Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Big & Cheap TV


I shall start at the end: this past weekend we bought ourselves a new TV. This new TV of ours happens to be the largest I’ve ever bought, but surprisingly enough it’s also the cheapest I’ve ever bought. Let’s look at the details.
The need for a new TV came from two different sources. First, our existing TV has been showing its age for a while now with various color distortions over different areas of the screen, but lately the situation got to a level when the right hand side of the frame is constantly blue. Second, the rental place we recently moved to has an overabundance of natural lighting, the direct result of the landlord fitting it with the cheapest blinds ever. This meant our rear projection TV could not compete with the ambient light. During the day, TV watching ranged from strenuous to impossible; it was better to get a new TV than suffer headaches and ruin our eyesight.
Once we’ve agreed to get a new TV, the question turned to what TV we should be buying. Obviously, we need a TV that can compete with the ambient light, which rules out plasma in favour of LCD. Of the LCD TVs we preferred to focus on LED backlit ones, mainly because they tend to have better picture and they’re more environmentally friendly (LEDs consume less power than the fluorescent lights on “normal” LCD TVs). On the negative side, LEDs' backlighting is potentially dimmer than fluorescents’.
The next question was the budget one. At this moment in time, when we’re renovating/extending our house as well as renting another to live at, spending bucket loads of money on a quality TV is not at the top of our agenda. Buying any TV would overstrain our budget as it is. So we decided to opt for a cheap TV, but not any old cheap TV: we will get a TV that will, upon our return to our extended house, act as the lounge TV that serves our child as well as casual TV watching/gaming. This means that we still want the big size even though we’re looking for a cheap TV. Eventually, when we can afford it, we will get ourselves what I would refer to as a “proper” Moshe Reuveni grade TV to hook into our hi fi and watch films with the way they are meant to be watched; but not now, not when we can’t afford it. You can therefore argue that this new TV we bought represents us purchasing our future second TV.
[I will deviate a bit to say that as far as I am concerned, I would like our future “first TV”, that is – the reference grade TV – to not be a TV at all. I want it to be a projector. The likes of Sony and JVC now make 3D projectors using LCOS technology that sport magnificent picture quality – the type that would make you spit at your cinema screen in disgust – from around $4000. Coupled with installation, calibration and the cost of a decent screen we are talking about more than $6000, which is why we did not throw our old TV out. Yet.]
Having decided on the parameters of our new TV we went ahead and scanned the market for potential candidates. Eventually things came down to two models: The Kogan LED/LCD 55” that you can only buy on the Internet and can’t see in person at any shop, home delivered for around $770; and the Soniq LED/LCD 55” that JB Hi Fi (and only JB Hi Fi) sell for $870, post bargaining price. We went for the latter because of the following reasons:
  • Our poor past experience with Kogan’s deliverables (as per our Kogan tablet),
  • Our inability to assess the Kogan prior to committing to it (you’re allowed to return the product within a week, but the courier is on you),
  • The Kogan’s disadvantage in power consumption (a sure sign of cheaper components),
  • A month’s waiting time for the Kogan to be delivered,
  • And the poor history of our experience with couriers (namely us probably having to take a day off work at zero warning to be home for the courier).
So we got the Soniq, and we delivered it ourselves to our house in Our Car™, the best car in the world (mainly because it’s the only car in the world that’s ours, but also because it saved us the $55 JB Hi Fi charges for TV deliveries).
What is this Soniq brand? It actually turns out to be the same as the Kogan in the TV department. They both build TV sets based around old generation LG panels. It is important to realize there are but a few factories in this world that manufacture flat screen TV panels, much fewer than there are TV set brands. If you’re not buying from one of the big five or six, you are buying someone else’s panel (the iPad 2, for example, is fitted with an LG made LCD panel). Obviously, there is more to the TV than the panel: Sony and its likes also have sophisticated electronics and software processing your picture, all of which is lost when you buy a cheap brand.
It is therefore important to get this straight: the fact our TV is cheap is written all over it. I’m not talking about the lack of features like Internet connectivity or 3D, about which I don’t care much; I am talking pure picture quality. In fact, standing at the JB Hi Fi showroom, where I know no proper assessment of picture quality could ever be made, it was dead clear to me the Soniq is a far cry from the Sony LCD and the Samsung plasma standing next to it and projecting the same images. Sure, that Samsung was a state of the art model so comparisons are problematic, but the amount of lost details was shocking. Shocking was also the right word to describe the over-saturation on parts of the Soniq’s screen. I improved things a bit by playing with the picture settings (as with all TVs, the default is way too bright), but things still felt as if someone was splashing paint at the screen with great inaccuracy. For a moment there my feet turned cold to the point of wanting to forget we ever came up with the idea of buying a TV; that is, until my wife reminded me why we’re seeking a cheap TV set.
Back home, with the TV up and running, the Soniq doesn’t look as bad. Sure, everyone looks super tanned, but our new TV is clearly superior to our old one. Since we’re still used to that old TV’s image, whatever crap the Soniq presented us with looks amazing. I did perform basic calibration on the the Soniq's picture using reference material to set up white level (more commonly known as contrast), black level (more commonly known as brightness), sharpness (like virtually all TVs out there, the minimum setting gives the best result) and aspect ratio (I made sure we watch the whole frame, to ensure we get one to one mapping of the 1080 pixels per row in the source material on our 1080 pixel per row screen; otherwise you get the distortion that’s caused by fitting less than 1080 pixels of info on a 1080 pixles screen). I could not adjust color because I currently lack the equipment for that, but I’m working on a workaround. I also left the white color balance on its default and unnatural “cool” setting, just because the Soniq has an over tendency towards red. Professional grade calibration would obviously help (they do proper white color balancing across the range), but I don’t see the point with this inherently flawed TV that will see the bulk of its use in non reference viewing.
[Added on 3/3/12: I almost forgot to mention the very first step of TV calibration: turning off all "noise reduction" and other supposed picture enhancers offered by the TV. These are almost always up to no good, but for some reason that eludes me they are always on by default. The exception is in various schemes to reduce motion artifacts; some times they work, other times they don't.]
While you can argue with us on the merits of our purchasing decision as much as you would like, one thing you won’t be able to argue on is our new TV’s clearly displaying itself to be an edge lit LED design. You can clearly see it when the image the TV is projecting is entirely black: the edges, in particular the corners, are lighter than the center (and nothing is truly black). It’s actually the exact opposite of our old rear projection TV! These artefacts are telltale indicators for cheap LED TV implementations, because the better LED TVs have the LEDs spread across the screen rather than the edges alone. The better LED TVs also control their LEDs and turn them on and off selectively as their area is supposed to be darker or lighter, so as to increase the picture’s contrast; ours obviously doesn’t go to such lengths given that the LEDs were still firmly on even when projecting a black image.
Given our new TV’s obvious poor quality, are we happy with our purchase? At this stage I would answer with a definitive yes. We would have bought this TV eventually anyway as our second TV, and while mediocre it clearly shows the march of technology in the six years since we bought our previous TV. For gaming purposes in particular this is an excellent TV set, at least when considering value for money. Most importantly for where we are now, it is a bright TV. Very bright TV indeed. Mission accomplished, I would say.

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