Help me be a better videophile/shopper
November 13, 2009 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Help me be a better videophile: We're shopping for our first HDTV, and (like most folks, I guess) I'm cheap but want to hold a firm line on quality. But I went to Best Buy and looked at their Wall o' TVs -- all playing the same promo reel, each displaying a different shade of green when a perfect green color field appeared -- and realized I need to be able to rely on something other than my eyes.

We'll probably be getting a TV in the 40"-46" regime. We'll be getting a Blu-Ray player in short order, and so I want a monitor that will show Blu-Rays as well as possible. But the majority of its use will be cable (standard def as well as HD), standard-def DVDs (through an existing player of indeterminate progressive scan quality for now, eventually upconverted via whatever Blu-Ray player we get), and Wii, and everyday use will occur in a somewhat sun-lit room. My gut tells me 1080p and LCD, but that's one of a number of things I'm happy to have debunked if someone wants to.

Here are examples of the kind of wisdom that I'm looking for, that I've culled from previous AskMe threads:

> Make sure that you're getting an exact resolution (1920x1080 for 1080p, or 1280x720 for 720p).
> For LCD/LED sets, look for sets whose refresh rate is a multiple of 24Hz to get perfect pulldown from film sources (but even then it has to be the right set, cf.

So, when I look at the Black Friday ads on, I see that Target has a 40" Apex LCD unit for $450 (1920x1080, 18k:1 contrast ratio, no reference to refresh rates). I'm not crazy about going off-brand ... but then again, I'm not sure why that is. Best Buy has a 40" Samsung LCD unit for $600 (LN40B500, 1920x1800, 40k:1 contrast ratio, 60 Hz), but also a 42" Insignia LCD unit that's 120 Hz for $700, and a Dynex 40" 60Hz unit for $500. Or I can drop $1000 and get a 50" Panasonic Viera plasma and get a Panasonic Blu-Ray player thrown in. &c., &c., &c.

But I've been to the showroom, which I understand are under specific lighting conditions, and: All the blacks (plasma, LCD, LED) looked very black. None seemed to feature a greater level of digital artifacting or pixelation. I intend on going back and trying to employ more control of the process (trying to see how a given set shows a standard-def source, or a black-and-white movie), but at the end of the day I'm not sure I'm going to be able to use by videophile skillz to tell what I need to tell in a showroom scenario.

So: What questions should I ask? What features should I investigate? What rules of thumb should I employ? What should I know about off-brand sets? I realize that any SDTV to HDTV upgrade is going to be so sharp that I'll appreciate whatever I get, but, as was mentioned in a previous post, I want to make sure I'm picking a set to grow into, not out of ... while spending as little as possible.
posted by blueshammer to Shopping (22 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Two notes:

1) If you're going to be getting a blu-ray DVD player spring for full HD (1080p).

2) Go to and look at their tutorials. They are quite good, and are written for someone who has your questions. Though the people writing these tutorials are experts they don't condescend and all technical jargon is explained well.
posted by dfriedman at 8:25 AM on November 13, 2009

Oh, and a 3rd note:

Don't go to Best Buy and assume that whoever is on the floor can answer questions for you. Do all of your own research, at, decide on what features are must-haves, and then shop accordingly. Personally, I would buy from or or or any other online retailer before I would step foot in a physical store. But then that's my cynical take on the largely unsophisticated sales force Best Buy employs.
posted by dfriedman at 8:28 AM on November 13, 2009

I think that to a large extent you SHOULD rely on your eyes. What is going to be watching the TV? If the picture looks better to you, what does the magazine article or blog post have to offer? By all means research the various features, but when it comes down to picture quality, don't let someone else's eyes convince you. Like the difference between LCD and DLP projectors, there's a lot of subjectivity. Some people think one is clearly better, some the other. And don't expect to actually get any of those doorbuster Black Friday prices. They are "limited supply" to get you in the door, basically legalized bait-and-switch.
posted by rikschell at 8:48 AM on November 13, 2009

We just bought a plasma set this last weekend, and we used Consumer Reports help to choose one. They have a guide just on electronics, which I picked up at Barnes and Noble, and it was really helpful. The latest magazine too is on electric appliances. We got a Samsung, which is not usually my first choice, but it was top-rated.

