Why Buy an LED TV?
The top performers in our review are the Gold Award winning LG EC9300, the Silver Award winning Samsung JU7500, and the Bronze Award winning Samsung JU7100. Here’s more on choosing a TV to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our ranking of the 10 best choices on the market.
Whether you’re after a brand-new viewing experience to jazz up your living room or a top-tier display to dominate your home theater, LED TVs offer the average middle-class family an affordable take on premium quality. They tend to be quite versatile, offering up fluid visuals for sports fans, gorgeous clarity for games and rich colors for movie watching, while still serving up the evening news to a family eating dinner around the coffee table.
If you’re looking for something even more impressive, you can always consider our reviews of Big Screen LED TVs, perfect for home theater aficionados. Most families, however, will be delighted with one of the TVs we’ve compared above. Many are 3D capable and all have cutting-edge smart TV features, putting Netflix and YouTube just a couple clicks of the remote away.
Understanding LED TVs: All About Backlighting
The term “LED TV” has become something of a buzzword among manufacturers, but it’s really just an LCD TV that uses LEDs to light the screen. LEDs tend to be brighter, smaller and more power efficient than older forms of backlighting, but the actual technology that shows colors on the screen – the LCD, or liquid crystal display – hasn’t changed much.
There are two types of LED backlighting arrangements: edge-lit and full-array.
Full-array is what you probably think of when you imagine backlighting: an array of LEDs situated immediately behind the screen, shining through the LCD and out at your eyes. It tends to be more evenly lit than the alternative, though it requires a slightly thicker TV to fit everything. Full-array backlighting is also preferable if a TV supports local dimming, for reasons we explain in the next section.
Edge-lit backlighting mounts the LEDs inside the bezel of the display. Instead of pointing out at you, edge-lit LEDs face inwards, across the plane of the screen. Their light is then reflected off strategically placed mirrors before passing through the LCD crystals. Edge-lit backlighting is usually not as even as full-array backlighting, resulting in patches of the screen that are lighter or darker than their surroundings. They do, however, allow for far thinner screens than full-array displays.
Understanding LED TVs: Local Dimming
There’s one more component of backlighting you should be aware of: local dimming. Certain televisions can turn some of their LEDs on or off, depending on what’s on the screen. If part of a scene is dark and another is bright – say, a black night sky over an illuminated city – the TV can turn off the LEDs behind the sky, making it seem even darker next to the cityscape.
Unfortunately, local dimming is only so powerful. First, there’s not an LED for each pixel. You might have perhaps 200 LEDs in a full-array backlight, or a few dozen in an edge-lit backlight, illuminating a screen with over 8 million pixels. Second, even with comparatively few LEDs, manufacturers group them up into “zones”: blocks of LED lights that turn on and off as a whole.
As a result, even on a full-array backlit LED TV with local dimming, you might have just a couple dozen lighting zones that can turn on or off. If you’re looking at a scene with a bright full moon in an otherwise pitch-black sky, the dimming zone around the moon will be on, while the others will be off. You’ll get a bright moon but also see a halo effect around it. The problem gets even worse if you have an edge-lit TV because zones can only turn off in wide bands that cross the full height of the TV. If the aforementioned moon is on the right side of the screen, everything above or below it will have that halo effect, while everything to the left will be darker.
Local dimming is a great way to get better contrast out of an LED TV, but it’s not ideal. If you want truly perfect blacks, you’ll need to buy an OLED TV.
OLED TVs: Pricey Yet Stunning
In recent years, a couple of the world’s biggest TV manufacturers have begun experimenting with organic LEDs (OLEDs). Unlike regular LED TVs that only use the LEDs to backlight LCD displays, OLED TVs use LEDs as the display itself. These organic LEDs are capable of producing a stunning range of color. Even better, each pixel can turn on and off independently, which means you can get truly perfect blacks – no halo effects from local dimming.
OLED TVs offer perhaps the most impressive television displays we’ve ever seen. They’re also incredibly expensive and surprisingly rare – right now, LG is the only company making them in bulk. We wouldn’t normally compare an OLED TV to a regular LED TV, since the price difference puts them in separate categories. However, LG released a 1080p OLED TV that blew us away visually and is comparably priced with some of the latest LED TVs from other manufacturers. It’s not a 4K screen, true, but that’s not as big of a drawback as you might expect – check out our review of the LG EC9300 to learn why.
Smart TVs: Streaming Content Is the New Normal
A Smart TV is any television with a built-in connection to the internet. They let you download apps like Netflix and YouTube for video streaming, without having to connect a separate set-top box. Once upon a time, you had to look specifically for TVs with smart capabilities; today, every LED TV that comes off the manufacturing line is “smart.” No matter which LED TV you pick from the ones we reviewed, you’ll be able to stream movies, listen to music and even, in some cases, play games.
Of course, each company has its own take on what a smart TV experience should be. They offer different app lineups, varying control schemes and user interfaces that can range from silky-smooth to frustratingly opaque. We found that the best smart TVs offer exceptional control, a wide lineup of apps that cater to all sorts of interests, and connectivity with your smartphone so you can manipulate what’s on the big screen from your small one.
