We would've loved to have tested every 3DTV out there, but logistically that's simply beyond our capabilities. So instead, we took on two plasmas, two LCDs, and one DLP. We're not talking about any slouches here either. With one exception, these were all the top-of-the-line models. In the LCD category, we have the LED backlit Samsung UN40C7000 ($1,999 MSRP) and the LED backlit with local dimming Sony XBR-46HX909 ($3,499). Then there are the two plasmas: Panasonic's TC-P50VT25 ($2,599) and the brand new THX 3D-certified LG INFINIA 50PX950 ($1,799), plus a Mitsubishi WD73838 ($2,799). The Sony ships with two pairs of active shutter glasses, the Panasonic with one, while the LG, Mitsubishi and Samsung, the glasses are sold separately.
If there is one thing that everyone can agree on, it's that having to wear glasses to enjoy 3D sucks -- there, we said it. The reality of the situation is that, for us at least, 3D with glasses is better than no 3D at all; and decent, glasses-less 3D is still years away. And since the glasses that ship with one TV aren't compatible with other 3DTVs, choosing a brand based on the specs is just as good of a reason as any. All of the consumer 3DTVs shipping today use active shutter glasses, and while this means they are heavier, we also believe it delivers a superior 3D experience -- that is, of course, until someone ships a consumer 3D set with passive glasses that proves us wrong.
From left to right: Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, and Mitsubishi
Every piece of headgear uses a single momentary power button to turn on and turn off automatically when it stops receiving an IR signal from the TV. This is a bit annoying at first when you're learning how to tell if they're on, but not an issue after you figure it out. They also all receive the sync signal via IR, with only the Sony and Mitsubishi sets coming with an external IR transmitter. This is good for high-end customers who have their TVs behind frames etc, but for the rest of us, it's a bit annoying as it's yet another cable and device that's laying around your TV (this particular model includes the IR transmitter, but on other Sony models, it's sold separately). Light coming in from the sides of the glasses is particularly distracting to us for some reason, so we tend to prefer the glasses that wrap around like the Sony and LG's.
Charging port on the LG glasses
Overall we prefer the LG glasses because they are light, include rechargeable batteries and a USB cable to charge via the TV. They fit very comfortably on the bridge of our nose. The power button is a little harder to find than some of the other glasses but not a problem to hit without looking. Next up are the Sony glasses, which also block the light from the sides but are much heavier and uses a watch battery. The Sonys also have loops that make it easy to use a strap with, which is great for kids since the glasses tend to fall off the little ones. The Samsung, Mitsubishi and Panasonic specs are all about the same, with the Panasonic edging out since they include a strap and a nice case. We say they're the same because they all seem light and flimsy -- especially considering how much they cost -- and are open on the sides which lets in lots of distracting light. The Panasonic glasses were the only ones with different nose pieces, which might be essential to you to get a comfortable fit, but it is also removable and thus, easy to lose. The Mitsubishi and Samsung glasses were actually exactly the same except the logo on the side, and they hurt the bridge of our nose the most despite being light. Samsung does offer different glasses, but we only tested the versions that ship with the first 3D kit.
We also gave a pair of Xpand's X103 universal 3D glasses a shot and they worked just as advertised. With a press of a button, they switched compatibility between all of the 3DTVs we tested. While they did feel slightly bulkier than some of the other models, it wasn't a significant difference, and when tested against the Samsung / Mitsubishi glasses, we didn't notice any differences in picture quality while switching between them. Xpand's frames included a few extra batteries and nose clips for adjustments and certainly seemed to be a good bet if you need to pick up some spares and want the option of using them with other TV brands.
Usability and features
Every 3DTV we tested except the Panasonic had a 2D-to-3D conversion mode, but if you ask us, they're all useless. The fake 3D effect just wasn't that great and certainly didn't motivate us to put on the glasses. We're sure many 3DTV owners appreciate the option because there just isn't much to watch in 3D right now, and after dropping $150 on a pair of glasses, you want to feel like you got your money's worth. The Samsung conversion was more noticeable than most with its ten-step adjustment cranked all the way up, but still not something we'd use after trying once.
To us it seems that enabling and disabling real 3D is an essential feature, but maybe that's because we were in review mode and wanted to constantly do A-to-B comparisons. So for this reason we really appreciated the fact that the LG remote had a 3D button on it. All the other models require you to dig in menus with the Samsung being the furthest away at five clicks. The Sony was next up at 4 clicks and finally the Panasonic required three clicks of the remote to enable or disable 3D. All the models let you manually select various 3D formats like side by side or top / bottom, but the Samsung had the most configuration options for 3D, with the Panasonic and LG tied for second. One thing we did find particularly annoying was how in your face LG's warnings were, while all the models had disclaimers in one place or another, the LG would pop up every time you tried to watch 3D.
Until recently, the Mitsubishi TV required a converter, available by itself or packed in with glasses as part of a 3D starter pack, which does add a layer of complexity to the proceedings. While it automatically handles 3D from sources that are ready for HDMI 1.4 protocols like newer 3D Blu-ray players and the PlayStation 3, if you're getting 3D from an older cable box or Xbox 360, it has to be manually switched on and off with a separate remote. Additionally, switching 3D mode on the TV itself requires four clicks on the remote. The additional issue caused by this setup, is that while the TV itself has four HDMI inputs that can handle 3D in checkerboard or side by side format, if you want to watch something that uses top / bottom (e.g. ESPN 3D, games) or frame sequential (Blu-ray 3D) it had to go through the converter, which only has one HDMI input. A firmware update this week for Mitsubishi's 2010 HDTVs added support for those formats directly and greatly simplified the process down to three clicks on one remote.
