Pros: Flat screen, enhanced 16:9 mode.
Cons: Somewhat expensive.
HDTV or not HDTV? That is the question. Whether ?tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous reception, or to stop struggling with the tin foil and rabbit ears and just pay for cable. For in this time of rapid technological change, what innovations may come must give us pause, fast-forward, and rewind.
HDTV or not HDTV? Answering that question makes this a tricky time to buy a television. If you simply want a box to watch the news and soap operas, the obvious strategy is to get the cheapest set that will do the job, from whichever brand you like or trust. But if you're aiming for a little more quality, if you are, let's say, buying a set which will serve as the monitor in a home-theater, you'll need to deal with the question of HDTV or not HDTV.
Since the prices of HD-ready TV's, especially the big-screen RPTV's, are taking a nose-dive, but are still over the upper limit of what even many home-theater enthusiasts will pay for a TV, the other main strategy is to buy the cheapest decent direct-view TV you can find right now, use that as your home-theater monitor for a couple of years, save your money, and then take the high-def RPTV plunge as soon as your rising savings and dropping HDTV prices meet, just like the cross-country railroad builders met at Promontory Point, Utah.
The worst option now, in my opinion, is to buy a pricey standard TV, like one of the more expensive Sony Wegas (pronounced vega). For example, the most expensive standard (non-HD) Wega, the KV-36FV27, lists for $1,900 and sells at the Sony Web site for $1,700. Once you're at this level, you're over the price of some other brands of HD-ready TV's and even in the ballpark of one of Sony's HD-ready direct-view sets, such as KV-32HS20 ($1,800 street):
The Sony KV-27FS13/17
Okay. Let's say you plan to take the second approach above, and go with a fairly inexpensive but decent NTSC-standard analog (non-HD) TV. There's a good candidate in this category, at the lower end of Sony's line, the KV-27FS13.
This review, by the way, will cover the KV-27FS17, because Epinions has an active listing of that TV, but not the FS13. The only difference between the two is that the FS17 has picture-in-picture (PIP), while the FS13 does not have this feature. You can find reviews here of the FS13, but they are listed under the title: "Sony 27 FD Trinitron Wega Television." From here on, I'll refer to the FS13, adding details on the FS17 where necessary.
The FS13 lists for $650, the FS17 for $750. Sony's own Web site sells the TV's for $550 and $650, respectively. The crazyeddie site has them for $472 and $544.
Not an HD-Ready TV
Because the Wega models have flat screens, some people think this means they are HD-ready. However, the 27FS13 and 27FS17 are not HD-ready. In fact, none of the KV-xxFSxx or KV-xxFVxx models are HD-ready. Only the following direct-view (standard tube) Sony's are HD-ready: KV-32HS20, KV-36HS20, KV-32XBR450, and KV-36XBR450.
A General Note on the Advantage of 32 Inches vs. 27 Inches
If you are considering the entry-level set in the Wega line for a home-theater monitor, take a look also at the entry-level 32-inch model in the line, the KV-32FS13. Since 27-inch screens make the actual image area, what's left after the letterbox bands, quite compact with some widescreen DVD's (those at the most extreme aspect ratio of 2.35:1), it's a good idea to consider a 32-inch set, especially if more than a couple of people will view the TV together. Unfortunately, you start to get up into that high price range with the 32FS13: $1,100 list, $900 at Sony Web site, $750 at crazyeddie.
As of yet, Epinions has no listing on the KV-32FS13, but they do have the KV-32FS12 (2000 model):
The Two Best Features of the 27FS13/17 -- Enhanced 16:9 and Flat-Screen Tube
Even though these entry-level Wega models are only NTSC-standard analog TV's (Sony's marketing tactics sometimes give consumers the impression that the KV-xxFSxx and KV-xxFVxx TV's are HD-ready), they have two features which make them worth choosing over other good-quality analog sets, such as the basic Toshiba and JVC models, which sell for a couple of hundred less:
1) the enhanced 16:9 mode and;
2) the flat-screen picture tube.
Enhanced 16:9 -- What It Is
Here's the deal on the enhanced 16:9 mode, also known as vertical compression and the anamorphic squeeze (not to be confused with the Cuban Slide). On most TV's when you display a widescreen image, such as the output from a 16:9 movie played on a DVD player, the TV has to use black letterbox bands above and below the image to compensate for the rectangular 16:9 shape on the almost-square screen of an NTSC-standard TV with a 4:3 aspect ratio (width to height).
If your 4:3 TV has 480 lines of horizontal resolution (the standard), the letterbox bands which are used to display a 16:9 widescreen image will eat up about 120 of those horizontal lines, leaving only 360 for the actual image. With the enhanced 16:9 mode, the 27FS17 creates those letterbox bands digitally, independent of the image from the DVD player, leaving all 480 horizontal lines for display in the squeezed-in image area in the vertical center of the TV screen. The result is a higher-resolution image than you'd have with a 4:3 TV that lacked the vertical compression mode.
