15-20,000) or the cases, however, and found something about the screens a bit plasticky. Am I imagining it or is there something also funny and plasticky about the picture, despite the resolution? In addition, the salesman said that for ORDINARY, non HDTV AND DVD, a conventional tube would have a BETTER picture. He recommended Loewe highly, but none were in stock and the $5500, 38" widescreen HDTV is back ordered for at least several weeks. He therefore showed me a $4000, 34" widescreen Panasonic HDTV compatible set which looked quite amazing with some manufacturer's HD demonstration but at that point I was already a little tired and confused. What is really important from your videophile perspective that will give me some insurance against obsolescence? Is there any major benefit to the plasma screens other than size? If I buy a conventional tube, would you recommend a wide screen 16:9 format? Is the Loewe worth the wait or the premium in price to the Panasonic? Or Sony? And as impressive as HDTV demoes seem, will there be any more than about 3 things to watch any time soon? I would really appreciate any advice. Thank you.
William- I understand your confusion. I have recently purchased a Loewe 30" 16:9. My experience so far is that with some sources, it is extraordinary. But with a poor quality analog signal (cable, NSTC TV), its not very good at all. With digital satellite, it varies, some very good, others fair. with DVD, also some very good, others fair. I would guess that the 38" with a progressive scan DVD input or a high quality HDTV signal, would be amazing. You really should wait to see it. However, the right choice for you probably depends on your use/source. Keep us posted on your experience with your final choice.
I think that flat tv's have a long way to go. I really wanted a wide screen tv. I found that the price tag didnt justify the quality. What I did instead is go with a large rear projection. 60" Marantz. I found it was cheaper and that when watching widescreen DVD's the picture is a lot better then what was offered on the widescreen and the picture is as big. I dont know what your budget is but Farouja has a widescreen rear projection tv at a hefty $35,000. I have never seen it but their products are top notch.
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My suggestion is to go CRT if you are looking for maximum picture quality for sensible price (under$10K). If space is not a concern, but you DO want size, go rear projection. My personal opinion is that plasma shows lots of promise--but has a ways to go, and may see significant competition from DLP (potentially a BETTER choice for flat panel). The recurrent problem with flat panels is contrast, and ambient room light. If you have a completely dark room, they look quite nice (as do LCD screens, which are brighter, and becoming more available & popular). However, ANY ambient room light tends to wash out the picture to a degree which is unsettling, and these sets just don't have the black levels to overcome the problem. Additionally, you must face the reality that these sets roll off the line with a certain amount of inherent pixel-death, which simply CAN'T be fixed, can you cope with this? Also, how many qualified service techs are in your area to deal with the set if something goes wrong? Rear projection win the brightness battle hands down--especially the bigger sets (60+") which'll have bigger CRT's inside and can look great even in a room with significant ambient light. Obviously direct-view sets are not an issue in this regard, and look fantastic (I agree the Panasonic looks awesome, but have a look at the Sony XBR, too--it looks even better, if you ask me) but now you limit yourself to 36". If you DO decide to go the rear projection route, before settling on the Marantz, have a look at the Mitsubishi Diamond series (mind boggling colors & brightness, as well as--Mitsu says--the ability to deliver true 1080x1920 resolution, due to its 9' CRT's), and the Sony XBR set, whose detail is phenomenal. Good luck!
DChase, thank you. It seems you have really done your homework. I am increasingly inclined to go with direct view and think the Panasonic looks great, although tonight I saw the new Phillips and I much prefer the glossy black cabinet. Haven't seen the Loewe yet, but thinking I might just take the plunge with the Phillips. Any reason not to? Could there really be THAT much difference in pictures between 3 major manufacturers with virtually identical features, size and price?
Thanks and yes, I HAVE to do my homework (I'm the Director of Product Training for a large CE specialty retailer). Could there be "that much difference"? Surprisingly, yes... They all look fantastic, and so in that respect, it's hard to make a bad choice. However, there ARE differences in how they are constructed which are worth considering, if you don't mind doing a little technical homework. For example, all these sets are HDTV ready, which means they have a built in HDTV tuner, and a scanning frequency of at least 35.1kHz...however, these sets may have VERY different pixel counts. More pixels = more detail, and you might be surprised in the different numbers from set to set. Also, digital programming is available in several different variations and resolutions, and it would be helpful if you knew how each set handled signals NOT in their own native resolution (as well as progressive scan DVD material--if you have or plan to own a progressive scan DVD player). When this happens, the TV uses an onboard computer to convert that incoming signal to its own scanning frequency, and that conversion process (known most commonly as scaling, also line doubling) can have a significant effect on your picture quality. Here's one example of a noticable difference: I mentioned earlier that I recommend the Sony XBR? One reason is that they don't waste scan lines on letterboxes. Specifically, when playing an anamorphic DVD, the tv scans ONLY the area of the picture, and the full vertical resolution is condensed into that area (i.e the rastor is compressed)--which looks dynamite compared to other sets who will still scan the area of the black bars, even though there is no information there, in effect scanning less times in the actual picture area than does the Sony. This is something you are unlikely to discover at the retail store, unless a sharp salesperson has the knowledge & presence of mind explain/demonstrate to you. Additionally, there are differences in the basic construction and key parts of the tv & its electronic chassis. Differences in comb filters, shadow mask/aperture grille, overscan, power supplies, gray scale, etc... Sorry to pile up on this stuff, but you'd be surprised the differences from one set to another. However, you are looking at the cream of the crop in each manufacturer, and so it is somewhat analogous to comparing Mercedes to Lexus to BMW, etc. (hard to make a bad decision)--and each set will likely have the best that manufacturer has to offer in a TV. Best of luck in your quest, and remember, the best news is that they ALL look great--far better than any set you've owned previously, so no matter which way you go, you should be happy with your decision.
William- before you buy a sony, make sure you can live with the picture geometry. any set I ever saw, the image looks concave. It may be flat, but sure looks weird. BTW, with really good DVD, Loewe Planus is scary good. I would recommend 16:9, but check out the various format changing modes to determine which brand gives the largest, sharpest picture with the least disagreeable distortion.
Check out Mitsubishi's Diamond Series rear projection TV's
-not small,but good WAF, and the best picture for around
$ 4-5,000, especially on DVD's. Pioneer Pro series will run
you a few grand more than that, and is only a hair better.
The advantage is mainly on expanded TV images - less distortion.