OLED vs LED TV
How these two screen technologies compare
Steve Kindig has been an electronics enthusiast for over 30 years. He has written extensively about home and car A/V gear for Crutchfield since 1985. Steve is also a volunteer DJ at community radio station WTJU, where he is a regular host of the American folk show "Atlantic Weekly," as well as the world music program "Radio Tropicale."
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In a Nutshell
Both technologies offer super-slim designs and sharp, detailed 4K images, but there are some picture quality differences.
LED TVs use an LED backlight to illuminate the screen, and there are three types: edge-lit, direct-lit, and full array.
The backlight means that LED TVs can get very bright, so the picture looks vivid even with room lights on.
Some high-performance LED TVs use "quantum dots" to increase brightness and color range.
OLED TVs don't require a backlight because every pixel is self-illuminating.
Because every OLED pixel can switch off completely, these TVs can produce absolute black and infinite contrast. OLED TVs tend to look best in a dim or darkened room.
OLED TVs provide much wider viewing angles than LED TVs, which lose picture contrast and color as you move away from directly in front of the screen.
Most TVs sold today are based on LCD screen technology. Because these sets use an LED backlight we often refer to them as LED LCD TVs, or just LED TVs.
OLED is a competing TV technology that produces exceptional picture quality and is gaining in popularity.
This article will explain the differences between these two TV types and talk about why you might choose one or the other.
LCD and OLED TV: Two different paths to a great picture
Both OLED and LCD TVs use skinny panels with millions of pixels to create crystal-clear TV pictures. But what happens inside the two TV types is quite different.
An LCD TV (left) is a complicated design with a backlight, glass filters, diffusors, and polarizers. An OLED TV (right) doesn't need a backlight because its pixels are self-lighting.
LCD — Liquid Crystal Display
An LCD TV screen uses a thin layer of liquid crystal solution sandwiched between transparent glass panels. A matching grid of millions of transistors supplies the tiny electric charges that control the crystals, causing them to open or close. The resulting pattern of light and dark pixels creates the TV's picture.
While liquid crystals form the image, they don't produce any light themselves. Instead, a backlight behind the LCD layer shines through it. LED TVs use small, bright LEDs — light-emitting diodes — and each liquid crystal pixel acts like a shutter, either blocking light or allowing it to pass through.
The type and sophistication of the backlight has a lot to do with overall picture quality. Especially on how well the TV can display dark or black sections of the picture.
You'll find three different types of LED backlighting in today's LCD TVs:
Most LED TVs use edge lighting: strings of LEDs along either the sides of the screen, the top and bottom, or just the bottom. "Light guides" redirect and scatter the light evenly to produce a more uniform picture. Edge-lit backlighting makes it possible to build ultra-thin TVs.
Direct-lit backlights use a grid of LEDs across the entire back of the screen. Don't confuse direct-lit with the full-array type described below. Direct-lit uses only a few dozen LEDs, and they can't be independently dimmed, so you don't get the exceptional picture contrast that you can get with a full-array/local dimming design. Direct-lit TVs tend to be thicker than edge-lit models.
The full-array-with-local-dimming backlight — sometimes shortened to FALD — is still the gold standard for LCD TV backlighting, Now only found on a handful of top-performing TVs, this type also features a grid of LEDs covering the entire back of the screen. Where it differs from direct-lit is the much higher number of LEDs, and the fact that there are typically hundreds of dimmable "zones," or even individually dimmable LEDs. The result is exceptionally wide contrast with very realistic shadow detail.
The latest LED backlight innovation: Quantum dots
Over the past few years, some of the top-rated LED TVs have featured backlights enhanced with "quantum dots." These unimaginably small nanocrystals generate intensely pure light when struck by the light from the backlight.
The TV's blue backlight stimulates the quantum dots to produce red or green light. Together, the brilliant red, green, and blue light can produce the billion shades necessary for 4K/HDR content.
Samsung's QLED 4K LED TVs use quantum dots to boost picture brightness and color range.
OLED — Organic Light Emitting Diode
OLED TVs have only been around since 2013. What's new and different about this technology is the OLED screen material — an organic substance that glows when it's activated by an electric current. This self-lighting carbon-based material makes up the screen's pixel layer.
The best backlight is no backlight
In an OLED TV screen, each pixel — actually every sub-pixel — is its own independently controlled light source, so there's no need for a backlight with all its limitations. Just as important, every sub-pixel can switch off completely, producing absolute black. This is what gives OLED its unmatched contrast and black levels. This pixel-level light control enables a level of precision and control far beyond any current type of LED illumination.
An OLED TV's construction is comparatively simple, with fewer layers than an LCD TV (see Panel Structure graphic, above). But that doesn't mean OLED TVs are easy (or cheap) to build. Making TV-sized OLED screens has proven very difficult, which is why OLED models still cost more than most LED TVs.
