For the seventh time in as many years, Robert Zohn, owner of Value Electronics in Scarsdale, NY has graciously hosted the exciting HDTV shootout event. It's a single room, no-holds barred battle to the death of the top flat panel TVs to see who wins bragging rights as the best HDTV of the year. This year, three plasma sets, one each from LG, Panasonic and Samsung, went up against three LED/LCD sets from Sony, Samsung and the ELITE brand (a partnership between Pioneer and Sharp). Results were surprising, with some noticeable upsets and at least one disappointment. But we'll get to that.
To maintain a level playing field, the sets were all calibrated to peak performance by respected ISF calibration technicians, Kevin Miller and Dewayne "D-Nice" Davis. All sets were angled toward the viewing audience, as much as possible, so as to minimize off-axis viewing limitations of LED and LCD TVs. Viewers were also encouraged to walk around to view each set from its ideal angle before logging their scores. Although all of the sets were 3D-capable, the shootout considered 2D performance only - no glasses were required for this evaluation.
During the meet and greet portion of the event, the TVs were all set to the factory preset viewing modes which came closest to the performance of a calibrated set. This gives the audience an idea of what the TVs look like without calibration, before getting into the deeper scrutiny and evaluation. The audience was made up of video hobbyists, local customers of the hosting store (Value Electronics), technology journalists (such as yours truly), and discussion forum members from AV specialty forums such as Home Theater Shack and avsforum.
Representatives from Samsung, Panasonic and Sharp/ELITE were there to brief the audience on their latest advancements in TV technology along with Jon Cielo of THX, who discussed some of what goes into the THX certification program (three of the six sets in the shootout were THX-certified). Also on hand as was Bill Schindler, one of the pioneers of plasma TV development, and long-time consultant to Panasonic in their development of plasma TV technology.
Viewers were instructed by Mr. Miller and Mr. Davis what to look for in the various test patterns and content and the sets were switched into their calibrated modes for the evaluation. What followed was a nice sampling of test patterns and real world content intended to put these TVs through their paces. And while we haven't heard the official results of the showdown yet, I had my favorites, which I will reveal shortly.
The models included in the shootout, all of which were selected by and are sold by Value Electronics, were a good representation of the best that is currently on the market. I wonder whether LG's 6500 or 9800 series LED might have qualified for the tests but they were not among the models selected.
For the most part, the three plasmas were better in the black level department, the exceptions being the LG plasma, which offered the poorest contrast and black levels and the ELITE LCD which offered excellent contrast and black levels, particularly for an LCD-based set. The LG's performance was the biggest surprise to me as I expected better performance. I'd seen the ELITE LCD before but I was still surprised how well it held up in such esteemed company.
The plasma sets also had the edge in terms of color saturation: the Samsung and Panasonic sets in particular had deep, rich colors that were not only pleasing to the eye, but also made the image look more real and true-to-life than the more faded colors of the LED/LCD sets. In terms of color accuracy, the two Samsung sets and the Sony did extremely well here, with only minor decoding errors when viewing the primary colors. The ELITE set in particular had some color decoding issues, creating a shade of yellow that did not match the REC709 standard very closely, and also replacing teal with a hue of blue (this later issue may be something that Sharp can fix via a firmware update). The Panasonic set also had some difficulties decoding primary colors, though these anomalies were not as evident in real world material.
In terms of perceived detail, all of the sets looked stunning, with full HD 1920x1080 pixel resolution. In this regard, it would be difficult to pick a clear winner. Peak white levels were something that the LED sets may have had some advantage over the plasmas. In terms of creating a "punchy" bright image, the Samsung, Sony and ELITE LED/LCD sets did perform well here, a trait that will serve them well when switched into 3D mode.
Turning to motion resolution and reproduction of 24p source materials, the Panasonic and ELITE sets tended to perform best here. Their motion smoothing features (which were disabled for most of the evaluation), seemed to be the least egregious in terms of introducing their own artifacts when applied to 24 frame/second source material. The Samsung sets (particularly the plasma) also offered very good motion reproduction, whether the smooth motion features were engaged or not.
Overall, given the material and test patterns, my favorite-looking set at the shootout was the Samsung plasma, which looked just slightly better overall than the Panasonic plasma, which was a very close second. My favorite LED set was the ELITE, with black levels and contrast that even a plasma would be proud of, and a nearly complete lack of haloing when viewing white text on a black background, something that the Sony set suffered from pretty visibly. If/when Sharp corrects the color decoding issues on the ELITE set, it will be a strong contender for the top LED TV available. I still preferred the color saturation and richness of the plasma sets, but the ELITE set does appear to set a new benchmark for performance in LED/LCD TVs, at least under these conditions.
We'll post the official results of the voting once they are made available. Thanks go out to Robert Zohn for his passion and generosity in hosting the event as well as Kevin Miller and Dewayne Davis for lending their talents to the occasion.
UPDATE (10/10): Value Electronics has tabulated the results from both days and lists the final scores for all six sets here in this PDF. Per the voters, the highest overall score went to the Elite LED TV, with the Panasonic plasma close behind at #2 and the Samsung plasma close behind that at #3. Although the order is different, these match my top 3 - any would make an excellent choice for the discerning videophile.