Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sony HD100 Satellite HDTV Receiver

I think it is fair to say the Sony HD100 is the most anticipated product in the short history of consumer HDTV. While RCA was the first to market with their $699 DTC 100 DSS and terrestrial receiver, this wasn’t exactly embraced as the most friendly AV component. Sony continually promised that the HD100 was just around the corner, with all of the convenience and performance we expect from the Japanese giant. It was significantly more than a year after we first saw the RCA box in stores that the Sony HD100 was available to the buying public. I purchased one of the first units and held onto it until my HDTV system was completed six months later.

The Sony HD100 is both a DSS receiver and a terrestrial TV tuner. Of course, it receives HDTV signals from DirecTV, as well as many over-the-air channels. As you may have heard, digital TV reception is hit and miss even in cities with digital service. Much like a digital cell phone (as opposed to the good old analog phone), there is very little margin for error with an HDTV signal. You either get it or you don’t. In my case, I lucked out. I live atop the West Hollywood Hills in a corner unit condo that has an eastern exposure. My installation technicians, with very useful help from the Terk.com website to determine potential signal strength based on zip code, were able to install a Terk TV55 powered antenna, which I used expressly for terrestrial HDTV signals. I was able to pull down CBS, NBC, KTLA, ABC, FOX, PBS and others from transponders on Mt. Wilson. As we set up the unit, the Sony HD100 quickly was able to show us the signal strength out of the unit. We were pulling numbers in the high 80’s (on a scale of 1 to 100), which was as high as the Simply Home Entertainment crew had seen in L.A. to date.

For DirecTV HDTV and NTSC feeds, you need to connect to a dual LNB satellite dish. This is an elliptical dish with two coax connectors on it, as opposed to the round dishes that have only one. You need two runs of coax wire from the dish to your receiver, but connection is pretty easy. The hardest part of making the system work was cleverly and safely installing the Terk TV55 antenna and getting power to it. Another trick is programming an input on your video system to take an HDTV signal. This can be a whole new ballgame if you have a traditional CRT projector, which will likely require a visit from your video guru. For rear projection big screen, tube and plasma HDTV sets, it’s easiest to get your HDTV to look right on your screen. Select the correct input (component video), assign that one the HDTV feed, and you are in the game.

In my case, I had much more work to do during setup of my HD100, considering that I was an early convert to the D-ILA fixed pixel digital projection trend. I needed to assign an input and then try to adjust the screen geometry so that the picture fit properly. Using the Faroudja NR Series Scaler, made specifically for D-ILA projectors, I was able to get the HDTV picture to look correct on the screen. In theory, you can try the menus on your projector for this purpose, but they were awkward to use for me out of the gate. The screen geometry problem isn’t the fault of the HD100. You can blame the local channels, which consistently screw up the terrestrial feeds dependent on the source. HBO, channel 509 on DirecTV, is guilty of similar sins, with HDTV up-conversions that range from washed-out to spectacular. At this point, you have to accept a little of this annoyance when getting into HDTV. Remember, it is really early, but it is worth the work.

The next big issue to consider when setting up a Sony HD100 receiver is how you can switch from traditional NTSC video inputs (line doubled or not) and HDTV. The problem is, most AV preamps, including my Proceed AVP, don’t have HD-quality video inputs or switching. This is a gigantic problem, especially because modern systems are getting more and more component (that’s very high-quality red, green and blue, which are separated but packaged in one video cable) video sources. Here’s a quick list of potential component video sources: your HD receiver, the component video out of your progressive or non-progressive DVD player, your Dish Network HDTV DSS receiver, Playstation 2, Microsoft X-Box and/or an Escient DVD Jukebox. This comes to six component inputs if you go crazy on sources and insist on using component video. The maximum amount of component video switching capability you can currently find in a preamp is three or maybe four inputs. Many have no component inputs at all. One option is using an Extron switching box, which is the choice of most custom installers. Personally, I used the HDTV passthrough in my Faroudja scaler. Beware: not all component video inputs can pass an HDTV signal. Do your research when making an upgrade to your system. Another solution that is a little more cost effective than the $1,000 Extron switcher is a Key Digital switcher, which is priced closer to $500 but only switches two inputs into one output.

Once you have all of your component video sources connected, consider the ease of controlling these switches, along with the input on your video source. This was a $5,000 oversight in my case. With audio switching being handled by my Proceed AVP preamp, video switching being handled by my Faroudja and then another switch job needed at the projector to an HDTV1080I input, the cacophony of remotes has proven too much for me. I am investing in an RS232 control system from AMX to control my system via a hard-wired connection. There are simply too many hoops to jump through to make the system easy to use. If you have a more modern AV preamp, these problems are somewhat avoidable. In my case, I had to put my money where my mouth was. To date, I have yet to install the AMX system, but I look forward to getting it ready to go.

Okay, this is my last warning for this review. I must want to be clear – this issue is not about the Sony HD100, but rather the DirecTV specifications for receivers. By design, you cannot output both component and S-Video (or composite) video from the Sony HD100. You say, who cares? You do. How do you plan to feed your TiVo or ReplayTV with S-Video? You can’t, unless you physically unplug the HD100’s component connection, which sure as heck isn’t happening in my rack. My solution, based on the advice given by Simply Home Entertainment, was to buy a Sony SAT-T60 TiVo and NTSC satellite receiver specifically for my NTSC and DSS recording. I was never able to get the traditional NTSC picture geometry correct for DSS on my HDTV receiver anyway and I didn’t spend too much time worrying about it. Instead, I employed an SAT (in my case, for now, ReplayTV). For $260 plus TiVo service fees, the Sony SAT-T60 isn’t too expensive as necessary components go, especially when considering the issue of ease of use and recording your favorite TV shows.

