CES 2023 almost seems like a distant memory now, but with TV manufacturers having made promises about this year’s models it might be interesting to take a look at what the first new display technology in almost a decade offered in 2022. This is obviously none other than QD-OLED. When announced, Samsung Display’s exclusive screens seemed like a clear improvement over the traditional W-OLED ones coming from LG Display, at least on paper: they promised a brighter picture, way more saturated colors and even wider viewing angles, while retaining the perfect blacks and lighting-fast response times OLEDs are famous for. How could one not get excited by that, right?
Yours truly has been living with a Bravia 65-inch A95K — Sony’s first QD-OLED TV, arguably the best cinematic TV of 2022 — for almost five months now and recently had the chance to put Samsung Display’s tech into perspective in purely practical terms. So, hype aside: is QD-OLED all that after all? If not, is there a way it can deliver on its initial promise? If there is, what way would that be? Here are a few answers.
An OLED pulling off a QD-OLED? What is this?
Evaluating whether a display tech like QD-OLED lived up to its promises may be tricky… unless one is fortunate enough to have at hand an excellent example of the display tech QD-OLED strives to be superior to. Yours truly happened to unpack his beloved Sony 65A90J last weekend — in order to set it up for a different use case, after having switched to the Sony A95K since early September — and happened to do just that: go back to a quality OLED after using a QD-OLED for long enough so as to be pretty familiar with its performance. Just a mildly interesting opportunity, at first glance, but the findings of a long afternoon of content watching turned out to be way more intriguing than that.
Some background first. Not only was Sony’s 2021 A90J one of the best OLED TVs ever released, but is still — yes, to this day — promoted and sold as the company’s best “traditional” OLED TV alongside the QD-OLED A95K. The reason is simple: it is just an amazing set, carefully tuned and equipped with a heatsink that allowed the screen to get brighter than the competition, as well as retain that brightness for longer before the ABL mechanism inevitably kicked in. Watching movies and shows on the A90J is an absolute thrill: it’s just one of the best OLED TVs money can buy even after 18 months of availability, while competing with the likes of LG G2 or Panasonic LZ2000 no less.
So, for the first couple of hours of TV watching, much of what was on screen looked pretty much as it usually does. Yes, but… that’s just it: in the beginning, the picture displayed on the A90J did not seem to differ from what the A95K offers. Everything on the former’s screen was just as well-defined, just as three-dimensional, just as textured and detailed as it has been on the latter’s screen during the last five months. Most curiously, everything looked… just as vibrant too.
But… but… QD-OLED highlights are supposed to be blindingly spectacular, right? Colors are supposed to be more saturated, aren’t they? There should be reds or yellows missing from the A90J’s palette, shouldn’t be? QD-OLED is supposed to be brighter, no?
That can’t be right!
It was only when yours truly — almost frustrated — fired up the A95K in the other room and accessed the same films and TV shows from Netflix, Disney Plus or Plex, that the most important thing QD-OLED brings to the table became apparent: more excitement to the picture. Going back to the A90J confirmed this. Yes, the picture on challenging content was still amazing, but it was more subdued, somewhat flatter, a bit more boring. Bright reds and yellows were still great but — for want of a better word — OLED great, not popping great. The picture of the A95K was more lively, more “there” so to speak. Not all the time, not always, but often enough to be noticed.
All right. So, what had happened? Is QD-OLED overrated after all? Shouldn’t the A95K be decidedly, demonstrably better than the A90J in displaying, well, everything?
There’s brightness and then there’s brightness
It’s all about Samsung Display’s initial promises, but also all about consumer expectations, tech reviewers’ fixation with certain aspects of the modern TV picture… and not a small dose of the placebo effect. Manufacturers are often vague about their products’ advantages because — simply put — exaggerating about certain things or plainly misleading consumers can be done in a way that is not technically lying. When Samsung Display promised “a new kind of OLED that is brighter”, the company was not lying. It’s what different people understand by “brighter” that’s key… and that is what Samsung Display was vague about, because the company knew that what 2022 QD-OLED offered was not what all kinds of people expect when hearing about “a brighter TV”.
In short: there’s highlight brightness and there’s full-screen brightness. In modern HDR content — the only kind where top TV sets are actually challenged to show what they are capable of — highlight brightness is what people notice e.g. in flashy special effects, in metal or water reflections, in fire or lava or explosions… well, in highlights in general. Full-screen brightness, on the other hand, is how bright or how dim the whole picture is perceived to be by the viewer. One kind of brightness does not imply the other: a TV model can easily offer bright highlights but not a very bright picture overall, while another TV model can offer a quite bright picture that suffers when it comes to highlights and shadows. QD-OLED TVs and mid-tier LED/LCD TVs, respectively, are a perfect example of this.
The difference between highlight brightness and full-screen brightness is precisely what many TV manufacturers have weaponized over the years: by advertising impressive nit numbers (hit in peak highlight brightness while displaying HDR content), they create the impression that those TVs must surely be bright in general… which is obviously not the case. Both QD-OLED TVs and OLED TVs are capable of peak highlight brightness measured at over 900 or even 1000 nits in small parts of the screen and in short bursts (what flashy visual effects essentially need) but they are confined to less than 200 nits of full-screen (called full-field in measurements) brightness in HDR. Yes, that is correct: less than 200 nits.
