Just when you thought your HDTV would keep you state-of-the-art for the foreseeable future, at least, along comes Ultra HD, a whole new ballgame that ups the pixel count to a whole new level.
Also referred to as 4K, Ultra HD TV takes today's 1080p picture - which uses a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels to give us breathtaking pictures the like of which we could only dream just a few years ago - and doubles it to 3840 x 2160. And you thought your 1080p TV showed fine detail!
So it's back onto that merry-go-round, traipsing into the store to upgrade your TV. Well, that's for early adopters, those better-heeled consumers of the leading edge who pony up the profits to pay for the research and development that helps lead to lower prices for those who follow them into the market down the road. Those early adopters, as well as anyone who hasn't yet moved to 1080p, are undoubtedly the prime market for 4K right now. And so they should be.
Why? I have just experienced 4K and it is terrific. Okay, it was either demonstration material or Blu-ray and DVD content up converted, so I must toss in the caveat that I haven't watched any native 4K content I'm familiar with, like a favorite movie. That said, it made enough of an impression on me that I begged LG to let me do a long term test (i.e. "keep") of their sample model number 55LA9650 to use as a reference unit. It's that good.
Alas, it was not to be.
Despite my "no familiar 4K content" caveat, the up converted material I auditioned was top notch. I used OPPO Digital's BDP-103D network 3D Blu-ray player, Darbee edition, which performed its digital magic on some of my best 1080p and spat them out in a "fudged" 4K that looked spectacular. In fact, while I wasn't really a believer in 4K before, thanks to the unsatisfactory demos I'd seen, this LG hooked me and reeled me in. The picture is not only incredibly detailed, but rich in color and contrast and, well you name the spec and it's great, a true treat for the eyes.
Of course it isn't perfect by any means, but any quibbles I had were more with things other than the picture quality. Most of my angst came from a remote control and an interface that are really annoying and the fact that I had to periodically unplug and replug the HDMI cable that was bringing in my wireless HDTV signals from the Actiontec transmitter in the basement (neither complaint of which applies to my own - much older - LG plasma). The rebooting of the HDMI was quick and easy, thanks to LG's convenient mounting the HDMI inputs, and it worked every time. But I shouldn't have had to do it.
None of this would be a deal breaker for me, but the remote and interface come pretty close. Unfortunately, the only way I can think to improve it (because of the abundance of stuff you control with it) would be to release an app for smart phones and tablets and bypass the remote altogether.
The TV itself, a 55 incher, is a very thin and handsome unit, with a nicely slim bezel that maximizes the apparent screen size, and an easy-to-mount "stand" that's basically a couple of feet that screw into place easily. Oh yeah, it also comes with a passive 3D feature that is also spectacular, and it came with six sets of glasses - a really nice touch. I have trouble seeing 3D properly, in that I generally don't see things extending toward me but rather see the screen as a window onto a 3D world behind it. 'Twas the same with this LG, though there were some times when I saw something break that glass barrier - for example, the shot where the Polar Express's cowcatcher stops just shy of your nose. But even with the flawed way I see, the LG's 3D looked fantastic! I've been a 3D denier for years - it's neat but hardly a reason to buy a TV - but I found myself actually seeking out my 3D content when playing with this TV, and not just to test. I may not be a convert, but I'm starting to waver: 3D done well is fantastic! Nice of the LG to show me that.
As for the overall picture quality after living with the TV for a couple of weeks, watching it perform in both 1080p and 4K UHD, as mentioned earlier: Wow! To ensure it was as perfect as possible, I shut off or minimized all the nannies - noise reduction, frame rate doubling, etc. - so the picture would be as pure and unadulterated as it could be. TV makers put on all this stuff to supposedly make the picture better, but in my experience you're served better by having the signal come into and through the TV as cleanly as possible. Do that with this LG and you'll be glad you did.
We also tried a couple of discs with the "TruMotion" (the frame rate up conversion) on and, as it does usually, it gave a funny "soap opera-like" look to things. This is the nature of the beast and I wish TV makers would stop putting it in. We shut it off and life, as the company is wont to say, was good.
