With 4K and OLED presumably right around the corner, it may not make a lot of sense for anyone to be too excited for a measly 'ol HDTV - but I am. Just because "better" may be out there doesn't mean our current standard HD is ready to go quietly into that good night; if anything, I think it may have its best days ahead. Case in point: the all-new Vizio E601i-A3 (E601i) 60-inch edge-lit LED HDTV. Retail priced at under $1,000 retail ($999.99 to be exact), this 60-inch display not only puts stalwarts like Sharp and Panasonic on notice, it is a clear shot across 4K's bow. If HD can't beat 4K in the resolution war, then it will take the fight to the consumer where it matters most - the wallet. But is the Vizio good enough to consider buying, knowing 4K is just around the bend? That is what I wanted to find out.
I have to admit, Vizio is among the more exciting brands in the consumer space, if for no other reason than they're never boring. While high-end enthusiasts may shrug at Vizio's Costco brand image and dismiss them as entry-level, I don't. Vizio has changed the game in more ways than one, and whether you like its products or despise them, we should all give credit where credit is due. Without Vizio, companies like Panasonic, Samsung, Sony and Sharp would have had no reason to compete in the price wars as feverishly as they have in recent years. Moreover, unlike its competitors, Vizio has been actively trying to bolster its brand image by manufacturing increasingly better-performing models, while other companies cut corners and/or features in order to compete on cost.
The E601i is a prime example of where I believe Vizio is headed, for it not only shatters the 60-inch price barrier originally set by Sharp, it looks the part of a higher-end product than nearly any other budget-oriented display I've seen recently. Taking a page out of the Kuro handbook (yes, I went there and it won't be the last time), the E601i looks more tailored than gimmicky, thanks to its narrow (but not edgeless) black bezel. The bezel itself is a mere three quarters of an inch thick on all sides and is finished in gloss black. There's no gaudy silver surround or accent in the style that seems to be going around these days; even the Vizio nameplate is largely hidden from prominence, thanks to its near black-on-black silk screening. I like that. The display itself (without the included stand) measures 54 inches wide by 32 inches tall and just under two inches deep. The E601i, despite its size, is manageable in its weight, tipping the scales at 54 pounds, again, without its stand. With the included stand, the E601i's weight jumps to nearly 62 pounds and the depth increases to 11 inches.
Around back, it's more good news: the inputs are clearly and neatly laid out with enough real estate to accommodate both chunky terminations and aid in proper cable management, something that many edge-lit LED displays lack. Inputs are both side-mounted and bottom-mounted and include four HDMI (two side, two down), one component (side), one composite (side), one VGA (bottom), one RF (bottom), one Ethernet (bottom) and two USB (side). Outputs include an SPDIF digital audio out (bottom) and an analog audio out (bottom).
Behind the scenes, the E601i sports a native resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. The backlighting comes by way of Vizio's Razor LED system, which is to say it is edge-lit. The E601i is not a 3D-enabled display, but it does pack nearly everything else. Color is said to be 10-bit, with a reported contrast ratio of one million to one (dynamic). The refresh rate is 120Hz, with a response time of four milliseconds. Vizio claims a viewing angle of 176 degrees, which I'll get into later in this review. The E601i has two 10-watt internal speakers with SRS StudioSound, TruSurround HD and SRS TruVolume capability. The E601i boasts Vizio's own VIA Internet App platform that brings Netflix, Vudu, Pandora, Hulu Plus and more to the party. The Internet Apps can be accessed via Ethernet or wireless Internet connection. The E601i can also access multimedia content, be it images, music or movies stored on your home network or DLNA-compatible device. No list of compatible file formats is given, though past Vizio displays have been compatible with most major music and movie formats, such as MP3, MP4 and more. The E601i also features Smooth Motion and ambient light sensor technology.
As for the E601i's remote, it is more or less the same as what we've seen from Vizio for the past two or three generations. It features a full QWERTY keyboard, as well as quick access Internet keys for function with Netflix and other services. It isn't backlit and is on the smaller side of average, given that it boasts a full keyboard, but at the same time, it is functional and feels solid in hand.
The E601i arrived on my doorstep before its official public unveiling, though it was not a pre-production unit. The box itself is surprisingly thin for a display as large as the E601i, but it is well-packed and everything arrived safely. Unboxing the E601i is easy enough for a single person; while I was able to move it solo, that's not recommended. The included table base attaches to E601i via three small screws, which are located in a small bag alongside the display's other accessories, including the remote and power cord. Within a few minutes, I had the E601i placed and ready for calibration atop my Omni+ Vent equipment rack.
