Quest for the Optimal DAW Display

Apr 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Eddie Ciletti



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Most of my geek-related purchases are made online. But choosing a computer monitor is a bit different than buying a hard drive — I want to see it, compare it and, should something not work out, easily return it. These days, with an array of inputs and internal DSP format-conversion possibilities, finding the best monitor for your DAW is not so easy.

After first checking options and specs online, I went to a local Best Buy, made the comparisons and left with an LG Flatron L226WTQ-SF, a 22-inch, widescreen LCD for less than $300.


When shopping for a monitor, there's a good chance that the display panel came from an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and that another company created the I/O, signal processing and aesthetic “wrapping” around it. The Zenith Corporation that built my dad's portable tube radio wasn't likely to be the same one that manufactured my first flat-panel TV.

With so many new and unfamiliar brand names, it's hard to know whether a brand and a manufacturer are one in the same. Manufacturer reinvention happens a lot, phone companies being the most obvious example. A change in direction, new technology or being purchased by another company can lead to a more fitting name change.

After spotting the identical version of my Zenith plasma TV branded as an LG MU-42PZ90V, my relationship (and curiosity) with LG began. In researching this article, I learned that LG is the Korean manufacturer formerly known as Goldstar, and it had purchased Zenith in 1999. LG also has a partnership with Netherlands-based Philips. LG-Philips produces the Apple Cinema LCD Panel and the Dell Ultrasharp 2005FPW.


Specifications help to quantify and translate what we see and hear. My transition to the LG L226 LCD was quite a bump up from a 7-year-old CRT. With its 3,000:1 contrast ratio, 2ms response time and 1,680×1,050 resolution, I was amazed at how small things could be made and still retain their clarity — not a strong suit for a CRT, but a piece of cake for the L226. In fact, I learned about something called native resolution — the target you want to hit to get the most out of any digital monitor, whether LCD, plasma or DLP (Digital Light Processing).

For all monitor types, resolution is primarily determined by the size of whatever technology creates the image — the smaller the better. For the old-familiar CRT, high voltage accelerates an electron beam so that it strikes a phosphor-coated screen with such force as to make it light up. Early on in display technology, a monochrome CRT could easily deliver higher resolution than its color counterpart because only a single beam made the dot, the analog equivalent of a pixel. A perfect example is the 5-inch green CRT that was used in the SSL 4000 Series consoles, which was capable of very fine text. Dot size is controlled by an electronic focus “mechanism,” along with the monitor's condition — it is a vacuum tube, after all.

A color CRT complicates the matter by a factor of three: A trio of red, green and blue phosphors combine to make a white dot; the size of that trio determines the resolution (dot pitch). Not only are there now three electron beams, but each must strike only its respective color (known as “convergence”). Smaller dot pitches increase the convergence challenge, which requires several internal adjustments to achieve the same performance from center-screen to all extremities. Again, age brings variables in focus and tube-life.


Conversely, all of the “solid-state” display technologies are based on an X/Y matrix of columns and rows, eliminating the need for focus — yeah! — the exception being any projector that relies on a standard optical-focus mechanism. For CRT, LCD and PDP (Plasma Display Panel), you can think of each white dot as a pixel, the three colors that combine to white as subpixels.

LCD screens are used in laptops because they are remarkably energy-efficient: LCD = TFT (Thin-Film Transistor) = active matrix. No transistor equals a passive matrix. The light source behind most screens is either a cold cathode fluorescent light or the same Electro-Luminescent Panel (ELP) technology that first made the LA-2 and LA-3 opto-limiters possible back in the '60s and '70s.

Contrast ratio is the relationship between the brightest white and the blackest black. Bigger ratios are better: Too bright might yield a better contrast ratio, but tends to be hard to view at close range (but great at a distance). LCDs are “black challenged,” but improvements are always being made.

The brightness (luminance) spec for the LG L226 LCD is 300 cd/m2, a (metric) light-density measurement where one candela per square meter = one lux, and 10.76 lux = one foot-candle. This was substantially brighter than my older, tired CRT, but almost bright enough to give me a tan. By comparison, the older plasma display is capable of 1,000 lux but has a lower contrast ratio (1,200:1). New plasmas have a 10,000:1 contrast ratio. Sunlight is in the 50,000-lux ballpark, while indoor lighting ranges from 100 to 1,000 lux. Bright is good when working in a high-ambient light environment.

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