Jeff Berman is one of a rare breed of AV industry writers who focuses on the business side of the market. In addition to a rich history of working in retail, he has written for M&E Daily, Smart Content News, Smart Screen News, and CDSA Cyber Security News, and also worked for six years as a contributing editor for the Consumer Technology Association's annual Digital America publication.
Consumers and CE manufacturers clearly seem to have mixed opinions about curved TVs at this point. However, based on announcements made by a few TV makers at CES, curved TVs aren't going away anytime soon, even if some companies choose to remain on the sidelines.
Granted, there doesn't seem to be the same degree of vitriol felt by a large segment of consumers about curved TVs as there continues to be with 3D TV. But, similar to 3D, there still seems to be a large base of consumers who don't think the curve is worth any extra cost, and there continues to be some degree of confusion among consumers about curved TVs.
Samsung introduced several curved 4K TVs last year alongside its flat 4K TVs and, at CES, bowed new curved models for 2016 that include the massive, 105-inch U9500 and the flagship KS9500, billed as the "first bezel-less" curved TV. TCL topped Samsung in the size war, introducing a 110-inch curved Ultra High Definition (UHD) TV featuring High Dynamic Range (HDR). Hisense bowed new 4K TVs in its H9 and H10 Series that feature its Ultra LED (ULED) backlight control technology, while introducing the first curved models for the Sharp brand in the U.S., in the 4K AQUOS N9000U Series. Panasonic jumped into the curved TV category just ahead of CES, with the TX-65CZ950 OLED 4K TV.
LG expanded its presence in the curved TV category this year with the OLED C6 that Tim Alessi, director of new product development at LG Electronics USA, said will ship in 55- and 65-inch SKUs. LG introduced two curved OLED TV series last year: the EG9100 (a 55-inch 1080p OLED model) and the EG9600 (shown below, offered in 55- and 65-inch versions). Both series remain available in 2016, said Alessi.
"LG continues to offer OLED TVs in both flat and curved configurations to give consumers a range of choices that meet their needs," Alessi told HomeTheaterReview.com after CES. Unlike curved models from certain rivals, LG doesn't charge extra for the curve, he said.
LG clearly sees OLED as the superior display technology for using a curved design in comparison to LED-backlit LCD TVs. "The unique properties of OLED technology allow for it to be curved and still maintain its advanced picture quality, whereas the curve of an LED/LCD TV often negatively affects picture quality, especially when viewing off axis," said Alessi. "With most LED/LCD TVs, a person who is seated as little as 20 degrees off center will experience dramatically degraded contrast and color accuracy," he said. "OLED is the ideal TV technology because its wide viewing angles deliver exceptional picture quality, whether it's flat or curved and no matter where you sit," he said.
For Joel Silver, president and founder of the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF), the pluses and minuses of curved TV technology come down mainly to one simple issue: "I have no problems with a curved TV as long as I have the middle seat," he said in a phone interview. "Off-axis viewing on an LCD is not desirable. Period. Off-axis viewing on an OLED is significantly better," he said. Off-axis viewing on any LCD TV "is an issue - they don't do that well," he said. "It's just a fact of life. The technology on LCD produces inferior pictures off-axis, and the best LCDs with the best contrast are worse off-axis," he said. "On any LED/LCD TV, curved or not curved, it's preferable to sit directly facing the screen in the middle," he explained. On the other hand, if a room is very bright, an LED-backlit LCD TV is typically a better option than an OLED TV, he said.
Curving the edges of an LED-backlit LCD TV towards the viewer makes that set "perform better," but only "if you stay in the center," said Silver. "If I've got an 85-inch panel in LED, the off-axis on the left and right is rough. It's better when you curve it," he said.
One issue that's been debated plenty is whether a curved or flat TV handles glare and reflections better than the other. The truth is, there is no clear answer: In some rooms, curved TVs handle reflections better than flat TVs, but in other rooms curved TVs handle them worse, said Silver. In other words, every room is different, so there is no clear-cut winner.
Chris Chinnock, president and founder of Insight Media, believes there may be more issues with glare on curved TVs. Some companies have started talking about new glare-reduction films, and curved TV screens are probably the ones that need them the most, he said. Curved screens can "create a weird warped image" from a reflection when the screen is black and also sometimes with dark content when viewed off angle, he said. Anti-reflective films might help with that issue. "Overall, I am not sure if there is a real value proposition for the curve over the flat for a TV application," he said.
