LG's OLED TV isn't the best TV we've ever tested

    But the 55-inch 1080p 55EC9300 model shows why OLED sets will soon top our TV ratings

    Published: October 24, 2014 10:15 AM
    Can you guess which one is the OLED? Hint—it's dark. Very dark.

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    OLED TV technology isn't exactly new—we tested the first set, Sony's 11-inch XEL-1, back in 2008, and Samsung's KN55SC9 set last year. (The Sony's black levels were so deep we had to buy new test equipment.) But LG's latest OLED TV, the 55-inch 55EC9300 is notable for two reasons: One, it's priced at just $3,500—about $5,500 less than last year's models—and it's the first OLED TV to make it into our TV Ratings. On certain key aspects of display performance, it was unparalleled. But unlike some other reviewers, we can't say that it's the best all-around TV we've ever tested.

    The 55EC9300 is a visually attractive set, with a super-thin profile—thinner than even the sleekest LCD TV in our labs—and a gently curved 55-inch screen. OLED is an energy-efficient technology, and the LG model used less energy than any TV its size in our Ratings. Overall picture quality was excellent, and its sound was good but not great, which was not unexpected given the cabinet's shallow depth. The television's overall score placed it only fifth in its size category in our Ratings

    Still, it's clear that in some ways the 55EC9300 has no rivals. This is especially true in the areas of black levels and contrast, which are deeper than anything produced by even the best plasmas. While it has a few flaws, it's certainly a harbinger of even better things to come, especially when the first OLED TVs with Ultra HD resolutions (3840x2160) arrive.

    Black levels and contrast were superb with our test patterns and movie clips that often emphasize the performance limitations of LCD TVs, which use a separate backlight. For example, in scenes from the movie "Gravity," white objects—such as Sandra Bullock's spacesuit, the spaceship, or stars—are brightly illuminated, while the deep black of space is, well, deep black, not gray like we see with most LCD TVs. Also, the depth of black did not vary with the viewing angle, another issue with LCD sets. The same was true with scenes from "Star Wars."

    If you're watching a football game, the OLED will look great, though it may not stand out from the better LCD TVs available. But if you switch to a dark scene in a movie such as "Batman" or "Harry Potter," the difference in black levels will jump out at you, delivering contrast unlike any other display. And there is no clouding or haziness, like we see with many LCD TVs. In our labs, every visitor was able to pick out the OLED TV from the LCD TVs in the room without a problem.

    Many TV experts, including our own, feel that contrast—the difference between the darkest and brightest images a TV can reproduce—is among the most important elements of a TV's picture quality. We have seen excellent black levels on some LCD sets, especially on those helped along by an effective local dimming feature. But while this feature can help improve contrast on darker scenes, it does little for brighter scenes, and can often introduce some unusual side effects, such as the unexpected illumination of areas that are supposed to be black. This is especially visible when the TV is viewed from off angles.) OLED is an emissive technology, meaning it produces its own light, so it doesn't need a separate backlight, and therefore doesn't need to resort to these tricks. Simply put, black levels and contrast are better on this set than any other TV we've ever tested, except perhaps the Samsung OLED set we had in our labs last year. (That TV never made it into our Ratings because it was rented from the manufacturer, not purchased at retail.)

    You can see how much darker the OLED (left) is than an LCD TV.

    Find the best flat-panel TV for your needs and budget with our TV buying guide and Ratings.

    But once we put black levels and contrast aside, we had some issues with LG's implementation of its OLED technology that prevented the set from being the top TV in terms of picture quality. The first was color accuracy, which was a bit off when we compared it to our calibrated reference TV. In our set, there was a color shift toward red; as a result, whites had a reddish-pink tinge, and we were unable to make them completely accurate using the TV's picture controls. Unlike Samsung, which uses red, green, and blue OLED subpixels, LG's technology, called white OLED, adds a white subpixel to the arrangement, and uses color filters to create red, green, and blue light. We can't say that LG's color shift is due to this implementation, but it does have some manufacturing advantages, which is perhaps why LG is pushing OLED more aggressively than Samsung.

    Senior editor Jim Willcox and TV program leader Claudio Ciacci check resolution.

    Although our resolution tests, as shown above, indicated that the OLED TV was capable of full 1080p resolution, on Blu-ray movies we noted that finest detail and texture were not as crisp as we expect from a full 1080p TV. We attributed this to some slight noise reduction processing that we could not turn off.  Finally, while the TV can deliver the deepest black levels we've seen from a set in our Ratings, our grayscale test revealed that as the bars get progressively darker they do not fade gracefully to black; instead, they drop off suddenly right before reaching the blackest level. On darker scenes, this issue reveals itself in the darker shadows, where instead of smooth transitions we saw coarse, edgy contours. You can avoid this by raising the brightness level, but you then lose that deep black. We're being picky here because the best TVs today don't have these issues.

    But overall, LG's 55EC9300 OLED TV is a top-performing 1080p set, and certainly ranks among the best TVs we've ever tested. It's worth noting that under normal viewing, many people won't notice the flaws we point out in this review. But even with some of the noted shortcomings of this set, it's clear to us that OLED will quickly emerge as the top display technology for those who care about top-notch television picture quality. That's why we're eagerly awaiting the arrival of some of LG's even newer OLED TVs, offered in 65- and 77-inch screen sizes, which combine OLED performance with higher Ultra HD TV resolutions.  We expect these sets—and hopefully Ultra HD OLED TVs from other manufacturers—to become the new benchmarks for TV performance for the next several years.

    —James K. Willcox and Claudio Ciacci

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