Emissive HDTVs Beat Transmissive UHDTVs in Value Electronics 2014 Shootout

For the first time in the 10-year history of the Value Electronics Flat-Panel Shootout, there are two winners. Depending on how you parse the audience votes, the crown goes to LG’s 55EC93000 OLED or Samsung’s PN64F8500 plasma, which is why VE president Robert Zohn announced a tie.

As in years past, the audience vote determined the overall winner; the F8500 beat all of the LCD-based UHDTVs in every category and garnered the highest overall average score, while LG’s new—and relatively inexpensive—OLED scored the highest of all the TVs in four out of six weighted categories. On top of that, the calibrators who set up the TVs chose Samsung’s KN55S9C OLED as the best-performing display in the shootout. It’s fair to say that, in the eyes of both the audience and the pros, LCD-based UHDTVs (which are known as transmissive displays because light must pass through the LCD layer) did not perform that well compared to OLED and plasma panels, which are called emissive because the pixels emit their own light.

LG’s 55EC93000 OLED (left) and Samsung’s PN64F8500 plasma (right) tied for first place

The difference between last year’s shootout and the latest edition was quite stark: LCDs went from being a sideshow to the main attraction in the annual comparison of flat-panel displays. All the UHD/4K entrants were large and expensive TVs—78 inches or larger—relative to the TVs featured last year, which topped out at 65 inches with Sony’s XBR-65X900A. According to the event organizers, the larger screen sizes are a necessity with UHDTVs, helping viewers appreciate the added resolution of UHD/4K content from normal viewing distances.

The problem with such large UHDTVs is that they cost much more than 65-inch models, but the extra money only buys screen real estate, not better performance versus smaller TVs that use the same technology. The prices of the LCD-basedUHD/4K TVs in the shootout ranged from $6000 to $120,000, well outside of most TV shoppers’ budget. Yet, paying a princely sum offers no guarantee that a TV will produce the best possible image.

DeWayne Davis (D-Nice) sets up a checkerboard pattern, which is used to measure contrast.

At the shootout, I noticed how obvious the dimming zones are on larger LCD UHDTVs. Based on my experience with the FALD (full-array local dimming) on Sharp’s Elite and Vizio’s P-series LCDs, I thought the current crop of UHDTVs would offer some tangible improvement over the flashlighting artifacts that plague edgelit designs. Instead, I witnessed obvious halo artifacts and pulsating shadows, even on the most expensive UHDTVs at the shootout. To my eyes, it was apparent that the FALD UHDTVs do not have backlit arrays with enough dimming zones to produce a plasma- or OLED-like image, one that is free of flashlighting and halo artifacts.

During the Q&A session at the end of the Saturday session, DeWayne Davis (D-Nice) said that his five Pioneer Kuros remain unbeaten in terms of image quality. I feel the same way about my Samsung F8500, the winner of last year’s—and co-winner of this year’s—shootouts. Based on what I saw last weekend, when it comes to the current crop of LCD-based UHDTVs, extra pixels and extra inches come at the expense of color fidelity, motion handling, and contrast. According to Robert Zohn, “Regardless of how you break down the ballots the message is clear, video enthusiasts strongly prefer self-emitting based displays over liquid crystal panels with edge lit or direct array light emitting diodes.”

The results of the 2014 shootout do not mean that 1080p somehow beat UHD/4K—the display technology itself made the difference. The problem is that LED-LCD is the only consumer-oriented flat-panel display technology that is mass-produced in large sizes and UHD/4K resolution. And whereas a 65-inch HDTV is close to the optimum screen size for viewing 1080p content from nine or ten feet away, you need to sit much closer to a UHDTV to get the maximum benefit of the extra pixels—or else you need a larger screen to see the enhanced detail. The only TV at the shootout large enough to take full advantage of UHD resolution from a typical TV viewing distance was the 105-inch Samsung UN105S9W, which costs $120,000. In other words, unless you pay more for a TV than you would pay for a very nice luxury car, you only gain a fraction of the benefit of UHD/4K resolution.

Samsung’s 105-inch ultra-wide UHDTV is large enough to take advantage of UHD/4K resolution.

Ultimately, the LCD-based UHDTVs in the VE shootout offer larger screen sizes and more pixels, but not necessarily better image quality. If a broad array of currently available, demonstrably superior UHD/4K TVs and movie content existed already, the value proposition of UHD/4K would be better. As it stands, there’s precious little native UHD content to watch on a UHDTV aside from still photos, home videos, 4K video games, a handful of movies, and a couple of TV shows—everything else is upscaled 1080p content. Put another way, if you mostly watch movies on Blu-ray and cable/broadcast TV, upscaling that content to UHD/4K resolution is not enough to compensate for the notably inferior performance of LED-LCDs.

David Mackenzie demonstrates the effect of upscaling 1080p to UHD using various algorithms.

My takeaway from this year’s shootout is that it’s difficult to mitigate the fundamental flaws of LCD technology, and it costs a lot to try. Interestingly, I went to last year’s shootout convinced that Sony’s XBR-65X900A UHD/4K offering had a chance at winning. By the end of that evening, I could see that the plasmas were the best performers, and by a significant margin. This year, once again I thought the LCDs had a real shot at winning, and I was wrong. Since OLED and plasma technology won the 2014 vote despite the handicap of smaller screen sizes and “only” 1080p resolution, I’m very interested in seeing how the forthcoming UHD/4K OLEDs from LG rank when subjected to similar scrutiny. Based on the performance of the two 1080p OLEDs at this year’s shootout, it’s possible that 2014’s best-performing TV wasn’t even in the competition.

The two winners, the PN64F8500 (top right) and the 55EC93000 (bottom right), also had the widest viewing angles.

I want to congratulate everyone who helped make the 2014 Value Electronics shootout happen. It is a tremendously valuable resource for videophiles—a unique opportunity to see how the latest TVs compare to each other. I specifically want to highlight the thorough professionalism of the calibrators—Kevin Miller, DeWayne Davis, and David Mackenzie. Thank you guys!