For the past few years, the major design trend in flat-panel HDTVs has been "thinner and lighter." LED/LCDs had a huge advantage in this area, thanks to the shift away from full-array LED backlighting to edge arrays that only put the LEDs around the screen's edges. Consumers love the sleek form, and manufacturers love that it's cheaper to produce and ship. There's only one problem with edge LED: the picture quality, at least from a home theater perspective, is often sub-par because edge-lit displays can suffer from a serious lack of screen/brightness uniformity. With darker content, the outer edges of the TV are clearly brighter than the middle, and there are often patches of brightness around the scene that make the picture look "cloudy." Adding some type of local/frame dimming can help to fine-tune the edge lighting system, but it's still not as precise as a well-implemented full-array LED backlight system with local dimming (and certainly not as good as plasma or OLED).
Now (thankfully) we're seeing a shift back toward full-array LED systems in the high-performance arena. Personally, I will happily accept a slightly thicker, heavier cabinet to get better picture quality. With many LED/LCD manufacturers, these full-array designs are only available at the top of the line--i.e., the really expensive TVs. However, Vizio shook up the whole flat-panel category by announcing that most of its 2014 TV line, even the budget series, would use full-array LED backlighting with local dimming. The difference between each series is the number of dimmable zones employed. The more dimmable zones the LED array has, the more precise the backlighting adjustment can be and the less glow (or halo effect) you will see around bright objects against a dark background--which is the potential drawback to local dimming LED displays compared with self-emitting technologies like plasma and OLED in which each pixel creates its own light.
Vizio's M Series is the mid-level offering in the company's lineup, above the budget E Series that features 18 dimmable zones and below the P Series Ultra HD models that use up to 72 zones. The M Series promises up to 36 zones and includes screen sizes of 32, 42, 49, 50, 55, 60, 65, and 70 inches (there's also a new 80-inch M801i-A3, but it uses an edge array). Vizio sent me the 60-inch M602i-B3 for review, which has 32 dimmable zones and a 240Hz "effective refresh rate" with Clear Action 720 technology to reduce motion blur and film judder. On the features side, the M Series includes the full Vizio Internet Apps (V.I.A.) Plus smart TV platform, with built-in WiFi and a remote with a full QWERTY keyboard. None of the 2014 Vizio TV models offers 3D capability. The M602i-B3 carries an MSRP of $1,249.99.
Setup and Features
The M602i-B3 has a simple but stylish design, with about a half inch of black bezel around the screen and a brushed silver accent strip around the cabinet's edge. The matching brushed-silver stand is a simple square with the center cut out; it does not swivel, but the TV felt very stable and secure in it. Despite the full-array LED system, the cabinet size and weight are not unwieldy by any stretch. The 60-inch model weighs 46.36 pounds without the stand and has a cabinet depth of 2.49 inches.
The M602i-B3's connection panel includes four HDMI inputs (three down-facing and one side-facing), one shared component/composite input, one RF input to access the internal tuners, optical and stereo analog audio outputs, an Ethernet port for a wired network connection (again, WiFi is also built-in), and one USB port for media playback. One of the HDMI inputs has support for Audio Return Channel (ARC), but none of them supports Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL).
The setup menu includes most of the advanced picture adjustments we like to see, even adding two that were absent in previous years: 11-point white balance adjustment and a color management system to adjust the hue, saturation, and brightness of all six color points (still no gamma adjustment, though). Six preset picture modes are available, including Calibrated and Calibrated Dark modes that are designed to be the most accurate options out of the box. Once you start tweaking the picture adjustments, the TV automatically creates Custom modes for your new settings (which can be re-named and locked). Backlight brightness can be adjusted via either a manual 100-step backlight control or an automatic brightness tool that adjusts the light output to suit your viewing conditions. You can choose to enable or disable the Active LED Zones (local dimming) function, and two controls--Motion Blur Reduction and Smooth Motion Effect--address the issues of blur and judder. Smooth Motion Effect interpolates new frames in order to reduce both motion blur and film judder, which results in smoother motion with film sources (aka the Soap Opera Effect), and you can choose between low, medium, and high options. Motion Blur Reduction uses black-frame insertion to further reduce blur; MBR reduces light output, but you can always compensate for that by upping the backlight.
On the audio side, the TV uses two rear-firing speakers. There are no preset sound modes, but you do get DTS TruVolume and TruSurround, plus a five-band equalizer to fine-tune the sound. I found the M602i-B3's speakers to offer solid vocal clarity and good dynamic ability; I didn't have to push the volume very high to get the needed dynamics. It's not the most natural-sounding audio, but it's respectable for a set of TV speakers.
The supplied IR remote control is small without being overly so. It puts a lot of black buttons on a black background and lacks backlighting, but at least the layout is intuitive, and some buttons are easily distinguished by their shape. Best of all, you can flip the remote over to access a full QWERTY keyboard to speed up the text-entry process when signing in and searching the various Web apps in the smart TV platform. Thankfully, the keyboard side is backlit. Since Vizio does not offer an iOS/Android control app with a virtual keyboard, I'm happy to see that the company brought back this dual-sided remote design (which was absent last year). I find it to be even more effective than those iOS/Android apps because the keyboard actually worked with every app I tried (including Netflix).
Speaking of apps, the Vizio Internet Apps Plus (V.I.A. Plus) smart TV platform is very straightforward and easy to operate. Just hit the V button in the center of the remote control, and it brings up a banner along the bottom of the screen where you can scroll the Web offerings -- including Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, VUDU, Hulu Plus, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Yahoo Widgets. With the Multimedia icon, you can access music, photo, and video files from a connected DLNA server or USB flash drive. There's also an icon for the Yahoo! Smart TV App Store that launches a full-screen interface where you can browse your existing apps and add new ones to the V.I.A. Plus banner. At this writing, there were over 100 apps to choose from in the Yahoo store, and most of the majors are represented, with the exception of HBO Go and the big sports apps like MLB.TV. Vizio's smart TV service doesn't include all the bells and whistles you get from manufacturers like Samsung and LG, such as voice/motion control, advanced search and content-recommendation tools, advanced integration with your cable/satellite box, a Web browser, and the iOS/Android control app with content sharing and screen mirroring. You can do second-screen sharing specifically with Netflix and YouTube, thanks to the TV's support for the DIAL protocol, which works a lot like Chromecast.
As usual, I began my evaluation process by measuring the different picture modes to see which one is the most accurate right out of the box, with no adjustment. Not surprisingly based on their names, the Calibrated and Calibrated Dark modes are the closest to reference standards. You can likely surmise that the Calibrated Dark mode has less light output (I measured about 38 ft-L with a 100-IRE full white field) and is better suited for dark-room/nighttime viewing. This mode had a maximum gray scale Delta Error of 6.36 (anything below 10 is good, below five is excellent, and below three is considered imperceptible to the human eye), a gamma average of 2.34 (with 2.2 as the designated target), and an RGB balance slightly lacking in green. The Calibrated mode, meanwhile, had a 4.7 gray scale Delta Error, a slightly better color balance but still lacking in green, a 2.32 gamma average, and light output measuring about 91 ft-L with a 100-IRE full white field. The Calibrated Dark mode had the best color accuracy out of the box, with green, cyan, and yellow having very low Delta Errors (below 2.5) but red, blue, and magenta being further off the mark. Red was the least accurate with a Delta Error of 11. You can learn more about these measurements by reading How We Evaluate and Measure HDTVs.
All in all, those are very respectable numbers that should satisfy the vast majority of shoppers, who likely will not pay extra to calibrate a TV in this price range. For those who want to dig deeper, though, I walked through a full calibration, starting with the Calibrated Dark mode as my foundation, and was able to get even better results. Using only the two-point RGB gain and offset controls, I was able to bring red, green, and blue into much tighter balance and lower the Delta Error to just 1.5, with a perfect gamma average of 2.2. The color management system wasn't as precise as I would like, but with a lot of tweaking I was able to improve the accuracy of red, blue, and magenta and get the Delta Error under three for all colors (we'll revisit this in a second, though). For those who want to get the most accurate image that this TV is capable of, paying a few hundred dollars for a professional calibration can yield really good results.
The M602i-B3 can put out a lot of light, for those who watch TV primarily in a brighter environment. As I mentioned above, the default Calibrated mode served up 91 ft-L while still offering a generally accurate picture; I got a maximum brightness of about 106 ft-L in the much less accurate Vivid mode. Vizio has also opted to use a screen that's more diffuse and less reflective. It's not a fully matte screen, but room reflections were far less visibly distinct on this TV than on the Samsung UN65HU8550 and Panasonic TC-55AS650U LED/LCDs I also had on hand. Those reflective screens did a slightly better job preserving image contrast, especially black level, in a bright environment, but the Vizio still performed quite well in this respect, without producing so many distracting reflections.
Now let's get to that black level, the all-important performance parameter for those of us who like to watch movies in a more theater-like setting. The reason full-array, local-dimming LED/LCDs are desirable is that they are able to turn off the LEDs behind the screen in dark areas of the picture, to create a truly deep black as opposed to the grayish blacks that are so common in LCDs. At the same time, bright areas can still be bright, resulting in excellent contrast...and that's exactly what I saw with the M602i-B3. In a direct comparison with the similarly priced Panasonic TC-55AS650U edge-lit LED/LCD that does not use local/frame dimming, the Vizio produced a dramatically darker black level in my demo scenes from Gravity (chapter three), The Bourne Supremacy (chapter one), and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (chapter four)--while still offering great image brightness to produce a very rich, well-dimensioned image. Black detail in these scenes was also excellent. The Gravity scene is an especially good test because it's a rendering of space--a black sky that's filled with stars. The Vizio TV served up a rich image palette, successfully relaying the blackness of space while preserving brightness and clarity in the many stars.
Regarding the halo effect, I sometimes saw a faint glow around objects, generally in scenes where one or two bright objects were set against a very dark background. I didn't find it to be egregious, however, and this TV's performance was notably better in this respect than last year's Vizio M551D-A2R edge-lit TV, which produced a fair amount of halo effect because of its less precise edge dimming.
I also compared the Vizio with the far more expensive Samsung UN65HU8550 UHD TV, an edge-lit display that does use a form of local dimming. Here, the difference in black-level performance within the image itself wasn't as dramatic - sometimes the Samsung's blacks looked darker, and sometimes the Vizio's did. But the Vizio consistently had the advantage in rendering the black bars in a 2.35:1 image. Why? Because the edge-lit Samsung has some minor uniformity/light-leakage issues around the edge, a problem you don't get with full-array LED.
In the processing realm, the Vizio M602i-B3 also proved to be a solid performer. The level of detail in both HD and upconverted SD content was very good (the Samsung Ultra HD TV didn't really look any more detailed in direct comparison). The Vizio TV passed the 480i and 1080i processing tests on my HQV and Spears & Munsil test discs, but it was a little slow to pick up the 3:2 cadence in my favorite real-world DVD tests from Gladiator and The Bourne Identity, resulting in some visible moiré at the beginning of the scenes.
As for motion resolution, this year Vizio uses the phrase "240Hz effective refresh rate" to describe the M Series, which the company did not use last year. That makes me think this is not a true 240Hz TV, but rather a 120Hz TV that relies on backlight blinking/scanning to simulate a 240Hz effect. That's a technicality. Even without the Motion Blur Reduction and Smooth Motion Effect tools enabled, the Vizio's motion resolution was a little better than average. In the FPD Benchmark motion resolution test, I could make out some moving lines at HD720, which is rarely the case with LCDs. Next, I enabled Motion Blur Reduction by itself and saw absolutely no improvement in any of the FPD tests. Then, I enabled the Smooth Motion Effect mode by itself and saw a definite improvement, with clean lines through HD720 and up into HD1080. Using Motion Blur Reduction on top of Smooth Motion Effect produced the best results, with clean lines through HD1080 and great results with the other test patterns on the FPD disc. If you are really sensitive to motion blur, the Smooth Motion Effect tool is the solution, which unfortunately does create that super-smooth result with film content. The low SME mode is subtle, but not subtle enough for my tastes. Other companies like Samsung and Sony include some type of effective blur reduction that doesn't include smoothing, and I had hoped the Motion Blur Reduction tool would accomplish that here--but it doesn't. Then again, I'm not especially sensitive to motion blur, so I just kept the SME and MBR controls turned off and was perfectly satisfied with the results.
