Who lingers in the dark for hours, staring at television test patterns? The Gizmo Guy does, imploring the TVs on the wall, "which is the fairest of them all?"
The occasion was the 2016 Value Electronics TV Shootout, a major gig at the CE Week trade show staged in New York, but produced by Philadelphia-based Dealerscope magazine and its parent firm, North American Publishing.
Posh televisions vying for judges' approval included the latest/greatest Ultra High Resolution (4K) models from LG (an OLED65G6P), Samsung (78KS9800), Sony (XBR-75X940D) and Vizio (their reference series RS65-B2). Also in the shootout lineup, just for comparison, was a classic Pioneer Elite Kuro HD (2K) plasma TV long considered a high-water mark by videophiles.
The competition's heavy lifting was handled by Joel Silver, chief evangelist/trainer for the Imaging Science Foundation, which consults with set makers and also fine tunes individual consumers' TVs (for a price).
All the tellies were subjected to expensive light output test instruments, to clips from "Kingsmen: The Secret Service" on Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc, and to electronically generated images: color bars, gray scale patterns, checkerboard squares and even displays that, in Jerry Seinfeld terms, were "all about nothing." Think vacant fields of white or black.
Boring stuff? Maybe. But in geekster land, these acid tests determine which set is the sharpest reproducer of TV signals, thus most worthy of your trust and cash.
DIY. Go visit a Best Buy store this season and you can partake in mini UHD-TV shootouts, too, happening in the retailer's brand-specific "zones." Actually placed and paid for by participating manufacturers, these "stores-within-the-store" are "a major reason Best Buy is still in business," half-joked one executive.
Rather than pitting their sets against competitors' models, the Samsung, Sony, LG and Vizio retail floor displays keep it in the family, offering instructive side-by-side comparisons of their own "better" and "best" UHD 4K models.
And forget about test patterns. Visitors eyeball gorgeous travelogue footage that shows off obvious picture improvements not just in clarity but also in color/contrast coding and build refinements collectively called HDR, short for high dynamic range.
ISF's Silver argues that only hawk eyes hovering close to the screen can detect the extra bump up in "four times greater" resolution from high definition to Ultra HD.
But HDR signal coding enhancements are viewable across the room. HDR expands both the palette of color tones and the range of dark-to-bright elements reproducible in a single scene, so you can fully take in a night harbor scene with shadowy boats on the water and a sky exploding with color-rich fireworks.
HDR also brings home the fanciful, hyper-saturated visual effects that movie visionaries deploy. "It's not any reality we know," said Silver with a laugh. "It's the world of the film colorists' imagination."
"The problem," at the moment, "is there isn't much HDR encoded content out there," said Joseph Whip, a Philly based videophile who contributes to the AVS Forum website and has voted in "maybe 20" of the shootouts sponsored by the Scarsdale, N.Y.-based Value Electronics retail store/website. "There are just a few HDR 4K shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime, some pay-per-view movies on Vudu and a few dozen Ultra HD Blu-ray discs."
Shootout scoring. On almost all rating criteria, the LG 65-inch set using OLED (organic light emitting diode) display technology came in first among Value Electronics shootout voters and on my personal ballot, too.
There's no beating the depth-enhancing blacks obtainable with OLED, as each picture pixel (dot) individually and fully turns on and off. The 2016 competitors are all illuminated by LED backlights with local dimming zones. Even when the screen is fed nothing, the picture looks dark gray by comparison.
LG also scored best in color reproduction (the only TV displaying true "fire engine" red), in white full screen uniformity and in rapid pattern spinning/sweeping torture tests.
Sony placed second overall with voters and first in bright room viewing, slightly ahead of Samsung. Vizio's top model trailed the pack.
I heard a valid complaint from a runner-up's rep that the mostly darkroom conditions of the shootout were "unrealistic, not how most people look at TVs with room lights on." And the test should have concentrated on "virtually as good mainstream models" - priced $1,500 to $4,000 - "rather than the $5,000 to $10,000 flagship sets they chose."
Keep that in mind when you look at sets on a brightly lit Best Buy showroom floor. There, I found Samsung and Sony screens which output around 1,000 "nits" of brightness showed a tad better than the LG OLEDs, which max out at a little under 500 nits.