Home theaters are complicated beasts, with a dizzying array of options and a telephone directory worth of options to choose from. Our home theater buying guide already has you covered with the audio part of the home theater, but the visual aspect can be just as daunting. Let’s not forget that it constitutes the single largest expense in most cases. It pays to make an informed choice and consider every option when choosing the right TV for your home theater setup.
This guide breaks down the display choices according to key factors such as the size of your room, viewing distance, nature of content viewed, and ambient lighting conditions among other aspects.
The Viewing Distance and the Size of the TV
The viewing distance, or how far you plan to sit from the screen, is the most important factor affecting the size of your display. Determining the viewing distance should be the very first step before finalizing the TV size.
You can save a lot of money by simply having your couch placed closer to the display. The very point of a large display is to fill up your field of vision for an ultimate cinematic experience. You can achieve the same effect with a 50-inch TV at a shorter viewing distance, or you could pay the equivalent of a down payment on a house to achieve the same effect with an 80-inch TV set at a more generous viewing distance.
With that in mind, once you have figured out your desired viewing distance, this nifty viewing distance calculator can help you calculate the THX-recommended (36 degree viewing angle) display size. All you have to do is punch in your desired viewing distance and select the 16:9 aspect ratio. Conversely, figuring out the viewing distance for a display of a known size is as easy as keeping the viewing distance field empty and entering the diagonal display size. This is quite handy if you intend to stay within a certain budget since screen size is the single largest factor affecting price.
Projectors or Flat Panel TVs?
It’s hard to imagine a cinema without a projector. Home theaters are no exception. In fact, projectors are the most cost-effective means to getting a remarkably large screen size (in excess of 100-inch) without breaking the bank. Transforming an entire wall in your entertainment room into a display is within the realm of possibility here.
Modern DLP projectors are not only significantly cheaper than their flat-panel TV counterparts per inch of screen size, but they offer surprisingly great picture quality as well. However, all that cheap screen real estate comes at a cost. Projectors absolutely need a darkened room. The projected image appears washed out and dull under normal lighting conditions. Don’t expect a great home theater experience in a room with large windows and plenty of natural light unless you invest in blackout curtains.
The relatively high cost of lamp replacement is another important factor to consider, especially when the average lamp life is around 3000 hours for most projectors. You might as well forget about using your projector to watch daily news and soap operas. The hassle involved with retracting and setting up a projection screen, mandatory ceiling mounting, complicated wiring for the projector itself, and the need to draw the curtains as well as dim the lights each time restricts projectors largely to occasional viewing activities such as movies and video games.
OLED or LCD TVs?
Flat-panel televisions are the only viable choice for those who want to install their home theater setup in the living room, without restricting it to movies alone. This leaves you with the binary choice between OLED and LCD technologies. You read it right: LCD technology, because the seemingly modern LED TVs are based on the same flawed LCD technology.
An LED TV is basically the same old LCD TV, except the LCD panel is backlit by LEDs instead of relatively bulky CCFL tubes. In fact, traditional LCD TVs aren’t manufactured anymore and all modern LCD TVs use LED backlighting.
To be brutally honest, OLEDs are hands down the superior choice. Unlike LCDs, which rely on liquid crystals to block and bend light emitted by the backlight to form the picture, each individual pixel in an OLED panel is an emissive source of light. While an LCD panel has to contend with complicated and quality-sapping color filters and polarizers to create the picture, the very pixels in an OLED display generate the final image.
LCDs suffer from many problems, such as poor color saturation and accuracy, narrow viewing angles, and backlight bleeding. That is down to the technology’s reliance on rather overcomplicated, lossy, and indirect means of reproducing the picture by bending and blocking of light passed through multiple filters. Then there’s also the unsightly motion blur caused by the inherent inability of the critical LCD crystals to react quickly to changes.
However, the biggest disadvantage of LCDs is their inability to switch off individual pixels like an OLED. This leads to poor black levels, which in turn severely affects the all-important contrast levels. Concerns about burn-in are largely exaggerated for OLEDs, as modern OLED panels are immune to the phenomenon unless you do something silly like keep the same frame displayed for hours on end.
