The newest OLED 4K TVs may be the best but LED is catching up fast through HDR

by on August 24, 2016

Stephan Jukic – August 24, 2016

Since they first came out in 2014, OLED 4K TVs, at first from LG but now also in the form of native panels from Panasonic (at least in some offshore markets) are in their display specs widely considered to be the best overall pieces of home entertainment TV technology ever made to-date. This is a view almost uniformly shared by TV reviewers and tech websites (ourselves included), and test comparisons between LED and OLED TV models all concur with the same perception. Then of course there are consumer perceptions and they widely seem to be in agreement as well.

Now that OLED technology in TVs also features the powerful color and contrast enhancements of high dynamic range, the weight in favor of OLED would seem to be even more assured, particularly due to the fact that their new HDR chops have led to these TVs finally offering peak brightness levels comparable or superior to those of many LED TVs.

However, just as HDR benefits the OLED TV market, it’s also benefitting LED/LCD 4K televisions and in ways that could possibly lead to these latter models finally having a major edge over their spectacular organic light emitting diode cousins.

A recent comparison conducted by the 12th annual Value Electronics TV Shootout, in which several premium OLED and LED 4K TV models from all of the major U.S brands were compared beers out the above findings about the superiority of OLED. After undergoing professional calibration and then being submitted to scrutiny across several key display performance metrics, a number of premium models were compared against each other with predictable but still interesting results. The TVs in question consisted of LG’s flagship G6 OLED 4K HDR TV, Sony’s flagship X940D 4K HDR full-array LED TV, Samsung’s flagship HDR KS9800 television and one of Vizio’s extremely expensive Reference Series 4K HDR TV models.

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Now, while the LG G6 model television won nearly across the board and took home the prize as the best perceived display performer of all the premium 2016 4K HDR TVs sold in North America, the LED HDR flagship models are starting to give OLED a bit of a run for its money in some key areas.

Where OLED absolutely shines is in its essentially perfect black performance. Given that all modern high-end 4K TVs pretty much master the essentials of color accuracy, detail preservation in shaded areas, color balance, white balance, upscaling and color coverage very similarly, OLED’s truly massive advantages lie in its capacity for perfect blacks and extremely precise pixel-perfect local dimming. Now while we cover both of these performance indicators in much greater detail in our OLED vs. LED TV guide here, the basic reasons for this OLED superiority are that the technology itself allows for each individual pixel on a 4K TV’s screen to brighten fully or turn off completely as directed, allowing for pixel-level local dimming and total blackness. In contrast, LED TVs of even the best kind like those mentioned above rely on a broad full-array backlight of large LEDs (hundreds of them) behind an LCD screen, and while these individual LEDs can also be turned off singly or as desired, the limited quantity of them and area of screen each covers causes at least some light bleed to filter across lighting zones on a screen, especially between small complex interplays of bright and dark.

Sony's X940D

Sony’s X940D 4K HDR TV

All of the LED TVs compared to the OLED model at this year’s Value Electronics TV Shootout event were full-array LED backlight models and offer numerous dimming zones across their screens, with 150 of them for the Samsung KS9800, 96 of them for the Sony X940D and a very impressive 384 dimming zones for the Vizio Reference TV model. However, even the best of these vacklight/dimming zone counts compares in no way to the 8.29 million single-pixel backlight zones of any OLED TV, much less an HDR OLED model like the G6, with the highest OLED pixel brightness capacity we’ve yet seen in any OLED TV.

With the OLED, once again, dimming and lighting precision is pixel-perfect and thus unbeatable compared against any LED TV of any kind. Furthermore, in controlled lighting conditions, the OLED TV’s perfect black levels create darkness so rich that it pretty much perfectly simulates reality. Even the best local dimming of the LED models let in some very mild light bleed that can be detected.

Nonetheless, as our own headline and premise above states, the LEDs are catching up on OLED in unique ways.

For starters, the black levels they can manage are now far better than they ever have been and the Samsung KS9800 in particular can manage black levels with only 0.017 nits of light bleed coming through them. This is beautifully dark indeed and far superior to the performance of blacks in older LED 4K TV models from earlier years.

Samsung's KS9800 SUHD HDR 4K TV

Samsung’s KS9800 SUHD HDR 4K TV

More importantly still, while OLED creates perfect blacks and delivers brighter than ever pixel brightness capacity, the LED 4K TVs are capable of completely outmatching the technology in their capacity for maximum brightness –something which is just as or even more important than black level performance in display realism.  Thus, while the G6, which is the OLED TV with the brightest display capacity yet seen by us, can manage spot peak brightness levels of over 600 nits, the Samsung KS9800 and Sony X940D can both achieve well over 1100 nits of spot beak brightness, with the KS9800 in particular reaching just under 1500 nits as its max and this is a spec that all of the other 2016 SUHD TVs from Samsung are also capable of, even the cheapest models. This is impressive indeed when compared to older SDR 4K TVs which could barely manage to deliver 300 or 350 nits of max brightness on their display panels. Furthermore, these extremely high peak brightness levels do a lot to offset the weaker black levels of these LED TVs.

Since LED models are expected to offer still higher peak brightness capacities moving into 2017, even minor improvements in their black level performance will make them worthy competitors to the best OLED TVs in many viewers eyes, especially given their considerably lower prices.

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