Television Buyer’s Guide Part 1 : Size, Placement, Speakers, Amplifier

A typical big-screen living room layout, but the screen might be slightly too high in this case. See discussion, below.

This is the first part of a two part guide about choosing a good television set.  In this part we look at some of the obvious issues, and consider also speakers, placement, and external streamers and amplifiers too.  In the second part, we’ll look at some of the more subtle and confusing – but definitely important – issues such as picture quality in its many different forms.

As I write this, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are a mere week away, and from then through early January, there’ll be wall-to-wall specials on many electronic items.  One of the most deeply discounted types of products seems to be television sets.  Many of us could be interested in a new or replacement television set, and for sure, if your present set(s) is/are more than a few years old, the chances are they’re not offering you as many features and as good a picture as the current models do.

But there are so many new parameters, specifications and other issues to consider when choosing a new television set.  How do you know that the apparent bargain set you’re being offered is actually a true bargain rather than a piece of junk being sold off for no more than it is fairly worth?

We’ll walk you through the key things to look for in a new television in this article.  As an introductory comment, our personal preference is always to buy in the “upper-middle” part of the market.  If you buy at the lower end of the market, you’re essentially buying a product that is under-featured and already becoming technologically obsolete, and so is something you risk becoming unsatisfied with sooner.  And if you buy at the very high end of the market, you’re into the area of “diminishing returns” where the extra value is much less than the extra cost.  Today’s very-high-priced set is likely, in a year or so, to be available at perhaps half the price it is today.

But upper-middle featured/priced products tend to have a great set of features that will keep you content for some years to come, and are at a price point that isn’t extravagantly above that of lesser-featured similar products.

So, with that out of the way, let’s look at some relatively obvious things to consider.

Size

Newer sets should be bigger than the sets you already have, because they will (almost certainly) be higher resolution.  You’ll not see the individual dots (what used to be, in analog tv days, the picture lines) unless the set is much bigger/closer than was the case for lower resolution monitors.

As you can see from this chart, if you formerly had, say, a 50″ 1080P set that you watched from about 10 feet away, you could now have an 80″ 4K set at the same distance.  You might not be able to fit the 80″ screen into your living room environment (consider making changes so it can!) but clearly, anything bigger than before will give you a bigger image and still the same clarity/quality, maybe even better.

I remember when a 25″ television was considered big, and was placed at the far end of the room.  Perhaps you do, too.  Suffice it to say that these days, other than constraints about how and where the screen can be placed (and, of course, price) there are not really any limits on any sized screens in the under 85″ diagonal range as being “too big”, expect for when you get to the point that the picture screen has more angle of view than you can see (imagine sitting nose-close to a big screen television – you’d have to turn your head to see the left half, and while looking at that, you’d not see any of the right half, and vice versa).

Surprisingly, even the most aggressive of television sales-people seem to undersell the benefit of a larger set.  I don’t know anyone who has ever regretted buying a larger sized screen, including the many people I’ve cajoled and persuaded to get a size larger than they’d thought they “needed”.

Another interesting thing.  Whatever you paid for your older (eg) 50″ 1080P television is probably about the same as you’d now pay for a much larger 4K set.  Some types of electronics – and particularly flat big screen televisions – are still enjoying steady increases in quality and drops in price.

Mounting/Placement Options

This only indirectly impacts on your purchase, but is worth keeping in mind.  Many people are choosing to mount their flat screen television on a wall.  With ever-thinner and lighter units, this is getting easier and easier to do.

If you’re considering a wall mount, please do not make the mistake we see so very many people make.  Do not mount the screen too high.  The center of the screen should be at about the same height, or slightly lower than, your eye level.

Speakers

Of course, just about every television comes with a built in amplifier and speakers.  Ignore them.  They’re underpowered and terrible quality.

There’s a crazy counter-intuitive trend to buy amazingly big and high quality screens, but then to match them with rubbishy “sound bars” or other low-quality speakers.  Don’t be fooled by the popularity of sound bars.  The laws of physics and sound generation/transmission have not altered – you can not get good sound out of tiny speakers.

Just as the image quality of modern monitors has transformed beyond all recognition, so too has the sound quality of a video’s audio track.  Almost all modern video programming is in stereo, much has surround sound, and an increasing number of programs have the latest Dolby Atmos type multi-channel encoding that includes height as well as surround sound channels.

