How to Shop for Televisions & Displays
We’ve received numerous emails, and indeed they come in almost daily, inquiring about the best televisions, which format is better and how to determine if Set A is better than Set B. These are questions that ANYONE looking to spend multiple hundreds (much less thousands) of dollars on a display want answered. Let’s tackle some of these common issues and discuss ways of determining the more important factors that should determine which products are going to perform best for you. Prices are almost always dropping, though we are in a period where LCD and plasma is finally leveling out somewhat and price drops are not as dramatic as they were 2-3 years ago.
Set Your Budget and Stick to It
We cannot count the number of times people blindly email us or post on the forums, inquiring about the “best” display to purchase for their living room or home theater. Without a budget you will not get any kind of answer that is helpful in a practical manner. For instance, if your budget is $2000 for a 50-inch flat panel display you are very limited and will be looking for the best “entry-level” product your money can buy. If, however, your budget is $4000-$5000 for the same product, you are able to purchase more of a flagship-style solution that will have best-in-class features and some frills that don’t exist (currently) at the lower price points.
By setting a budget, you ensure that a) you don’t overspend and make a mess of your finances, and b) you are making valid apples-to-apples comparisons within the marketplace. Should you choose to increase your budget after doing a little research, then feel free to do so (provided your spouse agrees!) but always stay within your price range when comparison shopping.
Decide on the Form Factor You’ll Want
In deciding on what I’ll call the “form factor” for your display, we’ll segment this into three categories, placed in order of (typical) expense – most expensive first:
- Flat Panel displays
- Front Projection systems
- Rear Projection systems
Now, does this mean that all front projection systems are less expensive than all flat panels? Certainly not. What I am attempting to do is give you an idea of your “bang for the buck” when working with a tight budget. Here’s a perfect example: John has $2000 to spend on a television or display system. He can get either a 42-inch entry-level plasma TV, an entry level 720p front projector and ~100-inch screen, or a midrange 60-inch rear projection TV. Obviously, John’s room, spouse and budget work together to help determine his needs and the optimal form factor for his room or home. Is either of John’s choices necessarily “better”? Not really. After all, what good is a 100-inch front projection system if John can’t control ambient light into his viewing room. And what good is a rear projection television if his spouse is aiming for a more refined, low profile living room aesthetic.
Knowing what style of television or display you need will mean all the difference in the world when shopping and will help you quickly reduce the number of options you are faced with when making your choice. So how do we determine the best form factor? Well, it’s primarily based on your needs and the room into which the system will be placed. Let’s go over some very basic rules (and rules are meant to be broken) for each display type:
Flat Panel Display Requirements
In order to utilize a flat panel display, you’ll want to, typically, value the reduced depth of the screen over the overall picture size – at least on a ‘bang-for-the-buck’ scale. If you are planning on wall-mounting the display, a flat panel is the way to go. Keep in mind that you’ll need to carefully locate power and your cables so as to not compromise the low-profile look of the system. Some plasma displays require particular ventilation, so be sure to use a proper mounting system that allows air to circulate as needed. Overheating the display will almost certainly lead to premature failure and a lot more money down the road – possibly sooner than you had anticipated. Typically a custom home theater installer is going to be worth every penny when performing a fancier installation.
Some flat panel displays come with an anti-glare coating, making off-axis viewing much easier. Take your viewing environment into account when making your purchase. If the display has a high amount of glare or poor off-axis viewing response, then it may be a problem for your room.
Front Projection System Requirements
In order to go with front projection you’ll need space to hang an appropriately sized screen. We do not recommend projecting onto a wall, unless you plan to upgrade shortly in a multi-phased purchase approach. Remember that textured walls will wreak havoc on a projected image – you can see the pattern in the image and it will annoy you to no end. Even before screen recommendations, you’ll need to ensure that you have enough throw distance to correctly place the image on the screen at the right size. Our friends at ProjectorCentral.com have a nice calculator you can use online and the user manual typically lists the minimum and maximum distances you can be to the screen given the projector’s particular zoom lens.
Finally, ambient light will have to be significantly eliminated from the room to avoid washing out the blacks. Remember, projectors don’t project ‘black’. Your white or gray screen must be in a completely ambient light-free room in order to appear ‘black’ (think about what a white piece of paper would look like in a completely dark closet – black). This also means that you’ll need to reduce and/or eliminate any reflective surfaces near the screen. This includes the ceiling, trim, furniture, or anything else that will reflect light back to the screen. You want the front of your room to “suck” light – this will give you the best possible contrast for your images.
If you can meet all of these demands, then guess what? You can have a very large display for an extremely reasonable amount of money. Where else can you score a 100-inch display for $2000 or less? No rear projection or flat panel system can do that at today’s prices.
Rear Projection System Requirements
Some consumers will specifically want a rear projection television set for one of several reasons. First of all, these sets give you a larger screen size for a relatively small amount of money – at least compared to flat panel displays. Rear projection televisions also do very well in particular installations such as cut-out architectural areas and rooms where you want to utilize a lot of equipment and a larger A/V or display stand.
Rear projection televisions also do not require complete ambient light reduction, so you can experience a pretty large screen without having to place the system in a dedicated theater room. Off axis viewing varies by model, so if you have a very wide room, make sure that you have sufficient horizontal off-axis response so everyone will be able to see the screen with sufficient contrast. Rear projection televisions work by focusing light to the screen using a special lens and high gain screen material. As a result, horizontal, and especially vertical, viewing angles are reduced, so keep this in mind. We no longer recommend CRT rear projection due to the required maintenance issues and progress of digital alternatives.