There’s never been a better time to buy a TV. Yes, we said the same a couple of years ago, but that doesn’t make it any less true The industry has worked nearly all of the bugs out of LCD and OLED TVs, and today’s prices are lower than ever. Or they were until this recent chip shortage took hold.
Regardless, high-end 4K models cost about half of what they did a few years ago, and excellent mid-range models (55- and 65-inch class) are available for much less than $1,000. We’ll give you our top picks, plus an in-depth guide to the specs and features you’ll encounter when you shop.
A different language
The first hurdle to understanding today’s TV market is an alphabet soup of acronyms and phraseology: LED, mini-LED, micro-LED, LCD, HDR, OLED, quantum dots, and more. Manufacturers also like to thicken that literary broth with their own trademarked, mostly nonsensical 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 three things: color, contrast (including the quality of blacks), and brightness. 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. Click here if you’d like to jump straight to a list of our most recent reviews.
Updated September 29, 2021 to add our Sony Bravia Master Series Z9J 8K TV review. This TV delivers a great picture, fabulous 4K upscaling, and best-in-class audio performance; that last bit thanks to Sony’s brilliantly innovative technology that turns the display into a transducer. But we’re scratching our heads over its inability to play back 8K video files, either from USB media or YouTube.
Best LCD TV
Samsung combines a micro-LED backlight with quantum-dot technology to deliver the best LED-backlit LCD TV you can buy. OLED TVs still deliver better blacks, but while this TV isn’t cheap, its price tag is nowhere near what you’d pay for a high-end OLED set. We have a few nits to pick in our review, but this TV is easy to recommend.
No manufacturer does LCD 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
LG no longer makes our favorite OLED TV, Sony has stolen its crown with its Bravia XR Master Series A90J. This smart TV produces an absolutely luscious picture, and it features Sony’s audacious audio system in which the driver units are mounted to the OLED panel itself, turning the entire display into a speaker. The Google TV operating system makes finding great entertainment a snap, and its universal remote is backlit and easy to use, even in the dark. This one will be tough to beat.
Best bang-for-the-buck TV
TCL is rapidly gaining—and deserving—a reputation for building affordable smart TVs that deliver incredible value. It’s 55-inch 6-series is certainly no exception, combining quantum-dot color with mini-LED backlight technology to build a set with great color, brightness, and the Roku TV operating system. We like it a lot.
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 you’ll still find the occasional entry-level models with color and contrast issues. Color and contrast have nonetheless improved drastically in the last few years, and the improvements have trickled down almost to the lowest rung on the ladder. OLED remains at the pinnacle, but remains expensive to manufacture. I’ll talk more about LED versus OLED in a bit.
There’s also a resolution “race” in progress, though it seems to have stalled for the nonce at 8K UHD. Buying a TV with resolution of 7680 x 4320 pixels remains a pricey proposition, and there’s almost no content to take advantage of it. Apart from 4K Blu-ray, most video content is still delivered in 1080p resolution, even though 4K UHD TVs with resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels rule the roost in terms of sales.
The best news, to expand on my previous point, is that top-end technology (quantum dots, mini-LED) has filtered down to the mid-range (defined as $750 to $1,250 for a 65-inch-class set). We haven’t seen one that quite puts it all together yet, but TCL’s 6-series come darn close. Too close, certainly, for the big three (LG, Samsung, and Sony) to remain comfortable.
Even better, nearly all the high-end 4k UHD 65-inch-class TVs that cost $600 to $10,000 or more a few years ago have dropped to below $3,000. Even Samsung’s 8K UHD QN800A-series can be hand for $3,500 (65-inch class). LG’s 8K UHD OLED—the 88-inch-class model OLED88Z9PUA—is something to behold, but it costs $30,000. Ouch. Then again, if your entertainment center is big enough to require an 88- to 120-inch-class television, that price tag might worth the experience.
What to look for (and what to watch out for)
Resolution: While most content remains 1080p or lower resolution, the vast majority of TVs being sold now are 2160p (4K UHD, or 3840 x 2160 pixels). Unless you’re buying something for the workshop or tool shed, go 2160p. 4K streaming is now a thing. It’s heavily compressed, and it may run you over your data cap in short order, but it’s still a consideration.
