|Sony KW-34HD1 34-inch HDTV|
|Home Theater Flat Panel HDTVs CRT TVs|
|Written by Tim Duffy|
|Thursday, 01 March 2001|
The Sony KW-34HD1 sells for $6,999 (it was $8,999 when it was introduced). It utilizes Sony’s now famous WEGA flat screen picture tube. The image size is 34-inch diagonal, and the aspect ratio is the HD standard 16:9. The KW-34HD1 is a true HDTV set, as opposed to "HD compatible," which does not include an HD tuner. The Sony comes with an external HD tuner receiver that connects to the TV via a four-foot umbilical cord (also included). Sony now offers several "HD Compatible" TVs, but they are all in the older conventional 4:3 aspect ratio.
Let me state right off the bat that this is one seriously heavy TV. Don’t even attempt to move it without the assistance of at least two able-bodied friends. The TV includes an attractive stand with storage space for the HD tuner, as well as a TiVo, DSS or DVD player. Once I had it up on the stand, installation was pretty simple. The HD tuner connects to the TV via a four-foot umbilical that is included – the connector is not standard, and is not something I’ve ever seen before. This is actually an engineering flaw in my opinion, as it requires the HD tuner to be installed within four feet of the TV. If your electronics are in a rack across the room from your TV (like mine are), don’t think you can easily extend this cable. As far as I could tell, Sony does not offer a longer one, either. The back of the HD tuner has the umbilical cord connector, a Toslink digital output (more on this later) and terrestrial antenna input. "A what?!?" you ask. If you’re not up to speed on all the happenings in HD world, you may not realize that most HD broadcasts come over the airwaves on the old UHF frequencies. Therefore, you’ll need a UHF antenna if you hope to actually see most of the HD programming on the air. Depending on how far you live from the broadcast towers and how much interference there is in your area, you will most likely need an outdoor antenna. Remember the old (and gigantic) rooftop Winegard and Radio Shack antennas? They have found new life. Terk has recently introduced an excellent and decent-looking HD antenna called the HDTV60, which sells for $400. I tried this antenna for portions of my review. I also tried a Terk TV20 powered indoor antenna, as well as a Radio Shack powered indoor antenna.
The KW-34HD1 has a standard set of inputs as well, including three normal inputs with left and right audio, a composite video, and an S-Video input. One of these is found on the front of the set. There is a fourth input for DVD, with component video and left and right audio inputs. The fifth input is also a component video input, labeled "1080I Input." This input is designed for use with external HD sources, such as HD satellite or DVD (FYI – there is currently no such thing as HD DVD, except in prototype form).
Once I got everything running, operation of the unit was straightforward. The remote control unit offers an "input" button that scrolls through the five video inputs (Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, DVD and HD). Another button, labeled "ANT," toggles between the standard internal tuner and the HD internal tuner. In the setup menu, there is a setup page for the tuners. Once I had the TV running, I went into the setup menu and did a "DTV Quick Add," which causes the tuner to search for all of the digital television channels available to me. I was rather surprised to find that there were quite a few of them – about 14, actually. I also discovered that several channels had multiple locations. For example, in Los Angeles, CBS is broadcast on UHF Channel 60 (this actually appears on the set as Channel 60.1). Interestingly enough, the CBS DTV channel also came in on Channel 2 (actually, Channel 2.1) on the DTV tuner. ABC, NBC, and FOX, and KTLA also have multiple locations on the tuner.
Using the Terk HDTV60 outdoor antenna, I was able to receive all of the HD channels available in Los Angeles with relative ease. I also tried the two indoor antennas mentioned earlier with less success. They both performed poorly. I was able to get one or two stations at a time. Changing the channel required adjusting or reaming of the antenna, which wasn’t that easy. There were also many more "dropouts" with the indoor antennas. Because of the digital nature of these broadcasts, they don’t behave the same as standard television does. In the old days, a weak signal meant a snowy or ghosting picture. Now, a weak signal means no picture. It’s all or nothing with an HD signal. At times, when the signal weakens, there will be heavy pixelization for a moment.
