Updated Jul 24, 2013 By Cedric Demers

Plasma vs LED
Picture Quality

The quality of the picture should be one of your main concerns when buying a television. There are many components to good picture quality: a wide viewing angle, very dark blacks, very bright whites, accurate colors, and no motion blur. Which technology (Plasma or LED) offers the best visuals? This article compares each technology in each component of a good picture quality.

Viewing angle

Average Viewing Angle
LCD/LED37°
Plasma70°

A plasma screen has a better viewing angle than an LED screen. But by how much? The following picture shows you the average angle where the contrast starts to be less than 50% of the maximum contrast. This is the average of the viewing angles of TVs that we tested. The actual viewing angle varies per model and brand. As you can see in the video, the picture quality starts to decrease a lot earlier for an LED panel.

Average viewing angle
Average viewing angle
Viewing angle of television top view
Top view of viewing zone
Viewing angle of television side view
Side view of viewing zone
If you want to know which LED or Plasma TV has the best viewing angle, check out our full list of 2014 models viewing angle here.

Do not trust the advertised viewing angle in the manufacturer specifications. Nowadays, every LED television will list a viewing angle of 178 degrees. While it is true that you can see the color from that angle, the picture quality will not be good, as shown in the following picture.

Do you need a wide viewing angle? It depends on your room layout and your usage. You do not need a very wide viewing angle if you are watching the television alone or if your couch is directly in front of the television. However, if you have multiple sofas and a large audience, it might affect the experience of the people sitting at an angle. Also, if you hang your television very high (like above your fireplace), you will need to be far enough from the television to see the best picture.

An LED screen has a worse viewing angle than a plasma screen because the LCD screen is composed of a backlight and an LCD layer acting as a filter (learn more about how they work here). Due to the depth of the filter, the light (coming from behind that layer) cannot pass the LCD at an extreme angle. Plasma does not have that problem because each cell emits its own light.
Winner: Plasma

Black level

Black Luminance
(Smaller is better)
LCD/LED0.15 cd/m2
Plasma0.05 cd/m2

This is where a plasma TV really shines. When a pixel in a plasma TV is off, it emits almost no light - only 0.05 cd/m2, compared to an average of 0.15 cd/m2 for an LED. In a plasma TV, each pixel’s color is individually controlled and does not depend on the neighbouring pixels. With an LCD screen, they all share the same backlight. The backlight always stays on for all the pixels (but a region can dim if the television is equipped with local dimming). The pixels are merely a filter applied on top of that light. In theory, it could still produce a real black if the pixel can block all the light, but even today's best LCD screens have a little leakage. The black will appear slightly gray.

The following picture compares an LED screen to a plasma in a black scene. The LED looks more washed out because the blacks are more gray (turn off the lights in your room if you do not see a difference).

Bad contrast ratio television
LG LN5400 LED TV
Good contrast ratio television
Samsung F5300 Plasma TV
Check out our full list of dark scene pictures and measured contrast ratio for 2014 models here.

If you are watching television in a somewhat lighted room, it does not matter. The LED screen will produce a black good enough that you will not notice it. However, if you are in a completely dark room, you will appreciate plasma's truer black.

Winner: Plasma

Brightness

White Luminance
LCD/LED250 cd/m2
Plasma100 cd/m2

An LED can produce an image a lot brighter than a plasma screen. The average maximum luminance for a plasma screen is 100 cd/m2 compared to 250 cd/m2 for an LCD. In an LCD screen, the source of light is separate from the color of the pixel. The source of light behind the screen just needs to be white and has no real size constraint. This enables the use of very bright sources of light, like CCFL or LEDs. In a plasma screen, each color of a pixel emits its own light. The gas inside a cell is excited, which produces ultraviolet light, which then excites a phosphor. This method has a lot less potential to produce strong light.

If you have a room with a lot of windows and lights in it, or if you normally prefer to watch television with the lights on, you will appreciate the brighter image that an LCD or LED can produce.

All TV reviews include pictures of the TV taken in a bright room. Check them out.
Winner: LED

Colors

There is no major difference between the main technologies in the accuracy of the hue of the color (the actual color, not the intensity of it). It will mostly depend on the actual model and brand of the television. For a few years, most TVs have been really good in that respect.

Calibrated correctly, 99% of people will not be able to say if the colors are slightly off compared to another television. The human eye is more sensitive to the intensity of a color or the clarity of the picture than it is to the accuracy of the color.

