The Case for Plasma vs LED/LCD HDTV
Many people dismiss plasma TVs. Their explanations range from “it’s an older technology,” to “LEDs are more expensive, so they’re better,” to “I saw one in a store and it looked terrible.”
Yet every reviewer from every major TV reviewing publication and website praise plasma TVs for their excellent image quality, not to mention their lower prices.
So what gives?
The case for plasma is multifaceted, while the case against them (and for LCDs), is rather finite.
The single most important aspect of picture quality is contrast ratio. This is the difference between the brightest part of the image, and the darkest. It’s what gives the image depth and realism. A high contrast ratio can make an image look three dimensional (without even being “3D”). A low contrast ratio will look flat and washed out.
Contrast ratio is also the greatest difference between displays of any type. Detail, noise, color, and other aspects of picture quality have all gotten very good in the past few years. Contrast ratio has gotten better as well, but not to the same extent. There’s still a wide discrepancy.
But wait! You say. LED LCD manufacturers hype 1,000,000:1 contrast ratios! Surely that’s enough. Well, if that were true, it would be. The thing is, they all lie. No contrast ratio you’ve ever seen from a manufacturer has anything to do with what you see on screen. In objective measurements of production TVs, plasmas almost always have a better contrast ratio than any LCD.
The only exception is the very few local dimming LED LCDs on the market. These are able to dim specific areas of their backlight to boost the contrast ratio. This doesn’t look quite as good as a true native contrast ratio, but it’s close. In the case of the ELITE by Sharp, the effect is excellent and the TV looks fantastic. In the case of the HX950 from Sony, it’s still good but not as good as the better plasmas.
This is why so many TV reviewers prefer plasmas. Side-by-side with an LCD, and the plasma will look better. Of all the flat panel TVs I reviewed and measured this year, the one with the highest contrast ratio by far was the VT50 series from Panasonic. This was our pick for TV of the year. This was CNET’s pick for best overall picture quality of 2012. It was Consumer Reports’ highest rated TV under 60-inches (they didn’t test the 65-inch version). So it’s not just us who think it’s the best looking TV on the market, and that’s mostly due to its incredible contrast ratio.
I wrote an even longer article about contrast ratio over at CNET called Contrast Ratio (or how every TV manufacturer lies to you).
One of LCD’s biggest problems is off-axis performance, or how the TV looks when you’re not sitting dead center. Most LCDs, if you move even one seat over on the couch, look dramatically different. In some cases this can be as innocuous as the black level becoming more gray (reducing the contrast ratio). In other cases, the actual color of the image can change.
While LCDs have gotten better in this regard, it is still an issue. The better offenders may be OK for the seats adjacent to the center. The worst offenders will only look good to those sitting direct in front of the screen (“on axis”).
The only LCDs that don’t have this issue are IPS-based LCDs. IPS, or In-Plane Switching is a different method for creating an image with LCDs. However, IPS-based displays have their own issues, the most notable is a contrast ratio even lower than other LCDs.
Plasmas will look the same no matter where you sit.
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The other major issue with LCDs is motion blur. This is as it sounds: a blurring of any object in motion. This can be as simple as a burring runner in a sportsball game, or as severe as the entire image blurring as a camera pans across a scene. Personally, I notice motion blur the most with close-ups of faces. The instant the shot changes to a close-up, the face seems highly detailed. Then the person moves slightly, and the image blurs just enough to obscure details like facial hair, wrinkles, and so on. To an extent, 120 and 240 Hz LCDs address this problem. Which is to say, true 240 Hz LCDs don’t blur as much with motion as basic 60 Hz displays.
However, for them to be fully effective, these higher-framerate LCDs have a process called “motion interpolation.” With video-based content like sports, this isn’t an issue. With 24 frame-per-second content like movies and most scripted TV shows, it can result in an odd artifact with motion called the Soap Opera Effect. The SOE makes everything look like a cheap soap opera, instead of a movie or prime time TV show. Some people aren’t bothered by SOE. I loathe it.
Because of how plasmas work, they don’t have the same issue with motion blur. Some new models, however, incorporate motion interpolation for reasons that escape this writer (marketing? I don’t know). However, in the case of plasmas, you can defeat this “feature,” with no decrease in performance.
Plasmas, with very few exceptions, are cheaper than their like-sized, like-featured counterparts. In the 50-inch range this price difference isn’t too severe. In the larger sizes, it can be significant.
True, there are some new huge LCDs on the market of 70-, 80-, and even 90-inches. These are larger than the largest commercially available HDTV plasma (65-inches). However, they have not all been favorably reviewed. So yes, if you want a 70-inch or larger TV LCD is your only choice, but know that there is a performance penalty for it.
The case against
Of course, this isn’t to say plasmas are some perfect technology. There is no perfect technology. If you have a room with lots of sunshine, and you watch a lot of TV during the day, the added brightness of an LCD can be a benefit. This is one of the only ways an LCD is better than a plasma: light output. Most people would never need the added brightness of an LCD, and at night the extreme light output can cause eye fatigue. But in some cases, it’s useful.
Other than outright brightness, the days of LCDs just inherently being better able to handle reflections has passed, though. Nearly every LCD on the market has a glossy screen, making them susceptible to the same reflections that plague plasmas and CRTs before them.
So if you know you’re going to get reflections (i.e., the windows are behind you), and you can’t get curtains (which would make every TV look better), then you have two options. The first is finding one of the few matte screen LCDs on the market (they are all smaller size screens-ed). Keep in mind these will have worse picture quality overall than non-matte LCDs or any plasma. After that, search for anti-reflective coatings. Most high-end plasmas and some LCDs have this.
While we discussed image retention above, there are a few situations where it should be considered a factor. If you’re planning on using your TV as a computer monitor, anything static on the screen (like the task bar), can cause image retention. In mixed use, it’s not an issue. I use an HTPC when reviewing plasmas, and have never had an issue because I watch TV and movies as well.
There is no “perfect” TV, but for most people the better picture quality, better off-axis performance, better motion resolution, and lower price mean plasma TVs are a better deal than LCDs (LED or otherwise).
Consider that those of us who test dozens of TVs a year, comparing them side-by-side, choose plasma over LCD in most cases. Also consider why a store (or manufacturer) might want to push you towards the more expensive product. I’m not saying everyone should get a plasma over an LCD. Like I said, there are situations where an LCD is better. However, if you’re looking for the best picture quality, plus all the other factors we’ve discussed, consider a plasma.
Geoff Morrison @TechWriterGeoff
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