2018 Value Electronics TV Shootout: An Exercise In Image Quality
I had the honor last week of being one of eight expert judges for the annual 2018 Value Electronics TV Shootout. If you're not familiar, Robert Zohn, the proprietor of this small shop in Scarsdale, NY, has for the last 14 years brought together the best flatpanel televisions of the new model year and faced them off. Zohn spends thousands of dollars in an obsessive attempt to create an even playing field. Nationally-recognized calibrators are brought in to painstakingly tune each TV, and the evaluation material (program clips and video test patterns) are sent simultaneously to all the sets via a carefully engineered, high-bandwidth distribution and switching network made to handle 4K UHD over the long distances required.
There were just four TVs in this year's event, two of them from Sony, but you can argue that these are in a league by themselves and the sets of greatest interest to hardcore home theater enthusiasts. All had 65-inch screens. They included the LG OLED65E8P ($3,499 list price), featuring the latest iteration of LG's groundbreaking OLED technology; the Sony XBR-65A9F OLED ($4,499), which uses an LG OLED panel but is otherwise tweaked with Sony's secret sauce; the Samsung QN65Q9F ($3,800, but sold promotionally for $3,000), that company's most advanced LCD television to date that uses their latest QLED quantum dot backlight; and the Sony XBR-65Z9F, an LCD set offering a fresh update to Sony's premium LED-based, high-density LCD backlight technology ($3,500).
For the judge's (and spectator's) reference, Zohn and his team set up two Sony BMV-X300 OLED studio monitors ($45,000 each, but rented for $4,000 for the few days required). This 30-inch monitor is the defacto standard for mastering studios today. The calibrators—David Abrams and John Reformato, working under the auspices of SpectraCal's Tyler Pruit—first calibrated the studio monitors to industry standards, then tuned the TVs to match the monitors as closely as possible. The judges were asked to make their judgements based on how close the sets came to the reference. Makes sense—if the object is to have your movies look as close as possible to what the director signed off on, you need to match the studio's monitor. TV pricing was not a consideration in the judging.
And The Winner Is...
The contenders were judged in three categories, with several demos pertaining to specific characteristics scored within each category. The big winner based on the judges' collective scores was the Sony XBR-65A9F OLED. It edged out the LG OLED in two of the three categories: Best Living Room TV (based on standard dynamic range (SDR) content in high ambient light) and Best Home Theater TV (based on SDR dark-room viewing). The OLEDs tied in the third category for best HDR TV (high dynamic range (HDR) content in dark-room viewing). The two LCD sets were for the most part close or well behind in overall scoring, but one or the other did some things better than the OLEDs. You can find the full scoring at the Value Electronics website.
Different versions of LG's OLED have won handily in the last few years, and beat out Sony's debut OLED last year as well. So it was a bit of an upset when Sony took the prize this year. Still, I'd caution reading too much into what amounts to a photo-finish (pun intended). As an experienced display reviewer, I was genuinely shocked at how close all the sets looked on good quality, everyday content of average brightness level. On most of the material, the average person would be hard-pressed to see any differences among them, even going from OLED to LCD. All the judges worked very hard to find discerning characteristics among the TVs. It was only with particularly challenging material — dark black star fields, or exceptionally bright HDR material— that you could clearly see where one technology or TV had an advantage.
My personal favorite was the LG OLED. Although my scoring and observations appear in line with most of the other judges (we voted anonymously), I thought the LG was the best overall set, particularly accounting for what I (and the other judges) saw as the best black level/perceived contrast performance, where LG scored above the Sony. But were I gifted any of these sets, I'd be dancing in the halls.
Big Screens Still Rule
In the end, I had two key takeaways from my judging. The first is that today's best flatpanel televisions just keep getting better and better, and can now create truly breathtaking images—the kind of pictures that make people sit up and take notice. And keep in mind it would not have been possible even a short while ago to get this kind of performance in a 65-inch TV for less than $5,000.
But I also went into this year's event as the new editor of ProjectorCentral, and it got me thinking about how the front projection experience really differs from watching TV. Put aside for a moment the obvious impact of the large screens we all enjoy, and how much that accounts for our engagement with the image. Also put aside that, with instrumentation, it's possible to tune the color of a projected image so its measurements reasonably match those taken off a reference monitor.
There is still something very different about watching a projected image reflected off a screen that makes it, well, special. You could of course argue that we closely associate projection with the movie theater experience and that there is both a familiarity and an inherent pool of positive emotion we attach to that projection "look." So maybe there's a built-in bias for the true movie lover. But I also believe there is a quality to the image that has a kind of visual "ease" to it.
Imaging scientists will tell you that dynamic range, i.e., contrast, is the most critical aspect of picture quality for engaging us as viewers and tricking our brain into thinking that what we're watching on the screen has some qualities of real life. This is why the advent of HDR is such a potential game-changer.
Today's flatpanels clearly excel at light output and contrast, and the directly addressable, self-emanating pixels and perfect blacks found in emissive technologies like OLED represent a leap forward. We're pushing the boundaries now on projector brightness as well. A state-of-the-art dark-room theater projector that was once pressed to put out 12 or 13 foot-Lamberts might easily be doing 25 or more ft-L today in HDR mode while still retaining reasonably solid black levels. Yet, even as we push the peak brightness, there is retained in the projected image a kind of organic quality. It's easy on the eyes and deliciously inviting and enveloping, especially with the 24 frame-per-second content still used for the vast bulk of movie and prime-time programming.
Even the largest flatpanel TVs—and I've seen some projection screen-sized whoppers at the trade shows—just don't have this quality. Nor do any of the LED and microLED wall-tile TVs that are emerging now as a potential future threat to projection. I've yet to see a demo of one of those whose color looked even remotely better than a cheap LCD flatpanel's.
So while I applaud what's been happening in TV Land, and I watch plenty of plain 'ol TV day-to-day like most of us do, I can't imagine swapping a modern-day flatpanel forever for my projector and screen setup. At any size. I'll bet a lot you out there feel the same way.