OLED vs QLED: what are they, and which should you choose?

We explain what the difference between OLED and QLED is, and what that means for you in the real world

OLED vs QLED explained: how to choose
(Image credit: LG, Samsung)

There's only one letter difference in their acronyms, but when it comes to OLED vs QLED, the two TV technologies are actually very different, which is why so many people struggle to understand how they differ from each other, and whether OLED or QLED is right for your living room. But by the end of this article, all will be clear.

OLED and QLED each take a very different path to achieving the same result: bold and dramatic images, with rich contrast that makes high dynamic range (HDR) video come to life on the best TVs you can buy.

They're both pretty widespread, with LG driving the patent-protected OLED boat and shopping its panels out to manufacturers like Sony, Philips and Panasonic (yes – they all use the same panels, all made by LG), while Samsung's QLED Alliance (which also includes the likes of Hisense and TCL) are dedicated to pushing QLED tech forward. 

Let's break down everything you need to know about OLED and QLED – their individual strengths and weaknesses – and which TVs make the most of these technologies.

OLED vs QLED: how they work

We can't go on without explaining the difference between OLED and QLED, but let's keep this brief and basic. 

To make images reach your eyes, QLED ultilises a light panel that shines through a filter of pixels, and this filter provides the colours that make up the picture. These days, high-efficiency LEDs are used to generate the light, hence the 'LED' part of the name. 

In the case of QLED, the filter that the light passes through includes a technology called quantum dots (hence the 'Q'). These are tiny light-altering nanoparticles, which transform a standard blue-tinged backlight into one capable of myriad colours.

OLED does not require a backlight. Every pixel is what's called 'self-emissive', meaning they generate their own light in any colour (by mixing red, green and blue sub-pixels). Having only this single layer of screen tech (rather than the filter and backlight double-layer of QLED) means OLED panels can be incredibly thin. OLED panels include organic elements, which is what the 'O' stands for – the panel is literally made from 'Organic Light-Emitting Diodes'.

Backlighting

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This illustration from Samsung depicts a TV with a full array backlight – meaning a dense panel of LEDs directly behind the screen, providing a bright light. Click the right-hand arrow or swipe to see how OLED panels work.
(Image credit: Samsung)

OLED pixel-based lighting

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Here's a ZOOOOOOM on an OLED screen, showing the individual pixels (made up of red, blue and green sub-pixels) all emitting their own light.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

OLED vs QLED: Brightness

QLED can't help but trounce OLED in this department. However bright LG manages to engineer an OLED pixel to be, QLED can top it by simply throwing additional LEDs into a backlight – and those quantum dots, by converting that light to different colours, push the colour saturation into the stratosphere too.

Why is brightness important? Well, in a nice dark room you've customised for movie watching, it doesn't matter much. But in a bright room – if your living room gets a lot of sun, maybe – it's much easier to see brighter screens.

This is not to say that OLED doesn't have its own advantages when it comes to lighting, though. While its individually-lit pixels aren't quite as eye-popping in a bright room, OLED TV tends to be a more balanced experience in darker environments.

OLED vs QLED: Contrast

This is OLED's time to shine. But first, let's define contrast: in this case, we're talking about the difference between bright areas and dark areas of the screen, and how accurately the screen handles that range. But it also means how much subtlety there is within that range – in a very dark scene, for example, how well you can make out a barely lit figure moving in the background.

This is LG's depiction of the difference between OLED and a TV with a backlight – the light leaks through on the normal TV, leaving blacks grey rather than truly black, and robbing other areas of depth. Though obviously this is meant to put OLED in a good light – we'll explain tricks that QLED TV's have in moment.

(Image credit: LG)

OLED contrast is phenomenal. It can go black. As in, completely black. A dark pixel can be truly dark when its individual light is simply not activated at all; if you were displaying a totally black screen on an OLED panel, it would appear exactly as if there was no power going to the screen at all. There's total control of how much light each pixel puts out, so there's a near-inifinite capacity for detail and nuance in dark scenes. And you can have very bright areas right next to very dark areas, with stark difference between them, giving shots incredibly dramatic and realistic looks.

QLED blasts a backlight through its pixels, so to create dark areas it uses two techniques: the pixels' filters try to block as much of the light as they can (which isn't that effective); and more advanced sets can actually dim sections of the backlight. The fancier the QLED TV, the better it will be a selectively dimming parts of the screen – in the very best sets, it's close to matching what OLED can do.

An illustration from Samsung showing how localised backlight dimming works – only the light behind the bright parts of the image are activated. Only a very large and high-end TV would have the number of lights depicted here, though.

(Image credit: Samsung)

In weaker sets, it means that blacks come across as more grey, or that illumination can sometimes bleed out of light areas on the screen and into dark ones. It's not a deal breaker, but it's noticeable.

