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Last week, we firmly established that OLED is kind of a big deal. Well, LG's 55EA9800 ($9,999) is in our laboratory ready to run the same gauntlet and make the year's LCD and plasma TVs look old and busted. I got my first glimpse of this next-gen giant during the dog days of summer, and found that its bark definitely matched its bite.
"Your first kiss. A baby's first steps (bear with me for a minute)... Some things in life defy all explanation... Such is the case with the new LG CURVED OLED TV." That's what LG's website says about the EA9800, and—hyperbole and über-cheese aside—it's sort of on the mark: OLED is the most exciting advancement in TV technology since flat-paneled LCDs first supplanted round, boxy CRTs.
From a highly detailed standpoint, LG's curved OLED has a bit of trouble staying inside the lines with traditional color production: It wants to do more whether you want it to or not! This is a very small complaint against one of the best TVs ever, but it did spell out second place for the EA9800 at the end of the day. At $10,000, the 55EA9800 is far-and-away an early adopter item. Even so, OLED is coming, it's here, and it's changing everything.
There's a marketing term that's lurked around spec sheets since the golden age of computer monitors: Infinite contrast. LG has the grace to put it in quotation marks on the EA9800's spec sheet; ironically, though, this is perhaps one of the only times where it's actually a true statement. OLED TVs use pixels that create their own light, meaning that when they display black, they turn off completely—something absolutely unheard of from any LCDs in the past. Plasma TVs traditionally come close, but must still emit a very small electrical current when producing black—resulting in dithering or "popcorn" when observed acutely.
What does this mean for picture quality? Everything. Light production is the name of the game for all displays, and being able to contrast light with a true lack of light means authentic infinite contrast.
Practically speaking, the 55EA9800 is only a forerunner of OLED TV technology, yet its contrast ratio can't really be improved upon: If real life had a "contrast ratio," this is about as close as TVs are going to get.
This kind of "true" black level makes every other on-screen element stand out. You see more brilliance from the brightest whites and colors, yes, but also from the subtler picture details that set 1080p apart from 480p; that set 35mm film apart from General Hospital. The difference between disparate resolutions becomes heavily pronounced by this TV's screen, and every small wrinkle of clothing, near-black shadow, and faint glimmer of color becomes easier to see, easier to appreciate.
Unfortunately, while the 55EA9800 is capable of saturating colors further than traditional TVs, it struggled at first to match international standards—something we found out first hand while calibrating it in the lab. The EA9800 seems to prefer its wider, more-saturated color space to the traditional one—and you might too.
As for the additional color: Some poorly engineered TVs continue to saturate—add color—to red, green, and blue until the top quarter of detail is glossed over, resulting in a hyper-bright, stomach-churning picture. Yet OLED cells not only turn on and off individually, they also produce color individually. While LG's 55EA9800 uses a different sub-pixel array than Samsung's 55KNS9C, the color results from both OLED TVs are equally stellar: More highly-saturated colors without loss of detail.
While it doesn't increase color production to quite the same degree as Samsung's S9C, the 55EA9800 still adds about 20% more color when displaying content using its wider color gamut. In real terms, this means more color in all areas of the picture—color that's more like what we see in real life. This is another area that display manufacturers have focused on since the first color broadcast in 1954, and OLED is closer than ever to matching the scope of human vision. The overall result of such tremendous color and contrast performance is an amazing picture—which it should be for $10,000.
For anyone on the UHD (ultra high definition) bandwagon, I can only attempt to argue the immediate advantage of a 1080p (regular HD) OLED TV like the EA9800. Right now, users have very limited access to UHD content, which means they can't make full use of UHD TVs; OLED displays, on the other hand—towering price tags aside—can deliver maximum performance as soon as you unwrap them.
Considering that sub-UHD resolutions comprise virtually all of the content most people consume, it's easy to conclude that OLED is a much bigger here-and-now improvement than UHD, and serves consumers better at standardized resolutions.
Sports fans and action movie buffs will be glad to know the EA9800 retains detail during motion-heavy content quite well: While not necessarily beyond the best plasma displays, it's certainly as good or better than the year's LED/LCD line-up. In fact, the EA9800 processes motion just marginally better than Samsung's KN55S9C OLED TV—the only other choice interested buyers have right now.
LG's TruMotion mode is still in force here, offering variable de-blur and de-judder modes to smooth out video- and film-based content, respectively. The 55EA9800's 120Hz panel preserves clarity in motion pretty well without assistance, but occasionally, camera panning will have you desperate to smooth things out via LG's processor.
OLED rises in fame daily due to its breathtaking picture quality, but both LG and Samsung have people talking it up for other reasons too: Like a Redguard's sword, these TVs are curved. Flexible OLED tech is nothing new, but curved TVs make an obvious splash—they take the "flat" right out of "flat panel."
