How and why a “plasma purist” wound-up falling in love with a Flat Panel LCD.
The Super Bowl is a little over a week away and question many people are asking themselves is “which HDTV should I buy for the game?” The answer is not simple and represents a significant monetary investment. Sure, a bunch of future displays were just announced at CES, but there is always something better on the horizon, those displays are months away, and the Super Bowl is upon us – it’s time to pull the trigger! Due to my price and space considerations, I focused on HDTV displays ranging from 42″-50″ from higher-end manufacturers that are available at most local big box retailers. This write-up summarizes the hours of research and testing that went into making my final display choice for Super Bowl 2007 and many thereafter.
Flat Panel or Rear Projection or Front Projection?
This is a decision you have to make based on how much space you want to devote to the display, how much time you want to devote to installation, and how much budget you have. This article is devoted to Flat Panels; I chose a flat panel because I wanted the smallest footprint possible (actually, zero footprint since it’s installed on the wall.) Rear projection definitely offers a larger screen for a lower price. Front projection offers a giant screen for an even lower price if you have total light control and are willing to perform a more intensive install. But Flat Panels are pretty much the sexiest displays out there, and that’s probably why I chose that technology.
LCD or Plasma?
I must admit, I’m a plasma purist. I’ve always admired their extremely black blacks and unequaled ANSI contrast ratio. If you’re going to be watching your TV exclusively in a dark room, plasma is definitely the way to go. But I already have a dedicated home theater with a front projection system. When I want to watch TV outside of my home theater isolation chamber, I want to do it with the lights on and in the daylight. These lighting conditions are the downfall of plasma. All plasmas have a glass front panel on them. When they produce those amazing black levels for which they are famous, the front panel becomes extremely mirror-like. So you can easily see reflections from your windows and any lamp that is beside or behind you (when you’re in front of the TV.) LCDs, on the other hand, have a matte finish on the front. This results in great diffusion and almost total elimination of glare. LCDs are also brighter than plasmas. This combination of features makes LCD the much better choice if you aren’t going to darken your room every time you watch.
I’ve chosen Plasma, what display do you recommend?
The newest Samsung plasmas (such as the Samsung HP-S5073 and HP-S4253) have an anti-glare coating on them, which reduced the amount of reflections and to a small degree eliminates the glare problem. When compared side-by-side with the two other top plasmas (the Pioneer PDP-5070HD and the Panasonic TH50PX600), the glare was reduced in scenes with medium brightness. Extremely bright and colorful scenes look great on all of the plasmas and dark scenes were full of reflections on all of the plasmas, so the Samsung coating is only a moderate success. Unfortunately, these sets are notorious for emitting an annoying buzz from their main controller board (see this and this AVSforum thread.) Assuming that you’re looking for a 50″ plasma, this really leaves only two choices (based on a wide amount of reading and testing): the Panasonic TH50PX600 and the Pioneer PDP-5070HD. When properly calibrated, both give an absolutely stunning picture, but a majority of the people over at AVSforum gives a slight edge to the Pioneer. Seeing that the price of these two displays is extremely close (especially when searching online), I strongly recommend the Pioneer PDP-5070HD.
Recommendation for 50″ Plasma: Pioneer PDP-5070HD
Recommendation for 42″ Plasma: Panasonic TH42PX600
I’ve chosen LCD, what display do you recommend?
I initially focused on the “S brands”: Sony, Samsung, and Sharp (there are many more budget-minded brands out there but I focused on these higher-end alternatives). Anyone can debate picture quality for any set, but an annoying flaw is something that almost everyone can agree on — and something I wanted to avoid at all costs.
The Sharp (Aquos 42D62U/46D62U/52D62U) is the low-cost leader of this bunch but a large number of users have noticed horizontal and vertical banding (uneven brightness resulting in horizontal or vertical bars – see this AVSforum thread.) Because of this and a marginally lower opinion of the overall quality versus the others, I dropped them off the list.
I then considered the Samsung (LN-S4696D, LN-S4695D, LN-S4096D) and Sony XBR and V2500 (KDL-46XBR3, KDL-40XBR3, KDL-46XBR2, KDL-40XBR2, KDL-46V2500, KDL-40V2500) models but found a huge amount of complaining about cloudy/uneven backlighting. Samsung makes the panels for both the Sony and Samsung models and this problem affects a very high percentage of these displays (well over 50% of owners see the problem). Check out this, this, and this AVSforum thread and the picture below.
At this point, I was close to giving up — but then I found and started researching Mitsubishi (LT-46131, LT-46231) models. No banding. No cloudy uneven backlighting. This post by ‘bugsbny’ sums it up best:
“Well, my hellish two weeks are over! After getting a 46″ XBR2 (with clouds…see my post in the Sony cloud thread) and a 46″ Aquos (with banding) I was about to give up on LCD. . . Using the best possible comparison tool…my living room with the same inputs, I definitely got the best picture with the Mitsubishi.”
