SRP: $60.00 (less $40 U.S. Govt.-provided coupon)
• Receives DTV standard ATSC
• Covers terrestrial channels 2-69
• Power req.: 120v, 60 Hz AC
• Power useage: 7w
• Dimensions: 8.5 x 1.8 x 6.4 inches
• Weight: 1.65 lbs.
• Antenna input: 75Ω ATSC
• RF output: 75Ω, Channel 3 or 4
• Video output: 1v 75Ω, negative sync, RCA jack
• Audio output: 2vrms (1 KHz 0 dB) 600Ω, RCA jack
• RF cable
• Composite video cable
• L/R stereo audio RCA cable
• Remote control + battery (AAA)
• Owner’s manual
LG Electronics USA Inc.
1000 Sylvan Ave.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632
The feds are now mailing out millions of $40 coupons (up to two per household) for discounts on the digital-to-analog TV converter boxes, and the boxes are finally appearing in retail stores. If you read Audiophile Audition regularly you know all about it and have probably already been to www.mydtv2009.gov and requested your coupons, even if you haven’t yet received them. (Or 1-888-388-2009) If not, get on it right away, because the improvements in reception on the analog TVs in your house will really surprise you! The whole effort, in case this is all new to you, is to offer the 91 million or so TV viewers receiving over-the-air analog TV via an antenna an inexpensive alternative to staring at a blank screen on February 17, 2009, when all analog transmitters will be switched off.
There are about 15 different converter boxes on the government’s list of eligible units available thus far. You can be sure that manufacturers are plenty interested in selling boxes to those 91 million households. Some manufacturers offer two different models. The leading DTV converter boxes seem to be LG/Zenith, Magnavox, Insignia, and Sanyo. Either LG or Sanyo are providing the tuners inside several of the boxes sold by other manufacturers. (Zenith, by the way, is now part of LG Electronics.) The Philco box is $85, but most of them are between $50 and $60. The handiest outlet for me was my local Radio Shack, and this one only offered the Zenith, so that’s what I installed and evaluated. There are some other higher-priced converter boxes with even more features than these, but you don’t need them for an analog display which can’t take full advantage of their capabilities.
While the Zenith has many positive features, the one serious negative I ran into right at the start was that it offers only the poorest-quality TV output options – RF and composite. If you use the RF 75Ω cable – as I have to use on an old TV I have in the garage because that’s its only input – you not only get a lousy picture but you won’t even have stereo. The composite three-wire choice – a yellow cable for video and red and white for stereo audio – is the barest minimum for decent picture and sound. The next level would be S-Video, which is offered by a few of the converter boxes, but not the Zenith. The three-wire component cabling would be best of all – if your analog TV has component inputs – but it doesn’t look like any of the boxes offer that.
You hook up your antenna to the From Antenna jack. Incidentally, if your antenna is an outdoor VHF-only model, you’re going to get very poor reception because nearly all of the DTV stations are in the UHF band, requiring much small elements. Therefore you may find an indoor UHF antenna works quite well. You might even be able to just retract a cheap rabbit ears all the way and get good reception with it.
You will run the patch cable between the converter box and your TV input. On my analog Toshiba 27” set I had to plug it into the Line 1 RCA jacks and use the buttons on the front of the set to select that input permanently.
The converter box goes on top of or under your TV set. The front indicator light is red in standby mode and blue in active mode. The only front controls are power on/off and two buttons for channel up or down. The supplied remote control replaces whatever remote you have with your analog TV.
When you first turn everything on, the converter box will automatically scan all the available channels, so you should have your antenna set up where you received best reception from the analog stations. I amazed when it memorized 22 channels, because on my big Samsung HDTV downstairs – with a better indoor antenna – it only finds about 10 channels.
The remote has all the normal controls, including the joystick buttons, mute, number buttons to select channels is you don’t want to use the up/down button, recall to return to the last-viewed channel, an aspect ratio button, one that brings up a Simple Guide onscreen, Display – which shows program information for the current channel, and Signal – which displays a signal strength meter on the screen so you can position your antenna in the best possible place for that particular channel.
There is a detailed Lock Menu system which uses a password to access and allows you to set up specific channels and ratings thru blocking schemes. There is an Auto Off feature, which will turn off the unit automatically in case no button is pressed for a specific time, and also a Sleep feature. The Channel Banner Display shows the number of the channel, the station call letters, the current time and the blocking information for a moment each time you tune in a different channel. The Program Information Display (Display button on remote) shows a long list of items, including: Program Title, Current Date, Start and End Time, Current Time, Channel, Station, Multilingual Icon (use with the SAP button), Aspect Radio Icon, Closed Caption Icon, Content Advisory Icon, Description of the program (if provided by the broadcaster). It is also possible to control the converter box from a universal remote.
A word about the aspect ratio button: Many older 4:3 analog TVs have no screen size adjustment. The only time you will see a letterboxed display of widescreen material on the set is when a station broadcasts it that way – and you have no control over DVDs. The converter box will now allow you to watch widescreen programming in letterbox mode if you wish. If you have, say, a 27-inch set and sit fairly close, you may find it more enjoyable to see a widescreen letterboxed image rather than a pan&scan image that fills the entire screen top to bottom. (You’ll never again have to watch a nose on the far left side of the screen having a conversation with another nose on the far right side of your screen…)
Pros & Cons
Not only did the Zenith box pick up more channels than ever expected, but the picture and audio quality were 100% better than I had been used to with the same rabbit ears feeding the same Toshiba 27-inch analog display. The composite connection didn’t seem to degrade the picture quality at all. (Another online reviewer who compared several of the boxes found the Zenith offered the best picture.) Only a couple of the 22 channels were dicey in the original antenna position, and moving the antenna closer to the window corrected that immediately. One soon discovers – if you haven’t tuned a DTV set before – that with digital reception things are either on or off, with very little in between. Either a channel comes in perfectly or you don’t receive it. The two channels that were at first iffy showed serious pixillation in the images before readjusting the antenna. It’s such a pleasure to be free of ghosting, snow and other image distortions of analog TV. I figure some people who might have been thinking of getting a second HDTV in their home might find their old analog second set is providing such improved reception that that’ll keep it a bit longer.
Other pros would be the ease of use of the converter box, the many special features, the DVD-quality video reception from your present analog set, and the Favorite Channels option which you can edit yourself on the remote. I wouldn’t use the on-screen Guide frequently, but some might be unhappy with it only displays two programs per channel at a time – our local PBS station, for example, has four digital channels. Once any channel is tuned in, reception is steady and secure with no interruptions. When I first got an HDTV display, it was an “HD-ready” display which required a separate outboard ATSC tuner. That tuner was a horror, and unfortunately the easy operation of this Zenith box is reminding me of it because the fact is it was also a Zenith.
I noticed online some complaints that most of the converter boxes – including the Zenith – lack an analog signal passthrough. In less than a year there won’t be any analog signal anymore (except for a few special low-power transmitters), and in the meantime why would you want to watch an often ghosty, distorted picture when you can get perfect reception of a digitally-transmitted image on your analog set? My two boxes were a good investment for the $40 I shelled out in addition to my two coupons. I feel comfortable recommending the Zenith DTT900 to all who haven’t picked up their converter boxes as yet.
– John Sunier