So far, despite increased sales of curved TVs in 2015, U.S. consumers still prefer flat TVs to curved models by a wide margin. Curved TVs made up only 6.2 percent of TVs 50 inches and larger that were sold in the U.S. during the fourth quarter of 2015, said Stephen Baker, vice president-industry analysis at NPD. But unit volumes soared 77 percent in that time frame, he added.
Curved TV sales will continue to grow in 2016, predicted Paul Gray, principal analyst and researcher at IHS Technology. After increasing from about 331,300 units in 2014 to about 795,500 units in 2015, he projected North American curved TV shipments will jump to about 1 million units this year. That would be far behind the 41.1 million units of flat TVs that he predicted will ship in North America this year (although that represents a decline in flat TV shipments from 42.2 million in 2015).
So far, Samsung has been offering curved TVs as a "bit of differentiation" for TV customers at the high end, Gray told us by email. In the case of Samsung, that means 4K models only. There are still relatively few brands offering curved models, although certain Chinese TV brands are "having a go at curved" this year, said Gray, referring to Hisense and TCL.
Although some consumers may now automatically assume that every curved TV is a 4K display, that is obviously not the case, as LG's 1080p curved OLED TV proved last year. In fact, the curve was originally used as a "differentiator and structural integrity" for OLED TVs because those products "have very little structural strength," said ISF's Silver.
As a consultant, Silver has seen "considerable pushback" on curved TVs from people designing installations simply because they "do not hug the wall and the back is visible," he said. However, the "two things we've seen that are spectacular" on curved TVs are when three curved panels are used together at the same time for video and computer game playing, and LG's enormous OLED curved TV wall at CES, said Silver. The latter was the "best use of curved displays I've ever seen," he said.
Desktop applications in general, including gaming, represent an area where "there may be more value" for consumers when it comes to curved displays, said Insight Media's Chinnock.
In the meantime, TV makers and retailers still face some consumer confusion about curved TVs ... and the confusion varies depending on the customer.
"There's a lot of confusion on it," said Silver. For one thing, some consumers mistakenly believe that a TV must be curved to be a 4K TV. I experienced a bit of that confusion myself among TV shoppers at a Sears store in Hicksville, New York.
"There's certainly a contingent that would think that, because the first 4K TVs were curved," said Silver. "And then amongst that contingent that noticed that it was different, you had a split" between those who loved it and those who hated it, he said. There was no significant technical issue involved in that split, he said. Some people who liked it just liked it because it was something new, while others tended to dislike it because they saw the back of the TV and the wires behind it could be seen.
Some customers of Electronic Express, a retailer with 16 locations in Tennessee and another store in Decatur, Alabama, have mistakenly believed that all curved TVs are 4K sets, said Abe Yazdian, its vice president of merchandising and treasurer. However, he wasn't aware of customers who believed the reverse--that all 4K TVs are curved. Some customers find curved TVs appealing because they like the fact that those sets are "different" and, by buying one, they can "show it off" to their friends, he said. Curved TVs have, therefore, become a "status" symbol of sorts for those customers.
Customers of retailer Audiotronics, which has stores in Blacksburg and Roanoke, Virginia, prefer flat TVs to curved models "by an extremely wide margin," said Alan Guyes, its principal and home AV buyer. Part of the reason is that this particular retailer supported Sony as its main TV supplier in 2015 and that manufacturer isn't making any curved TVs now. He does have LG and Samsung curved models on display, but those TVs are just not selling as well as flat ones, he said. Customers don't seem terribly confused about curved TVs, although some come in "looking for justification" to buy one and aren't clear on whether there are any technical advantages to doing so. Most of his customers, however, have already investigated curved TVs before visiting one of his stores and already made up their minds that they don't like them. Those customers who do like curved models just seem to like the fact that they're something different, he said, calling it the "gee-whiz factor."
So, readers, what's your preference between curved and flat TVs and why? Let us know in the Comments section below.
CES 2016 Show Report and Photo Slideshow at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• 3D Isn't as Dead as You Thought It Was at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Do Consumers Really Want Curved HDTVs? at HomeTheaterReview.com.