LG 55LA9700 UHD TV Review
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Since its advent, Ultra High Definition (UHD) resolution has caused a buzz—and how could it not? Offering four times the resolution of 1080p HD, UHD is the next step for TVs in terms of pixel count. Unfortunately, that's where the technological advancement ends for 2013 buyers.
LG's 55LA9700 is the South Korean company's mid-tier UHD TV. Some may balk at its $4,000 price tag, but compared to the 84-inch LM9600 series (MSRP $15,999), it's a bargain. Besides its UHD resolution, the LA9700 features nano LED backlighting and a drop-down sliding speaker that forces a smile to your face every time it activates.
Unfortunately, the LA9700's design and features outshine its basic performance. Resolution aside, this LG's contrast performance is quite poor, and its got some serious picture flaws out of the box. It's also fitted with a standard motion processor, and thus suffers from the same refreshing problems common to LCDs. Once again, we recommend waiting for performance aspects to catch up with resolution enhancements.
Four times average is still average.
The big deal about UHD is pixel count. More pixels means a higher amount of detail per square inch, a sharper-looking picture, something that's just a little more like real life. Unfortunately, resolution is also the last category within the hierarchy of picture quality, and the LA9700 doesn't perform well outside of that.
The major determinant of picture quality when dealing with video and film is minimum luminance level, or black level. Unfortunately, with or without its local dimming option enabled, the LA9700's black level is largely disappointing—it's simply too "bright" to properly imitate the appearance of actual shadows and darkness. Thus, from a contrast perspective, this LG is entirely average: While bright enough to imitate the searing white of sunlight, the overall appearance of depth and contrast is unimpressive. Extra pixels just don't make up for this shortcoming.
From a color production perspective, the LA9700 adheres to international standards beside the finest TVs we've tested this year. Its red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, and yellow are all quite accurate—unfortunately, without a good black backdrop, they can only look so vibrant and rich. Expect a picture that's beautifully colorful and balanced, but does not instill a sense of depth and scope.
Another place where the LA9700 could be improved is in motion performance. It may have four times the pixels of regular HD, but its motion processor is still built with yesterday's technology. It's not bad by any means, but LCDs like the LA9700 have never been great at preserving detail during on-screen motion. LG's TruMotion mode offers a number of settings for improving/tweaking the TV's detail retention, but it can only go so far. Finding the perfect line between blurry scenes and the soap opera effect is tricky, and changes from content to content.
For all of the hard data and scientific details behind our assessment of the LA9700's performance, click here.
Design & Features
A decent build, and one of the coolest gimmicks ever.
The 55LA9700 is a handsome TV. Its rectangular metal stand matches the width of the panel almost exactly, making for a very sturdy product that emphasizes the screen above all else. The stand's hollow design also leaves room for what is probably the coolest design feature we've seen all year: a long speaker that dramatically descends from within a hidden cavity when you turn on the TV.
The first time I powered on the LA9700, I watched the silver speaker bar come sliding out in almost reverent silence, before rushing to alert some co-workers of the "coolest TV thing ever."
It is, of course, kind of a gimmick: The hidden speaker doesn't dramatically improve the overall experience. That said, it impresses passerby and allows the speakers more room to vibrate, which means slightly better stock audio performance than you'll find on other TVs.
From a usability standpoint, the LA9700s on-set controls and connectivity suite are traditional and well-established. Users will find a healthy port selection: three HDMI and three USB on the left side, and shared component/composite, LAN in, analog and digital audio, and a coaxial jack just behind. Overall, the LA9700 is sleek, trim, and modern-feeling—we've nothing but praise for its design.
Software & Interface
Smart, 3D, and fully loaded
One place where the LA9700 excels—or at least meets expectations—is the extensive options and goodies offered by its software and smart features. This TV features LG's 2013 smart platform, which includes a web browser, plenty of apps, streaming partners, and all the connectivity features a media center would need.
LG's strong suit is still the Magic Remote, which produces a motion-controlled cursor on screen via infrared signal, exactly like the Nintendo Wii. The Magic Remote makes every aspect of the software—browsing, typing, fiddling with settings—much easier when compared to a traditional controller. LG's menus are even tailored to making this little wand the center of attention, featuring big, oversized buttons that are easy to click on.
Something included here that's not yet standard to HDTVs is full picture calibration control—gamma, a full color management system, two- and 10-point white balance, and customizable motion correction settings for video- and film-based content. These controls were a boon when calibrating the LA9700—unfortunately, their actual impact on the TV's picture was somewhat limited, as you'll see on the science page.
Click here for a video and our full breakdown of LG's 2013 smart platform.
The Finish Line
Not quite good enough
The 55LA9700 is certainly a decent television, but it's not worth $4,000 for two major reasons:
The first reason is pretty much ubiquitous to all UHD TVs from this year: There's just no reliable source for native 4K (3840x2160 resolution) content right now. Sony offers an optional content player for the X900A, but even that is another $700. Meanwhile, Samsung offers no options for its UHD F9000, and LG's in the same boat here. We can produce full-res test patterns, but why should you pay for UHD if you can't fully make use of each individual pixel?
The second reason is one of picture quality: While the LA9700 is outfitted with some terrific software and smart features—and has an awesome hidden speaker—its foundational picture quality just isn't all that impressive. Upscaled HD content suffers, but not because of upscaling: The TV's out-of-the-box calibration is quite poor, and its unimpressive black level robs images of the depth and drama we expect from a display in this price range. This is sub-par performance any way you cut it—and upping the pixel count doesn't come to the rescue. If you're considering the LA9700 in preparation for the UHD future, you're not going to find the kind of performance you deserve for 4,000 big ones.