Upon power-up, the E601i will prompt you with a series of setup procedures, the most important of these being the initial option, which is whether or not to put the display into "store" or "home" mode. Whatever you do, do not put the E601i into its "store" mode if you plan on a) viewing it in a home and b) wish to perform any higher-level image adjustment and/or calibration to the display. The "store" mode is selected by default (why, I have no idea), so you must select "home" before proceeding. You've been warned.
I arranged for my friend and THX-certified calibrator Ray Coronado of SoCalHT to come over to help me with the E601i's calibration. Out of the box, we measured the E601i's default picture setting, which was "standard." In standard mode, the E601i's panel measured at a staggering 52 foot lamberts. Grey-scale was good, with a measured gamma of 2.0. Colorimetry was average, with the biggest shift being red, which pulled towards yellow, resulting in a slight orange hue. The light output was a little shy of the SMPTE standard in Movie mode, but this can easily be rectified by raising the Backlight setting a few clicks. The standard picture mode is an offset of the Movie mode. The higher gamma in Movie mode is desirable approaching the newly established reference for video mastering of 2.4 set by the ITU (International Broadcast Union) one of the industry's leading standards setting committees. So for complete light controlled environments the Movie mode is best, and for viewing conditions that require slightly brighter pictures the Standard mode is recommended.
Thankfully, the E601i provides you with a "custom" option. As a side note, the E601i has more image presets than any display I've seen in recent memory; it even goes so far as to separate all of the major professional sports into their own image presets. Post-THX calibration, we measured the E601i at a solid 40 foot-lamberts, with improved grey-scale tracking (average Delta E error of 1.6) and gamma measuring at 2.15. Since the E601i does not have any sort of CMS functionality, the only thing we were able to set definitively was the display's white point; when it was properly set, it did improve the E601i's colorimetry a bit. We were able to better tweak the color by manipulating the E601i's basic color and tint controls, but should you need (or demand) absolute color accuracy, you'd have to rely on an outboard device, such as a DVDO Duo or the like. It should be noted that there are a number of budget displays that lack CMS control, so while this is a knock against the E601i, it is not exclusive to it. It should also be noted that many so-called high-end displays, such as Sony's VPL-VW1000ES 4K projector, also lack CMS controls. Still, post-calibration, the E601i's color accuracy was above average and, in practical viewing, it proved to be largely a non-issue, as test patterns, test images and the like looked natural and even textbook.
Before I move to the E601i's performance, I want to talk briefly about its edge lighting system. Out of the box, and in any of its preconfigured image modes, there is some visible edge light leak when viewing low light or dark images. It's not as bad as many of today's edgeless designs, but the light leak is still present. We were able to minimize and in some instances effectively eliminate its edge light deficiencies by balancing the display's overall brightness through the use of backlighting and brightness. Keeping both adjustments more or less around the halfway point (50s for brightness and low 60s for backlighting) proved ideal. Additionally, thanks to the E601i's contrast capabilities, we were able to further augment brightness, without sacrificing contrast, by bumping up the contrast. This three-way dance, when done correctly, resulted in little to no edge light leaks and some of the richest black levels I've seen in an edge-lit LED display.
I kicked my evaluation off with James Cameron's Avatar on Blu-ray disc (20th Century Fox). I didn't chapter ahead; instead, I opted to let the film play from the beginning, since there are a myriad of bright and dark scenes in rapid succession. The shots of the transport ship steaming through the blackness of space were jaw-dropping. The E601i's edge lighting system did not betray the image in any way as the deep, dark blackness of outer space was rendered brilliantly. Truthfully, there's only one LED HDTV that I've seen in recent memory with the same black level fidelity I witnessed through the E601i, and that is the Elite from Sharp at five or six times the E601i's price. Part of the reason for this discrepancy, I believe, is the E601i's matte finish screen, as opposed to most LEDs' high-gloss screens.
Read more about the performance of the Vizio E601i-A3 on Page 2.
The matte screen surface does an admirable job of absorbing light and minimizing reflections, so I have to imagine it helps in creating a rich black-level experience, as the display surface seems to be a bit of black hole. Also, the matte screen surface didn't enhance or impart a sheen to the image, especially colors and skin tones, which resulted in an image that appeared far more natural to my eyes. No, it didn't pop the way some LED displays do, but I'd argue that neither does real life, which is why I preferred the E601i's image and felt it more natural in its rendition than even my reference Panasonic plasma.
