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No Stupid Questions… Part 1: Displays

by July 06, 2008
Its Really Cute How Stupid You Are

It's Really Cute How Stupid You Are

As a reviewer (much less the host of AV Rant), I am asked on a regular basis for my opinion. Everyone from the checkout guy at the supermarket to random people at parties want me to tell them which is the best display or speakers or HTiB. Family and friends are no better in that they ask for specific suggestions to the vaguest of questions. Sometimes they want specific answers to specific issues with which I am unlikely to have an answer (what are the best wireless headphones, best VHS to DVD recorder, etc.) and other times they just want to know what is the ultimate, best, "X". Invariably, their eyes glaze over as I wax poetic about the differences between LCD and Plasma, or HTiBs and banging your head on the wall, or how they measure contrast ratios by tossing little plastic Smurfs coated in bacon grease at their dog and multiply the number eaten by 1000 and putting a :1 after it.

Audioholics has put together a number of documents to help people help themselves.

This will probably not really be one of them.

Someone once said that there are no stupid questions. That person was stupid. People who repeat that idiom are either stupid or are looking for material for their blogs. You'll notice that while many of the questions I cover aren't particularly stupid, the lack of thought or the inability for any human to answer them is what puts them, and their asker, squarely in the "I eat paste" camp. This installment will deal with questions about displays.


Most often we get questions about displays - probably because they are a high dollar item that people would like to get the most "bang for their buck" out of. And frankly, there are plenty of people out there that believe that they can do without surround sound specifically or speakers in general. I vehemently disagree but, believe me, they exist.

What kind of TV should I buy? Or. Which is the "best?"

What is missing from these questions almost always is a budget. Oh, sure, you'll get some people that will tell you that performance is all that matters (rarely true) or that price is the most important (also often untrue) but more often than not, I am left with some sort of nebulous designation of "best" based on whatever criteria decides to pop into my head at any given time. Which has, pretty much 100% of the time, nothing to do with what the person wants. Heck, half the time I'm lucky if they give me a size, much less a type.

The key - and this is a common theme - is that there is no "best." Because how you measure "best" depends on what is important to you. There are plenty of displays with great black levels and detail. There are plenty of displays with PC inputs. There are plenty of displays that have fantastic deinterlacing. There are plenty of displays with just the right number of inputs for your needs, the right aesthetic look, or great reliability. There are displays that are thin, thinner, and super duper "Oh my God look I cut my hand on the new TV" thin. If only one of those things (or any number not mentioned here) is important to you, you have a lot of options at a lot of different price points. The more of these options you "need," the less displays are available and those will be in proportionally increasing price points. Believe me, if you want to spend $20k on a display, there is someone out there that is making them. And I'm sure they look fantastic.

What I generally tell people to do is to take the specifications (particularly the contrast ratio) with a grain of salt. Realize that manufacturers give the same features any number of different labels in order to "trick" you into thinking they've got something their competitors don't. And the number one tip: Don't trust your eyes on a showroom floor. When shopping for displays, make sure you can adjust them to ensure that every display is on a level playing field. Otherwise, spend a little time on the Internet searching for the model numbers you are interested in with the key words "HQV" (higher score the better though this is only important with an interlaced signal), "black levels" (looking for good detail and dark blacks), and "banding" (banding=bad). Reviewing displays isn't a very subjective thing. There are tons of tests that can be run to uncover their performance. While the opinion of your random forum troll is worth its weight in bacon covered Smurfs (see above), many reviewers can be trusted to at least not lead you too far astray. Of course the minute they start talking about how the display made them "feel," run away, stick your fingers in your ears and recite, "I am an Audioholic. I do not subscribe to such rubbish. La la la. I'm a pretty girl."

Well, maybe not that last part.

720p vs. 1080p

So often we get questions about the two "high def" resolutions. In my opinion, while they are saying "Do I need it," what they are really saying is "Help me convince my wife/spouse/self to spend the extra money for 1080p." Here are the cold, hard facts: Do you need it? Probably not. Sorry, it's the truth. Unless you are close enough to turn your head to see one side of the screen vs. the other, you probably are not going to notice a significant difference. You certainly might notice a difference but for most people it isn't going to be that big (and certainly not worth the extra $1000+ dollars). That being said, do you want 1080p? Yep, you do and you know it. So stop looking to me for validation you gutless wimp.