Now that you have a better idea of how these two TV types work, let's look at how they compare when it comes to key picture quality aspects and other factors we look at when choosing a TV.
Head-to-head comparison: OLED vs. LED
Size, price, and resolution
LED TVs cover a wide range of sizes from 19" to 88". OLED TVs are currently available in only 55", 65", and 77" models. LED TV prices start at a few hundred dollars while OLEDs start at around $1500.
In part, that's because LED TVs are available in both 1080p HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) and 4K Ultra HD (3840 x 2160 pixels), while OLED is 4K only.
OLED TVs also deliver picture quality that's far superior to typical LED models. Only the very best LED TVs produce a picture that comes close to OLED. When you compare the prices of those models, they're similar to OLED.
Contrast, black level, and brightness
These have always been key picture quality attributes, but they're especially important now that HDR (High Dynamic Range) is available on most 4K TVs, as well as on 4K Blu-ray and a growing amount of streamed 4K content.
A TV's ability to produce deep, dark blacks is probably the most important factor in producing an excellent picture. Deeper blacks enable both higher contrast and richer colors, resulting in a more lifelike image.
Because OLED pixels can turn off completely, OLED TVs can produce absolute black and a contrast ratio that is essentially infinite.
Only the very best LED LCD TVs that use full-array local dimming (FALD) backlighting can approach OLED's black level performance. More typical LED models produce black that looks closer to charcoal gray.
Excellent black levels and brightness are especially important when displaying the expanded contrast range of HDR content.
Brightness is one area where high-quality LED TVs consistently outperform OLEDs. Brightness is measured in "nits" — more nits means a brighter picture. And we're not talking about overall screen brightness, but "peak brightness," which adds visual punch to explosions, or a flash of sunlight, or a campfire in the dark.
Until recently, TVs could typically only deliver peak brightness in the 300- to 400-nit range, which was fine for HD content. The increased contrast range required by 4K/HDR sources has led to TVs with much higher brightness capabilities.
For 2017, OLED TVs can generally achieve peak brightness of around 800 nits, while many top-performing LED models can do 1000 nits or better. A few LED TVs reach the 1500- to 2000-nit range.
Bottom line: Both OLED and LED can look amazing, but they offer slightly different contrast ranges. OLED excels at the dark end, while LED pulls ahead when brightness counts. OLED is hard to beat for watching movies in a dim or darkened room. LED's higher brightness maintains a vivid picture with room lights on, or when you're watching an afternoon ballgame.
Both OLED and top-performing LED TVs typically have near-perfect color accuracy. Most newer 4K Ultra HD TV models feature WCG (wide color gamut) technology that allows them to reproduce a much wider range of colors than those specified by current HDTV standards. This extended color range is closer to what is used in movie theaters.
4K OLED TVs, and LED LCD models that use color-enhancing technologies like nanocrystals or "quantum dots," can reproduce this new wider color range. The only sources that take advantage of this expanded color range are 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and select streamed 4K content from providers like Netflix® and Amazon Instant Video.
When attempting to display the wider color range of HDR-enhanced content, most 4K TVs can't reproduce colors accurately when the picture gets bright. But Samsung's QLED TVs maintain full color accuracy and saturation at any brightness level.
Viewing angle is an area where OLED has a big advantage over LCD. When you sit directly in front of an LED-LCD TV, the picture looks bright and colorful, but once you move to the sides or above or below the screen, brightness, contrast, and color become increasingly distorted or washed out.
Compared to LED-LCD TVs, OLED offers superior off-axis viewing. Picture contrast and colors remain vivid even for viewers sitting or standing off to the sides.
The reason for LCD's narrow viewing angle? Its backlight and the shutter effect of the screen's pixels.
OLED's self-lighting pixels completely eliminate this issue, so that picture quality even viewed from a severe angle is nearly as good as viewing directly in front of the screen. That's a major advantage if you often watch with others.
LED TVs have been around for many years and have proven to be extremely reliable, typically providing many years of trouble-free service. OLED TVs have only been around a few years — not long enough for us to be able to predict their longevity based on experience. But when LG visited Crutchfield recently for TV training, the trainer said the expected lifespan is 100,000 hours, which is the same as for LED TVs.
Another thing to consider is that it's possible for OLED TV screens to experience burn-in if a static image is left on the screen for too long. But that's very unlikely to happen as long as you follow the manufacturer's guidelines.
Which type should you choose?
If you're looking for either a small-to-medium-sized TV or a mega-sized screen, you're probably going to end up with an LED TV because there's such a wide range of screen sizes to choose from. Likewise, if your top priority is bang for your buck, LED's popularity means the prices are lower than OLED.
But if you're the sort of person who cares a lot about picture quality; someone who goes to the trouble of adjusting your TV to get the most accurate picture, you might find yourself focusing on OLED as well as high-end LED models. Both technologies can deliver spectacular picture quality.
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