OLEDs Here and There

All of us are familiar with LG’s successful use of OLED technology for flat screen UHDTVs. We also know that Sony is marketing its own OLED sets this year. But Sony buys its OLED panels from LG Display (an independent entity from LG itself, though connected to it in some inscrutable way). In fact, LG Display is currently the only company in the world that manufactures OLED panels for consumer televisions. LG’s arch-rival Samsung is a leader in producing OLEDs for cell phone displays, but a few years back decided against marketing OLED HDTVs, at least for now.

Other companies are also marketing OLED sets, but none of them are currently available in the US. And at present all TV OLED panels come from LG Display. But that doesn’t mean that these sets are identical. Each maker uses its own unique electronics and video processing.

While you can’t yet purchase an OLED display here in the US apart from an LG or Sony, it’s useful to know a little about others offering this technology. The more OLEDs sold worldwide, the more viable the technology will remain and, ultimately, the faster its currently high prices will drop.

Philips: Netherlands-based Philips tried on and off over many years to make a name for itself in the U.S. consumer electronics market, with limited success. It’s now mainly familiar to us for light bulbs. Today, Philips-branded 4K televisions are sold in the U.S. by Japanese manufacturer Funai through a licensing arrangement and marketed primarily at budget buyers.

But Philips still markets it own TVs overseas, and offers "Ambilight" as its signature feature. Ambilight supplements the picture on screen with lighting on the back of the set that reflects off the wall behind it (or in some models onto a reflector surrounding the screen itself). The lighting is either white or in colors, with the latter sometimes varying automatically to “complement” the scene being displayed. Sound wacky to you? Perhaps, but Philips has been offering it for years and still does, so it must attract buyers. (Many video experts do recommend having “bias” lighting behind the screen when the rest of the room is dark. But done correctly it should be very dim and at a color temperature of D65—the same as the specified white point of a properly calibrated video image, with the back wall being similarly neutral. Whether or not Ambilight in its white-only mode meets those requirements I can’t say as we haven’t tested a Philips set in eons.)

In any event, you may have read about Philips’ new OLED announced earlier this year in CES reports, but that’s because CES attracts media from all over the planet. The company is currently offering a single 55-inch OLED model in some of those markets where it continues to do business under its own name and where the brand is widely known.

Toshiba: When it comes to televisions, Toshiba is a sad case. It was once a highly innovative player in the US TV market, offering a 480i, 40-inch, 16:9 rear projection set for optimizing anamorphically-enhanced DVDs well before consumer HD was available. And a dozen or so years ago it also demonstrated a promising technology called SED (Surface-conduction Emissive Display). Developed by Canon, SED appeared to offer the benefits of CRTs in a flat screen set (black level, motion smoothness, off-center viewing). But the technology’s high costs, and a rights battle with Canon, caused it to be shelved.

It wasn’t more than a few of years later when Toshiba lost the battle for HD on a physical disc when its HD-DVD format was swamped by Sony’s Blu-ray. The company, and Toshiba brand, was never the same in the US. But it still has a presence in Europe and the UK. Much of its technology is still developed in Toshiba’s Japan facilities, but the sets are manufactured elsewhere, such as by Vestel in, of all unexpected places, Turkey.

The company does make a single, 65-inch OLED, the 65X9763. It’s not available here, which is probably a good thing considering a bad decision by Toshiba’s product planners. The set is 4K with advanced color, but doesn’t offer any HDR format. Since it takes considerable lead time to design, plan, and launch a new TV (I’m guessing 2-3 years—the 2020 sets of all major set makers are probably undergoing lab development as I write), Toshiba likely took a bet in 2014 that HDR would never catch on. Bad call.

Sharp: Sharp probably has the most convoluted recent history of any major TV producer. It once dominated the flat screen industry with its Aquos sets—back when a nice 50-inch model would cost you at least $10,000. While they remained big sellers in Japan even as flat screen prices plunged, its market share in the US eventually crumbled.

