There’s never been a better time to buy a TV. The industry has worked most of the bugs out of LCD and OLED TVs, and today’s prices are lower than ever. In fact, high-end 4K models cost about half of what they did last year. We’ll give you our top picks, plus an in-depth guide to the specs and features you’ll encounter.
You’ll face an alphabet soup of acronyms and phraseology when you go shopping: LED, LCD, HDR, OLED, quantum dots, and more. And manufacturers thicken that broth with their own trademarked nomenclature: Contrast EliteMax, Q Style Elite, X-tended Dynamic Range PRO? Give me a break.
The good news? You can ignore all that ad-speak and focus on just four things: color, contrast (including the quality of blacks), brightness, and realism. Technology changes, but your eyes don’t.
Here are our top recommendations in three categories. If you want a deeper understanding as to why we picked them, there’s an in-depth buyers’ guide further down that you’ll find invaluable when you go shopping.
Updated December 5, 2018 to add our review of the Sony A9F Master Series 4K UHD OLED TV, which offers a host of premium features including outstanding sound. See the bottom of this article for links to all our TV reviews.
Best LCD TV
It’s a win-win: Samsung’s Q8FN made a better impression than the more upscale Q9F—and it costs less. The two models use slightly different LED backlighting schemes, and we thought the Q8FN’s was more effective. You might prefer the Q9FN if you intend to hang the TV on the wall, because the One Connect breakout box greatly simplifies cable management.
No manufacturer does image processing better than Sony. If moiré, shimmering in detailed pans, jagged text, and backlighting blockiness drive you up a wall, this is the TV to buy.
Best OLED TV
It’s hard to imagine a better TV than LG’s E8PUA OLED. This TV supports every HDR standard on the market, and its picture quality is stunning. LG’s Magic Remote and WebOS operating system make it a joy to use, and cord-cutters tuning into over-the-air broadcasts will dig the excellent program guide. And this being an OLED TV, you have to see the blacks to understand what you’re missing with most LED-backlit LCD TVs.
LG manufactures the OLED panel Sony uses for this TV, but the rest of the technology inside—most importantly, the image processor—is all Sony’s doing. And if you’re looking for a great TV that you don’t need to supplement with a high-quality soundbar, no TV on the market sounds better than this one.
Best bang-for-the-buck TV
It can be hard to find TVs in this price range that are bright enough to make HDR pop the way it should. TCL’s R617 series nails it—and for a price that’s much lower than what you might expect. We reviewed the 55-inch model, but it’s hard to imagine a better TV priced less than $1,000 (the 65-inch model goes for $950 on Amazon).
As good as the TCL R617 series is when it comes to delivering HDR, the Vizio P-series is even better. We reviewed the 65-inch P675-F1 and measured brightness that was almost as high as Samsung’s QN65Q9F, which at the time cost nearly three times as much. If you want to compare the Vizio and TCL TVs apples to apples, the 55-inch version of the P675-F1 costs $650 at Best Buy. We prefer the TCL because we found it offers better backlight processing.
The state of TV technology
CRT TVs were around for more 50 years and were still being improved when they fell out of favor. LCD TVs aren’t nearly that mature, and entry-level models are still working through major color and contrast issues introduced when LED backlighting replaced CFL backlighting. Mid-range and more expensive LED-backlit LCDs are finally getting back to the picture quality that decent decade-old CFL backlighting provided, but it varies.
OLED is still largely the Cadillac of TVs, but they remain expensive to manufacture. I’ll talk more about LED versus OLED in a bit.
There’s also a a resolution race still in progress. A ton of content is still 720p or less, yet 1080p and 4K UHD (2160p) TVs rule the roost. What’s more, with 4K UHD barely out of the cradle, the industry has decided it’s time to move on to 8K UHD (7680 x 4320).
High-end TVs are getting cheaper
The great news is that top-end technology is rapidly filtering down to less-expensive TVs, and the high-end isn’t nearly as expensive as it once was. Samsung’s excellent 65-inch Q9FN cost $6,000 last year; the 2018 version of the Q9FN is going for half that. Sony’s 65-inch Bravia XBR A1E OLED was $5,500 when we reviewed it and is now available for about $3,000. We haven’t seen a mid-range TV (defined as $750 to $1,500) that puts it all together yet, but we have no doubt one will show up in the next two years.
But the scoop is, you can get a top-notch TV for a relatively reasonable price these days. Here’s what you need to know to decide which one that’s going to be.
What to look for (and what to watch out for)
Resolution: While most content remains 1080p or lower, the majority of TVs being sold are 2160p (4K UHD, 3840 x 2160). Unless you’re buying something for the kitchen, or workshop, go 2160p. Who knows? You may get an Ultra HD Blu-ray player for Christmas. Good 2160p content looks spectacular, and most 2160p TVs will upscale lower-resolution content just fine. Just don’t believe any hokum about making 1080p content look like genuine 4K UHD.
FAUX K: LG makes spectacular OLEDs, but the company continues to market some 2.88K LED-backlit LCD TVs as 4K; specifically, the 6300 and 6500 series. These TVs offer a decent picture with a lot of peak brightness, but put one alongside a true 4K UHD TV and details won’t appear nearly as sharp. These TVs have the exact same number of subpixels as a true 4K UHD TV, but every fourth subpixel is switched to white, which leaves you with 2.88K RGBW pixel groups.
