It's that time of year when all the major television makers show off their latest technologies in the war for Aussie lounge rooms. In one corner, Samsung continues to back the LED-backlit LCD camp (let's just call it LED). In the other corner, LG's Ultra HD OLED. Adam Turner recently tried out the 2017 flagship models from both manufacturers. Here is his verdict.
Hands On: Samsung QLED Ultra HD TV
This year Samsung has scrapped its SUHD branding in favour of QLED – referring to the "quantum dot" screen technology which takes LED to new levels of brightness and colour. Shifting the picture quality battleground from contrast to colour, Samsung's quantum dot QLED televisions are vying for pride of place in Aussie lounge rooms.
Samsung offers three QLED models this year; the Q7 and Q8 pump out 1500 nits brightness while the Q9 bumps it up to 2000 nits – Samsung's brightest television yet. It's a major step up from the 1000 nits offered by last year's SUHD models, although cheaper 1000-nit M-series Samsung televisions are coming later in the year.
SUHD's performance boost is thanks to Samsung's new quantum dot alloy material, which improves the colour and brightness to offer the full DCI-P3 colour space and "100 per cent colour volume" – which sounds like marketing speak but is actually an industry term.
While colour space is typically represented as a two dimensional area, colour volume turns this graph on its side to create a three dimensional graph – showing the brightness at which a screen can display each colour. The phrase "100 per cent colour volume" means that it can display colours at every brightness level, rather than distorting at peak brightness.
QLED's extra screen brightness offers more headroom to reveal fine detail in the brightest and darkest areas of the picture, along with displaying more fine colour shades. The QLED televisions offer the enhanced contrast and colours of High Dynamic Range, available on Netflix and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, but Samsung's televisions only support HDR10 and not Dolby Vision.
Graded on the curve
The QLED Q7 and Q8 are identical except that the Q8 offers a curved screen. Unlike some TV makers Samsung expects you to pay a significant premium for these curves, with the 55-inch Q7/Q8 selling for $4499/$5499, 65-inch $6499/$7499 and 75-inch $1,0999/$12,449.
Personally I don't think it's worth it, as a curved screen adds very little to the viewing experience and it's not surprising that LG has abandoned curves completely. The fact that Samsung's top shelf Q9 isn't available with a curve speaks volumes, for the Q9 you're paying $9499, $14,999 or $39,999 for 65, 75 or 88 inches respectively.
Shine a light
Curved or not, Samsung's new QLED televisions rely on a super-thin design which looks great in your lounge room, in part thanks to a choice of stands and the OneConnect breakout box which means you only need to run a single cable to the television (aside from power). Unfortunately the slender build comes at the expense of picture quality.
LED screens start with a bright backlight and shine it through pixels to create colours, whereas OLED starts with a dark screen and lights up the individual pixels. As a result LED tends to be brighter than OLED but in return struggles to create OLED's really deep blacks – although, to be fair, both technologies have come a long way in addressing their weaknesses in the last few years.
The very best LEDs are "Full Array backlit" meaning the backlight is directly behind the screen. This makes the television thicker, but in return it's easier to dim the backlight in areas where it's not needed, which helps improve the contrast.
Meanwhile Samsung's QLED range is "edge-lit" LED, shining the backlight in from the sides. Try as it might, edge-lit LED simply can't match the contrast and overall picture quality of OLED or Full Array backlit LED like Sony's amazing Z9D.
Admittedly not everyone is obsessed with picture quality and some people place more of a premium on style, but the problem here is that Samsung is charging top dollar for QLED. At these prices you could afford to switch to a better screen technology, or else save some cash and opt for a more affordable fashionable edge-lit LED.
Put to the test, Samsung's QLED offers truly impressive colours but, in terms of overall picture quality, its price tag is writing cheques that its screen technology simply can't cash. Unfortunately only the 1500-nit Q8 was on show and not the brighter 2000-nit Q9, but Samsung' QLED range isn't found wanting due to its brightness.
Ultra HD Blu-ray movies like The Martian and The Revenant look impressive on the default HDR+ picture mode; the picture is crisp with plenty of detail, the colours are spectular and the contrast is respectable if not awe-inspiring. It looks fantastic in brightly lit room but unfortunately this default mode is a little too bright for my liking once you draw the curtains and kill the lights for movie night.
