10 Things to Consider When Shopping for a TV

As we approach the holiday shopping season, many people will be searching for a new TV. I am often asked what’s important to think about in that search, so I thought it would be helpful to list 10 things to consider in order to narrow your search for the best possible TV for your budget.

1. Seating Distance and Screen Size

– The first thing to consider is the distance you will be sitting from the TV, which determines the optimum screen size. Warning: it’s probably larger than you think.

– For HD (1080p), the optimum screen size (measured diagonally) is roughly 0.67 times the seating distance; for a seating distance of 10 feet (120 inches), the optimum screen size is about 80 inches diagonally.

– For 4K/UHD, the optimum screen size for a given seating distance is twice as large; for a seating distance of 10 feet, the screen should measure 160 inches diagonally!

– Clearly, these sizes are too large for most homes and budgets. The point is, do the math and get a TV that is as close to the optimum size as your room and budget will allow.

2. 4K/UHD or HD?

– These days, it’s difficult to find a TV that isn’t 4K/UHD.

– Only low-end models are 1080p anymore, so unless your budget is extremely tight, 4K/UHD is the way to go.

– There isn’t all that much 4K/UHD content yet, but it’s growing and will continue to do so; it’s now available via streaming, DirecTV satellite service, and UHD Blu-ray.

– Over-the-air terrestrial broadcasting will add 4K/UHD when ATSC 3.0 is launched in a year or two, and cable providers will probably offer it when the installed base of 4K/UHD TVs is large enough.

3. HDR or Not?

– High dynamic range (HDR) and its inseparable cousin, wide color gamut (WCG), are still in their infancy and, in some ways, not fully baked.

– There are currently two main HDR formats: HDR10, an open, free-to-implement standard, and Dolby Vision, a proprietary, licensed system from Dolby. (HLG is a third format that could become important in broadcast content, but it’s not really available much right now.)

– Many argue that Dolby Vision is ultimately better because of its backward compatibility with SDR displays (depending on how it is created) and dynamic metadata, but it costs manufacturers additional money to license it to use in their products.

– Both formats can be used with streaming, and most such content uses HDR10. A couple of services, most notably Vudu, use Dolby Vision, but they now offer a choice of either format.

– UHD Blu-ray can use both; HDR10 is required, while Dolby vision is optional, and no UHD Blu-ray titles have been released with Dolby Vision up to now.

– It’s important to understand the difference between “HDR-capable” and “HDR-compatible.” A TV that is HDR-capable can reproduce an HDR video signal with its increased dynamic range, while an HDR-compatible set can accept an HDR signal, but it is displayed in standard dynamic range, so you lose the real benefit of HDR. Of course, many manufacturers obfuscate this difference, so do your best to read between the lines in the specs.

– Even though the HDR landscape is not yet completely settled, I strongly recommend getting a TV that can accept and display HDR if you can afford it—that is, get an HDR-capable set, not one that is merely HDR-compatible.

– Virtually all manufacturers implement HDR10 in their HDR-capable TVs, while a few—such as LG and Vizio—include both HDR10 and Dolby Vision.

– I think having both is a good idea; HDR10 is most important right now, but who knows if Dolby Vision will become more widespread in the future?

– If a TV does not have Dolby Vision, it cannot be added with a firmware update—it requires special hardware that must be installed during the manufacturing process.

4. Flat or Curved?

– I have a strong preference for flat TVs, and most manufacturers that have tried the curved approach are now moving back to flat designs.

– Curved screens distort any reflections—points of light become lines—and viewing from off axis (away from dead center) causes apparent geometric distortion. Plus, wall-mounted curved screens jut out from the wall on the sides.

– Curved screens are wonderful for the one person sitting dead center.

5. LCD or OLED?

– LCD can be much brighter than OLED, making it better suited to environments with high ambient light, but its blacks are not as deep. And to be fair, OLEDs do just fine in rooms with some ambient light.

– All LCD TVs tend to look washed out with less contrast when viewed from off axis—some more than others, but they all suffer from this problem to one degree or another—while OLED TVs do not.

– OLED TVs can exhibit a slight color shift when viewed off axis, but in my opinion, it’s not nearly as much of a problem as the off-axis performance of virtually all LCD TVs.

– OLED TVs are generally more expensive than comparably sized LCD TVs, though one can come up with exceptions.

6. FALD or Edgelit LCD?

– I’m a big fan of FALD (full-array local dimming) over edgelighting because of its better screen uniformity and potential contrast.

– Vizio is the only company I know of that makes only FALD LCD TVs; Samsung, Sony, and most other brands use FALD only in their top-tier sets, implementing edgelighting in their step-down models.

