It's tough to improve the picture quality of OLED TVs, but LG did it again. Just barely.
LG's 2019 C9 OLED TV is the best-performing TV I've ever tested at CNET. In 2018 I said the same thing about the C8 and in 2017 I said the same thing about the C7. Year after year, TVs based on organic light-emitting diode tech deliver the best picture quality you can buy, and the C series showcases LG's best efforts to perfect it.
Granted, the differences in image quality between the new C9 and last year's sets are tiny -- arguably better HDR, a hair more effective processing and milliseconds-quicker gaming lag -- but still enough to propel it to technical superiority. For most buyers, however, those differences won't be worth the steeper price of the C9 compared to the 2018 models, including my current Editors' Choice B8.
In my side-by-side comparison tests, the C9, C8 and B8 all outperformed the best LCD TVs I had on-hand, but the 2019 TV season is just getting warmed up. I have yet to test any 2019 Samsung, Sony or Vizio TVs, including Sony's own OLED models. Any of their flagship sets could conceivably upset the C9 and take the crown, and the LG B9, which lacks the video processing chops of the C9, could once again deliver the best OLED TV value when it debuts later this summer. And as usual, expect big price cuts on all TVs starting this fall.
In the meantime, the OLED C9 sets another staggeringly high bar for image quality. Once again, it's up to the rest of the TV market to try to reach it.
Not much has changed with LG's design, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The panel itself is still vanishingly thin when seen from the side, about a quarter-inch deep, with the typical bulge at the bottom that juts out another 1.75 inches. That bulge houses the inputs, power supply, speakers and other depth-eating TV components.
From the front there's less than a half-inch of black frame around the picture itself to the top and sides. Then there's a bit more below, but no trace of silver, no "LG" or any other logo at all. This is TV at its most minimalist.
The stand is nicer than last year to my eye, with its angled edges and medium width across the bottom of the screen. New this year it's more heavily weighted on the rear to (I presume) better resist tipping forward.
LGs webOS menu system feels nice and snappy, but it's basically unchanged from last year. It still lacks the innovative extras and app-based setup of Samsung's Tizen system, and falls well short of the app coverage of Roku TV or Sony's Android TV. If you want more apps, your best bet is to get an external streamer, although only two, the Apple TV 4K and Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, can support Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. Meanwhile LG's apps for Netflix, Amazon and Vudu all support Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, so using the TV's built-in apps gets you the highest-quality video and audio from those services, no external streamer required.
The remote is the same as last year too. I like using its motion control to whip around the screen, something that's particularly helpful when signing into apps or searching using an on-screen keyboard. The scroll wheel is also great for moving through apps, like those seemingly infinite thumbnail rows on Netflix and Amazon.
Press the mic button and you can summon Google Assistant. It can do all the usual Assistant stuff, including control smart home devices, answer questions and respond via a voice coming out of the TV's speakers. It also integrates TV-specific commands, including a well-implemented voice search. I said "show me comedies" while watching Netflix and a list of TV shows and movies appeared along the bottom, including results from the current app (comedies on Netflix) as well as across different apps (including Prime Video, Fandango, Hulu, Vudu and Google Play) and YouTube videos.
LG will soon become the first TV maker to build in a second major voice assistant, Amazon's Alexa, available by pressing and holding the Prime Video button. The feature will roll out in a software update due later this year, and won't be available on 2018 or earlier LG sets.
Also coming later this year is support for Apple's AirPlay 2 system, letting the TV function as a display for TV shows, movies, photos and web pages with an iPhone, iPad or Mac as the controller, and for HomeKit, which will let you control the TV using Apple's Home app or by talking to Apple's assistant Siri. The Apple features are similar to those coming to 2019 Vizio and Sony TVs, while the full Apple TV app will launch first on Samsung TVs.
|HDR compatible||HDR10 and Dolby Vision|
OLED is not your father's LCD TV. LCD relies on a backlight shining through a liquid crystal panel to create the picture. In an OLED display, each individual subpixel is responsible for creating illumination. That's why OLED is known as "emissive" and LED LCDs are called "transmissive" displays, and it's a big reason why OLED's picture quality is so good.
