Ultimate TV Buying Guide: How to Choose the Best TV
TV is part of the American fabric, and your new TV could be your family’s best friend for years to come. So no — this isn’t like buying a toaster oven — you’re going to want to get this right, and that’s what our 2018 TV Buying Guide is all about. After all, before you spend thousands of hours watching it, you'll want to spend a few choosing it.
What is 4K TV? Is OLED worth it? What about OLED vs. LED? And the biggie: what TV should you buy? Our goal is to de-mystify and simplify. If you don’t need to know it, we’re not going to tell it. If it’s a minor detail but still good to know, we’ll point it out.
In the end, we won’t know which TV is best for you. But you will, and that’s the whole idea.
TV Buying Guide Cheat SheetIf you’re only going to read one thing, read this.
Here are the 7 most important things to know (or do) when buying a TV, in bitesize form:
- Go with 4K (aka Ultra HD) and make sure it has HDR. These are huge — the most important factors for TV picture quality.
- Bigger is better. Always. “I wish I bought a smaller TV” said no one ever. (Bigger + 4K these days = spectacular. Jaw-dropping. Wow.)
- Upgrade your HDMI cable. It’s all about the plumbing, and the extra $30/40 bucks is more than worth it. Get an HDMI cable worthy of your TV investment and see every single pixel replicated in glorious form.
- Upgrade the sound. Audio is more than half the experience, and your TV’s built-in speakers aren’t up to the task. (In fact, they were actually better years ago.)
- Choose a trusted brand. We have a reputation for testing and vetting brands. In short, we put them all through the wringer. What TV brand is the best? Three clearly rise above: LG, Sony, and Samsung, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.
- Buy your new TV from an authorized dealer. You get the manufacturer's warranty, service, and support. (In our case, guaranteed support even long after the sale. Not to brag, but we did take #2 in Customer Service by USA Today. Just sayin.’)
- Or just skip the rest of this and buy one of these: The Top TVs of 2020. Then give yourself a standing-O. You now have what experts are calling some of the best TVs anywhere, at any price.
Our 10-step formula for picking the best TV for you.
Step 1. Choose your price range.
The more you spend, the better the features.
TV prices have come way WAY down in the last 3-5 years, and right now, less than a grand will buy you a gorgeous, top-of-the-line, 42-inch, 4K smart TV loaded with almost every bell and whistle possible. Spend more, and you can bring home the same thing, but at 65 or 75-inches… and with every feature under the sun. (We’ll discuss features as we go.)
More money also buys you deeper blacks, better contrast, and a broader, richer color spectrum. (Deeper blacks are huge. You want deeper blacks.) And most of all, more money will also get you a bigger screen, so let’s start there.
Step 2: Choose your TV size.
Bigger is better. Way better.
Once upon a time, the family sofa determined how big or small the TV should be. (As in: the further away the sofa, the bigger the TV.) But today’s TVs are rewriting all the rules, so that’s over.
In fact, the one thing every serious review of current 4K TVs will tell you: bigger is better. Go too small, and you will regret it. That’s how amazing TVs are these days, not only with respect to picture, but design as well. We’ve gone from big, gaudy black boxes that take up space and clash with everything to incredibly thin, beautifully designed TVs that work with your room and range in size from 32-inch to 100-inch. (100” is a little over 8 feet — and an 8-foot wide 4K TV is, in a word, stupefying. Out-of-body. Front-row-seats-to-everything.)
For example, when turned off, Samsung’s Frame TV is indistinguishable from actual framed artwork. When on, it’s an awesome, full-featured 4K TV. And LG’s Gallery TV is credit card-thin, hangs flush to the wall, and looks like something out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Tips from our experts:
The newest TV mounting options let you put your TV flush to the wall (like a sticker) or over the fireplace with the latest fireplace friendly mounts that are really clever. The end-effect: the TV takes up less space, seems smaller, and is less intrusive. So if you’re mounting your TV, go bigger. (Plus, a wall mount means you don't have to buy some giant piece of furniture to put the TV on.)