– It’s important to have as many FALD dimming zones as possible. For example, the Vizio M series has up to 64 dimming zones (depending on the model), while the P series has 128 zones, which results is less haloing and more precise control of the contrast. In the Sony Z9D, each individual LED in the FALD backlight is independently dimmable, providing many hundreds if not thousands of zones. (Sony will not reveal how many LEDs are used in its FALD backlight system, but it’s a lot.)

7. Refresh Rate

– This is among the most confusing aspects of TV specs.

– Refresh rate is how often the image on the screen is refreshed or redrawn, which roughly corresponds to frame rate.

– Movies are almost universally at 24 frames per second, while video is essentially at 60 fps. All TVs can refresh the screen 60 times per second (which is referred to as “60 Hz”), but many can now do 120 or even 240 Hz.

– Higher refresh rates allow the TV to play 24 fps movies at 72 or even 96 fps, displaying each frame three or four times, just like triple-flashing at commercial cinemas, which is a good thing.

– Higher refresh rates also allow the TV to synthesize new frames and interleave them with the incoming frames, a process called frame interpolation. This sharpens the detail in moving objects, but it also causes the “soap-opera effect” (SOE), because it makes movies look like they were shot on video. Many videophiles hate SOE, so they make sure to disable frame interpolation in the TV, preferring to live with motion blur.

– Manufacturers often obscure the refresh rate by specifying an “effective” refresh rate. If the backlight is flashed on and off during each frame, that can help sharpen motion detail as well, so some companies might specify a refresh rate of 240 up to 960 Hz, which is a combination of the LCD panel’s native refresh rate and the effect of backlight flashing to achieve motion sharpness that exceeds either one alone.

– I recommend getting a TV with a native refresh rate of 120 Hz—and turn off frame interpolation if you don’t like SOE.

– If money is tight, a 60 Hz TV will work plenty well.

8. Pay for Calibration?

– A professional calibration can cost several hundred dollars, so if your TV cost less than $1000, it’s not worth it. Simply adjust the basic user controls using something like Disney’s WOW disc, and the TV will look as good as it can without a pro calibration—which is often pretty darned good. For more on how to do this, click here.

– If the TV is over $1000, a pro calibration becomes more worthwhile, because it occupies less of the total budget.

– I’m a big advocate of viewing content as the creator intended, so a full calibration is important to me.

9. Don’t Base Your Decision Solely on What TVs Look Like in a Big Retail Showroom

– A retail showroom is nothing like the environment in your home, making it nearly impossible to judge how a TV will look in your home.

– TVs on display in most stores are set up to be as bright and blue as possible to grab your attention, but this is not how they should look in your home.

– Some retailers have home-like demo areas, which are much better than a brightly lit showroom. Seek out these retailers.

– When you find a retailer with a home-like demo area, make sure the TVs are calibrated or at least have the basic user controls adjusted properly. Ask to do it yourself if they won’t.

– Bring along Blu-ray or UHD Blu-ray discs you are familiar with and watch them on the TVs you are considering.

10. Budget & Recommendations

– When shopping for a primary TV, I recommend spending at least $1000 to get one that is fairly large and has reasonably good performance.

– At the low end of this budget scale, I generally recommend the Vizio P series of FALD LCD TVs ($1000 for the P50, $1300 for the P55, $2000 for the P65, $3800 for the P75). The M series models are a few hundred bucks less; both series use FALD and both do HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR, but the P series has at least twice as many FALD zones. Still, if your budget is really tight, I would definitely consider the M series.

– If your budget is in the $3000-$5000 range, the LG B6 OLED is worth a serious look. The 55B6P lists for $2300, while the 65B6P lists for $3500. (The curved-screen C6 models are the same price, but as I mentioned earlier, I don’t like curved screens.)

– Other good options among LCD TVs in this price range include the Sony XBR-75X940D FALD LCD ($4500) and Samsung UN65KS9800 FALD LCD ($3500, see our review here), though the Samsung has a curved screen.

– If money is no object, the flagship LG G6 OLED offers a super-cool industrial design and the same superb picture quality of all OLED TVs. The 65G6P lists for $6000, while the 77G6P is a whopping $20,000.

– Another good option is the Sony Z9D FALD LCD TV, which represents the pinnacle of LCD performance. The XBR-65Z9D sells for $5500 directly from Sony, the 75Z9D is $9000, and the massive 100Z9D is a budget-busting $60,000!

I’m sure that AVS Forum members have many opinions about all of this, so I invite you to share them in the comments. What are your most important considerations when shopping for a TV? What models do you recommend at different price points?