The holiday shopping season is almost upon us, and the CEA is predicting another big sales year for the consumer electronics industry, estimating $33.76 billion (yes, billion) in holiday tech spending. Granted, that estimate covers the entire CE realm (including phones, tablets, computers, headphones, and a myriad other gadgets), but we expect at least some of that money to land in home theater categories like HDTVs, speakers, and receivers. As both gifter and giftee begin to assemble their lists, now is a good time to get people up to speed on what's available in the major HT product categories, starting with flat-panel HDTVs.
Few things are more intimidating than staring at that wall of TVs at Best Buy and trying to figure out which one to pick. You can navigate to the Televisions & Video section at Amazon, but where do you go from there? How do you begin to narrow down the list? You can pay a visit to your local specialty store to get advice from a trained salesman; but even then, it doesn't hurt to be armed with a basic understanding of what's going on in the category. That's where we come in. Below is a breakdown of what you can expect to find in HDTVs at the entry-, mid-, and top-level price points, as well as things we think you should look for. You decide how much you're willing/able to spend, and this guide can provide insight into what that money should get you. We also offer a few examples of good-performing products in each range. Since we are a home-theater-oriented publication, our focus is on larger TV screen sizes, so all of our examples will have a screen size of 55 inches or larger.
In the entry-level price realm, the majority of HDTVs will be LED/LCDs, although a few budget plasma TVs are still available (but not for long). The traditional bulb-based LCD is disappearing fast, and you likely won't find many of them at the larger screen sizes, where LED lighting systems reign supreme. You can also expect larger-screen budget TVs to have a 1080p resolution, while 720p is relegated to smaller screen sizes.
These lower-priced LED/LCDs generally come in two varieties: Direct LED and Edge LED. Direct LED puts a grid of LEDs behind the screen, while Edge LED puts the lights around the screen's edge. While Edge LED allows for a slimmer, lighter cabinet design and better energy efficiency, these TVs can often suffer from screen uniformity problems (where some parts of the screen, like corners and edges, are clearly brighter than others, which is especially evident with dark content). The TV needs some type of local/frame dimming to minimize this problem, and you seldom find that in the entry-level category. An Edge LED system is fine if you're going to primarily use the TV for brighter HDTV, sports, and gaming content, but I'd recommend Direct LED for those who plan to do more movie-watching on their budget TV. A Direct LED TV may not be quite as bright, and the TV cabinet will be a little thicker and heavier, but usually you get better screen uniformity for dark-room viewing. Vizio has shaken up the entire TV category by using full-array LED backlighting (which is a form of Direct LED that uses more LEDs in the grid for better, more even light output) with local dimming in all of its 2014 TVs, even the budget E Series.
Most entry-level LCD TVs these days also list a 120Hz refresh rate to help reduce motion blur, which is a common LCD issue. The trouble is, some of these TVs don't have true 120Hz rate; instead, they use backlight scanning/flashing to simulate 120Hz, but it's not quite as effective as true 120Hz. Many people (myself included) aren't that sensitive to motion blur; but, if you're shopping for someone who is, then you want to look for a budget TV with a true 120Hz rate (or better). You can sometimes spot the "faux" version because the manufacturer won't specifically say 120Hz in their literature; instead they'll use a term like "CM120."
In the features department, most entry-level TVs won't have things like voice/motion control and RF/Bluetooth remotes, but many of them do include a Smart TV platform. Big-name manufacturers like Samsung, Vizio, LG, Panasonic, and Sony will often put their full Smart TV package in their lower-priced TVs, while some of the more aggressively budget-priced TVs from JVC, TCL, and Hisense will include a Roku Stick in the package for Web services. If you already own a streaming media player like a Roku box, Amazon Fire TV, or Apple TV or a Blu-ray player with integrated Smart TV service, then you might be able to save a few more bucks by omitting the Smart TV package within the TV. If you do get a Smart TV and don't want to run wire, make sure your selection has built-in WiFi.
Support for 3D is not a given at the lower price point, but you can find it in many models.
Here are a few examples of positively reviewed TVs in the entry-level category: JVC EM55FTR LED/LCD TV ($749.99), Vizio E550i-B2 LED/LCD TV ($649.99), Samsung PN60F5300 Plasma HDTV ($799.99), Panasonic TC-55AS680U LED/LCD TV ($799.99).
Many HDTVs look great in a bright room with bright content, but the better TVs should also look good with movies in a dark room. That's where black-level performance and screen uniformity become important. To get the best black-level performance and uniformity for the best price, you could try to snatch up a plasma TV like Samsung's F8500 Series, which can still be found at discounted prices through limited outlets.
