Two rival TV brands use very similar acronyms to describe their best TVs but Samsung’s QLED and LG’s OLED are as different as dogs and cats. For the last few years Samsung, the most popular TV-maker in the world, has been branding its best TVs “QLED.” Its 2020 QLED lineup is massive, with three different series that have 8K resolution, numerous mainstream versions and design-conscious models like The Frame, Serif and the all-new Sero rotating TV that all bear the ubiquitous Q. Meanwhile LG’s 2020 OLED TVs include six series, from the relatively affordable BX to the crazy-expensive 8K ZX to, yes, an RX that rolls up and costs an even crazier $60,000.
Read more: Best 65-inch TVs for 2020
Based on the last few years of CNET’s side-by-side comparison reviews, LG’s OLED TVs have all delivered better overall image quality than Samsung QLED TVs. The latest example pitted the LG B9 against the Samsung Q80, both high-end 65-inch sets that cost $1,800. The LG OLED won handily, with superior contrast and off-angle viewing. The Samsung was brighter but overall it didn’t stand up to the OLED.
The OLED vs. QLED battle goes beyond Samsung and LG. In late 2019 TCL also started branding its best TVs “QLED,” including the 6-Series and 8-Series. Both are excellent, the best TV for the money and the best-performing non-OLED TV we tested last year, respectively. And other brands beyond LG also sell OLED TVs including Sony and, later in 2020, Konka, Skyworth and the No. 3 TV maker in the US, Vizio.
We haven’t tested the latest crop of 2020 QLED and OLED models yet — they start shipping in spring — but based on what we’ve seen in the past we continue to expect OLED to produce superior image quality to QLED. Here’s why.
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A QLED TV is just an LCD TV with quantum dots
Let’s start with a quick summary of the two technologies.
- OLED stands for “organic light emitting diode.”
- QLED (according to Samsung) stands for “quantum dot LED TV.”
- OLED is a fundamentally different technology from LCD, the major type of TV today.
- QLED is a variation of LED LCD, adding a quantum dot film to the LCD “sandwich.”
- OLED is “emissive,” meaning the pixels emit their own light.
- QLED, like LCD, is, in its current form, “transmissive” and relies on an LED backlight.
What is quantum dot?
Quantum dots are microscopic molecules that, when hit by light, emit their own, differently colored light. In QLED TVs, the dots are contained in a film, and the light that hits them is provided by an LED backlight. That light then travels though a few other layers inside the TV, including a liquid crystal (LCD) layer, to create the picture. The light from the LED source is transmitted through the layers to the screen’s surface, which is why we say it’s “transmissive.”
Samsung has been using quantum dots to augment its LCD TVs since 2015, and debuted the QLED TV branding in 2017. Samsung says those quantum dots have evolved over time — that color and light output have improved, for example. In my experience however, improvements caused by better quantum dots are much less evident than those caused by other image quality factors (see below).
An OLED TV is not an LCD TV at all
LCD is the dominant technology in flat-panel TVs and has been for a long time. It’s cheaper than OLED, especially in larger sizes, and numerous panel makers worldwide, including LG itself, can manufacture it.
OLED is different because it doesn’t use an LED backlight to produce light. Instead, light is produced by millions of individual OLED subpixels. The pixels themselves — tiny dots that compose the image — emit light, which is why it’s called an “emissive” display technology. That difference leads to all kinds of picture quality effects, some of which favor LCD (and QLED), but most of which benefit OLED.
LG C9 OLED TV has the best picture quality ever
QLED vs. OLED: image quality compared
Based on my reviews, here are some general comparisons I’ve made between the two.
QLED TV picture quality varies more than OLED. Samsung and TCL each have multiple QLED series and the most expensive perform a lot better than the cheaper ones. That’s mainly because the biggest improvements in the picture quality of QLED sets don’t have much to do with quantum dots. Instead they’re the result of better full-array local dimming, bright highlights and better viewing angles, which help them significantly outperform QLED (and non-QLED) TVs that lack those extras.
Meanwhile every OLED TV I’ve reviewed has very similar image quality — all have earned a 10/10 in picture quality in my tests. There is some variation among different OLED TVs, but they’re not nearly as significant as the differences between various QLED TV series.
OLED has better contrast and black level. One of the most important image quality factors is black level, and their emissive nature means OLED TVs can turn unused pixels off completely, for literally infinite contrast. QLED/LCD TVs, even the best ones with the most effective full-array local dimming, let some light through, leading to more washed-out, grayer black levels and blooming around bright sections.
QLED is brighter. The brightest QLED and LCD TVs can get brighter than any OLED model, which is a particular advantage in bright rooms and with HDR content. In my tests, however, OLED TVs can still get plenty bright for most rooms, and their superior contrast still allows them to deliver a better overall HDR image than any QLED/LCD TV I’ve tested.
