Published On: March 3, 2021

HomeTheaterReview’s 4K/Ultra HD TV Buyer’s Guide

Published On: March 3, 2021

HomeTheaterReview’s 4K/Ultra HD TV Buyer’s Guide

Having a hard time picking a new TV from this year's new offerings? John Higgins is here to help you wade through the competition.

At this weird moment in history, most of us are consuming even more media at home than ever before. Although “What TV should I buy?” is an ever-present question for those of us who work in consumer-electronics journalism, we’ve never heard it more than we have this year. And that makes sense. At least for the time being, the home theater or media room has almost completely replaced commercial theaters as the first screen on which many people view new movies. And with HDMI 2.1 starting to permeate the market, a new wave of televisions is hitting store shelves (real and virtual), with a whole host of new features listed in bullet points on the sides of their boxes.

If you’re having trouble sorting through all the acronyms on those lists, we’re here to help. But before we dive into specific model recommendations, it may help to explore the different types of display technologies, how they work, and what they’re good (and not so good) at.

What’s the difference between LCD and OLED?

LCD_under_microscope.jpgLCD: The most ubiquitous TVs today are of the Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) variety. To understand where LCDs get their name, consider that there are multiple layers to a television panel — including polarizing films, electrodes, reflective surfaces, glass, color filters, diffusers, and so on. In the case of LCDs, there’s a layer of liquid crystals, which control how much light generated by a backlight (almost always LED these days) reaches our eyes. When a variable voltage is sent through the liquid crystals, they change position to allow the light to pass through, hit a color filter, and generate the colors you see.

The major problem with LCD is that all those liquid crystals can’t block every bit of light coming from the backlight, so black levels and contrast ratios suffer. Manufacturers have combatted this by using full-array local dimming (FALD), which separates the backlight into numerous zones, allowing for a finer control of backlight intensity at different points in the image. This has led to a substantial improvement in contrast levels over the years, but LCD is never going to deliver perfect black levels or contrasts.

Less-expensive LCD TVs cut costs by relying on edge-lit local dimming instead of a full array of lights behind the screen. As you can imagine, though, since the dimming lights are only along the sides of the screen, this approach isn’t as successful as FALD in ensuring that any particular spot on the screen is as dark (or as bright) as it optimally should be.

Contrasts and black levels can also be affected by the type of LCD panel used. For TVs, the primary panel types are vertical alignment (VA) and in-plane switching (IPS), or some variant of IPS. You might also have heard of twisted nematic (TN) panels, which are used mainly for computer monitors because they’re cheap and response time is lightning fast, but their color reproduction is awful and viewing angles are terribly narrow.

Although their viewing angles aren’t as wide as IPS panels, VA panels provide the best contrast for LCD displays. In fact, IPS panels can be subject to what’s referred to as “IPS glow,” where light blooms from the corners of the TV and adversely affects black screen uniformity. Because of this, the majority of LCD TVs use VA panels, especially at higher prices.

One of the big benefits of LCD TVs is that they’re extremely energy efficient and, in general, will be less of a power hog than an OLED. The light output of LED-backlit LCDs is also higher than comparably-priced OLEDs, which is becoming more important with the prominence of Hight Dynamic Range (HDR).

Quantum_Dots_with_emission_maxima_in_a_10-nm_step_are_being_produced_at_PlasmaChem_in_a_kg_scale.jpgMany LCD TVs also get a boost in light output from something called quantum dot or quantum film technology. Pretty much every LCD manufacturer has, or likely will soon, include their version of this nanoscale semiconductor technology. Many manufacturers use “Quantum” somewhere in the name or marketing — including Vizio and Hisense — but you also will see similar technology referred to as “QLED” by Samsung and TCL, “Triluminos” by Sony, and “NanoCell” by LG. The technology was at first offered only on the pricier LCD TVs from most manufacturers, but it’s starting to make its way to lower-priced models such as Vizio’s M-series, which starts at $400, and Konka, which is entering the US market with a $370 50-inch quantum-dot display.

