Now that flat-screen HDTVs have had a couple decades worth of refinement and product development, it's fair to say that it's harder to find a bad TV than it is a good one. A modern HDTV pairs excellent picture quality with built-in smart TV streaming features, all at an incredibly affordable price. The most recent trend with HDTVs has been increasingly larger screen sizes; it's now possible to find 55-inch TVs priced similarly to 40-inch models from even a few years ago.
Our top HDTV picks display inky black levels, creating a more immersive experience thanks to the well-defined contrast between light and dark areas. These selections also provide excellent color accuracy, recreating an image to make it look lifelike (along with carrying the necessary adjustments to dial in the perfect images with true-to-life colors). Each of these picks can also easily process moving image and maintain clarity with fast-moving program or movie scenes free of shudder or skipping, making them well-suited for home theater use. We also evaluated each TV's respective smart TV capabilities for ease of use and functionality.
If you're still unsure, head straight down to our HDTV buyer's guide below.
Best Picture Quality:
Nobody buys a new HDTV without having picture quality as one of their biggest considerations. While all HDTVs look good, there are select models which usually sit at the top of their respective manufacturers' lineups offering noticeably better picture quality than the rest. However, don't expect bargain prices because for this level of performance, you'll be paying a substantial premium.
The first thing to look for is a TV which delivers superb black levels. Our top picks for best picture quality display inky black levels, creating a more immersive experience thanks to the well-defined contrast between light and dark areas. These selections also provide excellent color accuracy, recreating an image to make it look lifelike along with adjustments to dial in the perfect images with true-to-life colors. Each of these picks can also easily process moving image and maintain clarity with fast-moving program or movie scenes free of shudder or skipping, making them well-suited for home theater use.
Once again, LG's expertise in OLED technology pays off with the best picture quality available on the market today. The B8 is the most affordable way to bring an LG OLED TV home, yet its picture quality stands heads and shoulders above just about any other TV on the market today.
Read Full Review
Samsung's Q9 QLED TVs represent the best performing LED TVs on the market thanks to its color-enhancing Quantum Dot technology. The Q9 is a worthy alternative to OLED TVs if burn-in remains a concern, and is a better choice for bright room performance. Read Full Review
Vizio's PQ65-F1 adds a quantum dot layer to the company's flagship P-Series, gifting it with the best LCD TV picture quality we've seen until now. The P-Series Quantum legitimately competes with the best OLED TV offerings when it comes to performance; the fact that it can be found for hundreds of dollars less means we can recommend it as our overall best pick with all things considered. Read Full Review
The Sony Bravia XBR65X900F strikes a good balance between picture quality, premium design, and reasonable pricing. The Android interface makes it one of the most flexible TV options for streaming content, and Sony's expertise in video processing ensures top-notch performance with even the most demanding movies. Read Full Review
Perhaps the single biggest surprise this year was how well the TCL 65R617 performed, comparing favorably against TVs costing thousands of dollars more. This 65-inch TV can easily be found for well under $1,000, and delivers a picture that impresses even dedicated videophiles. Read Full Review
HDTV Buyer's Guide
The HDTV market is filled with enough advertising and marketing hubris to make anyone's head spin with confusion. Manufacturers routinely go out of their way to make their products seem more impressive, including puzzling claims such as “infinite contrast ratio”. Worse still, the TVs on display at local brick & mortar shops usually have the brightness cranked to the max and various settings put to “store mode” to attract potential buyers.
Comparing TVs side-by-side at a store will do you no favors unless the sets are calibrated properly and are utilizing equal-quality HD feeds. Even then, TVs will look different in a brightly-lit environment like the sales floor compared to a dimmer, more controlled setting like your living room. Before you commit to buying a new TV, it helps to familiarize yourself with a few terms and specifications to ensure that you're getting exactly what you want.
Over the past several years, the HDTV industry has seen massive shifts in technologies and production. LCD TVs remain hugely popular, and are more affordable than ever due to the shrinking cost to produce this type of display. Manufacturers have taken this opportunity to further refine this display technology, with consumers enjoying the benefits of ever-improving picture quality. OLED TV technology has matured to the point where they can be found for reasonable prices, but availability remains scarce as only one manufacturer - LG - produces such a display type. (Note: Sony offers OLED TVs as well, but LG manufactures the panel)
LCD TVs are by far the most popular type of television sold today. This TV displays its images by rendering them across a liquid crystal layer, which is then illuminated by the backlight. Though the earliest LCD TVs were plagued by poor picture quality and a tendency to "lag" frames and create an exaggerated blur effect, advances made in the past decade have created a well-rounded TV that bear little resemblance to their flawed predecessors.
