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Published On: Thu, Sep 25th, 2014

Plasma vs LED: which TV tech is best?

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SmartTVFind out the strengths and weaknesses of LED, LCD and plasma TVs with our expert and independent guide.

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LED vs LCD vs plasma – as things stand

LED, LCD and plasma are the main types of TV available in stores, and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses that should be factored into your buying decision.

Of the, LED TVs are the most recent introduction and, as such, are generally a bit more expensive than comparable plasma and LCD models. For the money, though, you’ll get a super thin and energy-efficient TV. Although, as with most modern flatscreen TVs, LED sets often suffer from poor sound.

Plasma TVs, meanwhile, offer arguably deeper and more detailed black areas on screen, but are hit by a higher energy consumption rate. LCD TVs are often the cheapest sets available, but they’re now on the decline as LED technology comes to the fore.

Which LED or Plasma TV is best?

If you’ve already made up your mind on the technology and just want to find out which is LED TV and which Plasma TV came out top in our independent lab tests.

LCD TVs: how do they work?

Liquid crystal display (LCD) TVs come to life when light from behind the screen is shone through a matrix of tiny, coloured liquid crystal cells. Signals control each cell, letting varying amounts of colour through to build up the picture.

LCD has, however, been eclipsed by LED as the most popular TV technology. You might still find LCD TVs available in smaller screen sizes at the budget end of the market, but most manufacturers are now focused on LED.

“LED, LCD and plasma are the main TV types, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses that should be factored into your buying decision.”

LED TVs: how do they work?

LEDs (light-emitting diodes) have been around for decades, but their introduction into TV design is a fairly recent development.

LED televisions employ standard LCD technology but with one crucial difference – the handful of backlight lamps that traditionally illuminate the LCD screen are replaced by a larger number of tiny LEDs. This enables LED TVs to be much slimmer than their LCD counterparts.

Edge-lit LED vs back-lit LED – which is right for you? 

These are the two types of LED TV, although most sets nowadays are edge-lit LEDs.

Edge-lit models have LED lamps just around the edge of the screen, enabling them to super-slim. Early edge-lit models had problems with inconsistent lighting of the screen, and patchy colours. While you can still find a bad one, the technology behind edge-lit panels has improved significantly in recent years.

Back-lit models (also referred to as direct-lit) have LED lamps spread across the entire rear of the screen. They aren’t as slim as edge-lit LEDs, but the consistency of lighting should be much better.

Dimming – backlit LED TVs were previously known for a technique called ‘local dimming’, which varies the backlight in different parts of the screen to give darker, richer blacks and brighter whites where needed. TV manufacturers have now found ways to incorporate similar technology into their edge-lit models, meaning you’re not missing out by buying one – and they’re usually cheaper.

Plasma TVs: how do they work?

Plasma TVs use completely different technology and principles to LCD and LED sets. A plasma display is an array of tiny gas cells sandwiched between two sheets of glass. Each cell acts like a mini fluorescent tube, emitting ultraviolet light which then strikes red, green and blue spots on the screen. These spots glow to build up the picture.

Plasma TVs: beloved by home cinema buffs

Home-cinema enthusiasts would claim that the best plasma TVs still boast better blacks and more natural colours than the market-leading LED TVs, making them a better choice if you want spectacular picture quality. However, in recent years the difference between LED and plasma is not so marked, while the poor energy efficiency of plasma TVs means they can be costly to run.

The big manufacturers, such as Panasonic, are now scaling back their plasma TV production (or stopping it entirely) in favour of LED and even newer screen types – so plasma is definitely on the decline.

Flatscreen TV sound quality

While the picture quality of TVs has steadily improved over the last few years, sound quality on modern flatscreen TVs has failed to reach such heights. The desire for ever-slimmer televisions means there is physically less space to include a good set of built-in speakers.

We know from our testing that modern TVs just can’t match the old ‘big box’ CRT televisions for sound quality. However, improvements in speaker technology means the top-end models are slowly catching up.

If you want the best sound quality available there are various products available to buy; such as soundbars, sound plates and home cinema systems.

LED, LCD & plasma: how much do they cost to run?

Every television will consume electricity, but the TV types differ in terms how much they’ll cost you to run. With comparably-sized LCD, LED and plasma TVs, the LED would be the most efficient and the plasma TV the most costly on your electricity bills.

We took a typical 42-inch TV from each type and calculated the average amount of energy used per year. The LED TV used 64 watts, the LCD set 107 watts and the plasma TV 195 watts. Putting that into money-terms, the LED would cost you £17 per year to run, with the LCD costing £28 and the plasma £50 – well over double the LED.

“LED TVs are typically energy efficient, while plasma sets will add the most to your electricity bills.”

LED vs LCD vs Plasma: which should you buy?

Given the dwindling availability of LCD TVs and the ongoing demise of plasma TVs, most TV buyers will go for an LED set, and that’s no bad thing considering that they’re getting a slim and energy-efficient television.

However, bear in mind that picture and sound quality on LED TVs varies hugely between brands and models. Be sure to check our LED TV Best Buys to ensure you make the right buying choice.

An OLED and 4K future?

New types of TVs are coming to challenge LED, LCD and plasma. The major manufacturers, such as Samsung and LG, are already producing the next-generation of television: OLED TVs and sets with 4K picture resolution.

OLED is a new screen type that promises to give you the best of LED and plasma in one. 4K, or ultra-high-definition (Ultra HD), is a new screen resolution that has four times the pixels of Full HD.

The big problem with both new types is the prohibitive cost – 4K TVs are now available for under £1,000, but OLED models are still into the many thousands. As the likes of Samsung, Panasonic, LG and Sony look to ramp up production, we should see a reduction in price for both OLED and 4K over the coming years.

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