Saturday evening I took a trek to Scarsdale NY to visit Value Electronics and participate in the retailer’s annual HDTV Shootout. The Shootout, now in its 8th year, pits the best flat panel TVs against each other in a battle for image quality.
To keep things fair, Value Electronics’ owner Robert Zohn brings in some of the TV industry’s best to calibrate the sets and run the testing. Zohn then invites guests, including home theater journalists and advanced enthusiasts to take part in the Shootout and help in the scoring of the TVs. All six sets were calibrated by Kevin Miller of ISF and Tweak TV (you may remember Miller from the Electronic House Calibration Webinar last year), David Mackenzie of HDTV Test in Scotland, Ed Johnson and Dewayne Davis. The calibration team used a variety of software and hardware.
The TV selection seemed a little arbitrary to me. There were three plasmas and three LCD LED sets. Panasonic, Samsung, Elite (Sharp), and LG were the brands. There were no Sony or Toshiba models, nor were there any of the more custom-focused brands such as Runco or Bang and Olufsen (Value Electronics doesn’t sell the latter two brands, but Zohn does sell Sony and Toshiba). Zohn said he selected these because he felt they were the cream of the crop this year. I was a little surprised that Sony’s XBR LED TV wasn’t considered, as it should have easily been able to hold its own in a contest with Samsung and Panasonic LEDs, but it was Zohn’s contest, not mine. There was also no LG LED represented. Even more interesting would have been the inclusion of the OLED TVs that Samsung and LG showed at CES in January, but those sets aren’t yet on the market.
From Team Plasma:
• Panasonic TC-P65VT50
• Samsung PN64E8000
• LG 60PM9700
From Team LED LCD:
• Elite PRO-60X5FD (last year’s shootout winner)
• Samsung UN60ES8000
• Panasonic TC-L47WT50
The Elite TV (manufactured by Sharp) swept the HDTV Shootout last year, beating Panasonic’s VT30 plasma. The Elite was the only repeat visitor because that brand hasn’t yet announced new models (but probably will by CEDIA this year). All the other TVs are new 2012 models. All but the Panasonic LCD (which also happened to be the smallest at 47 inches) were 3D sets, though 3D capability wasn’t considered in the evaluation. Also not considered were the set’s smart TV or other features—including Samsung’s voice and gesture control, which was demonstrated, but not factored into the judging.
After introductions, some great sushi and wine (thanks Robert) and short presentations by representatives for Panasonic, Elite and Samsung, our friendly neighborhood calibrators posted a series of test patterns and content clips. With each new selection, our evening’s guides would point out issues, strengths and curiosities on each of the sets.
The first things we looked at were black level and contrast (closely related), which tend to be among the most important picture attributes in a TV. When you get good black levels, the picture looks deeper and more defined. Here the plasmas clearly had the advantage, though the Elite TV was also a contender. In fact, from the very first few images we saw, it was clear this contest was going to be primarily between the Panasonic VT50 and the Elite.
In color saturation, the Panasonic plasma also looked great, but I really liked the Samsung LED TV too. Coming in last in color was the Panasonic LED.
Next up was motion resolution. This was interesting, because LCDs can do curious things when their video processing features are engaged. In an effort to smooth motion, LCDs can create what’s come to be known as the “soap opera effect” which turns film-based material (like movies) into something that looks more like video (such as a soap opera). All efforts were made to defeat these processes.
All of the TVs looked good in the video resolution test, but the film resolution test showed a few issues. The Panasonic plasma and Samsung plasma appeared to shine here, though one test revealed bizarre artifacts on the Panasonic (not visible in any real-world content).
Once all the test patterns were finished, we checked out some movie clips to get a sense of the TVs’ real world performance. Here’s where things get interesting. On test patterns, all the issues, strengths and weaknesses were easily apparent, but when watching Blu-ray discs, you really had to be looking for trouble to see it, and even then, in most cases, any deficiencies weren’t drastic. A few of the TVs overall looked better than others, but none of them looked bad (remember, each TV had been professionally calibrated to its peak performance). A few of the enthusiasts in the audience remarked that they’d be happy with any of the TVs.
But, of course, a contest needs a winner. According to my score card, the Panasonic plasma VT50 came out on top, with both the Elite LCD and Samsung plasma landing in second. Value Electronics posted the official winner (tallied from all the audience score cards) Monday, and awarded the winner’s title to the VT50.
So aside from knowing which of these six TVs came out on top, what else could be gleaned from this exercise? Throughout the evaluation, the calibrators would point out settings in each TV that would do bizarre and detrimental things to the picture—and in most cases these settings were promoted as features by the makers of the TVs. Artificial black level enhancements, edge enhancements, motion interpolation, dynamic picture modes and so on are all features promoted by TV manufacturers, but which go against producing an optimal picture. Most of those features can and should be turned off, and in fact some of them can be corrected quite easily by turning on things like THX or Cinema modes.
Because these sets were professionally calibrated, the image quality achieved won’t match what most buyers of these sets will finally end up with in their homes. I’d like to see a similar contest with TVs set up in the best consumer accessible modes—whether that be a THX mode or something else close. In fact, if I can get enough TVs into EH’s review lab, I’ll try that one myself and maybe invite some guest.
Also remember that this Shootout only measured image quality, and only in 2D. The factors important to your purchase decision may include other things such as connectivity, design, 3D, streaming content and price.
If you stop by Value Electronics, Zohn will show you the final score cards and let you know how each set fared and help you pick the best one for your home. Below are the final scores for the TVs