Yesterday, fellow writer and television enthusiast Virginia Barry and I took a trip to sunny Lincolnshire, IL to get some hands-on time with LG's newest toy: a 55-inch curved OLED TV. Last week, the company announced the new product's presence in the US, and we were lucky enough to be able to fly out and see it. After a bevy of Blu-rays, a plethora of pictures, and a gamut of gamut tests, we have a lot to say.
First of all, though, I feel I should make clear that this is strictly a preview of the TV. We weren't able to run all of our tests, so this TV won't be receiving an overall score. The tests we did run, however, were the important ones. Expect to have a pretty solid idea of this TV's capabilities by the end of the review.
Secondly, I'd like to explain a little about OLED. Almost all modern TVs are divided into two types: LCD and plasma. "What about LED TVs?" Well, all LEDs are LCDs. What makes OLED so unique and interesting is that it's structurally more similar to plasma tech, but still allows the hyper-thin panels and enormous light output that LED TVs are prized for. It's also, as you'll see, capable of being curved.
That said, this terrific tech is going to cost you. At its current MSRP of $15,000, the 55EA9800 is too expensive for most consumers. At this point, it's more an exciting look at the future of TVs than a smart investment. I'd wager CES 2014 will be bubbling with the stuff.
[insert obligatory idiom about curves here]
When it comes to design, the 55EA9800 is kind of like a folk song that's been re-harmonized. You know the lyrics, but something's just different about it. From a distance, it looks a lot like any other 55-inch TV. It's still smart, 3D, 1080p, all that jazz. As you cross the room, however, you start to notice some seriously cutting-edge fashion.
First and foremost, the curve. How is it possible? Well, that's just one of the many cool traits of OLED technology. I'll save the science jargon for another time and simplify: The design of an OLED TV requires less transistor layers than LCD or plasma, and the organic nature of the cells allows the panel to curve. In the case of the 55EA9800, the curve is subtle, but it makes a difference during viewing.
Sitting directly in front of the TV, you don't notice the curvature so much. Its topmost corners peak a little, which creates an optical illusion—the curve helps the screen look bigger than it actually is. From horizontal off-angles, the curve becomes more apparent. The image is preserved almost perfectly as far as 90 degrees off-center. This is a huge plus, as LCDs have always struggled to produce wide viewing angles.
You may also notice: Wow, this thing is so [expletive deleted] thin. This again owes to the nature of OLED, which uses a cell-based light emission. This means no bulbs or LEDs behind the panel, fattening your telly like a Christmas goose. The EA9800 is thus thin and very lightweight, but does not have the same light-bleed issues as equally trim edgelit LED TVs.
Perhaps the most outrageous design characteristic of LG's OLED is the stand, which is a semi-clear, crystal-like material. This means that the TV cannot be wall-mounted, as the stand is fused into the screen's design. Opinions may vary as to its attractiveness, as the milky quality could really suffer in certain living rooms. This clear stand houses 8 speakers with a total 40-watt sound output, which is twice the standard television. The speakers are stacked and clear, however, so they melt like ghosts into the design.
Is the 55EA9800's design definitively good or bad? That's a truly subjective topic, but the advantage of the curved screen and boosted audio are not up for debate. They are awesome, trust us on this one.
A truly futuristic experience
Being on-site with LG, we didn't have access to all of our usual playback methods. We weren't able to view cable, video games, or any sub-1080p content on the 55EA9800. We did watch a few Blu-rays, however, and the effect was striking.
First, we popped in a Blu-ray of 300, which features a lot of middle tone browns and grays, as well as a few very dark scenes, and plenty of motion. While keeping in mind that we haven't run our standard motion tests yet, I can say that this TV's handling of faster scenes and more complex on-screen content is pretty impeccable. Unfortunately, we noticed some grainy banding in certain transitions, but that was likely due to the age of the movie at hand.