The Picture
I know, I have been teasing you, haven’t I? How does the picture look? Depending on the source, it looks nothing short of spectacular. Actually, "spectacular" isn’t a strong enough word. It looks phenomenal, fantastic, awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, hopelessly amazing. The channels I found to provide the best picture were Mark Cuban’s HDNet sports network (channel 199 on DirecTV) and the terrestrial feed from PBS. The first hockey game in HDTV made me nearly weep. The actual TV direction wasn’t as together as the traditional broadcast, but who cares. The video was insanely resolute, smooth and clear. Even the mites on ice intermission show looked lifelike. As for PBS, I found myself one night suckered into a documentary about primates humping. Now you say that I’d watch anything hump on my TV and you’d be right. During one scene, these gorillas were going at it in a tree with a zoomed-in close-up (too close, if you ask me) of the action. In NTSC, the leaves on the trees swim in digital jitter and noise. In HDTV, it was crystal clear and as accurate as looking out your window. Don’t ask about the other details of the scene. I wasn’t watching that closely.

The colors available in HDTV from my HD100 are far more complex than you’ll ever get from NTSC, no matter what video processor you are using. The best example of this effect comes from one of the demo loops being shown on HDNet. An equestrian event in Indianapolis was shot in HDTV. The rider who wins the event wears the brightest orange jacket you have ever beheld. NTSC simply can’t reproduce that shade of orange, period. In HDTV through the HD100, the picture was bright, vibrant and stunning.

I found terrestrial feeds to be more suspect. PBS is a consistent winner, but there is a limit as to how much PBS any 27-year-old male can watch before he needs to be institutionalized. I was consistently disappointed by ABC’s 720P picture quality, despite raves from my HDTV owner friends. The screen geometry was way off and it never looked as good on my projector as images did from pre-recorded D5 digital videotape (played from master tapes on a $500,000 professional VCR), which companies like Vidikron had presented during trade shows in the past. CBS is the leader in HDTV content, with most of their shows upconverted to DTV feeds during primetime. I will say that you’ll pick the DTV version every time over NTSC, but it doesn’t even compare to native HDTV.

Why isn’t more content recorded and broadcast in HDTV? Cost. The cameras cost a fortune and that is only the start to the expense. Broadcast trucks, directors and so much more, all for basically no viewers. Monday Night Football lost its sponsorship for HDTV broadcast for just this reason. Does this mean that HDTV is dead in the water? Hell, no. The US government is still mandating a 2006 conversion to the digital format. Will it happen on time? It is unlikely, but with broadcast pioneers like Mark Cuban bringing mainstream sports like the NHL and National League Baseball League to HDTV, and CBS’ Mel Karmazin spending millions on making HDTV available to the masses early on, the future is looking good for HDTV.

The Downside
I have covered quite a few negatives for HDTV and its connections so far because I want you to be properly informed about the medium in its current state. I am sure you’ll be happy to know the real deal before you get ready to make the investment and commitment to HDTV. The Sony HD100 is a kick-ass unit that in some ways is limited more by design specifications than by oversights on Sony’s part. One way that the Sony comes up short is the fact that, unlike the Panasonic HDTV receiver, the HD100 cannot output HDTV signal to be recorded by the select few HDTV VCRs on the market. I traded the recording option off for better menu options and ease of use, especially when compared to the Panasonic.

HDTV is not plug and play yet. As previously noted, it is possible to hook it up on your own, but you’ll note I called in the best custom AV installers in Hollywood to hook up my system. If you buy an HDTV system now, you are clearly an early adopter, with all of the performance advantages as well as the headaches that go along with being the coolest guy on your block. I recommend that you have your satellite or custom AV installer help you with the installation of your system, so that you can get to the joys of HDTV even faster.

Imagine that your next-door neighbor has just taken delivery of his new BMW M5 that he is so proud to tell you that he paid "only $15,000 over sticker" for. But when he and his wife come over for dinner and a screening of The Sopranos in HDTV, HE will be the jealous one. HDTV is not a performance enhancement for video nerds. This is a knockdown, drag-out ass-kicker for your eyes. Is there a lot of work, expense and patience involved in making your HDTV system work the way you want it to work? Yes, very much so. However, the payoff is getting better and better by the week. If you are so inclined, now is the time to jump on the bandwagon and get going with HDTV. I am very glad I did, despite a few headaches.

There are far more HDTV broadcasts on both the air and DSS than there were a mere six months ago, which is resulting in increasing market share. In Q2 2001, over 300,000 HDTV sets were sold. Rear projection 47-inch HDTV sets are selling for as low as $1,700 in national chains. The number of HDTVs is sure to grow at a significant rate as the general public realizes how amazing the picture looks on HDTV for TV content they actually care about. As this happens, there will be more reasons for networks to offer HDTV feeds for their audience.

The Sony HD100, despite its lack of recording options, is to me the best-looking and easiest to use HDTV tuner on the market. Priced at $799, it isn’t all you’ll need to get rocking with HDTV, but it is a good start. Once you get dialed in, you will be hooked big time. Just don’t e-mail to tell me it is my fault you are watching PBS documentaries about gorillas.


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