Modern LCD TVs carry several advantages that make them extremely attractive to the vast majority of consumers shopping for a new TV. LCD TVs are widely available, both online and from local warehouse and brick-and-mortar stores. Comparing screen sizes, these TVs are the most affordable by a long shot - both to buy and operate daily. LCD TVs can get many times brighter than any other type of TV, which makes them more suitable for use in bright environments. This is especially important as HDR content becomes more widespread.
Drawbacks are few, but worth noting. LCD TVs look best when viewing them from head-on. Though manufacturers have gone to great lengths to increase this "viewing angle", the picture quality degrades noticeably when viewing the TV from the sides. LCD TVs also have the potential to carry uneven screen uniformity, which can be noticed as artifacts in the image or "clouding" where the backlight shines brighter in one spot.
Here's a quick run-down of the types of technology you're likely to encounter when shopping for an LCD TV:
One of the primary components of an LCD TV is its backlight; without it, the images rendered on the crystal layer would not be visible. While earlier LCD TVs utilized standard CCFL (fluorescent lamp) arrays, just about any LCD TV you encounter today features an LED-illuminated backlight. This type of TV is sometimes referred to as an "LED TV", but this is a marketing term which introduces confusion. These TVs should technically be referred to as LED LCD TVs; though it's a mouthful, it's especially important to distinguish this detail in today's marketplace with OLED, QLED, and Quantum Dot LEDs further clouding the waters.
Today's LED LCD TVs utilize two distinct types of backlight technology:
This backlight setup places LEDs directly behind the LCD panel. LCD TVs with full-array LED backlighting exhibit superior screen uniformity, and are often paired with a technology called "local dimming" where the TV selectively reduces backlight output to create darker black levels where required. Most of our top picture quality performers utilize this type of backlight arrangement.
Rather than placing the LEDs behind the LCD panel, the diodes are moved to the edge of the TV underneath the bezel (typically at the bottom). They are then aimed at a 'light guide' which stretches behind the panel instead, and is used to distribute the light in order to display a viewable image. This type of backlight is typically found on more affordable models due to the lower cost of utilizing fewer lighting elements.
One of the challenges of getting an LCD screen to show a truly inky black comes from the very component that allows the display to be seen at all - the backlight. Unlike all other colors an LCD TV can display, black requires that the panel effectively blocks out the backlight so no light will go through. Though the best LCD panels can do this convincingly, it's easier to create a deeper black on-screen when there is simply no light for the panel to block. The solution is local dimming, where the TV's image processor can scan the frame and reduce or shut off light output for areas where a deeper black is required. All of our best-performing LED LCD TVs are equipped with such a feature.
A quick glance at the best LED LCD TVs sold today will reveal one thing in common - all of these sets utilize Quantum Dot technology. While it sounds like something out of a sci-fi show, the reality is just as impressive. Without getting into too much technical detail, Quantum Dot-equipped LCD TVs utilize microscopic particles that emit desired light frequencies when hit with blue light, which can then highlight colors better than an all-white backlight can. The result is a more "punchy" image compared to standard LCDs, and has the pleasing effect of increasing color saturation to the naked eye. Each manufacturer has its own name for the technology (Sony calls it Triluminos, Samsung calls it QLED, Vizio simply calls it Quantum), but the basic principles are the same in practice.
Despite wearing a confusingly similar name to "LED TV", an OLED TV shares next to nothing with LED LCD TVs other than the ability to display an image on screen. A relative newcomer to the market, OLED TV technology has matured in the past decade from expensive, primitive, and comparatively tiny panels to full-fledged high-end units that offer the best picture quality money can buy. OLED TVs do not utilize a backlight; instead, they operate more like plasma TVs in that each pixel is energized individually and emits its own light. OLED panels exhibit perfect screen uniformity and vastly superior off-angle viewing compared to LCD TVs. Because light output from each pixel is controlled individually, OLED TVs are the first display type to be capable of the much-vaunted "infinite contrast ratio". Black levels are simply perfect - no other type of consumer display technology can match OLED when it comes to true black levels.