Once again the C9 panel has the same basic characteristics, including light output and color gamut, of previous years, so the main upgrade is in processing. There's a new A9 Gen 2 chip with a "deep learning algorithm" that, among other claims, better adjusts the picture for room lighting.
The 2019 OLED models also include the latest version of the HDMI standard: 2.1. That means their HDMI ports can handle 4K at 120 fps, support enhanced audio return channel (eARC) as well as two gamer-friendly extras: variable refresh rate (VRR) and automatic low latency mode (ALLM, or auto game mode). Check out HDMI 2.1: What you need to know for details. I didn't test any of these features yet for this review.
The selection of connections is top-notch. Unlike many of Samsung's sets, this one actually has an analog video input for legacy (non-HDMI) devices, although it no longer supports analog component video. New for 2019 there's a dedicated headphone/analog audio output and WISA wireless audio support.
With both HD SDR and 4K HDR sources, in bright rooms and dark, the LG C9 delivered the best picture I've ever tested. It evinced the perfect black levels and best-in-class contrast, uniformity and off-angle viewing I've come to expect from all OLED TVs, with slightly better video processing and HDR pop than the 2018 OLED sets.
As usual the brightest LCD sets delivered a bit more HDR punch with some HDR material, and the Samsung Q9 in particular is a superior bright-room performer thanks to its antireflective screen. But it and the Vizio PQ fell short in many other areas.
Click the image above right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV's picture controls worked during calibration.
Dim lighting: If you want a modern demonstration of the superiority of OLED, look no further than Game of Thrones' famously dark episode The Long Night, aka The Battle of Winterfell, aka Season 8, Episode 3. It looked hands-down better than any of the LCDs in my test, which include two of 2018's best TVs, and it wasn't really close.
The perfect black levels of OLED paid dividends everywhere, from the shadows among the army of Unsullied, Dothraki and catapults to the night sky above Brienne and Jaime to the dark furs and leathers of the Northmen. In comparison the LCDs, despite their cutting-edge full-array local dimming, looked grayish and washed-out in scene after scene, robbing the image of contrast. The C9, C8 and B8 were largely similar in these scenes.
The Q9 had the darkest black levels of the LCDs but it showed an issue that wasn't visible on any of the other sets. The sky behind Jorah (7:51) and during his stare into the blackness after it swallows the Dothraki (7:54) flashed slightly instead of maintaining a steady blackness. I saw similar subtle flashes in other scenes on the Q9, while the Vizio and TCL didn't have the same problem.
This episode also caused some viewers to complain about not being able to see into the shadows, but that was largely a creative decision. The C9 (and the other OLEDs) showed darker shadows compared to the LCDs, but still preserved all of the detail of the source. As a result those shadows looked much more realistic on the OLEDs and better preserved that creative intent. It's worth noting that in very dark images like this some viewers might prefer a brighter gamma, available in Cinema mode as opposed to the ISF Dark mode I used for testing.
Brighter content -- like pretty much any other TV show episode or movie, ever -- doesn't show as much of an advantage for OLED, but the impact of its deep blacks and superb contrast was still evident in plenty of other content I watched, in particular stuff with letterbox bars above and below the image.
Bright lighting: The 2019 C9 gained a few nits compared to the C8 I tested, but nothing major. And as usual it didn't measure as much raw light output as the LCD-based models in our lineup, including the TCL 6 series.
|TV||Brightest (SDR)||Accurate color (SDR)||Brightest (HDR)||Accurate color (HDR)|
|Samsung Q9 (2018)||2,348||1,600||2,388||1,961|
New for 2019, LG sets have a setting called Peak Brightness that boosts the light output for SDR sources in Cinema and Expert modes. The idea is to increase contrast for brighter viewing environments while maintaining the superior color accuracy of those modes. That setting accounts for the jump in the "Accurate color (SDR)" column between the C8 and C9. As with most TVs the brightest mode for HDR and SDR (Vivid on the C9) is horribly inaccurate. For the Accurate modes I used ISF Bright (Peak Brightness: High) and Cinema HDR for SDR and HDR, respectively.
