When TV manufacturers introduced 3D television a year ago, they hoped it would be the next big thing. It didn't happen. Movie fans flocked to cinemas to watch Avatar in 3D, but they didn't rush to stores to buy 3D televisions.
One issue is content. There have been only a few 3D broadcasts in Canada so far (including two Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts); and there are still only a few dozen 3D movies available on Blu-ray.
The other is glasses. Almost all 3D HDTVs require active-shutter LCD glasses. These 3D TVs show a rapidly alternating sequence (120 times a second) of left- and right-eye images. When the TV is showing a left-eye image on the screen, the tiny liquid-crystal shutters in front of the left eye open and those in front of the right eye close. The process reverses for right-eye images. Our eye-brain systems integrate this sequence into a coherent 3D image.
Active-shutter 3D glasses are heavy (typically 20 to 25g) and expensive (typically $150 to $250 per pair); and they require batteries. However, for 2011, many manufacturers are introducing lighter and less expensive 3D glasses, with improved running time.
Flicker can be a problem if the TV and active-shutter glasses don't stay in sync. A more common problem, especially with 3D LCD TVs is crosstalk. This occurs when left- and right-eye content is present on the screen at the same time, and causes ghosting around moving objects on the screen.
A New Approach
LG's new Cinema 3D televisions are the first HDTVs to use passive 3D technology, which is also used in most 3D movie theatres. Other companies, including Toshiba and Vizio, are introducing their own passive 3D TVs, reportedly using LG panels.
Passive 3D TVs display left- and right-eye images simultaneously, in alternating rows of pixels. An overlay in front of the screen polarizes light from the alternate lines in different directions. Viewers wear glasses with polarizing lenses. The lens in front of the left eye blocks light from the rows of pixels showing right-eye information, because the light produced by these pixels is polarized in a different direction than the lens; and vice-versa for the lens in front of the right eye.
While you still need glasses with passive 3D technology, the glasses are much lighter than active-shutter glasses. They're also far less expensive: $20 or so. And they don't require batteries. Because passive glasses don't need to be synced to the TV, there's no flicker. And crosstalk-related ghosting isn't an issue.
But there are tradeoffs. With active-shutter 3D HDTVs, each eye is seeing full HD resolution: 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. Passive 3D glasses block off half the horizontal rows: each eye sees only 1,920 x 540 pixels. When LG announced Cinema 3D last January, it cited focus-group studies in which respondents said they did not notice significantly lower difference in passive 3D images, despite the lower resolution. My experience was different.
Compare and Contrast
How do the two technologies compare? To help us find out, LG supplied its new 55LW5600 55-inch LED-illuminated 3D LCD HDTV ($2,500), plus a top-of-the-line 3D active-shutter model from last year, the 55LX9500.
LG also supplied a 3D-capable Blu-ray player, the BD670C ($250), which I used with both televisions. This is a fast, responsive player. It powered up in five seconds, and loaded DVE HD Basics, a calibration Blu-ray Disc, in 25 seconds.
In addition to the 55-incher reviewed here, the LW5600 Cinema 3D series also includes the 47-inch 47LW5600 ($1,900) and 42-inch 42LW5600 ($1,600). These are beautiful TVs, and only a mere inch deep. Their screens have an effective anti-reflection coating, which makes them attractive for people who watch TV in bright viewing environments.
Picture-enhancement features include TruMotion 120Hz processing to reduce motion blur, and local dimming, which reduces LED light output in dark areas of the picture. LG's Cinema 3D TVs have a 3D upconversion feature that can artificially generate 3D images from 2D content. All three models come with four pairs of 3D glasses.
They also come with two different remotes. There's an excellent conventional remote control, with clearly labeled buttons, and backlighting to help you find your way around when you're watching in a dark room. In addition, there's a really cool Magic Motion remote, with power, channel, volume and mute controls, plus a cursor pad and enter button. Push the button and the remote works like a pointer. You can point at any area of the screen, and choose menus and options. This feature is especially useful with the TVs' networking features.
Like many new TVs for 2011, LG's LW5600 models have Ethernet networking jacks and come with a Wi-Fi dongle that attaches to one of the TV's USB ports. Connect the TV to your home network, and you can use it to surf the Web, access services like Netflix and YouTube, stream media from PCs on your home network, and run apps for LG's Smart TV platform. The apps weren't available in Canada when this review was written. We'll cover LG's Smart TV platform and similar features from other TV makers at a later date.
The LW5600 series appear to be edgelit designs, with LEDs along the side of the screen. Illumination generally appears even across the screen, with no obvious hotspots, except when there's an all-black (or very dark) screen, with limited bright content. For example, during rolling credits, the dark areas at the side of the screen nearest the credit lines become lighter (which tells me that these are edgelit TVs).
