As we continue to make our way through the newest crop of LED-based LCD televisions, we arrive at the best value of the bunch, which comes from (surprise, surprise) Vizio. Part of the company's higher-end XVT Series, the VF551XVT is a 55-inch, 1080p model that uses a full array of LED backlights, with local-dimming technology that allows the LEDs to turn themselves on and off as needed to improve black level. Unlike some manufacturers, Vizio actually gives numbers for its LED array: The backlight consists of 960 LEDs, positioned in 80 control blocks for the local-dimming function, which Vizio calls Smart Dimming. Other features of the VF551XVT include Smooth Motion 240Hz SPS technology to reduce motion blur and film judder, SRS TruSurround HD and TruVolume audio processing, EnergyStar 3.0 certification, a mercury-free design (thanks to the LEDs), five HDMI inputs, and a USB media port. The VF551XVT has an MSRP of $2,199.99.
• Read more LED HDTV reviews by HomeTheaterReview.com's staff.
• Find a sound bar to increase the audio performance of the VF551XVT.
While other TV manufacturers add special design elements to help distinguish their new models, Vizio keeps things pretty straightforward in the aesthetics department. The VF551XVT has a fairly boxy look, with a glossy black cabinet and a black, non-swiveling base. I wouldn't exactly characterize the speaker panel as discreet--it's a distinct element that appears to hang below the screen and runs the full length of the bottom bezel. It's also silver, which makes it stand out noticeably from the rest of the unit. The combination of the larger bezel and full-length speaker makes the VF551XVT look more bulky than comparably sized models from Samsung, Toshiba, and LG. On the clear panel that runs between the TV frame and speakers, you'll notice several illuminated logos (XVT Series, TruLED, etc.) that you can turn off in the setup menu if you desire; unfortunately, you can't turn off the illuminated Vizio logo in the center of the lower bezel. The remote control's aesthetic matches that of the TV, with a glossy black finish and silver strip along the bottom. It lacks dedicated input access but offers full backlighting, which is always appreciated (although there's no dedicated button to activate the backlighting; pressing any button will illuminate the remote).
The VF551XVT has a thorough connection panel, starting with a generous five HDMI inputs. You also get two component video inputs, as well as a PC input and an RF input to access the internal ATSC and Clear-QAM tuners. Picture-in-picture is available. The HDMI inputs accept both 1080p/60 and 1080p/24 signals, and Vizio has placed both an HDMI input and a component video input on the side panel for easy access. The side panel also sports a USB port that supports playback of music, photo, and video files. The TV automatically detects when you insert a USB flash drive and asks if you'd like to play the content, or you can press the remote's Media button to pull up the media navigator, which is straightforward and easy to maneuver. Absent from the connection panel are an RS-232 port for advanced control and an Ethernet port to access Web widgets and video-on-demand content.
The video setup menu includes most of the important controls, but it lacks a few higher-end options that are available on other LED-based models. The VF551XVT has a whopping nine picture modes, four of which are tuned for sports programming (football, golf, basketball, and baseball). Of course, I went with the Movie mode, which looks the most natural and has the best black level out of the box. The menu includes the requisite adjustable backlight, but this TV lacks a light sensor and auto mode that allows it to automatically adjust panel brightness based on room lighting. Digital and MPEG noise reduction are available, and you have the option to turn the Smart Dimming technology on or off (although I can't imagine why you'd turn it off). In the color realm, you get four color-temperature options, as well as advanced white-balance controls. The TV lacks advanced gamma control and a color-management system to individually fine-tune the six color points. Instead, you get a Color Enhancement system that lets you choose between five color palettes: off, normal, rich color, green/flesh, and green/blue. I began by using the off mode and tried the other options as I went along, which we'll discuss in the next section. The VF551XVT offers four aspect-ratio choices for SD content and four for HD content: The Full mode displays 1080i/1080p content with no overscan (there's no mode that adds overscan to remove potential noise around the edges of broadcast HDTV content).
As with Toshiba and LG's 240Hz implementations, Vizio's Smooth Motion 240Hz SPS (Scenes Per Second) technology does not produce a true 240Hz refresh rate: This TV has a 120Hz refresh rate and flashes the backlight to create a 240Hz effect. The Smooth Motion technology is designed to reduce motion blur, and it also uses Motion Estimation/Motion Compensation (MEMC, also known as motion interpolation) to reduce judder; the menu includes off, low, medium, and high settings. There's also a Real Cinema mode that deals specifically with film sources, with off, precision, and smooth options. I experimented with various permutations and combinations of these two features, and again we'll discuss performance in the next section.
