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Choosing the Best HDTV
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June 2008      back to HDTV index

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I personally buy from Ritz, Adorama and Amazon. I can't vouch for any other ads.

 

Where to Find Them

I love the Internet. I buy not only my cameras, but also my soap, light bulbs and everything there. Unfortunately, specifications mean nothing when it comes to selecting an HDTV. You're going to have to go out and visit every retail store you can to look at the pictures in person. Online reviews and all this just can't tell you which set you'll prefer, unless you're not picky. If you weren't picky, would you be reading this?

If you want to buy online, I'd use J&R and Amazon, each of which have huge selections. Adorama and B&H Photo-Video also carry HDTVs. No single store carries every brand.

Still, I wouldn't buy a big screen online or mail order. What's different from set to set is only apparent by looking at it in the store in person. I want to see it at retail, and buy it locally in case it goes back. Cameras are so much easier!

Try a boutique home theater store. They'll carry more good brands, not just the cheapest, biggest, gaudiest screens like electronics stores. Good home theater stores will be encourage you to watch your choices for hours uninterrupted before deciding. You'll pay more, and be far more likely to bring home the set you really want.

How To Shop

If you've read all my other material on basics and source material, you're in a much better position to understand this. I don't care if you've skipped ahead, but if I lose you, go back and read those sections.

Ignore everything you're told by TV salesmen and TV manufacturers. Like most technical things, the specs they tout are just attempts to take your money. If you find a helpful salesman, pay attention, but ignore specs. Also realize that no store carries every brand, and will throw FUD on the brands that they don't carry.

What really matters to picture quality is sufficiently complex that there is no spec for picture quality. You just need to look at the pictures with appropriate source material and judge for yourself.

The way to determine which set has the best picture is to look at it! Make sure to use excellent source material, and spend lots of time looking carefully for what matters. Many things people worry about, like motion, have nothing to do with the sets and everything to do with the source material.

Let me educate you for what to look. If I get too complicated in spots, just skip ahead.

Specifications are mostly lies. Ignore them and the salesman. The only thing that matters is how the picture looks to you, presuming you're using a good source.

Bring your own DVDs.

Something I never realized until I fired up a DVD from home in a retail store is how many times the word "fuck" is used in clean movies. I made you wince using it just once above, but upstanding people don't even notice anymore when it's used for every other word. Bring just about any current DVD into a store and fire it up, and you'll see just how fast you'll need to turn it down. You may have to look around a while to pick one that's suitable for family viewing, which you have to do when you fire up a DVD at a store. This is why the DVDs you'll most often see on display are kids' movies.

That's too bad, because animation isn't a good test for displays. The best material with with to gauge picture quality is natural-looking drama and comedy, but keep the sound turned down. Use Hollywood movie DVDs, not DVDs of TV shows or sales training shot on video.

Action movies tell you little, although there's lots of black scenes to give plasma screens and LCDs fits.

What Makes a Good Picture

Working in Hollywood makes you a bit disconnected with consumers when it comes to knowing what makes a good picture. What we take for granted for quality in Hollywood is a complete mystery to consumers, to people who review HDTV equipment for a living and to professional home entertainment systems designer and installers. This is because these people aren't spending all day in front of numerous calibrated $45,000 Sony BVM HD studio monitors fed from telecine masters, so very few people really recognize how great a picture could be.

To most people, the best picture is the sharpest, brightest and most colorful. That's not a good picture, but it helps sell HDTVs.

When watching a movie on HDTV, you should get the same huge range of subtle and strong colors you see in a theater. All the reds shouldn't be the same bright red. Get an HDTV that mimics what you see in the theater and you've got a great set.

The best picture has nothing to do with brightness or sharpness. I love wild colors in my own art, but even I wouldn't want to have to stare at colors like that in a darkened room for an hour and a half at a time.

A good picture is art. Everyone has different tastes. An on-screen picture should match what's in the broadcast or DVD, but unless you work in DVD mastering, you probably have no reference.

I kid you not: we had a pro home entertainment company come out to give us a quote. (I'm not going to try to figure out how to mount one of these things to my wall myself.)