Why should I care about high definition?

Because it rocks. To me, high definition is almost as important a step as color was over black and white. A good high def display with a good HD signal looks significantly better than standard definition fare. It just does. I love it - and when you have it, you will too.

That being said, the real question is, "Why should I care about high definition discs (i.e. Blu-ray) over standard DVDs." Well, honestly, for the picture quality, the argument is much weaker. While you will see a difference between the Blu-ray version of a movie over the DVD version, it is probably something that, objectively, you'll probably find yourself saying, "Meh, it's nice and all but not worth $400." And I'd agree.


Just stop it with the burn-in questions already. This is as irksome for me as the "Yamahas are bright, Denons, are laid back, Pioneers are neutral, My mother is pretty and I kiss her all the time," statements. Perhaps they had some basis in reality at some point but really aren't applicable any more, and probably haven't been for a long time (sorry, Mom). The deal was that when plasmas first came out, burn-in was an issue with some sets. "Burn-in" is the propensity for an image to become "stuck" on the screen so that you can see it even when it changes to a different picture. It might look like a "ghost" of the image inside of the new picture.

Frankly, while this is probably an issue with the first few generations of plasmas, I'm betting it was more a problem of user error than anything. When plasmas first came out, people were used to using CRTs which are fairly bulletproof (as long as you don't hold a magnet up to the screen - learned that one the hard way as a kid). They just hooked them up and let the run on whatever they wanted not thinking that they might want to go into a menu and switch things up a bit.

The fact is many (I'd say "all" but "most" is probably more appropriate) displays come from the factory in "torch" mode. This means that "Dynamic" mode is engaged which blasts the brightness hoping to get the attention of the gullible on the retail floor. Obviously, since they are dealing with big box employees, they can't trust them to press two buttons on the remote to torch up their display so they enable this for EVERY display. You, the consumer, are expected to have more sense.

Well, we can hope, can't we?

I'm not saying that there weren't real problems with burn-in - there were. But many were probably more Id:10t errors than actual manufacturing defects. Even now, when plasmas are all but burn-in free, in torch mode a white menu on a black screen will "retain" for a few seconds after only a few minutes on a set that I know, from personal experience, will, when properly calibrated, resist any amount of burn-in with the same image after 8+ hours. Check your settings people.

In closing…

I had a friend once that read the literature on a display that she was interested in and found a brand specific name for something lame like back-light control or 120Hz refresh rate. She then ran around calling all the different manufacturers and asking them if they had the same named feature. Of course they don't. They have the same thing but they call it something different. You can't expect the CSS who just knocked out a bowl of curry to know every lame name that every brand comes up with for 120Hz refresh rate. She, being stupid, didn't know what it was either - just that the TV she was interested in had it and no one else did. I tried to explain to her that it was just a name for something that most brands do but it was much like having that "But it goes to 11" conversation with the Spinal Tap dudes.

Displays are a big purchase and I understand why people stress out so much about them. A bit of reading and a little bit of research will whittle your choices down considerably. This round of questions mostly dealt with misunderstanding, generalities, and non-issues. The truth is that people only have so much brain power to dedicate to issues in their lives. I've known men that if you couldn't talk about baseball literally couldn't talk to you. They just didn't have anything to say. Luckily, displays are much easier than that. It doesn't take long to learn just enough to make sure you're making a decent purchase… or are a least asking the right questions.


Phil Taylor posts on July 12, 2008 23:39
ROFLMAO @ “…it was much like having that ”But it goes to 11“ conversation…” Those situations remind me of the old saying “Never try to teach a pig to sing - it wastes your time and annoys the pig”.
CountryRazkul posts on July 12, 2008 22:34
Awesome article composition… I am referring friend and family to that “guide!”
BobMac posts on July 10, 2008 17:35
You need to just say “Pioneer Elite Plasma.”
croseiv posts on July 07, 2008 15:16
zhimbo, post: 430836
Notice the “Part 1” in a title. This is the start of a series.

I think he (Dezoris) was joking…
zhimbo posts on July 07, 2008 14:52
Dezoris, post: 430804
I liked this editorial.
But I am disappointed you did not address the question that is most important.

Notice the “Part 1” in a title. This is the start of a series.
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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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