Unlike most TVs, this one has no menu button on the remote for adjusting picture settings. Instead, you go to the Home screen, which contains a window with the current video program, plus other panes with services like Netflix and YouTube, apps, the Web browser, and content on other devices on your home network. There's also a setup button for adjustments to picture, sound, network configuration and other parameters.
After the usual initial setup items (confirming language and home use), the 55LW5600 comes up in Standard picture mode. The picture in this default setting is certainly good, but LG makes it easy to do better. As on previous sets, this one has a Picture Wizard, which presents test patterns for tweaking brightness, contrast, backlight, colour, tint and sharpness; along with clear instructions on how to proceed. Using this clever feature, I boosted brightness slightly to 54, cut contrast to 88, set backlight to 35 for my darkened (but not dark) viewing room, shifted tint slightly toward red to R2. The results were stored as an Expert picture setting.
To confirm the results, I used a calibration disc, DVE HD Basics on Blu-ray. Interestingly, its test patterns displayed correctly with brightness, tint and other primary picture adjustments at the default midpoint setting of 50. In actual programming, these settings proved ideal. In the advanced menus, I left processing features like dynamic contrast, MPEG noise reduction and super resolution turned off. To get an accurate film-like colour balance, I set colour temperature to warm; and I changed the edge enhancer setting from high to low to avoid artificial sharpening. I set local dimming at low, which I found gave deep blacks while minimizing hotspotting.
The WL5600 series has a huge array of advanced adjustments, for use by professional calibrators. But its out-of-the-box performance is excellent. I was struck by how neutral the picture was right through the tonal scale; there were no greenish or pinkish colour casts at all in the grey-scale test patterns. In terms of colour neutrality, this is among the best TVs I've ever reviewed.
Put on Your Glasses
Now it was time to watch some program material. Naturally, I started withAvatar on Blu-ray Disc, in glorious 3D. The opening scenes, with the space ship approaching Pandora against a starlit sky, proved conclusively that LCDs can deliver deep blacks, because blacks in this difficult scene were excellent on this LG television. The dark nighttime scenes on Pandora were also superb; with great blacks and excellent shadow detail, so that objects emerged convincingly out of the darkness. The lush colours of Pandora's alien flora and fauna were also beautifully produced.
As others have experienced, I've found 3D TV fatiguing in the past; but fatigue was not a factor here. I had intended to watch a few scenes of Avatar before moving onto other content, but I could not resist watching the whole movie. As expected, flicker and crosstalk were not an issue with the Cinema 3D television; and the light polarized glasses were more comfortable than any active-shutter 3D glasses I've worn.
For 3D, it helps to sit close to the screen so that it fills most of your field-of-view. I parked myself about two metres from the Cinema 3D TV. At this distance, I noticed a slightly coarse look to the picture: it didn't seem quite as smooth or detailed as 2D HDTV. As discussed above, passive 3D technology reduces the number of pixels each eye sees to 1,920 x 540, which probably accounts for my impression of the Cinema 3D picture.
That impression was confirmed when I watched Avatar on the LG 55LX9500, which uses active-shutter technology. That TV, which uses full-array LED backlighting with local dimming, delivers outstanding blacks and wonderful shadow detail, as the nighttime scenes on Pandora confirmed. Colour and detail were superb. As to 3D portrayal, the 55LX9500's picture was definitely smoother and more detailed than the 3D pictures produced by the 55LW5600 Cinema 3D set.
But there was noticeable ghosting, for example in background objects during Colonel Quaritch's security briefing early in the movie. For long-term viewing, I found the Cinema 3D set less fatiguing than LG's earlier active-shutter model. (Note that crosstalk isn't an issue on all active-shutter 3D TVs. I didn't see ghosting in these scenes on Panasonic's TC-P54VT25 3D plasma, which also uses active technology.)
So it's a matter of tradeoffs: smoother, more detailed 3D pictures with LG's active-shutter technology, but more crosstalk; or a more stable, less fatiguing 3D presentation with LG's new Cinema 3D technology, but with reduced resolution.
The tradeoffs are magnified with broadcast 3D content, as I discovered when I watched a recording of last February's Heritage Classic NHL game between the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens, which was broadcast by CBC in 3D.
There are a few different formats used for broadcast 3D, the most common of which is side-by-side. Left- and right-eye images are squeezed horizontally into a single frame, so that what you see are two similar elongated images side-by-side on the screen. To turn them into a 3D image, you press the 3D button on the remote and choose the side-by-side format.
