OLED TVs have the best picture quality available, and today there are more choices in OLED than ever. From the less expensive LG A1 and Vizio H1 to the wallet-busting Sony A90J and LG G1, high-end shoppers who've decided on an OLED TV face another tough decision: Which OLED TV, exactly? I haven't reviewed all of them, but from what I've seen so far, the best option for most buyers is the LG OLED C1. It combines that incredible image quality with the best features -- particularly for gamers -- the widest range of screen sizes and a price that's not too outrageous.
I compared the C1 directly with its predecessor, the LG CX, as well as with a TCL 8K QLED TV with Mini-LED that costs about the same, and the C1 was my favorite. It and the CX were neck-and-neck for picture quality, but the C1 pulled away with its flexible gaming options. Meanwhile the Samsung QN90A QLED is brighter and in some ways superior, but overall the picture quality of the C1 is better. The C1 is also a lot more affordable than the LG G1, and image quality on those two 2021 OLEDs was basically the same. I haven't reviewed the Sony A80J yet, which currently costs a bit more than the C1, but I'd be surprised if it's significantly better.
In short, if you want the superiority of OLED image quality, the LG C1 is my go-to pick for 2021.
Editor's note, Nov. 9, 2021: Added Editors' Choice Award.
Series and size information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 65-inch OLED C1, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. All sizes have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality. Click the links below to get pricing on this page appropriate for the size you're interested in.
If you've seen any mainstream LG OLED TVs in the last couple of years, the C1's design will ring a bell. The watchword is "minimalist," with a slim border around the screen on all four sides and a tiny, discreet LG logo. Seen from the side, the top two-thirds of the TV are blade-thin, while the bottom widens to accommodate the guts, inputs and other connections.
The stand is basically the same as the CX from last year, running almost the whole width of the panel in the front and incorporating a very heavy base at the rear that kept my review sample admirably steady. One change is the color of the back: It's now a stark white, like some LG OLEDs of yesteryear.
LG revamped the remote a bit. It kept my favorite features, namely the scroll wheel and motion-tracking, while slimming it down slightly. The biggest difference is the addition of shortcut keys at the bottom: four for streaming services and two more for the built-in voice assistants, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.
Both Google and Alexa 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 (yep, both voices). Basics like "What's the weather?" work as you'd expect, complete with onscreen feedback. The C1 also works with Apple's AirPlay 2 system, just like many other TVs, allowing my iPhone to share photos and video on the screen from the Photos app and mirror my Mac and phone screens.
LG's WebOS menu system got a face-lift for 2021 -- and I'm not a fan. Gone is the small, unobtrusive overlay at the bottom of the screen that lets you keep tabs on what you're watching. Instead there's a full-screen homepage, similar to what you get with a Roku, Fire TV or Google TV. But it has fewer apps and more, well, junk. The top two-thirds of the screen are devoted to the weather, setup tips, a search window and a Trending Now section with a random collection of TV shows and movies. Below that is an app row and, farther down, sections devoted to inputs and particular streaming apps. In general it feels like a hodgepodge with too much going on -- most systems are simpler and easier to grasp.
|HDR compatibility||HDR10 and Dolby Vision|
|Smart TV||Web OS|
The C1 isn't missing anything I'd expect on a high-end TV. Aside from the Evo panel, the C1 has the same image quality features as the step-up G1, starting with the new Gen 4 a9 processing chip that adds scene detection and upgraded object enhancement over last year's version. Both the G1 and C1 also have a 120Hz refresh rate. The entry-level A1 OLEDs, meanwhile, have a more basic a7 processor and 60Hz refresh rate.
Just like last year, LG's OLED TVs' picture settings include a Filmmaker Mode. As promised, it turns off the soap opera effect for film-based content (yay) but so do many other of the C1's modes. While plenty accurate, Filmmaker Mode is also relatively dim for standard dynamic range, so I ended up using Cinema and ISF Bright for most critical viewing. New for 2021 is a Game Optimizer menu with its own set of picture modes; see below for details.
