LCD TVs have taken over the flat-panel market big time. For one thing, they are much brighter than plasmas, which means they catch shoppers' attention much better in the store. They can be made ultra thin with LED illumination, which also offers the added benefit of being much "greener" for the environment than the old fluorescent backlighting. In fact, virtually all LCD TVs these days use LED illumination in one of two configurations—LEDs placed around the edges of the screen (edgelighting) or in an array directly behind the screen (full-array backlighting).
Let There Be Light
Edgelighting is much more common, because it allows the TV to be extremely thin, which seems to be a big selling point among consumers. It's also less expensive to manufacture. However, it often results in uneven illumination of the image, especially in dark scenes. A few sets offer full-array backlighting, and some such models implement a feature called local dimming, in which the LEDs behind dark portions of the picture are dimmed while the LEDs behind bright portions of the picture are brightened, resulting in greater contrast. Some inexpensive LED-LCD TVs use full-array backlighting without local dimming, but there are fewer LEDs in the array, and these models can't be made quite as thin as edgelit designs. Also, many edgelit sets claim to provide a form of "local dimming" (each manufacturer has its own name for this feature), but I've never seen it work very well.
"All LCD TVs suffer from some inherent problems that are addressed in various ways—and that plasmas don't have in the first place."
All LCD TVs suffer from some inherent problems that are addressed in various ways—and that plasmas don't have in the first place. For example, LCDs have a hard time achieving really deep blacks, which can be helped by dynamically dimming the LEDs, either all at once or with local dimming. Also, LCDs exhibit motion blur—objects in motion appear more blurry than they do on plasma. A feature generically called frame interpolation (each manufacturer has its own name for this) sharpens motion blur, but it also introduces an artifact called "the soap-opera effect," because it makes movies look like they were shot on video like a soap opera. In most cases, this feature can be turned off if you really hate the soap-opera effect.
The one problem with LCDs that can't be addressed with a "band-aid" is off-axis performance—as you move away from being centered on the screen, the colors often shift and become desaturated, and the black level appears to rise, leading to a washed-out image. As a result, people sitting to the sides will see a less-than-ideal picture. Of the two basic technologies used to make LCD panels, IPS (in-plane switching) usually provides better off-axis performance in the horizontal direction, while VA (vertical alignment) offers better black levels if you're centered on the screen. Panasonic, LG, and Vizio use IPS panels, while Samsung, Sharp, and Sony use variations of VA.
Active vs. Passive 3D
Most LCD TVs today offer the ability to display 3D content from Blu-rays and broadcast signals. This requires that the images for the left and right eye be isolated from each other, which usually means wearing glasses that let the left image reach the left eye while blocking the right image and vice versa. (Some great work is being done to allow glasses-free 3D, but there are no such sets currently on the market.)
This feature is implemented in one of two ways—with active-shutter glasses or passive-polarized glasses. Active-shutter glasses alternately block the light from the TV to one eye while letting the light reach the other eye, back and forth in rapid succession. The TV displays only the image for the corresponding eye in sync with which lens in the glasses is open. This provides a full-resolution image (1920x1080) for each eye, but the glasses require power (a replaceable or rechargeable battery) for their electronics, making them more expensive and heavier than passive glasses. Also, some people report seeing the image flicker, and a few actually get dizzy or even nauseous when watching 3D with active glasses.
By contrast, passive glasses have no electronics, so they are much less expensive and lighter in weight. In fact, this is the type of 3D glasses used in most commercial cinemas. In this case, the TV screen has an extra layer that polarizes the light from each row of pixels—the odd-numbered rows are polarized in one direction, and the even-numbered rows are polarized in the opposite direction. The left image is displayed in one set of lines, and the right image is displayed in the other set of lines. One lens of the glasses allows only the light from the odd rows to pass, while the other lens allows the light from the even rows to pass.
