Selecting a TV
What to consider when choosing a TV.
While projectors are the display of choice for home theaters, televisions are found throughout most homes and may be ideal for some media rooms. This guide will help you select the best TV for your purposes.
Display makers frequently push the technology envelope, giving new high-end TVs features with exotic names and ever-higher numbers to drive sales. However, it is sometimes difficult to know if the innovations will be worth it in the long run, since great-looking television requires great-looking source material. Some features, like 4K or 8K resolution, will benefit most source material and potentially future-proof your system as media improves. Other features, 3D being a famous example, were innovative but lacked content, were inconvenient to use, and failed to attract consumers. It is important to distinguish useful, far-sighted features from technology fads.
Television quality has benefited from the evolution of disc technology, from DVD to Blu-ray to 4K Blu-ray. These rising standards in source material have forced TVs to advance to keep up with greater resolutions and better color space and audio formats. However, televisions designed to show every detail of a 4K Blu-ray disc aren’t performing their best if they are only used to stream video over a poor internet connection. The trend away from discs has meant that less expensive TVs are now built for streaming, retaining only the minimal feature set to support Netflix and other services. For now, however, mid- and high-priced TVs do still have features that can make the most of high-quality video and audio from sources like a Kaleidescape system.
Ultimately, TV choices are personal, as the TV must fit your space, décor and budget, be convenient to use, and make you happy. Specifications are a starting point, but the final design is up to you.
Your Goals & Constraints
What are you trying to accomplish with this TV? Is it replacing an older model, filling a new space, acting as part of a tiled display, showing artwork when not in use? You may find it helpful to write down your goals, as it’s all too easy in a showroom to get distracted by technical specifications and sales patter. Most new TVs, with the exception of the very cheapest models, are vastly better than displays 10 years ago, and so there are plenty of good choices; the challenge is to narrow them down.
Few customers have no constraints, so you should also clearly articulate your budget, screen size and space and mounting options for the space, and so on. There is no point in getting the largest TV you can afford if you can’t mount it for comfortable viewing in your room. Once you have resolved your goals and constraints, you know the ballpark and you can focus on the part the salesperson wants to discuss—TV features.
You will want at least full 4K resolution, which means 3840x2160 pixels over the screen area. A 4K TV will faithfully display the highest quality source material available today for movies and streaming, and will also upscale older 1080p content, as from Blu-ray discs or other HD sources. There are 8K TVs available, which just as effectively handle HD and 4K material, but source material in 8K resolution is hard to find. From a future-proofing perspective, it does seem likely that source material will increase in resolution as cameras become more sophisticated—8K is not just a fad—but the costs of storing and mastering such content are very high, so this technology will be slow to roll out.
High Dynamic Range (HDR)
One innovation that resonated well with customers from the start was HDR, or High Dynamic Range video. Display makers were continuing to make TVs brighter due to advances in LED technology, but viewing bright displays in a dark room is not always necessary or comfortable. HDR allows for mastering video at modest brightness levels while rendering highlights (light sources, reflections) at the full brightness of the display. The increase in dynamic range can be very effective in night and space scenes.
There are several HDR standards: most HDR TVs support HDR-10, a basic HDR format, and Dolby Vision, which delivers metadata hints to the TV with each frame of video to help it adapt to scene brightness. These are the most popular HDR formats you should look for in a TV. Sources that provide Samsung’s HDR-10+ format add frame metadata to HDR-10. Some broadcasters use HLG, another HDR format more popular in the UK that is backwards compatible with standard dynamic range (SDR).
HDMI 2.1a or Higher
Generally, TVs connect to other devices using HDMI cables, so each display will have several HDMI input ports. The HDMI standard is complex, and keeps evolving, and HDMI 1.4 was the first version to support 4K in a very limited way. HDMI 2.0 is the minimum level that supports a range of 4K signals, but HDMI 2.1a is far superior as it can receive signals up to 8K. Less expensive TVs will have one advanced HDMI 2.1a input but leave the others at an older standard like 2.0 or 1.4—watch for that limitation, as it may severely constrain how you connect source devices to the TV. If you are using an audio receiver or processor to switch between source devices, however, perhaps a single HDMI 2.1a connection to the TV will suffice.
60 Hz Refresh Rate
Films are generally shot at 24 frames per second, which gives them a particular look, and prevents the filmmaker from panning too quickly, as the resulting “judder” is uncomfortable for the viewer. There are some notable exceptions, like The Hobbit, shot at a High Frame Rate (HFR) of 60 or 120 frames per second—this type of filming gives very smooth motion much like interlaced video used in television and is often called the “soap opera” effect. Viewers love or hate this look for movies, although it does make details easier to see in televised sports or computer games.
What the TV displays, however, can be a very different frame rate than the source material, as the display technology may refresh pixels frequently. A 240 Hz TV may just replicate the incoming frames 10 times, resulting in what looks like a 24 fps rate, or it can take some liberties and smooth out the in-between frames, giving that soap opera effect if desired (with occasional artifacts as it guesses incorrectly about the frame interpolation). Purists may prefer to keep their movies at 24 fps, see below.
Noticing a disturbing trend, that display manufacturers were so proud of their frame-interpolation technology that they were turning it on by default, some filmmakers got together and demanded that there be a standard for leaving filmic source material alone—and “Filmmaker Mode” was born. TVs supporting Filmmaker Mode can detect incoming 24 fps video and disable frame interpolation and other needless processing, so the look of the video is close to what the filmmaker intended. There can also be HDMI metadata sent from the source device to flag the content as filmic and help the TV with its detection.
OLED vs LCD/LED TVs
Display manufacturers find that TVs sell better if they are brighter, hence the increase in display brightness over the years and innovations like HDR to take better advantage of it. However, brightness alone doesn’t look as good without darkness, and the best-looking TVs have a very wide dynamic range from black to white, showing as much contrast as possible. TVs using OLED technology such as LG OLED TVs aren’t as bright as their LCD/LED rivals, but they are known for their inky black levels, and this contrast makes for stunning demos—it is difficult to tell if an OLED TV is off, or is showing a black scene, there is just no light coming from the display. While this makes OLED a popular choice for display technology, they are often expensive TVs, and, as the O stands for “organic” LED, there is some risk of burn-in of the organic materials if a static image is on display for a long time. Most people who’ve seen this technology demonstrated do prefer it to LCD/LED TVs, often just called “LED TVs” today, but in some cases the brightness and resolution of something like a Samsung 8K QLED may be what you need for a sunny room.