As anyone with expertise in anything well knows, when the expertise becomes known you get questions. Many of them. And in the field of home entertainment equipment, one of the most common is: ‘What’s the best brand of TV?’ Sometimes it’s the best home theatre receiver, or the best loudspeakers. But TVs dominate.
Now there’s nothing wrong with that question, except that it has to be properly bounded. Without more information about the purpose to which the video display is to be put, and the particular preferences of the viewer, the proper answer is: “I don’t know!”
But if you are prepared to drill down into what you watch, and the circumstances under which you watch it, then we can come up with some interesting answers.
However, since we aren’t face to face, with me taking details of your specific circumstances, we’ll need to approach this a little differently.
Instead I shall discuss the pros and cons of a few of my favourite brands.
One thing that I have discovered over 15 years of reviewing these products is that brands generally evolve slowly. When one establishes a dominance in a particular field, it tends to stay there for a few years at least.
Okay, there is the occasional cusp in the otherwise smooth movements in this field. For example a few years ago one of the lead direct-view* practitioners abandoned the field. But Pioneer’s ‘Kuro’ technology wasn’t lost, as we shall see.
And TVs aren’t the only way of home theatre. Arguably proper home theatre demands a front projector, since it is only through one of those that a truly cinema-like picture can be produced.
So let me take a tour through a few of my favourite things – er, brands – and suggest what they are best for. For the most part their strengths have remained consistent over a period of years.
Of course, I’m not covering all brands, nor am I straying into high-end esoterica. Get up to those heights and you’d probably best judge not by brand, not even by product, but by the particular manufactured unit that you may be contemplating purchasing.
If any brand demonstrates how a company’s strengths persist year after year, Panasonic is it. Panasonic’s strength lays in plasma TVs, of course. It has in the last few years taken up LED/LCD for smaller sizes, but plasma is truly its home.
For years it was a close second behind Pioneer’s Kuro TVs in this, but then Pioneer sold its plasma division to Panasonic. Now the strengths of the two brands have been combined into TVs that are economical to run and produce gorgeous picture quality. In its newest generation it has added excellent connectivity features, and internet TV.
But Panasonic (like its nearest competitor) also does projectors. Indeed, it led the way a few years ago with the ‘dynamic iris’ technology that allowed relatively low-cost LCD projectors to produce large screen images with convincing levels of black. It has maintained this quality and, in general, Panasonic projectors are worthy of consideration. Except, perhaps, for right now because none are on offer with 3D support. That won’t be forever.
Sony has an almost ‘Rolls Royce’ status in some countries, but in Australia tends to be on a similar level in public perception as Panasonic. Which is a good place to be. Its consistent strength in TVs has been with LCD rather than plasma, a technology it abandoned several years ago.
Sony in recent years has been in the top rank of TVs, if not quite my very favourite of the LCDs. It has nice thin models with excellent picture quality, lots of connectivity, and the excellent ‘XMB’ – the Cross Media Bar. This is the same basic menu system as provided on the Sony PS3. Many models can play back all kinds of media, and have a good range of internet-based TV options available.
Sony also has some impressive home theatre projectors, most based on its ‘SXRD’ technology. This is similar to JVC’s DILA projection tech, and is an advance on its more basic LCD projectors. These tend to produce lovely pictures, and a recent model also supports 3D.
My favourite LCD TV maker has been for many years Samsung. It seems to have been able to produce the deepest blacks from LCDs (including so-called LED TVs, which are LCD TVs with a different kind of backlight). It does excellent colour saturation, generally good picture scaling and so on. In short, you can get the best direct-view picture available … with a bit of work.
The problem is that Samsung TVs switch on out of the box with some settings that aren’t all that good for picture quality. The main one is Samsung’s Motion Plus video processing. This is frame interpolation system that creates additional frames to be inserted between those from the disc or the TV broadcast. By inserting these intermediates, it smooths motion, eliminating judder. Judder – a sometimes subtle visible jumpiness of motion from frame to frame – can be irritating. But Samsung’s smoothing system can be even more so.
