4K TVs on test: LG vs Sony vs Panasonic

T3 puts three top-flight Ultra HD TVs through their paces

As well as boasting stunning picture quality, the latest 4K TVs offer leading-edge smart-connected operating systems. Thinking of jumping on the UHD bandwagon? To make the most of all that extra resolution, you need to think big. While there's an increasing number of 40-inch 4K TVs hitting stores, you should look for a screen that's 50 inches or above.

To help you buy the very best, we've put a trio of 4K titans from LG, Sony and Panasonic through their paces in three crucial tests. But which of these super-sets will come out on top?

What's on test...

1. LG 55UF850V

LG

Boasting a high spec, as well as the webOS smart-TV platform, this 50-inch LED set looks like a bargain.

  • Price: £1,299
  • Resolution: 3,840 x 2,160p
  • 3D: Yes – passive polarisation
  • Tuners: Freeview HD, satellite
  • Connections: 3 x HDMI, 3 x USB, SCART, component video input, digital optical output, Ethernet, integrated Wi-Fi
  • Smart OS: webOS

2. Sony KD-55X8505C

Sony

Sony's smart, thin 55-inch LED leads the 4K Android TV charge, and YouView is thrown in, too.

  • Price: £1,650
  • Resolution: 3,840 x 2,160p
  • 3D: Yes – active shutter
  • Tuners: Freeview HD, satellite
  • Connections: 4 x HDMI, 3 x USB, SCART, component video input, digital optical output, Ethernet, integrated Wi-Fi
  • Smart OS: Android

3. Panasonic TX-50CX802B

Panasonic

This 50-inch LED Viera boasts extensive streaming support and a future-proofed panel.

  • Price: £1,799
  • Resolution: 3,840 x 2,160p
  • 3D: Yes – active shutter
  • Tuners: Freeview Play, Freesat satellite
  • Connections: 3 x HDMI, 3 x USB, SCART, component video input, digital optical output, Ethernet, integrated Wi-Fi
  • Smart OS: Firefox OS

TEST ONE: Design

Which TV is tops for build quality and 4K connectivity?

ll three of our 4K wunderkinds look cool in that anonymous, ultra-thin-bezel kind of way. As we've come to expect from LG's products, the 55UF850V is beautifully finished, with its metal frame a seamless wrap (props to the fabricators). It also comes with a neat metal ribbon stand that has a distinctive line-groove finish.

According to LG, this not only looks swanky, it also helps mitigate against unwanted light reflecting across the bottom of the screen. The trim below the panel is actually an audio reflector for the set's downward-firing micro speakers. Sound engineering is courtesy of Harmon Kardon.Unfortunately, connectivity is limited.

LG connectivity

Of the three HDMI inputs, only two are 4K 60Hz compliant with HDCP 2.2 copy protection. This could be limiting when 4K broadcast services begin and 4K Blu-ray players launch. In addition to wired Ethernet, both 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi are supported. The screen comes with the latest iteration of LG's Bluetooth Magic Remote.

Panasonic has gone for a more sophisticated look with its TV. The panel has a dark metallic bezel with an elegant, chamfered edge, while the stand arcs behind the screen, leaving only two chromed feet visible. The sound system is hidden away, firing downward. Connectivity is better than on the LG TV.

Panasonic connectivity

Again, there are three HDMI inputs, but all of them support HDCP 2.2. There's also a trio of USBs, SCART, component AV, digital optical audio and an SD-card slot. Integrated Wi-Fi is dual-band. Two remotes ship with the set – a curiously old-fashioned wand and a Bluetooth trackpad.

The Sony is less ostentatious but equally well finished. The screen edge is neatly rolled and a wireframe stand provides support. The screen also employs downward-firing speakers. Connectivity is great, with four HDMIs – all HDCP 2.2 ready – plus three USBs, component AV, SCART, digital optical audio and Ethernet LAN. Wi-Fi is dual-band. Two remotes are supplied – a standard IR jobbie, plus a Bluetooth trackpad with an integrated mic and NFC.

