In recent weeks Vizio, makers of quality flat panel displays for the masses, announced that they had surpassed consumer electronics giant Sony and become the second largest flat panel manufacturer in the United States behind Samsung. While that might not be surprising to some given the proliferation of their brand and brand image in stores such as Costco and Wal-mart, it's a remarkable feat when you consider that just three years ago Vizio was all but unknown. One would suspect such a meteoric ride to come crashing to Earth soon, yet even as the economy continues to dive further into the abyss Vizio's sales are up. Why? Unlike other CE brands and manufacturers, Vizio has kept its premise and mission consistent and exceedingly simple: make a product people want, make it good and make it affordable. No product represents the Vizio credo more than the 55-inch VF550XVT LCD HDTV reviewed here, for it's Vizio's flagship product yet costs a mere $1,999.
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Boasting a sleek, black piano finish accentuated by the attached chrome/silver sound bar the VF550XVT is an attractive looking HDTV but one can't help but notice it bares a striking resemblance to a few Sony displays that are currently on the market. Ignoring the looks for a minute the VF550XVT has no visible front mounted controls/inputs, for those you'll have to look to the side of the screen where you'll find manual controls for power, channel, volume, input, etc. You'll also find the VF550XVT's fifth HDMI input along with a single component video input and composite audio and video input. Around back there are four HDMI inputs all of which are HDCP compliant, two component video inputs, two composite video inputs along with a single S-Video input as well as a RGB or computer monitor input. All video inputs, including one of the HDMI inputs are mated to RCA style stereo inputs for audio. The VF550XVT has an RF input for the TV's internal tuner as well as a pair of analog audio outs and a single digital optical audio out. There is a jack for headphone listening as well but it's placement makes using anything but wireless headphones kind of a pain.
Under the hood the VF550XVT is the most technically advanced display Vizio has ever produced. Boasting a native resolution of 1920x1080 (1080p) the VF550XVT's technical specs in terms of contrast, brightness and colors are a bit normal, if not a little low, compared to other manufacturers claims, however, unlike the competition, the VF550XVT seem very accurate. What sets the VF550XVT apart from other HDTVs is its use of the new internal Silicon Optics HQV processor, which aids in scaling, deinterlacing and noise reduction in the image. While the HQV chip set may not be as widely used as say Faroudja or Anchor Bay chips rest assured it's every bit as good, if not better in some regards. Along with the HQV processor the VF550XVT also has a 120Hz refresh rate, which is a bit of a double-edged sword for some, including this reviewer. However, unlike other 120Hz sets out there the VF550XVT seems to have more control over its bag of tricks allowing the technology to be a wanted feature instead of what my friends call "RBN Technology" or Ruin Blu-ray Now Technology. I'll get into that more later.
Aside from the VF550XVT video quality, it also features some pretty robust sound features as well. The VF550XVT has an integrated sound bar that takes advantage of the latest SRS audio technology; TruSurround HD and TruVolume. TruSurround HD helps bring a more three-dimensional virtual theater like surround sound performance to the VF550XVT's built in speakers where as TruVolume monitors and manages peaks and dips in the sound levels so you're not constantly reaching for the remote to adjust the volume.
Speaking of remotes, no HDTV would be complete without one and the VF550XVT's remote is rather nice, in fact, it's great. The remote itself is a good size and shape that fits nicely in hand and minus the picture and input selection buttons (including the sleep timer) is intuitively laid out and features full back lighting which is essential if you're planning on using the VF550XVT in a darkened room like I did. Kudos to Vizio for making a remote that is not only useful but one I enjoyed using.
Integrating and/or installing the VF550XVT into a system, like my bedroom system, was a breeze facilitated largely by the fact that it comes standard with an HDMI cable. The simple fact that it includes an HDMI cable almost made me weep for no other manufacturer in recent memory has bothered to include the requisite cables needed to get the most out of their products. Because of the supplied HDMI cable I didn't have to go trolling through my box of cables looking for a spare to connect all of my HDMI capable sources which included a Sherwood Blu-ray player (review pending), Apple TV and Dish Network DVR, all of which connected to the VF550XVT's HDMI inputs with ease. I went ahead and bypassed my Denon receiver for the duration of this review, using the VF550XVT's sound bar for all audio duties. Minus the wait I had to endure before my fiancée came home to help me lift the VF550XVT onto our bedroom TV stand the entire install took less than five minutes.
Vizio was kind enough to send along a data sheet from ISF to calibrate the VF550XVT to ISF TV standards. I used this at first to save time, however I did perform my own calibration using the Blu-ray version of the Digital Video Essentials disc and achieved similar though not identical results. The ISF cheat sheet was superior to my own calibration and further proves that to get the absolute most out of your video investment, even with a set as affordable as the VF550XVT, a professional's touch is always a good idea. Needless to say, regardless of how you go about calibrating your set, the level of control provided by the VF550XVT's menu is superb for a display at this price point.
I kicked things off with a bit of standard definition viewing by way of my Apple TV and the Nicolas Cage film, National Treasure 2 Book of Secrets (Disney). I love the National Treasure franchise owning both films on a variety of different formats and despite this version's SD nature did not feel robbed of any enjoyment via the VF550XVT. While not razor sharp, the picture was surprisingly pleasing, possessing above average black levels, good saturation and natural skin tones coupled with nice edge fidelity and high light detail. Noise levels were kept to a minimum, which is something that has plagued past Vizio models. The HQV processor did a fine job of resolving many SD shortcomings like "jaggies" and other artifacts as well as proved to be a very capable scaler, that while not tricking me into thinking I was watching an HD or Blu-ray signal, did enhance the visual experience over regular standard definition quality.
Next, I cued up Peter Jackson's King Kong on DVD (Universal). I went ahead and left the Sherwood Blu-ray player's scaling off allowing the VF550XVT to handle those duties and was very pleased with the results. I chaptered ahead to the scene where Kong battles the Tyrannosaurs and simply forgot to jot down any notes for I was engrossed in the image. On second viewing, I found the true DVD image (albeit upscaled) to be superior to my SD viewing via Apple TV as it possessed richer blacks, with more detail and separation between shades allowing for nearly every hair of Kong's coat to be seen clearly as apposed to a patchwork of splotchy clumps of black and grey as I've seen in lesser displays. Again, while not razor sharp the image was very good for SD. Skin tones and overall color balance was very good with the appropriate amount of detail and saturation, though even with the ISF settings engaged proved to lean ever so slightly warm in my room. Motion was smooth and mostly artifact free and noise levels were kept to a minimum though the natural film grain was still present. I went ahead and engaged Vizio's Smooth Motion settings and was rewarded with varying degrees of success and failure.
For starters there are two different settings within the VF550XVT's menus that "smooth" motion the first being Smooth Motion and the second Real Cinema Mode. Smooth Motion, like most other smooth motion like settings, interpolates and inserts new frames between the existing ones creating a hyper real, almost cut out effect between objects living in the foreground and the background. There are three settings to the Smooth Motion feature with each one bringing about a greater degree of false smoothness and/or uber clarity that to my eyes never feels or appears natural. Though, if I had to chose one setting it would be the low setting, for on SD material. On HD material such as a Blu-ray this feature does more damage than good. On the flip side the VF550XVT's Real Cinema Mode does improve things a bit, so much so ISF TV includes it on its cheat sheet of features to leave on when calibrating the VF550XVT. With the RCM set to smooth the normal flickering associated with filmed media is lessened and the image feels more natural without feeling overtly or artificially enhanced. With the RCM engaged the rapid action of the Tyrannosaurus scene was rendered beautifully and added to the perceived quality and clarity of the image itself.