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Sony HD200 HDTV Satellite Receiver Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 November 2003
ImageThe HDTV receiver remains one of the most curious categories in A/V components today. Without an HD receiver, you cannot make your system pull in the best-looking video from the skies, thus making the component a must for everyone who wants to make their HDTV “ready” systems into one that actually is actually HDTV “active.” The problems with this category of gear are inexplicably odd quirks and high prices. At $699, the HD200 is far from an add-on for the mainstream (non-videophile) consumer who at a minimum just dropped $1,700 for an HDTV-ready big screen. In comparison to NTSC satellite receivers, which can cost less than $100 (when not given free as some sort of promo from a satellite provider), the HD200 is relatively expensive. On the other hand, living life without HDTV, especially when you have a TV that can pull off the feat, is even more expensive in terms of missed opportunities to see unbelievable programming in increasing volumes.

The HD200 is a tuner designed to work with DirecTV satellite service, as well as terrestrial HDTV signals from a traditional TV antenna. It is not designed for and will not work with other satellite services, such as Dish Network, which require their own unique hardware. The HD200 is greatly improved from its predecessor, the Sony HD100, in a number of key ways. First off is the reduction of fan noise, which goes from obnoxious with the HD100 to inaudible with the HD200. The fan noise is so bad in the HD100, which I still have installed in my bedroom system, that on a quiet night, it can literally keep me up. The HD200 no longer suffers from such a fan noise problem, which by itself gives people a reason to upgrade.
Other advantages to the Sony HD200 include a DVI output. For those who have a plasma, a digital projector or a TV that can take the input, DVI is the way to go. It provides the best, most direct picture you can get. I recommend you use a high-quality cable for all of your video connections, including component and or DVI. Ultra Link makes an excellent and modestly-priced DVI cable, while Transparent makes a stunning entry-level component cable. If you have a high-performance video system priced over $3,000, budget at least 10 percent of your investment for high-quality cables. Video cables are not voodoo. They make a huge difference over the throw-in cables you find in a box for most mainstream AV components. Other details of the HD200 include a new, shinier and more modern look, and better video DACs. Installers told me that, without question, the performance of the HD200 is better picture-wise than the HD100, and I was able to confirm this with a brief side-by-side comparison.

Another flaw of the HD100 that is corrected on the HD200 is its ability to make an NTSC picture fit on the screen correctly. In my old system, I used my Sony SAT T60 (a TiVo and standard satellite receiver) for watching TV, while my HD100 was reserved exclusively for HDTV viewing. The reason for this was that the HD100 couldn’t make NTSC feeds fit my screen, which made the system more complicated to use, more expensive and suffers from a bit of compression from your TiVo. With the HD200, the problem has thankfully been solved, so you can use your TiVo (or other PVR) only for recorded shows and use your HD200 for live NTSC and HDTV shows with far better picture than before.

The interface of the unit has been updated a bit, but I haven’t found any significant flaws, other than the omission of the on-screen clock that used to adorn the HD100. I can’t believe I miss it, but I do. I guess I will actually have to program the clock on my Sony VCR now. The HD100 neatly pulls the correct time from the satellite. It is also important to note that since this reveiw was written, Sony has come out with an HD 300.

The Picture
I am not completely sure what Sony did under the hood on the HD200 vs. the HD100, but whatever it was, it was significant. While HDTV can look shockingly good no matter what receiver you use, the differences between the HD200 and the HD100 picture are worthy of note by any discerning video enthusiast making an upgrade. With the HD200, colors look more vivid, the image looks brighter and the depth of field looks deeper. For example, one of the demos on HDNet is a soccer game. With the HD200, you can see even tiny details such as the ball spinning and the movement in the players’ uniforms when they run. The green of the field looks more vivid on the HD200 than the HD100, and the colors of the players’ uniforms look outrageously good.

On a Discovery HD Theater nature program, I noted how incredible the contrast was between the vividly bright blues of the Southwestern sky and the rugged mountains. The edges were clear between the two strikingly different visual elements without signs of pixelization. Even for someone used to watching HDTV, this was impressive.

On HDNet demos of NHL hockey, even the non-savvy fan can follow the puck more easily because of the added resolution. Better blacks on the HD200 make the contrast between the boards and ice more dramatic. While there are a number of NHL games in HDTV, if the ailing league (under duress of a player lockout for next season in 2004-05) wanted to find a way to make the game better to watch on TV, I recommend they put HDTV broadcast facilities in each and every rink in the league. Not everyone can make it to a NHL game, but in HDTV, the game looks so much better that people could become fans in emerging hockey markets in large numbers.

In terms of reception, I could not make a direct comparison between the HD200 and the HD100, because I only watched the HD100 in my old condo, while the HD200 was viewed after I had moved. One element that remains the same is the fact that I cannot get Fox in HDTV from my antenna. I am not willing to blame this on the HD200, but I would really like to have it for NFL games this season. With the use of two signal amplifiers, my installer John Arria from Professional Satellite Services was able to get me a strong signal from my terrestrial antenna perched over 280 feet above my property. Unfortunately, terrestrial HDTV signals are like cell phone coverage – there there are no guarantees that you are going to pull in signal where you are. This is why some installers say digital cable is the way to go. From a convenience standpoint, they make a good argument, as digital cable has a number of good channels all ready to go without reception problems. I asked Nick Lucci, President of E-Home in Manhattan, what he thought on the topic and he mused about how useful the 17 channels of HDTV were for his affluent clients, but in a recent trip to Los Angeles, Lucci was able to see the DirecTV in an installation through an HD200 which he reported looked better than digital cable in terms of sheer video quality. In the end, the decision you make on which service you get has mostly to do with your location and how much programming is available to you over the air vs. on cable. Ultimately, you want as much HDTV as you can get your grimy hands on, whether it is from cable, satellite, terrestrial, or a little of all three.

I have noted many of the improvements made in the HD200 vs. the HD100, but one huge design flaw is the HD200’s inability to output component video and/or another version of video at the same time. If, for instance, you wanted to use your HD200 in a bedroom system like mine, you would run one component video output to your receiver which switches component video while running another feed to directly to your HDTV. The direct feed allows you to watch TV without any system on, so that you can put the sleep timer on.

Unfortunately, the HD200 doesn’t allow you to output two video feeds at once. In the case of my theater, the TV will go off with the sleep timer, but the audio blasts all night until I wake up and shut it off. Another problem with this functional problem is running an S-Video connection from your HD200 to a dedicated (non-Satellite receiver) TiVo unit. If you are running component out like most of us, you are out of luck trying to get an S-Video connection with your HD200.

A small flaw is the way the channels read on the faceplate of the HD200. The HD100 showed a pretty simple read-out on the little screen. The HD200 is pleasantly larger but, when on a terrestrial channel, the font looks weird and separates the channel from its “.1” suffix. Not the biggest deal, but I am not sure why they changed it for the HD200.

My retailer friend Tan at AV City in Santa Monica, California says he sells HD200s by the dozens and rarely can keep them in stock. The unit is a vast upgrade over the Sony HD100 and is leagues better than older units like the RCA DTC100 in terms of ease of use, reduced fan noise and overall picture quality.

If you have an HDTV system or plan to upgrade to one, you are going to need an HDTV tuner. The Sony HD200 is not a perfect solution, but it is the best the A/V industry has to offer to date. You can live with its quirks because its improved performance is your personal gateway to insanely good HDTV that beams through the skies near your home. Whether you point your dish or your antenna in search of HDTV signals, the Sony HD200 is your best choice for pulling in the programming you want to watch.

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