Equipment Review No. 2  •   Sept. 2003

Zenith HDV420 Advanced Terrestrial HDTV Receiver SRP: $399
SPECS:
Fourth generation VSB technology
Receives the four standard DTV formats: 1080i, 720p, 480p & 480i
75 ohm ANT input
75 ohm ANT output to TV
75 ohm Attenuator provided for excessive level signals
Component, S-Video, and composite video outputs
Digital audio outputs for Dolby Digital, coaxial & optical
2 fixed-level audio output jacks
9-pin serial port for authorized service
Incl. remote control, component cable, video cable, audio cable
On-screen menus
Dimensions: 17 x3 x 12.8 inches
Weight: 7.7 lbs
_______________________________
Zenith International Corp.
2000 Millbrook Dr.
Lincolnshire, IL 60069
847-941-8172
www.zenith.com

Intro

Like most home theater fans, I own what they used to call an "HDTV-Ready" set. I understand there is a stricture against dealers using that term now since more reasonably-priced sets are becoming available that are truly HDTV-Ready - in other words you can just plug them in and begin seeing HDTV transmissions without requiring any other equipment. A set with a built-in digital tuner is now called an “Integrated HDTV,” while those without are known as “HDTV Monitors." High definition TVs without a hi-def tuner built in make sense because most people hook up with one of the two dish systems or a local cable service, and they either provide the set top box or you then purchase one compatible with them. However, now that more than 1,000 TV stations are broadcasting digitally and the majority of prime time network programming is produced in HDTV, there’s a growing interest in free over-the-air (OTA) HDTV. With more than 5 million HDTV monitors out there, I had expected there to be about as many reviews of set-top receivers both online and in print as of, say, DVD or CD players. Not so; thought here are about a dozen manufacturers of set top boxes now. Only a couple of those have terrestrial-only models (see below). So I wanted to help fill in the lack of information on this subject.

Zenith seemed a good choice since their Model HDV420 is one of the least expensive entries into HDTV, and Zenith developed the VSB transmission standard adopted by the FCC for DTV. Zenith also has HDTV set top boxes that are compatible with DirecTV, but this entry-level unit is not one of them. It is designed specifically for the high definition fans among the something like 80 million television sets that receive TV signals from old-fashioned terrestrial transmitters rather than satellite or cable. Many of the satellite set top boxes (which generally also include terrestrial reception) are purchased by people who only use the terrestrial antenna input anyway. Although the conversion to high definition TV has not been going nearly as smoothly or rapidly as first envisioned, it is happening now, and 99 percent viewers in the U.S. are now capable of receiving some HDTV OTA (Over The Air) telecasts. One article on the subject was titled, "Say Hello to an Old Friend: The TV Antenna." Portland, Oregon has a six stations offering HDTV now (and two more coming soon) and since I am located within sight of most of the transmitter towers I thought I would give the free HDTV route a try. I'm far too busy reviewing DVDs and music to warrant paying a monthly fee for the multiple HDTV and NTSC channels on dish or cable.

TV Antennas Sprouting Again

If you want to go the free terrestrial route, a proper antenna is a must. Some may already have a rooftop antenna of some sort. Digital reception has greater needs than NTSC reception; it is very unforgiving of multipath signals, and digital tunes overload more easily. That is why Zenith supplies an in-line 75-ohm attenuator with their receiver. I had already picked up an adjustable one at Radio Shack because my NTSC reception was terrible without it.

If the roof antenna is very old, perhaps hasn't been used in years, you may be better off starting afresh with one designed especially for HDTV. Most of the stations are broadcasting their digital signals in the UHF band, so you only need a smaller antenna if there is none in the VHF band in your area. The bow-tie design is a popular UHF antenna. There are also combination VHF/UHF yagi antennas. Unlike the dish systems, an antenna wants to be as at high an elevation as possible, so if your set is on the ground floor you may have a difficult time with an indoor antenna. There are a number of models available from sources such as Terk, and in some urban areas they may be just the thing. Arrange for possible return if they don't get you good reception. The prevailing idea is that DTV reception is either on or off with nothing in between. Not so; you can get poor DTV reception with hi-def ghosting and other artifacts. Many stations are only able (due to cost considerations) to transmit on their DTV channel at half power, thereby creating more reception problems.

I will relieve you of hearing all the details of my long hassle with purchase and mounting of my outdoor yagi antenna purchased at the Shack. I quickly discovered some of the exciting dangers of trying to mount an antenna on your chimney. Also the fact that just because you are in line of sight of the TV towers doesn't mean you will get perfect reception. Multipath is a major problem in urban areas, especially when there are hills around, although latest-generation receivers like the Zenith handle multipath very well. The PBS outlet in Portland operates at half power for their digital channel. For analog TV pointing the antenna at them made nearly all the other channels look terrible, and vice versa, even though they share a tower with a commercial station that then also looks terrible. With the digital tuner the situation was more equalized but the best overall reception was still with the antenna pointing at right angle to most of the towers. My bracketing arrangement was haphazard and the antenna was in danger of falling off the chimney. I had to finally hire an expensive professional antenna installer and when they were finished, guess where the antenna was pointed? Exactly the same place I had arrived at.

