Which high-end television is best?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Dec. 1 2004 1:38 PM

Top Tubes

Which high-end television is best?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

A widescreen, high-definition television tops America's holiday wish list this year. Too bad shopping for one is so confusing. Many gift buyers head for the store with visions of plasma screens dancing in their heads only to find another kind of flat screen, the LCD, grabbing their attention. Once they start looking around a little more, they notice an alphabet goulash of thin-screen options: DLP, D-ILA, LCoS, SXRD. What do they all mean? Which type of HDTV is best? And what about HDTV itself—is it really better than the much-cheaper E DTV?

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist, also writes about home theater for The Perfect Vision and other publications.

It's enough to make you go home and cuddle up with your 10-year-old Trinitron. But don't do that. Herewith, Slate's guide through the high-def maze.


How much should you spend? Count on $1,500 at the very least—for the more exotic technologies, expect to spend much more. Samsung does make a 27-inch HD model powered by an old-fashioned picture tube (more about this later) for $700. But, except in very small rooms, the picture is too small and too dim to make much of an impact.

What about EDTV? No. EDTVs (enhanced- definition televisions) may seem like a bargain, but they're a waste. High-definition has two special qualities. First, HD broadcasts are usually in widescreen; on a widescreen television, the image fills the entire screen (no horizontal black bars on the top and bottom). Second, an HD image consists of 1,080 horizontal lines (or 720 lines that get scanned twice as fast) compared with standard TV's 480 lines. More lines mean a more detailed, cohesive, and color-saturated image. An EDTV receives high-def signals, but it displays them in standard definition. You get the wide screen, but not the extraordinary detail. In fact, because the screen is bigger than an ordinary television yet displays the same number of lines, the picture can sometimes be fuzzy, craggly—just bad. (For more about HD and ED, click here.)

Pioneer plasma
Pioneer plasma

Plasma: Plasma televisions are everyone's dream ticket—flat, bright, and the niftiest-looking piece of furniture in the history of consumer electronics. Two-and-a-half years ago, I predicted that by now plasma's bugs would be vanquished and the prices slashed. Well, plasmas are cheaper and better, but they're not yet trouble-free or particularly cheap. Any plasma worth owning will set you back at least $5,000 retail—a really good one will cost you double that.

Plasmas have two inherent advantages and one inherent flaw. The advantages: First, they give off a staggering amount of light, so the image looks clear even in uncurtained daylight. Second, you can watch plasmas from any angle and the picture remains just as sharp—a distinct advantage if you watch television with lots of friends.

The flaw: "burn-in." If you spend a lot of time watching a channel with an on-screen logo (or a news crawl), the logo's outlines will brand a permanent shadow on that area of the screen. If you watch a lot of non-HD programs, which have square images, the vertical black bars on both sides of your widescreen will burn in, too. There are ways to minimize this risk (click here) but no way to eliminate it.

One thing to keep in mind when you're blown away by a plasma screen in an electronics store showroom is the Finding Nemo factor. HD tape loops with lots of bright lights and bold colors—nature documentaries, football games, space capsules orbiting the Earth, and especially digital cartoons like Finding Nemo—make almost any plasma TV look fabulous. Plasmas have more trouble presenting complex colors, especially in dimly lit scenes. They also have a tendency to make black look like dark gray.

The latest models are getting better at compensating for plasma's weaknesses. (For a technical explanation, click here.) At a trade show a couple months ago, I stood in front of a 43-inch Pioneer Elite PRO-920HD for 20 minutes watching a DVD of Spider-Man, a movie with lots of very dark scenes. The detail, the contrasts, the gradations of gray, and the distinctions between objects and shadows were all superb. I found nothing to complain about except the price: $10,500. (It's possible to find it now for as little as $7,000.) The 42-inch Panasonic TH-42PX25, at $5,500 (on sale at Amazon for $3,800), is impressive, too. But on most plasmas cheaper than $5,000, Finding Nemo will look great; Spider-Man and many other live-action DVDs and non-HD television shows will not.

Sony LCD
Sony LCD

LCD: LCD (liquid-crystal display) flat panels have one big advantage over plasmas: no burn-in. Otherwise, there's little to be said for them. Inch for inch, they're more expensive than plasmas. They make black colors look even lighter gray than plasmas. Fast-moving objects tend to look blurry and jumpy. They're also prone to the "screen-door effect"—you can sometimes see the gridlines that separate each pixel. Sony's 46-inch Qualia 005 LCD panel, due out this spring, is stunningly vivid; it makes all other LCDs, and most plasmas, look like mush. The price, though, will be about $12,000.


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 11:25 AM The GOP’s Phantom Menace The Republican Party’s new agenda is trying to solve problems that don’t exist.
Business Insider
Sept. 16 2014 10:17 AM How Jack Ma Founded Alibaba
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-era New York
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 10:52 AM Bill Hader Explains Why Playing Stefon Made Him Laugh and Why LeBron James Is Funny
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 7:36 AM The Inspiration Drought Why our science fiction needs new dreams.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.