You Asked 10: picture calibration, best budget buys, and pre…

In this installment of You Asked: Why do sports look so terrible on TV now? Why don’t manufacturers 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

A man measures color balance on a Sony X95L Mini-LED.
Zeke Jones /

Our first question comes from James, who writes: Why is picture calibration still needed, especially in high-end TVs? Given that manufacturers have the tools and expertise to test and create picture presets, why/how is there room for improvement?

I like this question, because I think that’s what a lot of people wonder. Here’s my best answer:

Every TV that comes from a manufacturer’s line is adjusted to some extent. Even low-end TVs need to produce colors that are at least close to what we recognize. For example, if the red color of a TV is exactly orange, no one will want to buy that TV. So there is a basic level of acceptance even for budget TVs, and this is taken care of at the factory.

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

Well, if you’re Sony, Samsung, LG, TCL, Hisense, or Philips – your job is to make your TV as widely appealing as possible, right? The more people like them, the more they can sell and, perhaps more importantly, the less return they are likely to get.

That’s why we see multiple picture mode presets in TVs. Maybe you like the way Vivid mode looks, or maybe you’re more of a standard mode person. Taking that notion a step further, TVs ship with Standard Picture mode as the default – and by extension, motion smoothing enabled by default – because far more consumers prefer the look of Movie or Cinema modes. . By attracting as large an audience as possible, brands sell more TVs and keep selling more TVs.

Let’s take that logic one step further. People who like movies or cinema genre are a specific type of customers. Generally, they know what they want. And if they don’t already know how to get there, they’re willing to work harder to get there. So, simply having a Film, Cinema, or equivalent mode will scratch the itch for those who prefer warmer color temperatures, colors that perhaps aren’t as vibrant but are more accurate, etc.

But even within that already niche crowd that prefers Movie or Cinema modes, there are a majority of people who prefer, for example, motion smoothing. They prefer SDR programming that is brighter than standard expectations. They prefer brighter peak HDR highlights over subtle highlight details.

This puts it in a kind of super-niche category for those of us who want studio-standard, reference-quality image reproduction. We are a minority among minority customers.

Now… how much time, effort and cost (aka financial loss) do you think a giant corporation is willing to take? The answer is: not enough to satisfy a tiny minority within your customer base. Even Sony, which caters to enthusiasts more enthusiastically than any other brand except perhaps Panasonic, will find its TV’s “professional mode” preset to 95% of the time. Because in that last 5% resides a host of factors that cannot be addressed with the wave of a calibration profile. There’s too much variation between panels to make every TV that comes out of the line as dead-on accurate as possible. This would have to be done per TV set, would involve a human being – and would require hours of work until AI gets smart enough to do it.

A special calibration done by a manufacturer on a per-TV basis is a sure way to fail. Or, they could do that, but they would have to charge twice as much for the TV set. Why choose this when you can accomplish it in your own home for much less?

I hope that helps. It’s about scale and economies of scale. Maybe I should have said this in the first place.

best budget buy

Glacial snow flow shown on the Hisense U7K.
Zeke Jones /

Further, Yuri writes: There are new budget to midrange TVs available on the market currently, however, I’m not sure which one to choose. I saw 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. PS Do you think I should wait for Black Friday to get better deals?

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

As far as looking forward to Black Friday? you might as well. I don’t know if prices will fall that muchBut if you’re not in too much of a rush, I mean… we’re getting close now, so I know I probably would.

Best TV for Games

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

One YouTube viewer wrote: What is the best TV for watching sports? I see a lot of TVs that can’t keep the picture quality nice and clear at, for example, 4K, even with motion smoothing enabled. When the football is thrown into the air, you can see the football slowly blur on the screen. Which TVs work well with it and are there any software features I don’t understand or haven’t enabled? My old Sharp LCD 1080p TV never had this problem.

Ok. I get asked this question all the time. We had an article about the best TVs for games from earlier this year. One thing I didn’t specifically address is why people are asking this question more often than before. And the viewer’s last comment points to this: My old TV never had this problem.