Plus, compared to the others, the Mitsubishi has more inputs, a cable card slot, the best Picture-in-Picture and Picture-out-of-Picture features (Samsung has limited PiP), a firewire output (for D-VHS recording of HD), and it is the only set to properly deintlace signals to the native progressive screen refresh rate (test results). Finally, it has a built-in QAM tuner, which means that it can tune-in unencrypted local HD stations off of digital cable without having to rent/add a cable card. In short, this became the clear choice for my LCD purchase. Using these settings during an in-store demo made the decision final.
Recommendation for 46″ LCD: Mitsubishi LT-46131 (or LT-46231)
Recommendation for 42″ or 50″ LCD: buy the 46″ Mitsubishi instead
If you’re looking to buy a LCD flat-panel TV for the Super Bowl, I highly recommend the Mitsubishi LT-46131 or LT-46231 (both have the same panel, the 231 has just a few more features and a completely black case.) Both of these are available in-store at Fry’s Electronics and online at Frys.com for the lowest price I’ve found. Circuit City also carries them.
This is the best advice I have to offer on digital flat panels for SuperBowl 2007 — but be sure to go the stores and look at these displays yourself with your own eyes — and let me know if you come to a different conclusion.
As somebody who doesn’t know much about HDTV’s your website has proven to be an amazing resource. I don’t plan on buying one for awhile but your site using real words and great explanations between your findings on Plasma and LCD has helped me greatly. Great post and thanks for sharing your findings.
Vanlandw: Thanks for your kind comments!
I was just about sold on the Mitsubishi LT-46231 until I went to CES 2007. There I saw a new breed of of LCDs that have a 120Hz vs 60HZ ‘frame-rate”.
The Sharp 46″ ’92’series are now available! Along with the 120Hz ‘frame-rate’ they have a 4ms. response-time. But that’s where the features end, like the Sony XBRs, no cable card, no ‘TV-Guide’, no PIP or POP! Plain-Jane!
My question is, have you seen these 120Hz ‘frame-rate’ sets? Are they worth it? Or is it just a new gimmick to sell TVs? In the Sharp booth @ CES the ’92’ series looked good, but you got to figure the display programming is designed to make their set look good. It’s not the real world.
I’d much rather have the features of the Mitsubishi LT-46231 and save money each month on my cable company bill by not having to rent a cable box. But, I’m a avid sports fan and am wondering if I’ll actually notice the 120Hz difference in fast action sports?
Also, the Mitsubishi says you can use ‘TV-Guide” to program recording to their D-VHS via Fire-Wire. My question is, do you have to leave the TV on all the time? Or does it go into some sort of low-power hibernation-mode when setup up to record?
Finally, any idea if you can record directly to an external Fire-Wire hard-drive from the Mitsubishi LT-46231’s Fire-Wire port? That would be “Way-Cool”!
I haven’t seen any of the new 120 Hz sets yet, so I really can’t comment. My personal opinion is that a high-end video processor will make more of a difference than a faster refresh rate. Watching the Super Bowl on my TV, I noticed no video issues during game play but the video did break-up a little during full-screen wipes (crowd shots before/after the commercials.) I’m not sure if it was the display or the video source, but my Sony front projector didn’t have the same problem (but it also was down-scaling to 720p.)
In my opinion, Sharp spends as little as possible on features and sells their sets based on resolution and screen size, which is not that important when it comes to image quality. I’d much rather have a decent on-board scaler, deinterlacer, cable-card slots, and QAM tuner.
The TV doesn’t have to be on to record and it does work with external drives, D-VHS recorders, and PCs with special software. Check out my Owners FAQ Post.
I have also been performing an exhaustive search of all options for TV’s….Ideally I’d go with a LCD panel with a size around 50-54″. It seems the pricing is still quite high for those sets and they are all about to convert to LED backlighting with variable output. I am in a debate whether to go with the LT-46131 (not as big as I’d like), go rock bottom with a $1000 Mitsubishi wd-52531 1080i rear projection, or hold out for 12-24 months as panel prices drop on the +50″ LCD’s. I have to say the picture on the LCD’s is superior to the rear-projection, DLP, and even Plasmas….. If only Mitsu had a 52″ LCD in that model…..
Kurt: There’s always going to be something better just a few months away. If you wait for LED backlights, there will be something after that that is even better. I think you should go look at the sets available today and if you’re impressed with how they look, pull the trigger. The current models are very high quality and any enhancements will only be slight increments in quality, not a complete revolution. When comparing a 46″ set to a 50″ set, there is not a huge difference in size, especially when you factor in front projections systems at 133″ for about the same cost. If you want and can afford one now, go for it. 10 years from now, there will be some major improvements available and you can worry about “the next great technology” then!
I guess I’m caught up in the Texas syndrome “bigger is better”. I have a 7 year old Sony Wega 36″ CRT – pretty much the best SD picture you can get. a 46″ TV when showing SD will be the same size as the 36″ – which when spending a lot of money annoys me. Also, I’d be super disappointed if Standard Def didn’t look as good as it does on my CRT!! Thats probably my main worry as a Direct TV user. I do plan to feed OTA for HD and use DTV for the rest. There seems to be a lot of SD content still though. I really like the Sharp 52″ LCD however there seems to be a lot of debate about banding issues…..cloudiness issues on the Sony’s. GRRRRRR. Your point is well taken, it seems there will be no end to the improvements!!! TV’s are turning into PC’s in that respect!