EQUIPMENT DRAMATICALLY TRANSFORMS DVD EXPERIENCE

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The last time I bought a TV, it was the late '80s, and one of its
most appealing features was that it played audio in stereo. I was young
and didn't realize that the TV would soon lead to a new VCR, and then
to a new stereo receiver with enough inputs to coordinate everything.

I enjoyed being integrated, even if a lot of programming wasn't yet
being broadcast in stereo. I loved the sound when it was, and, even
when it wasn't; I reveled in knowing that my electronics ensemble was
cooler than yours. (Clearly, if stereo was my hot ticket, it's been a
long time since that was true.)

I recalled this last week as I plugged in Sony's five-disc SACD/
progressive-scan DVD combination, the $250 DVP-NC685V. SACD stands for
Super Audio CD, a richer audio format that, I'm told, is particularly
impressive in surround sound. (It sounds good in stereo, too.)

But when I hooked the DVD player to my aged TV, the picture looked
no different than the one my $89 JVC player offers. I was already
unimpressed with the five-disc capability, which seems superfluous for
video and wholly inadequate for audio: I don't even use my 200-disc
jukebox anymore, not when I can shuffle 5,000 songs in my computer.
What's the big deal? I asked the Sony rep.

You must not have a digital TV, she said; let me send you one. (For
the record, we return all the gear we review.) Even though I'd seen
plasma and LCD TVs in stores, I was unprepared for what happened when I
connected the 30-inch flat-screen KLV30XBR900 in my living room.

Yes, the video quality was great, and yes, the screen was a lot
bigger, even though the loaner was described as a 27-inch screen
because it had the movie-screen proportions of all TVs to come. The
movies I watched were clearly better in this format.

But when I popped in "Live at the Quick," a performance DVD by Bela
Fleck and the Flecktones, I was all agog: It seemed almost surreally
sharp, in image and sound, as if I were actually at the concert. I own
this disc and had previously watched it on my computer and on my JVC,
and had always liked but never loved it. But the equipment transformed
the experience: By the second time through, I wasn't just contemplating
the genius who would conceive of combining banjo with bassoon, English
horn, and Tuvan throat singing in sophisticated popular music. I was
wondering why album- watching has never caught on and if this
technology could change that.

My agoggery was complete when I switched over to TiVo, which is, of
course, a digital video recorder. But it can only replay what it's fed,
and mine has always been fed analog cable TV signals, which never
seemed to matter because I was viewing them on an analog TV. It wasn't
only that the digital TV showed the limitations of the video I've been
watching, it was the contrast with TiVo's (digitally generated) dialog
boxes: The crisp lettering over muddy pictures defined the word stark.

Until now, I'd been reluctant to spend thousands - the loaner is
listed on Sony's website at $6,000, though it's offered elsewhere for
$3,900 - for a television; it seems so disgustingly consumptive. That
reluctance lingers, but I know now it will happen. And it won't be just
the TV; my stereo phase taught me that changing just one piece of the
chain won't do it.

Do you know anyone who'd like to buy a stereo VCR, used but cheap?