Behind the Screens
The 55LA9700 ($3,999.99) may offer four times the resolution as HD, but that doesn't make it a shoe-in in terms of performance and picture quality. While multiplying the pixel count does provide added sharpness and detail, it's not as impressive when the TV handles contrast, motion and color production in a wholly average way. It took an extensive calibration to get the LA9700 up to spec, as its color balancing and gamma correction were simply way off (more on this in a moment). Further, its black level is quite underwhelming—with or without the nano LEDs regulating the backlight.
We took pre-calibration data from the LA9700 on the Cinema picture mode, which we chose to gather a look at what kind of picture the LA9700 produces in theater lighting before and after calibration.
Calibrating in Cinema mode, we set a gamma target of 2.4, and lowered the LA9700's backlight from 100 to 42, approximating 40 fl or about 120 cd/m2 , a nominal output for a dim/dark environment. We had to massively tweak the 2- and 20-point IRE white balancing options to reduce error in RGB balance. The basic settings— Contrast, Color, Tint —remained untouched.
Reducing the backlight helped correct the TV's RGB balance, grayscale errors, gamma sum, and color gamut luminance to a degree. The final settings are ideal for a dim or dark room—if you want to calibrate for a brighter room, take the backlight up and set gamma for a 2.2 sum.
A poor showing
The LA9700's 10-point grayscale performance was quite disappointing—out of the box, we tested an average DeltaE of 7.24, which is way beyond the acceptable limits. Fortunately, the LA9700 is equipped with full calibration controls, allowing for a decent amount of correction. After about half an hour of tweaking, I was able to reduce the DeltaE to 4.97—still far from ideal, but a little better.
The grayscale is a measure of a TV's correlated color temperature across its output from black, low gray, middle gray, high gray, and white. Error in the grayscale is caused by improper RGB balancing, which is discussed in the next section. Grayscale errors effect the TV's ability to display gradations of light and subtler picture details, sometimes even causing oddly-tinted picture elements.
Uneven and sporadic
The reason for the above grayscale error is due to the LA9700's poor balancing of its red, green, and blue sub-pixels. Ideally, we want to see red, green, and blue lines laying flat and even across the grayscale, resulting in D65 at each point (the white point standard for HDTVs).
Out of the box, the LA9700 boosts its green sub-pixel, which results in green-tinted blacks and grays. I was able to use white balance controls to give red the lion's share of the balance around 40-60 IRE (the middle-luminance grays) where these errors are most visible, resulting in a slightly more palatable picture. The end result was still not ideal.
Well somethin' ain't right here
Gamma correction refers to how displays alter an incoming signal to better produce light differentiation in a way that's optimized for human vision. Out of the box, the LA9700's gamma sum was nowhere near the 2.4 standard for HDTVs. With a little calibration, we were able to get it closer to 2.2—but no amount of tweaking could reduce the incorrect ramping of luminance that the TV is prone to.
Just about perfect
One thing the LA9700 does really well is produce the color it's supposed to. Despite being a UHD TV, the LA9700 still adheres to the color standard of yesteryear—Rec. 709. This LG has numerous color space options— Wide, sRGB, Auto —and one called BT709, which was by far the closest to the standard we test for. I was unable to improve the LA9700's color gamut much, though after calibration its white point was less green and more blue—which is visually less invasive.
Decent, but not impressive
The LA9700 uses a motion processing mode called TruMotion which is standard to LG's higher-end LCDs this year. Without enabling assistance, the TV's handling of motion-based content is still not great—a problem that plagues LCDs regardless of resolution. TruMotion has three available settings— Smooth, Clear, and a custom User mode.
These settings allocate different levels of De-Blur and De-Judder to correct video- or film-based content, respectively. The Smooth setting puts both De-Blur and De-Judder at 3, which does very little to smooth out blurring and correct for interlacing. The Clear setting makes the most notable improvement, setting both to 7. We tried putting both at 10 in the User mode, but the difference from Clear was hardly notable. For sports and action fans, the Clear TruMotion setting is probably the way to go.
One caveat here: The TV's local dimming option, which ranges between Low, Medium, and High variations—can cause some bizarre smudging and flickering during difficult motion scenes. We noticed occasions when the nano LEDs would turn themselves off/on a little before or after they needed to, resulting in some bizarre picture artifacts. Fortunately, this really only happens when you push the TV to its functional limits.
For this price? Disappointing
Contrast performance is by far the largest determinant of picture quality—a TV's minimum luminance level is what really cements immersive, awe-inspiring picture versus a flat, average-looking one. Despite being a UHD TV, the LA9700 still struggles to produce a deep black level, even with its nano LED local dimming cranked up to the highest setting.
With local dimming on, we tested a black level of 0.251 cd/m2 . With local dimming off, the black level got even brighter at 0.315 cd/m2 . We tested a peak white of 321.50 cd/m2 , which is plenty bright, but still only gives the LA9700 a contrast ratio of 1280:1, which is really average considering its price and pedigree.
LG advertises a 178° total viewing angle for the LA9700—but even with local dimming on, this is hardly the case. We tested a viewing angle of 38°, or ±19° from either side, which is a little below average for an LCD. This isn't a surprising result, it's just a far cry from the advertised specs.