Vizio has earned a reputation as being king of the value-oriented TV, but what makes that so? Yes, in the company's early days, it stacked 'em deep and sold 'em cheap, but there are now plenty of other TV manufacturers that also target the budget-conscious shopper, including Westinghouse, Hisense, Seiki, and Insignia. Even the major manufacturers like Samsung, Panasonic, and LG offer budget lines with limited feature sets, but these TVs often employ step-down performance technologies, too. What sets Vizio apart, at least in recent years, isn't necessarily the low price at which the TV is offered; it's the amount of features and level of performance that you get for the price. Vizio has been very good at finding that perfect balance of performance and features at a price that makes the company's TVs impossible to overlook.
The question on the table today is, does the 2013 M Series follow suit? On paper, it certainly seems to do so. The M Series, which includes screen sizes from 32 to 80 inches, is technically Vizio's mid-level line, positioned above the E Series but below the XVT Series that will include the soon-to-be-released Ultra HD models. The M Series of 1080p TVs is loaded with the features that most consumers crave - things like built-in WiFi, DLNA/USB media playback, and a robust Smart TV package that includes all the big-ticket Web applications. To keep the cost down, Vizio omits some the perks you get from the other guys' top-shelf lines, like voice/motion control, an integrated camera, a Web browser, MHL support, and an iOS/Android control app. These perks are nice but not necessary, and I'm guessing a lot of people will gladly sacrifice them in exchange for a good-performing TV at a good price.
As for performance technologies, the M Series is part of Vizio's Razor LED lineup of edge-lit LED-based LCDs. All of the M Series models include local dimming, which is designed to improve black-level performance and is usually only offered in companies' top-tier lines (if it's offered at all). On M Series models 50 inches and larger, you also get a 240Hz refresh rate with Smooth Motion technology to reduce blur and judder, as well as passive 3D capability, with up to eight pairs of passive 3D glasses included in the box. To top it all off, the M Series has the sleekest cabinet design in Vizio's current lineup, with only about a quarter inch of black bezel surrounding the top and sides of the screen and about 1.5 inches of cabinet depth at its thickest point. The TV frame has a brushed silver accent strip around its edges, with a matching rectangular stand that does not swivel. The TV weighs just 44.6 pounds without the stand and 50.1 pounds with the stand.
At the risk of sounding like an infomercial, how much would you expect to pay for all of this? Well, the 55-inch M551D-A2R that Vizio sent me to review carries a current selling price of $1,049.99. Are there lower-priced 55-inch LCD TVs on the market? Of course, but not many with a spec sheet as comprehensive as that of the M551D-A2R. Then again, spec sheets don't tell the whole story, do they? Let's dive in and see how this TV measures up in the real world.
Setup and Features
The M551D-A2R's connection panel offers four HDMI inputs, including one side-facing input for easy access when the TV is wall-mounted. You also get one shared component/composite input and one RF input to access the internal tuners. Two side-facing USB ports are available for media playback, as is an Ethernet port for a wired network connection. Stereo analog and optical digital audio outputs are available; soundbar users may be interested to know that you can pass 5.1-channel Dolby Digital from the HDMI inputs through the digital audio output (many TVs only pass HDMI audio as stereo PCM through their digital audio outputs).
The setup menu includes the core picture adjustments required to calibrate the TV, but it lacks some of the more advanced options to really fine-tune the image quality. You get six picture modes, including modes called Calibrated and Calibrated Dark that are designed to be the most accurate options out of the box. In addition to four color-temperature presets, RGB gain and offset controls are available to calibrate the TV's white balance. Absent are the 10-point white balance controls found in many top-shelf TVs, as well as an advanced color management system and adjustable gamma. Noise reduction is available, as is a manual 100-step backlight control and an automatic brightness function that allows the TV to automatically adjust the light output to suit your viewing conditions. You can choose to enable or disable the Smart Dimming (local dimming) function, and you can choose between four 240Hz Smooth Motion Effect settings: Off, Low, Medium, and High. All three of the Smooth Motion Effect options employ some degree of frame interpolation (or MEMC, motion estimation motion compensation) to produce that smooth, video-like effect with film sources. Vizio does not offer the separate blur and judder controls you get from some other manufacturers.
When you switch over to 3D content, you get a whole new set of picture modes that can be independently adjusted, although you do lose the ability to adjust sharpness and noise reduction. Most importantly, you cannot adjust the Smooth Motion Effect control, which is locked at Medium - meaning that you cannot watch 3D content without getting the smoothing effect with film sources.
On the audio side, the TV uses two down-firing speakers and no subwoofer. The audio menu includes five preset sound modes, with the ability to tweak a five-band equalizer within each mode. Volume leveling and a surround mode are available, as are basic balance, treble, and bass controls and the ability to adjust for lip-sync problems. You can set the digital audio output for PCM or bitstream. Overall, the quality of Vizio's internal speakers is average at best - the system is expectedly lean on dynamic ability and light in the mids and lows. You might want to consider investing the money you save on the TV into a soundbar like the $330 Vizio S4251w-B4 that recently earned a spot on our Best of 2013 list.
Vizio Internet Apps Plus (V.I.A. Plus) isn't just a bare-bones Web platform that offers Netflix, YouTube, and one or two others. All of the majors are represented, including Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video , VUDU, Hulu Plus, M-Go, Rhapsody, Pandora, I Heart Radio, TuneIn, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, ESPN Extra, the Yahoo app suite, and many more. Vizio recently upgraded V.I.A. Plus, somewhat moving away from the Yahoo Widgets design where everything pops up on the side of the screen, providing a new full-screen experience. Press the remote's V button once to bring up a toolbar along the bottom of the screen to quickly browse the most popular apps; press the V button again to launch the new full-screen interface, where apps are divided into My Apps, Featured, Latest, Categories, etc. Some apps, like Twitter and Facebook, still employ the Yahoo design, where the interface runs along the left side of the screen, requiring lots of page turns to browse the content. The major apps I demoed started up fairly quickly, and playback was reliable. V.I.A. Plus doesn't include the advanced search/recommendation tools you get in Samsung and LG's Smart TV platforms, but the service is still quite thorough and easy to navigate and use.
The supplied remote control puts a lot of small, black buttons on a black background, but it does offer subtle white backlighting that makes it much easier to use in the dark. I found the button layout to be intuitive, and dedicated buttons for Netflix, Amazon, and M-Go allow you to quickly launch those Web apps. The User's Manual says that the remote communicates with the TV over WiFi Direct and can be programmed to control other devices connected via HDMI or component video. However, that was not my experience. My review sample lacked the "Devices" sub-menu necessary to set up control of additional components. Not only did the remote require line of sight, but communication between the remote and TV was often quite sluggish and finicky. (A Vizio representative says that a planned firmware update will add the WiFi Direct capability.) Vizio does not offer a free iOS or Android control app with a virtual keyboard, nor does it allow for the connection of a USB or Bluetooth keyboard to more easily enter text when signing in to apps and searching for content. Again, these are advanced functions that you sacrifice to get the lower price. The M551-A2R does support the DIAL protocol that allows you to easily view content from phone/tablet apps like YouTube and Netflix on your TV.
Click over to Page 2 for The Perforrmance, The Downside and the Conclusion of the Vizio M551D-A2R LED/LCD HDTV review...