The combination of the E601i's screen, black-level rendering, contrast and natural color (despite slight colorimetry errors) resulted in one of the most naturally sharp and dimensional HD images I've seen. Edge fidelity was great, without artificial enhancements or any sort of video or motion anomalies. Skin tones and textures looked organic and, again, natural, despite the film's somewhat artificial or enhanced color palette, thanks to its otherworldly locale of the planet Pandora.
Moving on, I fired up Crimson Tide on Blu-ray (Hollywood Pictures). Crimson Tide was originally shot on 35mm film and then later scanned in order to be transferred to Blu-ray. I do not know if the film was fully remastered or not; suffice to say that the transfer to Blu-ray looks good, though it's clear that the images were originally captured on film. The E601i does not alter or try and mask this, which is a good thing. The edges of the performers and/or their surroundings were appropriately soft, compared to today's modern films, but that isn't to say the E601i is vague, it's just true to the source. Despite this slight roundness to the image's sharpness, it still appeared sharp and dimensional. Black levels again were superb, though the color grading in this particular film imparted a slight cool hue to them. This allowed me to make a comparison between the E601i's ability to display true black and manipulated or color-corrected black, as evident in the aspect ratio bars top and bottom, versus the black within the action on screen. The black bars top and bottom were nearly as deep as the E601i's bezel, while the slight cool black tones in the film were a few shades lighter than that. Keep in mind that I had all dynamic contrast and/or adaptive lighting turned off, so it wasn't as if the E601i was killing some of its edge lighting to ensure the black bars top and bottom stayed black.
Skin tones were again natural in their portrayal and, thanks to the film's Earthly origins, they appeared far more realistic in their tone, detail and texture. During the scene where the Navy officers await their order to board the USS Alabama in what can only be described as a torrential downpour; the E601i's superb contrast rendered the rain in such a way that it appeared genuinely wet. The high-contrast narrow streaks of white that often portray rain on film can easily become overwhelmed by today's digital compression, noise or a display's poor contrast and motion capabilities. Not so with the E601i, as it was rendered with aplomb.
I ended my critical evaluation of the E601i with the recently Blu-ray re-release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount). Without rehashing earlier praise, let me just say the E601i's color rendering was simply beautiful and wholly cinematic. What stood out to me on this demo was the E601i's rendering of texture, as the film's period garb proved a good yardstick by which to judge. I could easily discern whether a performer was wearing wool, tweed, cotton or silk by the sheer level of fine detail the E601i was able to capture. Another thing that stood out to me was the E601i's control over the film's brighter elements. This again speaks to the E601i's contrast capabilities, as I've seen many a display, including those costing far more than this, rob cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's work of his signature look, specifically in his treatment of highlights. For example, in the diner scene, the light over Harrison Ford's shoulder gives him and his hair line a strong rim light. Kaminski lets the highlights bloom, creating a halo-like effect, but he is careful not to lose Ford's hairline in the process, and that is exactly how the E601i displayed the image. Impressive.
With my opinions towards the E601i's image quality cemented, I then proceeded to test its other functions, specifically its Internet connectivity and apps. The E601i's apps are accessible by pressing the centrally located Vizio icon or button on the display's remote. Doing so will cause a pop-up menu to appear along the display's lower edge. You can scroll through the various options by using the directional keys on the remote. The speed and quality of your Internet connection will determine how seamless an experience you will have with any of the aforementioned apps, as they are all streaming-based.
A quick glance at a few Netflix trailers proved that, despite the E601i's superb image quality with Blu-ray content (and even DVD), there's no getting around the often crap quality of today's overly compressed streaming files. Still, everything worked as advertised and was simple enough to navigate that even my wife could manage without any sort of instruction by me.
Lastly, I just want to point out that, as a computer monitor, the E601i is positively brilliant. I'm not a gamer, but I can see diehard computer or console gamers falling all over themselves when playing games on the E601i. I merely surfed the Internet and did some minor Photoshop tweaks just to see how the E601i fared and was blown away. Granted, when it comes to true computer monitors, you can get higher resolutions than the E601i provides, but for those who just want to experiment now and then, the E601i is good fun.
Okay, I'll admit it, I was - am - blown away by the E601i's performance. That said, there are a few items that keep it from being truly reference grade. For starters, the viewing angle is not as wide as Vizio suggests. In fact, it's much, much narrower. Vizio would have you believe that you can enjoy the E601i in an arc stretching as wide as 178 degrees. This simply isn't true. Yes, you can technically see an image at roughly 178 degrees, but it's not one I'd call enjoyable. For best performance, you're going to want to restrict your viewing angle to about the width of a standard three-seat sofa. Sitting too low or too high will also play a role in how good or bad you perceive the E601i to be. This is honestly the biggest strike against the E601i.
