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OLED vs LED TV

How these two screen technologies compare

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In a Nutshell

Most TV shoppers are looking at 4K Ultra HD TVs, and there are two screen technologies to choose from: OLED and LED.

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.

Full Story

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.

LED LCD vs OLED

Two super-slim 4K Ultra HD TVs: Sony's 55" LED LCD XBR-55X900E (left) and LG's 55" OLED55B7A (right).

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.

LCD vs OLED panel structure

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:

Three types of LED backlighting

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

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.

Full-array

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.

LG OLED65B6P

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.

Cityl photo without HDR

City photo with HDR

Excellent black levels and brightness are especially important when displaying the expanded contrast range of HDR content.

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.

Color

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.

Color volume graphic

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

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.

OLED viewing angle illustration
LCD viewing angle illustration

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.

Durability

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.

Personalized advice from our team of experts

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Last updated 8/28/2017
  • Dave Maier from Olney

    Posted on 9/30/2015

    This is a very good comparison of these two technologies. I have been a big fan of the Pioneer Elite plasma, having owned a 60" model for many years. I am interested in moving to a larger screen, but I do not want to lose the outstanding picture quality that plasma provides at all angles. How does the OLED technology compare with the established high quality plasma picture?

  • Jess from Fort Lauderdale

    Posted on 10/1/2015

    As another very satisfied plasma owner thinking about what comes next, I second this question.

  • Steve Kindig from Crutchfield

    Posted on 10/4/2015

    Dave, that's a great question. Your Pioneer Elite plasma is among the finest TVs ever made, and few models since can match its picture quality. Since you mention wanting a larger screen, I assume you're looking at one of LG's 65" 4K OLED models. The combination of OLED and 4K detail is very impressive. OLED's picture reminds me a lot of the best plasmas I've seen. I think OLED would nose out an Elite in contrast and black level due to its ability to render absolute black, as well as its higher brightness. And off-angle viewing is as excellent as with plasma. Based on the models I've seen so far, OLED doesn't handle motion quite as cleanly as plasma. So if you watch lots of sports or are particularly sensitive to motion blur, I'd suggest hanging onto your Elite. But if your picture quality priorities lean more toward contrast and color, or you'd like a brighter picture, I can't imagine that you would be disappointed by OLED.

  • Woody Smith from Arlington, VA

    Posted on 10/5/2015

    I have a Samsung UN65HU8550 LED/LCD 4K TV and still, after two years of ownership and watching it every day, it still makes me say "WOW!" whenever I turn it on. Its upconversion to 4K is absolutely uncanny, and native 4K is astonishing, like looking at actual subjects in the room. However, I do want one of these OLED TVs and this article failed to mention some of the advantages of OLED technology that could be incorporated into new and different, "out-of-the-box" thinking in television design. For example, OLED panels can be made very thin, lightweight and flexible. They could be rolled up into a tube like a classroom projector screen and incorporated into attractive furniture, invisible except when needed. Or they could merely be stuck onto the wall like a poster. There are many possibilities unavailable to other television technologies. Such designs will spur the development of less intrusive methods of powering the set and getting the material to the set, probably wirelessly from a separate box. Another advantage of the OLED sets is that they should consume less power than any other television technology. I rather imagine that the price of OLED TVs will plummet dramatically once competition enters the field, and eventually they will push LCD sets out of the market the same way LCD banished plasma, simply by the fact that they require fewer parts, which will make the cost of manufacture fall below the more complex LCD/LED sets. I am looking forward to th

  • Inam from Farmington Hills

    Posted on 10/5/2015

    I have Panasonic 60st60 plasma, recently got Samsung 9000 series 65 inch tv, I think Panasonic still better in dark scenes and watching in dark room as there is no clouding issue in plasmas. Samsung 4K led sets are not bad for lit rooms. OLED are very similar to plasmas in my opinion, under $3500 for 65 OLED will be the sweet spot for OLED to be considered seriously otherwise it's fate be like pioneer kuro.

  • Hoover from Reno

    Posted on 12/4/2015

    Steve, thank you for these articles. I appreciate how complete and unbiased they are

  • ExpertAdvice from New York

    Posted on 12/6/2015

    CRT monitor might be best bet. I have been owning a 14" one for a very long time.

  • Juno from Schaumburg

    Posted on 12/10/2015

    To ExpertAdvice from New York. Is that you, Bernie?

  • Bruce Hallowell from Clarkesville, GA

    Posted on 1/7/2016

    Your comparison; Plasma, LCD, LCD/LED, OLED is very interesting. I missed one issue, however, and that is reflectivity. My 8 year old Samsung LCD screed has zero reflectivity whereas my 1 year old Samsung 4K reflects any room light in front or off to the side of the TV. Will the OLED screen reflect room lights ?