Over in the audio realm, the setup menu includes five preset audio modes: flat, rock, pop, classic, and jazz. An equalizer is available to further tune the audio output. SRS TruSurround HD audio processing can be turned on or off, and you can also enable SRS's TruVolume control to minimize level discrepancies between sources. I found the TruVolume to be fairly effective in evening out the level between Dolby Digital 5.1 HDTV shows and commercials, and overall the audio quality is on par with other TV sound systems. The speaker panel has solid dynamic ability.
The primary performance benefit of local-dimming LED technology is that it allows the TV to produce deeper blacks and better contrast than a traditional LCD that uses an always-on fluorescent backlight. So, naturally the first performance parameter I wanted to check out on the VF551XVT was its black-level reproduction. With the TV's adjustable backlight at its minimum setting, the VF551XVT produced a wonderfully deep shade of black in demo scenes from The Bourne Supremacy (Universal Home Video), Signs (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), Casino Royale (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), and The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Buena Vista Home Entertainment). It was notably deeper than that of my reference Samsung LN-T4781F, a first-generation local-dimming model. As a result, the Vizio's image has a great sense of depth and dimension. One trait that helps the Vizio's black level is the lack of glow around brighter images. A potential issue with local-dimming LEDs is that, because the number of LEDs is not a 1:1 ratio with the number of pixels, the lighting is imprecise. You'll sometimes notice a glow around bright items--for instance, white text on a black background or a bright moon hanging in a dark sky. The VF551XVT exhibits minimal glow, so the black areas next to those bright images look darker.
Read more about the performance of the VF551XVT HDTV on Page 2.
Vizio's Smart Dimming system seems to be a little less aggressive (for lack of a better word) in deciding how to adjust the backlights. I noticed several instances where the Samsung TV turned off the LEDs in certain areas of the screen and the Vizio did not. On the one hand, the Samsung's more aggressive approach resulted in deeper-looking blacks in those specific areas. On the other hand, I saw fewer unnatural brightness fluctuations with this model than with other LED models. One of my favorite demos from Lost: The Complete Second Season (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) features two people sitting in front of a fire at night, with the shimmering light casting shadows on their faces. This scene has tripped up other local-dimming models like the LG, as the processor struggled to figure out which LEDs should be on and which should be off, but the VF551XVT handled it just fine.
While the Vizio's black level is nice and deep at its minimum backlight setting, the resulting image is somewhat dim, so the overall contrast isn't quite as good as the best higher-end models I've tested. I found that turning up the backlight to the 25 percent mark struck a better balance between light output and black level: The TV still produced a deep shade of black (although not as impressively deep as you get at the minimum setting), and its light output was closer to that of my reference TV, which proved especially helpful with brighter HDTV content. The minimum setting might be a good option for movie night in a darkened room, but I suspect you'll want to go with the higher setting to get more pop in your HDTV content during the day.
Speaking of daytime viewing, the VF551XVT uses a matte screen, not the reflective panel you get on the Toshiba and Samsung LED models. The upside to this is that light reflections aren't a concern in a brighter viewing environment. The downside is that blacks don't look quite as deep during the day as they do with the reflective panels, which are designed to reject ambient light.
Moving to the color realm, the Color Enhancement technology appears to affect both color temperature and color saturation. The "off" mode is the most accurate option--the videophile's choice (and, consequently, my choice). It produces a more muted image, with a generally neutral color temperature, natural skin tones, and rich but realistic color. I watched the NCAA Big 12 championship game (go Horns!) in this color mode, and the green grass and red Cornhusker jerseys looked more accurate than they did on my reference display, while blues looked similarly accurate on both. However, the VF551XVT's picture did have an overall green push, which I was somewhat able to dial back by using the white-balance controls. For those people who feel that the "off" setting is too muted, the "normal" mode may be the way to go: It adds some red to skin tones, eases up a bit on the green push, and enhances the color points without going to the extreme. The remaining modes (rich color, green/flesh, and green/blue) all produced colors that were way too oversaturated for my taste, especially greens. While I think that the Color Enhancement modes are probably a more intuitive setup tool for the average user, I would've liked to see an advanced color-management system that allowed me to individually adjust each color point.
The VF551XVT produces a sharp, detailed image with HDTV and Blu-ray sources. With SD content, its upconverting abilities are solid but not exceptional for a larger 55-inch screen. The picture isn't blatantly soft, but my Pioneer Blu-ray player produced a sharper-looking image when upconverting 480i DVDs. Previous Vizio models I've tested used too much edge enhancement with SD signals; thankfully, that is less of a concern with the VF551XVT. I was impressed by how clean the picture was, both with HD and SD content, even without the noise-reduction controls engaged. Digital noise is one of my pet peeves; in this case, solid-colored backgrounds and light-to-dark transitions were smooth and clean.
