LG's IPS panel lends pros and cons: Accurate color production and a good viewing angle are dragged down by poor black levels and sub-par overall contrast. Ultimately, the UB8500 will only ever look its best in a well-lit environment.
4K TVs are ranging in size and growing more affordable all the time. The LG 49UB8500 (MSRP $1699) is a prime example: This 4K LED TV is only a couple hundred dollars more than a comparable non-4K option, and delivers great extras like 3D and LG's new webOS smart platform.
At first glance, the price might grab you, but be warned: This TV will never be king of the home theater. While it dazzles with excellent color and adept motion performance, the black levels are extremely lackluster, making the UB8500 a poor candidate for dark-room movie night.
If you tend to watch TV in sunnier environments, however, you'll thoroughly enjoy the UB8500's rich colors and bright, flashy design—it all depends on your room's lighting conditions. Just know that, unlike many TVs, the UB8500 only operates optimally in a brighter locale. If you're a fan of the vaunted home-theater environment, you might want to check out other options.
We calibrate each TV we test for two reasons. First of all, calibrating a TV to the international HDTV standards set forth by the International Telecommunications Union gives us a comprehensive understanding of where the TV's strengths and weaknesses are. Secondly, the calibration process reveals a television's fullest potential when it comes to adhering to "perfect picture" standards.
Calibrating an LG television is always a long process because the company includes such a wealth of controls within the advanced section of the picture-settings menu. A gamma slider selects from gamma curve pre-sets, while 2- and 20-point white balance (color temperature) controls provide the ability to adjust the balance of sub-pixel emphasis within the grayscale. A full CMS (Color Management System) allows the user to adjust the hue, saturation, and luminance of each primary and secondary color.
This time around, the calibration process revealed that the UB8500 struggles to adhere to ideal home theater calibration standards: Specifically, we choose a peak luminance (100 IRE) output of 40 fL and a gamma curve of 2.4. Approaching these ideals involved lowering the Backlight from 80 to 59 in Cinema mode, setting the gamma selector to 2.4, and making adjustments to the TV's white balance in order to remove luminance at just about every step of the grayscale. Color, on the other hand, required almost no calibration at all.
A mixed bag of pros and cons
4K televisions like the UB8500 have four times the pixels of their Full HD (1080p) compatriots, but that doesn't give them a pass to skimp on basic picture-quality requirements. This 49-inch LG is a mixed bag in terms of performance, and lacks flexibility when it comes to watching in a range of settings, meaning dark, dim, and bright rooms.
To illustrate, time in the lab revealed a number of drawbacks: The TV's poor black level makes shadowy areas look grayish and washed out, especially if you're watching in the dark. This inability to reign in its excessive luminance also causes problems in terms of shadow details. Transitions between black tones and the darkest grays are glossed over, making valuable details (like the subtle folds in a wrinkled black shirt) difficult to appreciate. Ultimately, the TV works best when producing a lot of luminance, making it less than ideal for family movie night.
If you prefer to watch in a well-lit room, though, with the sun shining in, you'll be pleased with the UB8500's performance. In Cinema mode, it's set up for optimal viewing in brighter environments, and the somewhat poor contrast is bolstered by the LED Local Dimming software. This software automatically darkens and brightens areas onscreen as content requires. In a dark room, eagle-eyed viewers will notice the dimming flicker in real time—but in brighter environments, the poor black levels won't look as obvious, and the dimming software works much more effectively and subtly.
Fortunately, in terms of color production, the UB8500 is spot-on. I measured against the international standards for HDTV color, and found practically no flaws. Everything from ripe, red apples, to glittering blue water, to crisp green leaves appears vivid and rich. You'll be able to appreciate this color-rich picture from a variety of places, too, as testing revealed that the UB8500 has a higher-than-average viewing angle, likely thanks to LG's use of IPS (in-plane switching) LCD panels.
Last but not least, fans of action movies and sports will relish this TV's ability to handle fast-paced motion. The panel's 120Hz refresh rate processes images hundreds of times per second, meaning all but the most ferocious flurries remain blur-free.
Lastly, if you're a gamer concerned about input lag resulting from upscaling your games, fear not. The Game mode pre-set does a great job keeping input lag to a minimum, even when upscaling from older consoles: We played a Nintendo Wii for a few days, and found very little input lag.
A high-end look without expensive frills
If your goal is to purchase and enjoy an affordable 4K display, the 49-inch UB8500 is a great option, if only because it avoids unnecessary embellishment. It isn't curved, for example, and it doesn't burden itself with fancy frills like a top-mounted camera. The UB8500 is an edge-lit LED TV, so the panel is as light and thin as any modern display.
