For this conclusion to buying a television in today’s increasingly complicated marketplace, we’re exploring the differences between the TV world’s main brands.
In this part we'll be drawing on what we know about the current products and past histories of Sony, LG, Panasonic, Philips and Samsung to give you an insight in the sort of things you might expect from their different price points and technologies.
Naturally, such a general overview can’t take account of specific sets - some of which may potentially buck the trend. This is why the final part of your TV research should be keeping an eye on our TV reviews! But knowing which brands excel at what and at which price points could certainly help you narrow the field down a bit, so here goes…
Having established itself as the king of the CRT TV age with its famous Trinitron sets, Sony’s flat TV adventures have been a bit of a roller coaster ride.
The brand has generally done pretty well at the very top end of its ranges, but struggled to maintain consistency with its more affordable models due to apparent issues with sourcing good quality panels from third party manufacturers (Sony doesn’t currently make any of the LCD and, now, OLED panels at the heart of its TVs).
In recent years Sony’s has been most successful with its X94 models; 75-inch ‘home cinema’ sets with direct backlighting that have done a great job of delivering qualty home cinema-sized thrills for decently affordable prices. The brand also scored a major recent success with its ZD9 (Z9D in the US) TVs: ultra high-end models with direct LED backlighting and hundreds of individually controlled lighting zones that were my favourite TVs of 2016.
The brand has fared less well with its mid-range models, which have tended to be based on edge LED lighting systems that haven’t offered the same degree of light controls achieved by the best rival brands.
Sony has tried to tackle this problem in 2016 and 2017 with its Slim Backlight Drive TVs, which introduce an interesting dual light plate configuration to create more localised light control. But while the 2017 Slim Backlight Drive sets (the X94E series) are much better than 2016’s debutantes, there are still ‘light blocking’ issues you need to be aware of.
Picking a decent set from Sony’s entire set of mid-range models has been made doubly complicated in recent years by the brand’s decision to use IPS LCD panel types in some models. IPS panels can't match the contrast levels of rival VA panels, which has become more important now that we have high dynamic range picture technology. So Sony’s decision to not just include some IPS panels in its range but mix VA and IPS panels at different size’s of the same series has made picking a good mid-range Sony a little more tricky.
The good news is that Sony has listened to this criticism and hasn’t used any IPS panels in its 2017 models, making its mid-range sets potentially a much safer bet.
Sony has also proved that it’s keen to offer something for everyone this year by adding to its range its first mid-range LCD sets with direct LED lighting (the X90E series) and its first OLED TVs, the stunningly designed A1E range. These OLED sets in particular prove that Sony is still very much a brand that’s interested in innovation in the TV space.
While Sony has indicated that it’s looking to focus on the relatively high end of the market, it’s worth adding here that Sony has done pretty nicely over the past couple of years in the Full HD TV space, consistently delivering more features and picture quality than its rivals in a section of the market which most brands seem to have left behind with their newest features.
Korean brand Samsung has been the biggest selling TV brand in the world for years now - a position it reached initially on the back of cutting edge design and aggressive pricing, but which it’s consolidated via consistently delivering bleeding edge features and picture quality.
Perhaps even more importantly, Samsung has been the only brand for the past few years that’s delivered good picture quality and features all the way across its range, from the flagship models down to its budget sets. This consistency has deservedly earned it high sales and strong brand awareness at the mass market TV level.
It’s worth noting, too, that one of the reasons for its consistency at different prices is that it makes its own VA-type of panels, and so has hardly ever used any IPS panels, even in its cheapest sets.
Its decision to focus exclusively on LCD technology rather than OLED has seen it come under pressure at the premium end of the market from its great rival and OLED maker LG in the past couple of years, and this pressure looks set to reach boiling point in 2017 as Samsung launches a new variation on LCD technology that’s going to cost roughly the same as some of LG’s OLED TVs.
Called QLED, this LCD technology uses a new type of metal alloy Quantum Dot that delivers more brightness, colour and backlight control, as well as ‘solving’ the viewing angle limitations traditionally associated with VA LCD technology. We’ll be reviewing the first QLED TVs soon, though for now it remains to be seen if Samsung’s gamble on a high-end LCD technology capable of more HDR-friendly brightness than contrast-favouring OLED can manage will pay off.
Probably sensibly, Samsung has essentially added its QLED models into a new tier at the top of its 2017 range, leaving a cheaper MU series of sets offering similar levels of performance to last year’s flagships.
Experience suggests Samsung should still be a pretty safe bet in its mid range and budget sets - though we should add a note of caution here, as there are rumours suggesting that a problem with one of its usual suppliers has forced Samsung to buy some panels from LG Display - panels which would almost certainly be IPS if the rumours are true.
Samsung may have to watch out for a growing feeling among media and consumers that it’s becoming too caught up in trying to set the technology agenda too aggressively, rather than focussing on giving people what they actually want. But we don’t see the brand losing its number one status any time soon.
