How to pick the best TV for sports: what to look for and things to avoid

I get asked a lot of questions like “What is the best TV for sports?” and “What is important to pay attention to when buying a TV if I mostly watch sports?” and “Hey Caleb, I’m at the TV store right now and I’m going to buy this TV, am I wrong?”

So let’s talk about what makes one TV better than another for watching sports, what to look for, what to ignore when buying a new TV, and why anyone who says “buying a TV just for sports is stupid” probably means well, but it’s also completely wrong.

When sports look bad

I think we’ve all been at a sports bar or maybe at a friend’s house watching a game and thought, “You know? That… doesn’t look great.” Or maybe you watched the game at home and thought the same thing? If you thought so, maybe it was because the picture was blurry, or maybe the picture looked blurry or it looked blotchy, or the colors just seemed uneven. Of course, you don’t want any of that on your new TV.

You don’t have to be a videophile to see that the screen looks dirty or that your team colors look wrong. Bad just looks bad!

So let’s talk about how to find a TV that will not have any of those four bad qualities. Starting with one of the most obvious and obvious: blur.

Motion blur and 120Hz

There are three things that can cause a blurry or blurry picture when watching fast-paced sports. One is the slow pixel response time, where the pixels simply don’t respond quickly enough to changing instructions from the TV. Another is the mismatch between the content’s frame rate and the TV’s refresh rate — that’s how many times per second it draws the image on the screen. And the third is poor motion processing — the TV’s brain just isn’t that sharp.

However, often the blurry picture is caused by all three things happening at the same time. And the most common cause of this is that the TV is… well, it’s cheap. And I don’t mean it’s just cheap – a very relative concept – I mean it’s generally poor build quality, flimsy with cheap parts.

Now, to be clear, you can get a quality TV for a low price. For example, Hisense U6H. It’s a pretty solid TV and works well for sports. The 65-inch model costs only $550. It offers an exceptionally good price-performance ratio for a 65-inch TV. However, if you’re spending under $400 for a 65-inch TV, it’s going to look cheaper, and you probably won’t like how it looks for sports.

Image used with permission of the copyright holder

Now, if we continue to use the Hisense U6H as an example, it performs well thanks to its good pixel response time and good processing. Two out of three, right? Although it doesn’t have a 120Hz panel, it works solidly with the 60Hz panel it has thanks to decent processing.

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This brings me to my next point: You don’t have get a TV with a 120Hz refresh rate — a very common recommendation and one I’ll repeat — but it’s not a bad idea to make a 120Hz panel a basic requirement.

I’m interested in movement because it’s one of the biggest problems with watching sports.

I don’t want to get too deep into the tech weeds here, but my takeaway is that 120Hz panels don’t go into cheap TVs. TVs with 120Hz panels need more expensive hardware to support them. In other words, that 120Hz spec is an indicator of quality and can provide some assurance that the TV it’s on will be pretty good.

But here’s the catch: it must be 120Hz domestic panel. I mention this difference because the TV brands are trying to trick you. If you see 120 Hz Clear Motion Rate, or 240 Hz Motion Flow, or some other such nonsense — that’s a TV manufacturer trying to make it fast. Look at the technical data sheet and check if it says 120 Hz panel because a better panel is an indication that the TV is better. Yes, it’s worth the effort to look at the spec sheet. If you go to the sales person on the floor and ask if the TV you are watching has a native 120Hz panel and they look at the box to check? That means they don’t know and rely on the same marketing speak on the side of the box as you do. So, go online and check it out. It’s worth the 30 seconds or so you’ll need.

the course of movementImage used with permission of the copyright holder

The last thing I want to say about motion – and I’m making a big deal about motion because it’s one of the biggest problems with watching sports – is about motion smoothing, also known as the “soap effect”. It’s frame interpolation — the thing marketers call Motion Flow, or Smooth Motion, or whatever. If you’re okay with that, then that’s fine. You can use it and you won’t get a blurry picture.

Note that some people claim that this makes things look fake or two-dimensional — something that’s almost always enabled on your hotel room TV and looks like a soap opera. If you’re good at it, then almost any decent TV with power on will make fast-paced sports look clear. But if you hate that look and don’t want it, get a TV with a 120Hz panel to be safe.

Bright and beautiful

Okay, enough about movement, what else should you be looking for? Let’s talk visibility. You want the image to be bright and clear. Most TVs on the market today have enough light. What you should be aware of is how reflective the screen can be. If you have a lot of light coming into the room from a window, or if you have a light source behind you while you’re watching TV, there’s a good chance that if your TV is too reflective, that bright light will wash out your image and become a distraction. Again, this is only a cause for concern in certain viewing situations, but I mention it because it’s basically the only factor that could make an OLED TV not be the best option.