It seems OLED TVs can finally offer a real alternative to die-hard plasma TV fans, thanks to its superior picture quality. Ironically, OLED TVs have inherited the same drawbacks that marred plasma display panels - namely limited brightness and image retention/burn-in. Because OLED TVs rely on each pixel to emit its own light, LED LCD TVs can get many times brighter when displaying images. This is especially noticeable in brighter rooms, meaning OLED TVs are better suited to environments where ambient light can be controlled. Image retention/screen burn-in makes an unfortunate comeback with OLED displays as well; while real-world effects may vary, there's no getting around the fact that OLED TVs are susceptible to this phenomenon. rtings.com has a very thorough, well-documented ongoing test researching OLED burn-in. As with our previous recommendation with plasma displays, burn-in can be mitigated if you vary content and avoid displaying static images for long periods of time.
What happened to plasma TVs?
Sadly, plasma TVs have been phased out of the market, with the last remaining manufacturers - LG and Samsung - withdrawing support in 2015. Panasonic ceased US sales of all consumer plasma TVs after Q1 2014. Despite superior picture quality, perfect screen uniformity, and lack of off-angle viewing issues compared to LCD TVs, the bulkiness and relative fragility of the sets, perceived burn-in effect, and high energy cost compared to LED LCD TVs eventually led to the demise of plasma TVs in the HDTV market. Though gone, this technology is not forgotten - one of the industry-wide gold standards for black levels and picture quality remains the Pioneer Kuro Elite plasma TV, which has been out of production for a decade.
Assessing Picture Quality
No matter what size TV you’re looking for, the one thing that needs to be prioritized is good picture quality. There is an enormous amount of information available on how to judge good picture quality, but your personal preference will ultimately determine what looks good to you, and if the pricier model with more features is worth the extra cost in the end.
Here are a few things to look for:
Black levels are a primary component to good picture quality. A good TV will be capable of purer blacks which stand in stark contrast to any color in the scene. In a scene with true “blacks”, dark gray tones are undesirable and can detract from the movie watching experience. OLED TVs are capable of generating the best black levels, followed closely by premium LED LCD TVs with full-array local dimming backlights.
We recommend selecting a TV with good color accuracy. A TV with poor color accuracy will display washed-out or oversaturated colors, and skin tones which appear orange, green, purple, or any other color that is not associated with a healthy person.
We always recommend a full calibration performed by a certified professional, as it will bring out the best the TV has to offer. On the other hand, a professional calibration is not an inexpensive proposition, and many newer TVs are capable of good color accuracy out of the box. Your mileage may vary.
Screen uniformity is extremely important as well. With an LCD TV, this boils down to how effectively the TV distributes its backlight. A good backlight setup will appear flawless and unnoticeable, while the appearance of spots or patches suggests poor screen uniformity. OLED TVs do not utilize a backlight, and display perfect screen uniformity at all times.
Manufacturers like to throw around large contrast ratio numbers to give the impression of superior picture quality. Outside of each respective manufacturer's products, this number is just about meaningless. A simple explanation of contrast ratio is the difference between the brightest image the TV can display and the darkest image the TV can display (black level). rtings.com has an excellent library of native contrast ratios, which is a useful comparison tool if you're stuck deciding between two TVs.
Previously, we dismissed the claim "infinite contrast ratio" as pure marketing, as it was impossible for either LCD or plasma displays to achieve a pure, true black. OLED TVs are capable of generating such black levels, and can legitimately achieve this previously unobtainable "infinite contrast ratio". How is this possible? Think of it as dividing by zero (the measurement of a true black from an OLED TV). Due to the pure black, the contrast level of an OLED TV is simply not possible to measure.
For the best HDTV experience, go for the biggest size your budget and setting will allow. Remember that this is an investment that you will live with for quite some time, and you don't want buyer's remorse because you didn't go for the bigger screen. Keep in mind that as implausible as it may sound, it is possible to go too big. If you live in a small apartment or plan to set the TV up where space is limited, that 85-inch TV may not be the best idea.
Today's HDTVs come in two main resolutions – 1080p and 4K. When broken down, these alphanumeric combinations simply state the resolution and the method in which the pixels are displayed. Here's a brief explanation of each, along with a quick run-down of the less-encountered resolutions among HDTVs today.
4K - This is the resolution of most TVs on sale today. 4K televisions carry a 3840x2160 pixel resolution, which is exactly twice the horizontal resolution and twice the vertical resolution of 1080p. Though subtle, the increase in the level of detail is clearly visible on larger screens.
