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Cheap 3D TVs Buying Guide

The top manufacturers are familiar names in consumer electronics. Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sony, Vizio, and Toshiba all make 3D TVs.

Two in particular caught our attention in our search for bargains. The Vizio M-Series M501D-A2R (starting at $800) is our top choice because of its low price, features, and impressive 2D and 3D performance. The Panasonic TC-P50ST60 (starting at $1,000) has a plasma screen and combines amazing 2D picture quality with a $1,000 price point, making it a compelling buy despite lackluster 3D performance. The Sony KDL-47W802A (starting at $989) is a popular TV that has all kinds of input options and handles 2D and 3D video with aplomb. The LG 47LA7400 (starting at $1,029) sometimes approaches the upper edge of our budget price range, so try to get it at a discount. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this TV is the wand-style, voice-command remote, which reviewers have found a joy to use. The Samsung UN46FH6030F (starting at $700) is the cheapest TV we researched and displays a solid picture in 2D and 3D. However, this TV doesn't include any 3D glasses and lacks the smart TV features that are now nearly ubiquitous even on cheap 3D TVs. Samsung may be sacrificing a bit too much to keep the price low. You don't have to spend a lot more to get a good-quality, Internet-connected 3D TV with 3D glasses included, and reviewers seem to think it's worth the extra cost to do so.

The best cheap 3D TVs are expensive compared with their 2D-only counterparts. This is always the case with the latest gadgetry: (Relatively) early adopters pay more for fancy technology. The 3D TV market is no exception, although prices have dropped considerably in the past year. A very small 3D TV will run you at least $500, and most 3D TVs larger than 47 inches on the diagonal still cost in the neighborhood of $1,000 or more -- often much more. In each line of inexpensive 3D TVs we identified, we chose the model closest to 47 inches. The starting prices noted in this buying guide correspond to those screen sizes. Naturally, the larger the display, the more expensive the set will be. If you were to opt for an upscale model costing several thousand dollars, you'd get a TV with a very large screen (55 inches and counting) and the best video processing technology available.

Perhaps the most critical factor demanding buyers' attention is the distinction between active and passive 3D TV. Active 3D TV relies on battery-powered glasses to create the 3D effect, whereas passive 3D technology calls for the same kind of glasses you get at a theater when watching a 3D movie. The consensus among reviewers is that passive 3D has surpassed active 3D as the preferred technology. Passive 3D creates a convincing enough effect, and passive 3D glasses are typically cheaper and more comfortable than active 3D glasses. TVs with passive technology usually include at least a couple of pairs of glasses. With an active 3D TV, you might have to buy the glasses separately for about $20 a pop (as is the case with the Samsung UN46FH6030F). None of this is to say active 3D isn't good; it's just not quite as simple and cheap as passive 3D.

The best cheap 3D TVs include many features formerly found only in more expensive models, such as smart TV capability with built-in Wi-Fi, so that users can stream content from apps such as Netflix. Budget shoppers can count on full 1080p high-definition display, 16:9 resolution, all kinds of controls and options for tweaking the color settings, and several HDMI ports, which are the best quality ports for home theater systems.

Generally speaking, the 3D effect produced by inexpensive 3D TVs is decent if not spectacular, and 3D technology continues to improve. Still, you should be aware of certain deficiencies inherent in the existing technology. We found reports from experts and consumers about "crosstalk" on the screen, an anomaly that can afflict even the best 3D TVs. Crosstalk occurs when a 3D image designed to appear in front of one eye mistakenly appears in the other eye, either because the screen doesn't refresh fast enough or the 3D glasses aren't working properly.

All 3D TVs display 2D content and budget models almost always present 2D images of a quality that outshines their 3D capabilities. Because 2D content still dominates, this is not a matter to brush off. You can use a 3D TV to watch anything you'd watch with a normal hi-definition TV and many experts assert that 3D TVs are among the highest quality 2D sets out there, with amazing color and sharp, detailed pictures -- compelling reasons to buy a 3D TV even if you don't plan to use the 3D feature that often.

3D TV Performance

The video-processing technology for 3D content is complicated, and 3D TV reviews suggest it continues to be a work in progress. Almost all 3D TVs have some weak spots. Crosstalk (or ghosting), for example, still crops up occasionally. Overall, though, the quality of 3D TV has improved in recent years. The depth of field is generally pretty convincing and 3D TVs are better at maintaining a bright, good-quality picture than they used to be.

3D TV reviews indicate that a handful of bargain models have earned the respect of experts for their 3D picture quality. Due to the limited availability of 3D content, however, the 2D capabilities of a 3D TV are even more important. You'll be using the TV in 2D mode most of the time, so regardless of your interest in the 3D experience, you want a 3D TV that does 2D well. Fortunately, most 3D TVs excel at presenting 2D content.

Note that experts reviewing the TVs we recommend often test larger models in the same line. Many of these are priced beyond our cap of $1,500 but still speak to the performance of the series overall.

2D and 3D Picture Quality.