There's also a new AI Brightness feature that senses ambient lighting and adjusts the image automatically, including tweaking HDR tone mapping to bring up dark areas in bright rooms. I didn't test it for this review.
Overall, the OLED sets are still plenty bright enough for just about any viewing environment. Yes, they do get quite a bit dimmer than the LCDs when showing full-screen white -- think a hockey game, for example -- but even in those situations they're hardly dim.
All of the OLED sets preserved black levels and reduced reflections very well -- better than the TCL and Vizio, albeit worse than the Samsung, whose handling of reflections is among the best I've ever seen.
Color accuracy: Before my standard calibration, the ISF Expert and Cinema modes modes were already super accurate, among the best I've seen. As usual, OLED's superior black levels also improved the perception of color saturation compared to the LCD other displays.
The Battle of Winterfell's darkness also exposed another slight advantage of OLED over LCD: color accuracy in darkness. All three of the LCDs appeared slightly bluish in many areas, for example the terrified face of Sam (7:12) and the shadows around him, while the OLEDs maintained truer color. The bluish cast was less evident on the darker Q9 than on the Vizio and TCL and wasn't evident in brighter scenes.
Brighter material, as usual, brought all of the TVs to a more level playing field. I checked out the superb-looking The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon and it looked excellent, with natural skin tones, vibrant greens and purples in her dresses and convincing yellowish lighting in the synagogue. That said, they didn't look significantly more accurate than any of the other displays.
Video processing: I saw some examples of the C9's superior processing compared to the B8, but differences between the C8 and C9 were tougher to spot. During the Battle of Winterfell for example (7:39), the sky above Jorah showed banding and blocks of discoloration on the B8 near black that weren't visible on the other OLEDs.
Speaking of banding, there was quite a bit of it in the source (streaming via HBO Now, and not caused by the TVs) and the C9 did the best job of weeding it out. During a pan over Winterfell (5:19) bands of color in the sky appeared. When I turned the Smooth gradation setting up to High they largely disappeared. The C8 was also effective at removing the bands (when I turned on its MPEG noise reduction setting) but not quite as effective as the C9.
LG also has a new AI Picture toggle that promises, "The optimal resolution for the content will be automatically set by an algorithm learned via a deep learning technique." Turning it off and on with a variety of content I didn't see any difference, so I left it off.
With the Real Cinema setting turned on, the C9 passed my go-to 1080p/24 film cadence test from I Am Legend in Off, Clear and User (zero for De-Judder and 10 for De-Blur) TruMotion position.All three also delivered the TV's maximum motion resolution (600 lines) and correct film cadence. The Smooth settings and User De-Judder settings above 0 introduced some form of smoothing, or soap opera effect (Clear used to as well, but in 2019 it also handles 1080p/24 correctly in the Cinema and Expert modes).
The Samsung Q9 and Vizio with their true 120Hz refresh rates hit 1,200 lines of motion resolution, which might make them more appealing for sticklers who can't stand blurring. To my eye, however, the LG remained perfectly sharp in motion with all the actual program material (as opposed to test patterns) I watched.
The mode that introduces black frame insertion, labeled OLED Motion, can be toggled on and off in the TruMotion User menu.Turning it on improved motion resolution somewhat, perhaps to 700 lines while also making those lines sharper, but also dims the image by about 40 percent and introduces visible flicker to bright areas. The extra motion resolution isn't worth those tradeoffs, in my book.
Gaminginput lag has also been improved this year. The C9 showed the lowest lag I've measured so far, at 13.3 and 13.7 milliseconds in game mode for 1080p and 4K HDR sources, respectively. That's better than the C8 by 8.3 and 14.3 ms, and tops the 2018 champs from Samsung by less than a millisecond. If you can tell the difference, hats off to you. I'm curious to see whether the 2019 sets from Samsung and other brands can beat the C9's new mark.
