You wouldn?t buy a new car without taking it for a test drive, so why not do the same for your new TV? Bennett Ring explains the audition process.

It often feels like finding a cure to the common cold would be much simpler than deciding upon a new display for your home theatre. As the centrepiece of your theatre, there isn?t another component where the need to get it right is so crucial, nor is it so obvious if you get it wrong. Yet consumers are barraged with 1001 different choices, all of which claim to be bigger and better than the rest. What?s a poor home theatre novice to do?

If you follow this guide, the act of buying a display will be the pleasurable experience it?s meant to be, and you should return home with a suitable display and more than shred of your sanity intact.

Be prepared

Before you even take a step beyond the front door to destroy your new credit limit, it?s wise to do a little research and planning. The very first decision you?ll need to make is the type of display that?s best for your viewing habits.

Front projection systems offer the most bang for buck, but are less convenient than other displays due to their need for a darkened viewing environment. If you?ve got a dedicated theatre area, or a room where you can control lighting levels, and a good distance between the projector and the screen, a front projector will offer the most movie-like experience.

Plasma and LCD are much more convenient than a projection system, but provide a far smaller imager. They both share many of the same characteristics (slim screen, high resolution, rich colours, bright display), so choosing between the two can be a tough call. To generalise, plasma is regarded as a having a ?warmer? more natural-looking picture and, because it has a glass front plate, is heavier than LCD, less portable and more prone to gathering reflections. If price is your master, plasma is the most economical choice for screen sizes over 42 inches (106 cm) and, below that, LCD is really the only game in town.

Rear projection TV offers an excellent picture and size at a very reasonable price, but their large footprint can cause many to baulk. The latest models, however, are shallow enough to place on entertainment credenzas of standard depth, so take up no more space in your living room that a plasma or LCD positioned on the same type of entertainment unit.

If you?re going to be using your display mainly for TV viewing in a relatively bright area, strongly consider LCD, as its higher brightness gives it the edge for daylight viewing. Its poor contrast ratio affects the reproduction of ?real? blacks and detail in dark areas, however, and while not a problem in daylight conditions it is very apparent in rooms with low ambient light, with blacks rendered as muddy brown, or even dark purple. If most of your viewing takes place after dark, the better contrast ratio of plasma will make for more enjoyable viewing.

The size of your viewing area can have an influence on the size of display you choose. You don?t, after all, want a screen that will dominate your room, nor do you want one that is too small to see from the couch. One of the ?rules? for establishing the ideal screen diagonal for a room is to divide the viewing distance by 2.5. So, if your room is three metres from the screen to the couch, a 106 cm (42 inch) screen should look proportional.

If you have an anarchist?s attitude to rules, try this. Work out where you?re going to put the TV in your home, and from where you?re going to watch it. Measure the distance between the two and take a tape measure to the shop with you. Set yourself the same distance away from a TV and have a look. If the picture is smooth, then it?s okay for your home. If it isn?t (you can see, for example, the individual pixels), then it?s too large. You can tend to sit closer to an LCD TV of any given size than the same-sized plasma because LCD TVs don?t have as much black space around the individual pixels, making them merge into each other at closer distances.