During the Thanksgiving break, I helped my father purchase a very nice Sony 52″ 1080p LCD TV. I spent the day hooking up the gear and routing cables to his new set. Oh I also purchased a PS3 to get him on board with Blu-Ray. That’s right Sony, I hooked you up, where is my cut? Any way, after getting everything connected, several things became clear for me. You see, I always been an HD nut. From my two setups I have at my home now (and wanting to setup each bedroom as well), I like to stay on top of the technology and love the challenge of what should be bought and what should be avoided. Bringing my father up to speed to the greatness of HD made me realize that the general consumer out there is being gutted for no good reason at all. Choices on the type of gear should make sense, like which TV I should by. But when cable companies make different versions of the same cable, that is just plain greedy.
Let’s tackle the HD (High Definition) signal first. When I hooked everything up, my father’s response was when should he call his dish provider to get the local channels in HD. I understood why he asked. There is an ad on TV from Time Warner that shows a consumer asking in awe, “I get HDTV for free with digital cable?” In which the cable guy proudly states, “It is all in this box.” What part of paying for digital cable is free (plus renting the box, paying for standard cable, etc.)? What my dad did not realize was that all the local channels in his area are broadcasting digitally over the air, or OTA, for free now. As long as your HDTV has a digital tuner, which newer LCD/plasma/DLP TVs do, all you need is an antenna. In fact, OTA may give you a BETTER visual experience as typically, but not always, local broadcasters do not compress the digital signal which the cable and dish providers have to do to conserve bandwidth. OTA works so well in my home that we turned off our cable service. I know, I know, what I am telling you is only half of the story. No you cannot get ESPNHD, DiscoveryHD, HDNet, or any cableHD channel over the air. But once again it really comes down to your viewing habits. Do not get me wrong, I ALWAYS want more HD channels but damn if I am going to pay a ridiculous sum of money to watch only a third of the broadcasting schedule. I want movies in HD but should I have to pay for the SD (standard Definition) version of the same movie channel as well? Netflix now support Blu-Ray so there you have it. Back on topic, all OTA signals broadcast on sub-channels of the FCC issued license for a television station. So if your CBS is broadcasting on UHF channel 42, then most likely the digital version of that channel can be found on 42.1. Just think of the possibilities. CBS can use .1 for their HD stream, .2 for infomercials, .3 for local news and weather, etc. Very cool and all of this from a very simple and CHEAP antenna. Not bad but hold up, what about that antenna and cables and… Yeah I still a bit more to explain here, which brings me to the second part of this post, gear.
Monster Cable and others have gotten everyone fooled, including me. Yes I have some MC gear but not as much as I use to. Back in the day of analog signals (you know them as RCA cables), almost everything interferes with the path from source to presentation (that being your TV and speakers). It made sense to pay for high quality shielding and power filters. But as we transition to digital, the only static you hear now is all the marketing that revolves around high pricing for cables. I still have a power conditioner, that is ALWAYS a required piece of equipment, but I removed a lot of quad-shielded cabling in favor of HDMI. Why? Well, it is digital! Let me explain. An analog signal is like a string with two cans connected at each end. When someone yells from one end, the other side can hear it. In the most basic way, that is how analog works. But let’s say the wind causes the string to flutter around, or someone flicks the string. Now the voice of the first person is muddled and the noises from the wind and the flicking is over powering the conversation. That is what interference adds. How do you prevent interference? You do whatever you can to block it. So you feed the string in a hollow tube and make sure the string does not touch the inside walls of the tube and you add padding outside of the tube to absorb vibrations and you insulate the cans to improve your voice transmission, and… well you added a lot to protect that signal, but it does sound better. A bit dramatic I know but you get the point. Analog is very sensitive to it’s environment but digital is not. It is not a wave form but a transmission of 1s and 0s, yes you heard all this before. But here is the point, those ones and zeros are absolute, meaning that there is no slight changes to the signal. It is either yes or no. So analog waveform-type interference (radio transmission, power fluctuation, etc) has no affect on the digital signal. It is when that digital signal is converted back into analog when interference plays a role. If you can keep the signal in a digital form longer, the better off you are. So I went from component cables that were connected to my DVD player to my receiver to my projector to now HDMI from my PS3 to my receiver to my DLP projector. This keeps the path digital all the way vs. the DVD player converting from digital to analog and passing that along across the component cables. In fact the audio portion of the movie is also carried on that same HDMI cable. With HDMI, you truly have plug and play simplicity! So what’s the point? Now that we know we should go digital, do I need to spend a lot on a digital cable like HDMI? Of course not, it is digital. So all that quad-shielded, gold plated 6 meter cable Monster would like to sell you is way over-priced. In fact when I was building my primary theater, I went over to Fry’s and got a 25′ HDMI cable for $25. I do not think you cannot even get a 2 meter cable from Monster at that price. Performance? As long as the HDMI cable you purchased meets the specs set forth by the Fellowship, then performance will be the same across the board. How do I measure performance? Watching Blu-Ray on the DLP with no visual noise introduced outside of what the director intended and have multichannel audio on the same cable is the goal. So far for me, it has been an incredible experience. All I need now is a DLP projector capable of 1080p (my Optoma is a 720p projector). See, you will always find other ways to spend money that you were going to use on over-priced cables.
Cool so HDMI it is! Now for HDTV, what should I do about that antenna? I know I should spend a good chunk of change on that! I thought so at first too but then I remembered that the signal from OTA is, well DIGITAL. The nice thing about digital is even if the signal is weak, you will not get ghosting or static, it will be as sharp as if the signal was strong. What happens when the signal is lost? Same thing with satellite, the image pauses on the screen. So did I spend a lot on an antenna? I tried, man did I try but I realized after playing with several amplified versions, not one was better than the other. So why pay more? I ended up with a small 12″ non-amplified antenna in the attic which pulled in all the local digital channels. Not bad at all.
There is a pitfall with digital OTA though. Unlike analog broadcasts which can radiate from a tower like dropping a rock in a still pond, digital is very directional. So it is not uncommon to lock your digital tuner onto a channel you know is broadcasting and get nothing on the screen only to rotate your antenna 90 degrees and *poof* you get a signal. I personally do not have that problem but if you live on the edge of your local broadcasting range, you may run into that. Remember, digital does not roll off gently like analog, either you will get it or not, no snowy pictures.
So kiddies, what did we learn? OTA is the way to go for free HD. HDMI does not need to be as expensive as your receiver and Blu-Ray is awesome! OK that last one was not necessary, but it is true. Seriously though, you already spent a small fortune for all that cool gear, why should you do the same for the cables?
Below are a couple of links you might find handy:
Cables on the cheap (If you do not have a Fry’s near by, I heard these guys are good)
AVS Forum (the only place to go to talk to others about HD that is as freaky as you)
EngadgetHD (You want HD toys? Take a look at what is coming out for you to drool)