There have been reports that the Wegas slightly oversqueeze the 16:9 DVD images in the enhanced 16:9 mode. Ideally, you should test the TV with a favorite widescreen anamorphic ("Made for Widescreen TV") disc to see if the image is acceptable. Here's a fix, but it requires using the service menu, which may void your warranty and permanently mess with your TV's settings:
Advantages of Flat-Screen Picture Tube
The second major feature, the flat-screen picture tube, is more of an aesthetic advantage, but it's an aesthetic advantage which many people find quite visually appealing. In terms of the actual image, the main improvement with a flat screen is that there's no geometric distortion of the image at the very corners of the screen.
Since most TV images have very little visual information in the extreme corners, this doesn't make much difference. Also, most good TV's that don't have flat screens still have very little curvature. On the less-expensive Sony Trinitron models (KV-xxSxx, KV-xxVxx), for example, there's curvature on the screen's horizontal dimension, while the vertical edges are straight.
The flat screen doesn't directly affect the color accuracy or sharpness of the picture, but some people find that the image has an increased feeling of depth and realism on a flat screen. The flat screen also reduces reflected glare, which is an advantage if you watch the set during the daytime near a window or at night with bright room illumination. Since most home-theater enthusiasts keep room lighting quite low when watching movies, the glare reduction should not be crucial. Overall, the 27FS17 has rich, eye-pleasing color and a fairly sharp picture. The set works well with movies on both tape and DVD.
Program Pallette Control Menu
Sony's Program Pallette system provides a handy set of preset modes (Standard, Movie, Sports). With each of these choices, all the picture parameters, such as contrast, brightness, and color, are at a fixed level. For example, the brightness is turned down for the Movie mode. While the factory presets are handy, you can change them, meaning you can set up one mode for DVD's, one for VHS tapes, one for standard broadcasts, etc.
Winning a Victory Over Velocity Modulation Scanning
One very cool feature on this set is that you can adjust, and turn off, the velocity modulation scanning (VMS) with three levels: off, low, and high. VMS is designed to increase the apparent sharpness of images. However, since it can produce ringing around certain objects, it is desirable to be able to turn it off. In fact, this feature is so unpopular that it's hard to figure out why any manufacturer includes it in the first place. Many very expensive RPTV's lack the capability of turning off VMS and people will go so far as to actually go into the set and cut the power lead wire on the CRT neck to the VMS circuit (this should generally be done by a qualified tech as you may encounter fatally-high voltages inside the TV housing).
Adjustable Color Temperature
Another cool picture control option, surprising at this price, is that you can adjust the color temperature. Color temperature refers to the tone of whites on the set. With higher color temperature, whites are more blue, and with lower color temperatures whites are more red (obviously this is not intuitive). The settings are cool, neutral, and warm. The TV also has auto white balance.
To improve picture quality, the TV has a 3-line digital comb filter. Keep in mind that a comb filter basically acts to sharpen the separation of the brightness (luminance, or Y) and color level (chrominance, or C) of the video signal. Since these elements are already separated in signals that come into the set via the S-Video or component inputs, the comb filter only acts on video that enters through the RF or composite inputs.
Audio Quality and Features
With 3.0-inch speakers, each fed by 7.5 watts of audio output power, the sound reproduction is quite sufficient for TV broadcasts. The set's MTX stereo decoder (standard feature on any stereo TV) features dbx noise reduction.
As is the case with many DVD players, the FS13 has a simulated surround-sound mode, called Matrix Surround Sound in this case. Because of the limits of two speakers in creating the illusion of sound coming from behind the listener's position, the Matrix Surround Sound has a limited effect on the overall audio impression. The TV has Secondary Auto Programming (SAP), but it lacks closed-caption on mute, a handy feature for deaf viewers.
If clicking up/down to get to your channel doesn't give you that same thrill anymore, the FS13 has tuning options galore, including: "express tuning," "auto channel programming" (with one command, the TV finds and programs into memory all available channels), "freeze memo" (freezes the on-screen image; handy to get an address or phone number from a broadcast), seven-channel "favorite preview," "speed surf," "channel fix," and, always handy, "jump channel."
As with most TV's these days, the basic, frequently-accessed functions are controlled from the remote while the other functions, which you would access less frequently, or "set and forget," are controlled via on-screen menus. The menus in the FS13 are straightforward. Just nice, big, clear block letters. No fancy typefaces or complex slide-show type effects.
You can set the menus for English, Spanish, or French, thus covering the popular languages of North America. There's a V-Chip feature, which will make a password required for adult-rated programming. The Channel Label feature lets you assign a name to each input. In fact, the names can be up to 40 characters. So, instead of just DVD or VCR as on the older Trinitrons, you can now have something like "My Super Duper Hi-Tech DVD Player" flash on screen.
