Direct-View LED: Caveat Venditor and Emptor

Published: October 11, 2022
Integrators and end users are predisposed to look at DVLED as they have come to look at LCD flatpan els. But DVLED is a different type of technology, and industry stakeholders should be mindful of its uniqueness. Taranukhin Alex/

InfoComm ’22 is now in the history books. As most subject matter experts predicted, there was nothing disruptive in terms of technology at the show, but, nonetheless, it was a well-produced event. Suffice it to say that nothing replaces face to face. Sorry, virtual and even hybrid events — no disrespect. I’m just saying…. 

In my opinion, UC&C for corporate and education dominated on the systems side and direct-view LED (DVLED) dominated on the display side. I also want to give a shout out to digital signage under the D=SIGN banner. It was more fully represented at the show than ever before. However, I will save that and UC&C for another article. 

Regular CI readers know that DVLED is one of my passions. It looks simple on the surface, but, underneath, there is much to learn. In recent editions of “AV Brains & Brawn,” I have written about pixels and viewing distances, as well as the need to know the unknowns of DVLED. This article is intended to be the third and final part in my DVLED trilogy. 

This month, our topic is how integrators and buyers can become confused by how much is out there, as well as the importance of becoming aware of the market makeup, setting aside marketing spin. Permit me to explain via a “Wizard of Oz” metaphor. Herein, we’ll reveal “the man behind the curtain.” 

So Many Companies 

Well over 100 DVLED display companies are trying to attract and acquire sales in the U.S. At InfoComm this year, 39 DVLED exhibitors participated. (I know of at least a dozen more that would have liked to exhibit.) Of those that did, some were true manufacturers and others were brands buying OEM out of China (the most common source for DVLED displays). In the latter case, they simply put their names on the display. 

Let’s begin with a breakdown of vendors, looking at the highest levels. Of the 39 exhibitors present, 17 DVLED exhibitors at the show would, in my mind, qualify as well-known brands for commercial integrators in the U.S. The common denominator among these companies is that they have already invested in DVLED (at some level, specific to our local market) in terms of offices, salespeople and support in the U.S. Many have a history of working directly with commercial AV dealers and distributors. So far, so good! 

Another 22 less-well-known DVLED exhibitors were also at InfoComm. They generally do not have offices, salespeople or support inside the U.S. I would characterize these companies as those that send emails and post messages on social media (primarily, on LinkedIn) in hopes of resonating with commercial AV dealers, garnering some degree of attention and making sales. 

From that overview, it might seem obvious whom you want to work with — but such a conclusion, left there, would be overly simplistic and not informative. Suffice it to say that there’s more to consider. 

Assessing Your Risk Tolerance 

At the outset, I’ll say this: Depending on your situation and your aversion to anything smacking of risk, working with one of the “well knowns” might very well be your best bet. In some cases, you might have experience or history with these companies because you already buy various products other than DVLED from them. Trust has been earned and relationships have been built over time. This is part and parcel of the value proposition that these well-known companies present — and their value is undeniably real. However, as the late Paul Harvey would say, “You need to hear the rest of the story” to be fully informed. Of course, this begs an obvious question: Just what is the rest of the story? 

Part of the rest of the story is the overriding confusion about DVLED. I’m referring not only to the sheer number of companies vying for business but also to the fact that DVLED displays tend to look alike. Integrators and end users are predisposed to look at DVLED as they have come to look at LCD flatpanels. On the LCD side, a 55-inch 4K display has become a commodity; all the major (and even most of the minor) players look great and are generally comparable. You need a 55-inch display that is 4K, so you think you know all you need to know and place an order. But the predisposition to believe a flatpanel display is a flatpanel display should not port over to DVLED. Nevertheless, to a disconcerting degree, it has. 

Adding to the erroneous assumption of “sameness” among DVLED solutions is that most manufacturers claim similar things. Many claim they are high quality, high performance, properly certified and simply “better.” When asked how they are “better,” some companies have a tough time pinning it down. 

