The Vizio M552i-B2 has superior picture quality thanks to a display technology not found on comparably priced LED LCD sets: full array local dimming.

Numerous professional reviewers and fans agree the best sub-$1,000 LED LCD is one of three Vizios – the 60-inch M602i-B2, the 55-inch M552i-B2 or the 60-inch E600i-B3. All are LED LCD smart TVs filled with an array of apps including Netflix, and built-in Wi-Fi – and no 3D.Store ads and circulars scream about deeply discounted TVs. With so many seemingly cheap choices, which is the truly the best TV you can buy for under $1,000?

For Black Friday, Vizio has slashed the price of the M602i-B3 from $1,200 to just under $1,000, making it, at least temporarily, the best buy of the three and, therefore, all LED LCD HDTVs. With a recent price slash, the M552i-B2 now carries the same manufacturer’s price, $800, as the E600i-B3. With some studious shopping, the M552i-B2 can be found for around $100 less, the larger E600i-B3 for around a $150 discount.

We considered a couple of other sub-$1,000 LED LCDs that gave the two Vizios a run for their pixels – theSony KDL-50W800B, recently discounted from $1,200 to $1,000, and the Panasonic TC-60AS530U, slashed from $1,300 to $800. But there is only one other sub-$1,000 set you really should consider: the plasma Samsung PN51F8500, which CNET dubbed “Samsung’s best-performing TV ever.” This plasma model is astoundingly discounted by a handful of retailers including Best Buy from $2,700 to $1,800 to now just under $1,000.

So why isn’t this Samsung our top sub-$1,000 choice? The company is exiting the plasma business this year, and it’s unclear just how endangered the species is. As supplies dwindle, prices on these remaining Samsung plasmas will likely rise as they did when the supply of the last Panasonic plasma HDTVs dissipated. But if a 51-inch TV is big enough, the Samsung PN51F8500 plasma, even if priced a bit more than $1,000, is well worth the purchase.

But if you can’t find this 51-inch Samsung plasma at the right price, the 55- or 60-inch Vizio LED LCDs are easily the best of the budget rest.

Bigger or Better?

Vizio’s M-series displays are of slightly higher technical quality and, therefore, give a slightly better picture – just how we’ll get into in a moment – than the E-series models, and all other sub-$1,000 sets.

While Vizio’s more entry-level E-series models lags only slightly behind the M-series in overall picture quality you do get a lot more screen for a little less money.

But the M552i-B2 includes something almost unique in the TV business: a remote control with a built-in Bluetooth QWERTY keyboard. This convenient and time-saving boon to Netflix and on-screen guide searching might be well worth the loss of 5-inches of screen real estate and a couple of extra bucks.

M also has a slightly more powerful twin-speaker stereo sound system – 30 watts vs. 20 watts, 4 HDMI inputs vs. 3 on the E, while the E draws a lot less power (86.3 watts vs. 141.6 watts). Each includes single component video, composite video, tuner, Ethernet and USB jacks.

So what makes the Vizio M and E sets superior to all other sub-$1,000 HDTVs – and even many pricier LED LCD HDTVs?

Four words: full array local dimming, which we’ll subsequently refer to as FALD.

The FALD difference

Buying a great TV for less than $1,000 used to be easy – just find a 50-inch Panasonic plasma. But lamentably, Panasonic is out of the plasma business, Samsung will soon follow, then likely LG, the last plasma producer.

Until OLEDs become price practical – which won’t be for years – your choice for a big screen HDTV are limited to LED LCD models, such as the Vizio M and E models under discussion here.

Why does it sound as if I’m hatin’ on LED LCD? Because LED LCD will never match the black levels plasma produced and OLED promises. Deep blacks are the key to bright, popping colors and high contrast levels that reveal sharp details in shadows.

Plasma and OLED produce deeper and more accurate black levels because each pixel is individually illuminated, albeit in different ways. Neither plasma nor OLED use backlighting. LCD TVs, however, require backlighting – think about holding up a photographic slide or negative to a light bulb so you can see it. That’s essentially how LED LCD works.

The problem with LCD is that backlighting indiscriminately illuminates all areas of the screen evenly, even if a scene or part of a scene doesn’t require illumination. Brighter scenes can be bleached out and blacks look gray.

This is where FALD comes into play.

Most LCD TV makers use “edge-lit” backlighting technology – LEDs are arrayed around the edge of an LCD screen and point them in toward the center of the screen. FALD TVs, however, have LEDs evenly spaced behind the LCD panel to create lighting zones – the “full array” part. The light from these LED zones can then be individually adjusted in varying degrees to illuminate, or not, specific parts of the screen as dictated by the scene – the “local dimming” part.

With this ability to precisely control the illumination level in specific areas of the backlighting, the E and especially the M models display more vivid colors, bright scenes aren’t over-lit, there are more discernable details in shadows, and blacks are, well, black. More importantly, instead of the entire screen being illuminated at the same brightness, each part of the scene is lit as intended. All of these FALD refinements result in a superior picture. (Read a more extensive explanation of FALD’s advantages here.)

What makes the M552i-B2 FALD slightly superior to the E600i-B3 is the former’s higher amount of LED backlighting zones – 32 in the M vs. 16 in the E – resulting in more precise scene illumination. Plus, the M552i-B2 has a native refresh rate of 240 Hz vs. 120 Hz in the E600i-B3, which means less motion blur, especially on text scrolls and fast-moving objects.

Beyond the nerdy specs, professional reviewers agree that the Vizio M-Series delivers simply excellent picture quality.

“The Vizio M-Series delivers superb picture quality for the money,” reports perhaps the country’s premier TV reviewer, CNET’s David Katzmaier, who goes on to note that the M552i-B2′s “picture provides deep black levels with little to no blooming, great bright-room performance and plenty of adjustments.”

“Simply put, you can’t find a better combination of features and picture quality at this price than Vizio’s M-series,” agrees Digital Trend’s Ryan Waniata.

“Full-array backlighting [on the Vizio M series] is the star addition that has a direct effect on the overall picture quality,” echoes Robert Wiley, senior editor at LCD-TV Buying Guide. “This bumps the contrast to levels that compete with some of the big name TV manufacturers.”

Though as good as the M-Series is, the E-Series only lags slightly behind, and non-techie owners would be hard-pressed to notice a difference.

“The E and M have very similar picture quality,” Katzmaier notes. “Deep black levels, thanks to well-implemented local dimming and a full-array backlight, are the main highlights for both series. Despite the M’s extra dimming zones it doesn’t achieve a deeper black, although in rare scenes it produces brighter highlights and thus more contrast. Its color is also a tad better, but again the difference is subtle.”

Users Agree

Critics aren’t the only ones who find the M552i-B2 a great buy. Owners give it a solid 4 out of 5 stars on Amazon and 4.6 out of 5 stars on Best Buy.

On Amazon, “Flynne” raves “What a difference from my 5-year-old 42-inch Panasonic plasma. Gorgeous picture, and the TV itself looks really nice. I love the thin bezel. Setup was super easy.”

And Sheila-Andy writes the M552i-B2 is the “best TV we have ever bought. The picture is so real that I feel like I could touch items in the screen. Highly recommend[ed].”

More expressive on the Best Buy Web site, Exwizard of Londonderry, NH, explains the M552i-B2′s “picture is sharp and the colors are fine without being washed out or over saturated.”

HarleyMan rode hard to find that the M552i-B2 was the best buy at Best Buy. “This is an excellent buy for the money and believe me, I did my homework for about a month before buying. The product is solid and has a clear picture.”

Read more: The Best TV Under $1,000

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