HDTVs: What you get at each price

Sharp's 90-inch Aquos LC-90LE745U has the biggest screen and the biggest price ($11,000) on the market.

A new 1080p HDTV will cost you anywhere from $500 to $11,000. In some cases, spending extra cash will go towards obvious differences: A much-larger screen, a slicker design, and built-in streaming services. In other cases, you'll be paying for marketing jargon or features that you'll never use.

There's no easy way to learn what you'll pay for, so I went ahead and did it the hard way. I examined the prices and specs for 124 sets from the largest screen sizes available to the 42-inch class, a pool of HDTVs that comprises the 2012 lineups for seven of the biggest HDTV manufacturers (LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Toshiba, and Vizio). I looked at the features found at each price level, noticed a few similarities and differences, and came up with some guidelines on what to expect at certain prices.

Note: The prices in this story reflect the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) for each set. In many cases, you'll find these sets on sale for significantly less than the MSRP.

Pick a price range

What you get for $5,000 to $11,000

What you're always getting:

  • The highest-end LED sets
  • The largest screen sizes in each series (65 inches to 90 inches)
  • Built-in Wi-Fi with streaming services
  • Refresh rates of at least 120Hz

What you're sometimes getting:

  • Full-array LED backlighting
  • 3D playback
  • Gesture- and voice-control features
  • Built-in Web browser

Summary of your options in this price range: This is a big chunk of change. If you have this much cash to spend, you'll be able to buy the highest-end LED HDTVs at the largest available screen sizes from Samsung, Sharp, and Sony. Any set in this price range will be loaded with all the latest technologies, including built-in Wi-Fi with services such as Netflix and Pandora, refresh rates of at least 120Hz, the highest contrast-ratio claims of any set in the company's lineup, and 3D viewing (well, except for Sharp's 80-inch LC-80LE632U).

To achieve the best picture quality in the realm of LED TVs, the majority of sets in this price range feature full-array LED panels (where a grid of LEDs placed directly behind the LCD illuminate the screen) rather than edge-lit LED screens. Usually, that translates to sharper contrast and darker black levels than an edge-lit LED TV—especially if the set features local-dimming technology, which is found in the Sharp Elite series and Sony XBR series. A TV with local-dimming technology will turn off some of the backlighting LEDs in darker areas of the picture to improve contrast and make those dark areas appear pitch-black. At $5,000, the 65-inch Sony XBR HX929 costs around $3,000 less than the 70-inch Sharp Elite set, making it one of the better values in this astronomical price range.

If you're not looking for sheer size, Sony's 65-inch, LED-backlit XBR HX929 may be the best value in this price range.

Differences at this price: When a set in this price range doesn't feature a full-array LED panel with local-dimming features, you're generally paying for either a huge screen or fancy extras.

For example, Sharp's LC-90LE745U ($11,000) is a 90-inch-diagonal behemoth with a 120Hz full-array LED panel without local dimming. The 80-inch Sharp LC-80LE844U is a 240Hz full-array set (no local dimming) with Sharp's Quattron technology, which adds a yellow subpixel to the usual trifecta of red, green, and blue subpixels.

There are two odd ducks in this price range: Samsung's 65-inch UN65ES8000F and Sharp's LC-80LE632U. The 240Hz Samsung UN65ES8000F is at the top of the company's LED lineup, but it's an edge-lit LED set; it will likely have lighter black levels, less-impressive contrast, and a less-uniform picture than the full-array LED-backlit sets in this range. That said, it's thinner than the full-array LED sets at this price, and even though it's an edge-lit panel, Samsung's 8000 series has fared extremely well in PCWorld Labs' testing. It's unique in other ways, with a built-in camera and microphone for Skype calls and futuristic controls that include Kinect-like motion/gesture controls, voice controls, and facial recognition that's used to enforce parental controls and log into social networks.

Sharp's LC-80LE632U is the lowest-priced 80-inch set in the company's lineup, with a 120Hz refresh rate, no 3D playback, and no Quattron technology. Based on the price differential between this set and the other 80-incher, Sharp is essentially charging $1,000 for the combination of 3D viewing, Quattron technology, a 240Hz refresh rate, and a Web browser.

Sets examined in this price range: Sharp 90-inch Aquos LC-90LE745U ($11,000), Sharp 70-inch Elite PRO-70X5FD ($8,000), Sharp 80-inch Aquos LC-80LE844U ($6,000), Samsung 65-inch UN65ES8000F ($5,100), Sony 65-inch XBR HX929 Internet TV ($5,000), Sharp 80-inch Aquos LC-80LE632U ($5,000).

