FORTUNE Small Business

A $9,000 bargain TV

If March Madness has you enviously eying high-end televisions, here's one to consider with unearthly signal-processing powers - and a price tag that would pay for a decent car.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Most folks don't get the tech-writer thing. Yes, you're obligated to return the gadgets you review, but honestly, you usually wouldn't want to keep them. Eventually, all that tech stuff just piles up, and the office begins to look like Best Buy (BBY, Fortune 500) at the tail end of a bad post-holiday sale.

But ethics and practicality faded after I spent a month testing the Runco PlasmaWall XP-50DHD TV (Suggested retail price: $8,995). No, that is not a typo: This TV runs NINE THOUSAND DOLLARS. And I must admit, even I - someone who keeps absolutely nothing I test - have found myself scheming about ways to hold on to this lovely, lovely TV. "Yes, honey, a 50-inch television set is worth the price of a used car ..."

The XP-50DHD, made by Beaverton, Ore.-based high-end TV maker Runco International, came out earlier this year. It represents a change for Runco, a longtime indie player that was bought last year by Planar Systems (PLNR). The company specializes in, if not the absolute best TVs in the world, probably the most expensive: The Runco 103-inch plasma will set you back at least $100,000. And that's just for the set. Add in the setup costs and the audio system you'll need - these sets do not include speakers - and you're talking real money. A mere $9K for a 50-inch set is actually sort of a bargain by Runco standards.

The XP-50DHD, done in a lovely buffed-out black metal, sports the now-standard 1,920 lines of horizontal resolution and 1,080 lines of vertical resolution. Cleverly, the unit also supports multiple aspect ratios. Want to watch your soaps in old-school 4x3 traditional TV format and then jump to a Blu-ray disc of Fantastic Four? For most sets, that would be a deal-breaker. For the XP-50, it's just a touch of a button.

The screen is also Imaging Science Foundation calibratable (more on that later), which means you can bring in a pro to tweak the set just like they do at the movies. I won't bore you with all the nerd stuff like contrast ratios and side-angle viewing and pixel counts, but trust me, it's all at the bleeding edge of state-of-the-art.

But the most important feature of the TV is not really the TV at all: It's the exterior signal controller, called the DHD. This powerful signal processor, roughly two feet by one foot by four inches, packs enough video processing oomph to give the XP 50 simply unearthly prowess in managing video. You can throw literally any signal at this baby - HDTV, your DVD collection, The Daily Show in standard def, even the output from your video camera - and XP 50 can process it, groom it and send it to the panel for optimum results. It's very impressive.

Equally nifty is that the XP 50 was pretty much plug-and-play. Along with my assistant Nick, I pieced the unit together in about 45 minutes using only the manuals. It ran remarkably cleanly for a unit meant to be custom-installed. Better yet, when Runco sent over a legitimate tuner - remember, the ISF thing - the richness and clarity of the image improved dramatically. The shadowy feature Michael Clayton, running off a Blu-ray disc, was a fascinating mix of dark, rich blacks, greens and grays. Like Rothko on a grumpy day. In many ways, it was more compelling on TV than the theatrical release I saw a few months back.

Now, like any Ferrari, this lux item has a few issues. All this fab processing tends to slow things down: Changing channels and inputs was a struggle. Channel surfing was all but impossible with the HDTV feed from Cablevision. ESPN, in particular, was very difficult to render cleanly.

Plus, all the flexibility can be flat-out confusing; one changes aspect ratios and inputs using the same button on the remote, which is very tough to master. After about my 50th experience of squishing the picture when I meant to change over to the Blu-ray player, I sort of wondered why I would spend $9,000 for the honor.

The total system, with audio, is far from simple. Very far. Just turning it all on means flipping on the panel, DHD controller, cable box, DVD player, Blu-ray player and audio receiver amps - and we haven't even touched all the remotes. Then, getting from one configuration to the next was a chore: HDMI 2 input on, DVD player set for auto, audio track enabled, pre-amp levels up ... unless you are a pro tinkerer like me, this could easily turn into a very pricey bore.

But, honestly, these are details. Basically the Runco is the Clos des Papes Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2005 of TVs: A fine vintage from a storied producer. Complex. Full bodied. And if you can swallow the cost, worth every single dollar.  To top of page

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