The only real problem with this approach is that each eye sees only half the vertical resolution available on the TV. That is, each eye sees 1920x540 pixels instead of 1920x1080. Most people report seeing more detail than this would imply, which is often explained as a result of the brain fusing the two images together. However, you can often see very thin black horizontal lines on the screen, especially if you sit close.
UHD or Not UHD?
Several companies have introduced so-called UHD (Ultra High Definition) or "4K" LCD TVs with a pixel resolution of 3840x2160—four times as many pixels as a conventional HDTV. I have decided not to include any of these models in this buying guide, mostly because they will be obsolete in a couple of years as the standards for UHD are finalized. Some of these sets look great displaying regular HD, but there is very little UHD content available, and that content will likely have characteristics the current UHDTVs can't handle in the future. Plus, these sets carry a price premium, though that is diminishing much faster than I would expect with a new technology.
"I have decided not to include any UHD models in this buying guide, mostly
because they will be obsolete in a couple of years as the standards for UHD are finalized."
Actually, there is one reason to get a UHDTV today—at least, a UHDTV that provides 3D with passive glasses. Since the resolution is 3840x2160, each eye sees a vertical resolution of 1080 pixels. Whether or not this is worth the premium price of a UHDTV is up to you. Also, we've learned at in at least one case—the Sony KDL-55X900—the vertical resolution for each eye is only 540 lines, making it no better than conventional LCD TVs in this regard. (We don't know if the 65" version of this TV does the same thing with 3D.)
The LCD TVs in this buying guide were selected as the best 1080p models available in 2013 by consulting various review outlets such as CNET, Consumer Reports, Sound and Vision, and rtings.com as well as AVS reviews and owner threads and a special call out to members for their top picks.
You'll notice an "xx" in the model numbers below; this is a placeholder for the size of the screen. For example, the Vizio E500i has a 50-inch screen, measured diagonally.
This entry-level line uses full-array backlighting with local dimming—a real surprise for such inexpensive sets. The result is deep blacks, a uniform screen, and great bright-room performance. CNET reports that the local dimming can sometimes obscure shadow detail, and it can be rather obvious in operation during some scenes, but at these prices, that might be easy to overlook. And the use of IPS LCD panels means they look better off-axis than TVs that use VA panels. Also on tap is Internet content from Vizio Internet Apps (VIA), though no 3D.
Scott Says: If saving money is at the top of your list, this line offers a lot for a little.
Vizio's M1D line continues the company's tradition of offering exceptional value in its LED-LCD TVs. A favorite of CNET, Consumer Reports, and many AVS members, the M1D uses LED edgelighting and offers passive-glasses 3D and access to Internet content as well as 240 Hz frame interpolation. CNET reports great shadow detail, fairly deep blacks, and excellent processing, though with edgelighting, I'm sure that screen uniformity is not perfect.
Scott Says: A strong contender in the high-value sweepstakes, especially at such large screen sizes.
This LED-edgelit model represents Sony's midline and probably its greatest value proposition according to CNET, which also reports relatively deep black levels. A matte screen helps combat room reflections, and unlike many Sony TVs, this one provides 3D via passive glasses, which many viewers find more comfortable than active glasses. The colors aren't completely accurate, and the grayscale can't be brought into perfect calibration, but the errors are fairly minor.
The R520A series (60 and 70 inches only) is virtually identical to the R550A except that it has no 3D capabilities for $100 less.
Scott Says: Sony TVs normally command a premium price, but this one is surprisingly affordable, making it a great value.
The FH6030 continues Samsung's trend to use full-array backlighting in some of its entry-level LED-LCD TVs, though unlike the Vizio Exx0i, this one does not implement local dimming. Still, full-array backlighting does provide much more even illumination across the screen, which is especially important in dark scenes, and the blacks are fairly deep, leading to good contrast. This model also provides 3D with active-shutter glasses and 120 Hz refresh rate with motion interpolation. Other than a narrow viewing angle because of its VA-based LCD panel, the only real downside is a high input lag, which could be a deal-breaker for those wanting to play video games on this TV.
