Tellies for tightwads – the best budget HD TVs

Neither the newest, ‘trickest’ or most expensive, these five LCD TVs get the nod for being the best in budget HD.

By Thomas Bartlett

There is a temptation for a reviewer to confine oneself to Ferraris and Maseratis, and ignore Holdens and Fords. The former do seem to be more fun.

But more people buy Holdens and Fords than they do Italian supercars, so advice on their relative quality is actually more important than a discussion of sports cars.

And so it is with home entertainment equipment. Many of us would love Krell amplifiers and Runco projectors. But in reality, most of us have but a few thousand dollars at our disposal. So here, instead of the newest, highest-tech display equipment, we are introducing five modestly priced LCD TVs.

It wasn’t so very long ago when the term ‘modestly priced LCD TVs’ simply could not be used, but here we have five of them, including one with a massive 46 inch (117 cm) screen that sells for not much more than $2,000.

Within that ‘modestly priced’ category (we aimed for $2,000 to $3,000), there is a tremendous variation in features and performance. Generally, the more features for a given price, the smaller the screen size.

What they got, then?

The features available from some, but not all, of the models include true high definition displays (1920 x 1080 pixels), built-in high definition digital TV tuners and dynamic contrast ratio enhancement.

As a rule, we don’t mind too much if a TV lacks a HD tuner. If it has HDMI inputs, so you can feed in the picture in high quality digital format, then a HD tuner can be easily added later. All five of these TVs have HDMI inputs, and we would be reluctant to recommend any TV that doesn’t have at least one.

Naturally we are enthusiastic about true high definition displays. On paper, the only way to watch Blu-ray, HD DVD and HDTV is with a display that shows all 1920 x 1080 pixels. But size comes into it here. The smaller the screen, the less benefit derived from True HD. In fact, we feel that for 32 inches (81 cm) there is hardly any advantage with true HD, but at 46 inches (117 cm) the differences are readily apparent to the eye.

Deep, black blacks

What we do like in all our displays, whatever the technology used, is deep black levels. After a hard day in the office reviewing TVs, we do like to dim the lights, put our feet up, and… watch TV. This is the one area where LCD TVs are weaker than plasmas: natively, they don’t manage very good black.

Some higher end models control the brightness of the backlight during dark scenes so as to deepen blacks, although few inexpensive models do. Even those that do tend to produce not just dark-grey ‘blacks’ but uneven ones where the intensity of the black varies in different parts of the screen.

But not everyone uses a TV like that. If you only ever watch in a normally lit room, then black levels will be relatively unimportant. As always, you need to choose the features most important to you.

A new breed of panel TVs are appearing which feature ‘100/120Hz’ support. That means that they can double the frame rate of all home cinema signals, whether sourced from PAL or NTSC DVD, or Blu-ray or HD DVD. The Sharp Aquos LC-37D53X LCD TV is the first such I’ve seen, and it is very impressive.

What this means is that new frames can be ‘interpolated’ between those actually delivered by your TV source, and this can smooth movement and improve legibility. In fact, one test disc I have shows a page of high definition text panning across the screen. With this circuit disabled the text blurs and is unreadable, but with it on it becomes sharp. This is nothing to do with the LCD panel response time, but with the way the video is processed.

Sharp seems to have gone for a modest ‘dynamic’ contrast ratio enhancement than some models. Nevertheless, the black levels, especially in ‘Movie’ mode, were acceptable. More importantly, they were even across the whole screen, with no discernible variation, allowing you to forget about black levels completely.

The operation of the TV is generally fairly straightforward, except that the digital TV tuner, which works well enough, is somewhat of an afterthought. You even have to drill down through the Options menu to find the tuner’s own menus.

All this processing would be better employed with a full HD panel instead of a 1366 x 768 model, and oddly, the TV will not accept 1080p signals, nor will it accept interlaced standard definition signals over HDMI.

The trade-off for all this high end processing is that the size of the TV is fairly small for this category. But if you’re interested in high performance rather than sheer size, the Sharp Aquos LC-37D53X LCD TV should definitely be on your short list.