Keep in mind: a 65-inch TV has more than twice the screen real estate of a 42-inch TV. (Odd but true. Geometry rocks.) At 65 or 75 inches, your TV will turn your den into a cozy cinema. And don't forget, TV screens are measured diagonally, corner to corner. Not side to side.
Curved or flat? A curved TV won’t have a better picture than a flat TV, and in our opinion, curved TVs are a passing fad. We vote no.
We can’t say this too many times and it’s the single biggest regret we hear from new TV buyers: “I went too small.” If you can do 55 inches, chances are good that 65 inches will still work aesthetically — and you’ll be much happier in the end.
Step 3. Choose OLED or LED.
Both are awesome, but one is better.
Let’s make this easy: though OLED is more expensive, it’s by far the best picture technology. Period. End of story. To be clear: though OLED wins the picture contest, a good 4K LED TV still offers a spectacular viewing experience — and the good ones come with the same smart TV features found in OLED TVs. Add to that, 4K LED TVs cost less than OLED TVs – possibly freeing up money for that killer sound bar or awesome surround sound system you’re going to want.
So you’re now free to skip over the rest of this section, unless you want more detail and a little TV history.
First came plasma. (By the way, no one makes plasma TVs anymore.) Then came LCD (short for liquid crystal display), which was awesome but had severe shortcomings. Then LCD technology improved and we got LCD/LED TVs, or just LED for short. (These days, most TVs are LED TVs.) Then came OLED TVs (which stands for organic light emitting diode). Last, there’s also something called QLED, but that’s just Samsung’s name for their particular line of high end LED TVs.
Bottom line: you will be choosing a TV with either LED or OLED panel technology — and that’s all you have to know.
So what are the specific differences between LED and OLED? Here's how they stack up against each other:
LED TVs are less expensive than OLED TVs, though OLED prices are coming down.
LED TVs are backlit, which means a light shines through a panel of crystals to create the picture. OLED TVs are not backlit. Instead, every single pixel in an OLED 4K TV (and we’re talking 8,847,360 pixels in all) turns on and off and adjusts on its own. The result = picture that is far superior and more lifelike.
LEDs and OLEDs both work well in all lighting conditions. LEDs are especially good in well-lit spaces and can be made even brighter for sunny Florida rooms. OLED is spectacular in dimmer rooms.
Given LED TVs cannot go completely dark, shadow detail suffers. With OLED, colors pop, black is true black (which is huge), and contrast and shadow detail are true to life.
The deeper the blacks, the better the contrast. And the better the contrast, the better the picture. Add to that: it’s not just the depth of the blacks, it’s the details in the blacks that make a great picture. Bottom line: No contest here, OLED nails blacks.
OLED vs. LED black levels
Both LED and OLED TVs are thin, but OLED is thinner. Some LED TVs are 1/4 inch thin, but some OLED TVs are as thin as a couple of credit cards. Caveat: Some TVs have a “bump” on the back that prohibits a tight fit, but a professional installation can bury the bump in the wall for a perfectly flush-to-the-wall look.
Lower-end LED TVs often have viewing angle issues — you have to sit directly in front of the TV to see the best picture. If you’re off to the side, the picture fades. (Important: Make sure your TV will look good from various angles in your particular room!) This is not an issue with OLED technology — every viewing angle is optimum.
Both LED and OLED TVs occasionally struggle with fast action content, like a football game — it’s one of the most difficult things for a TV to do. A better TV generally is great out of the box with factory settings, but they do come with menu settings that improve fast action — though sometimes at the expense of the picture. (Your call to turn it on or leave it off.)
Tip from our experts:
If you really want to see a side-by-side OLED vs. LED contest, visit a showroom near you and ask to see a video of fireworks at night on both types of panels - at the same time.
If you do decide to go with an LED TV, note that higher-end LED TVs way outperform lower-end LED TVs. Take LG vs. Vizio, for example. The LG will have better blacks, better contrast, more vibrant color, and wider viewing angles.
3D TVs: No one makes them anymore. It was a fad. (Truth be told, it seems people just didn't want to wear 3D glasses all day.) But if you really have your heart set on 3D, get a 4K 3D projector — not a flatscreen TV.
Step 4. Choose your TV resolution.