  • Lee from Wilmette, il

    Posted on 1/14/2016

    I still have my Elite and it still works perfectly. There is no led set that can touch it. I will look at an oled set in the future but for now my elite is going nowhere.....

  • Ellen Hooper from Batesville AR

    Posted on 11/3/2016

    What you failed to mention is the now common knowledge that LED blue light is extremely harmful to our eyes. I am wondering if the OLED since it is a different light source is harmful as well? I already have problems from watching LED tv. I would appreciate any information that you can get to me on this.

  • DEBRA TREANOR from Winthrop

    Posted on 2/4/2017

    I purchased a Pioneer Elite back in 2005, and lt was the best TV on the market at that time! After 9 years, I was looking to upgrade to a Smart TV, and was lead to the LG Oled, as it was closest in picture quality to my Elite! I looked at other models for a year and a half, but nothing came even close to the LG Oled! After a year and a half of looking, and salvating over the LG Oled, I finally made the purchase. I've had the Oled for three month's, and am still in jaw dropping awe at the picture quality! Not to mention my house has now become the place to hangout for movies now on a weekly basis!

  • Lyfe Isgoode from Miami

    Posted on 4/2/2017

    I have two 50" LCD sets next to each other in my living room. Regarding reflection, I just now noticed some reflection coming off the shiny black plastic frame surrounding each glass. I'd never noticed glare before; I move the TV's focus towards where I'm sitting in the room. The Samsung has an almost perfect reflection from its glass while the LG has only a frosty reflection. I've always liked the LG better for picture and audio quality. I also never want to own another set where I can't pick an upper channel, like 23-3, that requires ALWAYS putting in the dash character. The LG is smart enough to do so while my Samsung isn't. I've heard rumor to big problems with reflection in some curved glass sets.

  • Lyfe Isgoode from Miami

    Posted on 4/2/2017

    I have two 50" LCD sets next to each other in my living room. Regarding reflection, I just now noticed some reflection coming off the shiny black plastic frame surrounding each glass. I'd never noticed glare before; I move the TV's focus towards where I'm sitting in the room. The Samsung has an almost perfect reflection from its glass while the LG has only a frosty reflection. I've always liked the LG better for picture and audio quality. I also never want to own another set where I can't pick an upper channel, like 23-3, that requires ALWAYS putting in the dash character. The LG is smart enough to do so while my Samsung isn't. I've heard rumor to big problems with reflection in some curved glass sets.

  • David from Bethesda

    Posted on 4/7/2017

    I have a Pioneer Elite Plasma monitor in my basement home theater and a 55" LG OLED E6 in my upstairs office/den. The Pioneer is fabulous but the OLED has a level of realism in both color and sharpness that far outshines that of the Pioneer. Watching 4K (and 1080p) programming on the LG is amazing. The Pioneer stays in my home theater because I don't have the room for it in my upstairs den. Also, I spend more time upstairs and the heat of the plasma TV in the summer and the electricity it consumes makes it a TV for watching once in the while in the cool confines of my finished basement.

  • -gary

    Posted on 5/26/2017

    Lyfe... - Try indicating 23 3 using a space rather than a dash?

  • Steven

    Posted on 7/23/2017

    Image retention/burn in is enough to make me hold off on the oied technology until they come out with something better

  • John Kaminsky from Natchitoches, LA

    Posted on 8/27/2017

    Can you tell me what the OLED Light setting is for? Is it a form of an extra contrast and brightness setting? And if so what's the proper setting for it.

  • david

    Posted on 9/14/2017

    A good explanation of OLED vs LED type lcd tvs but despite an advertisement AND a blurb for QLED tvs no explanation that they are very different from OLED tvs, only a tacit implication that QLEDs ARE a branded OLED. This article needs a revision!!

  • Joe from MD

    Posted on 9/14/2017

    I won't explain why, however, this article helped me choose the right TV, based on your advise. Thanks

  • Fred from Richmond

    Posted on 9/17/2017

    I read an article saying that LCD TVs are better for watching sports or action movies over OLED TVs. While the picture is better on OLED, LCDs are better for fast action programming. Thoughts?

  • Sherri from Redding

    Posted on 1/10/2018

    No one addressed the question about reflection. We just bought a Samsung LED and it's like a mirror. Daytime watching is terrible. All you see is reflected windows, even with the blinds closed. Nighttime we have to position ourselves just right so as not t be blinded and distracted by reflected room lights. Do they make nonreflective screens any more? What good is a beautiful picture if you have to work so hard to see it?

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