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Vizio's very wide CinemaWide 21:9 TV is a revelation for movie buffs

Consumer Reports News: July 30, 2012 09:08 AM

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For the past several years we've seen TVs get bigger, but it's not often that we've seen one get wider. But that's the case with Vizio's new XVT3D580CM CinemaWide-series TV, a $2,500, 58-inch 3D LCD TV that has an aspect ratio of 21:9 rather than the 16:9 dimensions we see on almost all other TVs we review. Based on our initial evaluations, the CinemaWide set represents a credible new viewing option for movie lovers, with a few caveats.

These 21:9 TVs will likely appeal mainly to movie buffs, as they will be able to watch the many Blu-ray movies that are shot in the wider 2.35:1 or 2.39:1 aspect ratios (we'll call them 2.40 movies) without black bars appearing above and below the image ("letter-boxing"). But this also means that regular 16:9 high-def programs, such as those from cable or satellite TV service providers, appear as "pillar-boxed" images, with black bars appearing on either side.

The extra-wide screen feels like an evolutionary development rather than just a gimmick. Viewers who watch a lot of Blu-ray movies in the 2.40 format and hate seeing those annoying black bars will enjoy how effectively this TV makes them disappear (in most cases), offering a true cinematic experience in the home. While we're still evaluating the TV's overall picture quality, our first impression is that it's quite good: Colors look rich and accurate, detail goes to the full limits of high-definition, and black levels are assisted by the set's local-dimming feature.

The new CinemaWide set is an LCD model loaded with features. It includes passive 3D technology, an edge LED backlight, 120Hz technology, and Vizio's VIA Internet platform, which provides access to apps and streaming movies and TV shows from Amazon, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Vudu, plus the Pandora and Rhapsody music services. The set, an attractively styled model with a slim silver bezel, comes with four sets of polarized 3D glasses.

The TV also has another interesting feature: It can multi-task, presenting a full-resolution 16:9 image on the screen while also displaying apps in a narrower window. For example, you could watch a high-def TV show while updating your Facebook page or using Twitter. A button on the remote lets you move the image to one side, or have the apps—or the menu—appear as an overlay. You can't use this feature, however, while you're streaming video from a service such as Netflix or Vudu.

In our tests with 2.40 Blu-ray movies, we could see the Vizio set's "Auto Aspect Ratio" corrector kick into gear, expanding the image to fill the screen. But 16:9 content was pillar-boxed to avoid the images being cut off at the top and bottom. With all the widescreen movies we tested—Pirates of the Caribbean, Iron Man, and 2001 A Space Odyssey—the set's wider screen enhanced the viewing experience, providing a more immersive involvement with the film. Watching 3D content on the wider screen had a similar overall effect. (We judged the set's 3D performance, which showed little ghosting, to be fine, consistent with other systems that use passive glasses.)

On the down side, older movies like Casablanca, shot in the squarish 1.37:1 format, are presented with even wider black bars on the side than you'd see on regular 16:9 TVs. It's interesting to note that when playing Blu-ray movies in the wider formats, output is limited to 1080p resolution, or 1920x1080 pixels. The TV then has to interpolate the extra information needed to fill the CinemaWide set's wider 2560x1080 screen.

There were a few quirks, however. For one, the TV's auto-aspect control was inconsistent. When we played the recently remastered Blu-ray versions of Ben Hur and The Robe, the widescreen images weren't recognized, so the image appeared with the black bars, and there was no menu option to remedy it. The TV provides two zoom controls—for stretching 16x9 and 4x3 content, respectively, to fill the screen—but they can distort or crop the image, and aren't equipped to handle letter-boxed widescreen content. The lack of image-sizing options is particularly notable given the wide display's unique scaling needs.

Also, the TV's wider aspect ratio causes it to handle movies that include a mix of different aspect ratios, such as The Dark Knight, in a manner different from regular HDTVs. The Batman movie, for example, includes several IMAX sequences, which expand from letter-box to full-screen on regular HDTV sets. On the Vizio set, the opposite happens: the IMAX scenes actually pull back from full widescreen to 16:9 images with bars. Movies from both the Netflix and Vudu streaming services were handled inconsistently as well. Most movies we played automatically expanded to fill the screen, just like we saw on Blu-ray, but trailers presented in various forms of letter-boxing sometimes did not.

We were also disappointed that higher-resolution digital photos shot in the super-wide Panoramic format did not fill the screen. Not only were the images not recognized as widescreen, they were downscaled to 1920x1080 resolution. We tried to manually change the photos' aspect ratio to fill the screen, but were left only with geometrically distorted images.

Apart from the inconsistencies we saw with aspect ratios, the biggest drawback for most viewers will likely be that they've now traded the black bars they get with widescreen Blu-ray movies for black bars on almost all other HD content, including TV shows and movies from cable or satellite. Also, because of the TV's dimensions, its image size with regular 16:9 programming is equivalent to that of a 46-inch 16:9 TV—a size smaller than many of us movie fans already own.

Bottom line: For those of us who love to watch movies in all their widescreen glory, the Vizio XVT3D5803CM is something of a revelation, truly framing widescreen movies in the way they were intended. And at $2,500, with free shipping, it's not outrageously expensive. But our initial impression is that this set will mainly main appeal to fellow cineastes who watch a lot of Blu-ray movies, and who want to recreate a widescreen experience that more closer mirrors what they get in theaters (or with more expensive front projectors with anamorphic lenses and 21:9 screens). If you have the budget and can live with the noted flaws, Vizio's CinemaWide is an interesting new development for home movie viewing, and one that will in all likelihood make your living room, den, or home theater markedly different from your neighbors'.

Pros:

  • Impressive, widescreen images with no letterboxing

  • Immersive, effective 3D on widescreen movies

  • Overall picture quality consistent with higher-performing HDTVs

Cons:
  • Limited manual aspect ratio controls

  • Inconsistent auto-aspect controls with some widescreen content

  • Aspect ratio adjustments can crop or geometrically distort images to fill the screen

  • TV can't take full advantage of display's higher resolution with digital photos

—Claudio Ciacci and James K. Willcox

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