Why It Doesn't Always Pay to Buy a Cheap TV

Our analysis of three years of CR's test results shows that models from major brands tend to perform better

B&W Television Set Photo: iStock

It can be hard to resist a bargain TV, but a cheaper TV doesn’t always turn out to be a better deal.

That’s what we found in our analysis of more than three years of Consumer Reports’ TV ratings. Our crack team of statisticians looked at prices and CR's test results from March 1, 2018, through March 1, 2021, for a number of leading TV brands sold in the U.S. The results are shown in the charts below; they are broken out by screen size, which is the first factor consumers usually consider when shopping for a television.

As you can see, TVs from LG, Samsung, and Sony earned top scores in our testing across just about every size range. And generally, sets from these companies cost more than their competitors’ TVs.

More on TVs

Prices and average brand scores tend to drop off in step with each other, according to our analysis. Some brands, including Element, RCA, and Westinghouse, trailed the others in both quality and price in some size categories.

The takeaway: Though it’s tempting to buy a much cheaper TV from a smaller brand, especially during big sales events, you could be accepting a trade-off in quality. You might not have to pay much more—or even any more—to get a better television.

This information should be useful if you choose a TV largely based on brand. However, it’s smart to use this analysis as just one factor when you’re shopping. The charts below are average prices and scores. Performance can vary by series and even by model within a single brand.

Also, companies evolve over time. Our testing shows that certain models from somewhat newer brands, most notably Hisense and TCL, have been improving in quality recently. But typically, we see that better performance only in the upper-tier models from these brands; often models in their entry-level series earn significantly lower scores.

On the flip side, a number of once-popular TV brands, such as Panasonic, no longer sell TVs in the U.S. And several familiar brands, including Philips, Sharp, and Toshiba, have either changed ownership or are now controlled by other companies here in the U.S. under licensing deals.

Sharp, for example, had been licensed by the Chinese company Hisense until recently; the brand is now controlled by Sharp's Taiwanese parent company, Foxconn, which hasn't sold any Sharp TVs in the U.S. for two years now. And Hisense now owns the majority share of Toshiba's TV business worldwide.

Last, you don’t always need to settle for poor performance just because you’re on a budget. In some size categories, there aren’t big price differences between the highest- and lowest-performing brands.

That’s why it pays to consult our ratings—available to digital members—before choosing a new TV.

60-Inch and Larger TVs

Major brands dominate this slice of our TV ratings, which include 60-, 65-, 70-, and 75-inch TVs. (We'll also be testing TVs with screens up to 85 inches this year.) That list now includes TCL, which has become one of the three top-selling brands in the U.S.

The average price figures we show are a bit higher than the average for all big TVs on the market. That’s because CR tends to purchase a lot of expensive, high-end sets so that we can test the latest features, such Mini LED backlights in LCD/LED TVs—which can help boost contrast and reduce halos—and high dynamic range (HDR), which can produce brighter, more vibrant images.

We test these flagship models from all the brands, but with major brands there is a much greater difference in pricing between the least and most expensive sets they offer. For example, for TCL there’s a $500 difference between the cheapest ($450) and priciest ($950) 65-inch TVs in our current ratings. With Samsung, that difference is $1,400. But for Sony, which sells pricier OLED TVs, that difference is a whopping $2,250. This often skews the average prices higher for the major brands.

You’ll see that LG, Samsung, and Sony top the list in terms of average Overall Score and average price. Given their high average scores, sets from any of these TV brands might be worth considering. Sony TVs tend to be expensive in part because the company, like LG, now offers OLED TVs, which tend to cost more, but also because it has stopped making lower-end sets. The takeaway for shoppers is that a premium set from Sony might not be more expensive than a premium set from a competitor—the company just doesn’t compete in lower performance tiers.

TCL is another brand to consider, especially if you’re on a budget. Just note that its improved performance is mainly due to its newer 6-Series and 8-Series models, which have done very well in our tests—in particular, 6-Series sets offer a lot of bang for the buck, with top-notch picture quality, including the ability to produce an effective HDR experience, something most comparably priced sets fail to do. Lower-tier models from TCL haven’t done as well.

60-Inch and Larger TVs
Average Price vs. Overall Score:

Sony

76
$1,776

LG

74
$1,416

Samsung

73
$1,401

TCL

65
$960

Vizio

61
$913

Hisense

58
$682

RCA

48
$383

55- to 59-Inch TVs

If you’re shopping for a 55- to 59-inch set, you’ll see a particularly wide range of prices. That’s because some TVs this size are relatively bare-bones when it comes to features, while others come loaded with lots of features. That includes things such as 120Hz refresh rates, full-array LED backlights with local dimming, more effective HDR performance, and special gaming features such as low-latency modes and variable refresh rates.

Average prices go from a low of $298 (for Best Buy’s Insignia TVs) to a high of $1,214 (Sony's average price). As we note above, Sony focuses on high-performance, high-price sets. And both Sony’s and LG’s average prices are pulled up by their OLED sets—these TVs can look great, but they tend to cost more than LED/LCD models.

Last year, Vizio began offering OLED TVs, but that hasn't yet had a big impact on its average price.

In this size category, TCL again seems to offer a very compelling balance of price and performance.