All this to say that the UB8500 is refreshingly minimalist compared to much of the 2014 4K TV crop—a fact that's reflected in the price. The slim panel is complemented by a hollow, curved-metal stand with wide-set feet. Other than the LG insignia that unfortunately protrudes from the lower bezel, the TV is entirely free from decoration.
Utility elements like video connections and control buttons hide along the back of the panel. The rear casing is made of standard, nondescript plastic of the charcoal variety. Here, you'll find a healthy selection of video/audio ports, including a somewhat techy variety of HDMI inputs. Side-facing ports include one USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 inputs, as well as the four HDMI ports: one for HDCP 2.2 (a native 4K standard), one for ARC (audio return channel functionality), one for access to 10-bit color depth, and one for MHL (Micro High-Definition Link).
More traditional connectors cluster together in a nearby recessed area. Roll call for this little port party includes shared component/composite inputs, digital (optical) audio out, LAN (ethernet) in, an RS-232 control port, and a coaxial jack for cable/antenna connections. Lastly, LG also includes splitter cables for the component/composite inputs, two pairs of 3D glasses, and this year's Magic Remote, the company's signature motion-based controller.
A contrast ratio is an X:1 number that's determined by dividing a display's maximum luminance by its minimum luminance, or black level. In this case, the bigger the number, the better. A high amount of contrast between the most disparate luminance elements on screen (peak white and minimum black) creates a much more immersive, lifelike picture—it's basically the difference between feeling like you're watching a 2D plane and feeling like you're watching a 3D plane.
This is one area where the UB8500 greatly disappoints. I measured a black level of 0.25 cd/m2 using the industry standard ANSI checkerboard pattern, and a peak brightness of 193 cd/m2 . While it's capable of much higher brightness than the 120 cd/m2 (40 fL) max light ideal for theater rooms, that black level is so bright (by 2014 standards) that the resulting contrast ratio is quite poor: 772:1 (we like to see at least 2000:1 from higher-end TVs).
Our viewing angle test measures how viewable or enjoyable a TV's screen is from angles away from center. Let's face it—you don't always want to watch your TV from dead center, and if you have friends or family in the room, sometimes it's nice to spread out.
Our viewing angle test measures a TV's contrast ratio from 0° (head-on), and then again at 10-degree increments, moving away from center. Eventually, contrast drops below 50% of its original value.
This is one area where the UB8500 really outshines its competition. This TV is very above average for an edge-lit LED: I measured a total viewing angle of 104°, or ±52° from the center to either side of the screen. Because it uses an IPS (in-plane switching) LCD panel, this LG has very good light pass-thru, which means it communicates a higher amount of photons from its backlight to the viewers' eyes compared to non-IPS panels.
In simpler terminology, groups of 4-5 people can spread out and watch this display without great degradation of the picture.
One of the best smart platforms ever
Early this year, LG unveiled a new-and-improved smart TV interface, one that the company salvaged from HP's defunct webOS mobile platform. The move triggered some serious hype. I've spent plenty of time with webOS at this point, but my enthusiasm for its great content layout and snappy functionality hasn't waned.
The webOS platform stands apart from most other smart offerings because it works more like your smartphone OS: You can run multiple programs simultaneously, which is more miraculous than it sounds. The ability to multitask makes hopping from Netflix, to live TV, to Hulu feel almost like a simple channel change; that's because exiting an app doesn't shut it down, meaning you don't need to reboot that app when you return to it. When you boot up the UB8500 and get connected to the internet, you'll find heaps of popular apps—Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant. The Magic Remote pairs very well with the TV's browser, too, which makes surfing the web a more palatable experience.
On the other hand, operating the TV's menu software can be very frustrating. While the Magic Remote and webOS seem made for each other, the Picture and Audio menus are tougher to operate. Snapping the white balance controls from the left side to the bottom fifth of the screen is great if you're calibrating the TV, but adjusting basics like Backlight or Tint while constantly switching between disparate positions onscreen is likely to elicit frustrated groans from most users.
If you are one of those D.I.Y. calibrators or picture purists, you'll be glad to know that the UB8500 still offers users the full suite of calibration controls we've come to expect from LG. A full CMS (Color Management System), 2- and 10-point white balance, color gamut options, and a gamma pre-set selector make it possible to fine-tune this TV. Unfortunately, as I said above, the TV struggles to meet home-theater standards—something that even calibration can't solve, in this case.
