Sofas, mattresses, perfume, wine—skimp on these and you’re likely to have regrets. TVs, though, can be bought for a low price and happily meet your "good enough" expectations without any buyer’s remorse.
In TV land, cheap usually means a set that costs less than $300, sometimes as low as $150. Except these cheap TVs are likely too small—43 inches or smaller—to satisfy your big-screen viewing desires.
'Cheap,' But Not Bad
You can buy a big-screen TV—55 inches or larger—for less than $500 or a 65-inch set for under $1,000, both of which would represent good deals, but…"cheap" can also represent "value." A good-value TV is not necessarily one with a small screen for a super low price, but one with a big screen, high-quality picture, and a host of features—or one specific feature—for fewer dollars than expected.
The Expert: I’ve been writing about, reporting on, and reviewing consumer technology for nearly 40 years, including the ever-changing TV/HDTV/4K/8K TV scene. Personally, I'm a plasma snob and still own two plasma TVs, 42- and 50-inch models. Since plasma TVs have disappeared, I recently acquired my first 65-inch quantum dot mini-LED model—but I long to procure an OLED set.
What to Consider
Even today's cheap TVs offer—by far—higher quality images than the priciest premium TVs of even just a decade ago thanks to a myriad of relatively recent technologies. What make today's "cheap" TVs such great value are five recent picture and function enhancements—in no particular order—that nearly all of today's TVs include, even the lowest-priced models.
4K, which doubles the number of pixels in the original high-definition "2K" sets, and 8K, which quadruples the number of pixels of a 4K set, to create an astoundingly detailed image; all TVs with screens 50 inches and larger sold today are 4K.
For LED sets, Full Array Local Dimming (FALD) backlighting ensures that ultra-light and ultra-dark segments of scenes are accurately and clearly illuminated; the individuals on OLED TVs are self-illuminating, so don't require separate backlighting and, therefore, provide the ultimate TV image
Quantum dot, a coating of nano particles on an LCD that dramatically expands the number and brightness of colors displayed on an LED TV
Varying HDR, or High Dynamic Range, technologies such as HDR10 and Dolby Vision, dramatically boost contrast and color
Added smarts—nearly all TVs today are "smart" which means they provide access to all the popular streaming services via streaming TV systems such as Roku, Android, and Google TV.
Ignore what TVs look like on the retail show floor. Retailers brighten their sets to compensate for a store's harsh fluorescent lighting. In addition, retailers rarely show 4K content on their TVs, and often play animation which always looks better than "live" TV, all of which renders A-B comparisons useless.
If you're concerned about image detail, spend a bit more on a set with full array local dimming (FALD)—and ask for the many "local dimming zones" when comparing models. The more zones, the more detail will be visible.
Don't worry about how a TV sounds—few makers concentrate on audio. If you want to enjoy the full benefits of a big-screen TV you'll want a sound bar. If you don't want a sound bar now, make sure the stand on the TV is wide enough and lifts a TV high enough to fit a sound bar as unobtrusively as possible under the set.
To future-proof your TV, check for HDMI 2.1 compatible jacks, which allow more and more robust video and audio information to travel from your HDMI-connected connected devices and the TV to achieve the best possible image.
Finally, at this time of year when retailers are trying to sell off their existing TV inventory to make room for new 2022 models, inquire about a floor model, which can often be had for a huge discount.
How We Evaluated
For this roundup, I considered only late 2020 or 2021 55-inch and larger models that include most of the five must-have features listed above. Older models might be lower-priced than newer ones, but they lack what I would consider now-necessary features to stave off TV buyers' remorse. I also didn't include refurbished TV models. Here are my choices for the best "cheap" —i.e. value—TVs currently available.
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BY STEWART WOLPIN