Call it 4K, UHD (ultra high definition), Ultra 4K or something else, there's no escaping the fact that virtually every top-tier TV manufacturer is making a very big deal out of sets with resolutions that are higher than HD's standard 1080p. As detailed in our discussion of Important HDTV Features, these TVs can look very good when fed with a 4K TV image, but while the situation is starting to change for the better, at present, there are still relatively few sources for 4K programs.
Be that as it may, if you want the very best TVs that the very best TV makers offer, 4K resolutions are part of the package. Price tags have come down in this past year, depending on the model and screen size, though TVs in this performance category remain anything but cheap.
For 2015, the "King of TVs" (CNET's description) is the 65-inch LG 65EG9600 (Est. $5,000), an OLED TV that leaves reviewers' mouths agape when it comes to picture quality. No set -- not this one, and not even the legendary Pioneer Kuro plasma TV -- is ever perfect, and testing has revealed that the EG9600 has some shortcomings that might be unforgivable in a lesser television. However, those are trumped by black levels that make competing LED sets -- the technology used in current flagship models from all other manufacturers -- look grey and cloudy. According to CNET's David Katzmaier, not even the well-regarded Samsung PN60F8500, a former ConsumerSearch Best Reviewed plasma set, now discontinued, could measure up. "In scene after scene -- the power of those perfect blacks came through as epic, ultra-punchy contrast," he says of LG's OLED set.
CNET isn't alone in casting praise toward the LG 65EG9600, and the smaller and somewhat more affordable 55-inch version, the LG 55EG9600 (Est. $3,000). It's an Editors' Choice award winner at PCMag.com and Reviewed.com. It's been named a Reference set by FlatpannelsHD.com -- an award "given to displays that set a new benchmark for picture quality." It also won the Value Electronics TV Shootout -- beating out flagship LED sets from Samsung, Sony and Panasonic for that honor. ConsumerReports.org steps out from behind its pay wall to comment extensively on the LG OLED TV: Looking at the 55-inch version, James K. Willcox and Claudio Ciacci say that overall, it "is among the best TVs we've tested this year, and some of the flaws we noted pale in comparison to the various image-related anomalies we see every day when we test LCD sets." Given the price tag, it's no surprise that user feedback is fairly scant, but the EG9600 sets earn a rating of 4.6 stars at both Amazon.com and BestBuy.com, based on just over 35 reviews across the two sites.
This set's biggest Achilles heel is disappointing screen uniformity -- something that was painfully obvious during the Value Electronics TV Shoot Out (ConsumerSearch was in attendance and participated in the media voting; see Our Sources for more information) -- and that shows up in expert testing to various degrees. Lee Neikirk at Reviewed.com sees these issues -- banding and screen edges that are darker than the rest of the screen -- but says that past experience with OLED sets indicates that these artifacts lessen over time, and adds that they lessened on his test set during the review period. He also says "quite frankly, as jarring as these uniformity issues can be during test patterns, it's hard to even see them outside of special circumstances."
Most other aspects of picture performance are aces in tests. PCMag.com's Will Greenwald says that "The color accuracy was as close to spot-on as an HDTV can reasonably be out of the box, without making individual color calibration adjustments." The TV is very bright, meaning that contrast is as close to "infinite" (thanks to those deep blacks) as practically possible, and bright room performance is very good. Off-axis viewing is better than with most LCD TVs. However, motion performance is only fair -- about on a par with true 120 Hz LCD TVs, says Reviewed.com, but not as robust as with other technologies -- all long gone -- such as plasma.
No surprise for a flagship TV, the LG 65EG9600 is feature packed. The set has a curved screen and supports 4K content and HDR. The smart platform, WebOS 2.0, is applauded for being simple to use, and this year's version is much snappier than the one seen in 2014 sets (and those are slated to get a firmware upgrade to the new platform as well). The app line up is broad, and there's an available app store. The Magic Motion remote is an LG staple that offers Wii-like motion control, which makes everything a bit more usable. The 65EG9600 uses passive 3D, and puts two pairs of glasses in the box. In theory, increasing the resolution to 4K should yield better passive 3D performance, but CNET and Reviewed.com both comment that what you actually see on the screen can vary -- a lot -- depending on content, seating position, viewing angle and the like. When it works, it is "nothing short of breathtaking," Neikirk says, adding, "but sometimes it was downright awful, too."