Sony connectivity

Test one winner: Sony KD-55X8505C

When it comes to sleek design and cutting-edge HDMI connectivity, Sony's big Bravia narrowly edges it

TEST TWO: Features

Who has the edge in terms of content and connectivity?

While all three panels offer (more or less) 4K resolution, there are huge differences in their usability, thanks to very different smart platforms.

The Sony employs the new Android TV OS. While both LG and Panasonic have simplified the connected-TV user experience with webOS and Firefox respectively, Android luxuriates in complexity. Apps include Amazon and Netflix, while currently exclusive to Sony is integrated YouView. This is accessed via the Android UI and offers the familiar YouView programme guide, with catch-up for all four main TV channels. Sony's Netflix client is 4K-enabled.

LG's TV uses an updated version of its proprietary webOS platform, and it's a treat. The Home screen offers every type of source, be it tuner, IPTV or local sources, from a horizontal bar of coloured slides. Internet content is treated like any other channel, so you can hop between BBC One and BBC iPlayer. Other services include 4K-enabled Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and YouTube.

Panasonic's Firefox OS is even more stripped-back, but it's deceptively powerful. The system launches with three buttons – Home, Apps and Devices. The first provides an overview, enabling you to access live TV as well as other content, while Apps enables you to attach TV channels, inputs and applications to Home for easy access.

A neat info frame adds recommendations, notifications, weather and Web clips, accessible by the direction key. When pressed, a relevant info bar slides into the picture. Accessed via the Home button, Apps is the place to find Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube.

This Panasonic is the only TV in our trio to offer both Netflix 4K and Amazon Prime Instant Video 4K. The latter includes 2160p versions of TV shows Bosch, The Man In The High Tower, Mad Dogs and Mozart In The Jungle, plus a host of films. The Panasonic screen is also the first to launch with the new Freeview UI, shortly to be firmware-updated to Freeview Play, which integrates an EPG and catch-up from all four main broadcasters.

Test two winner: TX-50CX802B

4K-content generosity, and the elegance and ease of use of the Firefox OS, make Panasonic's TV the winner

TEST THREE: Viewing

Most importantly, who takes the crown for picture and sound quality?

here's much to like about the LG TV's imagery. Fine-detail performance is good, while colour vibrancy is high. Native Netflix 4K show Daredevil looks wonderfully gritty and dynamic. There's no evidence of pixels in the picture, and peak whites leap from the screen.

Unfortunately, the set is unable to deliver a really deep black, although it looks convincing when viewed in rooms with high ambient light. There's some splashy backlight irregularity, too. Motion handling is compromised by the main presets, all of which generate MPEG artefacts.

For the best result, brave the customisable User mode and set de-judder between 5-7, and de-blur at 0-1. Sonically, the LG punches well above its weight. That crafty audio reflector works well, enhancing the set's stereo presentation. Unquestionably, it's the best-sounding TV here.

Sony has updated its upscaling silicon and picture processor for its 2015 screens, and on the evidence of this set it's cooked up quite a recipe. The detail is jaw-dropping. The set comes embedded with a 4K photo set, which reveals astonishing levels of clarity.

A cityscape holds detail down to its brickwork. Netflix 4K looks similarly terrific. The screen also does a fabulous job of upscaling Full HD. Pictures have real punch, thanks to superior Triluminos colour fidelity and a convincing black level. Audio is perfectly acceptable but the set is a little monophonic in its presentation.

The TX-50CX802B boasts Panasonic's most advanced 4K Pro picture engine, and it edges ahead of its rivals when it comes to fidelity. High-end image processing, combined with a wide colour-gamut panel, means you get some beautiful images from the screen.

Programmes look detailed and dynamic, nuanced and subtle. The screen's black level is outstanding, and backlight uniformity is high. At times, the TV's images recall those of the brand's late plasma sets, only sharper and with more luminosity. The set's audio performance is fine, and boasts a fair amount of volume.

