Roll the tape back to 1990. Customers used to walk in to my old shop at Bryn Mawr Stereo in the suburbs of Philadelphia and pop for a $5,000 “big screen” television a few times on any given Saturday. That was contingent, of course, on making sure that it was installed by that Sunday if the Eagles game was going to be televised. That was no problem for us, as most of the sales team was more than willing to take a few hundred dollars to plug in a cable box, a VCR and sometimes a Laserdisc player. This was right before the custom installation era really took off, but even back then, the customers knew that the hours they spent watching TV were valuable. They wanted something special for their investment.
Consumers are no different today, in that they know how many hours they spend watching television and they know the difference between an HDTV that looks like crap and one that looks spectacular. Still, much has changed since the old days of $5,000 standard-definition Pioneer Elite big screens. HDMI, 1080p, streaming media services and smartphone control only begin to describe the functional changes that people now expect in their TV. Then there’s the form factor. Today’s HDTVs are larger in screen size but a good 10 to 15 times thinner. Try hanging a big-screen TV from the old days on the wall, and I will find you a building inspector who will red-tag your home. Even the best TV mounts won’t hold those old-school big screens, but they can now accommodate very big large-screen HDTVs.
The way people buy televisions is completely different today, too. Back in 1990, you went to the “stereo store” to get a top HDTV. Today, you have options ranging from big-box retailers to warehouse stores to custom AV installers to online players like Amazon and even specialty direct dealers like Visual Apex that mainly sell projectors and screens. To say there are a lot of options as to where you can buy your next HDTV is a huge understatement. I’m inclined to look to the place with the best customer service. Buying local is always a good idea. If you are going high-end for a $4,000 to $5,000 HDTV, you should expect goodies like recycling of your old set (if needed), modest calibration, free delivery and so on. Even if you’re shopping online, service matters. Our friends at Visual Apex will spend a lot of time with you on the phone and via email to help you set up your rig, which is really nice.
With all the changes that have taken place, it begs the question: what should you expect from a $5,000 HDTV today? A hell of a lot, because frankly you can get a solid lower-end HDTV from Wal-Mart, Costco or Target for way less money than five grand. For $5,000, you can demand a large screen size of at least 60 inches. Even 80 inches isn’t out of the realm of possibility these days. You should expect exceptional, no-compromises picture quality, starting with a great black level, be it from a plasma or an LED with local dimming. Full LED backlighting is better than edge lighting so that, when watching a dark scene from The Sopranos, you don’t see glowing light around the edges of the TV. You should expect an accurate picture, or at least the ability to make it so. You should be able to calibrate different modes for daytime and nighttime viewing so you get the best performance, no matter when you sit down to watch TV.
You want apps? For $5,000, you should get apps … and lots of them. CinemaNow, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Pandora and more. Games? You can demand them, too. You should be able to play some Angry Birds if you like. Add built-in WiFi and a built-in camera. You should be able to stream media from a server or computer right to the TV. How about HDMI inputs? I’d say anything less than four would be an insult in this price range. What about form factor? For $5,000, I don’t just expect the TV to be thin; I expect it to have a truly distinctive style. I want to see a backlit, intuitive remote control and a great control app for my smartphone.
One thing you shouldn’t expect – at least not yet – is a resolution higher than 1080p. Yes, there are a couple of Ultra HD TVs that fall under the $5,000 price (namely, Sony’s XBR-55X900A and Seiki’s SE50UY04), but their screen sizes are 55 inches or less. Besides, investing in a UHD set today is a bit of a risky proposition, since the rules of the road aren’t laid down. There’s no Blu-ray and broadcast standard in place, and current UHD TVs may not be compatible with those standards when they arrive.
There are a lot of TVs out there right now that can meet these expectations, and many of them cost a lot less than $5,000. No matter what HDTV you end up buying, we strongly suggest you hire a professional calibrator from ISF or THX to come to your home and get your set up to SMPTE standards. It’s not only going to get you drastically better performance, but it will get more life out of your HDTV. For under 10 percent of the cost of today’s top HDTVs, you can easily get a 20 percent performance improvement. I’d go so far as to tell you to spring for a professional, trained calibrator over an extended warranty. If you want the warranty, get that, too, but calibration is THAT important. If you are willing to spend $5,000 for an HDTV, don’t you want it to deliver the nth degree of performance?