1080p - Often referred to as 'Full HD', and represents 1920x1080 pixels displayed on the screen in a 'progressive' format. Each line is resolved during the refresh cycle, leading to a clearer, sharper picture. Despite 4K overtaking 1080p as the most popular HDTV resolution, most HD content continues to be geared towards 1080p.
720p - Like 1080p, 720p is a 'progressive scan' format. The '720p' term actually refers to a range of HD resolutions, with a minimum of 1280x720 pixels from which the name is derived. This resolution is now seldom encountered, and is relegated to the most bare-bones entry-level HDTVs on sale today.
1080i - Although modern HDTVs do not feature 1080i as a native resolution, this format is still encountered when dealing with HD broadcasts. Older CRT HDTVs also sport a 1080i native resolution, which can lead to some confusion. While the resolution is identical to 1080p (1980x1080 pixels), the “I” in the name stands for “interlaced” scan.
Native 1080i-resolution displays refresh every alternating line (effectively producing 1920x540 pixels per refresh cycle) to show the entire image. Modern displays require image processing (de-interlacing) to display content encoded in this format.
Standard Definition - Older TV formats are almost always considered “standard definition”. You'll see the term “enhanced definition” thrown around here and there when referring to 480p, but the current trend is to refer to anything which features a lower resolution than "HD” as “standard definition”.
Not all HDTVs perform well with standard definition content. Don't be surprised if you connect your old DVD player or game console to your brand new HDTV and the resulting picture isn't crystal-clear.
Without getting into too much detail, here’s a brief explanation: the native resolution of a new HDTV is far higher than what standard definition devices can output. This means that your TV will try to convert the standard definition signal (usually 480i or 480p) into high definition (720p, 1080p, or even 4K) to fill the screen, and the results are not always pretty. On the other hand, high definition content will look fantastic on a high definition TV.
Part of the reason why 3D TVs disappeared from the market has to do with the increased availability of HDR content. HDR stands for High-dynamic Range, and its basic operational principles are actually quite simple. When rendered properly, HDR content can display both darker and brighter scenes within the same frame, along with more vibrant colors. If you've used the built-in HDR feature found in many smart phones, you already have an idea of what to look for. Three standards currently exist - HDR10, Dolby Vision, and HDR10+. HDR10 is the base line for TV HDR - when "regular HDR" is mentioned, it refers to HDR10. Dolby Vision and HDR10+ carry additional performance benefits over regular HDR:
You'll undoubtedly recognize the Dolby name from various audio formats; the very same Dolby Labs is now involved with improving video quality across the board. Dolby Vision requires TV manufacturers to meet specific video standards, and certification is granted only after the company signs off on the set's performance. HDR10 material instructs the TV where the limits are for the darkest and brightest scenes; this "metadata" is sent only once at the beginning of content playback and remains static throughout. The biggest difference between Dolby Vision and HDR10 is the ability to change the video metadata on-the-fly, resulting in more flexibility when it comes to rendering scenes. So far, the only company to exclude Dolby Vision from their sets is Samsung, which leads us neatly to...
HDR10+ is an alternate standard developed primarily by Samsung, and can be found in Amazon Video content. Unlike Dolby Vision, HDR10+ does not require manufacturers to pay a royalty to Dolby Laboratories. Just like its rival format, HDR10+ can change the video metadata as required during playback. We've yet to encounter a single TV that supports both formats, though this could change at a future date. As you would expect, HDR10+ is supported by Samsung TVs.
As you will no doubt have noticed by now, modern HDTVs encompass a wide range of prices. It's easy to find a good HDTV for under $500, but you're more likely to encounter models on the showroom floor costing over $1000. If money is no object, there are higher-performance TVs available today which sport $5000+ sticker prices.
Current HDTVs are far from 'one size fits all', both literally and figuratively. In today's TV market, screen size is the biggest factor in determining cost, whether you're looking at OLED or LCD TVs. Almost all TVs sold today come equipped with some degree of smart TV capability, so the difference in features boils down to picture quality enhancements.
Try Before you Buy
Don't assume that the way the TV looks in the store will translate to the one that you purchase. If you can, ask an employee or salesperson to connect high-definition material to the TV (usually a Blu-ray movie), then switch the set to its 'Cinema Mode' (or whatever is closest). This will help even the playing field.