I hit up six different stores recently trying to pick a 50” plasma to replace my 52” JVC LCoS rear projection 720p HDTV which is now three years old. The goal is to regain a foot of space in the room and then move to a larger front projection system (the screen hangs in front of the TV); the TV is used for broadcast material with the lights on, while the projector is used for movie watching with the lights off. I could have asked vendors to send over review units and then buy whichever one performed the best, but I’m time constrained – my contractor wants to start hanging everything already. (I’m using a general contractor for installation, a practice I do NOT recommend to others – good custom installers are almost always worth paying for.)
At the 50” size, plasmas are still less expensive than LCD, and the primary benefit of LCD – blinding brightness – is not important in my light-controlled room (we have directional halogen track lighting, so even with the lights on, no direct light falls on the set). Our seating position is 12 – 13’ back from the set; at that distance, there is no visible difference between 720p and 1080p sets, so a more economical 720p model makes sense. Then it came down to selecting a brand and model. When there is a difference between lower priced brands (Vizio, Sanyo, Zenith) and midpriced brands (Samsung, LG, Panasonic) it often shows up in how the sets process non-HDTV sources (there are other differences, too, but some of the budget sets are actually quite good). The difference between the mid-priced brands and the Pioneer Kuro is primarily in the black level and shadow details. Since we still watch a lot of non-HD programming, I felt it was worth the extra money to buy a set with slightly better processing, and I gave mid-priced brands primary consideration once I saw (when looking at the various sets at retail) that there did appear to be a difference. If the television was our only display, it would have been worth spending even more to get the best available (in my opinion, the Pioneer Kuro), but since the projector will be handling most of the movie duties, I wasn’t willing to spend too much of my budget on the plasma.
That left a showdown between Samsung’s 54 series and Panasonic’s 75U (there are slightly more expensive versions of each that add anti-glare shields, but that isn’t necessary in my room). Both sell for $1500 - $1700 except on Black Friday, when you can get another $100 - $200 off. After considerable evaluation in less than ideal circumstances (see below), I concluded that both are excellent options, and it really comes down to personal preference. The Samsung had much better contrast and more saturated colors. Everything “pops” on the Samsung. The Panasonic did slightly better with really noisy content, and had noticeably better black levels, which lent subtlety throughout the color range. Both can be adjusted to look better than they did in the store, and either would make a fine choice. I preferred the Panasonic.
However, the stores don’t make it easy to come to this conclusions, and I really have no idea how people not specifically looking for differences in black level vs. contrast ratio can make a rational buying decision. Only one of the stores (6th Avenue, a regional A/V chain) had a truly knowledgeable salesperson. None of the stores had tweaked the picture on any of the sets in any way (they were all set to whatever the manufacturer hoped would stand out on the showroom floor – the brightest and most oversaturated settings), which I expected from the big box retailers, but not the specialty stores. At least the aspect ratio was correct in most cases, so that’s an improvement, and nearly every unit was displaying widescreen material. However, while it was widescreen and may have been high definition once, it certainly couldn’t be called high definition by the time it got to the display, because not a single store had a clean signal feeding the sets. None. Not one. Not even at the regional specialty store with the knowledgeable sales guy. In every store, the signal was split and distributed to multiple sets, and by the time it got there, it was missing a lot of the original information.
A Dramatization: What the set should have looked like (left, click to enlarge) vs. what it actually looked like (right, click to enlarge):
I seriously question how retailers can expect consumers to pony up thousands of dollars for televisions whose picture quality looks that bad (in the store). If an HDTV looked like that in my home, I’d return it.
At least it made evaluating each set’s processing a bit easier – every set was tuned in to a low resolution torture test. Different sets dealt with the lack of information differently: some made everything soft – so soft it looked like widescreen VHS – and some riddled the screen with digital artifacts so that everything appeared filtered through a 1980’s music video or was digitized to obscure nudity. There were a few sets with direct satellite feeds (or direct connections to an HD disc player); it seems cynical, but those tended to be more expensive 1080p models, and, possibly, higher margin sales for the stores. Conspiracy theory, or just plain retail incompetence?