There's a clock-timer (turns the set on automatically at a given time) and a sleep-timer (turns the set off automatically after 15, 30, 45, 60, or 90 minutes).
PIP (applies to FS17 only)
The picture-in-picture (PIP) feature lets you display a main broadcast source, and then a second broadcast source simultaneously. As this is two-tuner PIP, you do not need an auxiliary tuner, such as the tuner in a VCR, to employ the feature with two broadcast sources. The PIP feature will work with any two video sources, so, for example, as well as two broadcasts you could have a DVD and a VCR picture, or cable TV and DSS, on the screen together.
The silver RM-Y181 remote is about 8.0 inches high and 2.25 inches wide. Its shape and button layout is identical to almost all other Sony TV remotes. It's on the large size, making it easy to use and hard to lose, if a bit bulky to control with a single hand. The remote is luminous, meaning it will glow in the dark if previously left in light for a period of time. Other video gear, such as DVD players, VCR's, cable boxes, and satellite receivers can be controlled by this remote. A series of buttons along the top of the device let you switch it from TV-control mode to control another piece of video equipment.
The TV has the three popular types of video inputs which are, in order of ascending image quality, composite, S-Video, and component. The rear panel has two composite inputs, a single S-Video, and a single component (the component is actually a set of three jacks, taking the three cables, Y-Pb-Pr, used to carry a component-video connection). There are also two RF inputs, for your antenna or cable TV signal. There are L/R audio inputs to go with the corresponding video inputs. There are fixed/variable audio outputs, letting you feed the TV's audio to an A/V receiver.
There is a monitor output, which puts out a composite-video plus L/R audio feed.
The front panel has a set of A/V inputs (composite-video, audio L/R). This lets you quickly connect your camcorder or Super Nintendo. Yeah baby. Super Nintendo.
The FS13 is Energy Star compliant, meaning it burns a minimal amount of energy at a given level of picture brightness and/or audio volume. Sony backs up the TV with their usual 90 days on labor (skimpy), one year on parts, and two years on the picture tube (CRT). The TV tips the scales at 99 pounds. You might want to add to it the pricey but smart-looking SU-27FD4 cabinet/stand which weighs 50 pounds.
The Sony KV-27FS13 (and its near-identical brand mate, the 27FS17) will work well for somebody who seeks a basic NTSC-standard TV with very good picture quality and is willing to pay a bit extra to get a couple of extra features which make the set suitable for use in a mid-level home-theater configuration. At $550, the TV is one or two hundred dollars higher than some other manufacturers' entry-level 27-inch sets.
In exchange for those extra C-Notes, you get two significant features for a home-theater monitor:
1) enhanced 16:9 mode for a bit of image improvement when viewing anamorphic widescreen DVD's plus;
2) a flat-screen cathode-ray tube (CRT) for reduced glare and geometrically accurate picture edges.
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Buy standard cables from Recoton, Radio Shack, or RCA. A video or audio cable with RCA plugs on each end should be no more than $10, at the absolute maximum, and normally less. Avoid extended warranties (service plans) as they only truly make sense for somebody who literally could not afford to replace a piece of broken gear. If you must buy one, shop around and buy from a place that gives a fair value on service plans, such as jandr. Especially avoid buying a service plan from a superstore (Circuit City, Best Buy, etc.) at the time of purchase of your electronic product. Be careful about where you shop. See the "Caveat Emptor" section of my last few reviews for more details on the above points.
Alternatives to the KV-27FS13
One of the best alternatives to the 27FS13 is another Sony model, the KV-27S42, which is a basic-black classic Trinitron. Selling for about $400, the 27S42 has an almost-flat picture tube and very nice image quality. There's also a KV-32S42 model which goes for about $600. About the only drawback of the 27S42, as compared to some others I will list below, is that it lacks a component-video input. With a 27-inch screen, there's little visible difference between an S-Video and a component-video connection. The 27S42 has been on the market for about three years now and reflects Sony's typical approach of not messing with success:
Check out the sets in Toshiba's "A" line, including the 27A41 ($350 suggested retail price) or the 32A41 ($650 suggested retail price). Both of these 2002-model sets will be found at a substantial discount from their list prices and both feature very good picture quality and desirable features such as component-video input.
You can pick up one of the Toshibas for a few hundred bucks and it will easily supply your home-theater needs until HD-ready RPTV's drop under $1,000, or whatever the upper limit of your budget is. See this review for more information on a similar Toshiba model, the 27A40 (2001):
Here's information on another similar Toshiba, the 32A30 (also a 2001 model):
Another good candidate for a low-priced but quality TV is one of the entry-level JVC's, such as the AV-32D202:
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