Product Reviews

In this installment of You Asked: Why do sports look so terrible on TVs now? Why don’t manufacturers just calibrate their TVs at the factory? What’s the best 55-inch TV under $600, and what’s the best small-screen premium TV?

TV calibration

Zeke Jones / Digital Trends

Our first question comes from James, who writes: Why is picture calibration still required, particularly in high-end TVs? Given the manufacturers have the equipment and expertise to do the tests and create the picture presets, why/how is there scope for improvement?

I love this question, because I think a lot of folks wonder the same thing. Here’s my best answer:

Every TV that rolls off a manufacturer’s line is adjusted to some degree. Even low-end TVs need to produce colors that look at least close to what we identify with. If a TV’s reds were just blatantly orange, for example, nobody would want to buy that TV. So there’s a baseline level of acceptability, even for budget TVs, and that gets taken care of at the factory.

The kind of calibration I think you’re talking about is the act of fine-tuning a set so that it matches, as closely as possible, a certain standard. But … what is that standard?

Well, if you’re Sony, Samsung, LG, TCL, Hisense, or Philips — your job is to make your TVs as broadly appealing as possible, right? The more people that like them, the more they can sell and, perhaps more important, the fewer returns they are likely to get.

That’s why we see multiple picture mode presets in TVs. Maybe you like the way the Vivid mode looks, or maybe you’re more of a Standard mode person. Taking that notion a step further, the reason that TVs ship with the Standard picture mode as the default — and by extension, with motion smoothing enabled by default — is because far more consumers like that look over the look of a movie or cinema mode. By appealing to the largest audience possible, brands sell more TVs and keep more TVs sold.

Let’s take that logic one step further. Those who prefer the movie or cinema mode are a specific type of customer. Generally, they know what they want. And if they don’t already know how to get to it, they are willing to put the work in to get there. So, just having a movie, cinema, or equivalent mode is going to scratch the itch of those who prefer a warm color temperature, colors that are perhaps not quite as exuberant, but are more accurate, etc.

But even within that already-niche crowd that prefers the movie or cinema mode, there’s a majority of folks who, for example, prefer motion smoothing. They prefer SDR programming that is brighter than what the standard calls for. They prefer brighter peak HDR highlights over subtle highlight details.

This places those of us who want studio-standard, reference-quality image reproduction in a sort of super-niche category. We are a minority within a minority of customers.

Now … how much time, effort, and cost (aka financial loss) do you think a huge corporation is willing to take on? The answer is: not enough to satisfy a superminority within their customer base. Even Sony, which caters to the enthusiast perhaps more enthusiastically than any other brand, except maybe Panasonic, will only get their TV’s “professional mode” preset 95% of the way there. Because in that last 5% resides a bunch of factors that cannot be addressed with the wave of one calibration profile. There’s too much variance between panels to get every TV that rolls off the line to be as close to dead-on accurate as possible. It must be done per TV set, it’s going to involve a human — and until AI gets smart enough to do it, it requires hours of work.

A bespoke calibration on a per-TV basis performed by a manufacturer is a sure way to go broke. Or, they could do it, but they’d need to charge double for the TV set. Why choose that when you can have it done, in your home, for far less?

I hope that helps. It’s about scale and economy. Maybe I should have just said that in the first place.

Best budget buy

Glacial ice flow shown on a Hisense U7K.
Zeke Jones / Digital Trends

Next, Yuri writes: Currently in the market for a new budget to midrange TV, however, I am not sure which to choose from. I’ve seen your review of the TCL Q7, which I like, but I wanted other options like the Hisense U7K. My budget is up to $600. My TV preference is 120Hz native, HDMI 2.1 ports, at least two, 55 inches, local dimming, Google TV preferred. P.S. Do you think I should wait for Black Friday to get better deals?

A 55-inch TV for under $600? Get the Hisense U7K. You can thank me with some curry goat and pepper pot soup when I come to visit.

As for waiting for Black Friday? You might as well. I don’t know that prices will drop that much, but if you’re not in a super-big hurry, I mean … we’re getting close now, so I know I probably would.

Best TV for sports

A soccer game shown on a Samsung QN90C.
Zeke Jones / Digital Trends

A YouTube viewer wrote: What is the best TV for sports viewing? I see lots of TVs that, even with motion smoothing enabled, cannot keep the picture quality nice and clear at 4K, for example. When a football is thrown in the air, you can see the football slowly blurring all over the screen. What TVs do a good job with this and is there a software feature that I don’t understand or have enabled? My old sharp LCD 1080p TV never had this issue.

OK. I get asked this question all the time. We have an article about the best TVs for sports from earlier this year. One thing I haven’t addressed with specificity is why folks are asking this question more often than before. And that last comment from the viewer hints at it: My old TV never had this issue.

It’s true, we didn’t notice the kind of thing the commenter is talking about — the blurring football — nearly as much in years prior. And it’s understandable that we’d tie that to our old TVs being better in some way.

