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Why Buy an LED TV?
The top performers in our review are the LG OLED55E6P, the Gold Award winner; LG OLED55B6P, the Silver Award winner; and Samsung KS9000, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a TV to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 TVs.
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 an affordable take on premium quality. They tend to be quite versatile, displaying fluid visuals for sports fans, gorgeous clarity for gamers and rich colors for movie lovers, 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' in this lineup. 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 energy 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 display and out at your eyes. It tends to be more evenly lit than edge-lit options, 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 along the edge of the screen. Instead of pointing out at you, edge-lit LEDs face inward, across the plane of the screen. Their light is then reflected off strategically placed mirrors before passing through the crystals. Edge-lit backlighting usually doesn't look 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.
OLED Vs. Quantum Dot Technology
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 colors. Even better, each pixel can turn on and off independently, which means you can get truly perfect blacks – no halo effects from local dimming. LG is currently one of the few manufacturers that make OLED TVs in bulk.
Quantum dot is the newest display technology, primarily found in Samsung TVs. Quantum dot TVs, unlike LEDs, use tiny nanocrystals to produce color. The nanocrystals measure anywhere from 2 to 10 nanometers in diameter. To give you an idea of how tiny that is, a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Each nanocrystal produces just a single color. Smaller dots produce blue light while larger dots produce red light. With this technology, TVs don't need white LED backlights to produce the light spectrum. By eliminating white backlighting, the display produces more saturated colors and a higher peak brightness.
Both display technologies offer stunning color saturation, deep blacks, accurate colors and dynamic displays. Soon enough, these technologies will be the standard in all televisions, but since these are so new, they are pricier options.
Smart TVs: Streaming Content Is the New Normal
Smart TVs have a built-in connection to the internet. They let you download apps 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 right from the smart interface. All of the TVs in our lineup come with Netflix and YouTube applications, and many more streaming apps are available for download.
Of course, each company has its own take on what a smart TV experience should be. They offer different app lineups, various 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 television 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 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: Sound Quality
Even though display technology has improved with TVs over time, one thing remains the same – sound quality is still poor. The real problem is that there isn't enough room inside of a slim TV for speakers large enough to produce decent sound quality. If you choose to buy one of the TVs in our comparison, we highly recommend pairing it with a sound bar. Sound bars are a great way to bring the sound quality up to par with the amazing displays of LED TVs.
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 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 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 decent 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.
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 $4,000 limit on the sets we would review. TVs are big investments that stay in your home for several years. In case our top picks aren't feasible for your budget, we made sure to include a couple excellent, wallet-friendly alternatives like the TCL 55US5800. All of the 4K TVs we tested feature 4K resolution. Since this is essentially the market standard, we did not review any TV with less than 4K resolution. We also didn't review any curved televisions for this review. All of the TVs above are flat panel screens.
LED TVs: What We Tested, What We Found
Watching the same 15-minute clips from the same four movies on 10 different TVs does two things: It embeds all of the movie's lines in your head until the end of time, but it also gives you a great idea which 4K sets have the best overall picture. This was not typical viewing either – we watched the sets from straight ahead, off axis (left and right of center), and with the lights on and off to help determine the best picture quality. We also dialed up ultra HD movies such as "Skyfall" and "The Martian" as well as 4K media from our 4K Sony Media Player to really push the TV sets to the limits with fast-moving, highly saturated images. The abundance of content as well as the variety of media gave us a wide enough variety to make our picture quality judgments with confidence.
Pushing our image quality testing further, we used Calman software combined with our sensor and test pattern generator to determine which TVs have the best contrast ratio and most accurate color representation. It wasn't a surprise that the Calman data backed up what we saw on the screens.
Currently, you won't find better picture quality on the market than the LG OLED TVs. Both the LG OLED55E6P and the LG OLED55B6P have incredible picture quality. The contrast ratio and color saturation on these TVs is unmatched.
Not far behind the LG OLEDs are the Samsung KS series TVs. Sporting quantum dot technology, the Samsung models sport color saturation almost as impressive as the LG screens. Both Samsung and LG are pushing the envelope and are the frontrunners for overall TV picture quality.
We also evaluated the user interface on each 4K TV set. Since all of the TVs have their own smart platform that features streaming apps, you'll more than likely be spending plenty of time within the interface. We determined our grade based on the web browser's usability, the organization of the interface and the number of easily adjustable settings.
Finally, we evaluated each remote to determine which are the most handy and comfortable. The remotes we evaluated on size, feel, buttons (amount and feel), voice control and if gesture control is available.
LED TVs: What Else Is Important
Connectivity is obviously secondary to the importance of the display quality, but finding a TV with enough ports to fill all of your connectivity needs is important.
HDMI is the way that most devices such as AV receivers and gaming consoles connect to your TV. We think a TV with at least three HDMI inputs is ideal. Fewer than that will leave some of your devices unconnected – nobody wants to have to reach behind their TV and connect and disconnect HDMI plugs every time they want to use a certain HD device. The more HDMI inputs your TV has, the better off you'll be.
All of the TVs we reviewed feature optical ports to connect audio devices like sound bars to improve the audio quality of your TV. They also included composite/component in – the red, white and yellow audio/video cables – so you can connect older devices to your new 4K TV.
LED TVs: Verdict and Recommendations
After many hours of testing and evaluation, it was clear that the LG OLED55E6P is our Top Ten Reviews Gold Award winner. The LG 4K TV displays a fantastic picture that is bright, vivid, smooth and crystal clear. The picture is so lifelike it is almost like looking through a window. The picture from LG's OLED displays currently can't be matched. Beyond the outstanding picture quality, this 4K TV also boasts 3D capabilities and comes with 3D glasses. And even though sound quality is never amazing on TVs, this unit features forward-facing speakers at the bottom of the TV, which helps push the sound toward the viewer and makes it seem louder and more prominent. The LG E6 is outright the best in our comparison.
The LG OLED55B6P earns our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award. As far as picture quality goes, it is completely on par with the higher-priced LG E6. It doesn't feature 3D capabilities like the E6, but it does have a more comfortable remote to use. If you don't care about 3D, the B6 OLED is a little less pricey and still boasts the same incredible picture quality.
The Samsung KS9000 is our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award winner. Samsung's quantum dot technology is not far behind LG in terms of picture quality. The color saturation and accuracy make the picture vivid and life-like. The contrast ratio is better on the LGs and makes the picture more eye popping than the Samsung, but the Samsung also costs less and makes a great alternative to the LG models without compromising much in picture quality.
Our budget pick is the TCL 55US5800. When you watch the TV by itself, it looks great. Standing next to the others – that's when the flaws become noticeable. While it doesn't boast the color clarity or saturation as the better sets, it is still a 4K TV and the Roku interface is incredibly easy to use. The TCL is a good choice if you don't want to spend too much for a 4K TV.