The EM55FTR ain't your father's JVC HDTV. For one thing, JVC TVs are no longer manufactured by JVC, which licensed the brand to Taiwanese TV manufacturer AmTRAN and its U.S. subsidiary, AmTRAN Video Corporation, based in Irvine, California. Don't worry, JVC still manufactures its acclaimed projectors but, like many other companies in recent years, could not sustain its TV business.
The EM55FTR also isn't priced or distributed like your traditional JVC HDTV. In my experience with JVC TVs over the years, I found that the company served up some good performers that were simply priced too high for the market. Even before flat-panel pricing took a tumble, JVC models demanded a premium and, much like Hitachi, the company's TV presence diminished as prices did the same. AmTRAN's JVC TVs fall at the opposite end of the spectrum - they are aggressively priced to move. (Interestingly, AmTRAN also manufactures some of the TVs offered by another company known for aggressive pricing - Vizio - and these new JVC models are certainly priced to compete directly with that brand.) The new JVC Emerald Series includes screen sizes from 42 inches ($479) to 65 inches ($1,299), with the 55-inch EM55FTR carrying an MSRP of just $749. It's currently selling through Costco at $649.99, and that statement tells you a little something about its distribution path, which is targeted less at the big-box retailers and more at the warehouse clubs, at HSN/QVC, and at regional AVID dealers.
What does that $650-$750 get you? The EM55FTR has a 1080p resolution, a claimed 120Hz refresh rate, and a Direct LED backlight system. This isn't a smart TV per se; rather, AmTRAN calls it a "connected" TV, as the box includes a Roku Stick that you can connect to the TV's MHL-compatible HDMI port to enjoy Roku's vast assortment of Web-friendly channels. There's no 3D capability, no voice/motion control, no integrated camera, and no smartphone control app - none of the bells and whistles that can add to a TV's bottom line. At the end of the day, the EM55FTR is all about price, Roku, and performance. The question before us today: is that the correct order in terms of the TV's priorities? This was to be my first go-round with a JVC TV since the transition and, frankly, I didn't know what to expect. I kind of assumed I'd see a level of performance befitting that low price and a warehouse distribution path, but I came away pleasantly surprised.
The EM55FTR uses the Direct LED backlight method, in which a grid of LEDs is positioned behind the screen, much like the full-array LED backlighting used in top-shelf TVs. However, the Direct LED approach uses fewer LEDs and does not include the zone dimming that allows you to independently adjust each LED zone's brightness based on the content being displayed. The Direct LED approach results in a slightly thicker cabinet design than the popular edge-LED approach, although the EM55FTR's depth is still just 2.72 inches and its weight is 38.6 pounds without the stand. The EM55FTR's aesthetic is simple but stylish, sporting a gloss black finish (with a matching, non-swiveling stand) and only about a half inch of bezel around the screen's top and sides. The cabinet houses two down-firing 15-watt speakers. The supplied remote control is pretty straightforward in its layout, putting a combination of black and gray buttons on a non-backlit base.
The connection panel includes three HDMI inputs, which is one more than you'll get from some competitors at this price. The side-facing HDMI port supports MHL, and that's where you'll attach the supplied Roku Stick. A shared component/composite input and RF input are also onboard, as is a USB port for playback of photo files. Optical digital and stereo analog audio outputs are included to pass the TV's internal audio, including Roku content, to a receiver, soundbar or other audio system.
Beyond basic picture adjustments like contrast, brightness, color, and tint, the EM55FTR has a few advanced adjustments to fine-tune picture quality: three color temperature presets and a custom mode, with RGB offset and gain controls to dial in a more accurate white balance, noise reduction, and an Adaptive Backlight that automatically tailors the backlight level to suit the onscreen content. Absent are selectable gamma presets and a color management system to adjust the hue, saturation, and brightness of each color point. Also missing is the ability to adjust the method of blur reduction that corresponds to the claimed 120Hz refresh rate; many 120Hz TVs include multiple settings to choose the type of frame insertion (black frame insertion, repeating frames, or frame interpolation) and/or choose from multiple levels of "smoothing" to reduce film judder.
Instead of investing a lot of resources into developing a smart TV platform from the ground up, AmTRAN has wisely partnered up with the king of streaming media platforms, Roku. All you have to do is plug the supplied Roku Stick into that side-facing HDMI input and switch to the TV's "Roku" input to get access to Roku's whole arsenal of Web apps, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, Hulu Plus, M-Go, Spotify, HBO Go, and many more. In fact, you don't even have to use the remote's Input button to switch to the Roku input; just hit the remote's Home button and go right to Roku. For those who are familiar with the minimalist Roku remote control, those same buttons have been incorporated along the top of the JVC remote, so you can very easily switch to and navigate Roku as if it were a completely integrated smart TV service. If, like me, you already have a Roku box elsewhere in the house, all you have to do is sign in to your account and get access to your customized channel lineup. For those who are new to Roku, it couldn't be any easier to get started. And, if you like to stream personal media files, Roku includes channels like PLEX and the Roku Media Player that support a variety of formats (the TV's own USB port supports photo playback only). This Roku "connected TV" approach makes a lot of sense for manufacturers of lower-priced TVs (Hisense also showed off a Roku-ready model at CES). Why invest all that time and money into trying to keep up with the Samsungs and LGs of the smart TV world when Roku is already a trusted and respected name in the category that delivers most of the big-ticket services that people want?
Click on over to page to for the Performance, the Downside, the Competition and Comparison and the Conclusion . . .
Let's start with a discussion of the EM55FTR's black level, which is generally the area where most budget TVs under-perform. In the Movie mode with the backlight set at about 25 percent, the EM55FTR produced a surprisingly good black level while still offering up a solid amount of brightness, resulting in good image contrast. I found the Adaptive Backlight to be an effective addition; it can't offer the precise adjustments of a local-dimming backlight, but it does slightly lower the overall backlight to improve black-level performance in dark scenes, and it turns off the backlight completely during all-black scene transitions. I didn't notice any unnatural shifting of the image brightness with Adaptive Backlight enabled; it does dim the bright elements in darker scenes, but not significantly enough to ruin overall image contrast. Granted, this LCD couldn't quite rival my reference Panasonic TC-P60ST60 plasma when it came to reproducing the deepest blacks and richest contrast in demo scenes from Flags of Our Fathers (Paramount) and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Buena Vista), but it more than held its own in most other scenes, and I was also impressed with its ability to reproduce finer black details within these scenes. Black bars in 2.35:1 movies looked comparable between the two TVs. The ST60 may have been the value option in Panasonic's trio of high-performance plasmas last year, but the 55-inch model still carried an MSRP of about $1,500 (before Panasonic ceased plasma production), twice that of the EM55FTR. Suffice to say, I've seen more expensive LCDs perform much worse in the black-level department, so yeah, I was impressed with what the JVC delivered.
One thing that earned the EM55FTR points with me was its better brightness uniformity in dark scenes, compared with recent edge-LED TVs I've seen like the Sharp LC-60LE650U. One of my biggest complaints with edge-LED TVs is that, unless you pay more (often much more) to get some form of zone dimming, the TV's brightness uniformity is sub-par, meaning that you can see bright patches in dark scenes (sometimes called clouding) and there is often light leakage from the edges and especially corners of the display - a huge distraction with darker film content. The EM55FTR's Direct LED design isn't completely immune from this problem: in test patterns and demo scenes with large areas of all-black, all-gray, or bright-white, I could see some unevenness in the backlight brightness, but there were no significantly bright patches and no light leakage around the edges, which made for a much better dark-room viewing experience for movies (especially 2.35:1 movies with bars at the top and bottom).
On the flip side, the EM55FTR can also put out a good amount of brightness for daytime viewing. I went with the TV's Custom picture mode as my bright-room mode, which at its default settings put out about 83 foot-lamberts with a full-white test pattern. This mode has a very blue color temperature out of the box; when I switched to the more accurate Warm color temperature preset, the Custom mode measured about 63 foot-lamberts, which was still bright enough for my moderately-lit family room, but maybe not ideal for a really bright, sun-drenched living room. The EM55FTR's screen is reflective to help improve image contrast during the day; indeed this TV did a better job than the Panasonic plasma of rejecting ambient light to keep the black level looking black and could obviously get much brighter than the plasma, so brighter HD television and sports content had a nice amount of contrast and dimensionality during the day. Its screen isn't as mirror-like as some reflective screens; there is a little bit of diffusion to help cut down on room reflections, but you still need to be mindful of where lamps and windows are positioned in relation to the screen.
When I measured the EM55FTR's picture modes with my Xrite I1Pro 2 meter and SpectraCal software, the Movie mode was the closest to reference standards out of the box and served up better numbers than I would expect from a budget model. Its grayscale Delta Error was 4.92 (anything under five is considered good, and anything under three is considered imperceptible to the human eye; see "How We Evaluate and Measure HDTVs" for further explanation). The average gamma was 2.3, a perfect compromise between the recommended 2.2 for a dim room and 2.4 for a dark theater room. When I calibrated the TV, I was able to get an excellent color balance and lower the grayscale Delta Error to 2.0, with an average gamma of 2.28.
In the color realm, the Movie mode's six color points were solid but not excellent. Red and blue were the farthest for the Rec 709 reference points, with Delta Errors of 9.04 and 9.89, respectively. Since the TV lacks a color management system, the only way I could try to improve the numbers was to fine-tune the basic color and tint controls, and I was actually able to get decent results through this process. With just a few minor adjustments to color and tint, I was able to get the Delta Error under three for every color except blue, which was still up around the 7.6 range. Can you get better, more precisely accurate color in a higher-end TV? Absolutely, but these numbers are likely good enough for the vast majority of shoppers, especially in this price range.
