The 5 best HDTVs you can buy (and some budget-friendly alternatives)

This year has been an interesting one for new TVs. For the most part, picture quality stayed the same as last year, with the improvements coming in price, size and features. (In a few cases, we even saw picture quality decrease.) But there were notable standouts, with some of the best looking images we’ve ever seen.

Our first pick is definitely the overall best HDTV of 2012. The ones that follow are all excellent in their own right, but aren’t in any particular order. For those seeking a great picture but have a tighter budget, we've named some of the best alternatives where possible. 

TV shoppers, bear in mind that prices shown are valid at the time this post and are subject to change.

And the winners are:

Panasonic TC-P65VT50
Panasonic TC-P65VT50

Panasonic TC-P65VT50 plasma - The best of the best
Every year, Panasonic makes their top-of-the-line plasmas just a bit better. They’ve gotten so good that they’re now equal to, if not better than, the first few generations of Pioneer’s vaunted "Kuro" plasmas. The native contrast ratio and black levels of the VT50 series (image at top) are significantly better than anything else on the market today. It's a truly gorgeous television.

Feature-wise, it has all the great performance goodies, including 96Hz for judder free movies without the "soap opera effect" seen on LED LCDs with 120Hz or higher refresh. It’s also THX-certified for excellent image quality out of the box, without a lot of fine-tuning. This is also built-in software for Internet streaming video, Skype video calling (with optional camera) and more. The VT50 is available in the 65-inch and 55-inch versions. We currently have a TC-P65VT50 in our test lab.

Price: TC-P65VT50 ($3,200), TC-P55VT50 ($2,200)

If the VT50 series is too pricy for you, the GT50 models offer black levels not quite as good as the VT50, and they lack 96Hz refresh, the Touch Pad Controller and the ISF ccc calibration option. The cheaper model uses the Infinite Black Pro screen filter in place of the VT50's Infinite Black Ultra, so the GT50 is not not quite as effective in cutting down room reflections in bright viewing environments.

The TC-P65ST50 is the next step down after that, and it's a lot cheaper. It offers slightly less performance than the GT50, and drops the THX settings and a few other features, but makes up for it in pure value. 

Elite PRO-70X5FD by Sharp
Elite PRO-70X5FD by Sharp

Sharp Elite PRO-70X5FD
We reviewed the Elite a few months ago, and we’re highly impressed. As one of the few local-dimming LED LCDs, the Elite combines excellent brightness with deep black levels. Its native contrast isn’t quite as good as the VT50, and off-axis performance is poor, but overall the image is nearly as good. Check out our review of the 60-inch PRO-60X5FD. The Elites are available in the 70-inch and 60-inch screen sizes.

Price: PRO-70X5FD ($8,000), PRO-60X5FD ($4,600)

Sony XBR-65HX950
Sony XBR-65HX950

Sony XBR-65HX950 LED LCD
As one of the only other local dimming LED LCDs, the HX950 series offers significantly better performance than edge-lit LED LCDs. It doesn’t have nearly as many zones as the Elite, so it doesn’t quite offer that level of picture quality, but it puts out an excellent, bright, punchy image for a lot less money. Check out our review of the 55-inch XBR-55HX950. Available in the 65-inch and 55-inch screen sizes.

Price: XBR-65HX950 ($5,000), XBR-55HX950 ($3,000)

If you like what you see but your budget doesn't fit the 950, try the 55-inch HX 850 series. It lists for $1,000 less than its 950 counterpart. You will lose the full LED backlight, so the contrast won't be as amazing, but you'll keep all the other major features.

Samsung PN64E8000
Samsung PN64E8000

Samsung PN64E8000 plasma
Though it doesn’t quite offer the picture quality of the VT50, that’s a lot like saying a Nissan GT-R is slower than a Ferrari. The E8000 has speech recognition, facial recognition, gesture control, a fantastic Smart TV suite, and oh right, really excellent picture quality. Read our review here.

Price: PN64E8000 ($2,900), PN60E8000 ($2,200), PN51E8000 ($1,200) 

For those of you on a budget, check out the 7000 series (51-, 60- and 64-inch screen sizes starting at $998) which offers near identical performance but lacks the the built-in camera and face, speech and gesture recognition.

LG 84LM9600
LG 84LM9600

LG 84LM9600 Ultra HD 4K LED LCD
The Era of Ultra HD — aka 4K — is upon us. Forget 1080p: With its 3,840 x 2,160 pixels, the 84-inch 84LM9600 offers four times that "full HD" resolution.

Our review of the 84LM9600 is coming shortly, but we can say now that it blew us away. It produces the best 3-D image we've ever seen on a TV, and it had excellent upconverting, so regular HD looks good all the way up at 4K.

As we discussed in our introduction to Ultra HD, there are a couple of advantages to the higher resolution now, one of the biggest being passive 3-D at full vertical resolution. Yet there currently is no Ultra HD standard and — although many film directors now shoot in that resolution — there’s basically no 4K content available to the general public.

Price: $16,999.99

Geoff Morrison can be followed on Twitter at @TechWriterGeoff. His novel, "Undersea," is now in paperback.

More on HD Guru: