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F. Birchman / MSNBC.com
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/8/2006 1:11:41 PM ET 2006-11-08T18:11:41

Whether you’ve spent thousands on a super-duper ultra-thin widescreen HDTV and Dolby surround sound home entertainment receiver, or only a few hundred bucks on an ordinary tube TV, making the right connections is key to enjoying the sharpest picture and clearest sound possible.

But in an unofficial inspection of my family and friends’ TVs and entertainment gear, nearly all were using the most obvious — and low quality — connection available: Those standard (and crappy) coax cables provided with their cable TV boxes and DVD or VHS players and recorders. Few realized those other ports around back of their TVs and players could offer a better quality picture and, for those with audio receivers, better sound, too.

And therein lies the problem: Coax cable. Sure, on older TVs and VCRs it was the only game in town. That round, threaded nub sticking out of the back of your TV, cable box, and video cassette recorder, all of them connected together with those thick, unwieldy cables that are hard to screw on and off when you’re changing gear or moving things to another room.

But for the last several years, most TVs and home entertainment gear (except for the cheapest of cheap) include at least a second, better video and sound connection ports, and many include several, each rising higher in the quality as you go up the ladder.

At the bottom rung is coax, as previously described. It carries both the video and audio signal, though optionally some of my friends knew to at least use the red and white left/right stereo outputs from their VCRs or cable boxes to those whose TVs had built-in stereo speakers, which makes movies sound a little better than if using only coax.

The next step up is composite video, which is that yellow “RCA” type jack around the backside of TVs and gear. Using this jack to connect your TV and VCR together, for instance, provides noticeably sharper results.

Composite is followed by S-Video, whose port is a round circle with a bunch of little pin holes, into which you plug an S-Video cable. This connection is available on DVD players and video game consoles alike, and is even sharper than composite, though the next rung up the ladder has increasingly become the best good connection around: Component video. To see if your TV or DVD player has it, look for a trio of ports that are red, blue and green in color, placed closely together. Component video is sometimes labeled RGB, HDTV or, more technically (and cryptically) labeled as YPbPr or YCbCr.

The bottom line is component video is the minimum standard connection required to display the hi-def signal from your HDTV cable or satellite box on your HDTV widescreen TV. Many non-HDTV sets and DVD players, video game consoles, and other gear have RGB component video inputs and outputs on them, and if your stuff has these ports available and you’re not currently using them, you’re definitely missing out on higher-quality visuals.

But the current day — and future — best-looking picture doesn’t stop there. Two additional connections, DVI and HDMI, have become increasingly more common — and will be absolutely necessary if you plan to watch hi-def DVD movies at the highest possible quality on either an HD-DVD or Bluray player. DVI — a wide port with lots of pinholes — appeared mainly on widescreen computer monitors and some HDTVs and DVD players, is giving way to the smaller, simpler HDMI connection and cable, which carries not only high-def video but also audio.

Anyone thinking about purchasing new hi-def gear — whether HDTV or player — should always check that there’s at least one HDMI port available. And that’s not all: Make sure new HDMI-equipped gear also bears the logo indicating it supports HDCP, the content protection protocol adopted by the entertainment media providers to prevent illegal copying of discs or HD-broadcast content. Without it, you’ll be locked out of the highest- definition video possible. That goes for both the upcoming PlayStation 3, which will be able to play Blu-ray movies, and the soon to be released Xbox 360 HD-DVD external player.

Worth mentioning is the familiar, PC-type VGA port found on computer monitors and some HDTVs. In addition to letting your plug in your computer or laptop, VGA can also be used with the Xbox 360, as I do with a Dell 21” monitor that acts as a widescreen for my PowerBook and, with the touch of a button, becomes my 360’s screen when the work is done and it’s time to play.

Which brings up a point that may be unfamiliar to anyone switching from their old crappy connections to the better ones described above: Get to know your input menu. Whether it’s a computer monitor, HDTV, cable box, TiVo, Xbox 360, or DVD player, the input — also known as settings — menu is where you tell the device what kind of video connection you’re using. Out of the box, my friend Frank’s Time Warner DVR cable box recognized that he’d connected it to his HDTV using the HDMI port and cable, but there was no sound. It wasn’t until he pulled up the cable box’s settings menu and changed the audio setting to HDMI that sound boomed out of the HDTV’s built-in stereo speakers. In general, pressing your TV remote’s input button (sometimes called source) switches from one input type to the next, while other remotes may have dedicated input buttons labeled HDTV, Video 1, DVD, S-Video.

Last but not least, is audio. Like the video connections described, there’s a ladder system for audio, but it contains only a few rungs. The most common, and worst connection remains coax, which carries both the video and audio signal. Next up, is stereo (usually red and white RCA plugs), which is an improvement. After that, there’s both composite audio and optical audio, which are found on HDTV cable and satellite receivers, DVD players, Sony’s Playstation 2, and an option with certain Creative Labs SoundBlaster cards popped inside PCs . If you’ve got either of these audio ports available to you, use them, and your ears will thank you.

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