The other aspect of where you place your screen is the related aspect of where you’d place the speakers.  With modern surround sound being an increasing part of the total cinematic experience, you want to be able to have at least five speakers in appropriate positions, and potentially many more :

A center speaker, more or less directly under or over the screen.  This should be a good quality speaker, because much of the voice sounds come out of it, and it is easy/noticeable to our ears if a voice sounds wrong.

Front left and Front right speakers far enough (but not too far) to each side of the screen to give the usual sort of stereo/frontal positioning perceptions.  These carry most of the ambient sounds of the movie, and some voice too, and should be the best of all the speakers you buy.

Surround left and Surround right speakers, more or less at the same distance from the set as you are, and either the same distance/plane as you, or only slightly ahead or behind you, and off to each side at least as far as the front left and right speakers.  These carry much less sound information than the three front speakers, so you can ease back on the budget for these.

Rear left and right speakers – these are optional, and often hard to include due to the room layout and the need to have them more or less directly behind you, and as far back from you as you can manage, so you’re not directly in front of one or the other of the two speakers.  These probably have less sound than the surround speakers, and so you could ease back even further in how much you spend on these if you felt the need.

Up-high left and right speakers – these are often somewhat “omnidirectional” and are used to give the impression of height location for sounds in Dolby Atmos encoded movies.  These are also secondary rather than primary speakers.

Sub-woofer – typically only one (because the very low bass sounds are not really at all directional) and which is usually located somewhere in the front of the room – a corner can be a good location, so it reflects more sound out.  Your sub-woofer is probably going to also need its own power connection, and should be very heavy and have a 12″ speaker in it.  A bigger speaker – while rare – would be even better, and if you’re being told something with 8″ or lower speakers is a subwoofer, laugh at the person telling you that and move on.

A true subwoofer will literally rattle things in cabinets, give you low level frequencies that you can physically feel on your stomach, and give you credible concern that it might start to break windows and damage the house structure!  Of course, you don’t need to run the subwoofer that loud (and indeed, shouldn’t) but it should be capable of cleanly handling very low frequencies with no problems.  We like Klipsch and Polk products, but there are plenty of others to choose from too.  If by some chance you can find a Sunfire or Carver subwoofer, capable of 2700W of output and down to 16 Hz, then grab it urgently quickly.

External Amplifier

To drive all these speakers, you must get an external amplifier.  You’ll want something capable of pumping out the best part of 100W per channel for the main speakers, something which supports a wide range of Dolby and DTS type sound encodings (this is a good article about the different sound encodings), and has outputs for all the different speakers you wish to have.

There is no such thing as too-powerful an amplifier.  Many years ago, I was troubled by distortion in the loud passages of some music I would play, and so bought bigger/more powerful speakers to reproduce the peaks without distortion.  To cut a long story short, it turned out to not be a speaker limitation, but rather an amplifier limitation.  While most of the time I had a modest powered amplifier set at modest volume settings, and that worked perfectly, there were occasional peaks that would go way above the power levels of the rest of the music, and it was only when I added two separate power amplifiers, each delivering 1000W RMS, that I could hear totally pure tones at all levels.

I’m not saying you need this level of power, and I almost never do either.  But get the most powerful amplifier you can afford, and you’ll be surprised how the louder passages will “clear up” and sound better.  Many movies these days have very powerful sound effects – especially, of course, war movies, and if you want to recreate a semi-realistic battlefield experience with “clean” sound rather than just loud distorted noise, you’ll need all the watts you can get.  I’ve played Generation Kill at close to realistic levels, and of course, old but still venerable, the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now, and parts of Das Boot, and those types of events will take all the power and use the biggest speakers you have available.

Make sure to understand how the amplifier power is being measured.  There are many different ways that result in different power measurements.  The best method is to use the RMS watts per channel measurement.  Other measurements with names such as “peak music power” will show two or more times higher watts, even though they’re not any more powerful or louder.

External Streaming Device

Maybe your television has built-in capabilities for streaming video.  If however you are planning on using an external streaming device like a Roku player or an Amazon Fire TV Stick, make sure it can support and stream in all the HDR formats that your television can display.  It would be disappointing to have an HDR capable television but not to be able to stream HDR content to it.

Fortunately, such streaming devices are very affordable these days, with the top of the line fully features Amazon Fire HD 4K Max unit being priced at $55 and sometimes discounted.

We discuss HDR issues further in the second part of this article.

Other Television Considerations

So, now that you’ve got your speakers and amplifier optimized, and have a general idea for what size television set would be appropriate, what else remains to be considered – other than price?

Quite a lot.  Please now turn to the second part of this article for more information on choosing a good television monitor.

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