What you get for $4,000 to $5,000

What you're always getting:

  • A high-end 60-inch LED set
  • Built-in Wi-Fi with streaming services
  • Refresh rates of at least 120Hz
  • 3D playback

What you're sometimes getting:

  • Full-array LED backlighting
  • Gesture- and voice-control features
  • Built-in Web browser

Summary of your options in this price range: You'll get the highest-end LED HDTVs from Samsung and Sharp at 60-inch screen sizes, as well as Samsung's biggest LED set in its second-level lineup. All HDTVs in this price range have built-in Wi-Fi and 3D playback, as well as refresh rates of at least 120Hz.

Differences at this price: The 60-inch, 120Hz Sharp Elite PRO-60X5FD is the only backlit-LED set in this price range, although you will find smaller backlit-LED HDTVs at lower prices (Sony's 55- and 46-inch XBR-H929 sets, for example).

Samsung's UN60ES8000F ($4,400) is the 60-inch version of the company's highest-end LED set.

Samsung's 60-inch UN60ES8000F and UN60ES7500FXZA are both edge-lit LED sets. They offer 240Hz refresh rates, Web browsers, and built-in cameras and microphones for Skype calls and voice/gesture control. The main difference between the ES8000 and ES7500 series is a purportedly higher contrast ratio and smoother motion-handling in the ES8000 series; although both sets offer a 240Hz refresh rate, the ES8000 series has a "Clear Motion Rate" of a simulated 960Hz, while the ES7500 has a "Clear Motion Rate" of a simulated 840Hz.

Samsung says that the "Clear Motion Rate" numbers are calculated using a combination of the panel's refresh rate, the set's image-processing speeds, and the rate at which the set's backlight technology turns on and off. Your own eyeballs will have to be the judge of how well it works.

Sets examined in this price range: Sharp 60-inch Elite PRO-60X5FD ($4,800), Samsung 60-inch UN60ES8000F ($4,400), Samsung 60-inch UN60ES7500FXZA ($4,000).

What you get for $3,500 to $4,000

What you're always getting:

  • A screen size of 55 to 70 inches
  • Built-in Wi-Fi with streaming services
  • Built-in Web browser
  • 3D playback

What you're sometimes getting:

  • The highest-end plasma sets with 64- and 65-inch screens
  • The highest-end LED sets with 55-inch screens
  • Full-array LED backlighting
  • Gesture- and voice-control features

Summary of your options in this price range: Your options at this price are the highest-end plasmas at the biggest screen sizes offered, the highest-end LED sets with 55-inch screens, and second-notch LED sets with screen sizes of 60 to 70 inches. All HDTVs in this range offer the full range of whistles and bells, including built-in Wi-Fi with a Web browser, 3D playback, and fast refresh rates for LED sets.

Differences at this price: High-end plasmas enter the mix at this price point, and a plasma set is likely to be your best value at this price if you value fast-motion handling (read: watching sports) and deep black levels. Panasonic's top-of-the-line, 65-inch VT50 plasma and Samsung's 64-inch PN64E8000GF plasma are both available for less than $4,000; the latter is a full $1,000 less than Samsung's highest-end LED set of the same size, which has identical specs other than the display technology.

You can also find a couple of LED-backlit sets in this price range: Sony's 55-inch XBR HX929 and LG's 55-inch LM9600, both of which are the 55-inch models in each company's highest-end LED series. The LG set offers a couple of fancy extras, such as a voice- and motion-controlled remote and a 480Hz refresh rate. Samsung's highest-end 55-inch LED TV, the edge-lit ES8000F with gesture/voice controls, Skype, and a Web browser, also falls in this price range.

Sharp's 70-inch LC-70C8470U is the largest HDTV in this price range.

If you want an LED set with a bigger screen, there are several options in this price range, too. For sheer screen size, the 70-inch Sharp LC-70C8470U is the leader in this price category. It offers the company's Quattron "yellow subpixel" technology and a 240Hz refresh rate.

Samsung has several big-screen LED options in this price range, all of which are a step below the company's highest-end ES8000 line. The major differences are lower contrast-ratio ratings and "Clear Motion Rates" than the company's higher-end sets. They also lack the voice- and motion-control features of Samsung's higher-end HDTVs. The 60-inch Samsung UN60ES7100F has a 240Hz refresh rate, while the 65-inch UN65ES6550F has a 120Hz refresh rate, and it's slimmer than the otherwise identical 65-inch UN65ES6500F.

