Holiday Guide 2009: Give the gift of top-of-the-line electronics 

Let me guess: You heard Target would be selling 32-inch flat-screen HDTVs for $250, and you've decided you're wading into Black Friday solo, with nothing but elbows and gift cards for back-up. Don't do it. Let a few handy tips serve as your companion, your guide, and if need be, your wingman.

There are three basic rules when buying electronics. First, trust your eyes and ears. If a Titans game comes off looking like the bedroom feed from Paranormal Activity, run. Don't think you'll get used to bad sound and picture quality, because you won't. Second, know what you're looking for—something that sounds basic, but isn't. Figure out which features you need, which ones you want, and which ones you can save for the day your Cash 4 ship comes in.

Finally, don't assume you must spend tons of money to get value. Obviously a top-of-the line 60-inch set with a host of extra features will look and sound better than a 30-inch tabletop model. But unless you just swept the CMAs or invested early in Google, it may be both out of your price range and unnecessary.

This season Blu-Ray DVD players and HD televisions are prime video sellers. Allow us to make some recommendations.

 Blu-Ray DVD Players

High-definition (a format that features ultra-clear video and 5.1 channel stereo sound) has been available in DVDs as well as televisions for a few years. In addition to the PlayStation 3, which comes packaged with Blu-Ray capability for $299, there are excellent Blu-Ray players available for $100 less that deliver stunning pictures and sound. These machines also play standard DVDs and conventional CDs with ease.

The Sony BDP-360 and Sharp BD-HP22 are both fine players available at reasonable prices (under $200) at such local establishments as Electronic Express and Best Buy. Both also have HDMI inputs that allow you to plug them directly into the HDMI slots on any television set, so you won't feel like a medieval knight trying to install an Xbox. One drawback to the Sony player is there's no eject button on the remote—that's right, you might actually have to leave the couch. (Consider it the poor man's Wii Fit.) Otherwise, their differences are negligible.

Other good brands include Panasonic, Pioneer, Sanyo, Samsung and JVC. And if you like to pinch pennies until they file a restraining order, lower-end brands such Funai and Insignia offer serviceable Blu-Ray players without frills. These machines are good for cost-conscious buyers, as long as you realize that you're not getting much beyond the privilege of having a Blu-Ray picture on your screen. 

 

High-Definition Players

Now that analog television has officially gone the way of stegosaurs and Samantha Who?, prices on HD sets are plummeting. You can buy them in either plasma or LCD models—the former uses noble gases to display the picture, the latter liquid crystals—and for a long time videophiles argued that plasma sets were superior to LCD for two major reasons. They were better at reproducing certain colors (especially black and brown), and because of a wider viewing angle they allowed viewers to see things clearly without always being directly centered in front of the set.

But LCDs have closed that gap due to refinements in their design, and now the difference in video quality is slim at best. Front-projection sets are rapidly disappearing because space-conscious families and consumers prefer sets they can either hang on walls or display within a tight framework.

Top-flight 32- to 37-inch sets are now available under $800. Expect to spend between $1,000 and $1,600 for 40-inch-plus (especially those that are full HD or 1080p). Personal choices include the Samsung UN-40B6000 ($1,999)—or if you feel your children really need luxuries like food and clothes this year, spend a bit less for the Toshiba Regza 40RV525U ($899) or the JVC LT-42P300 ($999).

For those with money to burn, the best picture and sound we've seen and heard on any TV is the Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR8 ($3,699). It reproduces the look of projected film without the visual stutter (or "judder") that can mar a transfer from film to video. The only drawback: the excuses you'll need to make up not to leave the house.

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