Finally, we get to Vizio's Smooth Motion technology. As someone who doesn't like the smoothing effects of motion interpolation with film sources, I prefer TVs that divide their anti-blur and de-judder technologies into separate menu items. At first glance, it may seem like Vizio has done this by offering separate Smooth Motion and Real Cinema options; however, that's not really the case. Smooth Motion is the function that's used to reduce blur, and it performs effectively in this respect. It clearly improved motion detail with test patterns from my FPD Software Group Blu-ray disc and with real-world sports content. However, Smooth Motion also adds varying degrees of MEMC, which changes the quality of motion in film sources. The medium and high modes produce a super-smooth look that I find distracting to watch. On the plus side, the low mode is more subtle with DVD/Blu-ray content and worked better than a lot of motion-interpolation technologies I've tested. It even performed reliably with TV signals, which is rare in my experience. So where does the Real Cinema function fit in to the equation? Good question. It's hard to discern exactly how this mode works in conjunction with Smooth Motion, since both technologies add MEMC. According to my Vizio rep, the precision mode looks at the 60Hz film signal (after 3:2 has been added) and adds MEMC to that to get to 120Hz; the Smooth mode uses MEMC on the original 24p film signal. In most of my comparisons, the difference between the two modes was very subtle. What I can say is that, if you like the super-smooth look, set both Smooth Motion and Real Cinema to "smooth." If you don't like any smoothing effects at all, leave them both off. By the way, when both modes are turned off, the TV does 5:5 pulldown with 24p Blu-ray sources, showing each frame five times to get to 120Hz.
In addition to improved black-level reproduction, local-dimming LED technology can also improve an LCD's ability to reveal fine black details and subtle, complex shading--common weaknesses in a traditional CCFL LCD. In this respect, the VF551XVT comes up short compared with the higher-end LED models I've tested. This TV didn't clearly render the finer black details in darker film scenes from The Bourne Supremacy, The Curse of the Black Pearl, and Ladder 49 (Buena Vista Home Entertainment). Even with brighter HDTV content, darker background details were sometimes dim or absent. This is especially true at the lower backlight settings; if you push the backlight to its maximum, black detail improves, but the image's base black level won't be as deep. Also, the VF551XVT didn't do as good a job with complex shading--in particular, its ability to accentuate fine bright areas that are surrounded by darker content. This is where advanced gamma control would come in handy, allowing the user to fine-tune the mid-level shades to elevate performance.
The other questionable performance area is the VF551XVT's deinterlacing, especially with 480i signals. While this TV did pass the deinterlacing tests on the HQV Benchmark DVD (Silicon Optix), it did a poor job with my real-world DVD demo scenes from Gladiator (DreamWorks Home Entertainment) and The Bourne Identity (Universal Home Video),
introducing a lot of jaggies and moiré. I recommend that you mate the VF551XVT with a good upconverting DVD or Blu-ray player for optimum performance with standard-def movies. With 1080i signals, the Vizio's processor performs better but still wasn't as consistent as I'd like. Again, it passed the tests on the HD HQV Benchmark Blu-ray disc; however, with real-world demos from the Mission Impossible III (Paramount Home Video) and Ghost Rider (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) BDs, it sometimes rendered the scenes cleanly and sometimes introduced a bit of moiré. I didn't notice any blatant processing problems with 1080i HDTV signals.
Like most LCD TVs, the VF551XVT's viewing angle is average at best. Image saturation does drop as you move off-angle, particularly with darker content.
Finally, this TV does not include Internet connectivity to enjoy Web widgets and video-on-demand streaming. If that's a feature you desire, you might want to wait for Vizio's next LED-based model, the VF552XVT. The new model should offer the same performance but will add Web connectivity (wired and wireless) to access Vizio's new Internet Apps platform, as well as a Bluetooth-enabled remote with a QWERTY keyboard. The VF552XVT should be available in late January or February.
• Read more LED HDTV reviews by HomeTheaterReview.com's staff.
• Find a sound bar to increase the audio performance of the VF551XVT.
All in all, I'm very impressed with the VF551XVT's performance. It doesn't have the refinement I've seen from the best higher-end panels, but its picture quality is really quite good. It's an excellent all-purpose TV, well suited for sports during the day or movies at night. With an MSRP of $2,199.99, the VF551XVT brings the benefits of local-dimming LED technology to a larger audience. At about $800 less than the 55-inch LED models from Toshiba and LG and over $2,000 less than comparable models from Samsung and Sony, it's a great choice for the budget-conscious shopper who is looking for a higher level of performance than most traditional LCDs can offer.