For those who want to remain in the LED/LCD realm, the better models will have a full-array LED backlighting system with local dimming to more precisely adjust black level around the screen. The more zones of dimming the TV has, the better. For instance, Vizio's step-up M Series has up to 36 zones of dimming, versus the 18 zones in the budget E Series. Unfortunately, many manufacturers do not tell you exactly how many zones their TVs use. If the TV is an Edge LED, make sure it has local or frame dimming to help improve black level and minimize screen uniformity problems. At the higher price points, I would never recommend an edge-lit LED/LCD that lacks some type of dimming control.
Higher-priced LED/LCD TVs should have a 240Hz (or better) refresh rate. Pretty much all of these TVs will have "smooth modes" that reduce film judder and produce very smooth motion with film sources. Some people love this effect; others (like me) hate it. If you hate it, then you'll want to look for a TV that has 240Hz modes that do use it. Samsung, LG, and Sony let you enable blur reduction without smoothing, while Vizio and Panasonic use some degree of smoothing in all of their blur-reduction modes.
Many step-up TVs will include more advanced, more precise picture adjustments to fine-tune the image, and many will include ISF picture modes that, once calibrated by a professional installer, can be locked to prevent people in the house from accidentally erasing the settings. If your resident videophile already has a TV they love, consider giving them an ISF calibration as a gift, which runs a couple hundred dollars.
At this price level, 3D capability is usually a given (except for Vizio, which isn't offering 3D in any of its TVs this year), and the inclusion of a Smart TV platform is also expected. It's common to find features like built-in WiFi, Web browsing, better remote controls, and the ability to connect mobile devices via wired MHL and/or via wireless screen mirroring.
Here are a few examples of positively reviewed TVs in the mid-level price category: Samsung PN60F8500 Plasma ($1,499.99 at Best Buy), Vizio M602i-B3 LED/LCD ($1,249.99), LG 60LB7100 LED/LCD ($1,279.99), Sony KDL-55W950B LED/LCD ($1,499.99) or KDL-60W850B LED/LCD ($1,499.99).
The future of videophile-quality TV performance could lie with OLED, and there are some OLED TV options available now from Samsung and, even more so, LG. Samsung's KN55S9C that I reviewed at the start of this year offered the best picture quality I've seen to date. However, all of these OLED TVs except one (the LG 55EA8800) are curved, and they carry a premium price tag that suits them only for the most hardcore (and financially secure) videophile. The first-gen OLED TVs had a 1080p resolution, but LG recently introduced its first Ultra HD OLED, the 65EC9700.
Speaking of Ultra HD, the highest-priced LED/LCD models in a manufacturer's line will usually have a 4K Ultra HD resolution. These TVs will most always be loaded with all of the top-shelf features that the company has to offer in terms of Smart TV, 3D, and connectivity. As with the higher-end 1080p models in the "Better" section, if you're going to pay a premium for these displays, we recommend you look for full-array LED backlighting with local dimming, to get the best possible black-level performance. An edge-lit LED/LCD with very good local dimming might suffice, if you want to save some money. Also, when shopping for Ultra HD, look for the three Hs: HDMI 2.0 inputs, HDCP 2.2 copy protection, and HEVC decoding to receive streamed HD content from Netflix and other VOD services.
Native UHD content is sparse right now. Beyond 4K streaming services, Sony's FMP-X10 4K media server is your best bet for getting the most UHD movie content from the company's 4K Video Unlimited download service. Currently the FMP-X10 is only compatible with Sony UHD TVs, but the company has said it will soon open up the device's compatibility to work with other manufacturers' TVs. Samsung sells a UHD Video Pack in the form of a USB dongle that is preloaded with a few UHD movies and only works with Samsung TVs. We are close to an official 4K Blu-ray standard and hope to see 4K Blu-ray products by the end of next year. Be aware that these current UHD TVs may not be capable of rendering the wider color gamut and higher bit depth that are possible in that standard.
Here are a few examples of positively reviewed TVs in the high-end price category: Sony XBR-65X950B UHD LED/LCD ($6,999.99) or XBR-65X900B UHD LED/LCD ($3,799.99), LG 65EC9700 UHD OLED ($11,999.99) or 55EC9300 1080p OLED ($3,999.99), Samsung KN55S9C 1080p OLED ($9,999.99) or UN65HU8550 UHD LED/LCD ($2,999.99). Panasonic's full-array TC-65AX900U UHD LED/LCD looks promising, but it's not yet available as I write this, nor has official pricing been announced.
• Four Reasons Why Ultra HD Is Becoming More Relevant to Consumers at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Has the Curved Screen Killed OLED? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• How to Choose the Right LCD TV at HomeTheaterReview.com.