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HDTV Technology Options: Plasma vs. LED vs. LCD, and Beyond

June 18, 2012 | Comments

Which is better: LED, LCD or plasma? It's a common question among consumers, but the truth is that none of the three is objectively superior in all respects. When shopping for a new TV, it's important to select the type of TV that's right for where and how you watch TV in your home.

Although performance varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and model to model, there are a few general differences between the different TV technologies.

LCD and LED

It's important to note that LED and LCD are not two wholly different types of display. Both rely on arrays of liquid crystals and polarizing filters that modulate the light coming from a rear- or edge-mounted light source. The difference between the two is the light source. Typically, LCD TVs rely on a fluorescent lamp, whereas LED TVs rely on light-emitting diodes. The difference in performance often has more to do with the fact that LEDs are used on higher-end TVs, but LEDs are also capable of better brightness and better energy efficiency.

Brightness and Efficiency

Brightness and efficiency set LCD and LED TVs apart from plasmas, which create an image by electrically exciting individual pixels filled with different gases, and consume more energy doing so. The individual pixels of a plasma display create the light. This allows them to dim and nearly shut off when rendering the darkest areas of an image.

LCDs, on the other hand, are only able to block the bright light coming from behind (or along the sides of) the screen. Because of this, plasmas are typically better at producing darker, more consistent blacks and therefore have superior contrast ratios (the difference between the darkest and lightest areas of the image). This gives their images more apparent depth and realism. But the backlight (or edge light) of an LED or LCD gives it an extra boost when viewed in a very bright room, where plasmas may be all but unwatchable.

Plasmas also tend to have better viewing angles, meaning that the image doesn't lose brightness, vibrancy or consistency as you view it from an angle. But, with the exception of prototype or specialized displays, plasmas are usually manufactured in sizes no smaller than 42 inches and no larger than 65 inches for retail.

LED/LCD vs. Plasma

As a rule of thumb, an LED or LCD display may be the better choice for you if:

  • You watch TV during the day with the shades open
  • You're looking for a very small or very large TV
  • Energy efficiency is one of your primary concern
  • You're wooed by ultra-thin cabinets and stylish bezels

Whereas plasma may be your display of choice if:

  • Deep blacks and richer contrasts are critically important to you
  • You watch your TV in a light-controlled environment
  • Your family tends to spread out around the room while watching TV
  • Your eyes are particularly sensitive to the slower response time and motion issues inherent to LCD/LED (or the newer processing technologies designed to ameliorate them)

If you're looking for even more bang for your buck, you can find rear-projection DLP TVs up to a staggering 92 inches for about the same amount you'd pay for a good 65-inch LED or plasma.

OLED

There's another new flat-panel TV technology on the horizon known as OLED (organic light emitting diode), which actually operates more like a plasma display, yet promises to deliver more flexibility in terms of screen sizes, better energy efficiency and superior black levels and contrast.

Keep in mind that these are all general guidelines. Your local CEDIA member home theater installer can sit down and discuss your viewing habits on a room-by-room basis and suggest the best TV technology (or mix thereof) for your home.