Side-by-side 3D cuts resolution by half, from 1,920 x 1,080 to 960 x 1,080 pixels. Now consider that passive 3D also reduces the resolution seen by each eye by half. The effects are cumulative. What you end up with is a picture with 960 x 540 pixels, which is a long way from high-def! From two metres, which is where you want to sit to get an immersive 3D image (if you sit too far away, it's like peering into a diorama), the picture looks soft. The difference between 2D HDTV and broadcast 3D on the Cinema 3D is like the difference between VHS and DVD. I'd much rather watch the game in two dimensions, but in real high-def.
Watching the game using active-shutter 3D technology on the 55LX9500, resolution looked lower than 2D HDTV, but certainly acceptable. But crosstalk between the left- and right-eye images was a real problem on this set, resulting in serious ghosting. Again, I would prefer to watch the game in 2D HDTV, though for different reasons.
Most of the time, viewers will be watching 2D content on LG's Cinema 3D television. I watched several HDTV programs, both in 2D and using the 3D upconversion feature. With some material, this feature was surprisingly effective, which goes a long way toward addressing the dearth of 3D content.
High-def sports looked great in 2D. A late-season Maple Leafs game looked glorious. The only flaw was very mild motion blurring. To give more glow to the ice, I raised the backlight setting to 60. This TV dealt superbly with the extremes of contrast in this challenging content. The Washington Capitals' black shorts looked truly black, and the Leafs' home uniforms were just the right shade of deep blue, even in long shots.
Similarly, an early season baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Oakland Athletics had great atmosphere. There was good texture in the Jays' white home uniforms and the Athletics' dark green uniforms.
An HD episode of Glee had lovely warm colour, with great detail and facial modeling in close-ups.
With all of these programs, I experimented with the 3D upconversion feature. On the two sports programs, it certainly added depth. Depending on the scene and camera angle, sometimes the effects were convincing, other times artificial: as if objects on the screen were two-dimensional cutouts arrayed at different distances. I enjoyed the 3D effects with baseball and hockey; they weren't completely realistic, but they added a you-are-there atmosphere. Overall, it was a coin-toss between 2D and upconverted 3D with sports. I preferred Glee in 2D HDTV.
The 3D upconversion feature was wonderfully effective on the Reptiles and Amphibians episode ofBBC Life on Blu-ray, both in long shots like the Madagascar rainforest, and close-ups, such as a panther chameleon devouring a praying mantis. I noticed no side effects other than slight loss of detail; but the added sense of depth, with objects standing out from background, more than compensated.
This title looks fabulous in 2D as well, with glorious colour and detail right across the tonal range. The 55LW5600 was able to convey subtle gradations of browns in dessert scenes, and vibrant greens in forest scenes, with very good blacks and shadow detail. I was also impressed with its gradation of tones in snow and ice at the end of a Manitoba winter, in scene with garter snakes waking from hibernation.
The interior and nighttime campus scenes in on Blu-ray are a great test for a TV's ability to render dark detail, and the 55LW5600 passed with flying colours. Blacks were satisfyingly deep, and dark details emerged convincingly out of the shadows. Faces were excellent, with natural skin tone and convincing modeling.
By now, my verdict should be obvious. This is an excellent television for 2D HDTV. For 3D viewing, the passive design involves tradeoffs. The polarizer glasses are definitely more comfortable than active-shutter glasses. There's no flicker or crosstalk-induced blurring, which can be a problem with active-shutter designs (but not with all active-shutter 3D TVs; plasmas are less prone to it).
The tradeoff is a loss in resolution. When you're starting with a good full HD original like a 3D Blu-ray Disc, the tradeoff is acceptable. With broadcast 3D programming, where resolution is already reduced to squeeze a 3D picture into a 2D frame, it's not.
LG 55LW5600 Cinema 3D HDTV
Very comfortable 3D viewing
Excellent blacks and shadow detail
Effective 2D to 3D upconversion
Soft pictures with broadcast 3D content
Local dimming causes slight hotspotting
Very mild motion blurring
NUTS & BOLTS
Picture size: 55 inches
Screen technology: LCD with LED edge illumination
Resolution: 1,920 x 1,080 pixels
Frame rate: 120Hz with TruMotion processing
Technical amenities: Cinema 3D passive 3D technology, Picture Wizard II setup, Magic Motion remote
Networking features: Ethernet jack and supplied Wi-Fi USB dongle; Web browsing; streaming from networked DLNA devices; access to Internet services such as Netflix, YouTube, Picasa, Accuweather and Google Maps; access to LG apps (to come)
HD video inputs: HDMI 1.4a (4); component video (1); RGB - PC (1)
Size: 129.3 x 78.5 x 3 cm (w/h/d, without stand); 129.3 x 85.1 x 33.8 cm (w/h/d, with stand)
Weight: 22kg (without stand); 26.2kg (with stand)