What You Need to Know about HDTV & Blu-ray by Black Friday

| John Martellaro's Blog

High Definition TVs and accessories are on the mind of many this holiday season. Here are some thoughts on what to watch out for, starting on Black Friday. For starters, manufacturers play fast and loose with LCD HDTV specs. Also, things to watch out for in the Blu-ray and HDMI cable world.

LCD or Plasma? Manufacturers would have you believe that LCDs, even LED backlit LCD HDTVs are just as good as Plasmas. That turns out not to be the case.

In the September 2009 issue of Widescreen Review magazine, Raymond Soneira, Ph.D. in a series of instrumented and calibrated tests reported that a lot of, ah, specsmanship, if you will, is going on with LCD HDTVs. The biggest exaggerations are with viewing angle and contrast ratios. With contrast ratio, there is a fudge that cuts the backlighting to zero to produce the phony Dynamic Contrast Ratio. When the signal gets close to black, the electronics severely cut the backlighting which results in enormous, artificial contrast ratios. That number, often quoted as high as 100,000, is meaningless.

For viewing angle, the numbers are touted as 178 degrees off axis, but for all current LCDs, "that's nonsense," according to Dr. Soneira. The number stems from a spec that says that if the contrast ratio stays above 10, then the viewing angle is okay. Not so great a spec, considering that it started out at 1,500 on axis. Result: don't even think about mounting an LCD above a fireplace. Where you sit, you'll be too far off axis.

Plasma displays have none of these obfuscations or problems. For example, a Plasma display tested had essentially the same contrast ratio, 3,800->3,500, at 45 degrees off axis and no color distortion. The best LCD from Samsung dropped from 1,877 to 462 at 45 degrees off axis. At that angle, LCD pixels can suffer color distortion.

In the November issue, Dr. Soneira exploded another myth. You won't be able to actually see the difference between an LCD HDTV with 60 Hz circuitry and 120 Hz, but you'll pay a lot more. He wrote: "After extensive side-by-side testing we found that there was no visually detectable difference in motion blur performance for current mid- to top-of-the-line LCD HDTVs regardless of their response time, 60 or 120 Hz refresh rates."

Plasma displays, because of the rapid response time of the gas discharge in the cells, have always had inherently faster response times. The response time is measured in microseconds, not in milliseconds as with LCDs. It's just something the Plasma industry doesn't tout too much. Those in the know just know.

If you must buy an LCD HDTV, LED backlighting is superior to Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lighting (CCFL). That much is true. Spend your money on that, not the 240 Hz hype popular this year.

Summary, if you're looking at LCD HDTV specs, realize that the the specs are often (re)defined by the manufacturer to put their product in the best possible light. Real truth is hard to come by. Just as you ignore the myths about Macs, ignore the ancient myths about Plasmas. Look at one, then decide for yourself.

When you get home, immediately change the brightness setting fron "vivid" to "cinema" unless the HDTV is in a brightly lit room. You'll save a lot of money on your electric bill.

Blu-ray. As predicted, this is the season of the $99 Blu-ray player. Don't do it. You've seen comments here and elsewhere in which customers say they can't see the difference between Blu-ray and DVDs. When pressed, they may admit that they bought a very inexpensive Blu-ray player, use component cables, and display the result on an Wal-Mart special $399 LCD HDTV. I'm being facetious, but only a little. And, for goodness sake, don't buy a $99 Magnavox Blu-ray player (China), and then get hit up for a $79 HDMI cable from Monster. That's crazy.

If you're serious about Blu-ray this holiday, do yourself a favor and select a good quality unit that will give you years of pleasure. Good ones to consider, in the sub- $300 range, are the Sony BDP-S360, the Samsung BD-P1600 and the LG BD390. (The LG BD390 has a better video chip than the BD370 according to CNET.) The Samsung and LG models also include built-in Netflix streaming. Your spouse will love that. Look for sale bargains at Amazon.

As for HDMI cables, use the ones Apple sells. Apple has a stake in making its own Apple TV look as good as possible, and you can buy a good 6 ft Belkin HDMI cable at the Apple store for US$19.95. If it's good enough for Apple, it'll be good enough for you. (I use the XtremeMac predecessor, and it's excellent.)

If you buy a Panasonic 1080p Plasma, 40-50 inches, and marry it with a good quality Blu-ray player via HDMI, you'll be a happy movie watcher this holiday season. I haven't said anything about an A/V receiver, 5.1 speakers, sound handling and so on. But that's another article. Stay tuned.

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Comments

Tiger

I did a LOT of research before jumping into the HDTV and Blu-Ray market. I agree with most of what is said here.

However, I couldn’t even touch the price of a Plasma screen. I had just installed a 60” NEC Plasma at my office. You know what, it’s nice, but the picture on my 40” Samsung 120 Hz HDTV is WAY nicer.

DO take the advice on Blu-Ray players. I ordered the BD390 and couldn’t be happier. It makes 20 year old DVDs look incredible. And it has wireless and ethernet to boot. It’s phenomenal.

And the advice on HDMI cables couldn’t be more prudent. Radio Shack has HDMI cables for $99. WTF?

I bought a $30 one at Walmart because I needed it quickly, however the next day I ordered a 5-pack of the gold plated HDMI cables for $16 online. That’s $16 for ALL FIVE. Do not be fooled by the stuff they’re schlocking at retail stores.