Curve or no curve, the 55EA9800 is very thin. So bleepin' thin. To give you an idea, it's about the width of four stacked credit cards at its edge. It fattens a bit toward the base—the chipset has to go somewhere—but you seriously will not believe how thin this TV is. What's more, unlike almost every television out there, the 55EA9800 is a single, whole product: There's no assembly required.
The screen describes the same gentle curve as its ghost-like, clear pedestal, which houses eight stacked speakers. The pedestal and panel are fused, which gives the EA9800 a sturdy footprint.
The reason for the stand's transparency seems obvious: In a dark or dimly-lit room, it's meant to disappear entirely, leaving nothing but the screen floating in "picturesque" beauty. Unfortunately, what looks great in the dark doesn't always stand up to the harsh light of morning. By that, we mean the clear stand, with its hyper-visible speakers (which are labeled Clear Speaker in retro 50s font) may not look good anywhere but the most modern room. The TV manages a terrific minimalism in the right environment, but most of my co-workers found the EA9800 to be rather unsightly when we set it up in our break room to watch.
As for the visual effect of the curve? We don't see many objectively-measurable improvements to viewing. OLED pixels are very bright, and are fused right to the front of the screen, meaning they scatter and direct their light in multiple directions. According to display expert Dr. Ray Soneira, "Because OLED is emissive rather than a gating light valve (LCD), it offers virtually no decrease in off-angle viewing that serves the curved screen format well."
The screen's subtle curve helps to "fill" the panel with emissive, circularly-scattered light which all but eliminates reflectivity and glare issues—but we can't imagine a flat OLED screen would fare much worse, either. As for making viewing more immersive, in my opinion, that's a completely psychosomatic effect that may or may not impact you.
However, as Dr. Ray reported, the curving OLED pixels do make for terrific off-angle viewing: You can sit almost anywhere (except behind it, goofball) and the on-screen image is preserved perfectly. The mild inward curve means the illusion of head-on viewing at certain off-angles, albeit you do have to sit in something of a sweet spot for this to happen. While this sounds like the perfect formula for a wall-mounted TV, it's actually not possible—again, because of the curve.
LG plans to make home theaters happy by loading the 55EA9800 with an ample spread of connectivity options. Along the 55EA9800's side are four HDMI inputs—including specificities for ARC (Audio Return Channel) and MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link)—and three USB inputs. You'll also find component and composite in, RF (coax) in, digital and headphone audio out, and RS-232 to the rear.
With its crazy, curvy screen and irrefutably next-generation OLED panel, the 55EA9800 may seem like the TV of tomorrow, today. Fortunately—or not, depending on how picky you are—some parts of it are very familiar. Namely, LG's 2013 smart features and passive 3D have been loaded over from the company's flagship models. Phew, finally something a little bit traditional!
By traditional, I obviously mean the most high-end kind of TV filigree on the market right now: a web browser, apps, streaming content, passive 3D (including four free pairs of glasses), voice control, media sharing via DLNA or NFC, and LG's signature Magic Remote.
While each of these perks differ in overall usefulness and quality individually, the whole package is one that complements the already super-premium nature of the TV—or at least doesn't detract from it in any way.
As much as you may like—or dislike—LG's 2013 smart TVs and all the extraneous features that accompany them, the smart platform remains essentially the same for the 55EA9800, which is to be expected. For a much more in-depth breakdown of LG's smart platform, click here.
Another song that remains the same? The EA9800's picture and audio settings, which are carried right over from LG's other high-end TVs. Save for the OLED Light picture option, the EA9800's other settings are quite familiar: Contrast, Brightness, Color, Tint, as well as calibration controls for gamma, white balance, CMS (Color Management System), and color gamut selection. The wide degree of control over the nitty gritty details of the EA9800's picture means that, regardless of its out-of-the-box settings, it can be tweaked to match international ideals. Read: picture perfect.
The bottom line for LG's 55EA9800 curved OLED is that it puts all non-OLED competition to shame. Plasma technology was the reigning champion of picture quality for quite some time... but that time is at an end. Short of motion performance, OLED TVs like this one are beyond anything you've seen before—truly a revolution in display technology.
What's the catch? A $10,000 price tag. The EA9800 is one of only two OLED TVs on the market right now, as manufacturing as a whole is still playing catch-up, and proper production yield is still balancing in terms of profitability. For most of us, that price is just way out of range; if you can afford it, it really comes down to brand loyalty between the two available models from Samsung and LG.
Price-wall aside, the LG 55EA9800 is objectively one of the best TVs we've ever seen and tested, and gives TV lovers everywhere a glimpse into a future full of awe-inspiring images. It may not actually compare to your first kiss or a baby's first steps, but it's nonetheless a revolutionary step towards a new class of display.
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