But what exactly is quantum dot technology, or QLED, or whatever you want to call it? In short, a layer of nanocrystals added to the panel during the manufacturing process. The particles on this layer range in size from two to ten nanometers and are photo-emissive, so when they’re hit by the photons from the LED backlight, they emit a specific wavelength of light that is dependent on their size (smaller tend towards green while larger tend towards red). The quantum dots improve the brightness of the display, increase the possible color gamut, and retain color accuracy as the image gets brighter.

LG_OLED_slim.jpgOLED: The undisputed technology king of contrast ratio and black levels for TVs is organic light-emitting diode (OLED). Unlike an LCD, which requires a backlight, OLEDs emit their own light when hit with an electrical current. When they’re not receiving an electrical current, they emit absolutely no light whatsoever. Since each pixel can be individually controlled, only the part of the image that needs light produces it.

The incredible black levels and contrast ratios of OLED TVs result in a more three-dimensional appearing image. Among other OLED TV benefits, they can be very thin, since no space is needed for a backlight, and there’s no perceivable color shift or loss of brightness when sitting at relatively extreme viewing angles.

OLEDs, however, are not yet able to match the light output you can get from an LCD television. The maximum brightness you’ll get from the brightest OLED is around 800 nits (and that peak brightness diminishes the closer you get to a 100-percent white screen), while the brightest LCDs can exceed 1,600 nits peak brightness. But while that means some HDR highlights might not pop as much on an OLED as they would on an LCD, the overall visual impact of the image is greater on an OLED due to the deeper blacks.

As an OLED reaches full brightness, there’s also the chance that it will lose color accuracy, although that can usually be handled by a decent calibration. An interesting development is that we may soon see OLED displays that incorporate quantum dots (Samsung is reportedly hoping to release this hybrid technology next year), which could mean an increase in brightness and wider color gamut for OLEDs.

If you’ve looked into buying an OLED TV, you’ve almost certainly heard about the dangers of burn-in. While I won’t dispute the possibility, the chance of it happening is relatively small, especially on modern OLED displays. It would likely take many hours a day for many days in a row of watching a picture with static images (such as news channels that have ticker scrolls) for the panel to have any significant image retention. Still, the possibility is still there, no matter how remote.

The most significant drawback of OLEDs, though, is cost. The least expense OLED TV this year is LG’s 55-inch BX for $1,400. Prices have been dropping across the board each year, but you’re still looking at a premium of at least $500 over a roughly comparable LCD TV. This might partially be the result of exclusivity: Until this year, only two manufacturers offered OLED TVs in the U.S. But this fall, Vizio is releasing its first OLED, and it was reported at CES 2020 that both Konka and Skyworth will also be joining the fray.

What features should I look for in a new TV?

1080vs4Kvs8K.jpgResolution: Just as we’ve all started to get comfortable with UHD (or 4K) TVs, the consumer electronics industry is shaking things up again by introducing 8K-capable displays at the higher end of the market. But unless you have an absolute need to be on the bleeding edge of technology (and unless you spend your evenings swimming through your vault full of gold coins), there’s no good reason to get one yet.

In order to actually see the increased resolution of 8K, you’d need to either sit ridiculously close to your screen or have a really big screen (e.g., no more than 3.5 feet away from a 55-inch TV or 5.5 feet away from an 85-incher). Then there’s the fact that there’s almost no 8K content available to watch. There have been a few movies filmed in 8K (and I do mean a few) and some sports content, but we are still years away from a steady flow of 8K content.

“But next-gen consoles!” I hear you cry from our comments section. “Sony and Microsoft say they can output 8K!” First, thank you for not typing in all caps. Second, yes that’s true, but the likelihood of seeing any appreciable number of games rendered in actual 8K resolution anytime soon is incredibly small. More likely, any content you have will be upconverted to 8K.

There are other 8K considerations (HDMI cables, internet speeds), but I’ve already said more about resolution than really needs to be said. 4K is great. Wait for 8K.