All of LG's recent OLED models (except the A1) include the latest version of the HDMI standard: 2.1. That means their HDMI ports can handle 4K at 120 frames per second and variable refresh rate (VRR, including Nvidia G-sync and AMD FreeSync), as well as enhanced audio return channel (eARC) and automatic low latency mode (auto game mode). In other words, they can take advantage of the latest graphics features available from PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and S consoles as well as high-end graphics cards. In fact, the C1 is rare among high-end TVs in that all four of its HDMI ports support 4K/120 -- great for hard-core gamers with multiple next-gen devices.
The selection of connections is otherwise top-notch, though it no longer supports analog component video. There's also a dedicated headphone or analog audio output and another for IR blasters, which could ease some installations.
The C1 is a superb performer, every bit as capable as the best TVs I've reviewed. I wasn't able to compare it directly to the G1 for this review, but according to my measurements as well as my comparisons of both panels to the CX from 2020, the C1 and G1 have nearly identical image quality. The G1's Evo panel, as I mentioned in that review, doesn't deliver a major brightness advantage over other LG OLEDs, including the C1. In their favor, both 2021 OLEDs are excellent and the best-performing TVs I've reviewed, a hair above the CX.
For this review I also compared the C1 with the best-performing LCD TV I had on hand, the TCL 65R648, which costs about the same as the C1 and happens to have 8K resolution. In case you're wondering, I saw no sharpness or resolution advantage with the 8K TCL compared with the 4K OLEDs when watching HD or 4K material. The TCL uses Mini-LED and full-array local dimming but doesn't perform quite as well as the Samsung Q90A, showing more blooming issues, for example.
I didn't have the Samsung Q90A on hand to compare directly either, but it's still the best LCD-based TV I've reviewed. That said, based on my comparison with the G1, the Q90A would still fall short of the C1, which exhibited perfect black levels, excellent mixed-scene contrast and better off-angle viewing than any LCD I've tested.
Dim lighting: As expected, the C1 was excellent in a dark room, but no better than the CX when watching cinematic material -- in this case The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King on standard 1080p Blu-ray. During the darker scenes when Frodo, Sam and Gollum travel toward Mordor, for example, the inky blackness of both OLED TVs surpassed the contrast of the TCL, which showed lighter, less realistic shadows and letterbox bars and some brightness variation (blooming) -- standard on just about every non-OLED TV.
Shadow detail was also excellent on the C1, if again not any different from the CX. The shadowy stairs and crags of Cirith Ungol looked realistic, not too bright and yet well-detailed. Again the TCL trailed somewhat, with slightly more obscured shadows and a less theatrical look.
Bright lighting: The C1 is plenty bright enough for just about any viewing environment, but as usual it's not nearly as bright as competing LCD-based models. Compared with other OLEDs it measured basically as bright as the G1, despite lacking the Neo panel, and slightly brighter than the CX, but the difference isn't huge and proved tough to discern in most program material.
|TV||Brightest (SDR)||Accurate color (SDR)||Brightest (HDR)||Accurate color (HDR)|
LG OLEDs of recent vintage have a setting called Peak Brightness that boosts the light output for SDR sources in Cinema and Expert modes, and it works very well. The idea is to increase brightness for daytime viewing environments while maintaining the superior color accuracy of those modes. As with most TVs, the brightest mode for HDR and SDR (Vivid on the C1) is horribly inaccurate. For the accurate color columns above on the C1, I used ISF Expert Bright (Peak Brightness: High) for SDR and Cinema mode for HDR. I recommend C1 owners do the same to get good color in bright rooms in particular, because the difference between Vivid and more accurate modes is slight. Note that with SDR you'll need to disable the Auto Energy Saving setting (Support > Energy Saving > Energy Saving Step > Off) to get full brightness.
Like all OLED TVs, the C1 gets quite a bit dimmer than LCDs when showing full-screen white -- a hockey game, for example -- but even in those situations it's hardly dim. The C1's screen preserved black levels and reduced reflections very well, but no better than the CX.