Go with 4K. Boom, done. (Hint: more pixels wins. And 4K has 6 million more pixels than regular HD.)
Let’s get this out of the way first: 4K and Ultra HD are the same thing. (Why the two names,? Who knows, we missed that meeting.) Both refer to screen resolution, and the number of pixels on the screen. The more pixels, the better, sharper, and more lifelike the picture.
Quick history: Back in the old days, TV resolution was awful, but it was all we had. Then HDTV came along, and TVs went from 307,200 pixels to 1 million pixels (720P), then to over 2 million pixels (1080P) — and suddenly TV was perfect. Then 5 years ago, 4K arrived and we went from over 2 million pixels to over 8 million pixels, and we all found out what perfect really looks like. (Yes, 8K made an appearance at CES this year, but let's not go there just yet.)
4K is quite literally four times better than old HD standards, and four times better isn’t a subtle improvement – it’s a holy mackerel, smack-in-the-face improvement, especially if it’s a good 4K TV. And though there’s not a ton of 4K content available yet (most is still on Blu-ray), content providers of all sorts are preparing to release almost everything in 4K… and your new 4K TV will be equipped to handle this exciting future. But wait, there’s more:
Your new 4K TV makes even regular old HD content better, thanks to new upscaling technologies that beautifully (and instantly) transpose 1080P to 4K by adding pixel density in the process.
With old HD, you saw only a fraction of the digital data that’s actually there. But with your new 4K TV, you get it all, and the result, even if you’re just browsing the net or looking at your own digital photos or home movies = a dramatically better experience.
Blu-ray movies in 4K? Also mind-blowing. Until someone figures out a way to improve the human eye, we’re not sure it gets any better than a premium 4K Blu-ray movie on a good 4K TV.
Gaming in 4K? That’s coming soon too, and suffice it to say a lot of us are going to be chronically late for work.
Moral of this story: you want a 4K TV. It’s the new standard and it is other-worldly good. Just keep in mind, the biggest difference between, for example, a $1000, 55-inch 4K TV versus a $4000, 55-inch 4K TV is picture. But is the picture on a $4000 TV really 4 times better than the picture on a $1000 TV? Some say that depends on A) how much you watch TV and B) how long you plan to keep your TV. If you watch a lot of TV and plan on having your new TV for 5 years or more, then yes, spending more is worth it.
That said, there are still reasons you may want to get a regular old 1080p TV:
HDTVs are cheap these days. And they're just fine for a kitchen, spare bedroom, etc.
HD resolution (1080p) on a smaller screen (32 inches or less) is still a fantastic picture.
Make sure it’s HDR compatible.
What is 4K HDR? HDR = High Dynamic Range, and HDR does for TVs what whipped cream does for hot chocolate: makes it better. It’s just way better than not having it, but you will have to pay for it. If you can, don’t miss out.
Quick note: Though we all have an HDR feature on our smart phone cameras, or what some call the “soap opera” effect, it’s not the same thing. (In spite of the same name.) HDR on a phone allows the camera to take multiple exposures at the same time, and then combines them for higher contrast. (The results are often unnatural.) HDR on your TV generates higher contrast within the existing pixels, expanding contrast and color so the end result is more natural, accurate, and has more depth.
With HDR, color on a TV remains true to form. Without HDR, a TV can’t reproduce certain colors in a true-to-life way. Really, what HDR does for a TV is so amazingly spectacular, it’s worth a deeper dive.
Up till now, certain colors weren’t possible on TV. Prince’s purple guitar, Mountain Dew green, even a true strawberry red – without HDR, the best a TV can do is approximate and substitute with less-than-true-life results. But HDR fixes that by greatly expanding the two most important factors for a great picture: color and contrast ratios. And the difference isn’t subtle, it’s remarkable.
Art directors and cinematographers love HDR’s accuracy, and how it puts on TV the real life colors they put on set. And once you see HDR do its thing on your TV, you’ll have your own “oh, NOW I get it” moment.
More and more streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, HBO GO) and devices (4K/Ultra HD Blu-Ray players, Apple TV, Xbox, Roku, etc.) now offer 4K/HDR content, and to take advantage, you’re going to need a 4K/HDR capable TV.
