Whether you’re shopping for a new TV or just browsing our list of the best TVs you can buy, it’s likely you’ve heard the hype about OLED TVs. They’re thin, they’re light, and they offer incredible contrast that’s second to none in the marketplace. OLED is only a letter apart from the more common display type, LED, so what gives? Can they really be that different? In a word: Yes. It turns out that extra “O” makes a big difference, but it doesn’t automatically mean that an OLED TV will beat an LED TV in every case.
When OLED TVs first arrived in 2013, they were lauded for their perfect black levels and excellent color but took a bit of a hit due to brightness levels that couldn’t compete with LED/LCD TVs. There was also a huge price gap between OLED TVs (not to be confused with QLED) and their premium LED/LCD counterparts. That’s all changed. OLED TVs are much brighter than they used to be, and the prices have come down. Now it’s time to take a look at how these two TV technologies differ and explore the strengths and weaknesses of each.
What does LED mean?
LED stands for light-emitting diode. These are little solid-state devices that make light via the movement of electrons through a semiconductor. The preferred choice as a backlight for all LCD displays, LEDs can be created at a much smaller size than the compact fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs that came before, yet they can get extremely bright.
Still, standard LEDs aren’t small enough to be used as individual pixels of a television display — they’re way too big for that. That’s part of the reason LEDs are used only as the backlight for LCD televisions, with each LED illuminating a small cluster of pixels. An emerging technology called MicroLED may soon change all that, but for now, let’s stick to the basics. For more info on LEDs and LCDs, see our LED vs. LCD comparison.
What does OLED mean?
OLED stands for “organic light-emitting diode.” Very simply put, OLEDs are made with organic compounds that light up when fed electricity. That may not seem like a huge difference when compared to LEDs, but unlike LEDs, OLEDs can be made to be extremely thin, flexible, and even rollable. OLEDs can be so small that they can be used as individual pixels, millions of which occupy your TV screen, lighting up and shutting off totally independently. Because of this flexibility, when an OLED pixel is shut off, it is completely off — completely black.
Currently, LG is the only manufacturer of OLED panels for TVs. Sony and LG have an agreement which allows Sony to put LG OLED panels into Sony televisions — like the stunning A9F Master Series TV — but otherwise, you won’t find OLED in any other TV displays sold in the U.S. Samsung does make OLED smartphone panels, and rumors have swirled around Samsung potentially producing OLED televisions, but the company has heavily promoted its proprietary QLED tech, as well as its new MicroLED tech of late, so that seems unlikely.
The differences in performance between LG’s OLED TVs and Sony’s result from different picture processors at work. Samsung, Sony, and LG have impressive processors that are also unique to each brand, which is why two TVs with the same panel can look drastically different. A good processor can greatly reduce issues like banding and artifacting and produce more accurate colors as well.
So which is better, OLED or LED/LCD?
Now it’s time to pit these two technologies against each other and see how they stack up when it comes to traits such as contrast, viewing angle, brightness, and other performance considerations.
Editor’s note: Since OLED TVs are still a premium display, we have compared OLED only to equally premium LED/LCD TVs armed with similar performance potential (except, of course, in the Price section).
A display’s ability to produce deep, dark blacks is arguably the most important factor in achieving excellent picture quality. Deeper blacks allow for higher contrast and richer colors (among other things), and thus a more realistic and dazzling image. When it comes to black levels, OLED reigns as the undisputed champion.
LED TVs rely on LED backlights shining behind an LCD panel. Even with advanced dimming technology, which selectively dims LEDs that don’t need to be on at full blast, LED TVs have historically struggled to produce dark blacks and can suffer from an effect called “light bleed,” where lighter sections of the screen create a haze or bloom in adjacent darker areas. Even on the most advanced LED models, these issues are inevitable, though it is important to note that Samsung’s 2018 Q9F QLED TV represents a major breakthrough in LED TV performance by all but eliminating these issues, representing an exception to this rule.
OLED TVs suffer from none of the black-level problems of traditional LED TVs. If an OLED pixel isn’t getting electricity, it doesn’t produce any light and is, therefore, totally black. Sounds like an obvious choice to us.
When it comes to brightness, LED TVs have a considerable advantage. LEDs were already good at getting extremely bright, but the addition of quantum dots allows them to get even brighter. OLED TVs can get pretty bright, too, and with such dark black levels, the contrast between the brightest and darkest spots on screen is all the more exaggerated. However, cranking OLED pixels to their maximum brightness for extended periods not only reduces their lifespan, but the pixel also takes slightly longer to return to total black.
With those considerations in mind, it’s important to note that all modern TVs — OLED, LED/LCD, or otherwise — produce more than adequate brightness. The consideration then becomes where the TV will be used. In a dark room, an OLED TV is going to perform best, while LED TVs will outshine them (quite literally) in more brightly lit environments.
It should also be noted that Sony introduced some incredibly bright OLED models in 2018, and LG’s latest OLEDs are also impressively bright, making them perfectly suitable for nearly any situation, save direct sunlight beaming onto the screen. Still, when compared directly, LED has the edge.
Winner by a nose: LED/LCD
OLED used to rule this category, but by improving the purity of the backlight, quantum dots have allowed LED/LCD TVs to surge forward in color accuracy, color brightness, and color volume, putting them on par with OLED TVs. Those looking for TVs with Wide Color Gamut and/or HDR will find both OLED and LED models that support these features. OLED’s better contrast ratio is going to give it a slight edge in terms of HDR when viewed in dark rooms, but HDR on a premium LED/LCD screen has an edge because it can produce well-saturated colors at extreme brightness levels that OLED can’t quite match.
Response time and lag
Response time refers to the time it takes for each individual pixel to change states. With faster response time comes less motion blur and fewer artifacts (source material notwithstanding).
Because OLED pixels combine the light source and the color in a single diode, it can change states incredibly fast. By contrast, LED TVs use LEDs to produce brightness, and tiny LCD “shutters” to create color. While the LED’s brightness can be changed in an instant, LCD shutters are by their nature slower to respond to state changes. This causes an overall slower change between “on” and “off” states. In fact, OLED currently offers the fastest response time of any TV technology in use today, making it a clear winner in this regard.
As for input lag, LG’s 9-series OLED TVs, introduced at CES 2019, now support HDMI VRR (Variable Refresh Rate). When connected to a compatible game console, like an Xbox One S/X, it lets the TV match the framerate of the console in real time with lower lag, something PC gamers have enjoyed on certain monitors for years, and which can significantly improve online, multiplayer gameplay. We’ll have a better sense of how well this system works when we put these 2019 models to the test, but it can only improve what is already an excellent gaming experience.
OLED, again, is the winner here. With LED screens, the best viewing angle is dead center, and the picture quality diminishes in both color and contrast the further you move to either side. While the severity differs between models, it’s always noticeable. For its LED displays, LG uses a type of LCD panel known as IPS which has slightly better off-angle performance than VA-type LCD panels, but it suffers in the black-level department in contrast to rival VA panels, and it’s no competition for OLED. Samsung’s priciest QLED TVs feature updated panel design and anti-reflective coating, which make off-angle viewing much less of an issue. While OLED still beats these models out in the end, the gap is closing quickly.
That said, OLED screens can be viewed with no luminance degradation at drastic viewing angles — up to 84 degrees. Compared to most LED TVs, which have been tested to allow for a max viewing angle of 54 degrees at best, OLED has a clear advantage.
OLEDs have come a long way in this category. When the tech was still nascent, OLED screens were often dwarfed by LED/LCD displays. As OLED manufacturing has improved, the number of respectably large OLED displays has increased — now pushing 90 inches — but they’re still dwarfed by the largest LED displays, which can easily hit 100 inches in size, and with new technologies, well beyond.
LG says you’d have to watch its OLED TVs five hours a day for 54 years before they’d fall to 50-percent brightness. Whether that’s true remains to be seen, as OLED TVs have only been out in the wild since 2013. For that reason and that reason only we’ll award this category to LED/LCD. It pays to have a proven track record.
We include this section begrudgingly, both because burn-in is a misnomer and, for most folks, the effect will not be an issue.
The effect we’ve come to know as burn-in stems from the days of the boxy CRT TV when the prolonged display of a static image would cause an image to appear to “burn” into the screen. What was actually happening was the phosphors that coated the back of the TV screen would glow for extended periods of time without any rest, causing the phosphors to wear out and create the appearance of a burned-in image. We think this should be called “burn out,” but we’ll set that one aside.
The same issue is at play with plasma and OLED TVs because the compounds that light up can degrade over time. If you burn a pixel long and hard enough, you will cause it to dim prematurely and ahead of the rest of the pixels, creating a dark impression. In reality, however, this is not very likely to cause a problem for most people — you’d have to abuse the TV intentionally in order to get it to happen. Even the “bug” (logographic) that certain channels use disappears often enough or is made clear so as to avoid causing burn-in issues. You’d have to watch ESPN all day every day for a long, long time at the brightest possible setting to cause a problem, and even then it still isn’t very likely.
That said, the potential is there, and it should be noted. (This is also a contributing factor in the dearth of OLED computer monitors on the market, as computer screens are far more likely to display a static image for hours on end.) Since LED/LCD TVs aren’t susceptible to burn-in, they win this fight by technicality.
OLED panels require no backlight, and each individual pixel is extremely energy-efficient. LED TVs need a backlight to produce brightness. Since LEDs are less energy-efficient than OLEDs, and their light must pass through the LCD shutters before it reaches your eyes, these panels must consume more power for the same level of brightness.
OLED TVs are premium TVs, period. Virtually no budget or midrange tier exists for OLED (you’ll be lucky to find any newer OLED for less than $2,000). Conversely, LED TVs can range in price from a few hundred dollars — even for a quality big-screen model — to several thousand dollars, making them overall more accessible than OLEDs. While prices of the highest-quality LED TVs hover at nearly the same range as the price of OLEDs, when judged by price and price alone, LED TVs can still be acquired for a pittance in comparison.
We have a winner!
In terms of picture quality, OLED still beats LED/LCD, even though the latter technology has seen many improvements of late. OLED is also lighter, thinner, uses less energy, offers the best viewing angle by far, and, though still a little more expensive, has come down in price considerably. OLED is the superior TV technology today. If this article were about value alone, LED/LCD would still win, but OLED has come a long way in a short time and deserves the crown for its achievements. Regardless of which technology you ultimately decide on, that’s not the only factor that you need to consider, so be sure to check our TV buying guide to make sure you’re buying the right TV to meet your needs.
- QLED vs. OLED TV: What’s the difference, and why does it matter?
- LED vs. LCD TVs explained: What’s the difference?
- LG C9 OLED 4K HDR TV Review: Second best
- Sony Master Series A9G 4K HDR OLED TV review: The best TV
- LG Nano 9 (SM9000) Series 4K HDR TV review