John Martellaro

The prices of Plasma Displays have come *way* down and are competitive with LCD now.  Monitor this site for bargains:

http://www.tvpredictions.com/

Nom

Dumb question: if we’re talking a video source with resolution (frame rate) 60 Hz or less, is a response time measured in microseconds even meaningful?

Paul

Another good blu-ray dvd player is the Oppo BD 53.  Its expensive but it comes with an HDMI cable, a disc to help set up your TV and a/v receiver.  Oppo is a company like Apple, it makes excellent products and delays putting them out until they are ready.  Even their packaging is like Apple and like Apple they are CA company.  Take a look at them.

John Martellaro

Nom: It does take the pixel response time out of the equation for the electronics. This looks like a fairly good explanation:

http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20081118155203AAffekV

John Martellaro

Paul:  Widescreen Review magazine, November 2009 issue, reviewed and liked the Oppo BDP-83.

rjackb

I recently bought an LG BD390 and think it’s great. It makes DVDs look really good (haven’t had a chance to play a Blu-ray disc yet) and I love being able stream movies from Netflix, VUDU, etc. via wireless.

I’m pretty sure that Target was recently selling Belkin HDMI cables at the same $19.95 price but notice they’ve now gone up to $26.99.

rjackb

I now notice you said 6 ft HDMI cable while I was referring to 3 ft. so Apple has an even better price than Target.

Tiger
CJ

Blu-ray: Panasonic’s DMP-BD80 is an excellent, reasonably priced Blu-ray player. Plays nice with HD content recorded onto DVD-R in Toast as well.

HDMI cables: B&H Photo Video has them reasonably priced, even when allowing for the shipping.

Gene

What is the expected life of a plasma set these days?

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

OK, John, this is a great article if you really have an eye for HD and have had an HD system before. If you’re looking for your first HDTV or a first for someone else, here’s what to get:

1. HDTV: Anything 1080p. You won’t be disappointed. Make sure it has at least 3 HDMI inputs.

2. Blueray Disc player: Costco has a Sharp Aquios model. If you’ve never had Blueray, it’s beyond cool. Got mine for my birthday this month. Loading time for a disc is a bit long compared to your DVD player, but when you want to watch a movie, you need to get popcorn, a couple sodas, and make a last minute pit stop. The Sharp includes an HDMI cable.

3. Cables. Amazon is branding their own HDMI cables now. Just buy the cheap one they offer with their brand. Get 4 or 5 so you have them ready.

4. Cable Box. If your cable box doesn’t have HDMI out, get one that does. If you don’t have a DVR, get one of those too.

5. Where to buy: Amazon or Crutchfield. Read the reviews on Amazon. In aggregate, they are spot on. Crutchfield reviews tend to be more in depth by people who are really passionate about their TVs. Whether it’s shipped by Amazon, a third party Amazon seller (with a high rating) or Crutchfield, it is going to get to your house with friendlier, more professional, and often faster delivery than your local TV shop. Crutchfield doesn’t always have the best price, but they have very liberal return policy. That was more important a couple years ago when manufacturers were getting bugs out of these systems, not so important now.

The last HDTV I bought (for my grandparents) was a Sony KDL-46Z5100 from a third party reseller on Amazon. $1600ish delivered. If you want to spend at that level, go straight to that TV. It is absolutely beautiful and way more than they’ll ever need. I visit each weekend to watch college football on it, and I have a nice Sony myself (46” XBR3, well, nice for 2 years ago!).

One last thing… Wall Mount. I went with this for the grandparents’ Sony. Don’t spend $300+ on a mount unless you have a very specific mounting requirement and the mount does exactly that.

One last, last thing… Apple TV. Get one. They’re cool. The Internet radio feature is all that alone.

Jim Slone

The best place to get cable is Monoprice.com. $3.95 for a 6ft HDMI 1.3a cable with gold connectors. I’m not affiliated with them except as a very satified customer.

http://www.monoprice.com/products/product.asp?c_id=102&cp_id=10240&cs_id=1024008&p_id=3992&seq=1&format=2

John Martellaro

What is the expected life of a plasma set these days?

About 100,000 hours to half brightness.

Mark

I’ve heard pretty consistently that plasma uses quite a bit more power than LCD, and when I’m in the stores I notice quite a bit more heat thrown off the plasma sets (which is an important consideration here in sunny Arizona!).  I know store displays turn all the settings to maximum brightness, but isn’t there still a difference between plasma vs. LCD in these areas?

John Martellaro

The power consumption of Plasmas has been going down as mfgrs try to improve the green image of Plasmas.  Plus, as I said above, if you use the “Cinema” setting instead of “Vivid,” you cut the power in half.

The advantages of the Plasma picture and, these days, the only slightly higher power consumption is worth it in my mind. A side by side comparison is always best.  You can do that in a home theater store—but not always at, say, Best Buy, where they tend to group the display types.

toke

About 100,000 hours to half brightness.

1. Do you believe all marketing material from manufacturers?

2. Would you accept half picture quality when you buy the tv?
If not, why compare life to half brightness?

3. Led-lcd’s use significantly less energy than plasma and led’s brightness last a lot longer.

So if you buy new tv every black friday, go with plasma, but if you think ekologically buy led-lcd.

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