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Best HDTV ever: $15,000 LG and $9,000 Samsung OLEDs face off

LG 55EA9800
LG 55EA9800LG

Never mind the sticker shock, there's a TV technology revolution happening that will eventually make its way to your house. OLED, the first totally new direct-view technology to appear in decades, has finally arrived on our shores. With their new 55-inch models, both LG and Samsung promise the best big-screen TV images ever seen — and far and away the most expensive, too. We tested both of them and picked a winner. ¡Viva la revolución!

OLED, which stands for "organic light-emitting diode," has a technological trick that's destined to change TVs forever: Since each pixel illuminates itself, and is totally pitch black when its not active, you have bright images and wide-viewing angles, but with perfect contrast: completely black blacks down to the pixel. This is a capability neither LCD nor plasma has ever been able to deliver, this is why we care about TV sets that cost more than some cars.

The LG 55EA9800 introduced in late July, sells for $15,000. This week, Samsung debuted its KN55S9C, counter punching LG by charging a mere $9,000. (It's probably just a matter of time before LG lowers its hyper-inflated price tag to even things up. Do we hear $8,500?) Bizarre price differentials aside, both companies managed to create sets that deliver a visual pop like never before. After a decade of promises to make every other TV tech obsolete, OLED is finally starting to make good. But which one is, you know, better?

LG 55EA9800
LG 55EA9800LG

Head to head
Physically, the two OLED TVs are very similar. They each measure 55-inches diagonally, have curved screens, and can only be used with their integrated table stands — no wall hanging is possible.

To find a difference between the two sets, you have to look into the TV's pixels themselves. LG's screen has over 8 million individual organic diodes, "sub-pixels" covered with a red, green, blue or clear filters. Samsung's diodes are not filtered. Instead, it has over 6 million sub-pixels that emit either red, blue or green light. (As you probably know, when all three are lit together, you get white light.)

Even though these are different approaches to OLED, many of the tests showed how similar these TVs are, especially when compared to older TV technologies. During a black level test, for instance, we simply could not measure any light emitted from either TV. No LED or plasma could pull this off, and the result is an infinite contrast ratio with blazing bright whites. It's like staring into a car's high beams.

Other tests revealed differences, however. After putting the LG 55EA9800 through all sorts of tests, we identified some sub-pixels stuck in the "on" mode. We also spotted some uniformity issues in test patterns and undesired dimming in all-white screens, but neither of those potential problems were duplicated when we used regular video content.

Samsung KN55S9C
Samsung KN55S9CSamsung

With content, the image delivered as promised, which was incredible. Color was right-on the money to the HDTV standard. Our only disappointment was motion resolution. It produced blur with fast motion such as seen action movies — a problem associated with LED-based LCD TVs, but not plasmas. We could eliminate the blur by engaging the 55EA9800 s Tru Motion circuit, but the trade-off there is that it produces a picture artifact that makes film look like video — the so-called "soap opera effect."

We put the Samsung KN55S9C through the same test procedures. A white screen was incredibly bright, measuring higher than any 2013 plasma or LED LCD TV we've tested. And unlike the LG, there was no dimming of the test signals. We could find no stuck sub-pixels, and uniformity was perfect at any brightness level.

The color was close to the HDTV standard in the Movie mode, Samsung's most accurate setting. We coaxed to ideal using the KN55S9C s built-in color management system, but this requires test equipment, as it can't be done by eye. (If you spend $9,000 for a TV, however, maybe someone at the store will be kind enough to perform a calibration for you — possibly at no extra charge.)

While the Samsung's Movie mode delivered motion blur similar to the LG, Samsung provides an extra mode they call Clear Motion which inserts black frames between live frames. When that was engaged, we got full motion resolution without the soap opera effect. The only downside is a dimmer image, potentially bad news when you're watching a movie in broad daylight.

Samsung KN55S9C
Samsung KN55S9CSamsung

And the winner is ...
Both OLED TVs make an image that is overall superior to any LED-based LCD or plasma TV we have ever tested (and that's saying something!), our pick goes to the Samsung. It is the best of the best HDTVs ... ever.

OLED is the future of flat panel television. If cost was no object, we'd pick the Samsung KN55S9C over any other 55-inch TV on the market, because of its dynamic range from complete black to intense color and whites. And while the price is in the stratosphere today, we expect it to drop rapidly in the future. If manufacturers figure out how to produce OLED sets in large sizes and at affordable prices, we expect the technology to eventually take over the market.

OK, so even though we picked the $9,000 set over the $15,000 one, you're maybe still feeling like it's out of your range. If you want an affordable 50- to 65-inch HDTV today with a high-quality picture (though not one quite as good as either of the OLEDs), we recommend a plasma, especially the ST, VT and ZT Panasonics, and the F8500 series Samsungs. Street prices start at $999 — maybe you want to buy nine of them.

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