Gadget Showdown: Sharp Aquos vs. Sony Bravia

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If you are among the many people wondering when it might be time to buy a flat-panel LCD TV, I've got some good news. This year, LCDs are ready for prime time.

I tested this hypothesis by borrowing high-definition 32-inchers from two industry leaders, Sharp and Sony. A price check alone tells you just how competitive LCD sales will be this year. At CES 2006, Sharp introduced the Aquos LC-32D40U (not to be confused with 32D4U) with a list price of $1,800, but it's already appearing online in the $1,600 range. Sony's 32-inch S-Series Bravia — the KDL-32S2000 — lists for $1,900, but is also appearing online for around $1,600. I'll state now that my one-on-one review didn't cover the many other brands with reputable LCD sets. However, my initial testing made me pretty lazy: I didn't want to look any further than these two sweet HDTVs.

For true comparison, I connected both TVs to a Sony DVD player, using a special (and expensive) box. The DVD player upconverts the video signal from DVDs to high def. That doesn't mean that the videos themselves are HD, but they do look pretty good. I was able to view movies such as Batman Begins, House of Flying Daggers and The Incredibles on both screens at once. Later, I connected the TVs to my cable box to watch true high-definition signal — the ESPN HD broadcast of last Monday night's Phillies-Braves game. This might not be termed a scientific review, but rest assured I viewed with the scrutiny of someone who really likes watching TV, and someone who has been disappointed by many TV pictures.

In previous years, LCDs had a problem with something called response time; that is, the time it takes for the pixels on the screen to change. When the response time is greater than 10 milliseconds, your eyes can perceive the lag, and things can look streaky. Sometimes objects get an unintended halo. The Bravia has an 8ms response, and the Aquos has it beat with a 6ms response time. But I can tell you that, for both companies, the problem appears to have been eliminated. I did not notice any response time issues.

The other commonly discussed LCD shortcoming is its contrast, or black level. LCD TVs have a backlight, an actual bulb shining behind it, not the case with plasmas and regular old tube TVs. Because of this always-on bulb, parts of a scene that were supposed to be pitch black used to look more like a charcoal gray, or even a deep blue. Bad news for film-noir lovers, for sure. Both TVs had tolerably good black levels, but side by side, the Sharp was better, exhibiting visibly higher contrast than the Sony.

In Sony's defense, the 32S2000 has some great features. The display, including the stand, weights 5.5 lbs. less than Sharp's. Also, it has video input jacks that are accessible from behind, making it easier to mess with your inputs when you're using the stand. In truth, though I had to pick a winner, there's no loser here: you would be proud to own either of these sets. The real winner is LCD technology. It's the future, at least for now.