The guy went on and on about how whatever brand he had to sell us gave the best picture. This is a guy who really is a pro at installation, meaning he really has a shop and has been installing these things in people's houses long before HDTV.

I asked him "what makes a good picture?" In other words, why was what he was suggesting better than other sets?

He didn't miss a beat. As far as he was concerned, it was best because it was brighter. That was it. He didn't even understand the concept of color fidelity, the most critical aspect to picture quality.

Adjustments

Because most innocent people prefer bright, sharp and colorful in short-term comparisons, most sets come from the factory adjusted to make the picture overly blue, overly contrasty, and overly saturated. (Bluer pictures seem brighter.) This helps each manufacturer sell their HDTVs over others when they are put side-by-side in the TV store.

This doesn't help you pick the set which you'll prefer when you get it home.

Out-of-the-box, most sets are way too bright and too saturated so that they stand out in the showroom. The really bad part about this is that it can be tough when you get the set home to get a good picture on it, and even tougher to adjust the sets in the store so you can compare them as hopefully you'll have them adjusted in your own home.

Hint: When comparing sets, you'll need the remote control for every one. You'll need to find a menu called something like Picture Mode and take it off the default, which is usually called something like Brilliant, Vivid or Scorcher. I'll get into this at How to Get the Best Picture, but for today in the store, usually the Movie mode is the most accurate. This will vary by manufacturer. Sorry.

By selecting a more accurate mode, the set will probably get dimmer and more orange. This will look bad compared to the other sets for the moment, but is actually a much better picture as you'll appreciate over time. Also in these modes you're more likely to be able to see subtle and important differences between sets.

Color

When evaluating an HDTV, the most important thing for which you should look is accurate color rendition, especially as colors fade from light to dark.

Bright colors are meaningless. Every HDTV has pretty much the same colors when cranked up, since they use similar phosphors. What plasmas and LCDs can't do well is differential among subtle colors. CRTs do this easily.

When evaluating sets, bring a DVD, even standard definition. Don't waste time with broadcasts and cable, not only because the quality is much poorer, but also because when you go back the next day or to the next store, you won't have the same program. Your DVD will play the same as you carry it from store to store, but each store will probably receive cable channels different than the next store.

Real engineers carry their own DVD player and cables with them to each store and plug them directly into the back of each set, but I don't expect you to do that. (Actually, engineers usually carry test pattern generators that cost more than the HDTVs, but patterns aren't important for plasma or LCDs.)

Hint: Look at faces. All parts of the face, shadow and highlight, should have the same color. It's OK for shadows to be bluer, but not OK for the hue to change towards green or magenta in darker and lighter parts of a face. Look at the person next to you, look at your own photos, look at a tube TV, and you won't see the nasty color shifts that you'll often see on plasma and LCD sets. This is why plasma and LCDs are not used in Hollywood for critical color evaluations!

Hint: If your wife's not shopping with you, look at more skin for the same color shifts. Better than angular faces are to look at softly-lit round human bodies, across which you should be seeing subtle gradations in colors and tones. Transitions from lighter to darker should be smooth and natural, not fringed with bands of off-colors. Look at a tube TV for reference, and of course you need to use Hollywood movie DVDs for this. TV shows (broadcast and on DVD) usually have these same issues themselves due to overexposed video. (Sorry guys - I said Hollywood DVDs, not Chatsworth or Van Nuys. Porn isn't good for color evaluations because much of it is shot on video or lit with hard lights, not soft boxes)

CRT (tube) sets are the reference, but they come no bigger than about 40" (100cm). If you want picture quality, you want what's used in Hollywood for critical color grading: CRTs.

Plasma and LCD sets have some very serious shortcomings. The problem is that each technology still can't show delicate gradations in the darker parts of the image. Regardless of how many bits are claimed on the box, those bits have nothing to do with the actual display.

When an HDTV brags about how many bits it uses for how many zillions of colors, it's baloney. How many bits are used internally before the signal hits the display has nothing to do with how few colors the display panel itself can handle. The sad reality is that the hardware which drives plasma and LCD screens still has too few bits (not enough bit depth or z-axis resolution) to display enough subtle gradations in the dark parts.