The gap is obviously huge and that is why most consumers are often under the impression that “OLED TVs are dim”: they like their picture quality when it comes to movies because of the extremely high contrast and the beautiful colors, but they also think that the overall image is not as bright as they’d like when watching e.g. sports. This is also related to content specs — most sports are still broadcasted in SDR, for instance, not HDR, so their picture is not as rich in colors and “contrasty” anyway — as well as to ABL, the protective mechanism all OLED TVs use so as to avoid having their screens damaged when relatively big parts of the picture are approaching pure white. But the end result is the same: most consumers find OLED TVs “not bright enough” in many cases, even compared to LED/LCD TVs that cost 3–4 times less and perform much worse in terms of actual picture quality: if the latter offer e.g. 600 or 500 or even 400 nits of brightness full-field, then they will appear to be brighter. Period.
That full-field brightness was not appreciably better in the case of the A95K compared to the A90J, so much of the initial TV watching — cable programming, sports, SDR content etc. — did not look different between the two sets. Much of that material was not taking advantage of the A95K’s strengths and, at the same time, Sony’s QD-OLED TV did not reach for appreciably higher brightness levels overall even when displaying modern, much more dynamic material. Yours truly had to look for the highlight brightness differences and the vibrancy of the picture overall in order to remember what QD-OLED brings to the table.
In real-world use, of course, those 200 nits of full-field brightness are not restrictive very often (nobody’s watching a screen full of white in any kind of content for more than a few seconds), but they do serve as a baseline for what an OLED TV or QD-OLED TV is capable of in actual content. When displaying white in e.g. 25% of its screen — like a large patch of ice or clouds along with other objects in the background and foreground — the Sony A95K still can’t deliver 500 nits of brightness, while the best LED/LCD TVs offer more than 1300 or even 1500 nits in the same scenes. That’s why reviewers could still not recommend any QD-OLED TV or OLED TV in 2022 as ideal for e.g. daytime viewing in bright, sunlit rooms: these TVs cannot not look dim when they have a lot of environmental light to contend with.
The only use case where the A90J looked immediately inferior to the A95K, by they way, was in many PlayStation5 games. TVs do not strive to offer color accuracy when displaying video games in the same way they do when displaying movies, so primary hues are allowed to “pop” more and highlights are allowed to be brighter overall. It’s not hard to make a modern TV properly display PS5 or Xbox Series S/X games in HDR (that’s HDR10 in the vast majority of cases) and that’s where games can be bolder with their palette. Colors in games might look garish and over-saturated at times — compared to most movies anyway — but that is acceptable in the context of spectacular graphics. So QD-OLED TVs can leverage their purer colors and somewhat higher brightness overall in games to offer a more interesting, more immersive picture than OLED TVs do.
Are brighter QD-OLED TVs actually coming this year?
So what’s the takeaway from that totally non-scientific, somewhat jarring but still useful clash between the Sony A95K and the A90J in real-world terms? This simple fact, essentially: QD-OLED did and did not deliver what Samsung Display vaguely promised in CES 2022. It did deliver because colors are indeed purer and more impressive, it did deliver because QD-OLED TVs can indeed hit much higher peak brightness numbers in certain picture modes (sacrificing color accuracy in the process), it did deliver because highlight brightness is still somewhat higher even in color-accurate picture modes, compared to OLED.
On the other hand, QD-OLED did not deliver because it barely raised the bar for full-screen brightness that many — if not most — consumers seem to appreciate in a modern TV. By those standards, “a new, brighter type of OLED” QD-OLED was not. Yes, nobody expected an improved OLED screen to actually hit LED-like full-field brightness all of a sudden, but full-screen brightness was (and is) the only weakness of OLED display tech as a whole, so that’s where improvements would matter the most. As it turns out, this was never in the cards for this first-generation QD-OLED panels used by Samsung and Sony. It is that simple.
So what about the new, further improved, second-generation QD-OLED screens for 2023 TVs that Samsung Display showed off at CES recently? Well, promises were made — again — but this time we don’t have to take the company’s word for it: the same expert who measured LG Display’s new MLA-OLED screen on a top upcoming Panasonic model, Vincent Teoh of HDTVTest fame, also measured a 77-inch test unit built around Samsung Display’s improved QD-OLED panel… and results were encouraging: after proper calibration, that test unit managed to reach 250 nits of full-field brightness. That number may not sound like all that much, but it’s still appreciably higher than the 190 nits the Sony A95K offered in 2022 and the 170 nits the A90J offered in 2021. The retail units consumers will eventually be buying may differ somewhat, but not by much — and a real full-screen brightness improvement of around 30% year-on-year is nothing to sneeze at. Especially in OLED terms.
This time around, though, it would be best for everyone involved — yes, even for Samsung Display — to manage expectations about the upcoming QD-OLED TVs of 2023. These will be brighter, yes. Colors will be even purer, even more vibrant and more impressive, yes. Detail, since blacks will remain perfect, will be even more appreciable, yes. But these QD-OLED TVs will still be OLED TVs, meaning that in certain environments and for certain use cases they’ll still be bested by even mid-tier LED/LCD models because of full-screen brightness factor. Their picture quality will be higher than ever, movie lovers are going to be blown away, but there’s still room for improvement. Then again… isn’t there always?