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reflections on the screenImage used with permission of the copyright holder

And let’s deal with it right now. The best TV for watching sports in almost all cases is an OLED TV. They have instant pixel response times, they all have 120Hz panels, and they’re all quality TVs, so motion processing and upscaling are about the best you can get from any TV. OLED is the rule for sports. That is unless the super bright light is coming into your room at an angle that would cause the glossy screen on that OLED TV to act like a mirror. By the way, OLED all day, every day.

For the rest of you watching LED/LCD or QLED TVs – there are a few more things to be aware of when it comes to TV stuff, and then I want to talk about how you watch the game and how that can make a difference.

How to avoid the dirty screen effect

The next thing to check is the uniformity of the display. What you don’t want is a blotchy screen. And, unfortunately, you won’t know if you have spots on the screen until you take the TV home. Yes, sometimes it can be difficult to find the best TV and I’m sorry that’s the case. But get the TV home, plug it in – you don’t want to set it all up or mount it on the wall yet – connect it to the internet so you can stream YouTube and then stream a clip of the screen uniformity test.

If you see really bad stains? I mean, if it just looks like someone spilled grease on your brand new white or gray t-shirt? Then that TV has big issues with screen uniformity and you’ll see those spots when you’re watching football, golf, hockey, or anything else with big wide areas of consistent color. If you want to know more about the dirty screen effect, you can check out my article about it.

The best color

And finally: color. It’s easy to see bad colors on TV when you’re watching sports. Now, luckily, fixing bad colors on a TV is usually just a matter of not using Vivid or Sports mode. I know it sounds silly because I know you want your TV to look vibrant and watch sports — why not use those picture modes?

The answer is that they are hot garbage when it comes to color. They sacrifice almost everything in terms of picture quality to make sure the picture is as bright as possible – and frankly, a big reason why brands do this is because they need to stand out from a crowd of TVs with loads of fluorescent lights shining from them. ceiling.

image modesImage used with permission of the copyright holder

Choose a standard picture mode if you have to, or use something like ISF Bright or a Cinema or Movie preset, then boost the backlight. This will give you a brighter image while maintaining color accuracy and I think you’ll be happier in the long run.

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So that’s a cheat sheet for finding good sports TV. A 120Hz panel is a great start, and make sure it has a decent anti-glare or anti-reflection coating on the screen if you’re viewing in a bright environment. When you get it home, check for the dirty screen effect and replace it if you happen to get a bad one — which really doesn’t happen that often — and then when you set it up, avoid Vivid or Sports picture modes.

How to watch

And now how do you watch the game? Are streaming apps better than cable? What about the antenna?

In my experience, one of the most common ways to watch sports is also one of the worst in terms of picture quality: that would be cable or satellite. Now, if the only way to watch is cable or satellite, then watch that way. But if you can live stream a game or match online, you might want to choose that option for a few different reasons. Also, if the game will be on a major network like ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox, you might want to try to catch one of your local stations with an antenna. The reason why one of these options is likely to look better than cable or satellite comes down to several factors.

The highest is compression. Cable and satellite operators have to cram a ton of signal down a fairly small pipe. Even if you have high-bandwidth fiber-based cable, cable operators typically still send the same aggregated signal down that pipe. It’s highly compressed so it’s responsive, and the lower bitrate and bit depth mean less pixel and color information. Don’t get me wrong, cable/satellite can look really good. But streaming, if you have a solid connection and good bandwidth, can look even better.

application for youtube tvImage used with permission of the copyright holder

Now, for streaming, if you’re going to use a live TV streaming app, my experience is that YouTube TV is reliably solid for picture quality. But a better play would be to use the network’s own streaming app — like the Fox Sports app, for example. In fact, sometimes you’ll get an HDR signal that way. But don’t expect 4K — and if you do get 4K, just know that it’s upscaled 1080p at best. Which, frankly, is better than the 720p or 1080i signal you’d normally get.

Using an antenna, as old-school as it sounds, can also be a good move for better picture quality. It’s also less compressed than cable — and it’s free! Plus, if you happen to live in a market where ATSC 3.0 is live, it might even look a lot better. That’s not my experience here in Portland, Oregon, but your market may be different.

Well there! That’s my advice on what really matters if watching sports is your number one priority. And the bonus is that a TV that’s great for sports tends to be great for anything else you like to watch.

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