Next, I would've liked to see full CMS control inside the E601i's menu options. It's not that the E601i's colorimetry is wickedly out of sorts, but it could be better; it lacks the control to make it so. Minor color and tint adjustments (post grey-scale calibration) will help things, but without an outboard device, one hundred percent color accuracy is impossible with the E601i.
I'm not certain the first option a consumer should face when powering on the E601i is whether or not to put it into "store" or "home" mode, especially as "store" is the factory default. If you're at all like me, when you first buy a new TV, you want to get to the action as quickly as possible. I wonder how many E601i purchasers will mistakenly put their new screens into "store" mode unwittingly, due our need for immediate gratification. For those of you who don't know what "store" mode is, it's an image preset that basically sets the display into full on or full auto mode, meaning all features and lighting adjustments are engaged in order to produce the most brilliant image possible. Yes, it is captivating from a distance, but it is totally wrong for home viewing and cannot be calibrated properly. If you want a blisteringly bright image, simply select "home" mode, then put the E601i into its "vivid" setting, and you'll be most of the way there.
Lastly, regarding the E601i's menu, I wish there was a way to save and recall your settings. I know that technically your settings are saved on each input until you change them, but there's no way to store those settings to recall them later should something get mixed up or, worse, a loved one hits reset. Some form of memory functionality would be a welcome feature.
Competition and Comparison
It's not that 60-inch LED HDTVs are anything new. Hell, nearly every manufacturer offers an SKU or 12. What makes the E601i unique among its competitors is that its everyday price rests below a grand and its performance and connectivity are also largely otherwise unknown in its class.
That said, the most obvious competitor is Sharp. If you follow financial news, you're no doubt aware that Sharp is on the verge of going belly up, making any investment in their HDTVs a potentially shaky one. Still, Sharp does sell several 60-inch edge-lit LED models, though the closest one in price to the E601i retails for around $1,300 and features zero Internet connectivity. If I'm honest, the lesser or cheaper Sharp models (normally those not branded with Quattro) don't possess the chops that the Vizio E601i does in terms of picture quality.
Other competitors include Samsung and LG, both of which have come on strong as of late in the thin-is-in LED market. However, in my opinion, in Samsung's and LG's quests for beauty, they've sacrificed image quality, most notably light uniformity due to their lack of bezel. Low-light scenes or 2.35:1 content on many of these so-called bezel-less designs are often plagued with visible edge light, resulting in washed out blacks. Additionally, I do not believe that either LG or Samsung's more affordable LED displays come even close to matching the price of the E601i.
For more on these LED displays and other HDTV displays like them, please visit Home Theater Review's HDTV Review page.
Once again, Vizio has managed to take a popular segment of the HDTV marketplace and make it accessible to more people without sacrificing performance or functionality with their E601i-A3 60-inch LED HDTV. It's not that the E601i is perfect - no display is - but it is surprising. Not only is the E601i the most affordable 60-inch LED display out there, it manages to outperform all of its direct competition and even some costing much, much more. There are a few options I'd love to see included with the E601i, such as CMS. I'd also love to see Vizio improve the viewing angle in future models, but again, for a sub-$1,000 HDTV the E601i is hard to fault.
Earlier, I spoke about the emergence of 4K and/or OLED and how either may affect your future buying decisions. If you're in the market for a new HDTV, but you're holding out for 4K or OLEDs to become more affordable, I understand. I'm in the same boat, but as of right now, both 4K and OLED are prohibitively expensive, if they're even available to mere mortals like you and me. What I like about the E601i is that it hits a price point that makes a lot of sense (at least to me) while I wait to see what transpires with 4K and/or OLED. Both 4K and OLED are coming, but we're still a ways away before either hit the levels of affordability we're talking about with the E601i. With regard to other similarly-sized LED HDTVs, I'm not sure I would spend more. I just don't feel the amount you'd have to spend to outright best the E601 is worth it. In any case, most viewers willing to invest in proper calibration will likely not be aware of the E601i's minor colorimetry errors.
It's my conclusion that, on its own, the E601i is not an absolute reference display, but with a little help, and provided you're within its optimal viewing angle, there is little that keeps the E601i from being world-class. I love it.
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