Unlike the UHD TVs we've recently reviewed, the 1080p EA9800 does not feature a dedicated upscaling engine or processor. That means that, even with its terrific picture specs, older content is still not going to look mind-blowing. It does, however, still make use of LG's triple XD upscaler, so expect the same content handling you'd find on LG's HDTVs. The TV's expanded color gamut, which will be discussed below, adds to the richness of many scenes. In certain instances, however, it looks unnatural. Playback of Into the Blue cast already-bronzed actors and actresses in a weird, Snooki-esque hue.
The most impressive thing we saw were scenes rich with dark or black content. OLED tech allows pixel cells to be turned off and on individually, like a plasma TV. This means that black is truly black, which really makes things pop. A night scene of a bungalow lit precariously with hanging lanterns dropped my jaw. When the TV displays black, it blends almost perfectly into an unlit viewing environment.
This adds to a feeling of three-dimensional viewing, without using 3D modes or glasses. While watching an IMAX disc about underwater life, one scene showed a school of black-and-white fish feeding along the dusty bottom of the ocean. The massive contrast between the fish's monochrome pattern made them seem to float just in front of the background, rendering an appearance of depth akin to the true black and white you see in real life. It was absolutely incredible.
The only other TVs that we've seen this kind of stunning playback were from our top-rated models: Panasonic's ZT60 and Samsung's F8500, both of which are super high-end plasma displays. Seeing this kind of picture quality off of LG's curved OLED is a swoon-worthy promise of things to come.
More contrast, more color, more real
The two biggest things in TV right now are UHD (Ultra High Defition) and OLED. We've seen a couple of really capable UHD TVs this year, but they lacked full-resolution content to truly impress. The LG 55EA9800 is a 1080p television, meaning there's ample content that maxes out its full capabilities.
The first thing we tested was the EA9800's dynamic range, or contrast ratio. Contrast ratio is determined when dividing a TV's peak brightness by its minimum luminance level, and it's a very telling number as to how immersive a TV will look. Using the industry standard checkerboard pattern, we maxed out the TV's light output and got up close and personal with its curved screen. The result is, for the fourth time this year, the largest contrast ratio we've ever tested: 32,000:1.
The biggest takeaway is that the TV maintains a very impressive black level, even when displaying a screen that is 50% illuminated. This kind of contrast efficacy has traditionally only been possible on plasma televisions. Yet the super-thin, lightweight, healthily bright EA9800 makes it possible. It's a real testament to the power of OLED technology.
Next, we tested its color production. LG's curved OLED is capable of a few different color gamuts. While it can (and does) display the traditional color gamut quite easily, it's also capable of a wider color gamut, about 20% more saturation than TVs have previously claimed. This means colors closer to some of the super-vibrant hues you see in real life. A candy-apple red electric guitar or the light-blocking green of summer leaves can now be shown on screen with more richness than ever before. Holiday specials will never look the same.
While our initial readings revealed that the EA9800 needed a little calibrating to approximate picture perfection, its heightened color production is easily visible and consistently impressive, even without any fancy test equipment. The result during playback meant heavily saturated colors without loss of detail in subtler parts of the picture. This is TV color we've been waiting on for years.
This heightened color and intense contrast are immediately visible and useful when applied to current content, unlike the extra resolution of UHD. It makes OLED all the more attractive, even if it's still priced at a premium. For a look at the EA9800's gamut results, and the actual contrast numbers, navigate over to the science page.
We can't wait until this tech is affordable
There's no doubt about it: OLED technology is very exciting. While LG's EA9800 is still way too expensive for 90% of consumers, the beautiful design and picture we saw yesterday made most other TVs feel dated. LG in particular deserves accolades for being one of the first companies to assemble and show-off a unique, working OLED TV.
Truly spellbinding picture quality is on the way; colors from real life can now be employed to make TV, movies, and video games look absolutely spectacular. Real black levels, side-by-side with luminous light output, add so much realistic depth as to almost render 3D a thing of the past.
Affordable OLED TV at home is now a less-distant horizon, in part due to LG's work with the 55EA9800. If you're one of the few who can afford it, I advise early adoption, as this curved OLED is a fully-functional product of the future. For the rest of us, a glimpse like this sweetens the waiting.
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