This sad reality comes from just how good our eyes are, and the fact that CRTs (tubes) just happened to have a serendipitous quirk that makes them extremely good.

Our eyes see logarithmically. In other words, we can see about the same percentage change in image brightness in the shadows as well as in the highlights. Our eyes can see a minimum of about a 1% change in brightness. For a highlight, 1% of 100% white means a 1% change overall. Any set can show this variation.

In the dark, we still can perceive about a 1% change, even in a dark section. 1% of 1% black is 0.01%, and our eyes see this as clearly (in a dark projection room) as the 1% change in white.

Showing an 0.01% change in brightness in a dark section is easy for a CRT, since phosphors and electron guns conveniently just happen to have a logarithmic transfer function.

0.01% is one part in 10,000, or one bit in 13! To show this fine a level change, you need at least 13 bits working in the linear space that control LCDs. Here's the problem: Most LCD controllers only work in 6 or 8 bits. The controllers play all sorts of mathematical hijinx to dither (create) more subtle variations. Sony's very best professional LCDs, which Sony is trying to peddle to Hollywood since Sony stopped making CRTs, brags about "10-bit panel drivers."

Plasmas have the same issues. These more modern displays lack the hardware precision to control darker sections with sufficient precision to make them look as good as they should.

8 bits define 256 levels. In video and photography, these 256 levels are spread out logarithmically to mimic our eyes. Raw files and HDTV controllers sadly only work linearly, so they need far more bits to describe the darks with the same precision as an 8-bit JPG.

In the image below, I've split the 256 levels into 8 bands as a display test. Each band covers 48 levels with some duplication on each end so that if your display has a problem, you'll see it. Shown on a perfect display, all you ought to see are smooth gray gradations with no green or magenta bands.

Shallow Ramp

The Shallow Ramp. Your set had better show this as all gray, with no color bands!

640 x 480 (VGA)   720 x 483 (NTSC)   

1,280 x 720 (720p)   1,920 x 1,080 (1080i)

Tougher, try this one for skin tones:

Skin tone ramp

Skin Tone Ramp.

640 x 480 (VGA)   720 x 483 (NTSC)   

1,280 x 720 (720p)   1,920 x 1,080 (1080i)

I'll leave it to you to figure out how to feed these images into HDTVs. The easiest is if your DVD player reads JPGs. I used my Mac to burn these onto a video DVD, but can't vouch for the quality of the encoding. You could just plug the HDTV into your laptop PC with these images. Good luck! It's much easier to bring a good movie DVD with you.

Sharpness

I've rarely seen problems with LCDs, plasma and DLPs. There's nothing to focus, and set makers aren't trying to crank things too far to impress the innocent.

Sharpness and resolution are more a function of the source material than the HDTVs.

In the old days, most consumer CRTs had too much sharpening, and the pictures were loaded with "ringing," or little haloes around all the lines in the subject.

The worst sets are usually the ones that look significantly sharper than others. Look at the edges of objects: if the edges are harsh and emphasized, that's bad and will hurt your eyes over time. Sharpness should be sharp without being harsh.

Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque

Unsharp, but natural. Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque.

Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque

Sharp.

Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque

Too much sharpening!

See the halos around everything, the lack of fine details seen in the "sharp" version, and the weakened colors? This is what bad sets do to make themselves stand out in the store, but your head will hurt after watching for a while at home.

Plasma, LCD, CRT or DLP?

The very best is a CRT (tube). That' what used in Hollywood to create movie DVDs because the colors, lights, grays and blacks are perfect.

Plasma and LCD have problems with subtle color as mentioned above. When shopping, look for color banding and artifacts, and mostly look for skin tones that are true from highlight to shadow. Most plasmas do nasty things to subtle colors.

Brightness and internal widths of DSP architectures in sets don't matter. Just put on a DVD and look at the color fidelity. I kid you not, a cheap tube set usually has better color fidelity. Just relax and watch a couple of good DVDs (not cable and not TV) at the store. How do the colors look? Most broadcasts look crappy compared to DVDs, even standard-def DVDs.

Try a DLP rear projection set or projector. They're clunkier, but if you have a dark room, they may give the best colors and cost less. DLP projectors are what's used for digital cinema (movie theatre) projectors.