We picked a 1080p plasma set because the guide said it is easier to see at an angle, if you are not facing the set head on. But when we were looking at the LCD's in the store they seemed to be fine. They also said the stores set the picture to look good in their setting under the fluorescent lights, and that you can ask them to set them back to normal conditions so you can see what the picture will look like at home.
posted by chocolatetiara at 8:50 AM on November 13, 2009

I'm probably going to be picking up a big one this season too (we have a 32" in the bedroom) and there are a couple of things I've learned (I am welcome to hear any corrections to the following):

- There is a wide variety of features for any given manufacturer and model line. The same panel can have a different model number at a different retailer too.

- Panels that you find on sale are typically last years models (or at least "older" ones). For example everytime I see a great deal at Costco and do some research, it's an older model. Not necessarliy a bad thing though.

- I read somewhere that the off brands are typically utilizing the same components that the big guys are. You just don't get some of the features that the name brands might have.

Crutchfield has a lot of great info as noted. I get their mailer and some of the new top of the line sets are highlighted in there. Some of the features that are available are mind blowing. Widgets you can install, WiFi, Internet browser ready to go type of stuff.

There's also lots of great deals and discussion on sites like fatwallet and slickdeals.
posted by Big_B at 8:51 AM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

FWIW, we have the 42" Insignia that you describe above (Best Buy's in-house brand). We're very happy with it. I agree that going to a brick and mortar store was a good idea to see things with your own eyes, but at the same time, I've found that the looped broadcasts that they use in the stores aren't going to be presented in the same quality that you'll find when you hook your HDTV up to an HD cable signal or Blu-Ray setup thru HDMI. If you peek behind the sets at a big box store like Best Buy or Walmart, I've found that they usually have the sets hooked up through a coax cable, and thus the quality of the picture itself isn't as good as HDMI. For example, we noticed pixelation on some sets in the store, and at home we get compression artifacts over cable, but on upconverted DVD and Blu-Ray there are no problems. So take some of the things you see at the store with a grain of salt.
posted by puritycontrol at 9:38 AM on November 13, 2009

No budding videophile should skip AVSForums.

I think that to a large extent you SHOULD rely on your eyes.

Just not at the store. As chocolatetiara mentioned, the TV's in the store are setup for the brightest possible picture (color and brightness levels are jacked up) to stand out from the rest on display, not the best possible picture to show off the quality.

FWIW, the recommendation I get from someone that works on TVs doing calibration is that Samsungs are the most bang for the buck and need the least tweaking (best out of box picture).
posted by anti social order at 9:45 AM on November 13, 2009

Wall o' TVs -- all playing the same promo reel, each displaying a different shade of green when a perfect green color field appeared -- and realized I need to be able to rely on something other than my eyes.

This is a four year old story, but a guy I know who used to be a Best Buy manager explained to me that they adjusted the TVs on that wall to make whatever they most want to sell look best, and deliberately muck with those they don't want to sell to make them look "inferior".

The dominant influence on which they want to sell: those with the biggest margins.

So don't trust the wall.
posted by rokusan at 9:45 AM on November 13, 2009

I think this comes up in just about every AskMe thread about buying an HDTV, but you may want to consult this chart when deciding between 720p and 1080p. With a 40" screen, you'll need to be sitting about 5 feet away to get the full benefit of 1080p.
posted by ocha-no-mizu at 9:46 AM on November 13, 2009

I'm seconding whoever said upthread to be careful judging quality based on in-store demos.

We bought a Visio HDTV (not the same size as yours) basically sight unseen at Costco because the price was so good.

When I set it up at home, I was thinking I had made a terrible mistake because the colors, contrast and sharpness had horrible defaults and if I had seen this in the store I would have passed.

The thing is, pretty much all the store defaults are pumped up to extreme degrees. After some focused color calibration and tweaking I got a very excellent picture and I'm proud to say (knowing myself the way I do) that I've left alone for months.

So FWIW I have been very happy with the Visio especially for the price. Every time I see another brand in a friends house that seems to have a substantial leap in picture quality it turns out to be 2 times as much as the one I purchased.
posted by jeremias at 9:57 AM on November 13, 2009

It's not that you can't rely on your eyes; it's that you can't rely on a big box store like Circuit City / Best Buy / Walmart to set up their goddamn TVs correctly. They tend to plug them into multiplexers using composite feeds (really), have them adjusted with all sorts of wacky settings, etc. Things are better than they were a few years ago, but they're still bad.

