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Hot wired: the latest ways to listen to music, enjoy movies, and watch your favorite TV shows at home

Jayme S. Ganey

They're flashy, fun and cutting-edge. But if you don't know an MP3 from an LCD, high-tech electronics can also be ultraintimidating. In fact, technology is moving so quickly it can be hard to keep up. To help, we combed the electronics-store aisles to find buys that will bring you up to speed. (For more product reviews, visit consumerreports.org.)

$ = LOW-END $$ = MIDPRICE $$$ = HIGH-END

* All prices subject to change.

Liquid-Crystal Display (LCD) TVs

UPSIDE LCDs are known for their sleek design. They are thin, light and increasing in size to compete with plasma TVs. An LCD set can also double as a computer monitor.

DOWNSIDE Because the viewing angles on an LCD are not very broad, it can be hard to see from certain positions (lying down, sitting to the side, standing up). If you care more about the picture than the way the set looks, the traditional TV still proves a better bet.

PRODUCT PICKS $ Zenith L15V36, 15-inch, $500. High-definition model features four video inputs and is small enough to keep on your kitchen counter. $$ Philips 26PF9966, 26-in., $2,000. High-definition model has built-in Dolby surround sound and can double as a PC monitor. It also features multiple picture-in-picture modes. $$$ Sony WEGA KDL-32XBR950, 32-in., $5,500 (right). This high-definition model has a slot for viewing digital photos and movies and playing MP3's to accompany your video.

Home Theater in a Box

UPSIDE If you're an armchair movie junkie who insists on theater-quality sound, this option is for you. Most home theater systems have surround sound that's far superior to the built-in speakers found in some of the most expensive TVs. Many packages have at least six speakers, including a subwoofer. Another plus: These systems, which typically include a receiver, speaker set, wiring and a DVD player, are as hassle-free as it gets. Setup is simple, and every piece is compatible.

DOWNSIDE The integrated units allow you to hook up the essentials--TV, DVD player, speakers, camcorder and camera--and not much more. Because you can't mix and match components between different models, the ability to boost performance is limited.

PRODUCT PICKS $ Panasonic SC-HT820V, $400. The system has a combination VCR and DVD player. $$ Yamaha YHT450, $500. It supports Dolby 6.1 speakers but has no DVD player, which lowers the cost. $$$ Kenwood HTB-S715DV, $1,000 (left). It has a separate DVD player, and the speaker set includes three small rear speakers.

DVD Recorders

UPSIDE DVD recorders let you play and record DVDs and play CDs. You can also connect your digital music player to some models. Combination units record VHS tapes to DVD, so you can convert the camcorder or VHS tapes of your first-grade play to DVD without hooking up a separate VCR. Some models have a hard drive for hours and hours of movies, TV shows or home videos. Hard drives also equal higher recording quality.

DOWNSIDE If you don't want to do the format dance, where you have to figure out disc-to-recorder compatibility, pass on this gadget. The newer VCRs, which have searching options and allow you to add new segments, music or narration to your recordings, are easier to deal with and don't cost nearly as much.

PRODUCT PICKS $ Panasonic DMR-E55, $300. It has no hard drive, but you can record one show while you watch another. The model also has a feature that allows you to scan your discs before recording something, which prevents you from accidentally recording over a program. $$ JVC DR-MV1S, $600. The DVD-VHS combination unit can record two shows at once. It has no hard drive, but it captures up to eight hours of footage. $$$ Pioneer DVR-520H-S, $799 (above). The model has 80 gigabytes of hard-drive space for up to 102 hours of recording, which can be done from a timer-controlled cable or satellite boxes.

Digital-Music Docking Stations

UPSIDE If you already own an Apple iPod, these systems are the next logical step. They can charge up your unit, blast beats or control all the music in your house with one keypad.

DOWNSIDE Although these units can be compatible with other players, the investment only really makes sense if you own an iPod.

PRODUCT PICKS $ JBL On Stage, $160. A stereo mini jack connection allows you to hook up to CD players and computers. $$ Bose SoundDock, $300 (above). Just plug in, pop in the iPod, and control your music with the remote. No wires are necessary. $$$ Sonance iPort, $598. It includes wall plate and connecting wires (keypad and installation not included). This device connects to your home audio system to play nonstop music.

Flat-Screen Plasma TVs

UPSIDE Known for their large size, high brightness and contrast, flat-screen plasma televisions are the coolest-looking sets yet. The thin style and huge screen (up to 65 inches) will make you feel as if you're in your own movie theater.

DOWNSIDE Kinks in the technology include the burn-in factor: With plasmas, images such as tickers, which run along the bottom of the TV, can literally, overtime, be permanently burned onto the screen even after you've changed the channel. Plasma screens are also fragile and can be pricey to repair if broken. Installation and a sound system (some plasmas don't have built-in speakers) will cost you extra dollars.

PRODUCT PICKS $ Philips 42PF9956, 42-in., $4,000. This model with high-definition capability has built-in Dolby surround sound. $$ Toshiba 42HP84, 42-in., $4,500. It features a sports mode that enhances the detail, color and brightness of action-packed programs and a movie mode for theaterlike quality. The TV also has eight video inputs for those who like to have plenty of options. $$$ Panasonic TH-42PX25U/R 42-in., $5,500. The high-definition model comes with speakers and PC slots that let you view your digital photos on the big screen.

Gaming Consoles

UPSIDE More than mere playthings, these consoles can also serve as part of your home-entertainment system. Besides video games, you can play DVD movies and songs from your CD collection.

DOWNSIDE If you cringe at the thought of operating your home entertainment by pressing odd buttons on a game controller, stick with the standard DVD player.

PRODUCT PICKS $ Microsoft Xbox, $150, one controller (left). A built-in hard drive allows you to save games and record songs from CDs that you can play while you play. $ Sony PlayStation 2, $150, with one controller. It plays DVDs and video games from the current and previous (PS one) model. A portable system is coming later this year, for on-the-go entertainment.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Essence Communications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group





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