QLED vs. OLED TV: What’s the difference, and why does it matter?

QLED and OLED may have similar names, but they're totally different tech

Looking for a new TV? You’ve likely stumbled upon two main terms: QLED and OLED. But what’s the difference between them? Well, in short, QLED is a term Samsung coined (and trademarked) to describe its range of high-end, quantum dot-infused LED TVs — as well as those from Hisense and TCL, which are licensed to use the tech through the QLED Alliance.

QLED refers to an LED TV using quantum dots to enhance its performance.

OLED, on the other hand, is somewhat similar to QLED in the sense that it’s based around an LED screen, though the internal composition is a little different; QLED TVs run off quantum dots that are illuminated by an LED sheet, while OLED TVs are made up of millions of individual organic light-emitting diodes. Both deliver fantastic results, but QLED comes out on top.

Here’s everything you need to know about QLED and OLED, including what they are, what they do and what they’re best at.

What is QLED?

In layman’s terms, QLED TVs are LED TVs (not to be confused with OLED TVs) that use quantum dots to enhance performance, delivering better brightness and a wider color spectrum, according to Samsung. That’s because the dots almost act like a filter when applied atop an LED backlight, producing a purer light than an LED can provide.

We aren’t going to dive into the science behind quantum dots since it’s not something the average consumer will find useful. We do, however, have a fantastic article explaining what quantum dots are and why they’re useful, so if you’re interested in finding out more about the technical side, check that out.

Now, back to the task at hand.

If you haven’t already guessed, Samsung is betting big on QLED. For that reason, it has no immediate plans to produce an OLED TV — so much so that it’s working on another OLED competitor called MicroLED. To find out more about what it is and how it stacks up against OLED, take a look at our wonderful explainer.

We’ve touched a lot on what QLED is, but what isn’t it? Well, aside from not moonlighting as a bird, a plane or a third member of the late Blues Brothers, QLED isn’t an emissive screen technology. That’s because quantum dots don’t directly emit the colors you see; they’re spread on a piece of film that acts as a color filter.

If quantum dots produced light on their own, QLED could be called an emissive display — but they don’t.

When the screen is turned on, an LED backlight beams through the film, which refines the light to an ideal color temperature. Since QLEDs aren’t emissive, however, the LED backlight that illuminates the screen is on at all times, which means they struggle to deliver the same level of deep blacks as OLEDs (again, more on that in a little bit).

What is OLED?

This section is quite clean-cut because there isn’t a whole lot of tech behind an OLED TV. Let’s start with the basics: OLED stands for organic light-emitting diode. An OLED TV consists of millions of OLEDs, which take form as individual pixels, with each lighting up individually when fed electricity — hence the term emissive display.

For that reason, when an individual OLED pixel isn’t being fed power it’s shut off and thus appears completely black — just like if the TV itself were turned off. QLEDs don’t have that luxury, however, as they require on an entire LED backlight to feed light through the film, instead using software to dim sections that should be black.

OLED TVs comprise of millions of individual LEDs that illuminate when fed electricity.

That’s about all that can be said about OLEDs, other than the fact that while QLED TVs can be made thin, OLED TVs can be made even thinner. And that’s, once again, because they aren’t coated with the film that is applied to QLEDs. It’s also a lot easier to make a flexible OLED screen, which is why OLED pioneer LG has already done it.

QLED vs. OLED

Now let’s dive into the great debate, pitting QLED and OLED head-to-head to determine which comes out on top in terms of brightness, contrast, viewing angles and other notable performance considerations, like response time and lifespan — an important factor when you’re shelling out north of $1,000 for a top-of-the-line TV.

Black level

A display’s ability to produce deep, dark blacks is arguably the most important factor in achieving an 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.

lg 8k 88 inch oled
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

That’s because QLED TVs use an LED backlight behind the quantum dot-packed layer to deliver improved brightness and a wider color spectrum, turning to software to dim pixels that don’t need to be on. That can trigger something called “light bleed,” as the light spills onto what’s supposed to be a black section of the screen.

But is it noticeable? Definitely. If you’re watching an intense action movie and two characters are running through a parking lot at night, for example, you may notice a slight glow on parts of the scene that are supposed to be pitch black, or in the letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the screen when watching a movie on a DVD.

Samsung has invested a lot of time (and money) into improving the black levels on QLED TVs, debuting a new anti-reflective layer that is said to curb the issue in 2018 — so we expect the gap to continue to shrink from here on out as the firm starts to refine the tech, closing the gap between QLED and OLED in the blacks department.

For now, however, OLED comes out on top; if a pixel isn’t getting electricity, it doesn’t produce any light and therefore stays totally black.

Sounds like an obvious choice to us.

Winner: OLED

Brightness

Just like Samsung says, QLED TVs have a considerable advantage when it comes to brightness. That isn’t down to software trickery, but rather because the quantum dots are capable of reaching brighter hues in the color spectrum without losing saturation — something that’s bound to be useful in rooms with a lot of ambient light.

samsung hisense tcl qled alliance announcement

QLED TVs are also said to be better for HDR content because spectral highlights in images — the glint of light reflecting off a lake or a shiny car, for instance — are more powerful and more easily visible. There’s some controversy surrounding that, though, with some claiming that OLED’s perfect black levels are better for HDR.

In rooms with a lot of ambient light, a QLED’s brightness advantage can be very helpful.

