Reading Consumer Reports for TV Advice? Don’t.

The 2011 Consumer Electronics Show was an eye-opening experience in many regards. I was able to gain some knowledge from a roundtable with Samsung’s top brass, I was entertained and informed by the Panasonic director’s panel, and I got to go hands-on with some gear that actually might turn me around on 3D. I also had an experience that led me to understand that Consumer Reports is not the magazine I want to go to for HDTV information.

It goes without saying that a review from a specialized source will be better than a review from a generalized source. Hardcore gamers don’t read the reviews in Maxim, guitar players don’t pick their gear from the Wired Holiday Wish List, and Blu-ray enthusiasts have their own source of excellent, well-written reviews right here.

I never realized just how big the difference is between a generalist publication and a specialist one until this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, where I met a few members from Consumer Reports, a magazine that has always been held up as a well-respected source of information.

The incident in question took place at a closed-door meeting with Vizio. I arrived fifteen minutes early to my 3:30 meeting, and the Consumer Reports staff (apparently they needed four or five people to cover one company) arrived twenty minutes late to their 3:00. The obvious solution was to combine the two product tours into one.

This isn’t exactly uncommon at CES, and it was especially prevalent at this year’s show. Attendance was up significantly from last year, making monorail and taxi lines longer than expected. Usually it’s a fun arrangement and I get to meet interesting people who ask questions I may not have thought to, or who specialize in another area of the company’s products. I learned a bit about Samsung cameras that I wouldn’t have otherwise thanks to such a combined tour.

Because Consumer Reports is a print magazine and likely has a higher reader base than High-Def Digest or AV Rev (which I was representing at the show), the tour focused on the folks from CR. I looked at this as a great opportunity to learn more about not only the products I was here to see, but journalism as well. After all, who better to learn from than a seasoned pro?

I won’t be offering any specific names in this article, in part because I didn’t catch them all and in part because I feel like it would be unprofessional to do so, but I will say that the tour involved people who self-identified as the TV experts at Consumer Reports.

The first thing I noticed about the CR staff was how little they actually seemed to care about the products on display. We were paired off with an engineer who took us through the company’s new television lineup and rarely – if ever – did the CR crew ask a question relevant to an engineer.

In fact, most of the questions they asked were simply clarifications of marketing terminology. One was particularly adamant about the term “Theater 3D,” which “is to mislead the consumers.” You could argue that point either way, especially since calling a product “passive” just doesn’t sound good, but that’s a question for PR, not for an engineer.

When I asked questions that actually had something to do with the products on display, I was greeted with dirty looks from the folks at CR, as if I was somehow detracting from their experience. Finding out what kind of Wi-Fi is built into Vizio’s TV (802.11n – single band for lower end, dual for higher) or what kind of resolution the 21:9 display offered wasn’t on the agenda for Consumer Reports.

But I’m not going to tell you to stop reading a magazine because its writers are rude. That’s a personal thing, and really not that important. It’s the lack of professionalism from its writers that sinks the magazine for me.

Several times while our tour guide was speaking, these individuals walked away to look at something else. As I stood with my voice recorder out and tried to formulate questions that I thought our readers would be interested in, they simply walked off. Even when the gentleman from Vizio was answering a question of theirs, they would get distracted and move away to some other piece of tech.

When we took a look at a 3D 4K2K prototype that the company had made for the show, one of the CR staff said, “We’ve already seen 3D” and walked to another display.

The thing that absolutely drove me up the wall was how little even their alleged TV expert seemed to know about HDTVs.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m the most knowledgeable person in the world when it comes to the inner workings of home theater technology. I’m not even the most knowledgeable person on this blog (that’d be our own HD Advisor, Josh Zyber). But I do work to keep up.

I write the news on High-Def Digest, which means I also read the news. I read a lot more than I write. I think it’s an unspoken part of the job that I keep up with current industry trends, new products, and even what the High-Def Digest audience thinks about things. How could I expect to write articles about products that I know nothing about?

When we got to check out the new 21:9 sets from Vizio, the gentleman from Consumer Reports acted as if this were the first he’d seen. This despite Philips announcing a 21:9 display in 2009 and the follow-up 3D display coming in 2010. Sure, they didn’t release in North America, but the launch of the Cinema 21:9 line generated a significant amount of interest, which sparked plenty of news, forum posts and even a blog post by Josh lamenting the fact that these displays aren’t available in the U.S.

The Vizio representative explained several times to the people from Consumer Reports that the resolution of the 21:9 display is 2560 x 1080, and that 16:9 content displayed on the 21:9 TV would be in full 1080p with no loss of resolution. A Full HD picture would simply have black pillarbox bars, since it wouldn’t need to use all of the pixels.

Blu-ray content and possibly streaming and On Demand content in the future will be able to take advantage of this aspect ratio and resolution, since those shot in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio would fill the entire screen. Traditional 16:9 content retains the same 1080p resolution it has now, but with black bars on either side. Seems like a winning setup right?

That’s when the purported expert from Consumer Reports piped in with a question that took me by surprise. “But what about HDTV? Can I stretch it to fill the screen?” That took the Vizio rep by surprise too. He answered in the best way he could, explaining again that there’s no need to stretch it, since you’re getting the same 1080p resolution you would on a 16:9 television.