At this point the tell-tale halos and blooms around bright objects on a dark background betray that it's an edge-lit screen, especially if you're watching on an angle rather than directly in front of the television. It's far from the worst I've seen, but you're entitled to expect better considering the price tag. For another $400 you could step up from Samsung's 65-inch QLED Q7 to an entry-level 65-inch LG OLED with zero bloom and excellent viewing angles.
If you're fussy about picture quality you're not going stick with QLED's default settings, but then you'll run into the television's limitations when you switch to Movie picture mode and dive into the advanced settings to tweak the picture to taste for a dark room.
The first step is to drop the brightness and backlight a notch, in the pursuit of blacker blacks. Next you'll want to adjust the colour temperature and gamma, as well as wrestle with Auto Motion Plus motion interpolation which is a little troublesome on the Q8.
The problem is that these kinds of tweaks can come at the expense of brightness and colour reproduction, which are QLED's strengths and what you're paying for. After a while you're forced to concede that edge-lit televisions demand comprises and something has to give.
You're also paying for Samsung's Smart TV features, assuming you're not happy to let your set-top boxes do all the heavy lifting, and there are a few gems to be found.
You've got the usual suspects like Netflix, Stan (co-owned by Fairfax Media) and the various free-to-air Catch up TV services. There's support for screen mirroring and gamers will appreciate built-in support for Steam Link, letting you stream Steam games directly to the television.
Overall the "Smart Hub" interface is respectable, although it's not quite as slick as LG's WebOS, plus it doesn't offer as many apps as Sony's impressive Android TV implementation.
There's no getting around it, Samsung is asking you to pay top-shelf prices for a second-rate screen technology which can never go head to head with LG's OLED range or a Full Array backlit LED television from the likes of Sony or Panasonic. If picture quality for movie night is your absolute highest priority and you're prepared to spend decent money then this isn't the television for you.
While QLED's panel is no slouch, you're also paying a premium for design and the app ecosystem – so consider whether they're important to you. There's no shame in admitting that you care more about style than substance, but if you've got some serious cash to splash then make sure you weigh up the competition.
Hands On: LG Ultra HD OLED TV
Insanely thin without compromising on picture quality, LG's latest OLEDs are the ultimate television for movie night. LG is betting on OLED screen technology while rivals Samsung, Sony and Panasonic continue to back LED-backlit LCD. It's a war of words, fought as much between marketing departments as it is between engineering teams.
In a nutshell, the difference is that LED televisions start with a bright backlight and shine it through pixels to create colours, while OLED starts with a dark screen and lights up the individual pixels. This means that LED screens tend to be brighter than OLED, but in return LED struggles to match OLED's really deep blacks.
To be fair, the gap between the top shelf OLED and the best Full Array back-lit LED television has closed to the point where your average punter would struggle to notice the difference. It's also interesting to note that Sony and Panasonic are starting to dabble in OLED again.
Those with an eye for detail still tend to agree that OLED has the upper hand over LED, but OLED has also come with a hefty price tag because it's fiddly to manufacture. The trouble for the LED camp is that LG has honed the art of making OLED screens to the point where it's now selling phenomenal Ultra HD OLED televisions for similar prices to its LED rivals.
A good spread
That brings us to LG's new 2017 OLED range. Just to complicate things, they're available in four series and a range of sizes; C7 (55-in $4099, 65-in $6899), E7 (55-in $5199, 65-in $7999), G7 Signature (65-in $9099) and W7 Signature (65-in $13,499, 77-in $??? – it's not sold retail).
They're not cheap, but those prices still stack up well against the top shelf models from Samsung – even though, as I explained above, Samsung's QLED range relies on "edge-lit" LED which struggles to match OLED's overall picture quality.
The good news is that LG's OLED picture quality is identical across the entire 2017 range. This year's 4th-generation OLED panels pump out more than 900 lumens brightness, making them roughly 25% brighter than last year's top shelf OLED. LG has also added a "Neutral Black polariser" to the screen which helps it look better in a brightly lit room.
They're not as bright as the brightest LEDs, with Samsung's top-shelf Q9 QLED pushing 2000 lumens, but the benefit of OLED is that it can achieve absolute black and the darkest shades to reveal more fine detail in the shadows.