The LG does a good job of up converting content to "near 4K" quality and there are seven viewing modes (Vivid, Standard, Movie, Game, Eco, Expert 1, Expert2); the Movie setting was nearly bang on right out of the box and I only had to tweak it mildly. If I weren't such a video snob I could've left it alone (not including the nannies) and been very happy with the picture.
LG claims a 178 degree viewing angle, which is great, though in practice you're better off trying to stay reasonably in front of the panel. If you can't, however, this TV should serve you well.
The remote I've been dumping on looks kind of like a Star Trek phaser, with only a few buttons on it. Called the "Magic Remote," LG says it's "a simple and fun way to pick and choose what you want to watch." I disagree.
The problem is that there's just so much stuff to navigate on the screen, as well as so few buttons on the remote, that it's really annoying. It reminds me of the "Remote Touch" system Lexus offers with some of its cars, a mouse-like thing that sounds like a good idea but which in practice is too finicky. You operate this remote like a mouse, too, pointing it at the TV and moving the cursor around the smart TV's screen, choosing from what seems like billions and billions of icons and apps - everything from choosing settings and inputs to such standard Smart TV stuff as Hulu, Amazon Video, Netflix and other services, including premium pay-to-view services such as 3D World streaming 3D content. You also get a full web browser and of course Wi-Fi is built in so you can also get at your media files stored on your home network.
It all works fine, and there's certainly a lot from which to choose, but I'd bet many people will find the whole interface confusing and intimidating. I also found all the icons that lead to places I have to pay for annoying. These aren't really LG things, however; they're more "Smart TV" things. The company says you can also operate other devices via the Magic Remote, but I'd rather be torn apart by wild dogs; besides, I like having a pile of remotes handy.
LG augments the phaser, er, remote, with "Voice Mate," which they say is capable of recognizing how you naturally speak to change the channel or volume or to access content. I'm embarrassed to admit I was so taken with playing various videos that I forgot all about this feature and didn't try it. Duh!
Audio is an aspect of televisions I don't dwell on because it's usually pretty unremarkable. So it is here. LG says the 55LA9650 comes with a 2.1 channel audio system (stereo with a subwoofer) that puts out 34 watts, which may be enough to light an incandescent lamp bulb but which won't get the walls rattling when that spaceship flies by. There's a sound optimizer and modes like Standard, Music, Cinema, Sport, Game. I messed with them a bit and they work, but I'll still hook my TV into a real audio system, thank you.
One audio aspect that rubbed me the wrong way is the fact that you can use either the TV's internal speakers or output the sound to an audio system via optical cable - but you can't do both at the same time. So when I wanted to fire up the 5.1 audio system to add some real Big Sound to the Big Picture, I'd have to pick up that remote and fiddle with menus to switch from the TV's internal speakers to the external output. Again, it's hardly a deal breaker, just a silly oversight - especially since the optical output of my own LG plasma is always on, avoiding the problem in the first place.
You get about all the inputs and outputs you could expect, including RF, Component, HDMI (four), USB (three) and AV inputs and outputs including a headphone jack.
Obviously, I loved this 4K TV and can't wait to review the next one (which will supposedly happen soon). I'm not sure 55 inches is a big enough screen to make the 4K difference jump off the screen compared to 1080p, but I've been spoiled by a 106 inch front projector system - and I look forward to tying that size in 4K!
Should you run out in a frenzy and buy this or any other 4K TV? Well, if I were looking for a new TV I'd definitely be going 4K, possibly this one, but I've traditionally been one of the early adopters anyway. On the other hand, at a MRSP of only $2999 Canadian - expensive compared to "comparable" 1080p sets but surprisingly cheap for new technology - I can see 4K quickly becoming the format of choice for those in the market for a new HDTV anyway.
The rest of the public may and probably should look upon 4K right now as an interesting development and - if it catches on enough to keep going - they should definitely look in that direction when the time comes to replace their existing TV's.
Sure, there's an absolute dearth of 4K content right now but this will change as/if the format catches on. Even if it doesn't, you can be consoled by the fact that the quality of 4K up conversion is very, very good - and you don't have to replace your library yet again!
Damn. I hadn't realized I need a new TV!
Copyright 2014 Jim Bray