SDR_vs_HDR_Sony.jpgHDR: There are currently five types of high dynamic range (HDR): HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, HLG, and Advanced HDR. HDR10 is the most ubiquitous of these, and the most widely supported. HDR10+ and Dolby Vision differ from HDR10 primarily in the fact that they rely on dynamic rather than static metadata. To understand what this means, consider that most HDR content available today is mastered to standards far beyond the capabilities of today’s displays. The metadata included with HDR video allows the display to know what the peak brightness and chromaticity of a given video are, so that it can tonemap the video to match the capabilities of the display. Static metadata provides only the minimum, maximum, and average brightness for an entire film. Dynamic metadata, on the other hand, delivers this information on a scene-by-scene or even frame-by-frame basis, which enables the display to deliver a more precise tonemap from moment to moment.

HLG, aka Hybrid Log Gamma, was developed by the BBC in Britain and NHK in Japan. It can be interpreted by SDR displays as an SDR signal, and by HDR displays (that accept HLG) as an HDR signal. Its primary application is in television broadcasts, and we’ll likely be seeing it applied in that capacity more often over the next few years.

Advanced HDR was developed by Technicolor and is actually comprised of three different HDR standards: SL-HDR1, SL-HDR2, and SL-HDR3. As of now, there’s no Advanced HDR content, and LG recently pulled its support of the format, so it may soon become a casualty of the HDR wars. There’s a chance the HDR10+ will be the next casualty now that 20th Century Studios abandoned it in favor Dolby Vision. For now, though, it still is used by some streaming providers, such as Amazon Prime Video.

UltraHighSpeedHdmiCableWithLabel.jpgHDMI 2.1: Enthusiasts have been eagerly awaiting this new HDMI spec, and some of its features, such as eARC, have been appearing on consumer electronics devices for a while now. But the biggest change from HDMI 2.0 isn’t features, but bandwidth. The former is capped at 18Gbps, which has been fine up until now for 4K signals at 60Hz. HDMI 2.1, however, provides up to 48 Gbps, which will support resolutions up to 10K with a refresh rate of up to 120Hz. You can read more about HDMI 2.1 here.

Obviously 10K resolution won’t be a concern for quite a few years (considering 8K isn’t yet worth our time and 4K is still really hitting its stride), but that boost in refresh rate is huge, especially for gamers. Next-gen consoles will have an HDMI 2.1 connection and support 4K at 120Hz, so if you’re planning to buy a PS5 or Xbox Series X, finding a TV with 4K 120Hz support should be high on your priority list.

Other Gaming Considerations: There are a few other features that are of utmost importance to gamers, either for better performance or better quality of life. Input lag measures, in milliseconds, how quickly a button press on a controller translates to an onscreen action. Ideally this number will be in the mid-teens or lower. When it starts climbing above 30ms, some gamers will feel the lag. In order to get low input lag numbers, most televisions include a specific Game Mode.

Some TVs have an auto low latency mode (ALLM) that will switch the settings to the best gaming setup the TV can provide when it senses a signal from a video game. It’s a nice bonus to not have to worry about finding the TV remote to enable gaming mode or switch to a game picture mode.

Another big gaming-centric feature is Variable Refresh Rate, which locks the refresh rate of a game to the display to avoid any screen tearing. Tearing occurs when the TV receives the next frame of video while it’s still flashing the previous frame, causing moving parts of the screen to have jagged edges and look torn apart.

Enough with the tech lessons! Which TV should I buy?

The Best TVs for dark media rooms and home theaters:

If you have the ability to control the light in your viewing room, then you’ll want a television that has the deepest black level you can get. If you’ve read all of the above, you’ll already know that that’s an OLED. And the overall best out there right now is the CX series from LG.

It looks the same as last year’s excellent C9 series, but LG has added a 48-inch size to their 55-, 65-, and 75-inch offerings, so you’ll be able to find the right size for your room. The CX comes with the new Filmmaker Mode, developed by the UHD Alliance, which disables post-processing on the TV and displays the movie or TV show as intended by the creator. All CX models also have HDMI 2.1, a native 120Hz panel, and support 4K/120, which should also make them appealing to gamers.