The man from CR seemed upset at this, and further clarified: “You mean if I’m watching ‘V’, I’m going to get black bars on the side?” The Vizio rep explained again about the screen resolution and the distortion that would be caused by stretching or zooming the image, but it appeared to be a lost cause.

And there you have it. One of the people who helps shape the opinions and sales of HDTVs, and who tells the world what to think of the latest sets, is also one of those people who’d stretch out a 16:9 picture to fill a 21:9 screen. Does he currently take 4:3 pictures and stretch them to fit a 16:9 screen? It stands to reason that he does in order to eliminate those pesky black bars.

I can’t speak to the testing techniques at Consumer Reports, nor can I attest to the quality of the staff that handles other products. I also can’t speak to this man’s personal viewing habits – perhaps his audience is full of people who would rather watch a stretched video than see black bars. What I can say for certain is that I wouldn’t take advice from someone who so clearly doesn’t understand the subject matter.


  1. All I gotta say is that stuff like this makes you wonder about their other reviews… if they wont buy a TV because it keeps the original picture how it was supposed to look, will they not like a car because it doesn’t fill the lane all the way?

  2. Eric

    Unfortunately, I think that is CR’s audience. It seems to be the people who don’t like black bars on their screens. By that, I mean an older, less knowledgeable clientele, who want the simplest televisions, because most of them don’t see a clarity difference between blu-ray and DVD anyway. That’s why people who want real info reference your site and not their literature. Thank you and keep up the good work!

  3. I’ve always thought CR showed a bias towards certain brand names over others, regardless of actual performance. I would never rely on them as a trustworthy source of product information. It’s far easier these days to go on the Net and find out what REAL people are saying about product “x” and brand “y”.

  4. I have had issues myself with Consumer Reports, especially in the TV area. I would use to take printouts of a few different models to the store, just to realize that the television they rated the highest was the worst-looking one on display. I mean, you can SEE the difference at the store (granted, television displays are usually tweaked at the store). I just stopped with Consumer Report – I go to the store, check out the display models (televisions, recievers, whatnot), actually play with them a bit to check out features and settings, and will usually spin them around to take a look at their inputs / outputs, then I start to compare prices. I find this the best way to buy stuff.

    When I buy cameras, I will usually hit half a dozen camera sites, and will usually check out the sample images. I NEVER read consumer reports anymore – they just don’t have the information I am looking for.

    As far as I am concerned, Consumer Reports has been pretty much irrelevant since the early 90s.

  5. EM

    This blog entry reminds me of the furore over “Which?”’s panning of Blu-ray (Josh’s article “What a Load of Bollocks!”, November 22, ). I guess that if “Consumer Reports” wants to gear its articles to Joe and Suzy Sixpack, that’s fine, so long as that choice of perspective is clear. Still, that doesn’t mean that its writers should be no more educated than its readers.

  6. The only worth I have found in CR tech reviews is simply getting the perspective of “the average consumer”. They’ve always had a dumbed down approach that seemed to reflect how my mom might right a review.

    So in a sense they are speaking to their audience, but certainly not educating or enlightening them into a better consumer.

    • Dick Ward

      Also ironic (or maybe it’s not, I’m still confused by the actual proper use of the word) is that I’m getting nothing but Consumer Reports ads on the websites I go to. Go Google!

  7. Brian H

    From my experience, Consumer Reports is a publication designed to “do the research” for consumers. They accomplish this goal by publishing tables of ratings. Circles, half circles, and filled circles are presented to their “readers.”. I put “readers” in quotations, because looking at a score does not rate high in terms of reading comprehension. It is not a surprise that the people responsible for putting circles into tables exhibit a distinct lack of journalistic skill.

  8. ilovenola2

    First off, I agree with everyone about the shortcomings of Consumer Reports. As one of the “old persons” referred to by several posters in this thread, I will say that I saw through this magazine about the time many of you were born– back in the early days of Laserdisc, which is when I entered the continual fray over Aspect Ratio in home-video. At 67 years I really wish that some of you would realize that it’s not “OLD” persons who are stubbornly unchanging about these “no black bars” matters, but “IGNORANT” people who, believe me, come in all ages. Even on this site!
    And thank you again, Dick, for your continued informative reporting!

  9. Brent Umina

    I have always despised CR due to their complete lack of knowledge on the most easily available information. I’ll never forget having customers come in to Best Buy and argue with me that CR was ALWAYS spot on in their reviews. I had one customer come in and look at a Sony HDTV and told me that they didn’t care to look at anything else because Sony had the highest ratings in CR. You should have seen the look on his face when I showed him the vast amount of Sony TV’s we had in our open box section. Now don’t get me wrong, I have always liked Sony, but some of their first rear projection HDTV’s were CRAP. Said customer got mad, stormed out of the store, and bought his TV from a competetor. Two weeks later he came in and bought a Mitsubishi off of me….go figure…that’s the set I was going to sell him in the first place. I’m surprised CR even gave Vizio the time of day…it was probably more due to Vizio being a buzz word now amongst the general public.

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