5 "More Is Better" Myths of High-Definition TV

Last updated on 01/18/2013

A huge, spec'd out HDTV is a point of pride, like a Camaro or an industrial gas grill. Pride also gets in the way of good sense, and TV buyers often walk out of the store with too much TV. Here are 5 "more is better" myths about HDTVs to watch out for on your search for a new flat-screen.
By Liam McCabe

Myth #1: Bigger Screen Is Always Better

A comically large television will get your friends’ attention, but there is such a thing as a TV that’s too big. Sit too close to a colossal screen, and you’ll end up with eye-strain. Instead, buy a TV that fits the room. Measure the distance from your seat to where the screen will be, and divide that figure by both 1.5 and 2.5. That's the range of screen sizes that will be comfortable to view. For example, if your sofa is 6 feet (72 inches) away from the TV stand, your space is suited for a TV between 30 and 50 inches (give or take). Go too big, and it looks like you’re compensating for something...

Myth #2: Higher Resolution Is Always Better

You can choose from two resolutions: 720p and 1080p. If you’re buying a TV smaller than 40 inches, you probably won’t be able to spot a difference between the two. Think of it this way: A 55-inch TV at 1080p looks darn sharp and detailed. You need to see an optometrist if you think otherwise. Now consider a 32-inch TV. At 1080p, the pixels will three times denser than they are on a 55-inch screen. If 1080p detailed enough for a 55-inch screen, it’s overkill on a 32-incher. If you’re buying a 40-incher or smaller, save a few bucks and get the 720p option if it’s available. You might only have the option to get 1080p these days, which won’t hurt, but it won’t add anything.

Myth #3: An Expensive Cable Is Always Better Than A Cheap One

Any salesman working on commission will tell you otherwise, but a $10 no-name HDMI cable performs as well a $100 Monster HDMI cable. A digital signal is a digital signal, so all the fancy bells and whistles on these high-end cables add up to diddly-squat. Of course, Monster and other high-end cable vendors claim that expensive HDMI cables do produce a better signal. If there is a difference, it’s so minute that a) only a tiny minority can see it and b) the price premiums are tough to justify. Unless you’re a huge home-theater snob with hundreds to waste, avoid buying the brand-name cables at brick-and-mortar stores. Wait until you get home, and order generic cables from Monoprice.com or Amazon.com.

Myth #4: A Higher Contrast Ratio Is Always Better

In theory, this is true, but in practice, the measurements don’t mean much. No two manufacturers measure the “dynamic” contrast ratio the same way, so a spec-sheet comparison across brands is impossible. At best, that ratio can be a rough guide for comparing different models within a brand, but even so, bloated numbers like 5,000,000:1 and 6,000,000:1 are too esoteric to measure the real-world impact.

Unfortunately, there’s no way around this problem. The static contrast ratio is more accurate than the dynamic, but still nebulous. Basically, don’t pay more for a TV simply because it has a higher contrast ratio than the one next to it. The contrast may truly be sharper, but the specs don’t make it easy to tell. Read reviews and use your own judgment above all else.

Myth #5: A Faster Refresh Rate Is Always Better

Faster is better, but only up to a certain point, after which faster just becomes redundant. A TV with a 120Hz refresh rate looks smoother and leaves fewer motion artifacts than a TV with a 60Hz refresh rate. A TV with a 240Hz refresh rate, on the other hand, doesn’t show much of a difference over a 120Hz set. The picture is seamless in both cases. It’s pushing the upper-limits of what the naked eye can really see.

In our opinion, 120Hz is the sweet spot. It’s noticeably smoother than 60Hz and avoids the 240Hz price premium. Maybe (just maybe) some sports fanatics would be happier with a 240Hz set for fast-moving games, but they’d only notice a difference in a few plays per game, but they’d probably be better off spending the extra money on beer.

One exception: 3D TVs. The refresh rate of a 3D TV is effectively cut in half, because frames alternate from eye to eye. It’s extra important for 3D video to maintain a smooth picture; if the image looks even a little bit choppy, it’s a recipe for a headache. Hertz count in the third dimension.