The Vizio M-Series M501D-A2R (starting at $800) has earned an Editors' Choice award from PC Mag, which tested the 55-inch model in the series but says the M501D-A2R is essentially the same TV. The reviewer singles out this TV for its higher-than-average contrast and good black levels, among other attributes. He also likes this TV's 3D effect, which really "pops." A 3D TV review on CNET rates the Vizio M-Series M501D-A2R 4 out of 5 stars and declares it a great value. Again, the dark black levels are a strong selling point, as are the TV's rich, bright colors and very good shadow detail.

Reviewers are simply blown away by the 2D performance of the Panasonic TC-P50ST60 (starting at $1,000). An expert from Home Theater Review tested the 60-inch model in the ST60 series and admires the rich color and deep black levels. However, the reviewer did notice some significant crosstalk in 3D playback and does not particularly recommend the ST60 series for 3D video. At the same time, she considers the TV overall a nearly unbeatable value. A CNET expert shares those reservations about the 3D performance yet still gives the series 5 out of 5 stars, recommending it above any other TV he's ever reviewed (and he's been testing TVs at CNET since 2002). That's high praise indeed. The 2D performance of the 55-inch model is excellent across the board, he concludes, with deep blacks, great shadow detail, near-perfect uniformity, and accurate colors. Having said that, the reviewer complains that the TV does show crosstalk when playing 3D content, as well as some general stuttering.

Sony's W802A Series, including the KDL-47W802A model (starting at $989), is a good but perhaps not great line of TVs, according to a CNET expert. This reviewer says the TV has good shadow detail and the 2D picture is clear, but the black levels are just OK. The colors appear somewhat muted and inconsistent on this TV. The review notes that the 3D effect shows too much depth at the default setting, but users can turn down this setting for a more realistic 3D effect. The interface is easy to use, according to this 3D TV review, and Sony's smart TV network offers lots of apps and streaming options. LG's LA7400 series TVs (starting at $1,029) have very good black levels, judging by a review from PC Mag, and the shadow detail is quite sharp. The color accuracy is good, although not perfect -- some colors come on a little too strong. This reviewer notes that the 3D depth of field is excellent and looks natural, but there was some crosstalk in 3D playback.

A reviewer at LCD TV Buying Guide likes the 3D picture quality and depth of the Samsung 6030 series. The 55-inch model reviewed on the site doesn't suffer from any motion problems and displays good brightness and color accuracy. A reviewer from Digital Trends notes that the Samsung UN46FH6030F (starting at $700) is easy to set up and the remote is simple to use. The sticking point here is the features. This is not a smart TV and includes only two HDMI ports and no 3D glasses. The Vizio M-Series M501D-A2R provides the complete package and a larger screen for only $100 more.

Review continues below

3D TV Screens

Plasma vs. LED 3D TVs.

An LED (light-emitting diode) screen is a specific type of LCD (liquid-crystal display) and the preferred choice for budget shoppers. An LED light source distributes light more evenly than the older fluorescent technology and makes for much improved black levels and color accuracy on LCD screens. All the 3D TVs we reviewed have LED screens, with the exception of the Panasonic TC-P50ST60. That TV has a plasma display -- one of the last of its kind from Panasonic, which is shifting its focus to LCD panels. (Those with knowledge of the manufacturer don't see this as a deterrent for prospective buyers; they expect Panasonic to remain robust and support its plasma products in the future.)

Most experts seem to consider plasma screens a little better than LED screens when it comes to picture quality, in part because plasmas generally have deeper black levels and wider viewing angles. While reviewers rave about the vivid contrast and black levels of the Panasonic ST60 series of plasma TVs, the company's DT60 TVs -- even a mid-range model such as the 55-inch Panasonic TC-L55DT60 (starting at $2,000) -- catch flak in reviews for black levels that are too light. Still, LED 3D TVs generally tend to be cheaper and, at least in some cases, have closed the gap with plasma TVs in both black levels and viewing angles. The Sony W802A Series model that CNET reviewed, for example, has very wide viewing angles for an LED display. Having said that, LED panels still have narrower viewing angles than plasma TVs. If you move too far to the left or right, the image will seem distorted. The closer you are to the middle of an LED 3D TV, the better the picture quality.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind with a plasma 3D TV, although experts offer reassurance that these are minor issues. Some consumers worry that if a plasma TV displays the same image for a long time, it could be permanently etched into the screen. Known as "burn-in," this hasn't been a serious problem for years. Another concern is that the deep black levels may fade over time. Again, experts say this isn't a matter to fret over. Finally, plasma models are heavier and bulkier than LED 3D TVs and less energy efficient.

3D TV Screen Size.

Manufacturers usually release 3D TV models as a series. That is, the screen sizes differ, but the technology and feature set are the same. For example, the 50-inch Vizio M-Series M501D-A2R is equivalent to the larger 65-inch M-Series M651D-A2R in all respects but for the screen size and the price. The 50-inch model is well within the Cheapism price niche, while the 65-inch version, which starts at nearly $1,750, lies in mid-range territory.

