Why It Doesn't Always Pay to Buy a Cheap TV

James K. Willcox

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Everybody loves a bargain, but a cheaper TV doesn’t always turn out to be a better deal.

That’s what we found in our analysis of more than three years of Consumer Reports’ TV ratings. Our crack team of statisticians looked at prices and CR test results from January 2017 through January 2020 for a number of leading TV brands sold in the U.S. The results are shown in the charts below; they are broken out by screen size, which is the first factor consumers usually consider when shopping for a television.

As you can see, TVs from Samsung, LG, and Sony earned top scores in our testing across just about every size range. And generally, sets from these companies cost more than their competitors’ TVs.

Prices and average brand scores tend to drop off in step with each other, according to our analysis. Some brands, including Element, Hitachi, RCA, and Westinghouse, trailed the others in both quality and price in some size categories.

The takeaway: While it’s tempting to buy a much cheaper TV from a smaller brand, especially during big sales events, you could be accepting a trade-off in quality. You might not have to pay much more to get a better television. 

This information should be useful if you choose a TV largely based on brand. However, it’s smart to use this analysis as just one factor when you’re shopping. The charts below are average prices and scores. Performance can vary by series and even by model within a single brand.

Also, companies evolve over time. Our testing shows that some models from newer brands, such as Hisense and TCL, have been improving in quality recently. But typically we see that better performance only in the upper-tier models from these brands.

On the flip side, a number of once-popular TV brands, such as Panasonic, no longer sell TVs in the U.S. And several familiar brands, including Philips, Sharp, and Toshiba, have either changed ownership or are now controlled by other companies here in the U.S. under licensing deals.

Finally, you don’t always need to settle for poor performance just because you’re on a budget. In some size categories, there aren’t big price differences between the highest- and lowest-performing brands.

That’s why it pays to consult our ratings before choosing a new TV.

60-Inch and Larger TVs

Major brands dominate this slice of our TV ratings, which include 60-, 65-, 70-, 75-, and even 80-inch TVs. That list now includes TCL, which has become one of the three top-selling brands in the U.S.

The average price figures we show are a bit higher than the average for all big TVs on the market. That’s because in larger screen sizes, CR tends to purchase a lot of expensive, high-end sets so that we can test the latest features, such as 4K Ultra High Definition performance and high dynamic range (HDR), a feature that can produce brighter, more vibrant images. 

We test these top models from all the brands, but with major brands there is a much greater difference in pricing between the least and most expensive sets they offer. For example, for TCL there’s a $250 difference between the cheapest ($750) and priciest ($1,000) 65-inch TVs in our current ratings. With Samsung, that difference is $2,600. This often skews the average prices higher for the major brands.

You’ll see that Samsung, LG, and Sony top the list in terms of average Overall Score and average price. Given their high average scores, sets from any of these TV brands might be worth considering. You’ll see that, on average, Sony TVs are expensive, in part because the company has stopped making lower-end sets. The takeaway for shoppers is that a premium set from Sony might not be more expensive than a premium set from a competitor—the company just doesn’t compete in lower performance tiers.

TCL is now another brand to consider, especially if you’re on a budget. Just note that its improved performance is mainly due to its newer 6-Series and 8-Series models, which have done very well in our tests—in particular, 6-Series sets offer a lot of bang for the buck. Lower-tier models from TCL haven’t done as well.

55- to 59-Inch TVs

If you’re shopping for a 55- to 59-inch set, you’ll see a particularly wide range of prices. That’s because some TVs this size are relatively bare-bones when it comes to features, while others have all the advanced technologies brands save for premium sets. That includes 4K resolution, effective HDR, and in some cases 120-hertz refresh rates.

Prices go from a low of $277 (for a model from Insignia, Best Buy’s house brand) to a high of $1,381 (Sony). As we note above, Sony focuses on high-performance, high-price sets. And both Sony’s and LG’s average prices are pulled up by their OLED sets—these TVs can look great, but they tend to cost more than LED/LCD models. 

In this size category, TCL again seems to offer a nice balance of price and performance, emerging as a less-pricey alternative to better-performing brands.

Some models from Hisense and Toshiba might be worth considering if you’re on an even tighter budget, because their average prices are about $100 less than TCL’s, while their average scores aren’t all that much lower. Vizio would also be in this group from a performance standpoint; its higher-priced P-Series sets did very well in our ratings, but they helped to raise Vizio’s average price above these other two brands.

46- to 52-Inch TVs

For those shopping for a TV in this size range, CR’s analysis shows that the Samsung, Sony, and LG tend to have the highest-performing TVs—along with the most expensive ones.

But the price range is narrower in this size category once you get past the top two brands. On average, LG sets are particularly attractive. They are in the top range for performance but are priced much more like lower-tier sets.

Best Buy’s Insignia brand, with the lowest average price, could be an option for those on the tightest TV budgets because its average price is actually lower than the two brands with the lowest average scores, Element and Hitachi.

Note the fairly sizable disparity in average price in this screen size, from $246 (Insignia) to $731 (Sony). That difference—$485—is higher than the average price for all but two brands. That means you’ll have a lot of choices, no matter how much you want to spend.

39- to 43-Inch TVs

There’s also a pretty big spread in both price and performance in this screen size.

While there aren’t a lot of surprises—Sony, Samsung, and LG offer the best performance—we did see a few brands, including Toshiba, TCL, and Vizio, rise above others in the middle of the pack. Sets from some of these brands in this size category actually have better average performance than some brands that cost more.

RCA and Westinghouse had the lowest average scores of the included brands; while they do have a lower average price than most other brands, you don’t have to spend much more to get a better-performing brand. And based on the chart, Insignia, which costs even less, would be a better choice if price was a primary concern.

Remember, though, that the price and performance averages are for entire brands, not specific models. The best way to see how individual TV models perform is to check our ratings, which are based on extensive testing and evaluation.

32-Inch TVs

These days, 32-inch TVs have largely been commoditized; most are either 720p or 1080p regular HD TVs, and there are still some low-priced basic models that lack a smart TV feature.

The one outlier is Samsung, which is selling a 32-inch 4K TV with HDR as part of its higher-priced QLED series. This set, at $500, is appreciably more expensive than most sets this size, and that helped to raise the brand’s average price. It was the top-rated TV this size in our ratings.

As you can see in the chart, LG and Samsung lead the pack for performance among 32-inch TVs. Given LG’s lower average score, it would appear to be the better option, but a look at our TV ratings would show that there are several lower-priced Samsung models that do as well as or better than several LG sets.

Sharp and Insignia might be alternatives for those looking to spend even less. 

Beyond the Scores: Repairs and Reliability

In addition to TV performance, there are a few more things to consider when choosing among brands. One is how easy it is to get the TV repaired in a timely manner. Major brands typically invest in parts and service networks, so you’re more likely to find an authorized repair center nearby.

Reliability problems appear to be less of an issue, based on our surveys, because TVs are among the more reliable products we analyze. But not all brands do as well as others, which is why you should check a brand’s reliability in our TV ratings.

Finally, consider the manufacturer’s warranty, which could be shorter with an off-brand TV. Most of the TVs in our ratings carry one-year parts and labor warranties, but that can vary, so check before you buy.



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