The rise of mini-LED backlights might, at some point soon, give QLED something more of an edge (this technology uses more smaller lights in the backlight, meaning that the backlight can be dimmed even more precisely), but right now OLED is the most contrasty thing going – side-by-side, OLED sets will tend to just look more realistic in moody movies.

OLED vs QLED: Colour

QLED's ability to fully saturate a scene makes it the winner here, right? Not so fast: quantum dots can certainly make it a more bombastic and vibrant viewing experience, with some incredible hues on display, but some can find that highly bright and saturated experience a little too much.

OLED colour, though slightly more subtle, is no slouch, particularly given the tech's ability to hit an accurate note with each and every pixel. If anything, colour reproduction is one aspect where personal taste wins the day – neither will disappoint.

There is also variation even with the technology – Philips' OLED sets are known for their punchier colours over the firmly realistic hues of Panasonic's, for example, but that's down to processing and calibration differences between manufacturers.

OLED vs QLED: Viewing angles

QLED has been improving in terms of its side-on performance since manufacturers started introducing anti-reflective coatings, but its multi-layer makeup means a little picture degradation (particularly around fading colours) at extreme angles – be they side-to-side or up and down – is inevitable. That said, QLED viewing angles very from panel to panel. The more you pay, the less extreme this will tend to be. 

OLED viewing angles do not suffer from the same fading limitation, but did have trouble with actually shifting hue in the past. These days, OLED screens tend to be the best for overall viewing quality from angles, though.

OLED vs QLED: Screen burn

Screen burn is a phenomenon where having a static image on a screen for a long time could cause that image to permanently leave a 'ghostly' version of itself on the screen. This applies to things like logos on news networks, or interfaces from games.

QLED gets the win here, simply because it is not susceptible to burn, while the organic phosphurs used in OLED are. 

Realistically OLED burn-in is not actually going to be a problem unless you're being very unkind to your TV. It's not as bad as the level of burn-in that plasma TVs suffered, and it's certainly nowhere near CRT levels. Yes, firing one OLED pixel at the same brightness over a long period of time will cause it to degrade more quickly than those around it. But will you do that? 

Even TV channels which use ident bugs have the sense to make them semi-transparent and move them around every so often. Game HUDs aren't so kind, which does bring up OLED's other slight issue: image retention. 

Until an OLED pixel is refreshed it can in some cases hold on to a slightly lightened version of any particularly bright colours displayed on it, something most noticable after playing something with an on-screen map like Red Dead Redemption 2. It's non-permanent, but an annoyance if it does happen.

For most people, this isn't something you need to worry about, but it's still something to know.

Samsung's QLED options come in a broader range than OLED, but OLED is starting to catch up.

(Image credit: Samsung)

OLED vs QLED: Size

OLED TVs have been produced in fairly limited sizes, presumably because of the complexity of their manufacture – you've generally been limited to 55- or 65-inch sizes. That's just starting to change this year, in which 48-inch models will be available from several makers (including LG and Sony), while there will also be 77-inch and 88-inch 8K OLED TVs from LG.

QLED TVs have proven much more flexible for sizing, and are available from 49 inches all the way up to 82 inches in most places, and even 98 inches in some countries.

That said, OLED allows for much more flexible design (sometimes literally, like the rollable LG Signature R) and it can technically go much thinner.

This is really just a matter of seeing what size you need to fit your space, and what models are available in that size – it's not necessarily an advantage for either technology.

Between the rapid response time of OLED, a 120Hz frame rate and variable refresh rate support, LG's C9 is arguably the best gaming TV on the planet.

(Image credit: LG)

OLED vs QLED: Response time

Response time is how quickly the pixels of a display can change colour when a new frame of video is received – literally, it's how long the TV takes to respond to the motion of a video. If a screen has a slow response time, there are two potential disadvantages: first is that a very slow response time can cause 'ghosting', where you can still see remnants of one frame even while the next is displayed; second is that in gaming, you see the results of your actions more quickly.

When it comes to response times, QLED's reliance on an LCD layer is its achilles heel. However fast you can make an LCD respond, an OLED is going to have it beat, because of the direct control of the pixels in OLED.

While Samsung reckons some of its smaller QLED panels can manage a 1ms response, the number is typically larger for TVs, and OLED response times can go as low as 0.1ms – it's no contest. That said, response time isn't just down to the panel: the processing applied to the image also makes a big difference. Many TVs will have a gaming mode that reduces processing, to improve response rates. In practice, we tend to rate any TV with a response time of 30ms or less as doing well for gaming.

OLED vs QLED: Cost

OLED has always been an expensive option for TVs, though the price has come down massively – recently, we've seen good sets come under the £1,000 mark, and fantastic sets come down around £1,100-£1,200.

It's possible to buy QLED screens for quite a lot cheaper than OLED, but these tend to be further down the range, so won't have as bright screens, or the more advanced local dimming techniques to give them strong contrast performance.

For the higher-end QLEDs, you're looking at prices similar to OLED sets of the same size and image quality.

