With the Rio Summer Olympics about to begin, followed by football in September and hockey and basketball in October, now is a perfect time to upgrade your TV to make the most of these and other sports. Are there sets that provide a performance edge with sports over regular TV shows and movies? Absolutely. I'll first lay out the details on features to look at when shopping for a sports-optimized set, and then follow up with a list of recommended models that hit most, if not all, of the high points. By the time you're done reading, you won't look at a big-screen TV the same way—at least not when watching sports.
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This might seem like an obvious point to make, but I'll make it anyway: Large screen sizes are better for sports. Why? Because having the onscreen action as close in scale as possible to real life makes the experience more engaging. With big-screen sets, more family members and friends are able to take in the action from a wider range of seats, making them a good option for folks who like to gather a crowd on game day.
How big should you go? While a 65-inch screen is ideal for many people, 70- and 75-inch screen sizes should also be considered depending on your room size and the seating distance from the TV. Most new big-screen sets are Ultra HD models that provide four times as many pixels as regular 1080p high-definition sets. While TV broadcasters and cable TV providers have yet to deliver programs in Ultra HD resolution, you can expect to see changes on that front in 2017. (Satellite providers DirecTV and Dish, along with the Netflix, Amazon and Vudu streaming services currently offer some 4K content, though the selection is mostly limited to movies and TV shows.) A benefit to Ultra HD screens is that you can view up close without being distracted by the pixels that comprise video images, making really big-screen viewing possible.
If you watch sports with family members and friends, it should be a concern that all viewers experience the same picture quality no matter where they're seated. An advantage to TVs that use OLED display technology is their excellent screen uniformity—images look exactly the same whether you're sitting directly in front of the set or on a chair at the far side of the room. With the more common LCD (or LED) TV models, picture quality can suffer depending on how far off you're seated from the screen's center.
LCD TVs use two different display panel types: Vertical Alignment (VA) and In-plane Switching (IPS). VA panels are designed to maximize picture contrast—the range between darkest black and whitest white—though at the expense of screen uniformity. Pictures on these TVs are characterized by deep shadows and strong highlights, making them a great choice for watching movies, especially in dim, light-controlled environments. The downside with VA-type LCDs is that contrast and color can shift noticeably as you move farther away from center screen. While a typical set should provide acceptable screen uniformity up to a 20-degree viewing angle—a span that covers a standard-size sofa—pictures can look pale and discolored to others seated outside that range.
LCD sets that use IPS panels, in contrast, display good picture uniformity over a wide range of seating positions. You can view from the far end of the sofa or from a seat located at the side of the room, and the picture looks the same as it does at dead center. This makes these sets a good option for sports, where viewers are likely to be loosely gathered around the TV. The downside to sets with IPS panels is that they tend to display lighter blacks than VA models, which has the effect of making movies and other dark content look less dramatic. With sports, the image content is mostly well lit, making shadow rendition less of an issue.
Many LCD TVs are capable of displaying exceptionally bright pictures—a benefit when you're viewing in an environment like a living room with the curtains open and lamps on. New models that are high dynamic range (HDR) compatible amp up the brightness factor even further, making it possible for them to display the powerful image highlights provided in HDR-encoded content such as new Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs.
While HDR compatibility isn't a necessity for viewing sports, any HDR-compatible set, whether LCD or OLED, should provide the benefit of a bright picture. LCD models, however, are generally capable of higher brightness than OLED models—a factor to consider when choosing a TV—although new, HDR-compatible OLEDs provide higher light output than previous sets. (NBC/Comcast stated its intention to produce the Olympics opening ceremony in Ultra HD/HDR, though it's still unclear if any viewers will be able to experience the event in that format.)
Most folks prefer to watch sports in a bright room, and LCD TVs in particular accommodate that preference by displaying pictures bright enough to compete with daylight and lamps. A disadvantage to viewing in a bright room is the screen glare that results from sources of light being reflected on-screen. Depending on the screen's level of glossiness, glare can range from being a minor annoyance to a major distraction, forcing you to take steps to prevent room light from reducing picture quality.
When shopping for a TV that's capable of reducing screen glare in a bright room, look for references to an anti-glare or anti-reflective filter. Also check out mentions in TV reviews of this problem and how well—or not—the TV handles it. Ultimately, the best way to eliminate glare is to carefully control the light in your room using dimmers or window shades or through strategic positioning of the TV.
Motion blur is a picture artifact related to a set's ability to fully display sequential video frames fast enough that one frame doesn't blend into the next. While most current LCD TVs generally do a good job reducing motion blur, a few provide features designed to more thoroughly eliminate the problem, including blur reduction processing and screen refresh rates higher than the 60 Hz that's standard for video.
Some TV reviews discuss motion blur as being a positive or negative aspect of the set when it comes to sports viewing. My own experience has been that many LCD TVs offer similar performance in this respect—a hockey puck skidding across the ice isn't going to look noticeably sharper on one TV as compared to another. OLED TVs, on the other hand, use a different display technology that's capable of responding faster to rapid motion in video images—yet another reason why OLED TVs are a good option for sports.
The Best of the Best:
LG E6 Series OLED
Available in 55- and 65-inch screen sizes, LG's E6 Series OLED TVs provide a significant brightness boost over earlier OLED models—a big plus for watching sports in well-lit rooms. The excellent screen uniformity and wide viewing angle that are characteristic of OLED technology make the E6 Series a slam dunk for sports.
LG UH8500 Series LCD
Unlike some other LCD TVs, the LG UH8500 Series TVs deliver a wide viewing angle to ensure that all viewers experience the same high picture quality. Available in screen sizes up to 75 inches, UH8500 Series sets are an affordable option for big-screen Ultra HD viewing.
Vizio P Series LCD TV
Another affordable big-screen Ultra HD option, Vizio P Series LCD TVs are sold in screen sizes up to 75 inches. While they lack the same wide viewing angle offered by sets like LG's E6 Series OLED and UH8500 Series LCD models, Vizio P Series sets provide sufficient brightness to make pictures look good even in well-lit rooms.
Sony XBR X850D Series LCD
The X850D Series from Sony delivers high brightness, minimal motion blur, and a wider-than-average viewing angle for a VA-type LCD TV. Available in screen sizes up to 85 inches, the X850D Series seems made with sports in mind.
Samsung KS9000 Series LCD
Samsung KS9000 Series LCD TVs provide good screen uniformity for sets with a VA-type panel, and they excel at reducing motion blur. Available in screen sizes up to 75 inches, KS9000 Series LCDs are pricier than the competition, but their ability to deliver bright images makes them a good choice for daytime sports viewing.