For all the technical advancements televisions have made in recent years, the process of buying one remains as hazy as ever. The TV market operates on a cycle that creates a constant push-pull between the newest technology and good value. Then you have to consider the vagaries of TV manufacturers and your own preferences on top of that.
Broadly speaking, however, there are two stretches when you’re most likely to get a decent price on a quality TV. The first is Black Friday. Many TV makers really do discount their best sets just before the holidays to capitalize on demand. The problem is that they usually surround the good TVs with several mediocre ones. Those lesser TVs are sold for dirt cheap so they look appealing, but they can make finding a genuine deal harder if you don’t know exactly which models are worth picking up.
The other smart time to buy is right now, in the early spring period when last year’s models start making way for their successors. “Now is a very good time to get a deal on a 2017 TV because manufacturers and retailers are cleaning out inventory to make room for new models,” said David Katzmaier, a TV reviewer at tech-news site CNET, in an email last week. “Some coveted models may already be sold out, but for models that are still available, prices are generally as good as any other time of the year.”
The life of a television on the market
While TVs can vary wildly in terms of picture quality and feature set, they tend to take the same path on the market. “Most TVs follow a yearly price cycle,” we were told by Cedric Demers, president of Rtings.com, a site that specializes in technical TV reviews. “New models come out in spring with a high price, then drop multiple times to hit their lowest in November. Then they usually go up and down again to Black Friday prices a few times until they are discontinued.”
These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but we’re at the tail end of this process right now, and most of the better TVs launched in 2017 are indeed as cheap—or close to as cheap—as they’ve ever been. TCL’s 43-inch S405 Roku TV, a popular budget model, started out at $350 when it arrived last May but is now available for $299. LG’s 55-inch B7A set, one of the company’s well-reviewed OLED models, launched in the $2,300 range but now sits closer to $1,600.
There’s still risk here. LG’s new C8 series of OLED TVs, for instance, starts at $2,500, which is $1,000 less than the initial price of its predecessor. (An LG representative could not specify an exact price or release date for the slightly lower-end B8 series, the follow-up to the B7A line, when reached for comment.) This suggests it will be cheaper to buy an LG OLED TV this holiday season, when prices take their first big tumble, than it was last year. At the same time, it means another eight months of waiting and hoping for those who want to upgrade their living room right now.
This is the trade-off presented to TV bargain hunters each year. Do you pull the trigger on last year’s still-quality TV at a low price, knowing a new model is around the corner? Do you wait for reviews and feedback on that newer model, knowing last year’s set may go out of stock for good? Do you go for a holiday deal on that newer model, knowing the next follow-up will arrive a few months later?
The fact that each TV only has a one-year lifespan means you’ll always wind up behind in some form. What and when you should buy often comes down to 1) when you urgently need a new television and 2) whether the upgrades the TV manufacturer has made year-over-year are worth waiting for.
Which TVs might and might not be worth the wait
For some manufacturers, that second question looks pertinent this year. For others, not so much.
LG, for instance, is touting a new image processor for the C8 series of OLED TVs and support for up to 120fps video, but Katzmaier said he’d be “surprised” if that resulted in notably superior picture quality over last year’s models. “The [other] major new features addition is Google Assistant [support], which is neat, but hardly a major upgrade for most people,” he added. Katzmaier said most people who want a new LG OLED TV today should be safe to pull the trigger on a still-great 2017 model.
That said, LG will have one feature that should appeal to hardcore display enthusiasts: a new, directly controllable 3D color management system and 3D look-up table. Chris Heinonen, a longtime TV reviewer for The Wirecutter and ReferenceHomeTheater, said that, while the majority of TV owners won’t bother with this since it’ll require expensive hardware and calibration software (CalMAN), it should let videophiles achieve “the most accurate image on a consumer TV we’ve seen to date.”
Heinonen’s deep dive on the topic is worth a look if you’re into this sort of thing, but, in short, the idea is that LG has worked out a way for its new 8-series OLED TVs and SK-series LED TVs to access several times more reference points in calibration. “The simplest way to describe it is that, instead of using brightness and contrast controls to adjust the 1D look-up table, you instead get to access it directly, which is far more accurate and granular, and the controls don’t interact with each other,” Heinonen said. “And the 3D CMS is the same thing for colors.”
Again, this will likely go over the head of most TV buyers, but it’s probably worth waiting for if you obsess over picture quality and plan to pay thousands for it.
Likewise, while LG’s non-OLED TVs weren’t particularly special last year, the company’s top 2018 LED TVs will support full-array local dimming, which should give them much better contrast and HDR performance than before. It’s best to avoid deals on LG’s existing SJ-series TVs, which used less effective edge-lit local dimming, as a result.
Sony, meanwhile, has released a new high-end LED TV series called the X900F, which starts at $1,100for a 49-inch model. This is a follow-up to last year’s X900E line, which was considered one of the best non-OLED sets on the market. Demers said the X900F does look like an upgrade on its predecessor, but not enough to be worth the premium over a currently-discounted X900E set. (Rtings’ review later confirmed as much.) Katzmaier agreed based on early impressions.
Sony’s new OLED sets, the A8F series, don’t appear to be a major picture quality upgrade over last year’s A1 series, nor will they offer Dolby Vision HDR until a later software update. That said, they’ll start at $2,799 for a 55-inch set, which is the current going rate for its predecessor. If you must get a Sony OLED, your best bet today is to buy whatever’s cheapest—but know the A8F’s price may dip lower over time.
TCL’s flagship Roku TV for 2017, the 55-inch P607, was widely praised for offering strong picture quality and a genuinely manageable interface for well under $1,000. The Chinese firm’s follow-up, the 6-Series, will be available in May. While the company hasn’t disclosed exact pricing yet, it has said the new models will start around the same price as last year’s set, which cost $650.
On paper, the 6-Series seems to offer substantial-enough upgrades to be worth waiting for: it’ll have a 65-inch option, for one, as well as higher peak brightness and an expanded number of full-array local dimming zones, which should result in better contrast and HDR performance. Last year’s P6 set is still a quality TV, but it’s only dropped down to $599 as of this writing. If that sinks further, it might be worth buying, but most consumers should try to hold out for a few more weeks.
Those interested in a more affordable Roku TV may be OK buying one of TCL’s lower-end S series 4K TVs from last year; a 43-inch model now starts at $300, which is a $50 discount. TCL has declined to specify the price or release date for that line’s follow-up, the 5-Series, but it’s not expected to cost much more than last year’s model. The big upgrades here are Dolby Vision support (the S series only supported HDR10) and the usual promises of better color and contrast. There’s still no local dimming, so it won’t be on the 6-Series’ (or P607’s) level. But barring a more significant price cut for last year’s model, you probably won’t lose much waiting to see how much an improvement the 5-Series is.
If you’re looking at a high-end Samsung TV, it’s worth skipping last year’s models. The company’s new Q9F and Q8F sets are very expensive, but they now utilize full-array local dimming. Whether that’ll make their “QLED” displays preferable to LG or Sony’s OLED sets is another story, though. Samsung says it will start shipping the new QLED sets on the second week of April.
Samsung’s new flagship LED TVs, the NU8000 series, are out now. They look to have better brightness, 120Hz refresh-rate support (save for the entry-level 49-inch model), and more vivid colors than last year’s MU8000 series. But based on early reviews, those improvements don’t appear to be super significant unless you plan on gaming or using HDR frequently. The new series starts at $1,000 for a 49-inch set, while a 55-inch MU8000 set is currently going for $700. If you want a Samsung TV, this seems like a good opportunity to pounce on a deal for an outgoing model.