It tends to produce very smooth motion, but along the way a rather garish, glossy finish on the picture. Sony manages markedly better results with its Motion Flow system. But switch all that stuff off, and Samsung remains the best. It also has the thinnest TVs out there, and with its new range the thinnest bezels. Some of its TV models are getting remarkably close to looking like a free-floating picture in space.
Samsung also does plasma TVs, but is outclassed by Panasonic in this arena.
LG Electronics is the other major Korean brand of course. As long as I’ve been reviewing TVs, it has nestled there just a little lower than Samsung in price and performance. But with 3D it has branched off in an interesting new direction. It is using polarising technology rather than shutter glasses. This is a high-risk strategy. It tends to provide better 3D separation, at the cost of losing half the horizontal resolution of the picture. Only time will tell whether it pays off, but I have high hopes for it.
We shouldn’t forget Sharp, since it toiled away on LCD technology for years while the latter-day convert Sony stuck with plasma. Its Aquos TVs were for a long time all there was in the way of LCD with any pretence to high quality. Its recent TVs have been very classy looking affairs, with gorgeous styling. But I fear that its ‘Quattron’ four colour (it adds yellow pixels to the usual red, green and blue) TVs have been bit of a pointless diversion. Soon, I hope, it will get back into the game.
Sharp’s projectors, though, have had a very high reputation for a number of years for the simple reason that these DLP projectors, simple in design, have consistently produced picture quality of remarkably high-end quality. That has not changed with the most recent version, which supports 3D. Indeed, as I write, it does 3D better than any other even half-affordable 3D projector.
Of course Panasonic and Sony aren’t the only makers of front projectors. Epson does a very nice line of LCD projectors, with top notch video processing. In fact, it dominates the front projector market in Australia, for good reason. Most recently its ‘R’ projectors are changing from LCD to what Epson calls ‘reflective LCD’, which seems to operate a lot like SXRD or DILA.
All are beautiful, but as we go to press Epson still lacks a 3D unit.
Mitsubishi, on the other hand, does have 3D. This is based on three SXRD panels and is glorious (read all about it on page 75). But Mitsubishi is agnostic on display tech, and also has conventional LCD and DLP models available. Of all the brands with which I’m familiar, Mitsubishi is the least predictable. Its LCD, SXRD and DLP projectors may as well come from different brands.
JVC uses a liquid crystal on silicon variant called DILA. It was one of the first to offer full high definition front projection, and has consistently offered a brilliant and detailed picture since then. The most recent version delivers 3D as well, and delivers it beautifully (if not quite as well as Sharp).
With projectors, you can go as high as you like in terms of price. In the higher reaches are such brands as Runco and Barco and SIM2. Their premium pricing brings you higher build quality and in previous years significantly better picture quality. But the other brands have narrowed the gap, in some cases eliminating it.
Budget and European brands
In direct view TVs there are aside from this mainstream collection more prestigious brands, and very much lesser ones. In the latter category with have Kogan and Tyagi and Palsonic and Hisense and Soniq so on. Some people seem to be offended by the very existence of these brands, but I’m not. There are a lot of people for whom a big TV is best, and be damned with such things as smooth video processing and deep black levels. Not all of us have the visual equivalent of the well-developed palate of the wine aesthete. If you honestly can’t tell the difference, well why not go for a bigger screen for fewer dollars?
From some of the more prestigious home entertainment speciality stores you can purchase European brands such as Loewe, Bang & Olufsen and Metz. Back when TVs had glass tubes, these were outstanding, with superb video processing. At least, it was superb for the day. But things change.
There are many who continue to swear by these brands, but I remain unconvinced. Their LCD panels are acquired from other manufacturers (as are Sony’s it has to be said), and they endeavour to add value with their own video processing, interfaces and styling. In general, little is added except, possibly, for styling, compared to the Korean and Japanese brands. And price. They cost a lot more. Oh, oh, perhaps I shouldn’t have said that. Feel free to disagree. Go to a quality store and compare.
Which goes to show that although brands are remarkably stable, there is still movement. It is sometimes fast, sometimes gradual, and sometimes uneven between the different brands, but it is relentlessly in the direction of higher quality at lower prices.