As I mentioned, I used the Custom picture mode for my bright-room mode, which had an out-of-the-box grayscale Delta Error of 15.44, an average gamma of 2.28, and color points that were a little less accurate than those of the Movie mode. By doing nothing more than changing the color temperature to the Warm setting and lowering the brightness control one click, the grayscale Delta Error fell to 1.86 with a gamma of 2.23 and better color points (again, blue was off the mark). I doubt anyone spending $750 on a TV is going to drop a few hundred more on a professional calibration, so it's good news that the EM55FTR can perform so well with only minor tweaks that anyone can make with a DVD like Digital Video Essentials or Disney's WOW.
In the area of processing, the EM55FTR serves up a generally clean image without a lot of digital noise. It passed the 480i processing tests on my HQV Benchmark DVD and did a good job rendering my deinterlacing torture tests from the Gladiator (DreamWorks) and The Bourne Identity (Universal) DVDs, and generally I found the upconverted DVDs to have a nice level of detail. Unfortunately, when I switched to 1080i, the results were not as good. The EM55FTR failed the 1080i film test on the HD HQV Benchmark Blu-ray disc, and it failed all of the 1080i tests on the Spears & Munsil disc. I have my Dish Network Hopper DVR set to output everything at 1080i (because it doesn't let you output native resolution - boo!), and I did not notice many jaggies and other artifacts in real-world TV content. Still, you may want to let your source devices handle the upconversion from 1080i to 1080p when you can.
One final note about audio performance: The JVC's XinemaSound 3D processing and slightly thicker cabinet do produce better dynamics and bass response than many flat-panel TVs I've auditioned. However, I still found vocals and higher-frequency effects to sound somewhat unnatural and hollow, regardless of which sound mode I tried. As I always say, you're better off going with separate speakers or a soundbar, but at least this TV does perform better than others in the audio department. It also includes an Audio Only mode, easily engaged through a button on the remote, which turns off the video when you're using the TV for audio sources.
As I mentioned above, the EM55FTR's brightness uniformity is better than that of many edge-LED TVs that lack zone dimming, but it's still not as good as you'll get with a plasma or full-array LED/LCD. In the brighter Custom picture mode with the backlight set very high, I could especially see the unevenness in solid patches of white, as in a scene filled with snow. Likewise, the EM55FTR's viewing angle is pretty good for an LCD, but not on par with plasma. Brighter content holds up well at wider angles, but the black level does rise and color-shift a bit when you move off to the sides.
You may have noticed I used the word "claimed" in reference to the EM55FTR's 120Hz refresh rate. The actual literature says the refresh rate is "CM120Hz." I'm not sure what the CM actually stands for; however, based on what I saw in the motion-resolution tests on my FPD Benchmark Blu-ray disc, I'm guessing the EM55FTR actually has a 60Hz refresh rate and flashes the backlight between frames to simulate a 120Hz effect (which would also explain why there are no settings in the menu to adjust the 120Hz options). Other manufacturers (like LG) have been known to do this in some TVs, and you can tell because the resulting motion resolution just isn't as good as it should be in a true 120Hz TV. I could make out some moving lines in the HD720 fields of the FPD motion resolution pattern, but most of the lines were blurrier than I've seen in other true 120Hz TVs. The EM55FTR showed obvious blurring in other tests on the FPD disc, and I also noticed it in real-world content. If you are especially sensitive to the issue of motion blur, then this may not be the right TV choice for you.
One final issue related to the TV's setup: the EM55FTR crushes white detail a bit even when it's accurately set up, but make sure that you don't push the contrast control higher than the default 50, or the TV will crush white detail even further.
Competition and Comparison
Other 1080p LED-based LCDs in the EM55FTR's price class include the 55-inch RCA LED55C55R120Q, which lacks a smart/connected TV service. LG's 55LN5400 has an MSRP of $799.99, as does Samsung's UN55FH6003, but again, both models lack their companies' Smart TV platform. The main competition may come from Vizio's new E Series lineup, which includes the VIA! Smart TV platform and offers full-array LED backlighting with local dimming (limited to 18 zones, though). The 55-inch E550i-B2 carries an MSRP of $729.99.
If you've ever uttered the words "I just want a good-performing TV without having to pay for all the bells and whistles that I don't care about," then the new JVC EM55FTR is right up your alley. No, it's not a perfect TV, but it's really quite good for the asking price. I like this TV because it's not one-dimensional. So often, when I review a lower-priced LCD TV, I have to thrown in the caveat, "It's fine if you're looking for a daytime TV." But the JVC EM55FTR offers good performance for both daytime and nighttime viewing, for both movies and TV. The well-integrated Roku function is like the cherry on top of an already compelling package but, if the Roku feature doesn't interest you, JVC offers the same TV without the Roku Stick (model EM55FT) for an MSRP of $699.99. If the Emerald Series is any indication of what to expect from the new JVC, then I think the brand is definitely on the right track.