But the result of which is best is contingent on the viewing conditions: When you start from perfect black, perceived contrast requires less intense brightness in those highlighted areas for HDR programming, and the end result for the viewer is similar to that of a much brighter QLED TV — at least in a dark room, anyway.

In rooms with a lot of ambient light, a QLED’s brightness advantage can be very helpful for delivering that big visual punch HDR content should deliver.

Winner: QLED

Color space

OLED once blew all the competition out of the water in this section, but the use of quantum dots in QLED TVs have allowed it to inch forward in terms of color accuracy, color brightness, and color volume — according to Samsung, which claims that a wider range of better-saturated colors at extreme brightness levels are an advantage.

While there’s no denying the fact that QLEDs deliver fantastic colors, we have yet to witness better-saturated colors at high brightness levels delivering real advantage in normal viewing situations — so we’re going to declare it a draw for now, since color is subjective. We’ll need to see some tangible evidence to declare QLED a winner.

Winner: Draw

Response time and input lag

Response time refers to the time it takes for each individual diode to change from “on” to “off.” With faster response time comes less motion blur and fewer artifacts. If you’ve been paying attention thus far, you’ll know that OLED TVs comprise of millions of individual diodes, which can be activated manually, one at a time.

On a QLED TV, the diodes are arranged and illuminate in clusters, so individual ones can’t be disabled. 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, including Samsung’s MicroLED, making it a clear winner in this regard.

That said, all of Samsung’s latest QLED TVs are equipped with a variable refresh rate, which should improve performance for those playing multiplayer games with unreliable frame rates. But it won’t come close to the type of response time an OLED will yield, so if that’s your main requirement, best turn your focus to LG or Sony.

Winner: OLED

Viewing angle

OLED, again, is the winner here. With QLED screens, the best viewing angle is dead center, and the picture quality diminishes in both color and contrast the further you move side to side, or up and down. While the severity differs between models, it’s always noticeable — despite Samsung’s best efforts to eliminate the issue on its TVs.

QLED vs. OLED
Rich Shibley

OLED screens, for comparison, can be viewed with no luminance degradation at drastic viewing angles — up to 84 degrees. Some QLED TVs have improved in terms of viewing angle, with Samsung’s anti-reflective layer helping, but OLED maintains a clear advantage. So if you aren’t planning on viewing head-on, an OLED TV is best for you.

Winner: OLED

Size

OLEDs have come a long way. When the tech was still nascent, OLED screens maxed out at 55 inches. Today, an 88-inch OLED is available. With that said, there are fewer limitations on QLED display sizes, with some TVs growing as large as 100 inches and beyond — with Samsung’s largest consumer model measuring in at 98 inches.

Winner: QLED

Lifespan

LG says you would have to watch its OLED TVs five hours per day for 54 years before they fell 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 QLED. It pays to have a proven track record.

Winner (for now): QLED

Screen burn-in

We include this section begrudgingly.

Despite persistent concerns, the reality is that the effect will not be an issue for most folks — especially for those with a QLED TV since QLED isn’t susceptible to burn-in. OLED, on the other hand, is, but you would have to be extremely unlucky for it to happen to your TV, even if you left a static image on it all day and night — repeatedly.

But before we go any further, let’s throw some context into the mix.

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 that image to appear to “burn” into the screen. That occurred when the phosphors coating the back of the screen glowed for extended periods of time, causing them to wear out.

QLED TVs aren’t susceptible to burn-in.

That same issue can occur with QLED TVs because the compounds that light up 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 — but you would have to essentially abuse the TV in order to achieve this result.

Even the “bug” ( or logo graphic) that certain channels use disappears often enough, moves a few pixels every few minutes or is made clear to avoid causing burn-in issues. You’d have to watch ESPN all day every day (for many days on end) 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. Gamers in particular who leave their TV on while a static image remains on-screen, or who play for 10 hours a day for many weeks at a time could potentially cause some “burn-in” on an OLED TV. But, since QLED TVs aren’t susceptible to burn-in, they win this fight by a technicality.

Winner: QLED

Power consumption

OLED panels are extremely thin and require no backlight. As such, OLED TV’s tend to be lighter in weight than QLED TVs and thinner. They also require less power, making them more efficient.

Winner: OLED

Price

Once upon a time, this category would be handily won by QLED TVs, but OLED TVs have come down in price, and since we’re talking all-premium here, comparable QLED TVs cost about the same (or more). The price category simply isn’t a consideration in this particular fight, so we’ll call it a draw and move on.

Winner: Draw

The verdict

QLED comes out on top on paper, delivering a higher brightness, longer lifespan, and larger screen sizes. OLED, on the other hand, has a better viewing angle, deeper black levels, and uses less power. Both are fantastic, though, so choosing between them is subjective — QLED is the better all-rounder, but OLED excels in the dark.

The fact is, you can’t go wrong with either. That is, of course, until the next generation of QLED comes along that improves low-light viewing or an updated version of OLED that’s better in natural light. Either way, the first to perfect experience in all conditions will be the true winner — but for now, in the real world, it’s OLED.

Why? Because most people are at work during the day, returning home to slump in front of the TV in the evening, after the drapes have been drawn. In fact, even if you’re sitting down to tune into the latest episode of Chernobyl on the weekend, chances are they will still be closed to block out any reflections. It’s a force of habit.

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