The takeaway: 4K + HDR is huge. An episode of Game of Thrones, Peaky Blinders, Blue Planet or The Walking Dead on a 4K HDR TV is nothing short of magnificent, and may spoil you for anything less.
So if you’re going for 4K, go for HDR capability, too (like these). That way, you’re future-proofed for a few years. (At least.)
Tip from our experts:
If you don't currently watch 4K content, a 4K TV will still be a huge improvement. Through a process called up-converting, a 4K TV will take 1080p content and turn it into 4K. While this isn't as visually stunning as true 4K, it's still a major upgrade. Not to mention, you'll be prepared for when you do end up watching more 4K movies and TV shows.
Step 5. What not to worry about.
Two TV specs that may no longer apply.
If you get a good, quality TV, you’re already covered on the below. High refresh rates and excellent contrast ratios come standard in better TVs these days, but for the record:
Refresh rates: The faster or higher the rate, the smoother the picture — which means it’s great for sports, games, and movies. (Note: we only carry models with superior refresh rates — fast enough for any gamer, movie-lover, or sports fanatic — so don’t get stuck on this at all.)
Contrast Ratios: Every brand rates these differently (there are no standards) and some don’t even mention contrast ratios. It’s a worthless spec when comparing TVs, and you can ignore this one, too.
Step 6. Get smart, get streaming.
Smart TVs are pretty much standard these days, and this is a good thing. (If you’re not streaming content now, you will soon. The world is going this way.) A Smart TV lets you:
Cut the cord… and enjoy wireless freedom and control. Smart TVs make it possible to cut the cord and get rid of your cable or satellite service, thanks to the native apps they come with: streaming services like Netflix, Prime, Hulu, YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.
View pretty much any content on your TV, including all the home videos, photos, and music on your phone or computer.
Tips from our experts:
Streaming from services like Netflix or Hulu? We recommend hard-wiring your TV to your network (ex: router or other network device) via Ethernet cable, rather than simply using Wi-Fi, to avoid connectivity issues and interruptions. It’s worth the trouble. Otherwise, make sure you upgrade your router to get the fastest connection possible to ensure the best picture quality, and sign up for the fastest-possible speed your Internet provider offers.
If you don’t get a Smart TV, you can still stream via devices like Xbox, Roku, Blu-ray player, and Apple TV with a direct connection.
Step 7. Get connected, stay connected.
The right TV cables and ports really do make a difference.
The thicker-than-typical TV cables you need to hook things together (cable box to TV for example) are called HDMI cables, and HDMI cables plug into HDMI ports. Why this is important:
- Cables: There are many conflicting opinions on this one, and even some controversy, but we land firmly: A higher-quality HDMI cable indeed makes a difference, and we prove it every day for customers in our stores. Better AV cables pass a wider signal faster, and thus better handle the greater bandwidth necessary to get every bit of quality from source to TV. As technology offers better resolution and more content, you’re going to need the speed and bandwidth. Plus, if you're spending a few thousand dollars or more on a new TV, quality cables ensure you're getting the most out of it. (You wouldn't buy a Ferrari and throw on $40 tires, right?)
- Ports: Look for 4 HDMI ports on your TV at a minimum. (Devices like your gaming box, sound bar and Apple TV each need their own HDMI port, so yeah, they go quickly.) And if you’re getting a 4K Ultra HD TV, check to see that your HDMI ports support HDMI 2.0 for many current 4K devices. You should also inquire about HDCP compatibility (or high-bandwidth digital content protection). The next generation of content protection is called HDCP 2.2, and not only is it not backwards compatible, many new 4K devices don't even support it.
- Bluetooth connectivity: Many TVs come Bluetooth enabled, and if you have Bluetooth headphones that work with your TV, you may be golden! The ability to walk around the house listening to your favorite show with headphones and not disturb others or watch TV in bed while your significant other is asleep is a beautiful thing. Add to that, you never miss a word under headphones. If you are hearing impaired (we’re looking at you, Baby Boomers), some headphones have voice enhancement tech built-in to make voices clearer.
