Whether you’re shopping for a new TV or just browsing our list of the best TVs you can buy, you’ve likely heard the hype about OLED TVs. They’re thin, they’re light, and they offer incredible contrast and color that’s second to none in the marketplace. OLED is only one 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 they took a bit of a hit due to brightness levels that couldn’t compete with LED TVs. There was also a huge price gap between OLED TVs (not to be confused with QLED) and their premium LED TV counterparts. That has all changed. OLED TVs are much brighter than they used to be, and the prices have come down, especially with more brands bringing competitive new options to market in 2020. The LED market is also due for a bit of a shake-up, too. For 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 TV mean?
Non-OLED TVs are made of two main parts: An LCD panel and a backlight. The LCD panel contains the pixels — the little colored dots that make up a TV’s image. On their own, however, these pixels cannot be seen. They require a backlight. When light from the backlight shines through an LCD pixel, you can see its color.
The “LED” in LED TV simply refers to how the backlight is made. In the past, a thicker and less efficient technology called CCFL (cold-cathode fluorescent light) was used. But these days, virtually every flat-screen TV uses LEDs as its source of backlighting. Thus when you see the term “LED TV,” it simply refers to an LED-backlit LCD TV.
That said, not all LED TVs are created equal. There can be differences in the number and quality of the LEDs used, which leads to differences in things like brightness and black levels. You may also have seen something called “QLED TV.” This is a type of LED TV that uses quantum dots to achieve better brightness and color. We’ll discuss QLED more below, but here’s a great overview of the differences between QLED and OLED TVs.
What does OLED TV mean?
The “OLED” in OLED TV stands for “organic light-emitting diode.” OLEDs have the unusual property of being able to produce both light and color from a single diode when they’re fed electricity. Because of this, OLED TVs don’t need a separate backlight. Each pixel you see is a self-contained source of color and light.
Some of the inherent benefits to OLED screens are that they can be extremely thin, flexible, and even rollable. But the biggest benefit when we compare them to LED TVs is the ability of an individual OLED pixel to turn off and on. When it’s on, you can see it. When it’s off, it emits no light at all — it’s completely black. We’ll discuss how this affects black levels in a moment.
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.
The differences in performance between LG’s OLED TVs and Sony’s result from different picture processors at work. 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.
Samsung does make OLED smartphone panels, and the company recently announced it would start building new TV panels based on a hybrid of QLED and OLED known as QD-OLED, but it will be a few more years before we see the first TVs that use this technology.
So which is better, OLED TV or LED TV?
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 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 Q9 series of QLED TVs represent a major step forward 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.
Winner: OLED TV
When it comes to brightness, LED TVs have a considerable advantage. Their backlights can be made from large and powerful LEDs. With the addition of quantum dots that brightness can be preserved even as the size of the individual LEDs get smaller. 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 — whether OLED, LED or QLED — 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 there have been big gains recently in OLED brightness, making them perfectly suitable for nearly any situation, save direct sunlight beaming onto the screen. Still, when compared directly, LED TVs have the edge.
Winner by a nose: LED TV
OLED used to rule this category, but by improving the purity of the backlight, quantum dots have allowed LED 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 TV 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 TV screen has an edge because it can produce well-saturated colors at extreme brightness levels that OLED can’t quite match.
Response time, refresh rate, and input lag
Response time refers to the time it takes for each individual pixel to change states. A pixel’s state is not only its color, but also its brightness. With a faster response time, you get 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.
OLED currently offers the fastest response time of any TV technology in use today, making it a clear winner in this regard.
Refresh rate is how often the entire image on-screen changes. The faster the rate, the smoother things look and the easier it is to pick out details in fast-moving content like sports. Most new TVs are capable of refresh rates of 120Hz, which means the entire image is updated 120 times every second. Some go as high as 240Hz.
If refresh rate were simply a matter of Hz, we’d call OLED TV the winner, simply because it can achieve rates of up to 1,000 times higher than LED TVs. But absolute speed isn’t the only consideration. Unlike movies and TV shows which use a single refresh rate, video games often employ something called variable refresh rates, which simply means that the rate changes during different parts of a game. If a TV can’t match these rate changes, you end up with image tearing — a visible jerkiness that comes from the disparity between the rate the game is using and the rate the TV wants to use.
That’s why gamers, in particular, want TVs that can handle VRR or Variable Refresh Rate. It’s a rare feature on both OLED and LED TVs, but you can expect to see it show up on more models in both types of TVs. For now, only 2018 and newer select Samsung TVs offer it, and 2018 and newer LG OLED TVs. But neither OLED nor LED TVs have a real advantage when it comes to VRR — some models have the feature and some don’t.
Finally, input lag is the gap in time between when you press a button on a game controller and the corresponding action shows up on-screen. Input lag can be a problem when TVs introduce a lot of picture processing that causes a slow-down in the signal they receive. But most modern TVs have a game mode which eliminates the processing and reduces input lag to barely discernible levels. In the future, all TVs will be able to sense the presence of a video game and switch to this mode automatically, returning to the processed mode when gaming stops.
OLED takes this one on its strength in response times.
Winner: OLED TV
OLED, again, is the winner here. With LED TVs, 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 TVs, LG uses a type of LCD panel known as IPS which has slightly better off-angle performance than VA-type LCD panels (which Sony uses), 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 TVs 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.
Winner: OLED TV
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 88 inches — but they’re still dwarfed by the largest LED TVs, which can easily hit 100 inches in size, and with new technologies, well beyond.
Winner: LED TV
LG says you’d have to watch its OLED TVs five hours a day for 54 years before they’d fall to 50% 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 TVs. It pays to have a proven track record.
Winner: LED TV
Can one kind of TV be healthier for you than another? If you believe that we need to be careful about our exposure to blue light, especially toward the evening, then the answer could be yes. Both OLED and LED TVs produce blue light, however, OLED TVs produce considerably less of it. LG claims its OLED panels only generate 34% blue light versus LED TV’s 64%. That stat has been independently verified and LG’s OLED panels have been given an Eye Comfort Display certification by TUV Rheinland, a standards organization based out of Germany.
Will it make a difference to your overall health? We think the jury is still out, but if blue light is a concern, you should take a serious look at OLED TVs.
Winner: OLED TV
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 to get it to happen. Even the “bug” (logographic) that certain channels use disappears often enough or is made clear 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 TVs aren’t susceptible to burn-in, they win this fight by a technicality.
Winner: LED TV
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.
Winner: OLED TV
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.
Winner: LED TV
We have a winner!
In terms of picture quality, OLED TVs still beat LED TVs, 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 TV 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?
- MicroLED vs. Mini-LED: Which display technology will power your next TV?
- Mini-LED vs QLED TV: How one technology is improving the other
- The best TVs for 2020