Ultra HD TVs—a new breed of higher-resolution sets that promise even sharper, more detailed images than the best 1080p models can deliver—were all the rage at CES last month, but we've been wondering if they can can live up to all the hype. We recently got a chance to test one of the first models on the market, LG's 84-inch 84LM9600. As you can see in the accompanying video, there was a lot to like about LG's Ultra HD TV.
Because we typically buy all the sets we test, and these TVs are still quite expensive—$20,000 or so—we arranged to rent an 84LM9600 Ultra HD TV for a period of time, enabling us to bring it into our TV labs for an evaluation.
Extra resolution. Given its huge 84-inch screen—the largest flat-panel TV we've ever had in our labs—the 84LM9600 creates a dramatic first impression, even when playing standard 1080p fare. Like other so-called "4K" TVs we've seen, the set's screen resolution is 3840x2160, so it has more than 8 million individual picture elements (pixels), four times as many pixels as a standard 1080p (1920x1080) set.
This extra resolution has two main advantages: The TV can present finer image detail, especially with native 4K content, and you can sit closer to the TV without seeing the pixel structure (called the "screen-door effect"), so you can opt for a larger screen size without altering your seating distance from the TV.
But in many other respects, the 84LM9600 is a really just another full-featured LCD TV, with an LED backlight with local dimming, 240-Hz anti-blur technology, passive 3D, built-in Wi-Fi, and the company's Smart TV platform with access to online content. The TV comes with LG's gesture-based Magic Remote control, which has a built-in mic for some voice controls.
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4K content. For our test, LG supplied a content generator loaded with native 4K content, which was connected to to the TV via an HDMI connection. Unfortunately, there was only a limited amount of native 4K content loaded onto the generator's hard drive, and it was geared more for eye-grabbing public demos than for review purposes, with hyped colors and peaked sharpness. That said, the picture was incredibly detailed, beyond anything we've seen on current 1080p HDTVs.
We also ran 1080p video from a standard Blu-ray player to the TV, which then up-converted that content to the display's native resolution. While not as sharply detailed as the native 4K material, the Blu-ray picture quality was excellent, putting it in the top tier of performance we've seen from any flat-panel TV. Picture detail and color fidelity were excellent, and the high pixel density gave images a smooth look that was free of any visible pixel structure, even when viewed from up close. We also ran movies to the TV using the built-in 4K scaler in Oppo's BDP-103 4K upscaling Blu-ray player, which we felt did a better job than the TV's internal upscaler, producing images with less shimmer on the edges of fine detail.
Given the expected lack of native 4K content for the foreseeable future—neither broadcast nor Blu-ray currently has a road map for Ultra HD support—digital photos may initially be the main source for high-resolution content. We tried displaying an 8-megapixel (3840x2160) JPEG test pattern from a Flash drive connected to the TV via its USB port, but we found that the TV was down-converting the images to about 1080p (2-megapixel) resolution. We've contacted LG to see if this is a bug or an actual limitation of the set.
3D. Like other 3D LCD TVs from LG, the 84LM9500 uses passive 3D technology, where the polarization process cuts the TV's vertical resolution in half. But because of the set's higher resolution, the 84LM9600 can display full 1080p resolution in 3D mode, so the images were free of the course, jagged edges and broken straight lines we've seen on many standard passive 3D sets.
Ghosting levels were minimal, consistent with what we've seen from this type of technology, but still subject to the same vertical viewing angle caveats we've noted in the past. 3D images were comfortably bright with excellent detail, and the huge screen actually made 3D viewing more comfortable with little eye strain, as we were less distracted by the confines of the TV's bezel as we see on smaller screens. In fact, this may be the best overall 3D performance we've experienced.
Performance. Apart from its higher resolution, the TV's performance was consistent with other LCD TVs we've tested. For example, the viewing angle performance of this LG was typical of an IPS-type LCD panel, which typically has a wide, better-than-average viewing angle. But one drawback we've seen—a brightening of the black levels when a viewer is sitting off to the side—was more apparent on the bigger screen.
Also, the TV had some issues with brightness uniformity, so there were some visable cloudy areas, especially on dark scenes that accentuated the display's lack of depth in its black level. The set's local dimming feature did mitigate some of this effect, though it also introduced some side effects of its own, including random illumination of dark areas in certain scenes. Again, this is typically of many LCD TVs with this feature.
Audio. We're happy to report that while the sound quality of many flat-panel TVs can't match the excitement of their pictures, the 84LM69600 uses the TV's larger cabinet to deliver rich, satisfying audio. We found the TV, which houses 10 speakers and two built-in subwoofers, could deliver rich, dynamic sound on movie soundtracks, with much better bass extension than we've heard from more average-sized sets.
Bottom line. Given its large screen and ultra-high resolution, the 84LM9600 is clearly an impressive TV that can deliver excellent picture quality, perhaps the best 3D we've ever experienced, and rich, satisfying sound. It also has all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a flagship model, including access to streaming movies and TV shows from several online services.
Not surprisingly, this set is at its best with native 4K content, where image quality goes beyond standard HD resolution to provide a level of intricate picture detail that exceeds what most have ever seen on a consumer TV. You might think of these new 4K TVs as ultra-large "Retina" displays that have virtually no visible pixel structure, even when viewed close up. The downsides are the high prices and the scarcity of native 4K content, although some companies have talked about delivering 4K programming over broadband connections sometime in the future.
As trained testers, we appreciate differences in picture quality that might go unnoticed by average consumers. While we expect that people will react favorably to the TV's larger screen size, we do wonder whether most TV viewers will appreciate the difference in picture detail, especially at typical viewing distances where most seem generally satisfied with standard HD image quality. And later this year, consumers will be hearing about another new—and pricey—TV technology, OLED TVs, which could cause confusion among prospective customers.
Certainly in the short term, the prohibitively high prices and lack of native 4K content make Ultra HD TVs a niche product with appeal primarily to well-heeled early adopters. We'll have to wait until prices for 4K TVs comes significantly closer to standard 1080p sets to see if extra picture detail and a higher level of 3D performance will entice more average TV customers.
—Chris Andrade, Claudio Ciacci, and Jim Willcox