A 42-inch plasma for £5000? Things ain't what they used to be 20 years ago...

What Hi-Fi? Back Issues 8 main image - January 2004 cover
(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

The What Hi-Fi? Awards 2023 issue is now out (and available in all good newsagents, folks!). Which means that the issue the magazine crew are working on as this Back Issues column hits the ether is, rather soberingly for the “time flies” old curmudgeons among us, the January 2024 edition – in the shops in good time for Christmas.

Usually, when I go into our archives to have a good old reminisce, I head back to the bound volumes from the ’90s or ’80s. For me, that feels like a proper dive back into the days of yore. Then I realised (with a somewhat heavy heart) that in fact, if I count back from January 2024 a whole generation of 20 years, I arrive well into the 21st century; so I raised my sights a decade.

A long time in home cinema

What Hi-Fi? January 2004 cover

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

And I’m rather glad I did. For the January 2004 issue of What Hi-Fi? – as always seems to happen whenever I do this research – sprung some surprises, some pangs of nostalgia, and, on the face of it, some plain old forecasting errors. 

Take the cover itself. Majoring on the audio/visual side of things, it highlights an important product that simply doesn’t really exist any more – the DVD recorder. The technological leaps that have bounded forth over the past two decades have been almost unimaginable. And this issue of the magazine gave just a hint of what might be to come.

The more things change…

DVD recorders test intro page

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Two major things leaped out at me as far as how TV and video recording tech has changed in the past 20 years. The first, and most obvious from that cover, was how we have now almost completely converted to digital recording without physical media in its varied formats. Indeed, some people now don’t feel the need to store favourite programmes or movies at all; streaming performs the job perfectly adequately for many consumers.

In 2004, though, the standfirst in our remarkable 13-strong(!) megatest of DVD recorders, starts: “With DVD recorders set to consign VHS to history…” So things were ever thus, of course. 

The King is dead; long live the King

Death of CRT greatly exaggerated article

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

One of the first articles to grab my attention when leafing through the January 2004 edition was this news piece headlined “Death of CRT greatly exaggerated”. Er, no it wasn’t, was my first thought.

To be fair to the What Hi-Fi? team at the time, it wasn’t a statement from them, more a confirmation from manufacturers that they would be staying in the cathode ray tube market for some time yet. It didn’t take long though, before the new-fangled “flat-panel” television would consign the old tech to the scrapheaps of the world.

Early adopters take the hit

What Hi-Fi? January 2004 Plasma TV test intro

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

A glance at the nine-strong 42-inch plasma television Group Test did at least give a hint as to why CRT wasn’t quite dead yet. The prices for those trail-blazing sets were eye-watering, to say the least. The cheapest sets, from Daiwoo and Hyundai, would have set you back £2500 – enough these days for a screen almost twice the size. And the most expensive sets on test, from Pioneer, Sony and JVC came in at between £4500 and £5000. For a 42-inch set. Praise be for the early adopter – those prices, as we all know, would come down rapidly; now you can pick up a very good 65in set for not much more than £1000.  

Goodness only knows what’s next for us in terms of screen, streaming and storing technology. But if the past (just) 20 years is anything to go by, we’ll be looking back on OLED screens with a nostalgic sigh, shaking our heads at just how basic it all was back then.


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Jonathan Evans
Editor, What Hi-Fi? magazine

Jonathan Evans is the editor of What Hi-Fi? magazine, and has been with the title for 17 years or so. He has been a journalist for getting on for three decades now, working on a variety of technology and motoring titles, including Stuff, Autocar and Jaguar. With his background in sub-editing and magazine production, he likes nothing more than a discussion on the finer points of grammar. And golf.

  • AlastairB
    Maybe by then HDMI, CEC, EDID, will work, so multiple devices and switches and splitters work seamlessly together?