QLED, Nano Cell, and Quantum Dot
Samsung’s QLED and LG’s Nano Cell technologies are different marketing names given to their implementation of Quantum Dot technology. Regular LCDs (or LED-backlight LCDs, for that matter) use a white backlight to reproduce the picture. It isn’t perfectly white and has traces of color impurities, which makes it impossible to achieve accurate color reproduction as well as wider color gamut.
All that a Quantum Dot panel does is replace the white backlight with a blue one and add (what’s essentially) a plastic sheet containing uniformly-sized nano particles that glow red and green when excited by the blue backlight. This achieves purer white light and improves the color gamut, accuracy, and saturation of LCD TVs. However, it still doesn’t solve existing issues such as poor response times (motion blur), viewing angles, contrast, black levels, and more that plague LCD displays.
What’s more, most high-end LCD TVs advertise hundreds of local dimming zones. This is yet another haphazard attempt to improve poor black levels and contrast ratio. Unsightly halos surrounding bright objects in darker scenes is an absolutely ghastly side effect of this workaround employed by high-end LCD TVs. Because the individual pixels of OLED TVs emit light and colors, you can find no less than 8.3 million “local dimming zones” in the cheapest OLED panel.
Long story short, you are better off with an OLED TV than spending a fortune on expensive LCD TVs relying on grossly ineffective workarounds such as Quantum Dots and local dimming.
Other Factors to Consider
Having separated the hype from reality behind major TV technologies, by now you will have decided exactly what is right for your particular home theater setup. Plenty of additional factors must be considered before taking the plunge. Here are some general tips and guidelines that are best followed while buying a display for a home theater setup.
- Budget willing, make it a point to opt for displays with HDR certification. These are guaranteed to deliver a wider color gamut, increased brightness, and greater contrast levels. Certain colors can only be perceived by human eyes at higher luminosity levels. HDR-capable TVs can not only render these colors but also deliver better overall visual fidelity. There are a number of HDR standards, but only Dolby Vision, HDR10/10+, and DisplayHDR 1000 (and onwards) certified displays can achieve true HDR and deliver a substantially positive impact on the viewing experience. Anything less is more or less a marketing gimmick.
- Don’t bother with 8K TV sets for now. There’s virtually no content available for that resolution and both flat-panel TVs and projectors look terrible when the image is up-sampled to such a high resolution. Most new TVs you can buy now will invariably be 4K, so stick with this resolution for the foreseeable future.
- Make sure the display comes with at least four HDMI ports replete with HDCP 2.2 DRM compatibility and at least HDMI 2.0 support. However, you’re better off buying a TV with HDMI 2.1 support for future proofing. Read our eARC guide to know exactly why.
- If you plan on hooking up a console or gaming PC to your home theater setup, make sure you pick up a display that supports high refresh rates (120Hz and higher). The upcoming PlayStation 5 and Xbox One Series X consoles will support high refresh rates up to 120Hz, so it pays to be future-proof. Meanwhile, all PC games support refresh rates of 240Hz and more.
- Display latency is the most important factor for a display to be used for gaming. That is the delay between the input initiated on the controller and the same being displayed on the screen. Most TVs have display latency that is unacceptable for gaming. It pays to check reviews mentioning the same for your display model of choice, if you plan on gaming on your home theater setup.
- Do not try to gauge picture quality in the showroom. All TVs have their color, contrast, brightness, sharpness, noise reduction, and other assorted picture settings cranked up all the way to 11 in order to compete in unnaturally bright showroom lighting conditions. That’s a lot like trying to judge beauty pageant contestants decked out in clown makeup. It’s an exercise in futility. Refer to reviews from reputed websites instead.
That’s largely all you need to know in order to make an informed purchase decision. Keep these pointers in mind and tell the friendly TV salesman to focus only on providing you a good discount. By now you probably know more than he does when it comes to buying the ideal home theater display. Good luck and good hunting.