Learning Center : Formats Explanation
Video Tips: Understand Viewing Angles
by Greg Robinson
When you go to the movie theater, where do you sit? Do you plunk yourself down against one of the side walls or find a spot in the center?
Viewing experience can change dramatically depending on where you sit in relation to the screen. Many TVs and projection screens list a viewing angle somewhere in their specs, but what does that actually mean in your room, and how can you ensure you get the best viewing experience?
For home theaters, the THX-recommended viewing angle is 40 degrees or less (36 degrees from the farthest seat in a commercial theater). In each case, these “viewing angle” recommendations pertain to the angle created at your eyeball when you take in the left and right sides of your image. The farther back you sit, the narrower the angle. Your situation is a little less complicated if everyone sits on one sofa, but if you have multiple rows of seats or seating spread widely across a room, then viewing angles can be an issue. All that said, although this “viewing angle” is a critical element in the formula for home theater satisfaction, we’re actually going to focus on a different sort of viewing angle – the one you care most about when shopping for a new display.
Sit Anywhere You Like (But Not There)
The viewing angle we’re here to discuss deals with how far off to the side you can sit and still enjoy a quality image. Display manufacturers will often claim a viewing angle between 176-180 degrees. Counter to our aforementioned THX example, a display’s “viewing angle” is the angle of visibility from the display’s perspective. Therefore, a 180-degree viewing angle means you can theoretically sit anywhere you like, provided it’s not behind the TV.
As you’ll discover, those 178- or 180-degree specs TV manufacturers love to claim can often be downright laughable. Seated one or two degrees beyond the plane of your screen, you might be able to tell that the television is ON, sure, but good luck making out what’s happening on-screen. The farther “off-axis” you sit, i.e. to the left and right sides of head-on viewing, the steeper the drop-off is in perceived contrast and overall picture quality. Most importantly, LCD, plasma, and front projection displays behave differently with respect to viewing angle. If you plan to have a wide seating area around your new display, it’s best to know how each technology will look to those folks sitting around the perimeter of your space.
Ironically, LCD- (and by extension LED-) based flat panel displays, despite their enormous popularity, are typically the worst offenders with respect to viewing angle. Although LCD-based displays are tops when it comes to handling ambient light and window glare, many of them begin to hemorrhage contrast performance after moving just a few feet to one side or the other – or up or down.
In most cases, where your HDTV is installed at roughly eye level, you only have to worry about the X-axis. However, if you’re mounting your display over a fireplace or high up on the wall (never a good idea, by the way), the Y-axis quickly becomes a concern – particularly with LCD-based displays (and even more critical for 3D displays). If logistics require you to mount the display higher than you’d like, be sure to invest in a tilting wall mount to minimize the detrimental effects related to off-axis viewing of LCD flat panels.
Since everything in life is a trade-off, plasma-based displays tend to excel where LCDs stumble, but the vice-versa is also true. Plasma displays often have a much harder time dealing with ambient light and room glare.
The good news is that unlike LCD-based displays, plasma screens typically offer superior contrast performance and a generous viewing angle for those seated off-axis – and that applies to both the X- and Y-axis. Although few plasma-based displays can live up to the perfect 180-degree viewing angle many of them claim, they get a lot closer to this than LCD. In my experience, many plasma-based displays can easily achieve a 170-degree viewing angle, with some faring even better than that.
Unlike LCD- and plasma-based flat panel displays, front projection systems feature a light source that’s in front of the screen as opposed to behind. As a result, most projection systems feature a wide and generous viewing angle, often approaching a full 180 degrees. Would you really want to sit that far off to the side? No, of course not. The point is simply that a wide viewing angle is one of the many benefits of a front projection system.
Off-axis viewing of a front-projected image can often have more to do with the screen/projection surface than anything else. When considering a front projection system, talk to your dealer about screen fabric options and room dimensions. You’ll want to select a material with a wider viewing angle if your space is going to feature a wide seating area.
So What’s the Best?
Is there a cure-all solution to this problem? Sadly, there is not. However, when you go shopping for your next HDTV, keep those angles in mind. Don’t just stand in front of that wall of TV screens. Stand over to the side. And the other side. Get down low. If the display is going in an existing room, measure your seating locations for that room, and give them a try with your prospective TVs at the dealer’s showroom. After all, solutions most often present themselves when you consider the problem from every angle.
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