Sound Advice Column: Independent, online retailers seem better at playing straight

Sound Advice
By Don Lindich

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Q: The salesperson at the big box store tells me I must purchase a Monster Series 1000 HDMI cable for $130 because it is the only cable that supports my TV’s 120 Hz and 25,000:1 contrast ratio. He also tells me I need a $300 Monster 1600 series surge protector as the bare minimum for my set. Do I really need these things?

-RICK BRESSO
Pittsburgh, PA

A: He is not speaking the truth. The 120 Hz and 25,000:1 contrast are features of the TV and not the signal being sent to it. Any good HDMI cable will work with your TV, and you can get one online from Monoprice.com for $4. Likewise, a good surge protector with enough insurance coverage can be had for less than $35. Use the $400 you save for something useful, not wasteful.

As of late I feel even better about recommending independent and online retailers as it seems there is no limit to the bad behavior of the big box stores. I recently came across the most shamelessly deceptive and inherently dishonest sales display I have ever seen, and some follow-up showed me it wasn’t limited to a single store in the chain. There were two identical HDTVs, one with a Blu-ray player, the other with a DVD player. There were signs under each, one saying “This is your new TV with a Blu-ray player,” the other saying “This is your new TV with a progressive-scan DVD player.” Both were playing the same movie and were synchronized.

The Blu-ray image looked spectacular, with tremendous detail, very high sharpness and perfect, natural yet beautiful color. The DVD image looked completely mangled, so outrageously bad I knew something was up. I looked on the back of the DVD player and it was connected with a composite cable, not the proper component cables. That means the “progressive scan” DVD player wasn’t working as progressive scan and was feeding the TV the poorest possible signal, completely hamstringing it. The TV’s display settings also were wrong, stretching and distorting the picture.

To give you a simple analogy, imagine going for a test drive in two different cars — a $60,000 car with a V-8 engine and a $15,000 car with a four-cylinder engine. To make sure you don’t like the inexpensive car, the salesman unplugs one of the spark plugs before you drive it. The DVD player’s picture would have been watchable if they had used the proper connections and picture settings. Certainly not Blu-ray quality, but it would not have looked as if the screen were smeared with a film of Vaseline.

Like the analogy above, the hamstringing is unnecessary when the product is better on its own. The video quality from Blu-ray is noticeably superior to even up-converted DVD, and the sound quality is equally superior. Blu-ray menus operate much better than DVD menus and many discs (especially Disney) have interactive features and games. It’s the best way to watch movies at home but selling it this way is just wrong.

What was being shown here was an unlivable DVD picture. I asked for a manager, and he admitted they were using the lowest quality connection, not allowing the DVD player to operate in progressive scan mode. I called him out for misleading customers and asked him for justification of such a deceptive, misleading sales display. His reply was, “A lot of our customers hook up their DVD players this way.”

Not that I believe his statements anyway (I don’t), but the biggest problem with this reasoning is if someone hooks up a Blu-ray player using the same composite video connection, he or she will get the same 480i signal and it will look just as bad as the DVD player. If people are hooking up progressive scan and up-converting DVD players with composite cables then his employees aren’t doing their jobs, first, by not providing good advice, and second, by not trying to sell customers expensive cables (and we know how they love to do that!).

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