A sleek, viable option for select viewers
The LG 49UB8500 (MSRP $1,699) might be a solid choice for viewers who want in on the 4K craze, but only if they tend to watch in brighter settings. The TV certainly impresses with its sleek design, snappy smart platform, terrific viewing angle, and fluid motion, but it's disappointing that this otherwise great 4K TV struggles with basic picture-quality elements like black level and preservation of subtle shadow details.
At the end of the day, part of what makes this LG a less-than-perfect pick is the competition. For a few hundred dollars more, you could secure Sony's same-sized X850B, a 4K TV that's smart and 3D, but boasts better overall performance than this LG. While LG's webOS platform puts that model's smart features to shame, we highly doubt most people will choose smart functionality over picture quality—making the 49UB8500 a tough sell, even with its current sale prices of $1,499.
A color gamut is a visual illustration of a TV's range of colors. Because televisions use digital color, they combine primary colors (red, blue, and green) to create secondary colors (cyan, magenta, and yellow) and white. This makes color accuracy especially important—if green is undersaturated (not colorful enough), for example, combining it with red to create yellow will result in a reddish yellow, and that yellow will further corrupt any tertiary colors that follow.
This is why the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) dictates specific requirements for the hue and saturation of a TV's primary colors.
Again, the UB8500 performs very well here. Testing revealed only very small, imperceptible discrepancies between its color production and the ideal standards. For example, the UB8500's green and red points are just slightly more saturated than necessary. While more color is almost never a bad thing, it does cause the out-of-the-box white point to shift slightly towards yellow—red and green simply have more "sway" over white's position than blue when the three of them combine to create grayscale elements. This isn't perceptible during viewing, however.
By practical accounts, the UB8500's color is perfect.
A TV's grayscale is its full range of black, gray, and white shades across the luminance spectrum. Because displays use additive color, all of the grayscale's elements form through a combination of red, green, and blue. In light science, those colors (to human eyes) create neutral light, and panels use varying levels of light output to create dimmer whites, grays, and even shadowy black tones.
For obvious reasons, if the RGB emphasis is imbalanced in favor of one color or the other, the grayscale loses its neutrality and becomes tinged with unwanted color.
More often than not, we can correct grayscale errors using a TV's 2- or 10-point white balance controls. These controls specifically add or subtract emphasis on specific sub-pixels, so if there's too much red or not enough blue, we can make necessary adjustments. The grayscale calibration process also sets luminance for the gamma curve, however, and this is where the UB8500 veers off course.
Error within the grayscale is expressed as a collective called DeltaE, where 3 or less is considered ideal. Attempting to calibrate the UB8500 to a 2.4 gamma curve actually created more grayscale error, rather than less, due to the TV's inability to approximate very low-luminance shadow detail above black.
Taking a closer look at the actual RGB emphasis within the grayscale reveals the brunt of the problem. Adhering to a 2.4 gamma curve is difficult for many displays, because it takes more subtle approximations of luminance at each step, especially just above black where valuable, deep-gray shades live. With a peak output of 40 fL, the UB8500 struggles to produce evenly emphasized sub-pixels at the lower steps of the grayscale, resulting in serious discoloration. Specifically, black shadows have a sickly green quality.
In displays, gamma (or gamma curve) refers to the way a TV corrects digital light for analog eyes. In other words, if it were up to TVs, every luminance step from black to white would be parsed at the same interval. However, human eyes have different levels of sensitivity to certain levels of light, so TV's must correct their output and follow a curve that better suits the human eye. That curve is usually described in terms of numbers like 2.0, 2.2, and 2.4, where higher numbers equal less luminance and more gradation between steps.
This is one area where the UB8500 performs oddly. In its default Cinema mode, with LED Local Dimming set to Medium (the out-of-the-box setup), I measured a gamma curve of 1.77. The display gets brighter and brighter at each step after 20 IRE (very dark gray), and peaks at 90 IRE (bright white), leaving very little detail between 90 and 100 IRE. Without LED Local Dimming, the UB8500 is capable of following a 2.4 (dark room) gamma curve to some degree, but allocates light poorly because it doesn't grow bright enough between 10 and 20 IRE, and grows too bright from step 20 to step 30.
In short, in its attempt to adhere to a home-theater standard gamma sum of 2.4, the TV allots light rather erratically along its grayscale, which doesn't look good at all.
Meet the tester
Lee has been Reviewed's point person for most television and home theater products since 2012. Lee received Level II certification in TV calibration from the Imaging Science Foundation in 2013. As Editor of the Home Theater vertical, Lee oversees reviews of TVs, monitors, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers. He also reviews headphones, and has a background in music performance.
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