OLED has better uniformity and viewing angles. With LCD-based displays, different areas of the screen can appear brighter than others all the time, and backlight structure can also be seen in some content. Even the best LCDs also fade, lose contrast and become discolored when seen from seats other than the sweet spot directly in front of the screen. OLED TVs have almost perfectly uniform screens and maintain fidelity from all but the most extreme angles.
Resolution, color, video processing and other image quality factors are basically the same. Most QLED and OLED have the same resolution, 4K, and both can achieve 8K resolution too. Neither technology has major inherent advantage in color or video processing areas. Check out OLED vs. LCD for more details.
QLED can get bigger and smaller (and cheaper)
There are only four sizes of OLED TV on the market today: 55-, 65-, 77- and 88-inch, with a 48-inch version on sale later in 2020. Since the 77- and 88-inch cost $4,000 and (cough) $30,000 respectively, there’s really only three sizes most TV shoppers can afford.
Meanwhile Samsung’s QLED TVs come in 32, 43-, 49-, 55-, 65-, 75-, 82-, 85- and, yes, 98-inch sizes. Of course non-QLED LCD TVs can get even smaller.
One big advantage, so to speak, that QLED and LCD have over OLED is the cost of mainstream sizes over 65 inches. Large televisions are the fastest-growing segment of the market and show no signs of slowing down. As I mentioned above, LG’s 77-inch B9 OLED costs $4,000. Meanwhile TCL’s 75-inch 8-Series costs $2,600, Samsung’s 75-inch Q70 QLED costs $2,000 and the cheapest 75-inch QLED, the Q60R, is just $1,500. Sure none of those QLEDs can beat an OLED but they do cost thousands less.
In 55- and 65-inch sizes, the highest-end, best-performing QLED models like the Samsung Q90 and the 8K resolution Q900A cost more than the cheapest OLED TV. There are numerous other, less-expensive QLED series as well, however, albeit with worse image quality.
What about OLED burn-in?
Burn-in happens when a persistent part of the image onscreen — navigation buttons on a phone, or a channel logo, news ticker or a scoreboard on a TV, for example — remains as a ghostly background no matter what else appears onscreen. All OLED screens can burn-in, and from everything we know, they’re more susceptible than LCD displays, including QLED.
All things considered, however, burn-in shouldn’t be a problem for most people. From all of the evidence we’ve seen, burn-in is typically caused by leaving a single, static image element, like a channel logo, onscreen for a very long time, repeatedly. That’s an issue if you keep Fox News, ESPN or MSNBC onscreen for multiple hours every day and don’t watch enough other programming, for example. But as long as you vary what’s displayed, chances are you’ll never experience burn-in.
Check out OLED screen burn-in: What you need to know for more.
Future outlook for OLED vs. QLED TVs
Until I pit the best 2020 QLED TVs against the best OLED TVs I won’t know for sure which one wins this year, but as I mentioned above, I’d bet on OLED.
For 2019 and 2020 Samsung and TCL improved their high-end QLED image quality again in an effort to beat OLED — improving local dimming and adding mini-LED, respectively — while LG has, aside from a processing bump, mostly stood pat. The C9 wasn’t that much better than its predecessors, and I expect LG’s 2020 models will offer similarly incremental improvements. But given the basic differences between OLED and QLED tech, it would definitely surprise me if those 2020 QLED improvements allowed it to beat OLED overall.
What about the future? Samsung is actually working on an OLED TV of its own (again), investing 11.1 billion in new facilities to create “QD display” tech that’s basically OLED with a different name — and quantum dots, natch. It wants to start production in 2021, which means we might see some prototypes the following year.
Separately, and further down the road, Samsung is researching direct-view quantum dot, which dispenses with the liquid crystal layers and uses quantum dots themselves as the light source. Emissive QLED TVs have the potential to match the absolute black levels and “infinite” contrast ratio of OLED, with better power efficiency, better color and more. That’s pretty exciting, but it’ll be a few years before we see emissive QLED TVs available for sale. Hopefully by then they’ll think up a new acronym (EQLEDs?).
Before that we’ll get MicroLED. It’s another emissive technology, once again spearheaded by Samsung, that seems closer to market than direct-view quantum dot (it’s on sale now to the very rich). As you might guess from the name, it uses millions of teeny-tiny LEDs as pixels. MicroLED has the potential for the same perfect black levels as OLED, with no danger of burn-in. It can deliver higher brightness than any current display technology, wide-gamut excellent color and doesn’t suffer the viewing angle and uniformity issues of LCD. It’s also modular and can get friggin’ huge. It doesn’t involve quantum dots, at least not yet, but who knows what might happen when it comes to market. QDMLED, anyone?
For now, however, OLED rules the picture quality roost over QLED.
Originally published Feb. 8, 2017.
Update, February 3, 2020: This article has been updated with new information from CES 2020.