LCD HDTV Review: Pricey, Midrange and Cheapo

Folks, it's finally here. As the bad boys from Prison Break, the hotties of 90210, and all those ultra-violent cyborgs on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles are testament to, the new TV season has begun. What better time to invest in a new HDTV?

It's better than you think. Prices for HDTVs are in freefall. Even the best sets cost less than half what they did just a year or two ago. To get a snapshot of where the market is today, we set out to evaluate different tiers of LCD HDTV sets, looking for features, quality and value within what we’ve noticed are three categories. For our testing, we didn’t pick brand-new models, but chose 1080p sets that are probably hitting that sweet spot of having the latest tech inside while sitting in the middle of the downward pricing pressure.

The top tier of LCD TVs gives you the swankiest styling, sharpest picture, lots of adjustability for each of its numerous inputs, and the best contrast ratio — that is, the blackest blacks while the whites remain bright. The midrange gives you a good balance between the best features and value pricing, while the bottom group of sets are priced so low that sometimes it’s hard to believe. To represent each category, we reviewed HDTVs from Sony, Samsung, and Vizio.

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BEST: Sony Bravia KDL-52XBR4: $3200
You can tell from the first second you lay eyes on this beauty that you’re in for a treat. Its huge 52-inch panel magically floats inside a glass frame, making it so heavy that you’d better have a strong friend to help you set it up.

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At this level, what you get for your money is sheer picture quality. Our challenging Blu-ray video examples revealed no “jaggies,” and the blacks were so deep and rich, we thought we were looking at a plasma set. At the same time, the whites were almost too bright to look at, without appearing to be blown out so much that you couldn’t see any detail within bright objects. We’re convinced. This is as good as any LCD screen available today.

If you’re looking to install a PC in your home theater, this Sony HDTV won’t disappoint. Its high resolution cranked out near-perfect images from an HDMI-equipped PC, playing back 1080p video whose quality was indistinguishable from Blu-ray, if not better. Plugging an Xbox 360 into the Bravia’s VGA input was also a pleasant experience, delivering the same sweet resolution we noticed through its HDMI ports.

Then there are the excellent Xross (pronounced Cross) Media Bar menus, showing up as a sliding lineup like that of a Sony Playstation portable. It’s simple to navigate to its multitude of settings. The most important of those adjustments is the ability to tweak each of the inputs, letting you change the way the TV handles over-the-air video, Blu-ray, PC or Xbox inputs, giving each their own custom set of adjustments. The Bravia is near-perfect., showing that you can get a lot of TV for your $3200.



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BETTER: Samsung LNT5281F: $2600
Save $600 with this Samsung 52-inch LCD HDTV, and you might not miss most of those highest-end features. The Samsung’s styling isn’t nearly as fancy as the Bravia’s but still looks like someone at least made an attempt at fine design. There’s a blue lamp in the base that lights up, letting you know it’s a Samsung set, but you can turn that off. There are also some attractive glass inserts on either end, perhaps paying homage to Sony’s superior design.

samsung_single.jpg The 5281’s picture was excellent, though it revealed slightly more video noise than the Sony set. It also handled jaggies differently, slightly softening diagonal edges rather than boldly keeping them sharp as Sony does. The Samsung uses a more advanced type of backlighting, with LEDs shining light behind the screen, and brightening and dimming according to the scene being displayed. This is a good idea in theory, but didn’t work as well. The result was the blackest blacks we’ve seen this side of plasma, but whites that were not as clearly defined. tvs_shiny_samsung.jpg The TV’s controls were much simpler, too, not giving you the ability to control the way each input handles its video. When we plugged in our HDMI PC, the Samsung just couldn’t handle it very well, having trouble registering the 1080p video. The effect was especially pronounced on computer text, no matter how we adjusted its settings. We had even worse luck with the VGA input, where our Xbox 360 looked like it was no longer feeding a 1080p signal. One other potential problem is the TV's glossy screen (see it in picture above), potentially problematic if you have windows in the back of your viewing room. tvs_twoshot2.jpg Unless you place the high-end Sony Bravia and this Samsung 5281 side-by-side, you may not even notice the quality differences between the two if you’re watching HDTV or Blu-ray. But if you want to plug a PC or Xbox into your HDTV, you might want to spend the extra money on the more-adjustable Sony Bravia or one like it.
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GOOD: Vizio VO47LF
The Vizio is a surprisingly solid set for its value. Setup is effortless, giving a shockingly good and bright picture right out of the box, even at factory settings. Naturally, you'll want to tweak things to your preferences, but it's good to know that any technophobes you give this to won't be looking at a picture that's embarrassingly bad if they never look at a menu.

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It's got guts. In a previous Vizio set we reviewed, the value factor was high, but picture quality was at times compromised to our eyes — we suspect because of the signal processing. Would the same thing happen here? No way. While watching over-the-air and cable HD footage, we didn't see any pixelization or motion blur during fast-moving action. Excellent.

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The remote control is outstanding. It's really one of the best we've ever seen for a set at this value. While it doesn't have buttons for every input, it does have buttons for each type. Makes things easy for us, since all we have to press is "HDMI" to cycle through all our gear. Also, the remote's backlight is most appreciated. Our only complaint would be the way Visio put the picture-size controls only on the remote, and not in the onscreen menus (we spent an hour looking for them!).

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Even the best LCDs have trouble rendering proper blacks, so it didn't surprise us that the Vizio struggled here, too. What did stick out for us, though, was how much the picture adjustments and color-temperature settings helped mitigate the shortcomings of the pixels. Watching True Blood on HBO last weekend, the night scenes were dark enough to do their disturbing work.

If you need to stretch your dollar in your hunt for 1080p, we have no problems recommending the Vizio. Its many convenient features, like the remote control and its four HDMI inputs, are friendly to HDTV vets and rookies alike. The above-average picture sweetens an already tasty deal.

(Vizio reviewed by Peter Pachal)