LEDs: These don't exist yet in the consumer world, but promising are sets made from vast matrices of LEDs. They can be super-bright, and can be controlled with unlimited precision. These only exist in laboratories today. I'm not talking about LED backlights for LCDs, which are still LCDs.

Price has to do with how difficult a set is to make, NOT its picture quality. I think DLPs are the least expensive.

Look at LCDs, projectors and plasma yourself and ignore the salesman and what you read. Look at the pictures, from good sources. Which do you prefer? Get it.

Pay attention to shiny versus matte screens. It's not that big a deal, especially since glossy plasma screens tend to be anti-reflection coated, but most people have a preference one way or the other.

Be sure to watch in the same kinds of lighting you'll have at home. Stores usually don't have big open windows, and usually can't go dark.

Shop at a boutique home theater store. THey'll let you turn out the lights.

I'm a fan of accurate color when watching, even though when I'm creating my own art I create wild colors. If all you watch is sports in a bright room, you may prefer what I don't, which are sets oversharpened and optimized for crazy colors. The problem with sets that have the colors cranked too far is that all colors become the same. All the reds become the same orange-red, and all the blues and greens become the same blues and greens.

White Pictures

When the picture goes all-white, like the backgrounds of many ads, the picture should go all-white.

Many plasma sets poop out, and only go all-gray instead. Watch out for this. They'll look fine for normal pictures, but if they suddenly need to go very bright, they can't.

LCDs and DLPs don't care. Plasmas and CRTs have to belt out more power to go white, while the fixed bulbs in LCDs and DLPs are always at full brightness regardless of the picture level.

Blacks

Movies get dark. When it takes place at night or in a coal mine, the picture on a movie DVD really gets darker. Your set should, too.

CRTs do the best job of this. They can go completely black if they want to. When the movie gets dark, the screen gets dark and is still loaded with detail. Watch in a dark room, and the effect is wonderful. Old TVs couldn't do this, but those sets went away with black-and-white.

Plasma and LCDs have a tough time of this. Watch them in a dark room, and black is never black, just dark gray. Worse, watch too close in a dark room, and there are all sorts of weird patterns and noises in the blacks as these sets try to dither their way out of the problem.

There are vast differences from one set to the next, so fire them up in a dark room and see what happens.

I haven't played with DLPs for this. The good ones can be really good, which is why they are used in digital cinema movie theaters.

This takes a good eye and well adjusted set to see. Many plasmas are set to increase the contrast in the blacks and cut off detail. This looks hideous, but can fool innocent people into thinking that set has "blacker blacks."

The Brightness control on every set is really the Black Level control. (On pro monitors, they're marked that way.) If you turn up the Brightness, what you've usually done is "lifted" the blacks to a dark gray, and if you turn it too far down, "crush" the blacks to be black without detail. This is a critical adjustment that requires a trained eye or a test DVD with a PLUGE signal.

If the set isn't looking good in the blacks, play with the brightness control, and good luck.

We had a plasma that came out of the box with the blacks set too black and it looked horrible to the careful observer.

1080 or 720?

Doesn't matter!

Either looks spectacular if you have the right source material. Since most broadcast HD source material isn't really HD, it doesn't matter if your set is 720 or 1080.

Very little source material is 720p. It's usually either SD or 1080i.

I've sat in on telecine sessions in Hollywood where we had a matched pair of $45,000 Sony BVM monitors: one with HD and the other an SD downconversion of the same original material.

They looked the same.

Why? Because it was a real movie that was being transferred. Sure, with nature videos, test patterns and still images shown in stores to help sell sets, you can see a huge difference with HD, but with anything that moves (i.e., anything worth watching), clean SD looks the same unless you're trying to look. I was trying to look, and it took a long time until I could see the difference.

Try reading a moving newspaper: you can't see detail while it's in motion.

It's easy to see a difference with still images like nature documentaries, but it doesn't matter for real sports and movies.

A 60" 720 plasma fed from an excellent 1080i HD source looks a lot better than a 1080i TV fed from a lesser program source.

