We plasma owners know DVDs and Hi-Definition signals look awesome on our display. Yet itâ€™s not an HD Universe yet, so we are stuck watching a lot of NTSC on our displays as well. Naturally, then, we see a lot of people here asking how to maximize the performance of â€œregular cable or satellite channelsâ€ â€“ NTSC - on their plasma. In comparison to new, higher resolution signals like DVD and High Definition Television, poor old NTSC often disappoints on our shiny new display, looking softer and noisier. Letâ€™s face it, technically NTSC may be termed: Turd!
This thread is about applying some spit and polish to that turd, shining it up so that, at least occasionally, it can fool the eye weâ€™ve revealed gold (ok, maybe brass). Grab my hands, and fly with me: Letâ€™s get as happy about our standard cable or satellite channels as we can be!
I think anyone who has ideas or information about improving the NTSC viewing experience should chime in on this thread. Iâ€™ll go first. Iâ€™m not an AV expert; merely an educated consumer who has spent a while wrestling with the problem of NTSC in the ever expanding universe of Hi-Def/Wide screen displays. The following is meant to be as basic, non-technical and newbie-friendly as possible.
The more experienced may wish to skip large chunks, perhaps to the picture settings section.1. DEFITINION OF NTSC: NTSC
Stands for N
ommittee. NTSC has been the video standard in North America and other parts of the world for broadcasting video into the home and recording it on tape since about 1953. Basically, itâ€™s the image quality standard weâ€™ve all been watching on TV up until Hi-Definition and DVDs came along. Whether you have cable or satellite, analog or digital service, in North America any channel that isnâ€™t in Hi-Definition (HDTV) is regular old NTSC standard resolution.
Here is one web site with user-friendly technical explanations about NTSC vs the Digital TV formats, including High Definition: http://www.hdtvinfoport.com/high-def...elevision.html2. NTSC LOOKS FINE ON MY TUBE SET: WHY DOES IT LOOK SO BAD WHEN YOU SEE IT DISPLAYED ON TVs IN THE STORES? ESPECIALLY ON THE PLASMAS?Summary:
Stores screw up their signal feeds in many a creative way! Plasmas, especially, donâ€™t take well to the poor set-ups in many stores.Explanation:
There are several issues here. First, NTSC is an inherently inferior signal, resolution-wise, than HD or DVD. That is why stores use DVDs and Hi-Def signals on their displays, and why itâ€™s a shock when the salesman actually plays a crappy-looking regular TV channel on a big screen display. The large-sized wide screen displays people are now buying look great with DVDs/Hi-Def signals, but poor old NTSC was never meant to be viewed on such large screens, and it shows. NTSC on the big displays tends to look softer, more smeary and noisy than on the smaller direct-view tube sets. However, a good strong NTSC signal can still look quite sharp and impressive, even on a big screen. You just donâ€™t get good signals in stores very often, for the following reasons.
Typically an AV store will use a line distributor of some kind to split the cable signal, in order to reach many displays at once. This allows customers to see the same image on all the TVs in the store. However, if the splitter is not of high quality, or the connections are poorly maintained, and/or the signal has to travel long cable runs to the TVs, picking up interference or loosing bandwidth along the way, this can result in a deterioration of the image. Under these conditions, the TV signal will end up looking softer and nosier (sometimes showing distinct interference patterns) than if the display had been hooked directly to a cable or satellite box. NTSC, already a low quality signal, will be made to look even worse in this case. Since connections will be made with more care at your house, itâ€™s very likely the NTSC image will look better than any you see in the stores.