LED TVs: To Curve or Not to Curve?
The other big innovation that manufacturers are pushing right now is curved displays. Made possible thanks to recent advances in LCD technology, curved TVs have concave displays that curve out and around the viewer. They have two primary benefits: immersion and reduced screen glare. The immersion level is purely subjective, and many viewers may find that a curved display is actually less immersive than a flat one because they aren’t used to it. Others, however, enjoy the feeling of being enveloped by their televisions screens.
The reduced glare comes from how light reflects off the TV’s display. Where flat screens can often act like mirrors, bouncing a 1:1-sized blob of light whenever something sufficiently bright passes in front of it, curved screens squeeze the reflection like a skinny mirror at a clothing store. You’re always better off watching TV in a darkened room, but if glare is unavoidable, curved screens can help minimize it.
The downside of curved screens is their reduced viewing angle: If your new TV is going to be watched from either side, those seats will have even worse viewing experiences than they’d get with a flat panel.
LED TVs: Picking Our Lineup
There are countless TVs available, each varying in display technology, screen size, smart TV features and, of course, price. To narrow down the playing field, we focused only on those LED TV series that include 55-inch models, since the industry seems to have settled on 55 inches as a standard size. There are bigger screens available, and smaller ones remain popular for bedrooms and home offices, but 55 inches is a great price-to-performance sweet spot, with a form factor that easily and stylishly fits most homes.
Even among 55-inch TVs, however, there’s plenty of variation, so we set a hard $2,000 limit on the sets we would review. $2,000 probably represents a stretch for many middle-class families, but TVs are big investments that stay in your home for a long time. If our top picks aren’t feasible in your budget, we made sure to include a couple excellent, wallet-friendly alternatives, like the superlative (if feature-light) Vizio M series.
LED TVs: What We Evaluated, What We Found
The single most important attribute of any LED TV, whether it’s 70 inches wide or a mere 30 inches, is picture quality. All sorts of factors contribute to picture quality, including black levels, color gamut, viewing angle and refresh rate. Poor local dimming can make dark scenes feel muted and muddy, while excellent black levels tend to make bright colors pop all the more. We graded each TV series based on the subjective quality of its picture, taking those myriad factors into account. As expected, LG’s OLED TV took the top spot, though it doesn’t have a 4K screen.
1080p displays are still in production, but most manufacturers are focusing on 4K TVs, which offer four times the pixels of their full-HD counterparts. 4K displays are undeniably sharp and offer superb detail, but content creators – TV channels, movie studios and the like – have yet to create a lot of 4K video to watch. Consequently, buying a 4K TV is more an investment in your future viewing experience than a guarantee of quality today. We considered it in our rankings, but not too heavily.
The Best Overall Picture Quality: LG EC9300
If you want the finest possible picture quality out of your new TV, the LG EC9300 is your best bet and our number one overall pick. Its OLED display is capable of producing unmatched blacks and bold colors, without the halo effect from local dimming or the ugly grey that most LED TVs produce when trying to show true black. Granted, it’s only 1080p resolution instead of 4K, and there’s only the one, curved 55-inch model, but if you’re a stickler for picture, there’s no better choice.
The Best 4K LED TV: Samsung JU7500
4K TVs might not be mainstream yet, but they’ll get there soon, so it only pays to be prepared. The Samsung JU7500 is the best 4K LED TV we looked at, hands-down. Even with its edge-lit design, its picture quality is among the best you can get from an LED TV. Its smart TV features are second-to-none, it has all the ports you could ask for, and it’s available in numerous sizes and price points. The only potential downside is the fact that, like the LG EC9300, it has a curved screen. We don’t think this is a deal-breaker, but if it is for you, you’ll love our next pick.
The Best Flat-Screen LED TV: Samsung JU7100
Almost identical to the JU7500, except for the flat screen, Samsung’s JU7100 has the same great smart TV features, the same great connectivity and even comes with slightly more powerful speakers. The picture quality isn’t quite up to par with the JU7500 and it loses a good deal of color when viewed off-angle, but you’ll save yourself a couple hundred dollars off the JU7500’s price.
The Best Budget LED TV: Vizio M
If you don’t care about extra features and just want a great picture for an even better price, the Vizio M series is a go-to pick. Full-array backlighting with 32 different local dimming zones, five HDMI inputs, 4K resolution, tons of size options and superlative customer service all set the Vizio apart. The series’ sound quality is rather tinny, so you’ll definitely want to invest some of the money you’ve saved on the TV into a decent sound bar. And while there are smart TV features to be found, they aren’t great, so we recommend plugging in a separate set-top box.
Buying your family a new TV shouldn’t be a chore. Whether it’s big resolution, bold colors or budget prices, there’s a good choice out there for you. Look over the comparison table above, read through some of our reviews, and if you’re still having trouble, check out some of the articles on LED TVs we’ve put together. You’re sure to find your next television in no time.