OLED vs. LED TVs: Thanks to HDR, the gap is closing

65 in.

An OLED TV has won the Shootout three years running—here's why.

Credit: Reviewed.com / Lee Neikirk
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For the last few years, OLED TVs have been the best in the business, receiving rave reviews and high praise from consumers and reviewers alike. But with HDR—also known as High Dynamic Range—now entering the market, traditional LED TVs are benefiting from supercharged performance that threatens OLED's reign at the top.

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How do I know? I recently got the chance to be a guest presenter at the 12th annual "Value Electronics TV Shootout." There we put four of the top TVs on the market through a punishing series of tests in front of an unflinching panel of experts with the goal of crowning one winner.

This year, the HDR-compatible LG G6 series won pretty handily, with its OLED panel taking the top spot in almost every category. But while that would seem to suggest that OLED dominated the proceedings, with HDR content the gap was closer than it's ever been.

The Competitors

This year's shootout put four flagship TVs from LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio head-to-head. Robert also set up his old Kuro Elite—regarded by many videophiles as the best consumer television ever produced—as a reference screen, as well as a way to show off just how far TV tech has come with regard to new High Dynamic Range standards.


LG OLED65G6P

LG's 4K OLED flagship won the event this year. In fact, an LG OLED has been crowned king of the shootout for the last three years, much to the chagrin of LED/LCD TV lovers everywhere. The G6 meets HDR requirements for contrast, wide color space, color gradation, and (of course) resolution. It's also an aesthetically beautiful display with built-in audio enhancements—but none of that was considered during the shootout.

Key Specs

• Contrast meets UHD Alliance "Premium Certification"
• Color saturation: ~99% of DCI-P3 color gamut
• Colorimetry: 10-bit
• Resolution: 4K (3,840 x 2,160)
• HDR10 & Dolby Vision compatible
• MSRP: $7,999 (65-inch), $24,999 (77-inch)

Read our review of LG's G6 series


Samsung UN78KS9800

Samsung's KS9800 flagship is the company's answer to the call for premium HDR TVs. We're recently reviewed the 65-inch version and were very impressed. The 78-inch KS9800 on display during the shootout was a staunch performer in terms of luminance output and color representation, and is actually the current reference display for calibration enthusiasts mastering an HDR10 calibration workflow. Try not to worry too much about the curve—it also wasn't considered during the shootout.

Key Specs

• Contrast meets UHD Alliance "Premium Certification"
• Color saturation: ~95% of DCI-P3 color gamut
• Colorimetry: 10-bit
• Resolution: 4K (3,840 x 2,160)
• HDR10 compatible
• MSRP: $4,499 (65-inch), $9,999 (78-inch), $19,999 (88-inch)

Read our review of Samsung's KS9800 series


Sony XBR-75X940D

We haven't reviewed Sony's X940D flagship yet, but as an HDR-set with expanded color, full-array local dimming, and 4K resolution, it's right at home with the other flagship TVs. The X940D series is available only in a massive 75-inch size, for $7,999. Sony's flagship series technically also extends to the X930D series, which we reviewed earlier this year. However, the X930D TVs use edge-lighting, giving the X940D a serious picture quality advantage by comparison.

Key Specs

• Contrast meets UHD Alliance "Premium Certification"
• Color saturation: 90%+ of DCI-P3 color gamut
• Colorimetry: 10-bit
• Resolution: 4K (3,840 x 2,160)
• HDR10 compatible
• MSRP: $7,999 (75-inch)

Read our review of a related model, Sony's X930D series


Vizio Reference Series

Vizio's Reference Series is a bit different than the other three TVs in the shootout, mainly because it's compatible with the Dolby Vision brand of High Dynamic Range rather than the open HDR10 standard, though Vizio claims that a compatibility upgrade is incoming. However, on all other fronts it holds its own. The 65-inch Reference Series boasts multiple full-array local dimming zones, expanded color, 10-bit processing, and 4K resolution. For the price, it also includes a soundbar, subwoofer, and satellite speakers.