Setup and Operation

My RPTV set is the Pioneer Elite Pro 510HD 51-inch. It was perfectly adjusted for proper NTSC and DVD display, but although I could get a good picture at 480p, that's not high definition and 1080i transmissions were completely skewed, with convergence way off, a huge border on the right side of the screen and distortion throughout the image. It turns out that different convergence assemblies are used for standard display and for high-def and the one for high-def was faulty and had to be replaced. The Elite set does not display 720p - the format used by ABC network - and simply converts it to 1080I. Unfortunately, 720p is best displayed at that mode instead of upsampling to 1080i. In fact, proponents of that mode argue that not only is 720p more resistant to artifacts with fast-moving objects (such as sports telecasts) but that it also has other visual advantages over 1080i, as well as requiring less bandwidth.

The HDV420 was designed as a terrestrial HDTV receiver only; it doesn't contain a tuner for standard NTSC TV. Therefore in order to continue to feed your monitor standard TV signals as well as the DTV signals you will have to use a splitter on the 75 ohm line or a switch to feed the antenna signal to either the receiver or directly to the tuner in the TV. Of course the best way to connect the receiver to your set is using a high quality component cable from that output on the receiver to the same one on your TV. If your set lacks a component input you will have to use the next quality down connection, which is the S-Video. This connection, by the way, will also allow you to record 480i sources on a standard VCR. The Zenith has no DVI connections. The remote control is not accepting of off-angle commands and you must point very directly at the receiver to get it to work. Also it lacks the ability to change the display setting from the remote; you must do that manually on the unit's front panel.

The uncluttered front panel has a rectangular window in the center which displays the status indicators for the different output formats, and also indicates when the power is on by turning from the standby red to green. The rather insensitive sensor for the remote control is also within this window. Four vertical buttons to the immediate right control, in order left to right: whether the display format is 1080i, 720p, 480p or 480i, the aspect ratio of the picture, the banner with the station information onscreen, and the general onscreen menu display. Next are the four arrow buttons (up, down, left & right) arranged into a small circle to move around the various options in the menu. Lastly on the right are two more vertical buttons: first is a manual select button duplicating the one on the remote, and the second "exit" button allows clearing of any onscreen display at any time. I should also mention that on the rear of the receiver is a small slide switch that allows feeding out either the Y, Pb, Pr signals for the component 3-wire cable connection, or as an alternative the RGB output if that is what your monitor accepts.

In the setup procedure, the Zenith runs thru all the channels and finds those with digital telecasts, entering each one in the active channels list. (This feature is less effective if you have stations in different directions and a rotor on your antenna.) You can also check its automated list against the list of which stations in your area have digital transmissions. That list is available on the Zenith.com web site.

One of the confusing things about DTV is the various station designations for their digital channels. Portland's Channel 2 uses channel 43 for their digital transmissions, but on the Zenith screen display it comes in as Channel 2-1. There is also supposed to be a special display in the upper left hand corner of information about formats, sound options and so on which is provided by each station. None of the stations in Portland are using it.

The Setup function in the Zenith menu is where the "EZ Scan" is located. It also lets you edit each channel, and even attach its identifying logo to it. For example, the NBC peacock logo for the local NBC affiliate channel. An extensive list of icons is provided. There is also a simple signal strength meter that can be displayed for each station. When there is nothing being transmitted on the DTV channel, the screen will eventually show "No Signal." The menu also has options for setting audio languages, captions, and for locking out certain channels from juveniles.

Viewing HDTV

An inconsistent element among stations is the lack of a standard scanning format as well as standard screen aspect ratio. Some stations (such as PBS affiliates) do all their HDTV at 1080i widescreen. Others simply convert their NTSC materials to 480p, which improves transmission quality slightly but also is not hi-def. Others upscale all their programming to 1080I or 720p. Among the screen aspect ratios which can be selected from the remote are: Normal, Wide, Zoom, Letterbox, Cropped, Squeezed. Some telecasts show stretched images onscreen while others show people squeezed vertically. And occasionally when trying to select a more appropriate aspect ratio with the remote, a notice will come up on the screen saying "Full setting (for example) cannot be changed." Other times with some struggle you can achieve a balance between the monitor and the receiver settings for a proper visual display.

This problem with getting the correct ratio on the screen is not confined to the Zenith tuner, nor is it confined to DTV receivers in general. Often it is the stations who are careless about it - partly because they are stressed to the limit just getting the HDTV programming on the air let alone refining some of its nice features, and partly because there is such a tiny percentage of viewers for it thus far that it doesn't warrant a great deal of attention. There are occasional lapses in both picture and sound on more than one of the HDTV channels - just dropping out for a second, for example. There seems to be a very laid-back attitude at stations about putting out a professional-looking HDTV transmission. There are sometimes strange distorted images between program segments, dropouts, dead air, and loss of lip sync. This week a highly promoted HD concert broadcast that was taped here in Portland, carried nationally on PBS, and listed as HD in the station’s program guide, was not broadcast in HD because the operator on shift forgot to throw a switch to do so.