A few televisions claim to display more colors than the others, with some even adding a yellow pixel to the normal three colors (red, green and blue). The truth is, you will not see a difference. This is why that addition of a yellow component remained a novelty instead of becoming mainstream. It is not worth it.

Winner: Tie

Motion Blur

LCD television with motion blur

Motion blur is a problem usually found in lower-end LCD televisions. It happens when an image stays on the screen longer than intended, superposing with the next image. The pixels do not change fast enough to keep up with the video, making it look blurry.

A plasma TV does not have a motion blur problem because the pixels stop emitting light as soon as the electricity ceases to be applied on them. In an LCD screen, the pixels take some time to adjust their opacity based on their polarization. If the pixels do not switch fast enough, motion blur will be apparent.

In the last few years, LCD screen response time has improved a lot, especially with higher-end models, so it is not a real issue anymore. Also, manufacturers introduced panels with a 120Hz refresh rate (you can learn more about determining what makes a good refresh rate here). A 120Hz refresh rate does not guarantee the absence of motion blur (nothing prevents a pixel from taking more than 1/120 second to switch) but it is a good indication that the response time of this panel is better. Also, a 120Hz television will create new interpolated frames between the real frames to further prevent any motion blur.

Check out all the motion blur pictures that we took for the 2014 models here.
Winner: Plasma

Picture Quality Conclusion

There is no doubt that Plasma wins here. Even a cheap Plasma TV will beat the best LED TVs in terms of picture quality. Plasma televisions have a wider viewing angle, deeper blacks, and no motion blur. The only point where LED beats Plasma in this category is for the brightness of the screen. An LED television can be almost three times as bright as a Plasma. This makes LED TVs more suitable for very bright rooms, like open rooms, or those with a lot of windows.