The Heart of Darkness
If you'll only ever watch your television in a brightly lit room then the benefits of OLED over LED might be lost on you, but when you dim the lights for movie night OLED's phenomenal black levels make themselves felt – for example the letterboxing above and below the picture is pitch black to the point where it becomes invisible in a dark room.
Put to the test the 65-inch W7 Signature Ultra HD OLED looks phenomenal. Fire up a movie like Gravity on Blu-ray and you can see more faint stars in the background during the scene where Sandra Bullock spins away from the shuttle, just like when you look up at the night sky when you're out in the countryside and see a new layer of background stars which are lost in the city lights.
As Bullock spins the inky black of space doesn't fluctuate as her bright helmet turns to face us, as it tends to do on LED televisions, because with OLED there's no backlight to fight against. The viewing angles are also excellent, unlike some LED televisions which tend to let more of the backlight bleed through when you're viewing from the side.
Switch to The Martian on Ultra HD Blu-ray and the benefits of High Dynamic Range shine through in the panning shots of the Martian surface, with the shadows on the rock faces still full of fine detail. OLED isn't just about contrast, it also does the wider colour gamut of HDR justice.
If you've an eye for detail you might notice that these panning shots aren't as smooth as they could be, because LG's Cinema mode completely disables TruMotion motion interpolation by default and there's no screen blur to smooth things over. The rise of 60-frame per second content will help with this, but meanwhile you might choose to set TruMotion to Smooth and then tweak to taste.
The default Ultra HD and Full HD Cinema modes look impressive but, as with any television, you might want to give them a tweak such as adjusting the colour temperature and maybe taking down the sharpness a notch.
While OLED is the star of the show, I also spent some time with LG's edge-lit Ultra HD LEDs and the top-of-the-line SJ850 actually looks pretty good with impressive blacks. At $4799 for 65 inches it stacks up well against its LED competitors and is certainly worth considering if you're determined to avoid OLED.
All this testing was done with LG's first Ultra HD Blu-ray player, the $599 UP970, which is set to go on sale in April. Support for Dolby Vision HDR will be added via a firmware upgrade later this year, for now Netflix is our best source of Dolby Vision HDR content but Dolby says we should see Dolby Vision-enabled Ultra HD Blu-ray discs by the end of the year.
As part of the war of words, LG has decided to call HDR10 "generic HDR", but it's more than marketing speak and with the right content you can clearly see Dolby Vision's improvement. The player also supports Dolby Atmos surround sound.
Sound and vision
Like I said, LG's $6899 65-inch C7 offers picture quality every bit as good as the $13,499 65-inch W7 Signature series. The price difference is due to the design, speaker configuration and post-sales support.
The top-shelf LG Signature W7 wallpaper design is only 2.57mm thick, basically clinging to your wall like a fridge magnet, with all the electronics in the soundbar which includes upwards firing speakers and Dolby Atmos support. It's obviously not going to sound as good as true surround sound, with speakers spread around the room, but it still does a surprisingly good job of adding an element of height to the sound stage. There's no stand, the television has to be wall mounted.
The Signature W7 and G7 come with free home installation and access to a premium customer service number. The difference is that the W7 is razor thin, with no buit-in speaker, whereas the G7 and E7 go for a "Picture on Glass" design and the entry level C7 is designed more like a traditional television. The quality of the speaker configuration also improves as you move up the line.
While LED has gone from strength to strength, OLED is still king of the lounge room if you care about picture quality after dark. As the price gap between OLED and LED closes, it's harder not to justify spending that bit extra to embrace OLED if you have an eye for detail.
To be honest I don't care too much about super-thin design, to me the Signature W7 wallpaper television is a fashion statement which belongs in a display home. Personally I'd be tempted to go for a cheaper OLED model and then put the savings towards real surround sound, rather than relying on the Atmos soundbar, but you might think otherwise depending on your tax bracket and the layout of your lounge room.
If you're absolutely sure that you're not interested in adding extra speakers to your room then you might consider it worth stepping up to the improved sound of one LG's more expensive OLED models. Whichever model OLED suits your needs, you won't be disappointed with the picture when you dim the lights, fire up the popcorn machine and kick back for movie night.