The 12th annual Value Electronics’ Flat Panel TV Shootout is a wrap and Robert Zohn and his staff definitively delivered another stellar event. It’s truly a rare occasion to have the world’s best consumer televisions gathered side-by-side, harnessed with bleeding edge technologies, coaxed and calibrated by recognized experts, and challenged with revealing video material. The result is a heavyweight battle of visual dominance in a setting that doesn’t allow losers to hide deficiencies behind torch modes and other forms of in-store marketing trickery.
The State of 4K TVs
Audio and video enthusiasts have weathered several years of rapidly changing technology fronts shrouded by lots of noise. The audio side of the equation seems to have found solid footing now that Atmos, Auro-3D, and DTS-X (in addition to a new HDMI specification) are relative knowns and hardware requirements have stabilized. The video side has been equally slippery with the uneven roll-out of 4K, HDMI 2.0a, High Dynamic Range (HDR), and Wide Color Gamut (WCG). We’ve literally seen several years of tech cycles pass with audio and video equipment hitting the streets in various stages of incompleteness; issuing a “must buy” recommendation has been nearly impossible. That’s changing, though, and this is the first year that buying a 4K UHD television (model dependent, of course) isn’t such a bad idea. The difficulty with 4K is separating hype from reality.
The industry marketing machine tells us that 4K means four-times the resolution of high definition (HD) and, thus, a better picture. Is this a truth? The answer is more of a "no" than a "yes."
ISF's Joel Silver moderated the morning session of Day 2 of the Shootout.
Technically speaking, 4K televisions do possess four-times the resolution of HD, however a viewer needs to sit unnaturally close to a screen to see that difference. When sitting at a normal seating distance (1.5 x screen height) it becomes nearly impossible to see a noticeable benefit. As Shootout moderator (and renowned video expert) Joel Silver points-out, the “4K looks better” marketing spin is one of many fallacies the industry has fed television consumers over the years. Other examples include: the revolutionary greatness of 3D, the sure-shot popularity of curved screens, and the stunning picture quality generated by streaming 4K. The truths are that 3D is a dud (and now practically dead), curved screens have seriously limited applications, and streamed 4K video is heavily stripped and compressed to fit through a home’s limited data pipeline (consider this: 1 hour of 4K video requires nearly 11 terabytes of data…try streaming that to your television).
My intention is not to dump on 4K. All of those extra pixels are undeniably attractive and the revealed improvement in image resolution during near-field viewing is impressive. That being said, the real-world difference maker in the 4K world isn't added pixels, it's High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Wide Color Gamut (WCG).
Hype, you ask?
Nope. This is for real… trust me.
Real Change is Here
Robert Zohn included a 60-inch Pioneer Kuro plasma TV in the Shootout lineup. Six years ago, this Kuro set was widely considered to be the industry's gold reference standard and a true world-beater. Looking rather proud and modestly dated, the Kuro sat perched next to LG’s Signature G6 OLED TV. It did a relatively good job of holding its own when participating televisions were fed 1080p material, but when they were fed 4K HDR featuring elements of the P3 color space… well… let’s just say the difference in picture quality was undeniably striking. The once heralded Kuro looked washed-out, pale, and just plain old.
True HDR and WCG introduce an entirely new level of image performance, allowing for absolutely stunningly levels of color gradations and saturation. The visible difference in flesh tones, alone, is worth the price of admission.
Joel Silver is quick to point out that the perceived HDR format war (HDR 10 vs Dolby Vision) isn’t that big of a deal; we are quickly approaching a scenario where televisions will instantly interpret incoming video material and adjust performance parameters on the fly (much like an AVR adjusts for incoming audio signals). Nearly all of the Shootout contestants (LG’s 65-inch Signature Series G6, $7,999; Sony’s 75-inch XBR75X940D, $5,999; Samsung’s 78-inch UN78KS9800, $9,999; Vizio’s 65-inch Reference Series RS65-B2, $6,999) ship with Dolby Vision and HDR 10 onboard, and Vizio says they are releasing an HDR-10 firmware update soon. Silver (and co-presenter Lee Niekirk), however, do stress that not all televisions claiming to have HDR and WCG functionality will have game-changing performance impact on the eyes; televisions in the shootout are able to perform at amazingly impactful levels whereas cheaper televisions carrying an HDR/WCG label may fail at those tasks miserably. Consistent industry-wide labeling standards are needed so that consumers can identify true HDR/WCG performance (this is certainly something to keep in mind if you’re shopping for a television now).
Left to Right: Pioneer Kuro, LG G6, Samsung UN78KS9800, Sony XBR75X940D.
All of the televisions in the Shootout seemed polished and ready for prime time despite a few hiccups here and there. Most notably, several of the sets automatically engaged frame interpolation (i.e., motion smoothing) when switching HDR modes. Lead calibrator David Mackenzie expressed some frustrations about this bug, but believes that future firmware updates will likely take care of this issue. Vizio's current lack of HDR-10 compatibility was also glaring, as was it's obvious red-push post calibration. Interestingly, Mackenzie told me that Samsung and Sony's entrants had the best Cinema Mode picture performance out of the box; LG's set was slightly red deficient (which, he said, might self-correct itself after several months of use).
Nearly 80 voters judged the televisions across nine performance categories and the winner was LG’s stellar G6 set. Truth be told, LG was the winner and it wasn’t even close; we're talking LeBron James dunking on a 10-year old type of territory. The G6 delivers the single best television image quality my eyes have ever seen, making it (and other members of LG’s 2016 model class which share the G6’s display) a recommended buy. Last year’s LG set won the 2015 Flat Panel Shootout despite glaring issues visible during dark scene reproduction. This year's set performed flawlessly and established the G6 as television's new gold-standard.
Tim Alessi (Director of New Product Development, LG) detailed improvements made to this year’s crop of LG TVs. They include:
- Anti-reflective Screen Coating for improved viewing angles and black levels
- Bit Depth Enhancement for smooth transitions between light and dark colors
- A reformatted OLED layer able to reproduce 99-percent of P3 color
- OLED laminated on glass
- A longer display lifespan (now rated to be 100,000 hours to half life)
- HDR functionality
That’s quite a list of improvements and LG’s scintillating performance proved that the company’s moves are paying off.
Full scoring results.
It’s important to note that all of the televisions are solid performers. Sony’s entry came in second place and proved to be worthy competition across the board. In fact, voters felt that the XBR75X940D out performed the G6 in daytime viewing conditions. While I might take issue with that assessment, it’s impossible to deny that Sony has a fantastic television on its hands at an incredibly competitive price. I was particularly impressed with the TV’s shadow detail capabilities. Both the Samsung and Vizio entries looked nice, but had performance warts keeping them from excelling at any one task. The Samsung suffered from viewing angle deficiencies and light bleed during local dimming tests, while the Vizio’s issues with red-push were distracting.
We’ve certainly entered a new era of television tech and the future is bright. If you’ve been waiting for notable change in picture performance capabilities and have the cash, now is the time to consider ditching your old 1080p reference television and upgrading to new levels of performance. And if you're looking to invest in a television that will deliver true game-changing performance, LG's G6 is the obvious choice.
Image Credits: Todd Anderson, Home Theater Shack