Good 2160p content looks spectacular, and most 2160p TVs will upscale lower-resolution content quite nicely. Just don’t believe any hokum about making 1080p content look like genuine 4K UHD.
That said, we’ve been incredibly impressed with just how much better both 1080p and 2160p material looks on the latest 8K UHD (7680 x 4320) TVs. More pixels, more processing power.
FAUX K: LG makes spectacular OLEDs, and it seems the company has finally ceased manufacturing the 2.88K LED-backlit LCD TVs it marketed as 4K; specifically, the 6300 and 6500 series. So this is just an FYI in case you see a used or refurbished on for sale: You can avoid it, or you can use that information to haggle for a better price. 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. Personally, I prefer 43-inchers. Go figure.
You can save a lot of money—$600 to $900 on a top-of-the-line set—by downsizing to perhaps 55-inches and sitting a bit closer. How close? 1.5 times the stated size of the TV is the recommended distance.
Note that the number of backlighting zones and other technologies aren’t always exactly the same across all sizes. Read the fine print carefully (if it even exists), as a 55-inch unit might not offer quite the performance of the 65-inch sets companies like to send to reviewers.
HDR: The acronym stands for high dynamic range, and it has become the norm in better 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 significantly increasing peak brightness, light sabers and flames, highlights in hair, water, and other details really stand out. Trust me. You want it.
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.), but likely doesn’t have enough brightness to do anything with it. If it just says HDR, that means it can do something with it.
How much it can do depends on the TV. You need at least 700 nits peak brightness at a minimum to achieve decent HDR pop (e.g., light sabers and flames that stand out), 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 true ironies in the TV industry is that arguably the top player, Samsung, doesn’t support Dolby Vision. Nearly nearly all the other vendors do (although not on every model). All HDR TVs support HDR10 as a baseline, but HDR10 only sends adjustment info to the TV once, at the beginning of a movie. Dolby Vision and HDR10+ relay it continuously throughout the movie, so each scene (each frame, if necessary) can be adjusted independently.
HDR10 looks good. Dolby Vision and HDR10+ look better. HDR10+ is Samsung’s baby and its latest TVs support it. Alas, while many streaming services deliver HDR in HDR10+ (HDR requires very little extra data), it hasn’t caught on with most of the company’s competitors. On the other hand, many sets support the HLG standard that is common in Europe.
Contrast: Contrast is the distance in terms of luminance between the darkest and brightest points in an image. Part of HDR is also increasing contrast. A high-contrast TV is an HDR TV, although we’ve never heard of one called that. It just doesn’t sound sexy, I suppose. Anyway, he higher the contrast, the more subtle detail the TV can deliver.
Color: We’ve noticed a definite uptick in color acuity (realism), even in the middle of the market, with TVs from Hisense, TCL and Vizio showing much truer reds and greens (just about any TV will do blue well). This is largely due to the widespread adoption of quantum dots, but even those without them (Sony’s TVs, in particular) have increased the color acuity of their offeringss.
LED-backlit LCD versus OLED: There’s a luxuriousness to the image that OLED TVs produce that appeals to many, including myself. 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 around and through the LCDs, which are not perfect shutters.
Even the best LED/LCD TVs can’t match the blacks of OLED. (Mini-LED gets closer—see below). On the other hand, they can generate much higher peak brightness, which compensates with most material and really makes HDR pop.
The main drawbacks of OLED as a technology are a relatively limited lifespan, and burn-in; i.e. ghosts of previous images remaining on screen. 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.
With normal use (two hours a day), those drawbacks will never bite you. Or for at least not for a very long time. Using OLEDs for signage, all-day long viewing, or for rendering static images, on the other hand, is not recommended.
Micro-LED (not to be confused with mini-LED backlighting) is a non-organic self-emitter technology that doesn’t suffer any of these issues, but it’s still so expensive as to excuse itself from this conversation.
Caveats and economics aside, OLED remains most users’ choice when simply using their eyes. Puppies on velvet!
Note: OLED uses an extra white subpixel, but its RGBW is is not the subtractive scheme that LG’s 6300- and 6500-series LED-backlit LCD TVs use. Hence, their stated resolution is accurate.
Click here for more definitions, plus links to our most recent smart TV reviews.
This Article was first published by Tech Hive.