It’s true, we didn’t notice the kind of thing the commentator is talking about – blurry football – nearly as much in years past. And it makes sense that we would associate it with our old TV being better in some way or another.

But while there is something about upscaling low-resolution 720p content to 4K, which is more difficult and more prone to artifacts than upgrading to 1080p, the reality is that it is not our TVs that have deteriorated, but the TV itself. The signals have become 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 become more and more compressed over the years. More channels, higher resolution, more pipes. How do you fit more signals into the same pipe? You compress daylight out of it. And the more compression 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 little white ball is a glowing ball of vague dirt. It doesn’t look like a golf ball at all – and that drives me crazy. I can understand your pain.

There is no TV in existence – not even the best-performing TV of the year – that can magically compensate for the massive loss of information caused by the aggressive compression that occurs in our source signals. What’s worse, signal quality varies by channel, network, provider, and even the specific game or match being televised.

So, I will once again tell you about the best TVs for games this year. I want everyone to understand that even the best TVs on the market – which I promise have far better processing than your 1080p TV from 10 years ago – have to deal with the poor signals we’re getting these days. Can’t do magic.

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

Premium small scale TV?

Aerial view of the beach shown on a Samsung QN90C.
Zeke Jones /

Ben from Oregon writes: I’m in the market for a TV upgrade. Currently, I am using a 2008 Toshiba 40XF550U, which has served me well for 15 years. But some problems have started appearing in it. Our main use for the TV is to stream content (Disney, Netflix, etc.) and watch non-sports OTAs via the Apple TV 4K (3rd generation). [over-the-air] Channel DVR and content via HDHomeRun.

As you can see, I like TVs that last. Can you recommend a reliable alternative in the $1,500 price range, preferably in a sub-55-inch size? For me, build quality and durability matter more than screen size. My biggest concern is the OTA content upgrades. It’s been hard to easily evaluate in stores and a 4K OTA is still a long way off.

Ben is ready to upgrade his TV from a 15-year-old Toshiba 40-inch LCD – it’s an LCD with a fluorescent backlight. My first thought was, “No problem!” What I suggest would be a huge step up from the 15 year old fluorescent-backlit LCD he has now. But they also have some specific questions that I definitely don’t hear very often. First, he would like to keep the screen size small – less than 55 inches. Second, he likes to keep his stuff for a long time. Those two requirements got me thinking about a segment of TV that I don’t think I talk about enough.

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

Indeed, most premium TVs in the 42- or 43-inch screen size category are OLED TVs – and, well, they’re pretty premium. But Ben wants his TV to last a long time. And while OLED TVs can last a long time by today’s standards, their longevity comes with some caveats. Also, the oldest consumer OLED TV recently celebrated its 10th birthday, so we’re five years away from any 15-year precedent for OLED, keeping in mind that first-generation OLED probably won’t be a good benchmark Is.

And, therefore, it is a uniquely challenging question to answer. From a brand perspective, I’m eager to recommend the Sony, as its build quality and longevity numbers look great. I would recommend Samsung LCD or LG OLED over Sony, bearing in mind that I’m a little reluctant to recommend OLED in general, as I don’t know how hard Ben uses his TV, but it Also because OLED compounds break down over a longer period of time.

So, ideally, I would recommend a 42-inch Sony LCD TV. Except that Sony’s best LCD models aren’t available in such small sizes, as I’ve already mentioned. best 42 inch

, There’s no doubt that this is a good TV, and it’ll probably look a lot better than a 15-year-old Toshiba. That TV is also only $600!

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

So, there’s the Sony A90K, or the LG C3 OLEDs, or the Samsung QN90C QLED TV. I’d personally prefer you to get the Sony OLED, but the Samsung QN90C QLED is probably a better match in every way.

Or, step up to 55 inches and see a ton of options delivered to your doorstep.

Also, I would abandon the idea that TVs made today will last 15 years. It’s true what they say: They don’t make them like they used to.

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