Display expert Pete Putnam gave a well-attended presentation on video displays at the 2017 HPA Tech Retreat entitled, “CES 2017 in Review.”
The prospect of researching and purchasing a new video monitor is daunting these days. With the price of consumer displays falling at a rapid rate ($500 for a 55-inch UHD ‘smart’ TV), while professional monitors still fetch $20,000 and up, it’s hard to figure out what to do. The general rule is to know what you plan to use it for and shop accordingly.
Common sense would dictate that higher-end “professional” monitors offer many more features and a higher pixel count (along with high dynamic range display capability) than their consumer-oriented counterparts. However, with consumer TVs now offering basic HDR support and pixel enhancing technologies, these low-cost sets can find a home in professional edit suites, client approval rooms and even aboard remote production trucks for video signal monitoring.
Indeed, according to Pete Putman of ROAM Consulting LLC, a senior member of the editorial board of the SMPTE Motion Images Journal and an expert on display technology, the choice is less obvious than it ever has been. For example, Sony now offers a 49-inch UHD TV for $650 (with HDR, for $750). That would seem to be more than adequate for use as an air check monitor in most production studios and live remote trucks.
“When it comes to UHDTV, we’re essentially building the airplane while we’re flying it,” Putman said, referring to the disparate number of display technologies that are being marketed to customers (and professionals). “When you talk about displays, whether it’s for a broadcast truck or an edit suite, the thing that’s driving all of it is consumer television. What that market is buying is determining what everybody else is manufacturing. The UHD choke points at the moment are the display interfaces and the ability to deliver streaming content. The displays themselves, however, are very inexpensive.”
In terms of market share, the top consumer TV brands continue to be LG Electronics, Samsung and Sony. (Consumer OLED TVs use the same panels that are made by LG Display in Korea.) Major players in the professional space (aside from Sony) like Boland Communications, Canon, Dolby Labs, Flanders Scientific, Marshall Electronics,TVLogic and others, don’t manufacture their own LCD panels (a/k/a ‘glass’). Instead, they buy panels from different Asian manufacturers, a choice that has a direct effect on cost and a secondary impact on performance. Sony is now making 2nd-generation OLED panels for its Bravia and PVM professional series monitors, while first-generation panels have found their way into lower-cost OLED models from some of the companies just mentioned.
A new color space has been defined for UHD displays, making them useful in some professional environments. Click to enlarge. Image: Kramer
The vast majority of large OLED display panels are made by LG Display in Korea. Those OLED panels are all Ultra HD resolution (3840x2160). Sony’s first 25-inch
Sony’s TriMaster OLED monitors were available as BVM-series models for about $30,000 and also as PVM models for about $6,000; the difference being a small number of largely-unnoticeable pixel defects in the PVM series. Perhaps not surprisingly, the PVM models outsold the BVM line by a large margin, showing that monitor purchase decisions today are driven by cost in many cases.
“So much of this [price difference] is dictated by supply chain issues,” Putman said. “Over in Asia, a lot of the LCD display glass for televisions and monitors is being made in China. Panel factories have engineered the cost of manufacturing a 4K panel down to the same price as a Full HD (1080p) panel. Consequently, production of Ultra HDTVs has ramped up while production of Full HD models is slowing down. This is why consumers are choosing 4K models when they purchase a new TV - the up-sell is very easy.”
OLED, the current ‘premium’ display in the professional world, has an advantage over LCD because it can be viewed from any angle without color shifts, contrast flattening, or color desaturation.
“OLEDs give you really deep black levels,” Putman said. “They’re not as bright as an LCD panel equipped with quantum dots for HDR - they just can't hit that level of brightness - but they will do at least 600 cd/m2(and some models up to 800 cd/m2) for small area brightness. That’s over a million to 1 contrast ratio. All types of color grading work can be accomplished with high-end models. But, again, they are expensive and many professionals don't want to spend $20,000 - $30,000 on a monitor. They’d rather see a price tag under $10K for an OLED or LCD monitor, and realistically something closer to $5K.”
To this end, a company called SmallHD recently released a 17-inch “reference grade” LCD monitor that features 10-bit color processing to deliver over a billion colors. The new model 1703-P3 covers 100 percent of the DCI-P3 color space, making it ideal for digital image technicians (DITs) on-set and for mastering in post. It features a 1500:1 contrast ratio and 179-degree viewing angle, along with SmallHD’s proprietary Pagebuilder OS and multi-featured software toolset. The best part: The unit is set to ship in March for a list price of $3999.
“I believe prices will start to come down to meet market demand,” Putman said. “They have to, or companies in the professional space won't sell many monitors.”
Customers are encouraged to do their homework and ensure the monitor they select includes the right connectivity for the job at hand. Click to enlarge. Image: Kramer
For some professional applications (client approval, air check, editing and dubbing), Putman said that consumer OLED and LCD TVs will certainly work; preferably, models that can support “at least four” of the major consumer HDR formats that use static and dynamic metadata to accurately render the images on screen. That would include the hybrid log gamma (HLG) format developed by the BBC for broadcasting HDR television.
“You need to find out from the manufacturer what HDR format it supports,” Putman said. “Any TV that says ‘HDR-compatible’ on it has to support at least the basic HDR-10 static metadata format. Dolby Vision and Technicolor offer proprietary HDR formats that use dynamic metadata, while Samsung is making its dynamic tone-mapping HDR system available to anyone who wants to use it.”
The other criteria professionals should look for is the number of serial digital interface (SDI) inputs offered. Consumer Ultra HDTVs don't provide any SDI inputs - just HDMI connections - and the majority of those inputs will only recognize the most common consumer HD and 4K formats (720p, 1080p, 2160p/24/30 and 2160p/60). An outboard HDMI 2.0 format converter will be required to view 4K SDI and DisplayPort signals on these TVs.
The shift away from Full HD panel production to UHD means that 4K resolution will become the standard for large (50” and up) televisions and monitors. We’re already seeing more retail shelf space devoted to Ultra HDTVs at the expense of Full HD sets, while 720p resolution is limited to very small screens (19” – 24”).
The expectation is that the continuing decline in prices and the shift to 4K will trickle down to the professional market, resulting in more affordable monitors.
Many professionals are using Ultra HD OLED TVs to preview client work and the image is “good enough” for many applications. Click to enlarge. Image: Kramer
"I know of several people that are using Ultra HD OLED TVs to preview client work,” Putman said. “They are not using them for color grading, even though the latest generation of consumer models achieve deep black levels and great color saturation. On the LCD side, the new generation of 4K HDR sets with quantum dot technology from Samsung and others will become popular with further price decreases because their color accuracy is exceptional and they can achieve 2,000 cd/m2small area peak brightness.”
In the end, Putman said, the prices of UHDTV sets are so low that it doesn't make sense to spend more for simple image analysis. When using a consumer set this way, it’s important to turn off all of the factory default picture settings, especially those that manipulate image gamma to lower black levels and increase contrast (contrast stretching, black level stretching, automatic picture leveling) and other things. The TV should be set to “cinema” or “movie” mode with minimal sharpness (these are 4K images, after all!). Even better – have the TV professionally calibrated with 4K and HDR test patterns.
The first generation of UHDTVs showed up in the summer of 2012 and cost more than $20,000. Five years later, you can buy a 65-inch Ultra HDTV with basic HDR support for as little as $550. Features aside, it’s hard to argue with that price. With limited true 4K production being done within the broadcast space, professionals will continue to search for the most cost-effective way to view UHD content. Doing your research is key, but remember - the pricing tide is on your side.