If you’re not dead-set on buying a new TV immediately, you should also keep an eye out for the new Vizio OLED coming soon. Pricing is a couple hundred dollars less than the CX series (comparable to LG’s BX series), and Vizio’s OLED may very well stand up to LG in terms of performance.

Best TVs for brighter rooms:

If your room has a lot of ambient light, or if you aren’t able to suitably control the light level, then you’ll need something bright to combat it. For such rooms, we really love the Hisense H9G (review coming soon). It has significant light output that will overcome ambient light and glare, making it a great choice for daytime viewing. Viewing angle performance leaves a bit to be desired (it is a VA panel, after all), and out-of-the-box color accuracy isn’t the greatest, so for top performance you’ll want to get it calibrated. But it’s also just under $1,000 for a 65-inch TV, making it a great value.

If you want something with better color accuracy out of the box (much better, actually), look to Vizio. Its P-Series Quantum X from last year (reviewed here) is an absolute light cannon, and I have every expectation that this year’s update will be, as well. The 65-inch 2020 model is also listed at $1,500, a cool $700 less than the version Andrew Robinson reviewed last year.

The Best TVs for gaming:

This might sound familiar. The LG CX series is an excellent choice for gaming. It has HDMI 2.1, a native 120Hz panel, enough bandwidth to support 4K/120 from next-gen consoles, as well as VRR support, Auto Low-Latency Mode, and exceedingly low input lag in game mode. Add to that top-notch black levels, contrasts, and color, and your games will look incredible.

But if you aren’t up for spending $2,300 for a 65-inch LG CX, you could spend about half that for a 65-inch Sony X900H. It touts many of the same gaming features as the LG CX, or at least it will with an expected firmware update later this year (hopefully in time for next-gen console release).

A great 4K HDR TV for budget shoppers or first-time 4K buyers:

If you’re just looking for a solid, all-purpose UHD/HDR TV and the aforementioned prices are daunting, the TCL 5-series offers decent performance for a bargain price. The $629.99 65-inch TCL 65S535 is a QLED set (so it has quantum dot technology for better brightness and color gamut coverage), and has some features you’ll find on higher-end sets, like ALLM for gaming, eARC, Dolby Vision support, and full-array local dimming. It also uses the Roku smart TV platform, which has been a favorite around these parts for a while now. Of course, you won’t be getting the performance of displays costing two, three, or four times as much, but if you’re upgrading from HD for the first time, prepare to be pleasantly surprised by the picture from this little overperformer.

The best TVs for big families (or watch-parties with your friends):

When it’s less risky to have big groups of people over again, it’s going to be important to have a television that gives good performance no matter where you sit. As mentioned above, one of the drawbacks of LCD TVs (especially those with VA panels) is mediocre viewing angles. Colors get screwy and the image gets more washed out as brightness suffers. So, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, look for an OLED if you expect to have your media room full of viewers. The LG CX will accommodate a group sitting all around the room and still give excellent performance for all. If you want to trim a couple hundred bucks off the price, the BX series gives similar performance, although with somewhat lower peak-brightness levels.

Our favorite TV overall:

You probably could have guessed this from reading all of the above, but my all-around favorite TV for 2020 (so far, at least) is the LG CX. There are some pricier OLEDs, such as LG’s ZX series or Sony’s MASTER Series, and these do offer a bit of a performance bump compared with the CX, but I don’t think it’s commensurate with the price increase. The CX series is also available in a wide range of sizes, from 48 inches up to 77 inches, making it easy to find the right display for your room and your preferred seating distance. Simply put, the CX has everything you could reasonably ask for in a TV right now, except for eye-reactive brightness levels. So, unless you watch movies and TV in a brightly lit room, it’s the TV to beat for now.

Additional Resources
Read HomeTheaterReview’s AV Receiver Buyer’s Guide
If you want more in-depth coverage of individual products, visit our TV category page.

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