Questions & Answers

18 ANSWERED QUESTIONS
24
I am looking for a 50" - 55" Plasma TV. What would be the best choice in terms of picture quality and hardware reliability?
It depends on your budget of course, but the Panasonic S60 and ST60 have a very good price/quality ratio.
18
So what is a good plasma? I need brightness, 50" and good picture. I want the best.
The brightest plasma by far is the Samsung F8500, which is Samsung's best plasma this year.
7
I am about at a viewing distance of about 10.5 feet. Would you recommend a 50 or 55 inch plasma?
55". Check out our distance/size guide here to know why.
5
Why do plasma TVs turn to a grayish background when white becomes the dominate color on screen? I have returned two plasmas of different brands (Samsung and Panasonic) because I just hated that. The picture of a movie or TV show would be fine, but when a commercial came on, everything would turn to crap. A bright, vibrant Apple commercial, for example, would immediately turn to a grayish background with not-so-colorful phones. I see white just fine on lettering or small amounts on screen. It only happens when white is supposed to be the majority color all over the screen.
This is somewhat normal with plasmas. The luminosity of the pixels varies depending on the overall luminosity. This feature is called Automatic Brightness Limiters (ABL). All plasma TVs have that feature and it can't be turned off. Some models are worse than others, though, and it also depends on your configuration settings (it is less of an issue in the Movie setting). Unfortunately, you'll either have to accept that feature or go for an LED.
4
I live in the basement with no windows. Do you think I will notice the difference in picture quality between the S60 and the ST60? I do play PS3 often and am willing to give cod up for picture quality if there is any noticeable difference between the two sets.
There is a difference, but only you can tell if it is worth it depending on how you value your money. Because you have no window and probably won't use the Smart TV interface, it is a close call, and I think a lot of people in your situation would prefer to have the 300$ difference in their pocket, especially since the S60 is a very good TV anyway.
4
We are looking for a TV with a traditional, film-like picture and will be watching in a relatively dark room. Picture quality is our priority. We don't need 3D, smart features, etc. We love the picture on the Samsung plasma F8500 and would get it despite the high cost for features we won't use, but the smallest size is 51", which is too large for our space. What would you recommend in a smaller set (preferably plasma)?
You don't have a lot of choices if you want a small plasma. There are only 1-2 models per manufacturer and it is their lowest in terms of picture quality. Check out the Samsung F4500. It is still a very good TV in a dark room.
3
Does a Blu-ray player increase the quality of regular TV on a plasma 1080/600hz?
No. A Blu-Ray player will not increase your SD videos, even if it has a resolution upscaler technology. Even the best resolution upscaler cannot really increase the quality of a SD video, and the one built in to your TV is more than enough. A Blu-Ray player is still useful though, but only to watch HD Blu-Ray movies.
3
I am going to buy a top model in a 60" size. I'm wondering about the new generation LG 4K LED vs. top model plasma from Panasonic. They are about the same price. In a normal living room with no big windows, which of them will offer the best picture for the money?
Go for a plasma instead. As explained in this article, you won't see any difference between 4k and 1080p at more than eight feet of distance for a 60" TV (not to mention 4k content is really rare and expensive). Also, given the same Blu-ray movie, the picture of a plasma TV is better than an LED TV because 4k doesn't matter at all when your content is at a lower resolution.
3
Should I buy a Plasma TV if they will not be produced anymore? Why are they going away if they have better picture quality?
Samsung and LG are still producing them. While they have better picture quality in a dark room, most manufacturers were losing money on them. They account for approximately 10% of the total TV sales. LEDs sell more because they are better in a bright room and the picture quality is good enough for the majority, even in a dark room.
3
Can the Samsung F5300 plasma handle 1080p 24p well while playing Blu-ray movies?
Yes. The picture is darker and has more flickering, though. The feature is called Film Mode in the menus.
2
Will the Panasonic 60ST60 get brighter after 100 hours of use? Seems too dim now. I've had it for a week.
Not really. We measured a maximum white luminance of 82 cd/m2, which is average for a plasma. It is of course dimmer than LEDs (which usually gets more than 200 cd/m2). While the anti glare filter is good for removing reflections, it doesn't increase the brightness of the screen. If you want a bright plasma, the Samsung F8500 is a better choice (it goes up to 185 cd/m2). The ST60 should be bright enough for most people, but if you have a room full of windows you are better with an LED or the Samsung F8500.
1
I am looking for a 32" - 39" TV. My room has a lot of windows. What would be your recommendation in terms of picture quality and hardware reliability? LED or plasma?
You do not have a choice. There is no plasma TV under 40 inch, so you will need to go for an LED.
1
I have two plasma TVs. Both are Samsung and from the same series, but different sizes (51" and 60"). The picture seems a little different with the 51". Is this normal?
All panels are different, which is why calibration is usually needed to achieve similar picture. Place the TVs next to each other and try changing the settings on one to match the other.
1
I have narrowed my choice between the 55 inch ST60 for $1,200 or the 55 inch VT60 for $1,500. Is it worth the $300 difference to get the VT60? Based on my research, the gap between ST60 and the VT60 was much wider before.
For that price difference, it is definitely worth considering the VT60. Especially if you are a gamer, because the input lag is significantly lower on the VT60. If you do not game much, though, and do not care about a fancy remote, it is a harder sell because the picture quality difference is not very big.
1
I have an eight-year-old 55" Plasma TV (Hitachi 55HDS69) that died on me. The screen went black but the sound was fine. Contacted Hitachi and got a name of a local "authorized" service man to fix the TV. The cost would be roughly $400+ to fix, due to a bad circuit board - so is it worth it to fix this TV or buy a new LED TV instead?
If you get an LED, you will be downgrading the picture quality compared to your current plasma (assuming you like your current TV). Instead, you might want to look for a new plasma. The picture quality of most models should be greater than your old plasma. That said, for a 55", you will still spend more than $400. If you are tight on the money, repairing it is the best option.
1
LG seems to be up and coming and very competitive price-wise. Are they good TVs?
LG TVs are really good when viewed off-axis because they maintain good color accuracy. However, when sitting directly in front, their contrast ratio is not good (the blacks are gray). See our list of LG TV reviews for more info.
0
Do LCD TV's have a better picture depending on the grade of HDMI?
No, the kind of HDMI cable changes nothing in terms of picture quality.
0
Our Panasonic plasma went on the fritz - had the seven blinking lights. Took it in and they rang and said they couldn't fix it, and replaced it with a Viera 2014 LED model with "life screen" etc. Was watching it tonight, and noticed some artifacts/motion blur when people move about onscreen. Is it best to have those smoother and MPEG noise reduction settings on or off? I guess we had been spoiled by the plasma (which it is not possible to buy any more).
You can't expect the same picture quality on an LED. As for the settings, it depends how high quality the content you are watching happens to be. If the content is pure (like connected to a PC, a console, or a Blu-ray), turn off all settings. For HD channels though, MPEG noise reduction is preferable. If you want even fewer moving artifacts, turn off motion interpolation (called Intelligent Frame Creation on the Panasonic).
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