If money matters, don't spend it on a 1080 versus a 720 display.

How Big?

If you're watching DVDs, go big.

If you're watching cable, satellite or broadcast, be careful. Larger sets make all the compression problems like noise far more obvious. A bigger set might make the problems so obvious that you'll hate it! Watch your favorite stuff in the store, and see how big or close you really want to get.

Most men get too close to big TVs, and always see problems.

Contrast Ratio

These specifications are lies.

Plasma and LCDs can't reproduce a contrast ratio of 600:1, much less the thousands-to-one claimed on the box.

Since you're a photographer, get out your camera and measure it yourself. Measure the lightest and darkest parts of a picture, or an all-white and then all-black screen. Choose a fixed aperture, and divide the shutter speeds read by your meter by each other. For instance, if the white part measures 1/1,000 second and the black part measures 1/15 second, 1,000/15 = 67. This is typical.

I used to use a spot meter to measure the contrast of my Leica slide projector: good luck getting even 100:1 in a dark room.

The SMPTE 196M spec for contrast in critical review rooms, where movies are carefully graded and evaluated during the production process, is only 600:1. Movie theaters have less contrast than 400:1.

You may safely ignore the marketing numbers thrown around.

Angle of View

This is important. Most LCDs and DLPs get dimmer when seen from the sides.

Forget reading the specs, which are often measured differently from maker to maker and technology to technology. Just walk around and see how the picture looks.

For DLPs, be sure to move up and down, since they tend to have very limited vertical viewing angles. A DLP can have such a small vertical viewing angle that if you sit close, the top and bottom of the screen can have different brightnesses!

Motion

As explained in Basics, motion problems come from the program source, not the TV.

I've not seen any modern HDTV with any motion problems.

If you want to confirm if the problem lies with the set or the source, plug any CRT (tube) TV into the source and see for yourself. Of course smaller CRT sets won't show problems as glaringly as large sets, but look closely and you'll see that motion problems are in the source.

If you're watching movie DVDs and are bothered by judder, there may be some slight value to a set with a 120 Hz redraw rate (100Hz in Europe) if your DVD player supports it. This doesn't help for HD broadcasts.

Wide Modes

This is a critical aspect of picture quality. I would pick a set based on this alone. It makes a huge difference when watching TV or many conventional Full Screen DVDs.

Most TV programs are shaped like the old 4:3 TV sets. These shows don't fill the wider screen. I have a whole page on fitting the picture to the screen.

You need to get the remote control. Find the Aspect Ratio or Wide Mode button. Watch a standard TV show, preferably with people, panning, text scrolling along the top or bottom of the screen, and circular objects. See if any of the wide modes can do all this at the same time. Most TVs can't do this, and look awful for most TV shows.

1.) People should look like people. They never should be stretched out and look fat. The WIDE, FULL and PANORAMIC settings often do this.

2.) When a camera pans, the background should just move from left to right. It never should look like rubber, with the left and right sides stretched out and moving faster than the center. You'll get sick watching sports this way. PANORAMIC and WIDE modes often do this.

3.) Text rolling along the bottom of the screen should just move from side to side. It shouldn't get stretched out or go faster at the far left or right sides. PANORAMIC and WIDE modes often do this.

4.) Circles, like car wheels, must be round. They must never get stretched wider. FULL and WIDE modes often do this.

5.) The tops of people's head and text at the top and bottom of the screen must not get cut off. The ZOOM setting usually has this problem.

Few sets can do all this well. If the set you're considering can't do this, it will always look kind of crappy when watching almost everything on TV. The very best I've seen are Sonys with a WIDE ZOOM mode. It does wonders by expanding a normal picture to fill a wider screen with little or no annoying artifacts. The Vizio HTDVs I've seen are awful, as are most sets.

More at Getting the Picture to Fit the Screen.

Usability

Most consumer electronics suck. If you can't figure out how to use it, it's a defect in product design, not you. Play with the remotes and be sure it's easy to operate.

Many sets, like the Vizios, obscure the picture with a huge VOLUME bar when you change levels. This is stupid; I don't want to hide my picture just because I'm tweaking the audio.