Tip from our experts:
A better cable manages higher speeds, greater bandwidth, and basically sets you up for the future. One example: When HDMI 2.0 became a problem, our high-quality cables handled the upgrade before it was ever an issue. Conversely, folks with cheap HDMI cables in their walls had to rip them out if they wanted to watch 3D or HDR content.
Step 8. Seriously consider upgrading your audio.
No guts, no glory: it’s the sound that gives you goosebumps.
No surprise here, but the speakers inside these amazing new, credit card-thin 4K TVs are not as good as the speakers that came in your clunky, old 1985 tabletop TV. (One exception, Sony uses the entire screen on its A1E series as a speaker, and it sounds pretty darn incredible, considering it's built into the TV.) Most TV manufacturers assume you’re going to spring for a TV sound upgrade that works for you and your room.
The good news: a decent audio upgrade doesn’t have to be pricey — as little as $69 to $99 will offer a significant improvement, and $399 will get you sound worthy of a good 4K TV. There are tons of sound bars on the market right now - some are even wireless, and some pack a helluva punch. Or you can go all-in and get true home theater sound and put yourself on the bridge of the Enterprise, the court at Kings Landing, or the front row at Carnegie Hall… with true theater-like quality.
Every TV these days — whether 1080p or 4K Ultra HD — comes with a digital sound port or two in the back that just begs for an upgrade. And really, sound is what makes you jump out of your seat, dive for cover, or (for all you romantic comedy lovers) reach for your Kleenex… so if you can do an upgrade, go for it. (You’ll be spending so many Saturday nights at home watching your favorite shows and movies on your new TV, you’ll recoup that money in no time.
Step 9. Don’t fall in love with a remote control.
Do not buy a TV because you fancy the remote. You can upgrade your TV remote at any time, and some of the newer third-party remote controls are seriously AWESOME.
There are better options. Way better.
And really, though one universal remote that replaces all other remotes is the gold standard, lots of folks still use their cable or Dish remote to do everything.
Step 10. What about the TV warranty?
When you buy from an authorized dealer (ahem, like us), your new TV will come with the full manufacturer's warranty. And most TV manufacturer's (LG, Sony, and Samsung for sure) have nationwide authorized service centers where many times, if there's an issue, they come to your house. (Keep in mind, TVs are hard to lug around and you don't want to ship it back and forth if there’s a problem.) What’s more, with an authorized dealer, you also get phone and email support from the dealer in addition to the in-home coverage and support from the manufacturer.
We also asked Bob Cole, our founder and main TV guru, for his thoughts on warranties: “If you're buying a $2,000 TV, consider buying the warranty. If it’s over $5,000, definitely buy the warranty. And for a home theater system with multiple components, get a system warranty rather than one for each component.” (Thank you Bob.)
Still not sure?
No problem. We’re here, and this is what we do every single day.
At World Wide Stereo, we carefully vet all of our TV brands and models so you don’t have to, and our 40-year near perfect track record and #2 Customer Service rating from USA Today says it all. Your new TV is an investment — buy it from a trusted dealer with a stellar track record, and you’re good as gold.
And if you’re still not sure what TV is right for you, or if you have a question we didn’t answer, or a unique situation (a la the guy who once called to ask “which TV is best for dogs, because mine likes watching the game with me”), do not hesitate to pick up the phone and talk to us. Seriously, we live for helping customers make great choices, whatever the budget or situation. (Or beloved family pet.) The way we see it: When we do right by you, whether now, next year, or even years after a sale, you’re going to come back. And probably more than once. Eventually, we’re on a first name basis… and if you’re in the neighborhood, you’re even stopping by for our special events. Life is good.
Thank you for reading – and enjoy your awesome new TV!
Bob, Ron, Gavin, Kristin, Emily and the rest of us at World Wide Stereo.
About World Wide Stereo
World Wide Stereo is home to some 90+ industry-leading audio/video professionals who love what they do, and talking about it, too. We opened our doors in 1979, gained a small yet diehard following, won a slew of national awards for everything from killer home theater installations to customer service, grew the business online… and today we enjoy a faithful following of like-minded TV-watching, music-listening, gear-loving defenders of fun for the whole family. Our only rule: no one leaves unhappy. For more on us, click here.