OLED vs LED TV
How these two screen technologies compare
Both OLED and LED TVs use thin panels with millions of pixels to deliver crystal-clear picture quality, and there are excellent sets in both categories. The major difference lies in how they light the image.
Looking strictly at picture quality, it’s hard to beat an OLED TV. But there are loads of reasons you might opt for an LED TV instead. One undeniable factor is price. LED TVs start under $500, while even a small OLED will set you back $1,200. LEDs also come in a wider variety of sizes and models, though the options for OLEDs are growing.
This article will dive further into the differences between these two TV types and talk about why you might choose one or the other.
What is LED?
LED TVs are a type of LCD TV. They require many layers to create the picture you see. One of the most important is the backlight, which is made up of small, bright LEDs or light-emitting diodes. This LED backlight shines through a liquid crystal layer, and each liquid crystal pixel acts like a shutter, either blocking the light or allowing it to pass through.
The type and sophistication of the backlight contributes to overall picture quality, especially how well the TV can display dark areas of the picture.
LED backlight types
There are three main types of LED backlighting:
Direct-lit backlights use a grid with a small number of LEDs across the entire back of the screen. These LEDs can't be independently dimmed, so contrast isn’t as good as more advanced backlights.
Edge-lit TVs use 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. They are thinner than direct-lit TVs. Some use frame dimming to adjust picture brightness frame by frame, while others use local dimming to darken zones as needed.
Higher-end sets use a more advanced type of backlight called full-array with local dimming — FALD for short. Like direct-lit TVs, the backlight covers the whole back of the screen, but FALD sets use a lot more LEDs. They also offer many dimmable zones for wider contrast and more realistic shadow detail than direct- or edge-lit sets.
Mini LEDs are a type of full-array backlighting
An exciting recent development is the implementation of mini LEDs. These TVs take the FALD technology a big step further by using LEDs that are significantly smaller than those used in traditional backlighting. That means they can pack a lot more of them in, allowing much more precise light control than the already-excellent standard FALD sets. You'll find this cool feature on LG's QNED, Samsung's Neo QLED, and these Sony TVs.
TVs with a Mini LED backlight, like the Samsung QN90C, offer incredibly precise light control for wide contrast and realistic shadow detail.
What is OLED?
OLED stands for “organic light-emitting diode.” Unlike the transmissive liquid crystal pixels in an LED TV, an OLED’s pixels are emissive. That means they don’t need a separate light source, like the backlight in an LED TV. It also means that when an OLED pixel is not activated, it emits no light at all. This is what gives 4K OLED TVs the incredible black levels they are known for.
When I first saw an OLED in person, I was stunned. The picture quality was like nothing I’d ever seen.
OLED TVs (left) don't require a backlight layer so their panels are unbelievably thin.
What about QLED TVs?
If you're confused by where QLED TVs fit in, you're not alone. These sets use a special quantum dot layer to deliver vibrant color. Samsung has been using this technology in their LED TVs for years. Their "Neo QLEDs" mentioned above pair this special quantum dot layer with the dense array of mini LEDs for rich color and excellent contrast.
Samsung also now offers OLED TVs with Quantum Dots to deliver a "mind-blowing picture," according to one customer. They call this hybrid design Quantum HDR OLED.
Which one is right for you?
The answer depends on a few factors. Can you control the light level in your room? How is the viewing area set up? Do you love bright, saturated colors? What kind of content are you watching?
Brightness and black level
Black levels and brightness are key factors in picture quality, and they are especially important when displaying the expanded contrast range of HDR content. OLED and LED TVs can both do a great job with this, but they have different strengths.
Brightness is one area where high-quality LED TVs have outperformed OLEDs. LED backlights are innately brighter than OLED’s self-illuminating pixels. That said, the latest flagship OLED models from LG, Samsung, and Sony all have noticeably brighter panels than older and entry-level models. I have last year’s top Sony OLED, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well it performed in my sunny living room.
Similarly, LED TVs have struggled to compete with the absolute black of an OLED display. But the precise light control on higher-end Mini LED sets has narrowed the gap in contrast considerably.
OLED and premium LED TVs with FALD backlights offer more precise light control for incredible contrast. Edge-lit sets with local dimming or frame dimming struggle in this area.
Verdict: Both OLED and LED TVs can look amazing. The general rule is that OLED cannot be beat for contrast, while LED sets get bright enough for daytime viewing in sunny rooms. But if you are getting a top-of-the-line TV in either category, you are unlikely to be disappointed in its brightness or black level.
Viewing angle is another area where OLED has a big advantage over LED TVs. When you sit directly in front of an LED set, the picture looks bright and colorful, but once you move to the sides the picture can become distorted or washed out. This is caused by the backlight and the shutter effect of the screen's pixels.
OLED's self-lighting pixels completely eliminate this issue, so picture quality is perfect from every angle. That's a major advantage if your couch is often full of family or friends.
Verdict: When it comes to viewing angles, OLEDs can’t be beat. Some LED TVs use IPS panels that offer wider viewing angles, but the trade-off is that contrast suffers.
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 haven't been around as long, but their expected lifespan is around 100,000 hours (similar to LED TVs).
One potential issue you might hear about with OLED TVs is the risk of burn-in. This can happen if you spend hours every day watching programming that displays a very bright static image, for example a news channel with an always-on logo. It is essentially the premature aging of those pixels (not to be confused with "image retention," which is a temporary issue that both kinds of TVs can suffer from).
Sony, LG, and Samsung OLEDs all have built-in ways to reduce the risk of this, including moving the image slightly and refreshing the whole panel periodically.
Verdict: If your TV stays on the news 24/7, then you may want to opt for an LED set. If you watch a variety of content, OLED burn-in is unlikely to be an issue for you.
The color on pretty much any modern TV is worlds better than the washed-out hues on the tube TV I had growing up. But there are still degrees of excellence. For example, when attempting to display the wider color range of HDR-enhanced content, some TVs struggle to reproduce colors accurately when the picture gets bright.
Both OLED and higher-end LED TVs, especially those with Quantum Dots, are likely to have near-perfect color accuracy and the ability to display the wide color gamut needed for HDR content. And TVs that support "dynamic" formats like Dolby Vision or HDR10+ can change picture settings on a scene-by-scene basis — potentially providing a more lifelike picture.
Verdict: Premium OLED or LED TVs that are enhanced with Quantum Dots are a great choice for vibrant, accurate color at any brightness level. And if you’re into HDR content, make sure your new TV is compatible with the format you watch the most. For example, if you watch a lot of Netflix and want the best 4K streaming experience, look for a TV that supports Dolby Vision.
Get the right TV for you
If you need a little more help finding your next TV, check out our TV Buying Guide or list of Top TVs. Have specific questions about which screen technology makes the most sense for your room and viewing preferences? Our expert Advisors know the gear inside and out. Contact us today.
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