Many consumer electronics remote controls could have been more cleverly designed by a monkey. A remote should look like an Apple remote: so simple you can use it without looking at it. If you have to read text above rows of identical buttons, forget it.

Most remotes are universal, so you can pick your favorite to control much of your system. You need access to the Aspect Ratio or Wide Mode button. That feature doesn't always program on other universal remotes, so we still have to use our TV remote even if most things are controlled from the cable remote.

When looking at sets, play with the remote. You already needed to get the salesman to drag it out so you could try the Wide Modes and program the picture settings anyway.

Blu-ray, HD DVD and DVD Players

Be sure you can get it to go. It should just play the DVD and not make you wait.

We have an awful Toshiba HD DVD player, the HD-D2. It takes forever to turn on and open the disk drawer. Once the disc goes in, it takes a while to start the disc. If we take out or stop the DVD, it takes a good five minutes to get it started and find the same spot again. IMage quality is spectacular, but the wait and human interface isn't acceptable. Its remote is also garbage: just lots of invisible buttons, which look the same upside down or right-side up!

Good DVD players just work. Good remotes only have a couple of buttons. My Apple computer just plays DVDs, and is smart enough to restart them where I last left them.

Try this out before you buy. You can't figure this stuff out online.

Cables and Power Conditioners

Use the cheapest cables, and skip power conditioners. These items are pushed by stores because they have extremely high price mark-ups. A store probably makes more dollars selling you Monster Cables than it does selling you the HDTV!

I was amused when the owner of a good local dealer asked for my advice as to whether I thought Monster Cables were worth it to his customers. He was a good dealer who was more concerned about his long-standing relationships than making a fast buck. I told him I thought it was baloney. He was relieved; he told me that when he asked the Monster salesman this same question, the answer was "I guarantee you'll make a lot of money selling our cables."

An HDMI or component analog cable only costs a buck or less to manufacture. That's why stores push these $100 cables on you. I use the crappy $2 cables that came with my $40 DVD player, and it looks great on a 60" plasma. Heck — before I'd spend $100 on a cable, I'd look for a cheap DVD player that includes an HDMI cable, and throw away the player!

I'm cheap: be sure your set or DVD player includes the cable. Some do, some don't. If you're buying at retail, expect them to be thrown in — for free. This is called a "nibble," when you haggle the guy down on price for an hour, and just as the guy is worn down and wish you'd just leave and as you're finally agreeing on price, say "that includes all the cables, right?" When the cable TV guy comes to hook you up, be sure to hit him up for the right cables. He has them on his truck. They don't call him the cable guy for nothing.

I use a special power system on my computer, but that's so I can keep working if the power goes out. I'd forget about these for big screens. They are designed to take whatever comes across the power line. The screen makers have more to lose by your new set dying under warranty from a power hit than you do worrying about your old set dying a year or two from now.

Extended Warranties

These are usually worthless.

The Best Brand

In Hollywood, the monitors used for critical evaluation are always Sony BVMA CRTs. Even a small 20" costs $13,000. Now that Sony stopped making them, the world is in an uproar, since Sony's professional LCDs aren't good enough. Hollywood is hoarding CRTs until the next thing comes along.

You'll have to pick this out yourself. I know that I've always preferred Sony TVs, not just for technical quality, but for the fact that they just work intelligently. If I had to, I'd be taking a look at Sony's Bravia LCDs, just because they seem to be Sony's top offerings, as well as whatever DLP projectors are out there.

We've also bought Vizio HDTVs at our house, and half of them have broken within the first year. The Sonys look much better and work great for years and years, but they've been CRTs.

Look at Bang & Olufsen and Apple TV. These two companies make electronics which just go. Some people download HD movies with their Apple TV and love them; I haven't tried.

As you can gather, I'm not reviewing current HDTV models. I've just been trying to share what I'd do if I was going to start shopping for one myself.

Plug

This website site is how I support my growing family.

If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy, please help me to continue helping everyone.

If you've gotten your gear through one of my links or helped otherwise, you're family, thank you!

This page is free to read, but copyrighted. If you haven't helped me yet, and wish to make a print of this page, please help me with a gift of $5.00.

Thanks for reading!

Ken

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