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The Living Room Gets Plugged In

November 30, 2000|JON HEALEY |

How geeky have our living rooms become?

Consider this: Much of the cool home-entertainment gear this season is derived from personal computers or the Internet. That includes portable digital music players, CD recorders and Internet-connected audio-video devices.

Or consider this: Some of the hottest new TV recorders run on Linux. That's a computer program, not a type of battery.

That doesn't mean the new stuff will crash as often as a PC or be as irritatingly sluggish as a Web site. It probably will be just as simple and dependable as your TV or tape player, although it might force you to reach more often for the owner's manual.

Still, the perverse downside here is that digital technologies are improving home-entertainment products far more rapidly than ever before. And as a consequence, unlike the $60 Walkman that gave you five happy years of service, the $500 digital jukebox you buy today may look like a piece of sludge when next year's models come out.

So in addition to figuring out what to buy, you've got to think about when to buy--a question that rarely came up in the days when TVs, stereos and their accouterments were all analog. It also pays to find products that can be updated simply and inexpensively to keep up with the changing tech currents.


MP3 technology first caught on with consumers as a way to store hundreds of songs on their computers and trade them over the Internet. Now it's well established as a great format for portable players, and it's starting to find its way into the living-room stereo.

So far, however, the living-room units command premium prices without delivering all that the new digital-music era has to offer. For example, the Audio ReQuest by ReQuest Multimedia is a digital jukebox that can hold more than 300 hours of near-CD-quality MP3s. It has many appealing features, but at $800, it ought to be able to play music streamed from the Internet. And it can't.

(a) Sensory Science rave:mp 2200

Price: $280

The latest portable MP3 players are pricey too, but at least they can be upgraded easily to work with emerging digital audio formats. One good bet is the Sensory Science rave:mp 2200. It has loads of memory--64 megabytes built in, with room for up to 64 MB more on a card--along with an FM tuner and voice recorder. Best of all, it's small and featherweight, so you can stuff it in your pocket. Go ahead, jog--there are no moving parts. But you might want to pick up a better pair of headphones, because some users complain that the ones included with the unit don't deliver a lot of bass.

(b) Philips CDR785

Price: $500

If you love making music compilations but don't like the sound quality of MP3 files or tape, the Philips CDR785 could be just the thing. It's a combination CD changer and recorder, with a three-disc CD carousel for playback and a one-disc tray for recording. The recording isn't as fast as you'd find on a computer's CD burner, and it can't handle MP3 files. But if your goal is to make custom discs for your car or boombox from your collection of CDs, LPs and tapes, this will get you there with less pain than the standard CD recorder, which can record from only one CD at a time.


The DVD player is one of the fastest-selling new products in consumer-electronics history, thanks to the significantly better picture and sound quality it delivers. Many of the movies on DVD also are accompanied by beguiling extras, such as audio commentaries by the director or leading actors.

The DVD players best equipped for the future, though, are the "progressive-scan" models. They can deliver not just a standard video feed but also a more richly detailed picture for digital TV sets. (Standard analog TVs have "interlaced" pictures that display half as much information per instant as a digital set's basic, progressively scanned picture.)

The prices of the progressive-scan units are falling too.

(c) Pioneer DV-434

Price: $350

As a starting point, check out the Pioneer DV-434, which sells for about $350. In addition to the usual array of DVD features, the DV-434 has a built-in decoder for DTS and Dolby Digital sound, as well as the smarts to resume playing DVDs or CDs from where you left off. It also can handle VCD and CD-R discs, but not the full alphabet soup of video and audio formats.

Granted, none of the affordable DVD players can record programs. For that you'll need to keep your VCR or buy a personal video recorder, one of the new breed of digital recorders that uses high-capacity computer discs instead of tapes.

The main drawback to the personal video recorders available today is that you can't record a program on one channel while you watch a show on a different channel. Microsoft, RCA and DirecTV promise to fix that problem with their feature-laden UltimateTV box, due sometime after the holidays.

(d) Philips DSR6000 or (e) Sony SAT-T60

Price: $400 each

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