Are Micro-LED Displays Ready for Primetime?
As I and dozens of onlookers finished watching a demonstration of the largest, most colorful micro-LED display I’d ever seen—a 440-inch diagonal Crystal LED wall illuminating a darkened Sony booth at the Infocomm 2019 trade show in June—one of the Sony reps asked me, “Wouldn’t this Crystal LED wall look great in your home theater?” To which I responded, “ARE YOU CRAZY?”
Perhaps my reaction was a bit extreme, given the circumstances and the fact that Infocomm is loaded with state-of-the-art products that I’d love to have in my own home theater. So I should have expected that question. However, asking me whether I’d want that beautiful, enormous video wall in my home theater was like asking if I’d rather travel cross-country in a 33-ft long Airstream RV or on a motorcycle carrying a pop-up tent. My answer “It’s not really camping if you’re in an Airstream, but I’ll take it.”
Similarly, you can’t really consider something a “home theater” when it contains a 440-inch video wall that costs more than 90 percent of the homes out there, uses more electricity than all the appliances in my house combined, and requires a separate cooling system to keep the audience comfortable. And let’s not forget the mounting, wiring, and support hardware that alone could cost more than the price of a decent 4K UHD home theater projector and 120-inch screen. Look, if someone offered me one, I’d take it if I could find a quick way to sell it, or if I owned a building in Times Square that I could use to attract tourists to my products.
The point I’m trying to make is not whether micro-LED technology is able to deliver a detailed, colorful, and scalable-to-enormous image—it can, and Sony, Samsung, and now LG have proved it. The real question is, are micro-LED displays a better investment than current state-of-the-art bulb, laser, or LED-based 4K and 4K UHD projectors designed for home theaters, churches, large meeting rooms, and video control rooms? For most of these venues, and even commercial theaters, the answer still remains “Are you crazy?”
Someday, I imagine every luxury home will include one or more built-in micro-LED displays, but for now the price is ridiculously high for micro-LED modules featuring 2mm or smaller dot pitches (the minimum needed to prevent pixel visibility.) While no one at Sony would give me the actual price tag for the 440-inch display in its booth, I found a competitive 130-inch diagonal micro-LED display (with 1.5mm dot pitch) on sale at the show for only $300,000! What a deal. Conceivably, that would place the price for the Sony 440-inch display in the million-dollar-plus range—without a surround sound system.
Even if the price were more reasonable, there are still several other issues that may make a micro-LED a poor choice for a home theater, including the electrical and cooling requirements mentioned earlier. I don’t know how much power is needed to run all the micro-LED modules found behind a large micro-LED display like the one shown in the photo above, but it’s no small amount. In addition, if I can feel the heat coming from micro-LED panels several feet away, that’s going to require a separate cooling system and not just an A/C unit in the window. Then, there’s the maintenance factor. When one of the modules fails (the larger the display, the more modules have a chance of dying at some point) it can be replaced easily enough. That’s a feature. But how will the new module's colors and contrast appear relative to the other modules, all of which have faded gradually after months or years of use? Can you calibrate new modules to match the old?
And finally, if you invest a small fortune in a state-of-the-art micro-LED home theater setup and then sell your home in five years, what will the permanently-mounted micro-LED display be worth? Not much compared to other home improvements. After five years, newer modules will probably cost 1/2 as much, use less electricity, and run cooler. There might even be a time when micro-OLED screens roll up and can be stored in a closet or are light enough to hang from a ceiling. But for now, the versatility, image quality, and investment you make in a decent 4K UHD HDR home theater projector—even a more expensive laser-based model, makes far more sense than a micro-LED display.