Key Specs

• First Dolby Vision certified TV
• Color saturation: 90%+ of DCI-P3 color gamut
• Colorimetry: 10-bit
• Resolution: 4K (3,840 x 2,160)
• Dolby Vision compatible, HDR10 planned
• MSRP: $5,999 (65-inch), $129,999 (120-inch)

Read our review of the Vizio Reference Series

The Showdown

The 2016 TV Shootout is more than just a comparison of pricy screens; it's a window into what exactly separates the top TVs from the competition. Headed by Joel Silver, president of the Imaging Science Foundation, the bulk of the shootout consisted of a bunch of panel experts digging into the science of light and color.

Audience members were essentially given a crash course on what a perfect TV should look like, and immediately asked to evaluate the TVs based on things like legal light levels for brightness and contrast, x/y color accuracy (color tuning/decoding), geometry (resolution bit-mapping), and hyper-geeky light functionality parameters like the Planckian locus. It's a tall order.

TV-Lineup-1
Credit: Reviewed.com / Lee Neikirk
The lineup, from left to right: Pioneer Kuro KRP-500M, LG OLED65G6P, Samsung UN78KS9800, Sony XBR-75X940D, Vizio RS65-B2

The shootout itself was extensive, but straightforward. The four TVs (as well as the Kuro Elite) were all given a professional calibration prior to evaluation and place side-by-side. After being taught what they should look for, the panelists were asked to go up and look at each TV in turn, evaluating comparable qualities like color accuracy and gradation.

For what it's worth, none of the TVs in the shootout had trouble with the basics—and they shouldn't. As an industry, TV manufacturers have gotten to the point where hitting the pre-HDR requirements—now sometimes called Standard Dynamic Range, or more technically ITU Rec.709—is a walk in the park. Considering each TV at the shootout costs multiple thousands of dollars, it would frankly be embarrassing if they didn't meet those requirements.

For what it's worth, none of the TVs in the shootout had trouble with the basics—and they shouldn't. Tweet It

As a result, there were some basic categories of performance where it was basically a wash between all the competitors. Things like color accuracy, white balance, gamma, and detail preservation in both shadows and highlights are all taken care of when you have a pro calibrating the set. It's one of the reasons why we test out of the box performance when we review TVs in our labs; most people don't pay for a professional calibration.

Dof-observers
Credit: Reviewed.com / Lee Neikirk
While color and luminance measurements were taken during the shootout, evaluation was ultimately done by eye. Observers walked past each TV comparing test patterns and images.

But in this case, it also leaves less to consider overall when comparing the four TVs. Even from a feature standpoint they're all quite similar, each offering 120Hz panels, wide color gamut, and enough brightness to do justice to HDR-mastered content. The big difference, of course, is the panel and backlight type.

In a light-controlled environment like the shootout, OLED TVs tend to shine—especially when the lights are off. This is because every pixel emits its own light, unlike with LED TVs where a large backlight shines through the screen. While newer LED TVs can turn down sections of the backlight to increase contrast in a scene, OLEDs don't have that problem. And with calibration eliminating most of the other differences between the panels, it's easy to see why LG's OLEDs keep winning this event every year.

OLED-HDR-Alessi
Credit: Reviewed.com / Lee Neikirk
LG's Tim Alessi discussed the advantages of OLED TVs during the TV Shootout, addressing perfect black production and OLED color parameters.

Among the LED TVs, there are two backlight types: Direct LED (full-array) and edge-lit.

The Samsung KS9800, Sony X940D, and Vizio Reference Series all use Direct LED/full-array backlight types with a process called local dimming. This means instead of the entire array of LEDs emitting the same level of light all the time, they have different "zones" of control. The amount of zones dictates how well each model can control its backlight, so you can have a bright moon on a dark, night sky and have things look as natural as possible.

Local-Dimming-Comparison
Credit: Reviewed.com / Lee Neikirk
A tiny vertical strip of white light shows off the dimming and backlight functionality of OLED and LED TVs at the shootout. Ideally, only the strip will be lit up.

Not all the LED TVs here are the same, thought; the Vizio Reference Series has 384 backlight zones, the Samsung KS9800 allegedly has 150, and the Sony X940D allegedly has 96. The TVs were also different sizes, too, so on the Sony and Samsung each zone has to cover a larger percentage of the screen. This all presents a challenge when the TV needs to tone down certain areas of the screen.