It can be hard to judge exactly how large a set you should buy. Much depends on the room where you're parking it, although there are several rules of thumb. CNET suggests the following: a minimum screen size of 32 inches for a bedroom and 40 inches or more for a living room. Some people use another guide that CNET mentions: The viewing distance from the TV should be 1.5 to 2 times the screen size. For example, if you have a 60-inch TV, you'd sit about 7.5 feet (90 inches) to 10 feet (120 inches) away from the screen. If your TV room is a bit cozier, a screen size of 46 inches might be a better fit (the recommended sitting distance would be 5.75 feet to 7.6 feet, or 69 to 92 inches).

3D Glasses, Inputs, and Other Features

Active vs. Passive 3D TV Glasses.

When watching 3D content, each eye sees a slightly different image, so you need special glasses to merge the images together. Active 3D technology calls for battery-powered glasses to create the 3D effect. Passive 3D technology uses simple glasses like those you put on in a movie theater when watching a 3D movie. They don't need batteries, which makes them lighter and more comfortable.

Among the models we researched, only the Panasonic TC-P50ST60 and the Samsung UN46FH6030F are active 3D TVs. Passive 3D TV is the preferred technology nowadays, in part because the glasses are dirt cheap and tend to be more pleasant to wear than active 3D glasses. Active 3D glasses aren't as expensive as they used to be, but they're hardly cheap and most TV makers only include a couple of pairs with their sets, if any at all. TV makers usually include four or more pairs of passive 3D glasses as part of the package. Our top pick, the Vizio M-Series M501D-A2R, comes with eight pairs of glasses. On the flip side, the Samsung UN46FH6030F with active 3D technology doesn't include any 3D glasses. They're sold separately for about $20 each. An LCD TV Buying Guide review declares them pretty comfortable considering they're active rather than passive.

3D TV Inputs/Outputs.

No matter what kind of 3D TV you buy, it should have a variety of inputs and outputs to mesh with all your other electronics -- game consoles, 3D Blu-ray players, DVD players, VCRs, and anything else you might dream of connecting to a TV. The most important inputs on a 3D TV are the HDMI ports. All the budget 3D TVs we researched have more than one HDMI port and most have at least three, which should be plenty. The Samsung UN46FH6030F includes only two. One of the four HDMI inputs on the Sony KDL-47W802A supports MHL connections for mobile phones.

The models on our list also include high-speed USB ports, so you can plug in a camera to view photos on the TV, for example. Cheap 3D TVs feature a handful of other inputs, as well, such as component and composite inputs compatible with older electronics, including VCRs and basic DVD players.

As an aside, you'll need some sort of 3D player to watch 3D movies. Many cheap Blu-ray players, along with Sony's PlayStation, can play 3D movies. Some TV networks have experimented with 3D content, but regular 3D programming over satellite or cable is still relatively rare.

3D TV Refresh Rates.

One feature TV manufacturers promote heavily is the refresh rate. This number is measured in hertz and refers to the number of times per second the image is redrawn on the 3D TV screen. Of course, the higher, the better. When high-definition TV first became popular, refresh rates tended to top out at 60 Hz. Now, 3D TV makers are advertising new techniques that push the refresh rate up to 600 Hz. These faster refresh rates are a little bit misleading, however. Features such as LG's TruMotion, for example, don't necessarily speed up a TV's native refresh rate to a true 120 or 240 Hz, but the effect is about the same. These features should allow for smoother, better picture quality from 3D sources. Your TV's native refresh rate is still probably 60 Hz; it's just that manufacturers have developed new methods to boost the "effective" refresh rates of their TVs.

3D TV Remote Controls.

Buying a new 3D TV means adding yet another remote to your already-full coffee table. If possible, check the remote first-hand for tactile feedback. You should be able to tell by touching the remote which button you're pushing so you can use it without taking your eyes off the screen. Some remotes are becoming pretty sophisticated, with voice command and other bells and whistles. The remote included with the LG 47LA7400 works basically the same as a wand for a Nintendo Wii console and includes voice command. LG fans who don't need the fancy remote can look to the cheaper LA6200 series (starting at $783), although it's not nearly as well reviewed. In general, expect a budget 3D TV to include a more traditional remote.

3D TV Contrast Ratio.

One specification you can safely ignore when shopping for a 3D TV is the dynamic contrast ratio, or the difference between the darkest and lightest pixels the TV displays. There are no hard and fast rules or universally accepted guidelines for measuring a TV's contrast ratio, so manufacturers can (and do) exaggerate this number to a ridiculous degree. This specification simply isn't helpful when comparing 3D TVs. What matters is static or native contrast ratio, a more accurate measure of a TV's ability to display black levels compared with its peak brightness. The Panasonic ST60 series of active 3D TVs really stands out here. A reviewer from HD Guru says the black levels on the plasma screen are outstanding and measured the native contrast ratio at an almost unheard-of 22,750:1.

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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap 3D TVs
  2. Discount 3D TVs Features Comparison Table
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