“Which is better, LED or Plasma?”
After working in home theater for a year and a half, this was by far the most asked question by customers. To be honest, there isn’t a clear choice here. The real question lies with –
“Which option is better for me?”
Let’s start with making sure that we’re all on the same page with the terms and wording. LED stands for Light Emitting Diodes, which are very small bulbs that emit light. Plasma is based on CRT or tube TV technology that uses gas and electricity to create an image. 1080p is the resolution of the display at 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels high, compared to 1280 pixels high and 720 pixels wide for 720p. Hz is a value for refresh rate. 60hz is the standard cinema style, but in some cases you’ll see anywhere from 120hz all the way up to 800hz which is what will give that “real-life” style look to the images.
I always prefer to recommend plasma first, simply because from a technological standpoint it’s a better display. Plasma is able to recreate the deepest black and whites, sharpest colours, and has an instantaneous refresh rate. All with being hundreds of dollars cheaper. There’s no catch here, plasma is less expensive because they’re not as costly to manufacture. Since plasma displays don’t require processors and other motion blur aides, they can focus on creating a great looking panel. All plasma displays are rated at 600hz which is just a marketing term, they actually run at the 60hz traditional cinema style. The response time of a plasma display is 0.001ms, so there will never be any motion blur or ghosting. As mentioned before plasma uses a gas and electricity mixture to power the display, therefore they need to have a glass display to hold up against the heat that it produces. This in turn will cause reflection if the display is in a brighter room.
With the heat, the one last other issue is image retention – or burn in. Both types are susceptible to burn in but it’s extremely rare on an LED. This happens by leaving the display on the same image such as a DVD menu or sports channel for an extended period of time. Heat causes the pixel to become irritated and it holds the colour it was displaying. Most image retention will disappear after a bit of time watching other content, but it can become permanent.
On the other side of the fence we have LED’s. They are an enhancement from LCD sets by using LED back panels to brighten the display opposed to CFL fluorescent bulbs. This allows LED panels to be incredibly thin and light, and more importantly last much longer. The fluorescent bulbs begin to lose their brightness after 2-3 years whereas LED’s hold the same level for their entire lifespan. The LED’s are able to create a stunningly bright and colourful image. As the picture was improved, it brought a couple of flaws that weren’t noticed before. LCD bulbs are only capable of refreshing an image at a certain speed and people began to notice motion blur that would happen when fast-moving images were displayed on-screen.
To compensate for the motion blur, manufacturers started doubling the refresh rate by adding in black frames between the images. This resulted in the image appearing to be more realistic, similar to a soap opera episode. This effect is apparent in all types of content, from movies to video games. It does help with the blur in some cases, and there are lots of people who have claimed to have never been able to see the ghosting effect. In the most recent years manufacturers have started going a little overboard with the refresh rate by creating 240hz, as well as software enhancements that go all the way up to 800hz+. This has no real effect on the image, but the marketing makes it look more beneficial. This leads to a much higher price for the similar screen size in a plasma. One large advantage to the LED panel is the matte finish on the display. Since the LED bulbs run much cooler, it’s capable of having an anti-glare screen. This greatly helps in rooms where natural light is more dominant.
The last factor in purchasing a television that I wanted to mention is calibration. No matter which TV you decide to purchase, a calibration is the most important thing you can do. Manufacturers set the default settings of their TV’s for a showroom location. With all the florescent lights in retail stores it’s very hard to achieve a bright, clear picture. In turn they enable what is referred to as a “torch mode.” This maximizes the brightness, contrast, and sharpness to make the picture seem more vivid when in reality it destroys the lifespan of the product. When you bring the TV home, most people just run through the settings and select all the default presets. What happens in this situation is that the TV will look moderately decent during the day when there is ample lighting, but at night it will be completely over saturated and lead to eye strain. Video calibration balances all the settings – even ones hidden in service menus – to create the best possible image your TV is capable of producing as well as provide a much longer lifespan. Most retail locations will have demos of the different in video calibration and I would strongly recommend checking them out.
With 4K and OLED quickly approaching on the horizon, now is the best time to pick up a good quality larger 1080p set. My advice is always towards plasma – best image quality, instantaneous refresh rate, and less expensive – even if it’s in a brightly lit room, you can always get blinds. For a direct comparison: a Samsung 60″ LED (UN60F6300) averages between $1,600-$1,700 (or $2,399 for a 240hz model UN60F7050) versus a Samsung 60″ plasma (PN60F5500) with the same features – smart TV, 3D – at $1,199. With that difference in price you’re now able to look at options such as: calibration, a stand or mount, extended warranty, cables, or even possibly a surround system to match (and we all know how important audio is) and still save a couple hundred dollars in some cases.
One thing to remember – a retailer is much more likely to give big discounts if you are making a package, opposed to simply getting one product. Plasma sets give the opportunity to use your dollars more efficiently because of the lower cost, and then you can build off of it from there by getting accessories and making a package.
For a more in-depth look at my TV, check out the full review coming soon.
(Originally published February 17, 2014)