As noted in our discussion of curved versus flat TVs in the important TV features section, not all are sold that curved screens are a better choice -- in fact, some experts, including CNET's Katzmaier, say the curved screen is nothing but a gimmick that adds some aesthetics, but does little to improve picture quality. If you fall into that camp, and would prefer all of the picture goodness of the LG 65EG9600 but with a flat screen, the LG 65EF9500 (Est. $5,000) might be worth considering instead. It's not been as widely reviewed as the curved screen 65EG9600, but CNET and Reviewed.com have looked at it and report that aside from the screen shape, everything else is identical performance wise.
As compelling as the overall picture quality of the LG OLED sets are, they are not for everyone. OLED technology is cutting edge and supported primarily by LG, though Panasonic has announced a set as well. OLED also requires a bit of care compared to LCD sets -- a break in period and watchfulness against static images (such as a stock ticker at the bottom of the screen) to prevent image retention, just like with plasma.
If you'd rather stick with something more tried and true, and with picture quality that doesn't fall all that much behind OLED, there are several LED flagship sets worth considering. You won't get blacks that are quite as deep, and viewing angles might be more limited, but these are otherwise outstanding sets that deliver picture quality that should satisfy even demanding videophiles.
But while any of a quartet of flagship sets from Samsung and Sony should make lovers of great picture quality smile, experts are very much split on which one is the very best. A case in point is the 65-inch Samsung UN65JS9500 ($4,500). That curved screen, 4K set with a full matrix backlight is the top rated set of all (even besting the LG OLED model) in one independent review, and is named an Editors' Choice selection by Sound & Vision magazine. However, it's edged out by other sets in some other reviews, and rated relatively poorly in a few cases. Many reviewers who take value into consideration as part of their rating process wonder whether the set is worth its prodigious price tag. Most are impressed by picture quality, especially black levels and contrast for an LED TV. Uniformity and blooming, which is a common artifact with full matrix sets such as this one (see the discussion of edge lit versus full matrix backlights in the section on important TV features), are major issues according to some reviewers, such as PCMag.com, but others don't note them or, as in the case of Sound & Vision, say they are hard to spot outside of test patterns.
Still, since impressions are such a mixed bag, Samsung fans might be better served with a set in the JS9000 series, which is very much similar but lower in cost and with an edge-lit backlight instead. Sets in that series, such as the 55-inch Samsung UN55JS9000 (Est. $2,500), do very well in reviews, scoring close to -- and in some cases surpassing -- the pricier JS9500 models. For example, at Rtings.com, Cedric Demers says "The Samsung JS9000 isn't just the best Samsung LED TV we've seen this year, it's the best TV we've seen, period."
The JS9000 series, which also includes TVs with 48 inch and 65 inch screen sizes, is also well reviewed elsewhere, including an Editors' Choice selection at Reviewed.com. "While the TV's edge-LED design means it lacks the raw contrast of something like LG's 4K OLED lineup, make no mistake—the JS9000 still packs a serious punch," says Neikirk of the 65-inch Samsung UN65JS9000 (Est. $3,500). He adds, "Not only does it live in an entirely different class than most 4K sets, it's frankly one of the best LCD TVs we've tested." Users are also impressive thus far, including a 4.7-star rating at BestBuy.com, where 94 percent say they would recommend a TV in his series.
Black levels are terrific in this TV, though uniformity isn't and you'll see the edge brightness that's pretty much a staple of most edge-lit designs. Like most LED TVs, especially those with curved screens, the best picture is seen from directly in front, with quality dropping off sharply for seating positions that are off to the side. Color performance is top shelf, helped by the use of a Nano Crystal screen, Samsung's take on the Quantum Dot technology that helps enable a wider color gamut, and the TV supports HDR content for improved contrast and color performance. (See Important TV Features elsewhere in this report).