Some models from Hisense, Toshiba, and Insignia might be worth considering for less finicky viewers who are on an even tighter budget. These brands score lower on average, but their average prices are about $150 to $200 less than TCL’s. Some Vizio sets could also be in this group, though its best-performing sets fall into higher price bands than TVs from these other three brands.

55- to 59-INCH TVs
Average Price vs. Overall Score:

Sony

76
$1,214

LG

75
$1,052

Samsung

74
$859

TCL

64
$503

Vizio

60
$567

Sharp

60
$383

Toshiba

59
$360

Hisense

58
$388

Insignia

57
$298

RCA

46
$318

46- to 52-Inch TVs

For those shopping for a TV in this size range, CR’s analysis shows that Samsung, Sony, and LG tend to have the highest-performing TVs—along with the most expensive ones.

Of these three brands, LG sets seems particularly attractive. These are in the top range for performance but are priced much closer to the lower-tier sets.

The price range is narrower in this size category once you get past those top three brands. Best Buy’s Insignia brand and TCL emerge as good possible options for those on the tightest TV budgets, because their average price is actually lower than a few brands', such as Vizio and Toshiba, that have lower average scores.

Note the fairly sizable disparity in average price in this screen size, from $233 (Element) to $755 (Sony). That difference—$522—is higher than the average price for all but the two top brands. That means you’ll have a lot of choices, whether you are trying your hardest to save money or are willing to set aside frugality to get higher performance.

46- to 52-INCH TVs
Average Price vs. Overall Score:

Samsung

71
$673

Sony

69
$755

LG

68
$514

Sharp

59
$317

Insignia

59
$295

TCL

59
$288

Toshiba

58
$324

Hisense

58
$281

Vizio

55
$332

Element

43
$233

39- to 43-Inch TVs

There’s also a pretty big spread in both price and performance in this screen size, from less than $200 to more than $500.

Though there aren’t a lot of surprises—Samsung and LG offer the best performance—we did see a few brands, including Insignia, Toshiba, TCL, Sharp, and Vizio, rise above others in the middle of the pack. Sets from some of these brands in this size category have Overall Scores that aren't all that far from the pricier models above them.

Westinghouse has the lowest average scores of the included brands; though it does have the second-lowest lower average price, you don’t have to spend much more to get a better-performing brand. For example, based on the chart below, Hisense would be a better choice if price was a primary concern.

Remember, though, that the price and performance averages are for entire brands, not specific models. The best way to see how individual TV models perform is to check our ratings, which are based on extensive testing and evaluation.

39- to 43-INCH TVs
Average Price vs. Overall Score:

Samsung

65
$516

LG

62
$293

Insignia

58
$191

Toshiba

57
$253

TCL

57
$236

Sharp

56
$270

Vizio

56
$263

Hisense

53
$236

Philips

53
$215

Westinghouse

43
$225

32-Inch TVs

These days, 32-inch TVs have largely been commoditized; most are either 720p or 1080p regular HD TVs rather than 4K models, and there are still some low-priced basic models that lack a smart TV feature.

You may notice that Samsung is notably missing from this size category; there weren't enough tested models in our analysis this year for it to be included. That's interesting, because last year it was the only brand in our chart that offered a 32-inch 4K TV with HDR. Because the set was part of Samsung's higher-priced QLED series, at $500 it was appreciably more expensive than most sets this size, and that helped to raise the brand’s average price. That model is currently the top-rated TV this size in our ratings.

As you can see in the chart, with Samsung gone LG is clearly the top brand based on performance, and its average price isn't much higher than prices on other brands.

Apart from LG, there's not much of a difference among the other brands in either average price or performance, but Hisense has the lowest overall average price.

With both price and performance averages so closely packed among the brands, smart shoppers are likely to look to other criteria in our TV ratings, such as screen resolution or reliability, or features such as built-in access to streaming content, to help make a buying decision.

32-INCH TVs
Average Price vs. Overall Score:

LG

62
$151

Vizio

54
$148

Toshiba

54
$138

Hisense

54
$126

TCL

52
$138

Beyond the Scores: Repairs and Reliability

In addition to TV performance, there are a few more things to consider when choosing among brands. One is how easy it is to get the TV repaired in a timely manner. Major brands typically invest in parts and service networks, so you’re more likely to find an authorized repair center nearby.

Reliability problems appear to be less of an issue, based on our surveys, because TVs are among the more reliable products Consumer Reports analyzes. But not all brands do as well as others, which is why you should check a brand’s reliability in our TV ratings.

Because most sets are now smart TVs that connect to the internet, we've added Privacy and Security scores to our ratings. We evaluate the various ways TV brands collect, use, and share consumer data, how well they protect it, and how transparent they are about their data practices.

Last, consider the manufacturer’s warranty, which could be shorter with an off-brand TV. Most of the TVs in our ratings carry one-year parts and labor warranties, but that can vary, so check before you buy.


James K. Willcox

I've been a tech journalist for more years than I'm willing to admit. My specialties at CR are TVs, streaming media, audio, and TV and broadband services. In my spare time I build and play guitars and bass, ride motorcycles, and like to sail—hobbies I've not yet figured out how to safely combine.