Why do plasma TVs look washed out in the store?

CNET reader Rob wants to know why plasma HDTVs look washed out compared with LCDs, when so often reviewers recommend plasmas. Geoff Morrison helps him out.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
4 min read

CNET Reader Rob asks:

I've been reading your articles on HDTV and find them very informative so, here's something I need cleared up. You mentioned how plasma TVs can control the brightness of individual pixels, made me think they should have a superior picture to LCD -- so I went looking at plasmas. I noticed that they seem to have a "washed out" look, an overall dimmer picture than LCD. Everywhere I go this seems to be the case. What's up with that? Thanks.

A common question, and a huge issue with plasmas, but not how you might think.

I, along with nearly every other professional TV reviewer, have long lauded plasmas for the picture quality, especially when it comes to black levels and contrast ratios. But if you frequent Internet forums, read the comments in articles, or talk to the average Joe, they say their LCD TV looks way better. Plasmas, they say, look washed out and dim.

The problem is not the TV, or the beholder. It's the store. For most people (TV reviewers excluded), the only place to directly compare two different televisions is in a local store. This could be anything from Best Buy to Costco to a specialty retailer. The lighting in nearly every store (especially Costco, and often BB as well) is significantly brighter than what you have at home.

This bright lighting negatively affects your perception of plasma TV performance in multiple ways. At the same time, it plays to LCD TVs strengths.

To start: LCD TVs are brighter, too bright, in many cases. If you're looking at a bright LCD in a brightly lit store, your irises are going to be tiny. As such, a perfectly normal plasma will look dim by comparison. Take these exact same TVs home, put them side by side, and the LCD will look excessively bright, perhaps requiring you to turn down its backlight. Once the two TVs' light outputs are more aligned, the better contrast ratio and black level of the plasma will give its image more "depth." It's important to understand what I mean by "contrast ratio," so check out "Contrast ratio (or how every TV manufacturer lies to you)."

The other way that plays to LCDs' strengths is their better ability to reject ambient light. This has changed somewhat in recent years as more LCDs have moved to glossy screen (which benefits contrast ratio, incidentally). The average LCD, though. is better able to deal with ambient light, so it will appear to have a better contrast ratio under the harsh lighting of a showroom floor, while the average plasma will look either washed out or will have distracting reflections.

This isn't to say all plasmas are like this. Some new Panasonic and Samsung models are rivaling LCDs in their ability to reject overhead lighting. Check out David's review of the Panasonic TC-P55ST50, specifically the "Bright lighting" part toward the end.

Now, if you watch a lot of TV during the day, or have a really brightly lit room, then an LCD is a great option. But if you're looking for the best performance, and you watch TV at night like most of us, plasmas are usually the better option. Is a plasma that does well with ambient lighting the best mix of both? Check out my full article "LED LCD vs. plasma vs. LCD" for a more in-depth comparison.

Coincidence that the higher priced TVs are the ones that look better with the chosen store lighting? I'll leave that to your own tastes on conspiracy theories (FWIW, I think it's a coincidence the stores and manufacturers are all too happy to exploit.)

Bottom line
The takeaway from this article is never to judge a TV in an environment with lighting dissimilar to your home. Costco and other big-box retailers, with their horrific florescent lighting, are the worst places to judge a TV's performance. Best Buy is not much better.

Other thanreading reviews where a TV is professionally tested (including measuring black-level performance), the only place even close to offering a decent viewing environment is a local specialty retailer. Their selection may be more limited compared with a big-box store (or maybe not), but in their more reasonably lit showrooms, you can better judge performance of TVs.

Got a question for Geoff? Click "Geoffrey Morrison" below then click the "E-mail" link in the upper right to e-mail, wait for it...Geoffrey Morrison! If it's witty, amusing, and/or a good question, you may just see it in a post just like this one. No, I won't tell you what TV to buy. Yes, I'll probably truncate and/or clean up your e-mail. You can also send me a message on Twitter: @TechWriterGeoff.