Rich Warren: A stereo quirk on some stations with 'legacy' TV

Pop stars "twerk;" technology quirks. Here's a quirky question:

"I have two televisions, one with a digital converter box, the other without.

"About six weeks ago, by accident, I discovered that three major stations — WCIA, WICD, and WGN — didn't have stereo sound on either TV set. My local cable company couldn't explain it. And no one got back to me. I took it to the regional manager. He finally found out that it came down to the fact that HD sets were getting it, but not sets like mine.

"I am happy with my sets; I don't need the expense of a new set to get something I am already paying for. Stereo is really great for sports, and these three broadcast baseball, college and pro football.

"He said that the explanation was complex, but their technicians would look into it. Three weeks have passed: No stereo on those stations, and no one contacted me. I feel his statement was a tap dance. Do you have an opinion, or have you heard anyone else bring this up?"

Although I don't have all the details, here's my theory: If you owned a digital TV you would hear these stations in stereo as the cable company manager explained without a tap dance.

I suspect that the cable company, when converting the signal from digital to analog for your "legacy" TVs (a kind way of saying "obsolete"), it is unable to convert the digital multi-channel sound to analog stereo sound.

Stereo sound on the former analog NTSC television system was something of a kludge. Thus, to recreate it within a converter box might be impractical. The converter boxes were designed to provide the absolutely most basic digital to analog conversion at the lowest possible cost.

Until this year, cable companies provided an analog signal for legacy TVs. This year, to maximize bandwidth for digital channels, most discontinued analog.

While you may be happy with your existing televisions, if you shop carefully you can buy a good digital 32-inch television for $300 or less. The picture will be far superior to your current TVs, and you will hear stereo sound.

Another reader question:

"One topic I don't recall seeing in your column and don't seem to find covered elsewhere either is how much the performance of the digital tuners in current HDTVs varies from brand to brand. Is this something worth putting time and effort into when shopping for an HDTV to use 'off cable,' or are the tuners so 'commoditized' that there is little difference among them?"

There's minimal difference between name brands. A very few companies make all the tuner modules for all manufacturers. There might be minor variations, but most testing labs don't even rate the tuner sections.

Manufacturers put most of their effort and expense into the display panels and the electronics that drive those panels.

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Space constraints forced condensing last week's column about e-readers. One important facet of the e-read experience, no matter which variety or brand you own, is that you also can use your tablet as an e-reader.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others offer iOS (Apple) and Android tablet apps, allowing you to download the books you purchase and read them on your tablet.

In fact, if you select the auto-sync feature, you can alternate between your e-reader and tablet and continue with your book or magazine exactly where you left off on the other device.

Some people find reading on the backlit tablets causes eye strain, but it looks fine to me. Since tablet screens are usually larger than dedicated e-reader screens you either can see the same amount of text with a larger font, or more of the page on-screen (meaning fewer page turns) with the same size font. As long as you're logged on with the same account you use for your e-reader there's no extra charge.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

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