Backlight-Types
Credit: AVS Forums
The major deciding factor in LED TV picture quality is backlight type. Direct LED backlights with local dimming offer the best picture quality, hands down.

However, while the amount of zones is extremely important when considering full-array local dimming TVs, it's not everything. There are certainly diminishing returns once you start talking about more than 100 zones, and having software that properly handles degrees of dimming is also essential.

HDR LED TVs are oodles brighter than HDR OLED TVs overall. Tweet It

At the Shootout, it was fairly apparent during the local dimming test that the Vizio Reference Series, with its much higher zone count, had better backlight control and less light bleed than the Samsung and the Sony, which not only have fewer zones but have larger screens, making backlight control even more difficult for them.

However, where all three TVs really "shine" is in overall light output, especially compared to OLED TVs. The Samsung KS9800, Sony X940D, and Vizio Reference Series are oodles brighter than the LG G6 overall, which can also add to how impressive their perceived color saturation is, while reducing the chance you'll even notice their comparably less impressive black levels. This led to some interesting results in the bright light viewing category, even if the dark room viewing results were rather predictable.

The Results

Ultimately, given the focus on both SDR content and the light-controlled environment, LG's G6 flagship OLED TV won in almost every category. Here are the official results from the close of the Shootout:

Shootout-Results
Credit: Value Electronics

LG's flagship OLED predictably took home the gold when it came to black quality, perceived contrast, off-axis performance, screen uniformity, and overall night viewing picture quality. Given a calibration, a high-quality sample, and enough break-in time, we'd expect OLED to beat LED almost every time in these categories and the G6—our top overall TV—didn't disappoint.

The LG also won for color accuracy and HDR/wide color gamut, though I have my doubts about these results since there was some difficulty in actually getting all four TVs to display HDR10 and Dolby Vision content. And though the LG G6 does have highly saturated colors, the Helmholtz-Kohlrausch effect does mean that the brighter Sony, Samsung, and Vizio sets all look just as vibrant to my eyes.

Ultimately, the shootout does confirm what we've seen with our own eyes: OLED is still king...but for how long? Tweet It

Where the LED TVs did pull into the lead was in the bright light viewing category, where Sony's massive X940D took home the prize. Daytime viewing is especially advantageous for LED TVs because you need to get bright enough to overpower ambient light. The X940D was the brightest at the event, though again the troubles with HDR may have skewed the results as the Samsung KS9800—the brightest TV we've ever tested—looked noticeably dimmer throughout the shootout. The Vizio Reference Series was also dinged because it couldn't show certain HDR10 test patterns, as it's currently only compatible with Dolby Vision HDR.

Ultimately, the shootout does confirm what we've seen in our own labs and with our own eyes: OLED is still king...but for how long? If you watch movies with the lights off, sure, but the best HDR-equipped LED TVs can continue to stretch their legs and look good in a bright room. LG's G6 may be the brightest OLED TV we've tested yet, but it's still not as bright as the rest of the TVs in this competition, and that's worth considering if you'll put it in a room with a lot of windows.

The final thing to consider is price point and size for each series:

65-inch LG G6: $8,000 | 77-inch LG G6: $30,000
65-inch Vizio Reference Series: $6,000
65-inch Samsung KS9800: $4,500 | 78-inch Samsung KS9800: $10,000
75-inch Sony X940D: $8,000

As good as the OLED is, if you want a TV above 65 inches you're pretty much going to have to pick an LED TV—unless you've got a spare 30 grand. And even compared to the other 65-inch sets, the LG G6 is quite a bit more expensive. The closest is the Vizio Reference series, but that price includes an entire sound system as well. Even the $4,500 Samsung KS9800 looks like quite the bargain by comparison. On the other hand, the LG E6 Series every it as good, in picture quality, as the flagship G6—and it's $2,000 cheaper.

In the end, though, this shootout is less about value and more about what the best TVs in the market can do. While the OLED is still tops, we have to say we're incredible impressed with how far LED TVs have come in the last year. And with more and more HDR content hitting the streets every day, the gap is as close as it's ever been.

Stay tuned this summer: Reviewed.com will be conducting our own in-depth, side-by-side shootouts between TVs like the Samsung UN65KS9800, Vizio RS65-B2, the Sony X940D, and incoming LG B6/C6 OLEDs.

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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.

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