Secondly, stores tend to pay no head to proper picture settings. Typically the picture is left in a mode that is bright and attracts the customerâ€™s eye, but which really make an NTSC signal look itâ€™s ugliest. This includes contrast/brightness settings too high, sharpness controls cranked up, and often on wide screen displays the image is left on an inappropriate â€œstretchâ€ mode for the source, resulting in extra softening and artifacts in the picture. Bottom line: itâ€™s really hard to tell how NTSC will look on any display unless you can at least see it from a dedicated hook-up, which means the TV hooked directly to a cable/sat box â€“ no splitters, no long runs of cheap cable, and reasonable picture settings (see picture settings section of this post). If you are about to spend big bucks on a display, Iâ€™d insist on seeing it properly set-up and fed direct signals. (Or at least buy with a solid return policy).3. WHEN BAD IMAGE QUALITY IS THE FAULT OF THE DISPLAY, or â€œNOT ALL SCALERS ARE CREATED EQUALâ€:Summary:
Plasmas have a fixed, native pixel resolution, and all incoming signals must be converted (by a scaler) to fit this resolution. Some plasmas do this better than others, and you should be aware of how well your prospective plasma performs in this regard, as poor scaling will mean an extra-bad looking NTSC picture.Explanation:
People in the AV world often blame the low resolution of NTSC for how bad it can look on modern big screens. This is true only to a point. In fact, with a good, strong signal NTSC can still look fantastic on a plasma or other large screen display (if not to HD standards). The reason NTSC may look like crap on one digital display vs another is often due to the quality of the displayâ€™s internal scaler. In simple terms, a scaler refers to the electronic section of the display responsible for taking any signal it receives, and â€œscalingâ€ it to the fixed pixel resolution of the display. An Example: My Panasonic ED plasma has a pixel count of 854 x 480 pixels so all sources, whether of greater resolution (Hi-Def) or lesser resolution (NTSC), must be arranged by the scaler to fit those pixels. A displayâ€™s scaler is essentially â€œguessingâ€ at how to distribute the image among the pixels, based upon algorithms designed into its software. Good â€œguessingâ€ by the scaler results in an image that looks solid, sharp and smooth on a digital display. Poor â€œguessingâ€ makes for an inaccurate distribution of picture details among the pixels, resulting in a degraded picture: softer, smearier, more washed out, noisier and more pixilated (like a swarm of pixel activity in the image). Scaling of NTSC may be particularly tough for HD displays given their greater density of pixels over a standard view TV. In Hi-Def models the scaler has to do more guessing as it were, doubling up or digitally adding information to pad out the NTSC signal among all those pixels. That is one theory as to why NTSC often looks a bit smudgier on the HD plasmas vs some of the ED models â€“ thereâ€™s more processing going on. The worse the scaling the softer, more digital, more ugly and synthetic the image will look. (HD displays can
look very good with NTSC; just be aware of the issues Iâ€™ve pointed out when auditioning them).
There are other factors too: The display that is able to achieve deeper black levels typically has the better chance at making NTSC look good. One reason is the deeper blacks create more depth, richness and contrast in the image (this increased contrast also helps the apparent sharpness...sharpness being one of the first things to go when you enlarge NTSC signals). Good black levels can also help with picture noise. A display that can only achieve light black levels leaves picture noise illuminated, with nowhere to hide, making it harder to adjust out of the picture. In my experience, the poorer the black level performance of a display, the more apparent signal noise will be with NTSC channels. So if NTSC performance is a big factor for you, these are things to consider in choosing your display.
Also, each wide-screen display, plasmas included, give you different â€œzoomâ€ and â€œstretchâ€ options for making the square (4:3) NTSC images fit the rectangular (16:9) aspect ratio of your wide screen display. Some displays do this well, making the stretching of the image look fairly natural. Others make the NTSC image look unnaturally stretched, or riddled with artifacts. You will want to check out these various stretch modes before you buy your plasma, because when watching regular NTSC channels itâ€™s best to fill the full plasma screen to avoid burn-in (see plasma faq for burn-in).4. SIGNAL QULALITY: HOW GOOD IS THE SOURCE?Summary:
Poor NTSC images may be due to a poor signal feed to your TV. Also, some of the picture problems you see may be inherent in the signal itself, such as analog noise or digital compression for digital channels.Explanation:
Obviously the quality of NTSC on your display will also be affected by the strength and quality of your cable/satellite feed â€“ as well to some degree by the quality of your cable/satellite box. I have a digital cable box, which gives me both analog and digital channels (as well as Hi-Def channels). Luckily, my feed, while somewhat variable from day to day, is quite strong. I get a generally good to great NTSC image on my plasma, in terms of sharpness and low picture noise.
If you have a poor signal strength, I understand that one can often contact the cable/sat company to have a technician check the feed strength to your home, and amplify it if it is found to be substandard. Appealing for such help from the signal provider has helped fix some peopleâ€™s problems with regular cable picture quality.