Color accuracy: No complaints here. According to measurements and my comparisons, the C1's color was excellent. During the Muster of Rohan, for example, the red and blue of the tents, the green of the grassy fields and the skin tones of King Theoden and Merry all looked natural and realistic. On the other hand, all of the TVs were quite accurate, to the extent that it was difficult to tell the difference.
Video processing: LG goes to great lengths to tout the improvement of its processing every year, but watching various material in the best picture settings, the CX and C1 looked largely identical to me.
Motion handling on the C1 is excellent and a touch better than the CX, however. Under TruMotion, the new Cinematic Movement setting (the default for Cinema mode) served up a 24-frame cadence with a very slight hint of smoothing, improving on last year's too-smooth Cinema Clear setting while preserving 600 lines of motion resolution. Those 24p purists who want no smoothing at all will opt for the Off position (the default for Filmmaker mode) and suffer the low motion resolution, while tweakers will appreciate the fine granularity of the User De-Judder mode to dial in the right amount of smoothness; anything set to four or lower introduced some judder to my eye, conveying a sense of film rather than soap opera effect. De-Blur settings of six or higher deliver the full 600 lines of motion resolution.
User mode also opens up the OLED Motion Pro menu with three levels of black frame insertion that further improve motion resolution, with 800 lines in Low and a full 1,200 in Med and High. This last option introduces flicker, unfortunately, and all three are a bit dimmer than Off, but if blur really bugs you then they're worth experimenting with.One improvement over last year is that engaging OLED Motion Pro no longer totally crushes shadow detail -- it's a bit worse but still OK. Still, I'd choose to leave it off and sacrifice some motion resolution for maximum light output and shadow detail.
Uniformity: Like all OLEDs I've tested, the C1 was exemplary in this area, with no significant brightness or color variations across the screen and nearly perfect image quality from off-angle. In very dark, full-field test patterns the edges did appear slightly dimmer than the middle, but that effect was invisible in any real program material I watched.
Gaming:Like the G1, the C1's biggest upgrades over 2020 models cater to gamers, and together they helped the C1 become my new favorite TV for gaming. The new Game Optimizer is the name of both a picture mode and a full menu system. The latter offers all-new tweaks including four game genre modes: Standard, FPS mode (said to boost shadow detail), RPG mode (to boost contrast) and RTS mode (said to enhance mid-grayscale areas). There are also sliders labeled Black Stabilizer (for adjusting dark areas) and White Stabilizer (for bright areas), as well as the OLED Motion Pro setting described above (LG says it's particularly useful for games) and the Reduce Blue light setting (said to be easier on the eyes).
The C1 supported all advanced video features from my Xbox Series X, as advertised, including 4K/120 and VRR. Since I reviewed the G1 in April, LG has added a new status screen that appears whenever you hit the settings button while in Game Optimizer mode. Clad in aggressive purple, it displays current frame rate, picture mode, status of VRR, low latency (to reduce input lag) and Black Stabilizer. It's a nice enhancement and an answer to Samsung's game bar -- I actually like it better because it shows more info -- and if you don't like it you can turn it off.
The genre modes behaved similar to what I saw on the G1 and while playing my current game, Mass Effect 3 from the Legendary Edition, I preferred the look of Standard, which was a good balance of contrast and shadow visibility. FPS will probably cater well to gamers who want maximum shadow visibility, and the other settings allow you to dial it in to your heart's content. I really like having all these extra adjustment options in a dedicated menu, especially since the calibration screens built into many games often do an inadequate job -- having the ability to tweak particular scenes is great.
Buried within Game Optimizer is another setting labeled "Reduce input delay (input lag)" with two options, Standard and Boost. The former, which is the default for any game, serves up an excellent lag number similar to past LG OLED models as well as the G1: just 13.1ms for both 1080p and 4K HDR sources. Engaging Boost cuts lag even further, to just under 10ms for both. The catch is that Boost is only available for 60Hz sources, so you can't use it with 120Hz games or VRR. And no, I don't think many humans would notice the extra 3ms of lag.