Test three winner: TX-50CX802B

None of these are shoddy when it comes to sharp AV, but the HDR-upgradeable Panasonic is the brightest bet

The overall winner is…

1st: Panasonic TX-50CX802B

£1,799

T3 Rates: Panasonic's 4K Pro picture engine is hugely impressive. And with both Netflix 4K and Amazon Prime 4K on board, there's plenty of UHD programming to feast your eyes on. The new Firefox OS is clever and intuitive, too. T3 Slates: The audio quality. The downward-firing driver array lacks the clarity and stereo imaging of rival TVs. You may want a soundbar. T3 says: With a scintillating 4K picture, the powerful new Firefox OS, Freeview Play catch-up, and both Amazon and Netflix UHD-content services, this telly is as modern as big screens get right now. 5/5

2nd: Sony KD-55X8505C

T3 Rates: The 4K images and cosmetic design impress, and connectivity is great.

T3 Slates: The Android TV OS is bloated and cumbersome.

T3 Says: Image quality is gorgeous – and YouView should make this set fun to use.

4/5

2nd: LG 55UF850V

T3 Rates: It looks slick, and webOS is a brilliant smart OS.

T3 Slates: LG can't match the picture dynamics of its rivals, and it has only two HDCP 2.2 HDMI inputs.

T3 Says: The price is right but beware our caveats.

4/5

5 essential Panasonic TX-50CX802B add-ons

Pimp our test-winning Panasonic 4K set with more stuff. Just because...

1 Buy additional glasses

Panasonic 3D glasses

The Panasonic TX-50CX802B is compatible with the Bluetooth RF active-shutter system, so you're not restricted to using just Panasonic goggles for your 3D thrills. RF shuttering glasses from other makes, as well as third-party specialists, should all work.

2 Connect a BT 4K set-top box

BT Set Top

Watch sport in 2160p/50 resolution on BT's new Ultra HD sports channel. Available through the 4K-enabled BT YouView box, the channel features UEFA Champions League matches and Aviva Premiership rugby. Infinity broadband is required. bt.com

3 Timeshift without a PVR

My Passport Ultra

This big Panasonic can timeshift recordings from one of its two Freeview tuners, if you hook up an external USB hard drive. Buy a small 500GB enclosure, Velcro it to the back of the set and you'll soon forget it's even there.

4 Browse in style

Bluetooth keyboard

This TV supports the use of a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, which makes Web navigation using the set's integrated browser a lot easier than via a traditional remote. You can also use the keyboard for social-media apps.

5 Panasonic TV Remote 2

Remote2

Take control of this 4K frontrunner with Panasonic's Remote 2 app for iOS and Android. In addition to system control, the app enables you to calibrate the screen with extra tools.

Five ways to improve your 4K viewing experience

1 Soup up your sound

Bolster the audio performance of your new 4K screen with a 2.1 soundbar. LG, Sony and Panasonic all offer soundbases or bars that match their TVs, and you'll probably be offered a deal on one when you buy your set. Sony's incoming HT-RT5 (£600) has the added benefit of being able to integrate with the brand's multi-room audio system, via its Song Pal link.

2 Subscribe to Netflix 4K

To enjoy your new UHD screen in all its pixel-pushing glory, subscribe (or upgrade) to Netflix 4K. For £8.99 per month, you get a growing library of ultra-sharp 4K content, including Daredevil, Marco Polo, Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad and House Of Cards. Daredevil especially is a sight to behold in Ultra High Definition.

3 Wall-mount that sucker

Free up valuable floor estate by wall-mounting your new television. There are a variety of mounts available, but to really highlight your screen's thinness, opt for a low-profile design like the Sanus LL22 (£80). This can hold a flatscreen telly just 3.8cm from the wall.

4 Update your Blu-ray player

With internet-delivered 4K still sadly thin on the ground, Blu-ray remains the best source for any new 2160p panel. If you can't wait for the 4K Blu-ray format to launch later this year, grab one of today's 4K-upscaling models. We love Pioneer's BDP-LX58 (£499), which can play 3D discs as well as standard ones. And with Insurgent due out on 3D Blu-ray right about now, what are you waiting for?

5 Get a NAS drive

All three 4K sets featured here offer file playback across a network, so invest in a bullet-proof NAS to store your downloaded TV shows for repeated viewing (and let's face it, you can never get enough of Breaking Bad). Here at T3, we're fans of QNAP's HS-210 (prices vary), a noise-free, two-drive-bay model with TV-friendly DLNA and PLEX servers available from the dashboard. But new models are coming out all the time.