HDTV video on this set looks absolutely remarkable. I don’t think any words can fully describe how vivid, colorful and lifelike the images look on your screen. A PBS station in the Los Angeles area has been broadcasting a 24-hour HD demo feed on Channel 80. There is a piece about a lighthouse on the East Coast, footage from a college football game, some nature videos, and a story about Philadelphia. The demo reel really shows off everything that HD can offer. Every second, the video was captivating, simply because the picture quality was so amazing. I watched the season premiere of CBS’s hit comedy "Everybody Loves Raymond," a one-hour special filmed in Italy. There was a lot of footage of the Barone family running through the streets of the town. These outdoor shots are where HD really stands out. The resolution is disgustingly good, while motion artifacts are nearly gone, unlike NTSC transmissions. My next HD experience was the 2001 Super Bowl. I had a group of friends over to see the game, and the entire group was floored with how good the picture looked, even with a boring game. If you haven’t seen HD, especially on a tube television, you owe yourself the experience. The only way you can understand how dramatic the picture is to see it yourself.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much HDTV out there yet, in terms of the broadcasts. CBS seems to have put the most effort forth in providing HD content. Virtually all of CBS’s primetime shows are broadcast in HD. Other networks have a few ("NYPD Blue" on ABC, for example), but the overall availability is pretty limited. The SciFi Channel’s "The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne" was actually shot in HDTV – the first drama series to use the process – but is not being telecast in the format. HBO is also broadcasting 24 hours in HD on channel 509 on DirecTV – this does, however, require an HD-compatible DirecTV receiver. Currently, the only available unit is the $699 RCA DTC-100. The RCA has only an RGBHV output on a 15-pin VGA connector, and the Sony TV only accepts component HD signals at the input. Sony is expected to begin shipping its much-anticipated $799 SAT-HD100 in March, 2001. Keep your fingers crossed – we’ve been waiting for this unit for well over a year, with seemingly endless delays. The arrival of this unit will give consumers terrestrial and satellite HD tuners (as well as standard definition cable and satellite tuners) in a single component. It should be a very exciting product and make HDTV easier to justify for many audio/video enthusiasts.
Because of the limited availability of HD material, most owners of this set will still be watching mostly standard-definition programming. In general, the set looks pretty amazing here as well. The KW-34HD1 is a 16:9 widescreen set, while most standard-definition programming is 4:3. Sony offers several viewing options here. There is a "zoom mode," which simply cuts off the top and bottom of the picture. There is no stretching of the image at all in this mode – it is the choice for letterbox videos. I also used it a lot for watching sporting events, where the most of the action is in the center of the screen. There is also the 4:3 mode. In this mode, the picture is seen at about the size of a 30-inch standard TV, and there are gray bars on each side of the picture. I’ll go so far as to say that I really hated this mode – it would have been acceptable if the bars were black, but the gray was very annoying, and the picture did seem awfully small. Two other modes manipulated the picture slightly, with different combinations of cropping the top and bottom of the picture and compressing the rest of the picture. I tended to favor the "Caption Mode," although people on screen still looked a bit chubby. The fifth picture mode is "wide zoom," which should be called "anamorphic."
In general, satellite broadcasts from DirecTV looked fantastic. Sony has developed a system called DRC (Digital Reality Creator), which is essentially an internal line doubler. It did an admirable job of eliminating scan lines. My complaint about DRC was that there tended to be color variations that were unnatural. Skin tones looked very red or pink at times on standard-definition signals. Sports came through beautifully, with no traces of motion artifacts.
DVDs looked phenomenal through the Sony 34HD1. The mastering quality of the discs became really evident. I’ve never seen such detail out of my standby "Fifth Element" DVD. Set to anamorphic, the picture quality was nearly comparable to HD. It still didn’t have the color or depth of HD, but the images were as clear as I’ve ever seen them. I recently received Sony’s new reference DVP-S9000ES DVD player, which features progressive outputs. I then discovered what I find to be this TV’s biggest flaw – it is NOT compatible with the progressive scan outputs of a DVD player. The HD input of the Sony will only accept signals at 1080I, and progressive DVD players output 480p. This seems crazy, because any TV that can scan as high as 1080I should have no problem scanning at 480p.
The Sony KW-34HD1 fills the "first kid on the block" category very well. It is very expensive, but performs incredibly well. Is it worth the $7,000? When it was introduced (at $8,000), it was absolutely worth it, if the cutting edge in video was the goal. Two years later, I think it has lost its value. The included HD tuner will most likely be useless when the SAT-HD100 is introduced. There are many sets of similar size available now for far less money. From what I’ve seen, the picture quality is easily comparable. The lack of compatibility with progressive scan DVD players is a big disappointment. To be honest, every direct view HD set that I have seen has looked amazing. Should you buy the Sony 34HD1? Maybe, if you are in the market for a stunning HD direct-view set. More importantly, this TV is so good that it should get you out on a Saturday afternoon to a good Sony dealer to see a direct view HDTV set.