The set, like all Samsung sets, is feature packed. Samsung's Android-based Tizen smart TV platform isn't as well liked in some quarters as other smart options, but is generally described as snappy, easy to use and "chock full of content ranging from essential to shovelware," as Reviewed.com describes it. All connections (and there are plenty of them) are made to a separate One Connect box that hooks up to the display via a single 10-foot cable. That lets Samsung give the display itself a stunningly minimalistic look, and improves installation flexibility. New this year is a smart remote, a small wand that lets you interact easily with onscreen menus but lacks very much in the way of traditional clicker keys (and a standard remote is not included). It does have a microphone for voice control as well, but feedback indicates that performance using that is a little hit or miss. There's also active 3D with one set of glasses included.
On the Sony side of things, last year's 65-inch Sony XBR-65X950B (Est. $5,500) remains available. It gets terrific critical reviews when it comes to picture quality. "There will be few 2015 televisions capable of matching the X950B's performance and recent price reductions have made it an even more appealing premium option, says Robert Heron at HDGuru.com, where the set earns 4.5 "hearts." That said, those price reductions brought the original $8,000 price tag down to around $5,500, still toward the top of the food chain among flagship sets, and even pricier than LG's 65-inch OLED TV. If your wall and your wallet will support it, Sony also makes an 85-inch version of this set, the Sony XBR-85X950B (Est. $15,000).
On balance, however, Sony's 2015 XBR sets look to be a better consideration for most buyers in this performance/price category. The 65-inch Sony XBR-65X930C (Est. $3,500) rates on a par with the Samsung UN65JS9000 (Est. $3,500) according to those experts that have looked at it -- a tenth of a point above the Samsung set at Reviewed.com (where both are named Editors' Choice selections) and a tenth of a point below it at Rtings.com. User feedback is more limited, but it earns 4.5 stars at BestBuy.com based on just over 30 reviews, with, once again, recommendations from 94 percent of owners.
Picture quality is excellent all around. The display uses Quantum Dot (Trilunimous) technology and supports HDR content. Resolution is 4K, of course. The XBR-65X930C is an edge-lit set, so there will be some uniformity issues, but that may depend widely on the specific TV you wind up with. Rtings.com's Demers notes that black uniformity was actually quite good in his sample: "LED TVs don't get much better than this," he says.
The TV is only available in a 65-inch screen size. A near identical version with a 75-inch screen and a full matrix back light is also offered as the Sony XBR-75X940C (Est. $7,000). It's not been widely reviewed, however, and as Reviewed.com notes, because of the difference in back lights, it's safe to expect that "performance aspects like contrast ratio and screen uniformity to vary greatly between the two sets".
The XBR-65X930C has the expected array of features including active 3D (two pairs of glasses are included). Sony has overhauled its smart TV platform, rolling out one that, like Samsung, is based on the Android operating system. Demers opines that the new platform got off to a "rough start" in terms of content, but adds "It is a bit behind Samsung and LG, but it is improving every day."
There are some significant design differences between the Sony and Samsung flagship sets, and those could tip buyers one way or another. For starters, while the UN55JS9000 has a curved screen, the Sony XBR-65X930C has a flat one. However, the design factor that could play a larger role, for better or worse, are the impossible-to-miss three-way speaker panels built into the sides. That results in a TV that is notably wider, and more imposing, than any other 65-inch set, but also better built-in sound than one has come to expect from TV sets in general. "While they're not nearly on-par with a true surround-sound system, they're at least as loud and effective as a soundbar," says Reviewed.com. The serious speakers also help make the TV seriously heavy -- over 100 pounds even without the stand. If wall mounting the set, Niekirk suggests that you "enlist a couple of friends, or even a professional installer -- the last thing you want to do is drop this giant thing on your toe."