There is not yet enough high-def material for stations to be broadcasting actual HD all evening long, though virtually all CBS and ABC prime time programs are already in HD. (But plans are for the majority of all broadcast network prime time programming in the 2003-2004 season to be in high-def.) So presently they convert usually standard NTSC programming to 480 progressive and transmit that. For those viewers with only a terrestrial antenna for their NTSC reception this proves a terrific improvement, since even the best analog OTA reception has problems of ghosting and distortion on at least some of the channels received, even if you have a rotor. While the image quality doesn't match a good DVD, it is very satisfying to see your favorite programs without twice the actual number of characters on the screen! If you select 1080i while watching these 480p transmissions, you will get an upconverted picture. But that looks the worst of the various processes, so stick with the 480 setting when watching 480. It's unfortunate the Zenith remote doesn't allow controlling this from your seat. Another problem is getting the proper ratio at the 480i setting. No matter how your monitor is adjusted, selecting the Letterbox mode gives you a picture that is more like 2:1 ratio than the required 16:9 ratio - in other words, there are major borders both top and bottom of the picture.

Once you have the receiver set up, you are ready to access the available HDTV programming. Most newspapers (except for the program grid in USA Today) don't clue you in to this yet, and neither do most public TV station program guides. The latter may indicate the few HD programs each month, but they don't tell you that the schedule running on the separate HD channel can be entirely different from that in their program guide! A handy source is Zenith's own web site: www.zenith.com - after entering your street address it gives you all the up to date programming on the DTV channels in your area.

One of the first network programs to be announced for HDTV-casting was Jay Leno on NBC, and it provided one of the first at-home viewings of high-def for me via the 420 receiver. What a contrast A/B-ing between it and Letterman on CBS in standard low-def TV! Not that I spend any time late evenings with either chap, but I must say bully to Leno in HD. It is facial close-ups that you see the amazing detail on the screen. If the makeup department did a slap-dash job you certainly can see it clearly. If there's a couple scratches on Letterman's desk you would never notice them, but on Leno's desk it's a different matter. PBS doesn't do many actual HD programs but when they do they are in full widescreen 1080I and quite magnificent visually. The late evening pop music soundstage programs on PBS are also of high HD quality. Shows especially shot in HD for the networks - such as CSI and Law & Order - provide some of the best picture quality. They are superior to the network movie showings, which often don't look that much better than a top quality DVD.

One disappointment was to find that my impression that all HD sound was 5.1 Dolby was incorrect. Different shows use different sound formats; many are just plain stereo or Dolby matrix stereo. Production in 5.1 is more expensive, so the PBS concert program mentioned above, for example, was just plain stereo. Of course with the digital audio signal, the coax output of the Zenith, and the good Dolby Pro Logic II decoder in my Sunfire preamp, the generation of a decent surround soundfield can add a great deal to the telecasts even with that obsolescent format. Another disappointment was that not all HD telecasts are 16:9 widescreen.

Wrap Up

I will try spare readers most of the hassles I went thru to make HDTV a part of my living room. The Zenith was not the first receiver I attempted to review. The first one worked at 480 but gave a completely distorted image at 1080 and after a few days its on-screen display went off never to return. I sent it back. When the Zenith provided exactly the same picture at 1080 I was moved to suspect my Pioneer Elite monitor. It turns out it had from delivery a faulty convergence assembly for HD, which is separate from the convergence assembly for standard TV. It had to be ordered. When it came in and was installed a part in it immediately failed, causing a pulsating red shift on the left side of the screen. (Try to watch a black & white DVD with that, as I had to do.) So a second replacement assembly had to be ordered and re-installed.

For a few years there the big HDTV push hadn't brought us much high-def programming, and that held many people, including myself, from moving into it. Now there is quite a variety out there from most of the networks and several all-HD cable channels such as Discovery. Only recently have the cable systems begun to join the satellite systems in offering HDTV, and that should make a major difference in public acceptance. The FCC passed the requirement that by 2006 all larger-screen TV sets must contain tuners for HD, even if they just convert it to display on a NTSC TV. While some manufacturers are embracing this pro-consumer approach, which will drive down prices of HDTV receivers, others in the consumer electronics industry are screaming about this, pointing out the small percentage of viewers who are currently hooked up for OTA reception of local HDTV stations. But isn't the advantage for the barrage of advertising on commercial TV and radio that the programming is then free to us? So although it has so far proved an expensive proposition for broadcasters and often frustrating and expensive for those who want their HDTV, the programming should be available at no charge if wished to those who go to the trouble to receive it. Should all TV transmitters - both analog and digital - be simple turned off at the 2006 FCC deadline and everything transmitted via only cable and satellite?

If you have enough digital TV stations in your area that you can pick up properly (and some major markets have as many as a dozen) and want to try the low-cost approach to HDTV, I would recommend the Zenith terrestrial receiver in spite of its few flaws. Just be prepared that getting HD this way is not exactly a plug-and-play situation. (By the way, you can find the unit online for around $350 and even less as used/refurbished - but I wouldn't recommend that.)

- John Sunier


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