Best Cheap LED TVs
- Published on
- By Michael Sweet
TVs are on the verge of another major transition -- to 4K "ultra-HD" resolution, with four times as many pixels as current 1080p "full-HD" TVs. Although new 4K models with amazingly sharp pictures are dropping in price, they're still out of the Cheapism range. Moreover, TV networks don't broadcast in 4K, and a few streaming video services (YouTube, Netflix, Amazon) are pretty much the only sources of 4K content. In the meantime, the 1080p models at the budget end of the market are, for the most part, bigger and better than ever. (Shoppers may see a handful of smaller 720p TVs, but they're in the minority.) In our annual analysis of features and reviews of cheap LED TVs, we had no trouble finding good 48- and 50-inch TVs for less than $500.
Cheap TVs Buying Guide
Manufacturers of budget TVs include top brands that automatically spring to mind when thinking of consumer electronics, such as Sony, LG, and Samsung. However, Cheapism's 2016 top picks suggest that buyers may get more value for their money with a name such as Vizio, the Chinese company TCL, or Best Buy's in-house Insignia brand.
We are perennially impressed with Vizio's E-Series TVs; the largest in our price range is the 50-inch E50-C1 (starting at $498). These TVs have a very sturdy build that belies their low price, and the overall picture quality is outstanding. Sony, too, makes a line of budget TVs with impressive picture quality and color accuracy, including the 48-inch Sony KDL-48R510C (starting at $464). The 50-inch TCL 50FS3800 (starting at $420) and 48-inch Insignia NS-48DR420NA16 (starting at $430) sport the superb Roku smart TV interface, which lets users manage up to 2,000 apps and streaming channels with remarkable ease. Both models also offer respectable picture quality at impressively low prices.
LG seems to have made too many sacrifices in its entry-level TVs in an effort to keep prices low. The 42-inch LG 42LF5600 (starting at $350) isn't a smart TV, which is fine for consumers who already own a Blu-ray player or another device that streams video. But this ho-hum model is almost entirely lacking in features and the overall picture quality is wanting. The 50-inch Sharp LC-50LB371U is a mere $430, which is an amazingly low price for such a big screen. But its color accuracy is off, and sparse controls don't allow much fine-tuning.
High-End vs. Budget TVs.High-end TVs have larger screens, more inputs, and more smart TV features than budget models. Colors appear sharp and bright, black levels are deep and dark without losing detail, and rapid motion doesn't blur on-screen. Meeting all these criteria is more of a challenge for entry-level TVs. Although the picture quality is better than ever, it's important to keep expectations at realistic levels. The images, though sharp and rich on the best cheap models, simply are not what you'd see on a set costing hundreds of dollars more, experts say. Viewers are more likely to see dark grays than inky blacks, and other colors may be just a little off. The edges or corners may appear a smidge brighter or darker than other parts of the screen. While the current crop of cheap TVs tend to be slightly flawed in one way or another, the best ones hold their own in terms of features and performance.
What We Looked For
48- or 50-Inch TVs.A 55-inch screen is about the largest you can expect to find for less than $500, and at that point you're probably sacrificing performance (or getting a spectacular deal). In 2015 we reviewed a couple of 40-inch models, but prices on larger screens have come down to the point where all our top picks measure roughly 48 or 50 inches on the diagonal.
Smart TV Features.Smart TV has come to the masses. Many entry-level TVs -- including all those we recommend -- can stream video and audio over a Wi-Fi connection from sources such as Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon, and Pandora (be sure the available apps match your subscriptions). A "dumb" TV may be fine for consumers who already own a streaming media player, game console, or Blu-ray player that can stream online content to a big screen. These days, however, there's likely a comparable smart TV for the same price. The LG 42LF5600 is the only model we researched with no smart features.
Some TV makers, such as Vizio and Samsung, have created custom smart TV interfaces. But a growing number of manufacturers, including TCL, Sharp, and Insignia, are using the Roku interface for controlling the TV's settings as well as managing thousands of apps and streaming channels. Expert reviewers consider the interface responsive and well-designed for navigating a massive amount of content with ease.
HD Inputs.To get an HD picture from an HDTV, you need high-definition inputs for connecting a cable box, Blu-ray player, and other sources of HD content. The highest-quality option is HDMI, which supports high-definition video and audio signals. Even a budget TV should have a bare minimum of two HDMI ports; three or four is preferred. That's one strike against the Sony KDL-48R510C: It has only two, as does the LG 42LF5600. After connecting a cable box, there's only one HDMI input left for a Blu-ray player, game console, or streaming device.Another HD option is a component connection (for blue, green, and red cables). Manufacturers usually combine this with a composite port to take up less space on the back of the TV. A composite port transmits video in standard definition (via a yellow cable, with red and white for audio) and may be used to connect an older DVD player or game console. These days most TVs also feature USB ports.
TV Features We Ignored
Audio.Don't expect much from the sound on a budget TV. Audio quality has improved somewhat, but TV speakers certainly won't be mistaken for a home theater system. Any cheap TV will benefit from the addition of a good soundbar.
TV Performance Reviews
To evaluate the performance of models in our price range, we pored over LED TV reviews on sites such as Reviewed.com and Rtings.com, which conduct extensive testing. LCD TV Buying Guide similarly reviews and recommends models based on editors' firsthand experience. It compares many different models and often goes into great technical detail. High-profile technology sites such as CNET, TechRadar, and PCMag have also tested and reviewed some of the TVs on our list.
We gave much greater weight to these expert takes than to online reviews from consumers, most of whom have limited knowledge of or access to TVs apart from the models they've purchased. Expert reviewers have the advantage of comparing many TVs side by side, which makes subtle differences in picture quality more readily apparent. They provide detailed feedback on things like color accuracy, contrast, black levels, screen uniformity, and motion blur. All this boils down to one overriding performance criterion: The picture should look fantastic. In general, a $500 TV can't deliver the stunning image quality of a $2,500 TV, but overall our top picks garner relatively positive appraisals in reviews.