November 12, 2005

The Elephant in Your Living Room

Big-screen TV prices are down by 30% or more, but once you lug one home, the drama's just beginning. From surprise extra costs to new battles for the remote, home theaters are shaking up the house
November 12, 2005; Page P1

When Donna Lasher bought a 42-inch top-of-the-line high-definition TV for $5,500 last year, it seemed like a good price. Another $10,000 later, she's not so sure.

The giant screen took on a life of its own, says Ms. Lasher. On top of the new furniture she needed to hold the thing, she soon found herself shelling out for everything from a $2,000 sound system to $250 worth of cords to connect everything from the cable box to the DVD player. The 57-year-old manufacturing vice president in Kensington, Conn., says she loves her setup, but "it's like a snowball."

Between now and the end of the holidays, you're going to be hearing a lot about this being the year of the giant screen. And there's something to this. Prices are down 30-35% so far this year, an unprecedented drop. A 42-inch plasma HDTV screen, one of the more popular versions, can now be had for $2,000. The cost of bigger screens is dropping fast, too, especially for those willing to accept a less-well-known brand. At the Costco warehouse-store chain, a 50-inch Vizio brand plasma monitor is $2,699.

But as millions of Americans lug home these monsters, many are discovering there's more to the purchase than just the price tag in the store. For starters, there's all the extras you'll need for a fully loaded system. And just as family dynamics have changed with past technology invasions, the arrival of a TV that everyone wants a piece of is having its own impact. About 16 million households will have an HDTV set by year's end, up from 10 million last year, according to Forrester Research.

The extra costs can include a simple $200 bracket to hang the screen, plus as much as $675 to get someone to run those unsightly wires behind the wall. Some of the bigger models don't come with speakers at all or include fairly low-quality ones -- so people often spend an extra $500 to $1,000 for a home-theater audio system. And for the true high-definition picture, you'll pay as much as $15 a month to upgrade your cable service, and about $400 for a special high-definition digital recorder with TiVo so the show doesn't look stretched when you play it back.

Many recent converts say an even bigger side effect is the prime-time drama that unfolds at home. Family members who have been content to fan out to TV sets sprinkled throughout the house can wind up fighting over who gets to watch the giant screen, with Dad demanding the local news in high-definition while the kids refuse to watch their new "Star Wars: Episode III" DVD without surround sound. Others say that, to their surprise, it brings the family together. And then there are the squabbles over how the TV should be displayed -- hidden behind custom-built sliding doors or on display for visitors to ooh and aah over.

For Rob Horwood, it meant staying glued to his couch for hours every Sunday if he wanted to watch the Houston Texans play football in high-definition. That's because every time he got up to get a drink from the fridge or go to the bathroom, his two sons jumped in and started playing Links 2004 on their Xbox. "It's a fight," says the Wichita Falls, Texas, industrial engineer. Last month, he finally changed the rules. On Sundays, all videogame play is restricted to the tube TV. "They're like circling sharks," he says.

Fernando Manalo had a different solution. When he bought a new 50-inch rear-projection TV for his den a couple of years ago, his plan was to spend more time watching super-sharp DVDs on the couch. He even put the old tube TV in his son's bedroom so he could have it all to himself. Then the plan went awry. After months of scrambling for dibs on the high-definition screen, he gave in and bought another, 32-inch LCD for the kids and their videogames. "It's hard to take candy away from kids," says the 46-year-old IT manager in Paramus, N.J. (Flat-panel inch counts reflect the measurement of the screen's diagonal.)

It was only a few years ago that flat-screen TVs were rare. Then the audio components began to come down in price as makers started offering the "home theater in a box," with all five pieces (four speakers and a subwoofer) needed for surround sound in one package.

Some say the record drop in flat-panel TV prices is reminiscent of 1998, when a 50% drop in the price of DVD players helped them reach 3.5 million U.S. homes by the following year, according to Digital Entertainment Group, a trade association for the DVD industry. Now, the trend toward watching movies at home is only accelerating. This has Hollywood worried, with box-office receipts down 8% so far this year.

David Sonntag and his wife, Ally, used to go out a lot. But since he bought a 50-inch high-definition plasma TV and a brand-new surround-sound system earlier this year, he and Ally spend almost every weekend on the couch watching a DVD. "It's better than listening to the guy with the cellphone or the lady with the cold who's sneezing and coughing," says the 27-year-old public-relations manager in Raleigh, N.C., who recently watched "The Thomas Crown Affair" over a bottle of pinot grigio.

Others say it causes some strange changes in their viewing habits. For Barry Silver, it means watching bugs. When the 64-year-old physician brought home his TV, he was mostly planning to tune in for Philadelphia Eagles football games, with the high-definition picture able to show beads of sweat on players' foreheads. Then he says he started channel-surfing the relatively small lineup of high-definition broadcasts -- where he ran across a Discovery Channel series called "Insectia": "Praying mantises, spiders, you've never seen detail like this in your life."

Some analysts expect prices to drop at least this much again next Christmas -- bringing that $2,000 42-inch plasma screen in stores now down to $1,400. That's driven partly by the intense competition, but also by new factories with greater efficiencies. Panel makers can now work with glass substrates that are as large as a queen-sized bed. From one of those, they can make six or eight large panels, or 18 or more small panels.

Once you commit to going flat, your first consideration should be where the TV will go. For the living room, you're probably safe choosing a 40-inch screen or bigger, which is best viewed from a distance of 6 to 9 feet. Put one of those in your kitchen or bedroom, and it will look too big; for those rooms, consider a 36-inch or smaller set.

That goes a long way to answering the next question: What technology am I getting? Plasma, which uses electricity to light gas between two pieces of glass, has typically sold well in larger sizes because of its lower prices. LCD TVs generate pictures using light that is filtered by a material called liquid crystal, and are more widely sold in sizes under 40 inches. These sets are thinner and lighter than plasma, but are typically more expensive. Now, that's starting to change as LCD makers roll out bigger screens at more affordable prices. There's a third, cheaper type of big screen, called microdisplay, which is considered more durable but is too thick to hang on a wall.

If you're still having a hard time deciding between plasma and LCD, consider how much time you'll spend watching the TV in a bright room during the day versus in a darker room at night. Images on LCD screens are brighter than plasma, which makes them more visible in a sunlit room. The ability of plasma to show greater color contrast makes it better than LCD in a dark room.

For Rob Brownstein, 42 inches is more than enough. At $1,500, he says, his plasma screen was a bargain, especially considering it attracted two welcome guests: His teenage sons, who are so impressed with the new TV that they actually look forward to family movie night. Recently, they all sat down to watch "This is My Father," a James Caan drama about a man searching for his long-lost dad. Says the 58-year-old communications consultant, "They loved it."

No comments: