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...
I began my evaluation, as usual, by measuring several of the picture modes with their default factory settings in place. Not surprisingly, given their names, the Calibrated and Calibrated Dark modes are the closest to reference standards, and they offered up similar numbers in terms of white balance and color accuracy. In both modes, the color balance was solid, but a bit lean on green, and the largest grayscale Delta Error was about 6.5 at the brightest end of the spectrum. A Delta Error of three or less is considered imperceptible to the human eye, five or less is very good, and 10 or less is acceptable. All of the color points except cyan had a Delta Error less than three right out of the box, and cyan was only slightly above the DE3 target. This is good news, since the TV does not have a color management system to precisely fine-tune the color points. The main differences between the Calibrated and Calibrated Dark modes (again, as you can figure out from their names) is that the Calibrated Dark mode is meant for use in a completely dark room and thus has less light output (I measured a maximum light output of about 33 foot-lamberts) and a darker gamma average of 2.25. We generally go with 2.2 as our gamma target, although ISF now leans toward 2.4 in a completely dark room. The Calibrated mode, meanwhile, measured a maximum brightness of about 64 foot-lamberts and a gamma of 2.16.
Overall, these out-of-the-box numbers are close enough to reference standards to satisfy the vast majority of people, which is good, because I'm guessing that most consumers who are shopping for a TV at this price point will not have the set professionally calibrated. For those who might consider calibration, I was able, using the RGB gain and offset controls, to improve the white balance and reduce the maximum Delta Error in both of the Calibrated picture modes to around just 1.75. With a couple tweaks of the basic color and tint controls, I was also able to eke down the cyan error under the DE3 target. However, even though each color point's average Delta Error came in under the DE3 target, the individual luminance (brightness), saturation, and hue of each color weren't as balanced as I'd prefer. For instance, blue was quite undersaturated, and yellow was a bit oversaturated. What an advanced color management system brings to the table is the ability to not just bring down the Delta Error, but to make sure that the three elements of each color are in proper balance. You don't get that level of precise adjustment here. Likewise, the lack of adjustable gamma means that, if you prefer a darker gamma closer to 2.4 for movie-watching in a completely dark room, you don't have any settings to work with in this particular TV. But again, I think the numbers are good enough to satisfy the majority of shoppers.
Let's move on to black level. The inclusion of local dimming allows the M551D-A2R to produce nice, dark blacks without the corner/edge light bleed and patchy screen uniformity that are the bane of edge-lit LED/LCDs that lack local dimming. No, the M551D-A2R's black level couldn't compete with my reference Panasonic VT60 plasma at a comparable brightness level, but this LCD more than held its own. If memory serves, the black level is better than that of the LG 55LA7400 and the Sharp LC-60LE650U, and screen uniformity was vastly superior to that of the Sharp (which lacks local dimming). The visible detail within black scenes was also above average. Vizio's local dimming is not as precise or quick as I would like it to be, which did create some concerns that I will discuss below.
On the flip side, the Vizio TV can put out a nice amount of light which, combined with the good black level, allows for an image with excellent contrast in both dark and bright rooms. The M551D-A2R is not the light cannon that the Samsung UN55F8000 was, but I measured a maximum brightness of about 85 foot-lamberts, although that was in the less accurate Vivid and Game modes. As I mentioned above, the Calibrated mode measured about 64 foot-lamberts at its default, which was amply bright for daytime viewing in my family room with the window blinds open. Like most higher-end TVs these days, the Vizio uses a reflective screen, which did a good job rejecting ambient light to produce better blacks and contrast in a well-lit room. One thing I noticed during setup is that the M551D-A2R will crush white detail if the contrast is turned up too high. To get the Spears & Munsil contrast pattern to look perfect, I had to turn down the contrast to about 68 out of 100, which brought the brightness level slightly below ISF's minimum recommendations. In the Calibrated mode I used for daytime viewing, I went ahead and turned the contrast up to about 75, sacrificing just a bit of the finest white detail to get more light output.
The M551D-A2R performed better in the processing realm than previous Vizio TVs I've reviewed. It passed the 480i film, video, and assorted cadence tests on the HQV Benchmark DVD and most of the major 1080i cadence tests on the Spears & Munsil BD. My favorite real-world demo scenes from the Gladiator (DreamWorks) and Bourne Identity (Universal) DVDs had a few more jaggies than they do through my Oppo BDP-103 player, but there were no significant failings, and the level of detail in the upconverted image was good. The M551D-A2R produces a generally clean image without much digital noise; the Signal Noise Reduction control can make things even cleaner, but the High setting causes image smearing in low-light scenes. I kept it set to Low and was very pleased with the results. In the area of blur reduction, with Smooth Motion Effect disabled, the M551D-A2R actually did a better job than many LCDs of retaining detail in the motion resolution test on the FPD Benchmark BD; I could still discern some lines in the HD720 area. Enabling SME further improved motion resolution, although the HD1080 pattern was never as razor sharp as I've seen it through some 240Hz TVs. SME's improvement was more evident when trying to read license plates in the "moving car" test pattern on the FPD disc. In my case, I'm far more bothered by the smoothing effects of frame interpolation than I am by motion blur, and even the Low SME mode produces pretty obvious smoothing, so I opted to leave SME turned off.
A few other performance notes worth mentioning: the M551D-A2R's 3D performance was typical of passive 3D TVs: good image brightness, some visible line structure in solid colors and whites, no flicker, and no crosstalk when viewed straight on. With some passive 3D TVs, like the LG 55LA7400 I recently reviewed, if you place the TV too high on the wall and view 3D from a lower angle, you'll see a lot more crosstalk. That was less of a concern here; when I watched 3D while sitting on the floor, I saw maybe a little more crosstalk in my favorite crosstalk challenge, Chapter 13 of Monsters vs. Aliens (DreamWorks), but it was a minor concern. Speaking of viewing angles, the M551D-A2R has a better viewing angle than many LCD TVs; image quality, even in darker scenes, held up pretty well at wider angles.
Vizio's Smart Dimming is slower and less precise than other local dimming controls I've tested. As a result, I noticed a fair amount of glow around bright objects against dark backgrounds. For instance, when white text sits center screen against a black background, I saw a band of brightness across the entire middle of the screen. The slower response time means you can sometimes see the brightness level fluctuate as Smart Dimming tries to respond to the changing image on the screen - something I saw a lot in my favorite black-level demo, chapter one of The Bourne Supremacy (Universal). If you consider yourself a black-level purist, as I do, then Smart Dimming's shortcomings will be a bit of a distraction, especially when watching movies in a darker room. Still, it's definitely better to use Smart Dimming than not; turn off the control, and you can immediately see how much the TV's black level and overall screen uniformity suffer without it.
The Vizio screen is fairly reflective - I'd say it's just as reflective as the screens on the Samsung UN55F8000 and LG 55LA7400 I previously reviewed, and it produced the same rainbow/polarization artifacts when I placed my floor-standing lamp directly behind the seating area. You must be mindful about where you position the TV in relation to room lighting.
The fact that you can't disable Smooth Motion Effect with 3D sources could be a huge distraction for those (like me) who don't like its smoothing effect with film content. If you really like 3D and really don't like "smooth" film modes, this isn't the TV for you.
I had a lot of trouble playing video files over DLNA. Whether I used my Seagate DLNA server, the Plex DLNA app on my computer, or the AllShare DLNA app on my tablet, I consistently encountered playback errors; multiple times, the TV froze up when I tried to initiate DLNA video playback. Music and photo playback over DLNA worked better, and the USB media player worked fine for video, photos, and music.
Competition and Comparison
As I've already suggested, there's no shortage of options when shopping for an LED/LCD around the 55-inch screen size, from bare-bones budget TVs around $500 to top-shelfers priced at $2,500 and higher. Other 1080p 55-inchers with a feature set similar to that of the M551D-A2R include Samsung's UN55F6400 ($1,300) and UN55F6300 ($900), LG's 55LA6200 ($1,100), Toshiba's 58L4300U ($1,100), and Sharp's LC-60LE650U ($1,200). Despite similar features, none of these TVs has the M551D-A2R's local dimming to improve black level, screen uniformity, and contrast. Vizio's own E551D-A0 might be the biggest competitor, offering similar features in a slightly less stylish cabinet for $900.
My verdict is in. The M551D-A2R proves to be another fine example of why Vizio has become so popular amongst shoppers who care about both value and performance. Without a lot of tweaking, this TV's image quality is as good as, or even better than, several more expensive TVs that have crossed my path this year. It may lack the precision, both in black-level performance and calibration options, to satisfy serious movie-loving videophiles, but it makes a great choice for more casual all-purpose viewing. Add in the great collection of Web apps, the nice design, and the $1,050 price tag, and you've got yourself one must-see TV.