One of my favorite Blu-rays for home theater demo purposes is Kingdom of Heaven. It's a gorgeous transfer of a gorgeous film that's filled with many complex textures and shades. The M602i-B3 did a fantastic job across the board, so much so that I found myself watching extra scenes just for the fun of it...and that's really the goal of it all, right?
As strong as the M602i-B3 is in many performance areas, there are a few issues that will matter primarily to the true videophiles amongst us. First of all, as has been the case in previous Vizio iterations, the local dimming control is a bit slow to react. Primarily in black-and-white title sequences and fade-to-black transitions, I could see the illuminated LEDs behind the screen slowly fade to black, instead of instantly shutting off. It's a bit of a distraction, but for me it's far preferable to the permanent brightness-uniformity problems on most edge-lit LED/LCDs.
In the area of color accuracy, the M602i-B3 lacks the precision that distinguishes the best panels. Yes, the color management system did help me get all six points under a Delta Error of three, but I could not achieve an ideal balance between hue, saturation, and brightness for most colors. Red was the biggest challenge; and, after the calibration process, I could see that my efforts had an adverse effect on skintones--which had looked pretty good before calibration but were quite red afterward. When I undid my adjustments to the red color point, skintones went back to looking very neutral and pleasingly natural, but reds definitely leaned toward orange. Perhaps a professional calibrator can finesse the CMS better than I could, but I just didn't find it to be as precise and effective as others I've used.
The M602i-B3 does not support 3D playback, a feature that is offered on many other TVs at this price.
Finally, the Multimedia viewer is not the most intuitive to navigate; and, just like the previous Vizio TV I reviewed, I had trouble playing back video files over DLNA. Music and photo files worked fine, but video files often would not play and sometimes froze up the entire system. Video playback over USB worked just fine.
Comparison? and Competition
There are plenty of 60-inch LED/LCDs on the market in the $1,000 to $1,200 price range, but the M602i-B3 is the only one to offer full-array LED backlighting with local dimming. Most of the others are edge-lit or direct LED and may or may not have some form of dimming to help with the black level. I compared the Vizio directly with the comparably priced Panasonic AS650U Series, which serves up a very accurate image and has a few more features (including 3D) but was nowhere close in the black-level department. Sony's KDL-60W850B could be a rival; it's edge-lit but at least uses frame dimming and is selling on Amazon for about $1,200. Samsung's UN60H6350 carries a similar price but no local dimming, while LG's 60LN5400 is a direct LED model in the same price range.
The biggest competitor may be Vizio's own entry-level E600i-B3, which is reportedly a very good performer in its own right and costs just $849.99. The E Series model uses 18 zones of dimming, has a more basic cabinet design, lacks the QWERTY keyboard on its remote, and omits the Smooth Motion Effect tool for motion/judder reduction.
Just out of curiosity, I compared the M602i-B3 directly with my Panasonic TC-P55ST60 plasma, which is no longer available for purchase. With a few black-level comparisons, the Vizio's performance was very close to the ST Series. It didn't quite have the black-level precision of the plasma, but its black-level depth and dark-room contrast were very close. And of course, the Vizio could be a lot bighter when necessary.
Quite simply, it'll be tough to find a better performer than Vizio's M602i-B3 for the money. It may not have that extra degree of black-level precision and color accuracy demanded by videophiles, but it strikes all the right notes for most everyone else: a great-looking image for both dark and bright viewing environments, a nice form factor, an easy-to-use but still well-equipped smart TV platform, a remote with a full QWERTY keyboard, and of course a compelling price tag.
The current market is loaded with TVs that are good enough, sometimes even great, for HDTV, sports, and gaming. However, when Panasonic pulled the plug on its plasma production, it created a void in the market for affordable theater-worthy TVs like the ST Series, designed to appeal to movie lovers. The M Series is the closest replacement I've seen in this price range, so kudos to Vizio for giving budget-minded movie enthusiasts something to get excited about.
• Check out our Flat HDTVs category page for similar reviews.
• Vizio Unveils 2014 M-Series TVs at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Vizio Launches P-Series Ultra HD TV Line at HomeTheaterReview.com.