One trap people often fall into is the â€œdigitalâ€ vs â€œanalogâ€ hype. One claim to fame for digital channels is true: that analog picture interference â€“ the type that causes that staticy, snowy washing out of the image â€“ is generally absent in a digital transition, making for a cleaner look. But a digital channel does not automatically equate to a better image. Digital channels can have their own set of distortions. In order to meet the need of the ever expanding number of digital channels (and, of course, mostly out of pure greed), and to fit all these channels into the limited bandwidth available to the cable/sat companies, digital signals are put through varying levels of digital compression. A high level of compression results in just those type of Mpeg artifacts you see when watching video on the web: blockiness, smear, pixelationâ€¦all manner of digital noise.
On my digital cable some channels look blocky, soft and smeary, sometimes with sparkly pixel distortion. While other channels with less compression look super sharp and cleanâ€¦almost like watching a good DVD. The differences in compression between channels is not very visible on a standard-sized tube set (which is why many owners of tube sets rave about how great and clean-looking all their digital channels look). But on the bigger displays like plasma the compression artifacts can be very visible and a real drag.5. HOOKING UP YOUR DISPLAY FOR BEST NTSC QUALITY:Summary:
Experiment with connection-options between your cable/sat box and your display. If you own a High-Definition cable or Satellite receiver you are probably running all the channels through the three-wire Component connection from your box to your display. If you find the NTSC image is soft, try connecting the cable/sat box to your plasma via its S-video or composite output (single-wire connections). You might get a sharper image.Explanation:
First, hereâ€™s a good site explaining the difference between the various connection options youâ€™ll have with your new display:http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-6463_7-...ml?legacy=cnet
NTSC sources â€“ regular TV channels from your cable/sat box â€“ may be connected to your plasma via composite or S-Video connections. Experiment with these connections to find which one produces a better NTSC image on your display. S-Video is generally the higher quality connector, and *should* look a bit better than a composite cable. But sometimes a display will have been designed with better filtering functions on one input vs another (such as comb filters, which reduce jagged line artifacts). Due to this the cheaper connection option occasionally looks better on some displays. (Some AV receivers, such as the one I own, will up convert composite and S-Video signals into Component â€“ three wire â€“ signals, allowing everything to be output to the component input of a displayâ€¦but thatâ€™s another subject).
Another way the picture quality of NTSC can be degraded is less obvious (and is loathed to be discussed by AV salesmen or cable providers). The issue arises for people using a Hi-Definition
cable or satellite receiver box. Hi-Def signals MUST pass along a component connection (three cables: Red/Green/Blue). Its part of the specification for Hi-Def signals. Unfortunately, NTSC signals are just the opposite: NTSC is specified to pass through a single-wire component or S-Video connection, but is NOT specified to pass through the three-wire Component connection. How does your receiver box deal with different signals that require different connections? After all, the receiver box wants to make life easier for you by sending all channels â€“ NTSC and Hi-Def â€“ through one set of connections (Component) to your display.
What your Hi-Def box does is digitally convert NTSC signals to a signal that can be sent out the three-wire Component connection of your box, along with the Hi-Def channels. Thatâ€™s why all your channels, regular and Hi-Def, are accessible on the same Component input.** BUTâ€¦.the problem is that in order to achieve this your NTSC signals have been put through that extra step of digital conversion, and thereâ€™s no free lunch. The conversion tends to soften the NTSC signalâ€¦making for a less sharp image than if the signal had been left unconverted. If you own an HD box and are really bothered by the softness of the NTSC channels, try hooking your cable box to your display via the S-Video connection (or composite). Youâ€™ll then see NTSC channels displayed with no extra conversion steps. In my experience, this always results in a sharper image (sometimes slight, sometimes quite a big step up in sharpness).
That was my solution. My cable box is connected to my plasma both from its component connation (for Hi-Def), and from its S-Video connection (for NTSC). This means that I have to switch inputs on my display when I switch between watching NTSC/Hi-Def. But, with the use of a universal remote, this simply means hitting the â€œinputâ€ button of my remote. No biggie. And I enjoy a clearer NTSC image for little extra effort.
**((Itâ€™s also why some displays may â€œlockâ€ aspect ratio and not be able to zoom in on the 4:3 NTSC image, because the converted NTSC â€œtricksâ€ the display that itâ€™s a high-def signal, and the display is designed to display Hi-Def signals â€œas isâ€ with no zoom modes available. Luckily, for just this problem, there are often zoom modes available from the receiver box itself to allow re-sizing of NTSC channels).