I've both heard directly from employees and seen evidence of customers being pushed towards specific models by fudging the settings on TVs they didn't want to sell, or running non-HD content on them.

The best thing you can do is not go to a big-box store. Go to a home theater store where they'll have employees who know what they're doing; it might cost you a little more, but IMO it's worth it.

If that's not an option, the next best thing to do is read reviews on sites like AVS Forums. A review written by someone who knows what they're talking about, and based on a well-tweaked setup in their own house or in a botique store, is going to be a lot more useful than staring at some sample content on a wall-o-screens down at Worst Buy.

Really the best thing to do would be to combine the approaches; go to a boutique store, look at a few things, then read some videophile reviews before you go back and purchase.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:07 AM on November 13, 2009

Get a cheap one.

I'm being ridiculously general but I think most of the LCDs for sale these days are pretty damn good. We got a Polaroid 37" (yes, Polaroid) from Costco a few years ago and are still really happy with it. I wouldn't recommend it because I've seen poor reviews about the reliabilty of newer models. That said, where you buy it is important because you want a liberal return policy like Costco has.

Keep in mind that not only will the TV will have picture calibration controls, the DVD or BluRay player will also have controls (probably buried a few menus deep) that fine tune the sharpness, colour temperature, etc. You'll go nuts trying to decide in the store.

...on preview, I'm just 2nding jeremias.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:15 AM on November 13, 2009

I would just go with the size:price ratio that's cheapest. My friend purchased a 52" Samsung and a 42" Samsung because he liked Samsung. I bought a 23" Acer and it's honestly doing the job fine.

In-store I would look only at 3 things:

-Backlight bleeding: when the bulbs are brighter at the bottom/sides/top of the monitor and they wash out color. OLED panels kind of help eliminate bleeding

-Edge quality: watch for blur. Even with RCA connections you should be able to judge edge quality: bad edges in RCA = horrible edges in HD. You want a natural crispness to foreground objects and you don't want them to blend into the mid-background. It's kind of BS when they say "the cables will make the image sharper." It's a pillar that salesman will hide behind. What they actually mean is "this image is shitty, but cables will make it a bit better." If the images are good at low quality input, then at high quality input they will be outstanding.

-Motion quality: you don't want muddy blurry motion. Unless you -do- want that glowy effect with motion. They'll have some kind of water movement on display on the demo reel. Look to see if you can clearly catch detail in motion on whatever input they have set up. IF you can, that means the panel can properly refresh and you'll get nice clear movements.
posted by Khazk at 10:29 AM on November 13, 2009

Response by poster: ocha, we're about 9' from the set, which I think means that up to 60" is supposed to be good, and 40" is on the cusp of too small.

Thanks for everybody's comments so far.
posted by blueshammer at 10:54 AM on November 13, 2009

If you find a model you want at the big box store, chances are, the ones in the store are tweaked and adjusted. Ask the salesman to reset the picture settings (or do it yourself) to the default settings.

This is what your TV will look like out of the box. Most people don't adjust them.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:56 AM on November 13, 2009

My pocket change:

-If you are getting a set over 40" get 1080p. I have a 37" Dell branded Philips LCD which looks great at 720p and a 46" LCD at 1080p which has the same great look with more screen to spread the pixels over.

-The 46", 120Hz that I have is a Sony which I bought refurbished from Sony directly. I got it at about 50% of the price and it is performing really well and looks stunning. They gave me two extra years warranty for about $60 and I even got free shipping. Had it set up in my living room less than a week after ordering it. (Sony Refurbs)

-Check out this article via Gizmodo about motion blur and refresh rates. Apparently anything above 120Hz is overkill. On my Sony I have to actually turn off the image enhancing functions in most cases because it looks so crisp that everything appears animated.

-I still contend that the PS3 is the best Bluray option, especially now that they've dropped the price. Mine coupled with the Sony 46" is pretty spectacular for movie watching. It also upconverts DVDs very well and streams video from your computer over a home network. I don't know if it is still the case, but groups like Criterion identify it as their de facto standard Bluray player.

