LG OLED TV: One step closer to perfection

We couldn't wait to get our hands on the new LG EG9600-series OLED TV, the first 4K UHD OLED we've ever tested. Anyone who cares a lot about picture quality has been anxiously awaiting OLED TVs ever since it became apparent that plasma TVs were going the way of the dodo, rear-projection TVs, and CRT sets, despite their superior performance.

LCD technology has certainly improved, thanks to ever-more-sophisticated trickery to address its inherent weaknesses. But most of the TV testers here at Consumer Reports take issue with LCD's grayish blacks, backlight non-uniformity, and narrow viewing angles.

That's why we have such high hopes for OLED TVs, which use an emissive—or light-producing—technology, just like plasma sets. That means you don't need a separate backlight as you do with LCD TVs, which have difficulty getting completely black.

OLED, in fact, shares many plasma TV attributes, such as unlimited viewing angles and resistance to blurring on fast-motion scenes. But it can produce even darker blacks than plasma, which can not only enhance contrast in dark scenes, but also serve as the basis for excellent color reproduction. OLED also assumes some of the attributes we like about LCD sets, such as better-than-plasma brightness and LED-like energy efficiency. When you combine all these ingredients, you have a recipe for the best TV ever.

And in many ways, the 55-inch LG 55EG9600 set ($5,500) is among the best TVs we've tested. In fact, if it weren't for mediocre sound quality, it would have the highest overall score of any set in our TV Ratings. It has excellent high-definition picture quality, and its UHD performance was very good. (LG promises that the TV can be updated to high dynamic range (HDR) capability via a firmware update later this year.) It also has the benchmark-setting black levels we've come to expect from OLED TVs.

But the LG OLED TV also has some flaws that detract from its overall performance. In fact, the first set we purchased had an issue significant enough that we had to have its panel replaced. As a result, we bought another set just to make sure that what we saw wasn't an anomaly. Still, despite some of the issues we found, most of us here would pick this TV out of all the TVs we've tested this year as the one we'd most like to own. Here's what we found when we put this LG OLED TV through our battery of tests.

Overall, the LG 55EG9600 had excellent high-definition picture quality; its UHD screen did an excellent job displaying the finest detail, with very good color accuracy that made images look quite natural. Not surprisingly, the set has excellent contrast, which gave images great depth and dimension, and its black-level performance is among the very best we've seen from any TV—and the depth of black doesn't vary with viewing angle, as it does with LED/LCD models.

But a problem developed shortly after we began testing: After calibrating the TV for optimum black level and shadow detail, we noticed days later that the black level had become a bit brighter than before, and there was a visible array of illuminated vertical bands of slightly varying intensity that ran across the screen.

To keep this in perspective, we had the room lights nearly off so we could see this clearly. We tried to tweak out these brightened stripes by lowering the TV’s brightness control, but then we could not get the TV to a solid deep black without crushing shadow detail. As you can see in the top photo above, the bands were also visible on our our dark gray test pattern (a 10 IRE gray field pattern to you techies), and were subtly visible on dark video content.

It was at this point that we decided to send the TV out for repair. The service center decided to replace the panel, and in the interim we bought a second 55EG9600 to see whether it had the same issues. The second set did not exhibit the brightened black level, and we were able to achieve deep black along with good shadow detail. But both sets still showed hints of the vertical bands, though they were certainly not a problem during normal viewing.

In the scene below, you can see the two sets—the new model on the left, the repaired original set on the right—side by side.

But we also noticed another issue on both sets, which is a bit more problematic: The left and right edges of the image showed slight but visible darkening mainly on darker scenes, almost like a vignette effect, which was somewhat distracting when present. You can see what we mean in the 10 IRE grayscale image, above, and on a close-up of a scene from "Guardians of the Galaxy," below.

The set on the left is a larger LED/LCD TV; the OLED TV is on the right. The effect is noticeable on both edges of the OLED screen, but especially so on the left edge where the image essentially fades to dark, masking significant picture information that's clearly visible on the LCD set.

This issue was only visible on darker scenes; it disappeared when the screen displayed brighter images.

There were also a few other minor things we noticed during our tests. One was that this LG OLED TV is subject to some temporary image retention, where very subtle ghosts of the TV's bright menu windows remained visible when no video was displayed on the screen. We also detected some darkening of the upper and lower part of the image after we had viewed a letterbox movie for a few hours. These effects were very subtle and probably wouldn't be detectable under normal viewing conditions, and eventually the ghosting did go away. Since OLED is so new, we don't yet know whether these issues could lead to permanent image burn in.