Sets examined in this price range: Samsung 64-inch PN64E8000GF plasma ($3,950), Samsung 65-inch UN65ES6500F ($3,900), Samsung 60-inch UN60ES7100F ($3,800), Samsung 65-inch UN65ES6550F ($3,800), Samsung 55-inch UN55ES8000F ($3,750), Panasonic 65-inch VT50 plasma ($3,700), Sharp 70-inch LC-70C8470U ($3,700), LG 65-inch LM6200 ($3,600), LG 55-inch LM9600 ($3,600), Sharp 70-inch Aquos LC-70LE845U ($3,600), Sony 55-inch XBR HX929 Internet TV ($3,500).

What you get for $3,000 to $3,500

What you're always getting:

  • Built-in Wi-Fi with streaming services
  • Built-in Web browser
  • 3D playback

What you're sometimes getting:

  • 60- to 65-inch plasmas
  • 55- to 70-inch LED sets
  • The highest-end 46-inch LED sets
  • Gesture- and voice-control features

Summary of your options in this price range: At this price, your options start expanding quite a bit. You'll find 60- to 65-inch plasma sets and 46- to 70-inch LED sets. In general, if you pick a smaller screen size at this price, you might be getting the company's highest-end set. If you pick a larger size, you'll be getting a model from each manufacturer's second- or third-level lineup.

Differences at this price: 3D viewing and built-in Wi-Fi are the norm in this price range. The main differences between the sets will be the screen sizes, the display technologies (plasma vs. LED), the contrast ratios and motion-processing features touted by each manufacturer, and fancy extras such as voice/motion control and Skype calls.

At $3000, Panasonic's 65-inch GT50 plasma looks like one of the best options in this price range.

As usual, Sharp has the biggest LED sets available at this price, with two edge-lit 70-inchers, both of which lack the company's Quattron yellow-subpixel technology. The Aquos LC-70C7450U has a 120Hz native refresh rate with an "Aquomotion" feature that purportedly simulates a 240Hz refresh rate, while the LC-70LE745U is practically the same set without the Aquomotion feature for $200 less.

In this price bracket, Panasonic offers its highest-end LED set, the WT50, at a 55-inch screen size. It's an edge-lit, 240Hz HDTV with a touchpad-controlled remote, as well as all the 3D and connected features that you'd expect at this price.

Samsung offers seven sets in this price range, including two of its highest-end HDTVs: the 60-inch PN60E8000GF plasma and the 46-inch UN46ES8000F edge-lit LED. Both of those sets offer voice/gesture controls via built-in cameras and microphones, as well as the ability to make Skype calls.

The slightly lower-end 55-inch Samsung UN55ES7550F edge-lit LED also has voice/gesture/Skype features, and it comes with a wireless keyboard that can be used with the set's built-in browser. Compared to the higher-end 8000 series, it has a lower "Clear Motion Rate" number (840 vs. the 8000 series' 960), even though both sets have the same native refresh rate of 240Hz. The 55-inch UN55ES7500F looks like it's practically the same set, minus the built-in Skype.

Two bigger-screen plasma sets are available in this price range, too: Panasonic's 65-inch GT50 set and Samsung's 64-inch PN64E7000FF. Compared to its higher-end VT50 line, Panasonic's GT50 has fewer picture-calibration options; compared to Samsung's higher-end E8000 plasma line, the E7000 lacks voice controls, gesture controls, and Skype capabilities.

Sets examined in this price range: Samsung 64-inch PN64E7000FF plasma ($3400), Sharp 70-inch Aquos LC-70C7450U ($3400), Samsung 55-inch UN55ES7550F ($3380), Samsung 55-inch UN55ES7500F ($3380), Sharp 70-inch Aquos LC-70LE745U ($3200), Samsung 60-inch UN60ES6500F ($3180), Samsung 55-inch UN55ES7100F ($3150), Samsung 60-inch PN60E8000GF plasma ($3080), Panasonic 65-inch GT50 plasma ($3000), Panasonic 55-inch WT50 ($3000), Samsung 46-inch UN46ES8000F ($3000).

What you get for $2,500 to $3,000

What you're always getting:

  • Built-in Wi-Fi with streaming services

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