Deciding which TV or projector to purchase can be hard. These devices have become complicated, as they now connect with the internet, whole-house DVRs, and speakers. The right TV for one installation may not be right for another. Should you just pay an expert? How do you decide you need an expert if you don’t even know what it is you don’t know? Are a few hours of research sufficient or will you gain only false confidence? This article should help you decide how much outside help and how much self-education you want to pursue.
People want a particular price, screen size, and build quality. These aren’t difficult to pin down. The first two are your choice, and you’ll likely not find reliability data anyway. Where people need help is discerning image quality. Fortunately, there are objectively measurable criteria for evaluating image. Professional reviewers report both the measurements and their viewing experience—one without the other can be misleading–in the enthusiast magazines (e.g. Sound & Vision, Widescreen Review). These are good sources. Of limited value are manufacturers’ specifications, as measurement techniques vary brand to brand. Stay within one brands’ product line, however, and the numbers are useful for making comparisons.
Evaluating image quality in a TV showroom is risky. Professional reviewers would never report this way. Viewing angle and lighting might be a problem, and the displays’ settings are likely wrong. Also, just as listeners will prefer–in the short term, anyway–a speaker with accented bass or boosted treble, untrained viewers will select a TV image with over-saturated colors, tinted blue, and with brightness boosted at the expense of resolution. Indeed, TVs ship-out this way, rather than being set for accuracy. This is why reviewers calibrate TVs before reviewing them. Evaluating TV picture quality at the store can be akin to test driving cars on ice covered roads where each car is in its own particular state of disrepair.
Also, consider that the most realistic picture a display can make is not going to happen when the lights are on or with sunlight coming in. Yet, most people watch TV with light in the room and most people evaluate TVs with light in the room. The most accurate picture is achieved with lights off. You can see such a picture at a good movie theater. A good movie theater image is roughly 4 times the resolution of even your best 1080P flat panel TV. Now, remember how the movie theater image looks before the lights go down? It’s washed out. Were you to see that same image quality on a TV you might walk away from that model thinking it’s awful. (Remember, manufacturer’s ship TVs from the factories with white levels set high to combat the light in the room.) In fact, that model may have the most accurate picture of all but you wouldn’t know it because you’re watching with light in the room. Yet, with lights off, that image will be closer to looking like the real image than any display could possibly do with lights on. The point is, the “best” image may not be appropriate, or even desirable, for a given household. Buyers would do well to be realistic about their viewing environment and choose accordingly. If, on the other hand, you read this and think that you’d gladly turn down the lights for a more accurate image, then you may be a videophile! Alas, most folks are not videophiles.
A relatively fast (i.e. about 1 hour) and easy way to learn how to discriminate among displays, and to learn if “best” really interests you, is to watch the video portion of a particular test DVD. I recommend using Joe Kane’s Video Essentials. If you’re buying used, be sure you’re picking out the Blu-ray version rather than a version that is only in the HD Video or DVD formats. If you’re so inclined, you could supplement the above knowledge by reading flat panel display reviews in Sound and Vision or Widescreen Review magazines.
I’ve found that most people who chose their own TV could have spent less to get the same quality picture they now have, or they could have spent the same and gotten a better picture. I only rarely see an instance where someone would have benefited by spending more on their TV. On a positive note, most folks have the means to get a more accurate picture for free simply by adjusting their sets. Again, a test disc like Video Essentials is a perfect way to learn how.
Still other TV characteristics are required for a neat installation and for ease of use. Indeed, for most custom a/v customers these other concerns trump picture quality. The location of a TVs jacks may make or break the neatness of an installation. That a TV’s wires all come in on the left may be unsightly if that’s a visible side. The compliment of inputs and outputs (e.g. HDMI, Audio, IR, Ethernet) needs to be compatible with the connected equipment (e.g. router, A/V receiver, Game, AppleTV, Soundbar). Using adapter cables and devices to make-up for incompatible equipment creates both clutter and a chance of system failure, such as picture without sound or vice-versa.
When using a TV’s internet-based features—also known as “smart TV” features—and a separate sound system, the TV’s audio output type matters. The type of audio output determines whether one can get all the audio resolution available from a particular program. Some output jacks, for example, support the highest resolution surround sound, some support only the highest resolution stereo sound. The right choice will depend on the other equipment, on the budget, and on user preferences. Indeed, it’s often the case that, after considering the audio needs, the TV shouldn’t be the source of audio at all. Many installations are simpler to use, and less expensive, when Netflix and other online content is accessed through an AppleTV or a Blu-ray player rather than through the TV itself. So, a “smart TV” isn’t necessary.
Only some TVs are compatible with automation. Automation makes a/v easy to use. TV buyers are thrilled when all they have to do is press one button to fire up both the TV and the sound system, and they don’t have to aim and hold the remote. The spouse, who may have been against the whole a/v project from the start, may actually use and enjoy the system. Without automation, many of the “A” ratings for Home Theater companies on Angie’s list would not exist!
Note that in order to properly address any of these neatness and ease-of-use concerns, one must understand the whole a/v system into which a TV will be integrated. In such cases a qualified a/v designer is the safe bet. If you decide to go it alone, arm yourself with sufficient patience, time, and money to take care of mistakes you may make along the way. If this kind of do-it-yourself project turns you on, have at it. TV and audio are, after all, hobbies. They are for me, still, after doing them professionally for so many years.
Feel free to contact me if you have questions about which TV to purchase, or whether your TV qualifies for automated programming.