-I'd choose LCD over plasma every time. Most of the motion blur associated with early models has been bred out of the technology, while burn-in is still an issue for plasmas. Also, with my 60Hz 37" LCD that I've had for years I never noticed any aberrations with the picture quality.
posted by Gainesvillain at 11:14 AM on November 13, 2009

If they try to sell the TV envirionmentally to you: Energy Star ratings are usually obtained when on the lowest settings (from NPR a few weeks ago) (and the opposite of how the store will have the tv displayed). Don't necessarily believe the ratings.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:19 AM on November 13, 2009

Response by poster: Gainesvillain: Thanks very much for that Sony refurb link. I think I might have found my TV.
posted by blueshammer at 11:33 AM on November 13, 2009

HDTVs arent much more than their panels. Find out who makes the panel in the brands you are interested in. You'll need to do your own research. The salesguy isnt your friend here, he's your enemy. He just wants to sell you a TV.

You can browse the AVS forums linked above for a whole lot of info. Personally, I feel that the TV is something you shouldnt skimp on. I know a couple people with Vizio's and Olevia's and the picture isnt good. The panels have a paleness thats just unappealing. The electronics are cheap and the scaling is ugly.

I find LG, Panasonic, Sony, and Toshiba screens to be pretty good and an LG or Toshiba is only a hundred or two more than a Vizio. You also get a better scaler, menu, remote, etc.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:15 PM on November 13, 2009

Besides image quality look for the hidden things: big on/off lights can be annoying in the dark. Some remotes are way too complicated. Beware of glossy screens depending on your room setup.

If you are not an audio/video junkie and given this question, you aren't, don't spend more than $800. I'm a graphic designer and care a lot about image quality (less about sound) and my 600 EUR TV is just fine.

Of course all of that also depends on how much you watch TV, your finances, etc.; but given the crazy year-to-year I'd rather buy a $500 TV every 5 years than blowing $2500 on a top of the bill model.

Five years ago if you had a 32" flat panel you were a rich kid now it's very common.
posted by wolfr at 12:28 PM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Couple of things. The name brands tend to have better quality then the off brands like insignia and dynex.

Plasma tv's have great quality compaired to cost but are being phased out. They do tend to have burn in no matter what anybody says.

LCd tv's to get better picture quality you need to spend more.

LED lit lcd's have better picture quality then most florecent lit lcd's but cost more generally. The samsung 6000 series can be decently priced when on sale . LEd lit lcd panels can also use way less energy.

1. Make sure you can play with the menu on each tv. IF the store wont let you find another one that will .Most tvs are hooked up and share a video source and are set up on demo modes. You have to play with the menu to get a better picture.

2. If you dont mind electricity usage and wont be playing video games a plasma can get you a better picture for cheaper than an lcd panel can

3. I would say try to find sets that are 1080p because they tend to be a little more future proof and better hardware all around

4.LIke Others have said the ps3 is still the best blu-ray player out there. That is what I use for blu-ray. It is software upgradable and can be upgraded to the latest blu-ray spec .

5. I have heard that if you go with vizio go with a non walmart vizio because the walmart ones are cheaply made.

6. Backlight bleeding is different with every set. you can find the show floor model to have none and every one you buy of that mmodel from the box to have bad so dont go to heavily on it.

7 if looking at the samsung 6000 and 7000 led series you get get dlna streaming on the 6000 just buy going into the service menu and changing the model number to 7000.

8. Go to they can give you great help there.
posted by majortom1981 at 12:33 PM on November 13, 2009

I'd disagree that tvs are no more than their panels. If you are feeding a 1080p signal to a 1080p panel, maybe. The difference is in the processing- how does the computer in the TV upscale/downscale different signals to the native resolution? How does it deal with compression artifacts? How quickly does it do this (a slow tv is no good for gaming, and might even cause a noticible gap between the sound and the picture on normal watching if you have a stereo hooked up for sound.)

Similarly, I disagree with the notion that not getting a full 1080p panel if you are going to be sitting farther away is an OK compromise. Resolution is resolution, and you'll notice.

And inputs- make sure it has enough of the right kind of inputs.
posted by gjc at 8:12 AM on November 14, 2009

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