I must add that it’s rare to run into a DVLED company that really knows and understands the competition and where they fit into “the big picture.” It should come as no surprise that, to most buyers looking from the outside in, there is no apparent or meaningful differentiation that they can observe. 

Possible Differentiators 

Some companies attempt to differentiate by speaking about proprietary technology they have. They mention chip-on-board (COB) technology, glue-on-board (GOB) protection, three-in-one or four-in-one LED clusters, and, most recently, nano coatings. Research shows that most companies (both well-known ones and not-well-known ones) now have most, if not all, of these as options. Thus, on cursory comparison, there is little real difference in the products. 

From a technology perspective, it is difficult — but, if you dig deep enough, not impossible — to definitively know from whom to buy. If product quality, features, benefits and performance are a given (assuming they are independently tested and proven), then what is the differentiator? All else being equal, there are two answers: 1) price; 2) service and support. 

We are all aware that DVLED is higher priced than LCD flatpanels or projectors are. In many cases, when end users are presented with the price tags, they might take a deep breath. (I can hear the air intake….) We cannot avoid the fact that budgets will play a significant role in display decisions here. For LCD or projection, the price differential may be just a few dollars per display; however, for DVLED, the price differential between manufacturers for similar products can be significant. I’m talking about thousands of dollars! 

Recent research on 20 DVLED providers showed that the dealer prices for a 1.5mm-, 2mm- or 2.5mm-pixel-pitch indoor DVLED will range from “low end” prices up to higher prices that are three times higher! This allows those who do not have the budget for the highest-priced products not to abandon DVLED but, rather, to explore alternate sources. 

OK…I can already hear the clamor among you. You get what you pay for, right? Well, yes! But it’s not as simple as that. 

Making a Fully Informed Decision 

In last month’s article, focusing on knowing the unknowns of DVLED, I pointed out what most don’t know, but that they need to know, in order to make a fully informed decision. I discussed R&D; quality of manufacturing; grade of core LED components; type, quality and performance of circuitry; testing and quality control of finished product; and certifications. There are no free lunches here, and products at the low end of the spectrum can, indeed, fall into “you get what you pay for.” Many of these companies make difficult tradeoffs of low prices versus quality, support and longevity. These low prices can be a proverbial siren song, ending in disaster. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. 

View Archive: Achieving the Wow Factor with Limitless dvLED Solutions

Now, here’s the hard part relative to prices: Somewhere between the lowest — you have been warned to stay away! — and highest prices, there may well be a sweet spot that should, at the very least, be considered. These are high-quality products from some of those less-well-known companies we referenced earlier, which might or might not have been at InfoComm. So, how can they provide high-quality products at lower prices? On the surface, the answer is simple: They don’t have the same costs of doing business in the U.S. that some well-known companies incur. But, as I hope you have come to understand by now, it’s not that simple! 

This brings us to the second point of differentiation — namely, service and support. Most of the well-known companies provide good service and support. In fact, some even include in their price a tech going onsite to ensure the installation is done properly. (I can hear a sigh of relief now….) Some of the lesser-known DVLED companies also provide good service and support. The best of these companies typically have parts availability in the U.S. and outsource the service to companies inside the country. This becomes a balancing act, with well-known and less-well-known DVLED companies all trying to juggle quality, service and support, and price. 

Quality and Reliability 

Quality and reliability must be a given. Service and support must be accounted for. Research shows a wide range of prices exists. Integrators have an obligation to their end users to be knowledgeable and provide the best value. As in other areas of AV, it makes sense to get quotes from several DVLED vendors and compare everything that is included. Then, it’s possible to make decisions in the project and client’s best interest. One size does not fit all! 

I started by acknowledging there’s a lot to know about DVLED. It is not just another flatpanel! We need to know what we don’t know. We need to know about well-known and lesser-well-known suppliers, as long as they meet project and client needs. Yes, this requires some work, but the results will speak for themselves. 

We like to say that you should never pay more than you should or less than you need to. We also like to say, if you don’t really know DVLED, work with someone who does! 

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