We also noticed an unusual brightening of black levels when a static image was left on the TV: With a blackfield still test image on the display, after a few minutes we noticed that the TV's black levels suddenly brightened. We didn't see this during normal viewing, and LG speculated during a visit to our labs that it might be caused by the TV invoking an anti-burn-in feature. Since it didn't appear during our normal testing with motion video, we didn't put too much emphasis on it, and we doubt that any viewers will be bothered by it.

The pros outweigh the cons

So far our review has mainly focused on some of the flaws we detected when testing the LG 55EG9600. But in fairness, the positive attributes of this LG OLED TV greatly outweigh its shortcomings. Images had an excellent level of detail, and we saw no noticeable banding in scenes with subtly shaded light-to-dark areas, such as a sky during sunset. The set did an excellent job upconverting standard HD fare, with minimal jaggies when converting HD video content, such as from cable, to the display's native resolution. Its stunning black levels and resulting contrast help place this model's picture quality among the very best TVs we've tested.

To put this OLED TV's ability to go truly black in perspective, check out the photo below, where it's compared to the LCD TV that touts an LED backlight with numerous zones that can be locally dimmed.

In this pattern, which we created to test the effectiveness of local dimming, two white balls move horizontally across the screen. You can see from a glance that the LCD TV, on the left, is simultaneously activating a whole grouping of LEDs in order to illuminate the ball as it travels within that zone, producing a band of light behind the objects. The OLED, on the other hand, is able to illuminate only the balls while preserving the deep blacks just beyond its white borders.

The backlighting effect on the LCD is a bit exaggerated as it was shot slightly off angle—a dirty little secret about local dimming is that the halos it induces are often accentuated at off angles—but again that's not something you have to worry about with an OLED set, which has a virtually unlimited viewing angle. That means that black levels and contrast do not degrade as you move off center, though the image does introduce a slight shift in color temperature toward a cool, bluer tone as you move away from front and center.

Overall, the LG 55EG9600 is among the best TVs we've tested this year, and some of the flaws we noted pale in comparison to the various image-related anomalies we see every day when we test LCD sets.

The TV earned an "excellent" for HD picture quality, and its UHD performance was very good only because of a quirk that imposed some oversharpening on native 4K content, including movies and test videos from our Sony FMP-X10 UHD player via an HDMI connection, and photos and videos played via USB drive. That added coarseness to the edges of very fine detail. (It did not appear to be an issue with streaming 4K programs from Netflix or YouTube.) This was due to effect of the TV's "Super Resolution" image-sharpening feature, which was evident even though it was turned off.

We were able to deactivate the feature by going to the menu and turning the feature on and then off, but when the TV is turned back on the feature is reactivated by default. Hopefully this can be fixed via a future firmware update.

As you'd expect from a set this expensive, this LG OLED TV is loaded with features and attractively styled, with a curved, thin-bezel UHD screen that sits atop a clear plexiglass stand. The TV is 3D-capable, and it comes with the company's point-and-click Magic Remote and the webOS smart TV platform, which lets you access content via a row of graphic tiles arrayed across the lower portion of the screen.

The set has built-in HEVC (Netflix, Amazon) and VP9 support (YouTube) for 4K streaming videos, and all three of the TV's HDMI inputs comply with the latest HDCP 2.2 copy protection specification. However, only two are HDMI 2.0 compatible and thus able to support play back of 4K video at 60Hz, which will be required for compatibility with emerging 4K movie playback devices such as the UHD Blu-ray players expected later this year.

The bottom line

If we seem to have been overly critical of LG's OLED TVs so far, it's only because we believe the technology has so much promise for those looking for state-of-the-art TV performance. When we reviewed an LG 1080p OLED last year, we noted a color shift toward red and some noise reduction that couldn't be turned off. LG has corrected those issues, and has now moved to UHD's higher resolution, which looked superb on this set once we corrected the oversharpening.

As mentioned earlier, most of us who cover TVs for Consumer Reports would probably choose this set to own out of all the TVs we've tested—though probably in the 65-inch screen size if we didn't have to pay for it. And since LG is the only TV manufacturer currently offering OLED sets, it's essentially building a market for a new TV technology by itself, and we applaud the company for that.

So far, with each iteration we see, OLED technology seems to be heading one step closer to becoming the Holy Grail of TV viewing: the perfect TV.

—James K. Willcox and Claudio Ciacci

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