But while there is something to upscaling low-resolution 720p content up to 4K being more difficult and more prone to artifacts than upscaling to 1080p, the reality is that it isn’t our TVs that have gotten worse, but that the TV signal has gotten worse.

Whether you’re streaming TV from YouTube TV, Sling, or Fubo, or you’re getting your sports from cable or satellite, our TV signals have gotten more and more compressed over the years. More channels, higher resolution, same pipe. How do you fit more signal down the same pipe? You compress the daylights out of it. And the more compression that gets applied, the more difficult it is to maintain any level of detail in fast-moving shots, especially if the frame rate is below 60 frames per second (fps). I see this all the time when watching golf on YouTube TV. That tiny white ball is a little glowing orb of nondescript mess. It looks nothing like a golf ball – and it drives me nuts. I feel your pain.

There is no TV in existence — not even the best-performing TVs of the year — that can magically fill in the massive loss of information due to the aggressive compression that’s taking place in our source signals. Worse, the quality of the signal varies by channel, by network, by provider, and even down to the specific game or match that’s being televised.

So, I will once again point to the best TVs for sports this year. I just need everyone to understand that even the very best TVs on the market — which I promise you have exponentially better processing than your 1080p TV from 10 years ago — can’t work magic with the lame signals we’re getting these days.

Speaking of old TVs: This next one just popped up in my inbox this morning, and it really got me thinking.

Premium small-scale TVs?

An aerial views of a coastline shown on a Samsung QN90C.
Zeke Jones / Digital Trends

Ben from Oregon writes: I’m in the market for a TV upgrade. Currently, I’m using a 2008 Toshiba 40XF550U, which has served me well for 15 years. But it’s starting to show some issues. Our main use for the TV is streaming content (Disney, Netflix, etc.) via an Apple TV 4K (3rd gen), and watching non-sports OTA [over-the-air] content through Channels DVR and an HDHomeRun.

As you can see, I prefer TVs that last a long time. Can you recommend a reliable option in the $1,500 price range, preferably in the sub-55-inch size? Build quality and durability matter more to me than the screen size. My biggest concern is upscaling of the OTA content. It’s been difficult to evaluate easily in-store and 4K OTA is still a long way off.

Ben is ready to upgrade his TV from a 15-year-old Toshiba 40-inch LCD — that’s an LCD with a fluorescent backlight. My first thought was, “No problem!” Just about anything I recommend is going to be a huge step up from the 15-year-old fluorescent-backlight LCD he has now. But he also has some specific asks that I definitely don’t hear often. First, he’d like to keep the screen size small — under 55 inches. Second, he likes to keep his stuff for a long time. Those two requirements got me thinking about a segment of TVs that I don’t think I talk about enough.

While there are exceptions — and I’ll list them in a moment — it is not common to see the best-performing TVs in screen sizes under 55 inches. The 42- and 43-inch screen sizes don’t often get the premium treatment. So, while I would love to recommend, say, a Sony X93L or X90L, I can’t … because that model doesn’t exist in a screen size under 55 inches.

Actually, most of the premium TVs in the 42- or 43-inch screen size category are OLED TVs — and, well, those are plenty premium. But Ben wants his TV to last a long time. And while OLED TVs can last a long time by today’s standards, that longevity comes with a few caveats. Plus, the oldest consumer OLED TV just celebrated its 10th birthday, so we are five years away from any 15-year precedent for OLED, keeping in mind that first-gen OLED is probably not a good yardstick to go by.

And, so, this is a uniquely challenging question to answer. From a brand perspective, I’m tempted to recommend Sony, because its build quality and longevity numbers look great. I would then recommend a Samsung LCD or LG OLED after Sony, keeping in mind that I’m slightly reluctant to recommend an OLED in general, because I don’t know how hard Ben uses his TV, but also because OLED compounds do break down over long periods of time.

So, ideally, I’d be recommending a 42-inch Sony LCD TV. Except that Sony’s best LCD models are not available at a size that small, as I’ve already mentioned. The best 42-inch

. That’s a decent TV, no doubt, and probably going to look significantly better in most ways than the 15-year-old Toshiba he’s rocking. That TV is also only $600!

But, given Ben’s budget of $1,500, I sense he’s looking for something pretty premium. So, Ben, I have to recommend that you get an OLED — where longevity is a bit of a concern — or make peace with the idea that you need to step up to 55 inches to get the quality you want. Unfortunately, you can’t take your budget and get more premium performance in a smaller screen size unless you go OLED.

So, there’s the Sony A90K, or LG C3 OLEDs, or the Samsung QN90C QLED TV. I’d rather see you get the Sony OLED, personally, but the Samsung QN90C QLED is probably a better match all the way around.

Or, step up to 55 inches and see the abundance of choices come flooding to your doorstep.

Also, I would let go of the idea that TVs made today will last 15 years. It’s true what they say: They just don’t build ’em like they used to.

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