HDR and 4K video:The C1 is a superb performer with HDR as well, and while it lacked the brightness of the TCL and other high-end LCDs, its overall image quality, contrast and pop were superior.
Comparing the three TVs using the Spears and Munsil 4K HDR benchmark, the two LG OLEDs looked consistently better than the TCL in most scenes. The TCL was brighter, for example, in the clouds, snowfields and mountaintops, but in more mixed bright-and-dark scenes it appeared slightly washed out in comparison, which hurt its overall contrast. Meanwhile the C1 and CX looked vibrant and powerful, even with their slightly dimmer highlights, and shadows in particular, such as in the twilit forests and shaded rocks, looked more natural and realistic. As usual the OLEDs really pulled ahead in the difficult shots of objects, for example cacti, flowers and a honey dipper, against black backgrounds -- the black of the TCL was brighter with visible blooming near the objects, while the OLEDs' was basically perfect. Colors in flowers and bottles of dye also looked more vibrant on the OLEDs.
All of that said, the C1 and CX were almost impossible to tell apart with the Spears benchmark. Spot measurements of the C1 revealed it was very slightly brighter in some highlights, like the hub of the Ferris wheel (4:52), but without my light meter I couldn't tell.
Switching back to LOTR:ROTK on 4K Blu-ray, I saw an even greater advantage for OLED. The LGs outclassed the TCL in darker theatrical scenes, for example when Sam challenges Shelob. Their letterbox bars remained inky and true and their shadows appropriately dark, while the TCL's dark areas were lighter, in particular with high-contrast shots like Sam brandishing the Phial of Galadriel at the spider (1:50:18). Given the TCL's significant brightness advantage I expected its rendition of the Phial to measure brighter in comparison, but a spot measurement showed the TCL, C1 and CX were actually very close (422, 396 and 368 nits, respectively), again too close to discern without a meter.
And stop me if you've heard this before, but I couldn't tell the difference between the CX and C1 when watching ROTK. Both were equally superb.
CNET is no longer publishing advanced picture settings for any TVs we review. Instead, we'll give more general recommendations to get the best picture without listing the detailed white balance or color management system settings we may have used to calibrate the TV. As always, the settings provided are a guidepost, and if you want the most accurate picture you should get a professional calibration.
Before my calibration for this review the Cinema preset was the most accurate, excellent in terms of grayscale and gamma. Since I now target a 2.2 gamma for my reviews in dark rooms, it was closer than ISF Expert Dark or the new Filmmaker modes, which both target gamma 2.4/BT 1886. ISF Bright was basically identical to Cinema, but I reserved that for brighter rooms.
For my calibration I tweaked the two-point grayscale slightly, reduced light output to my target of 137 nits and increased brightness by two pips to help with shadow detail (while still keeping perfect black levels), but otherwise I left well enough alone. The grayscale and color were already so accurate on my LG-provided review sample that I didn't need to touch the multipoint system or the color management system.
SDR bright room setting [all default except for below]
TV software/firmware version tested: 3.15.36
HDR notes:The two most accurate modes, HDR Cinema and Filmmaker mode, were basically identical, following the target electro-optical transfer function -- how the TV converts data to a specific brightness -- quite closely and showing better grayscale than Cinema Home, the next most accurate. Game Optimizer is best for gaming thanks to its processing, but quite blue; for the best color accuracy for gaming you should adjust the color temperature control all the way toward red (Color > White Balance > Color temperature > Warm50).
Color checker was more accurate than on the CX from last year and as usual with OLED the C1 covered the P3 HDR gamut very well. The C1 measured basically as bright as the G1 and brighter than the CX or the B9 from 2019, but the C9 from 2019 actually measured brighter in its least-accurate and basically the same in its most-accurate settings. Once again the TV automatically detected and engaged the HDMI Ultra HD Deep Color setting designed for HDR sources.
|Input lag (Game mode, 4K HDR)||13.13||Good|
Portrait Displays Calman calibration software was used in this review.
First published on Aug. 26.