When it comes to 8K TVs, QLED has a distinct advantage again on price – again, they cost little more than high-end OLEDs, while 8K OLED TVs are well into the 'super luxury' category.

(Image credit: LG, Samsung)

OLED vs QLED: Which should you choose?

There are so many factors in a TV beyond just the panel tech, that there's no way to give a big sweeping statement. You'll have to look at your budget, the screen size you want, the additional features you want…

But we are here to help you choose, so assuming you find an OLED and a QLED that meet all those criteria and you're not sure which to go for, these are the ultimate differentiators:

  • If you watch TV during the day in a bright room a lot, a QLED TV is likely to be the better option, because the additional brightness can help overcome sunlight.
  • If you're a movie lover looking for the richest visuals, the beautiful contrast of OLED is likely to satisfy you more.
  • Screen burn is a small risk on OLED TVs, but certainly isn't unheard of – if you tend to play a game for really long periods that has graphics that don't change much, it might be best to stick with QLED – this really isn't very many people, though.
  • If you're looking in the £1,000 region, the QLED screens are likely to have somewhat less advanced backlights, so an OLED at the same price will have more realistic contrast.

OLED vs QLED: Which TVs should you buy?

We've picked out the latest prices for a few of our favourite QLED and OLED TV models below – they all feature in our articles about the best TVs overall or our pick of the best TVs under £1,000, so you can read more about the individual TVs in those guides.

We've included the prices of all these TVs at different sizes, so you can easily get a view of what your money will buy you.

Samsung Q950TS

8K detail and the best QLED has to offer

Samsung's 8K TVs aim to be the TVs you can possibly own, even though 8K video is more or less non-existent. AI-based upscaling promises to make 4K video look as close to native 8K as possible, so that if you're getting a bigger screen TV, you'll get get real benefits from the higher-res screen… and that really is the case. The best 4K TV you can buy is this 8K TV, basically. Brightness and contrast are class-leading too – HDR has to be seen to be believed.

• Read our full Samsung Q950TS review

Panasonic GZ2000

The best-looking OLED money can buy

Despite using the same panels as other OLED makers, Panasonic's top-end model goes brighter than the competition (around 20% brighter, in fact) thanks to some clever engineering. The panel is also calibrated to a Hollywood standard – as in, it's good enough to use in actual movie-making workflows – meaning what you see on it is as close to the film-maker's intent as possible. This makes it pretty expensive as OLEDs so, but you can't fault the results.

• Read our full Panasonic GZ2000 review

Samsung Q90R

The most advanced 4K QLED TV

This 2019 TV packs in all of Samsung's most advanced image tech from last year, mostly found on its 8K TVs, but with a 4K screen instead of 8K. This gives it even more impressive contrast control from its locally-dimmed backlight. It's astounding, and have shed most of its price tag, it's the best TV in terms of bang for buck you can buy right now.

• Read our full Samsung Q90R review

LG C9

Unbeatable OLED TV value

The OLED technology used here is as good as just about any other OLED screen – meaning deep blacks and beautiful colours – but LG hasn't skimped on a single feature, from the processing to the future-proofing HDMI connections to the special gaming tech… yet these sets sit towards the lower end of what OLED TVs in the same sizes generally cost.

• Read our full LG C9 review

Samsung QE49Q70R

Bringing QLED quality to the masses

As you go down the QLED price range, you get sets that aren't quite as bright and don't have quite as many dimming zones as the high-end stuff, but the colours and contrast are still expertly handled. Especially at the smaller size here, this is just about impossible to beat for vibrant visuals, with excellent upscaling of HD footage.

LG B9

Great OLED panel quality, with minor bells and whistles missing

The LG B9 includes the same processing tech as the LG C9 above, and with an OLED panel that's as close to it in quality as makes no odds, though it is technically slightly less advanced. It also has weaker speakers, so you might want to invest in one of the best soundbars. But otherwise, it gives you the full glory of OLED picture quality, for a really great price – it really is a question of whether it's worth paying more.

• Read our full LG B9 review

Samsung QE55Q60R

QLED colour and HDR, for a lower price

The cheapest of the TVs here does mean giving up on some of the brightness and deeper contrast that QLED is capable of in more expensive versions, but you still get the richness of its HDR colours, great upscaling tech, and loads of connectivity and smart features. For the price, it's an excellent buy – you won't see any OLED options for this money.

Philips 55OLED754

A top-quality OLED that dips under £1000

£1000 has always been the magic barrier for OLED – it's extremely difficult to find a TV under that price, and if you do, they're usually not worth having. But this TV from Philips breaks that rule, though it's price tends to fluctuate between £999 and £1099. As you'd expect, OLED's rich contrast is in full force, as are the punchy colours Philips is known for. It's a little less bright than the LG C9, and isn't quite as well stacked for connectivity, but those aren't worth complaining about if you can get it for three figures.

• Read our full Philips OLED754 review