One problem with all 3D glasses is how they dim the image -- which can be a big problem for those who typically leave the brightness turned all the way up (something we don't recommend). For these people, the Sony had one setting that the rest didn't, which was the ability to adjust the brightness the TV makes when in 3D mode. While all the 3DTVs crank up the brightness automatically to help offset the dimming effect of the glasses, only the Sony lets you adjust it.
It won't be surprising to anyone who's read other 3DTV reviews that the Panasonic had the best 3D performance. When we say best, we mostly mean it somehow eliminates cross-talk that the other 3DTVs can't. The LG came in the closest with it being so close, it was hard to call. Mitsubishi's DLP showed very little crosstalk as well, although its checkerboard 3D technology did exhibit a slight, though noticeable resolution loss compared to the other technologies. The funny thing is cross-talk seems to be related more to the content than anything else. What we mean is that if one TV had cross-talk exposed in the trees in the background of Open Season, the other models did too. Some scenes were worse than others which makes us think it's more of a problem in the authoring process than the display itself. But one thing is for sure, the Panasonic and the LG sets seemed to be able to eliminate the cross-talk in those problem scenes. This being said, while this is just as good of reason as any other to buy a 3DTV, we don't think the difference was big enough that we'd use it as our determining factor. Really, the ability of a 3DTV to eliminate cross-talk is a single aspect of a single feature and hardly a big deal.
Now we come to the real problem with 3D: the content. Or more accurately, the lack there of. If you've already bought a 3DTV we don't have to tell you there is hardly anything to watch in 3D. This is such a problem that we get tips weekly from some disgruntled 3DTV owner complaining about not being able to buy a 3D movie. If you don't like sports, animated features or documentaries, there is actually nothing to watch in 3D, but even for those who do like them, there isn't much -- although a number of titles did finally get released the week of November 16th. If you are lucky enough to have ESPN 3D, you can watch a game a week, but other than that there are a scant few 3D movies available for purchase at retail. In December, the available number should about double, but that only serves to point out how few there are.
Beyond ESPN's game-of-the-week 3D programming, another source is your cable or satellite company's video-on-demand stash. While selection and quality varies wildly, providers like DirecTV, Comcast and U-verse have stocked a few movies and documentaries away for enjoyment at your leisure. There's also the chance your manufacturer can help, Samsung's launched a 3D channel on its widget enabled TVs that allows users to download 3D content, and Sony has slipped a movie and a few demo videos in 3D onto the PlayStation Network.
If you're a gamer, then you probably have the most options of all. NVIDIA has finally started to issue its 3DTV Play software that should allow many PC players to hook their computer to a 3DTV and play the hundreds of titles that already support 3D. The picture is a bit more muddled on consoles, but Sony's making a serious push on the PlayStation 3 with several of its own games already 3D ready including Gran Turismo 5 and major titles like Killzone 3 on the way. While the Xbox 360 doesn't feature support on the system level like the PS3 yet, (good luck navigating the guide or responding to messages in 3D mode) there are already several 3D games on the system, and a few, like Call of Duty: Black Ops, that are being released with 3D support on both consoles.
Because of the lack of content, manufacturers are bundling demos with your 3DTVs and the Sony rules in this category. Its trial disc has a wide range of content including movies trailers, video games, World Cup Soccer and, our favorite, college football. Sure, it doesn't amount to as much time as a movie, but when it comes to showing off your new toy to the neighbors, it goes a long way. The Panasonic also ships with a demo disc, but honestly, the selection and quality just doesn't come close to what's on Sony's. All that being said, what might be the biggest reason to buy a 3DTV movie over another is what deals they have with which studio. There isn't a lamer reason to buy a 3DTV, but sadly that is the state of 3D content. Panasonic 3DTV buyers can now grab a copy of Avatar in 3D on the way out and other than 3D sports we'd say that is about as good as it gets when it comes to 3D movie content.
If you are the type to scrolled down to the end and skip to the consensus, we've got bad news for you, as there really isn't any. If picture quality is the most important thing to you, then just like with 2DTVs, the Panasonic plasma is the way to go. But as we know, it isn't the best-selling HDTV out there, which means most chose a TV for other reasons. If you buy a TV based on how it looks when its off, then you have a very easy decision as the Sony's monolithic design is one of the most beautiful TV we've ever seen. If you want the best glasses and easy access to enabling 3D, then you go with the LG. If you want sheer size, then the Mitsubishi DLP is about as easy of a decision as there is, while Samsung probably has the most 3D options that stretch across a wide variety of price ranges. What we're trying to say is that out of all the reasons to buy a TV, the display's 3D performance and features isn't very high on our list. No, instead it is more of like a check box -- like if the display has enough HDMI inputs for all your sources. But out of all the differences we noticed, we'd say the two biggest ones are the glasses themselves and how good the display is at reducing cross-talk.
Richard Lawler contributed to this piece.