If ever a company could be described as a game of two halves, it’s LG. On the one hand its OLED TV technology - which LG has championed and made pretty much single-handedly for the past three or four years - has caused many an AV fan to swoon at its stunning picture quality. On the other hand, its LCD screens have consistently failed to impress, and seem to be finding life increasingly difficult now we’re into the era of high dynamic range pictures.
Starting with the good stuff, LG has delivered big leaps forward with the picture quality of its OLED TVs for the past three years running, culminating in the remarkable images and incredible ‘wallpaper’ design of the recently reviewed OLED65W7.
There have been concerns over the ability of OLED screens to get bright enough to handle HDR properly, and LG has had to overcome considerable manufacturing and lifespan challenges in trying to make big-screen OLED TVs a consumer proposition. These issues seem to have been largely overcome, however - resulting in OLED screens now only costing a fraction of what they did five years ago.
That said, LG hasn’t quite managed to reduce the prices of its OLED TVs enough for them to be considered truly mid-range, meaning they’re still a premium proposition. But they’re a premium proposition reviewers and AV enthusiasts alike seem increasingly eager to embrace.
The problem for LG’s LCD division is painfully simple: namely that every set is built using LG Display’s IPS panel technology. Which means they all suffer with that technology’s shortcomings when it comes to delivering a good black level/contrast performance. Especially with high dynamic range content.
To be fair, the new Nano Cell technology LG is introducing with some of its IPS TVs in 2017 looks like it may improve contrast and colour performance considerably, and rumours are circulating to suggest that we may only be a year or two away from a really quite revolutionary advance for IPS technology.
As things stand, though, the gulf between LG’s OLED and LCD technologies really is pretty extreme.
The rise of LG and Samsung has made life hard for the once mighty Japanese brands. As a result, Panasonic no longer sells TVs in the United States. It is, though, still a force to be reckoned with elsewhere in the world, and still seems generally dedicated to giving consumers a premium experience built on ‘as the director intended’ picture quality and straightforward but effective interfaces.
The biggest cloud over Panasonic’s recent history has been the slow death of plasma TV technology, and the struggles the brand has had trying to go from that to LCD screen tech.
It’s now starting to get to grips with the switch, though, thanks to a willingness to innovate - as with the ‘honeycomb’ LCD panel design it introduced last year - and being able to draw on the expertise and R&D of both its successful professional monitor division and its renowned Hollywood Laboratory. A number of semi-professional processing and colour technologies have filtered down into the upper echelons of Panasonic’s consumer TVs to pretty strong effect.
Perhaps the most exciting development for Panasonic, though, is its decision to start selling OLED TVs. OLED’s self-emissive nature has much more in common with Panasonic’s beloved plasma technology than LCD, enabling Panasonic to port over its peerless plasma know-how to a new generation of TV technology. Panasonic’s ultra-high OLED debut in 2015 was that year’s finest TV, and its recently announced 2017 series of four OLED models is looking hugely promising too.
Embracing OLED does perhaps mean that Panasonic is focussing less on LCD than it has before. Certainly its 2017 range to date doesn’t seem as focussed on pushing LCD as a premium HDR solution as it has been before. Experience suggests, though, that so long as you pick your mid-range Panasonic LCD TV carefully, they can deliver some of the best results.
Why do you have to pick carefully? Because Panasonic has, like other brands, used a few IPS panels for certain screen sizes and certain series in recent years - invariably with less than stellar results.
So long as you avoid these, though, Panasonic is probably the best challenger for Samsung in terms of delivering good quality at a wide range of price points.
Before we go any further, please note that in this section we're talking about the European Philips TV brand now owned by TP Vision. We're not talking about the US brand currently controlled by Funai.
Under the stewardship of TP Vision, Philips has generally become much more value focussed than it used to be. Over the past six months in particular it’s really started to shift significant numbers of affordable models through mass market retailers such as Argos, doing a particularly good job of making 4K TVs an entry-level proposition.
Despite its value push, TP Vision has sensibly continued to use Philips’ eye-catching and unique Ambilight technology on all but its most absolutely basic TVs, giving the brand an immediate and eye-catching point of difference. You generally get more high-quality picture processing on affordable Philips TVs than you do with other budget models, too.
The only problem with the value end of Philips’ recent ranges has been their heavy reliance on low-contrast IPS panels - a policy that Philips doesn’t seem set to reverse any time soon.
The good news for video enthusiasts is that while TP Vision has generally pushed the bottom and mid-lower parts of the Philips TV brand downwards, it hasn’t seemingly sought to prevent Philips’ engineers from innovating and an uncompromising pursuit of quality with its high-end models.
Recent hits such as the 65PUS7601 LCD TV and 55POS901F/12 OLED TV have been up there with the very best any brand has to offer, and recent announcements of another OLED TV (the Philips 55POS9002) and new high-level picture processing engine suggest that Philips is still very much a brand to watch.