Big Screens Get Bigger
You can have your 3-D piranhas and ridiculous refresh rates. At the end of the day, nothing beats a big-ass HDTV. Whether you're a gridiron guru or just need some extra screen space for your Buster Keaton library, having a giant flatscreen in the room somehow makes everything better. Lucky for you manufactures seem to be cranking out bigger and bigger screens every year. And owning one of these 60-inch (plus) behemoths has never been more affordable. Here's how to make sure you choose the right one.
Surprise! Buying a big HDTV is an awful lot like buying any other HDTV. That means all the usual considerations -- HDMI ports, internet features, black level quality, viewing angle, response times -- are applicable. But when considering a truly big HDTV, there are a couple of things you'll really want to dwell on.
Big or small, if you're in the market for a new HDTV, you'll be looking at two main technologies: LCD and plasma. True, rear-projection and OLED screens are also available but you won't run into many on showroom floors. Today, LCD remains the most popular and versatile screen technology. Not only will these sets have the widest range of screen sizes, they'll also reflect less light and have brighter pictures. This makes them ideal for shadeless rooms with a lot of windows. Most LCD manufacturers are now using LED backlights instead of traditional fluorescent ones too. This has allowed for even slimmer designs (great for mounting...on walls) and brighter pictures. When compared to plasmas, LED backlit sets also tend to have better energy efficiency, increased contrast and a richer color gamut. Just make sure you know what type of LED backlighting scheme your set has, and its dis/advantages. Edge-lit ones (the most common) tend to suffer from picture uniformity issues, while full-array LED sets with local dimming tend to do a much better job with black levels. Unfortunately, the latter is afflicted with an effect known as blooming, where brighter areas of the screen bleed into darker ones.
For our money though, if you want to go big (60 inches or more), you want to go plasma. Because LCDs dominate the mid-to-low size ranges on the market, plasma makers have refocused their energies on larger screens, where they have a distinct price advantage. Plasmas still consume more energy than LCDs, but they also yield a more enjoyable home-theater experience, particularly for discerning cinephiles. Picture consistency tends to be higher (there's less saturation and contrast loss when viewing at wider angles) and these sets have faster-pulsing pixels so they won't lose detail when displaying fast-moving images. Be warned though: Plasmas are not the best fit for bright rooms because their glass screens reflect a good deal of light. Notice we said glass? Yeah, these guys are also heavy. Often 120 pounds for something around 60 inches. So if you're only option was to mount your new trophy on the flimsy apartment wall, a plasma may not be your best choice for a big TV.
That Distant Stare
Once you've decided on the screen tech, the next thing to consider is where exactly you'll be sitting. Viewing distance is still paramount to the whole big TV equation. In order to see all that glorious 1080p detail, you eyes need to be at least a certain distance from the set. Sit too far away and you're essentially paying for performance you won't be able to see. The good news is that a bigger TVs let you sit further back. One quick and dirty way to find the optimal viewing distance for any 1080p set is to take its diagonal screen size and multiply it by 1.56 (2.3 for 720p sets). That means for a 1080p 60-inch set, you'll still need to be no further than 7.8 feet away. HDguru has a super handy chart that outlines ideal distances for any HDTV going up to 120 inches.
If you want a more general sense ideal viewing distances for larger TVs, keep in mind that 56 to 62-inch sets will allow for 7 to 12 feet view distances. For 62 to 70 inches, you can push that back to 8 to 13 feet.
Bottom line? There are some truly fantastic large screen HDTVs available these days. Just keep in mind that the biggest TV (even if you can get a fantastic deal on it) may not always be the best TV for your particular situation. Similarly, even if you plan on ordering online, it still pays to visit your local big box store armed with a few sample Blu-ray movie (preferably one with lots of dark scenes) or even a calibration disc. Most of these showroom sets will be in what's known as "torch mode" -- a super high-contrast, high-brightness setting -- but you can tweak and adjust these settings to get a better sense of their individual capabilities and how they'll perform at home.
Photo by Ariel Zambelich/Wired