Need to Know...

HDCP 2.2

What's High-Bandwidth Digital Copy Protection 2.2, and why is it important to have it?

It's not just the price of 4K TVs that's changed dramatically over the past two years. The specification has been evolving rapidly, too, as chip makers and component suppliers struggle to keep up with UHD TV standards. First-generation 4K screens had HDMI inputs with limited functionality.

This year, though, we're starting to see sets that come with 50/60fps-capable HDMI 2.0 boards and HDCP 2.2. Without an HDCP 2.2-enabled HDMI input, your next TV won't work properly with 4K Blu-ray players or set-top boxes that use the same standard, such as Sky. Basically, the more HDMI inputs that are 2.2-enabled, the better.

HDR TV is a bright idea

Look out – High Dynamic Range TV is going to change the way you watch telly forever

If 3,840 x 2,160 resolution isn't enough to make you hanker for a screen upgrade, maybe this will – TV set makers and content providers are busy behind the scenes preparing to launch HDR (High Dynamic Range).

With specially mastered content (expect to see it on 4K Blu-ray discs), HDR tellies will offer higher peak white brightness than regular sets, improved colour performance and much greater contrast. Demos we've seen have been spectacular. Both Amazon and Netflix have already committed to HDR streaming. Of the three TVs tested, only the Panasonic claims to be firmware-updateable to HDR.

The Google Box

How the search giant is attempting to dominate your living room

Sony has been a long-time supporter of Google's TV ambitions. It supported the search giant's first foray with Google TV via dedicated set-top boxes, and even launched a Blu-ray player with the Google OS. However, a lack of interest led to the system being buried.

Android TV is more convincing, but it flies in the face of the current vogue for simplicity. The UI comprises stacked shelves: the app shelf features the Google Play store, YouTube, various Google media services and a mirror-casting function. The inputs shelf has to be manually edited to remove irrelevant nonsense, such as Analogue Tuner and CAM Service List.

Playing the game

All three TVs tested here feature gaming capabilities – but should we expect more?

As the processing power and graphic prowess of smart TVs increases, so gaming is increasingly seen as a viable attraction. Indeed, outside of the UK, where viewers have yet to catch up with the 'catch-up' bug, it's a prime reason to connect your telly to the internet.

All three screens tested here offer a variety of casual gaming, from simple puzzlers to graphically rich racers. Bluetooth controllers can be used to enhance the arcade experience. However, while these games provide a fun diversion for the younger set, they face stiff competition from mobile and console gaming – here's hoping for better things in the future.

3D isn't dead

You might scoff, but immersive viewing gets a new lease of life in 4K

All of the 4K TVs featured here are 3D-ready. Shrugging your shoulders? Sure, funny glasses have a bad reputation, but 3D on a 4K TV can look a good deal better than it does on Full HD models. The LG set uses inexpensive passive-3D technology, so compatible glasses are cheap to obtain. However, it's difficult to get a really clear 3D picture with this type, as double imaging is intrusive.

Both the Sony and the Panasonic screens use active-shutter glasses. While there's some crosstalk, images on both are much clearer than you get from their passive rival. The Panasonic comes with two pairs of shuttering glasses. Disappointingly, Sony supplies none – and they're not cheap.

Remote revolution

Couch potatoes, listen up - how you control your telly is changing

It's not just TV panels that are enjoying a technology overhaul. Remote controls are also evolving. The LG 55UF850V ships with the latest iteration of the brand's Magic Remote, a Bluetooth doofer that's able to control the TV's cursor interface. It works wonderfully, and voice control is particularly intuitive. The Sony KD-55X8505C comes with a standard IR and a Bluetooth trackpad.

The latter features a microphone for use with Android's native voice-search functionality. Finally, Panasonic offers both a bulky old fashioned IR handset and a slightly curvaceous Bluetooth handset with its TX-50CX802B. Naturally, all three TVs can also be driven by their respective apps.

Now why not read our roundup of the best 4K TVs

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