March Madness. The Dance. A 68-team single-elimination contest. Whatever you want to call the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament, it's almost here, and sports fans will be spend a lot of time watching it over the next couple weeks. From today's play-in games down the road to the Final Four, TVs around the country will be busy bringing you the action.
Ever wonder what makes some TVs better for watching sports than others? This is an update to an earlier primer on what makes a TV great for sports, with some fresh picks for the best sports TVs, in case you need to run out and buy a new set before the bracket busting begins.
Motion performance refers to how a TV handles moving pictures, especially fast action sequences, so it’s probably the most important feature to consider when you pick a TV for sports. Poor motion performance results in a loss of detail and a blurry picture—basically, it can’t keep up with the action, so it’ll be hard to spot who exactly recovers a fumble.
Generally speaking, a higher refresh rate (measured in hertz) means better motion, but it’s much more complicated than that. Aim for a set with 120Hz, and check out some testing results to get an idea of how different sets will perform in your living room.
If all your buddies watch the big games at your house, you need a TV with a wide viewing angle. The best TVs look clear to viewers that are sitting nearly 90 degrees to the side of the screen, while others start to look blurry if you’re plopped down anywhere but the sofa. Take a look at our viewing angle results, summed up in comparison charts.
This chart represents how much viewing angles can vary from TV to TV. The green line, for example, is nearly straight, which means you'll be able to see the picture clearly from almost anywhere in the room (as long as you aren't behind the TV, that is).
Bigger isn’t always better. A TV can actually be too big for a room, and you’ll be able to pick out individual pixels instead of a smooth, immersive image.
There’s a simple formula to figure out your ideal TV size. Measure the distance in inches between your couch and TV stand, and divide by 2.5. The result is roughly how big your screen should be. Round up to the closest available size.
Plasma Vs. LCD
Plasma TVs are great for watching sports for two key reasons. First, they handle fast-moving action as well as Syracuse plays the zone, so those ankle-breaking cross-ups and board-shaking dunks will look fantastic. Second, plasma sets tend to have wide viewing angles, so everyone at your Superbowl party will be able to see the screen from wherever they’re sitting. Plasmas also tend to cost less than LCD TVs, inch-for-inch.
LCD (including LED) TVs do offer a few advantages, though. For starters, they’re thinner, lighter, and more energy-efficient than plasma sets—and each of those benefits increases along with the screen size. LCDs are almost always brighter than plasmas, so if you’re watching the game in a well-lit room, an LCD will have more pop. Top-tier LCD sets can handle motion nearly as well as plasmas these days, too, so the distinction matters less than it used to.
Top Sports TVs
The 2013 model-year TVs are just barely starting to hit the market, so most of our recommendations are hold-overs from 2012. But it's actually a great time to buy last year's TVs, since many of them are priced to move.
The Samsung E8000 (MSRP $2,199, 51-inch) is Samsung’s top-of-the-line plasma series, and was our favorite TV of 2012. It’s excellent for watching sports, with an extremely wide viewing angle and smooth motion performance, not to mention great contrast and color. It’s available in 51, 60- and 64-inch sizes.
The Panasonic Viera VT50 series (MSRP $3,699, 65-inch) is the top-of-the-line plasma from Panasonic. It has a very wide viewing angle (though not as wide as the above Samsung), and exceptional motion performance. It’s also available in a 55-inch version.
The LG LM7600 series (MSRP $1,949, 47-inch) isn’t even the flagship in LG’s lineup, but this LED edge-lit model displayed some the best black levels, color accuracy, and viewing angles of any LCD we saw in 2012. It’s available in 55- and 47-inch versions.
We just reviewed Panasonic's newest mid-range plasma series, the S60, and it's a winner. The picture quality in many ways rivals that of high-end TVs from 2012, with inky blacks, bright whites, smooth motion and a wide viewing angle. It's light on bells and whistles, but we think this is a great middle-of-the-road pick. We tested the 60-inch model (MSRP $1,299) but it's also available in 50- and 42-inch configurations.
The Vizio 2VLE series (MSRP $1,099, 55-inch) is one of the best budget LCD deals on the market right now (probably until the 2013 Vizio models arrive). The clunky design doesn’t look like much, but it houses a display with great color accuracy and solid performance in most other regards, too. It’s available in 55-, 47-, and 42-inch models.
While we’re on the topic of huge, cutting edge TVs, it’s worth checking out the LG 84LM9600 (MSRP $16,999, 84-inch). It holds the distinction of being the first ultra high definition TV commercially available in the US. We have yet to get it into our labs (we might need to take a door off its hinges), but the picture has been beautiful every time we’ve seen it at a trade show or press event. It’s hard enough to find any sports to watch in 1080p (most TV stations broadcast at 720p or 1080i), so a 2160p screen like this is overkill—for now. Enormous, huge-screen TVs like this might be the way you watch sports in the next few years.