If you’ve ever witnessed a 4K OLED television playing HDR video, you’ve seen the pinnacle of TV tech. The black levels look like deep space. The contrast is perfect. The colors are stunning. Every frame mesmerizes, a twinkling, tack-sharp work of art.
At CES, incredible OLEDs from LG and Sony and equally stunning LCDs from Samsung dominated the news. With good reason. They’re all gorgeous. But while OLEDs are coming down in price, the cheapest ones still run a couple grand. For the same money, you could buy several 4K sets from Hisense or TCL. These Chinese companies also offer high-end panels, but their big appeal in the US is the affordable stuff. You’ll never mistake these sets for OLEDs, but they offer solid specs and handy extras like built-in Roku. Still, the biggest hook is that they’re insanely cheap.
Those bargain TVs are aimed at a different market than the premium LG, Samsung, and Sony sets, but they still may eat up potential sales. Just as top-tier sets are looking better than ever, budget TVs are getting pretty damn good in their own right. “It’s very possible lesser known TV brands will have an impact in the US,” says Brian Blau, VP of research at Gartner. “But with their brand strength and media buying power, the incumbent brands won’t give up that easily.”
Lowering the Boom
Hisense and TCL are gaining momentum at just the right time. Analysts expect more than half of all TVs sold this year to be 4K panels, and the Consumer Technology Association says 4K TV sales are outpacing HDTVs during the first few years of the HD revolution. Prices for 4K TVs have also fallen dramatically in recent years, while streaming platforms have bulked up their 4K content.
Four years ago, you’d have spent $20,000 for one of the few 4K sets available at the time. Now, you can get one that plays HDR video—the new hot feature that makes things look more colorful and realistic—for less than $500.
The only thing faster than the decline in prices have been the improvements in picture quality. LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio have led the way, even at affordable prices. Two years ago, the kid at your local big-box store would have laughed if you’d asked for a 4K OLED set with HDR for $2,000. These days, you’ll pay that much for LG’s superb 55-inch OLED B model. But when you look at the top-selling sets on Amazon, OLED is AWOL: the top three sellers are TCL models with Roku built in that sell for $330 or less.
There’s nothing wrong with a cheap TV. But when it comes to the primary TV, the one everyone gathers around for the Super Bowl or the season finale of Game of Thrones, people go all-out. “The main TV in the home, the one with the biggest screen in the most prominent place, has traditionally been a recognizable brand,” says Stephen Baker, VP of industry analysis at NPD Group. “Consumers want to show off their TV, they want confidence that it looks great and is a good investment. Great design and great technology with a great picture… It remains hard for the Chinese brands to crack that code.”
Baker says people are inclined to pay more for a name-brand TV with the same features and picture as a cheaper lesser-known panel. Last year, the big-name brands sold nearly half their 60-inch-and-up sets at prices below $1,000—not their top models, in other words. When it came to small 32-inchers, people happily pay an average of $50 more for a Samsung or Vizio over some brand they don’t know.
Buying a solid, cheap TV is smart. Nothing at all wrong with it. But if you can find a way to stretch your budget, you’ll be amply rewarded. The battle of premium versus cheap presents a challenge to the likes of LG, Samsung, and Sony as the 4K revolution begins in earnest. Now that cheap TVs offer a decent picture at a low price, how can those companies make their pricier sets stand out?
What You Get With a Top-Tier TV
When it comes to higher-quality sets, you get what you pay for. Start with the screen. It doesn’t need to be an OLED panel to be amazing, but it helps. OLEDs offer the deepest blacks. Each pixel is illuminated individually, so a piercingly bright pixel can be next to a pure-black one with no light leakage. That creates stunning contrast, and contrast may be the most important trait of a beautiful picture. OLED panels can also be wafer-thin, with super-wide viewing angles and fast response rates.
But top-tier LCD sets are also amazing. They can get brighter than OLED, and finely controlled brightness begets excellent HDR video. Their range of colors—the color gamut—enhances realism. All the top sets, both LCD and OLED, are approaching the ability to display 100 percent of the DCI-P3 color space, the entire range of colors used by the movie industry.
Resolution, color gamut, and contrast are the hallmarks of high-end televisions, but Samsung, Sony, and LG are giving their flagship sets just a bit more. Samsung reengineered its QLED sets’ quantum dots—nanocrystals that tune the TV’s colors to perfection—to improve viewing angles and color volume, so colors don’t appear washed out at peak brightness. Sony is actually using LG’s Crystal Sound OLED technology to eliminate the speakers on the beautiful Bravia A1E OLED. Four transducers affixed to the back of the screen vibrate to transmit audio and create the illusion of the sound following the action onscreen. While Sony is using LG’s panel, the company’s own X1 Extreme processor makes the picture sharper, more detailed, and more colorful. And while LG’s sets already have a rep for the best picture in the history of television, the company made its 2017 sets 25 percent brighter and boosted the color gamut to show more than 99 percent of the DCI-P3 color space.
Beyond the stellar picture, a premium set offers slick industrial design. LG’s Signature OLED W7 is just 2.5mm thick and weighs 17 pounds, so you can simply hang it on the wall like a picture. The secret to its slim profile? All the processing guts and I/O ports are housed in the TV’s Dolby Atmos soundbar. Samsung’s beautiful QLED has similarly disembodied electronics, tethered to the screen by a thin transparent cable. Sony’s OLED set resembles a giant picture frame, its components and ports tucked in a slick rear-mounted stand.
You can get wide color gamuts, 4K resolution, and HDR video in a $500 set, but the difference is in the tuning. Pricier sets will offer sharper contrast, more accurate colors, a wider dynamic range, and both HDR10 and Dolby Vision playback.
Can Premium TVs Crack the Mainstream?
No matter what kind of money you want to spend, it’s a buyer’s market for TVs. If you want an OLED or amazing LCD, they look better than ever, and prices have never been lower. But if you just want a simple set to watch your stories on, you can get a decent TV for less than a grand. Eventually, all those picture-enhancing features at the top go downmarket. “The prices for the highest priced TVs come down each year as another new technology takes its place at the top,” says Gartner’s Blau. “That is what drives the prices down.”
Most of the amazing technology shown at CES each year is aspirational. No one really wants to bring a $55,000 pair of headphones on the subway, and that cool three-screened laptop concept weighs 11 pounds. But with televisions, dream TVs are shockingly within reach. The fantasy sets from a few years ago—ones that cost 15 grand and didn’t do 4K or HDR—are now even better and selling for less than $2,000. OLEDs are reasonably priced, and it’s happening just in time for the next TV boom.
While cheap TVs are bound to outsell OLEDs by the boatload, LG says its TVs are very popular in a certain segment. The company’s OLED panels represented 21 percent of the market share for TVs priced more than $2,000 in 2016. OLED sales also accounted for more than 25 percent of the $3,000-and-up market. Now, as the OLED competition heats up, high-end LCDs get better, and low-end LCDs sell for practically nothing, the company wants to tackle the low end.
“The purpose of OLED is not just to win awards,” says LG director of marketing Tim Alessi. “It’s to sell them.”