Off-angle viewing and uniformity: Like all recent OLED sets, the C9 was extremely uniform in brightness and color, with no visible variations across the screen. In comparison the LCDs all showed slightly brighter and darker areas with full-field test patterns, although none had major issues. And as usual the OLEDs were much better at maintaining fidelity from off-angle, when viewed from seats other than the sweet spot right in the middle of the screen. There were no differences in the uniformity of any of the LG OLEDs.
HDR and 4K video:As usual for OLED TVs, the C9 is a spectacular HDR performer. Despite significantly less light output than the Vizio PQ and Samsung Q9, it still looked incredibly punchy and dynamic, better than any of the LCDs overall. That said, it didn't significantly outperform the HDR image of either 2018 OLED.
Since Game of Thrones is only in 1080p SDR (for now) I started with Netflix's superb-looking The Haunting of Hill House for my comparison, watching via HDR10 across all six displays. During the dark introduction, OLED's deep black levels and excellent shadow detail again carried the day. The Samsung Q9 came closest but its brighter blacks, too-bright highlights and less even lighting, in particular the blooming around the words "Hill House Then," was an issue, while the Vizio and TCL looked too dim and lifeless.
Among the three OLEDs the C9 looked the best, particularly in terms of shadow detail. The dark hallway and the bedroom (1:40) looked more obscured on the C8 and especially the B8 in comparison, while the details in the C9 looked more right and natural without being too bright.
The difference might be attributable to improvements LG made to its dynamic tone-mapping feature for 2019. The system, enabled by default in Cinema and Expert modes, analyses HDR video frame by frame and generates a new tone map curve. The improvement, according to LG, is wider signal range detection. On all of the LG OLED sets it improved HDR image quality to my eye (while delivering an accurate EOTF), bringing up details and preventing the image from looking too dark.
I compared the C8 and C9 using the tone-mapping ramps from the new Spears and Munsil HDR benchmark and with DTM engaged there was little difference, but with the feature turned off the C9 showed an advantage, delivering detail up to 1,000 nits while the B8 and C8 clipped at around 875. Turning DTM on did lend some improvement to the C9 when I looked at S&M's 4,000-nit patterns, which clipped at around 3,200 nits on the C8/B8 but showed full detail on the C9. That advantage would only apply to HDR content mastered at 4,000 nits, however, which is less common than content mastered at 1,000.
For something brighter I checked out the Frozen Worlds episode from Netflix's Our Planet. As the camera flies over the ice floes and brilliant sunlight glints off the mountains and glaciers, the Q9 matched the brilliance and brightness of the OLEDs overall, while the Vizio and TCL again looked dimmer and less impactful than either. As usual, the LCDs' higher light output measured in test patterns (see the Bright Lighting table above) didn't translate to program material.
The Q9 did look brighter when the screen was mostly occupied by white. A bright patch from the glacier at 5:24, for example, measured about 100 nits brighter (279 vs. 189) on the Q9 than the C9, which was easy to see in a side-by-side comparison. In scenes with less white on the screen however, the Q9 and OLEDs had similarly bright highlights and in some cases the OLEDs measured slightly brighter.
|Black luminance (0%)||0.000||Good|
|Peak white luminance (SDR)||451||Average|
|Avg. gamma (10-100%)||2.38||Good|
|Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)||0.37||Good|
|Dark gray error (30%)||0.41||Good|
|Bright gray error (80%)||0.32||Good|
|Avg. color checker error||1.30||Good|
|Avg. color error||1.56||Good|
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)||Pass||Good|
|Motion resolution (max)||700||Average|
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)||600||Average|
|Input lag (Game mode)||13.30||Good|
|Black luminance (0%)||0.000||Good|
|Peak white luminance (10% win)||851||Average|
|Gamut % UHDA/P3 (CIE 1976)||98.85||Good|
|Avg. color checker error||2.69||Good|
|Input lag (Game mode, 4K HDR)||13.67||Good|