Sharp does hold a special place in our memories for its attempt to resurrect the Pioneer Elite name by bringing its own Sharp Elite branded sets to the market. Rumor had it at the time that may former Pioneer video engineers had move over to Sharp when Pioneer ceased plasma production. The Sharp Elites weren’t plasmas, but rather the best backlit, locally dimmed LED/LCD sets the market had seen up to that time. But the Sharp Elite sets weren’t successful. They were pricey, but no more so than the best Pioneer Elite plasmas had been.

A few years after that Sharp sold the rights to use its name in the US market to Chinese company Hisense. Any Sharp sets you’ll find in shops or on-line today are made by Hisense. But the plot thickened. Several months ago, Sharp went to court to recover the naming rights to sets sold in the US, arguing that Hisense was using the Sharp name for poorly made budget models. Litigation is still ongoing.

But Sharp itself is being bought out by Chinese consumer electronics giant Foxconn, which boasts over 1 million employees worldwide. Foxconn has announced plans to build an OLED-panel production facility for the Sharp brand, though whether it will be located in Japan or in China remains an open question. The OLED production will be for both cell phone displays (currently dominated by Samsung) and flat screen OLED sets (where LG, as already noted, is currently the only supplier). If this comes to pass (and it might take 2-3 years), it could blow the OLED TV market wide open, particularly if Sharp regains full control of its brand name and decides to market its OLED panels to other set makers and thereby compete with LG Display for the OLED panel market.

Panasonic: It’s no secret that Panasonic, once a major player in the US HDTV market, has dropped from view here since it stopped manufacturing plasmas. The latter occurred about the same time the industry saw 4K coming on fast. While we can’t say for certain, one of the reasons plasma production may have been abandoned was that the plasma pixels simply couldn’t be made small enough to support 4K in popularly-sized sets—or at least that they couldn’t be made smaller at a cost that the market would support. Another drag on plasmas was that, by that time, LCDs were far outselling them.

But Panasonic by no means disappeared. It’s still a player in many parts of the world. Its plasmas are long gone, and most of its product line is LCD. But it currently markets two different OLED models, each of them in two sizes: the TX65EZ952B (55- and 65-inches) and the TX-65EZ1002B (65- and 77-inches). The “2” in the model numbers are zeros in some markets.

The reviews I’ve seen of these sets, and from other reports as well, is they they’re all superb—possibly the best OLEDs on the market. But the nearest place you can buy any of them is Canada; they aren’t available in the US at all. And before you hop on the next plane to Toronto, you should know that none of this year’s Panasonic OLEDs support Dolby Vision HDR, only HDR10.

Rumors are afoot that Panasonic may relent late this year or early next and re-enter the US market. But so far they’re just that—rumors.

Loewe: Who? If you’ve been following video for more than 15 years you’ll be aware that this German company, in business since 1923, made a stab at the US market at the tail end of the CRT era. While the venture didn’t pan out they’re still well known in Europe. All we know about the Loewe OLEDs is that their model designation is bild 7, they’re available in 55-, 65-, and 77-inch sizes, they use LG OLED panels, and they have a unique, attached sound bar that appears only when you turn the set on and the screen literally rises a few inches to reveal it. But they’re unlikely to ever be available here.

The Chinese: I lump these all together here. Hisense and TCL are the most well-known Chinese brands, though many lesser-known companies, as well as house brands, build their sets in the proverbial shadow of the Great Wall. To date we know of no commercially available Chinese-branded OLEDs, though I do recall seeing demos of them at the past two CES’. I suspect we’re likely to see them in stores when (and if) the above mentioned Sharp OLED plant is built.

jnemesh's picture

Samsung will have started releasing it's EMISSIVE Quantum Dot screens, making OLEDs instantly obsolete...

WDZTony's picture

You should provide pricing for each manufacturer. Based on my research LOEWE might provide the best picture processing available. Though super-expensive + a limited number of supported apps.

aopu.mohsin's picture

Did we miss Vizio? =)

Nonetheless, great article. It was like a mini history of OLED Television brands - can easily be an entry in Wikipedia itself. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks Tom Norton.