Scott Says: If you want full-resolution 3D and great illumination uniformity without spending a bunch—and you don't plan to play games on it—this is a great choice.
Moving up the Samsung line—which is a bit odd, since that usually means an increasing model number—the F5500 uses full-array backlighting (no local dimming) with active-glasses 3D and a dual-core processor. The refresh rate is 60 Hz, so no frame interpolation, which is no problem if you dislike the soap-opera effect. It does offer smart TV functionality with built-in WiFi, a web browser, and a smartphone control app, and the input lag is about 30% less than the F6030. Like all Samsung models in this buying guide, the picture performance is excellent.
The step-down F5000 is basically the same as the F5500 without smart TV capabilities or built-in WiFi for about $50 less. A CNET top pick.
Scott Says: Recommended by Consumer Reports, rtings.com, and AVS members, this is another fine bargain-priced LED-LCD TV from Samsung.
Sharp is best known for making really big LCD TVs, and the mid-level LE650U line is no exception, reaching 80 inches diagonally. CNET says it "boasts better overall picture quality than most competing LCD TVs. Black levels and shadows are dark and detailed, color is accurate, and the image maintains fidelity well in a bright room"—that last one thanks in part to a matte screen. Being edgelit, it does have some minor uniformity issues, and using a variation of VA technology, the off-axis performance suffers in exchange for better blacks when viewed on-axis. Feature-wise, it provides Samsung's stellar smart-TV capabilities with built-in WiFi and 120 Hz frame interpolation, but no 3D.
Scott Says: If you want a relatively affordable big-screen TV, and you don't care about 3D, this is a top contender.
The F6400 uses LED edgelighting with Micro Dimming, which dynamically adjusts the LED brightness to improve contrast and inserts black frames between the video frames to improve contrast and sharpen motion detail without the soap-opera effect. Also available is 120 Hz frame interpolation, and like all Samsung TVs with 3D, this one uses active-shutter glasses. The company's Smart TV feature is among the best in the business, including a web browser and built-in WiFi, and the TV can be controlled with voice interaction through the remote.
The step-down F6300 omits 3D, Micro Dimming, and voice interaction, but it's otherwise very similar for $25 to $600 less, depending on screen size.
- UN40F6400: $800
- UN46F6400: $950
- UN50F6400: $1100
- UN55F6400: $1300
- UN60F6400: $1700
- UN65F6400: $2000
- UN75F6400: $3500
Scott Says: This is the least expensive Samsung with 3D, Micro Dimming, Smart TV, and voice interaction, making it a fave among AVS members.
Samsung's flagship 1080p LED-LCD TV, the F8000 uses edgelighting with Micro Dimming Ultimate, a more sophisticated form of black-frame insertion and dynamic LED dimming. It's quad-core processor supports 240 Hz frame interpolation, active-glasses 3D, Smart TV capabilities, and Smart Interaction, which lets you control the TV with voice and hand gestures thanks to the built-in camera. That camera also lets the TV recognize different faces and automatically set the TV to their preferences. Perhaps most importantly, the F8000 provides a feature called Smart Evolution, which lets you upgrade the TV's hardware as new capabilities are developed.
Scott Says: The F8000 is universally hailed as one of the best LED-LCD TVs you can buy today, and it's future-proof with Smart Evolution.
This flagship Sony 1080p set comes in only one screen size and features a new technology—quantum-dot illumination. Dubbed Triluminous by Sony, this technology uses blue LEDs at the edges of the screen that cause microscopic dots of matter in a separate layer to glow green and red, and all three colors combine to form white light as in other LED-illuminated LCD TVs. The W900A offers gorgeous colors, deep blacks, and great shadow detail as well as 3D capabilities with active glasses. And its low input lag makes this set ideal for gaming. The Sony website is selling it for $2000 during the holidays, so now's a great time to get the best.
- KDL-55W900A: $3300
Scott Says: It's expensive for its size, but this is one of the best LED-LCD TVs on the market today, even more so if you're a gamer.