LG markets its 6300 series as 4K UHD TVs. They’re not. You can tell the difference in detail with the bare eye when seen beside a real 4K UHD TV. The 6500 series also suffers from subtractive RGBW. They aren’t bad-looking TVs, but they’re not 4K TVs.
You can read more about the subject in this article. They’re not bad TVs, they just aren’t 4K UHD.
Screen size: 65-inch TVs are the hot commodity these days, but only you know which size TV fits best in your living space. You can save a lot of money—$600 to $900 on a top-of-the-line set—by downsizing and sitting a bit closer. How close? 1.5 times the stated size of the TV is the recommended distance.
HDR: The acronym stands for high dynamic range, and it’s the latest thing in TVs. HDR simply means a larger difference in luminance between the darkest area of an image and the brightest area. It doesn’t sound like much, but a lack of contrast (a comparative washed-out appearance) in LED TVs has long been an issue, especially at the entry level. With HDR, which is created largely by increasing peak brightness significantly, light sabers and flames, highlights in hair, water, and other details really stand out. Trust me. You want it.
Dolby Vision HDR versus standard dynamic range. All HDR will be similar, but only Dolby Vision and the upcoming HDR10+ adjust the TV in real time over the course of the movie.
So far, the TV industry has been scrupulously honest about labeling their TVs for HDR: HDR-compatible in the fine print means the set understands at least some of the HDR formats (HDR10, Dolby Vision, HDR10+, HLG, etc.). If it just says HDR, that means it can actually do something with it. How much it can do depends on the TV.
700 nits peak brightness is about the minimum required to get some decent HDR pop, while 1,000 nits does the trick quite nicely. Vendors don’t really list nits or brightness in meaningful ways, so you’ll need to read reviews in which it’s measured. Non-HDR TVs generally max out in the area of 300 to 400 nits.
HDR format support: One of the most frustrating ironies in the TV industry is that arguably the top player, Samsung, doesn’t support Dolby Vision, while nearly all the other vendors do (although not on every model). All HDR TVs support HDR10 as a baseline, but HDR10 only relays adjustment info to the TV at the beginning of a movie, while Dolby Vision relays it continuously throughout the movie, so each scene can be adjusted independently.
HDR10 looks good. Dolby Vision and the upcoming HDR10+, which does the same thing, look better overall. HDR10+ is Samsung’s baby and its TVs do support it. Hopefully, it will catch on with content providers.
Contrast: Contrast is another way of describing what we were talking about with HDR, it describes a larger luminance gap between the darkest and brightest points in an image. It’s simply the old-fashioned way of describing it. In other words, a high-contrast TV is an HDR TV, although we’ve never heard of one called “high contrast.” I guess the phrase just isn’t sexy enough.
Color: We’ve noticed a definite uptick in color acuity (realism), even in the mid-range of the market, with TVs from TCL and Vizio showing much truer reds and greens (just about any TV will do blue well). Samsung is king of color these days, at least among the TVs we’ve tested. LG is very good and uses quantum dots on some models that we have yet to test.
LED-backlit LCD versus OLED: There’s a luxuriousness to the image that OLED TVs from LG and Sony produce that appeals to many, including me. Because each sub-pixel is its own light source, when a pixel is switched off, you get near perfect black. LED-backlit LCD TVs bleed light in many ways, and even the best can’t match the blacks of OLED. They can, on the other hand, generate much higher peak brightness, which compensates with most material and really makes HDR pop.
The main issue with OLED is its relatively limited lifespan. LG claims 100,000 hours to half brightness for its TVs: That’s where 500 nits becomes 250 nits, and that number of hours is calculated based on the TV displaying standard dynamic range material. HDR content will shorten an OLED’s lifespan considerably. I’m not telling you not to buy OLED, just warning you that will need to replace it sooner than an LED-backlit LCD (all other things being equal) if you watch TV for more than a couple of hours a day.
OLEDs also produce very good color at low to medium brightness—almost as good as quantum dot TVs. All the current big-screen OLED TVs, however, use a four sub-pixel (RGBW) system that includes a white subpixel to increase maximum brightness. When you add white to any color, it becomes paler. Fortunately, this phenomenon is only really noticeable on rare occasions or when using a color meter.
Note: OLED RGBW is is not the subtractive scheme that LG’s 6300- and 6500-series LED-backlit LCD TVs use. A white subpixel is added to the existing red, green, and blue subpixels. OLEDs are true 720P, 1080p, or 4K UHD. Also, OLED TVs use white OLEDs with filters to create red, green, and blue, rather than actual natively emitting RGB OLEDs found in smaller displays.
Use a light source with less than a quantum dot’s specific emitting frequency, and you get a pure color directly related to the size of the quantum dot. A layer of these can increase the color acuity of a TV tremendously.
Quantum dots: Relatively few TVs (some from LG and Vizio, and all of Samsung’s QLEDs) use quantum dots, which are tiny re-emitters that produce nearly pure colors in strict correlation to their size. TVs employing quantum dots easily generate the most accurate colors, so if you want red reds, blue blues, and green greens, you want quantum dots. That said, as mentioned earlier, other technologies are getting closer.
Click here for more definitions, plus links to our most recent smart TV reviews.
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