LG 65EC9700 (USA) 4K OLED TV First Impressions

After numerous delays, LG’s 65EC9700 OLED TVs are beginning to trickle into stores – ironically just after the South Korean manufacturer announced a boatload of new televisions (in basically every category imaginable, sans plasma, of course) at the 2015 International CES. Building on the 55EC9300 – a display we found flawed, but promising – this new 65in TV adds the Ultra HD resolution of 3840×2160, which is often (conveniently, but not-quite-correctly) referred to as “4K”.

LG 65EC9700

As current fashion dictates, the panel is curved. While this isn’t a trend we understand or admire, the EC9700′s curve is fairly subtle, so it’s unlikely to deter potential buyers whose stomachs curl at the idea of owning their first non-flat screen since the vacuum tube days. More of a deterrent would be the $10,000 US price tag, although the cost of entry to bleeding-edge technology is never easy to swallow.

What you do get for this princely sum is a panel with the best minimum luminance level around (but perhaps not quite “the best blacks” – they’re not quite the same). The back of the LG 65EC9700 (marketed in the UK and Europe as the 65EC970V) features 4 HDMI inputs, one of which is explicitly labeled as supporting the new HDCP 2.2 copy protection standard. It ships with the company’s Magic Remote, which lifts the Nintendo Wii’s motion controlled pointing and applies it to the Smart TV interface. An HEVC decoder is on board also, if you’d like to watch internet-quality UHD (ultra high-definition) video via Netflix, Amazon or similar, through the TV’s own Smart TV interface.

Bells and whistles are all well and good, but at HDTVTest, our number one priority is picture quality – all aspects of picture quality. The earlier EC9300 served as a reminder that amazing contrast performance is one thing, but numerous other smaller problems dampened what would otherwise have been runaway enthusiasm and left us wishing that LG’s attention to finer details in the video processing department was as lovable as the deep blacks. Accordingly, it didn’t take us long to take a colorimeter to the front of the EC9700 so we could begin analysis on the OLED advocate’s latest effort.

Notice: these panels are in such short supply that we have had to publish this article as a more lightweight “first impressions” piece. The reason? Our friends at Value Electronics in Scarsdale, NY have a huge backlog of orders, and every 65EC9700 that comes in is en route to a paying (and waiting!) customer. We were able to assess this particular unit only thanks to a particularly patient buyer. The level of anticipation for this display is so high that we decided to publish in this format and update the review with fully-fledged conclusions later, rather than keep readers waiting.

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Preliminary Calibration

After putting the EC9700 into the [ISF Expert1] mode and setting the black level (“Brightness”) control appropriately, its grayscale tracking was of a good standard for an uncalibrated display, with the color of white being skewed towards blue. Gamma was less satisfactory, the average 2.1 curve and the slightly milky-looking image being at odds with its world-beating zero absolute black. (2.4 is the number to aim for as per studio mastering practice).

Calibrating grayscale using the two-point controls was relatively straightforward, although we’d prefer if LG were to design some other way of interfacing with the TV, because their menu design affects the measurements and is slow to use. Being able to have only the video image on screen and to write changes into the display via a laptop would be hugely beneficial for owners. In our first attempts, we achieved decent, but not great, grayscale tracking using the 2-point controls, with blue falling out in the midtones.

Again, gamma was a little less satisfactory, with the “2.4” menu option actually producing something closer to 2.3 when assessed with standard 18% window patterns.

We did attempt calibration using the 20-point grayscale controls, but ran into the same problem we did with the 55EC9300: employing these introduced additional contouring artefacts into the image. We’ve seen reports of workarounds online, but even using LG’s suggested method, we still ran into trouble with the 20-point grayscale controls adding additional contouring artefacts into video. The fact that the on-screen display that appears during calibration causes the Automatic Brightness Limiting (ABL) to kick in adds yet another layer of complexity, requiring the “scratch and sniff” method of closing the menu, measuring, digging back through the menu, offsetting, closing the menu, and seeing how far off you were. This is a monumental pain, especially when you take into account that LG’s WebOS-powered menu is one of the slower-responding on the market.

On top of that, we’re still not sure about how the LG OLEDs’ grayscale and gamma tracking shift when the APL (average picture level, or average brightness of the scene being displayed) changes – even once the aforementioned menu issue is taken out of the equation. This is probably the reason for the contouring issues we’re running into when attempting to use the 20-point controls: the changes we dial in might hit the accurate sweet spot for the exact APL of the test patterns, but might not translate properly to the various APLs seen during real content. For the record, plasma display panels (PDPs) featured the same problem, but it was kept under control.

We’ve not spent enough time with the 65EC9700 yet to say that it’s impossible to get good results from the 20-point controls, but at best, fully calibrating these displays is going to be a lengthy and counter-intuitive task until LG fixes the menu and the inner workings.

On the charts, color accuracy measured brilliantly after only a 2-point grayscale adjustment, and attempting to use the [Color Management] controls only served to create non-linearities in the x,y coordinates of the colors at less saturated levels. Accordingly, we left the CMS controls alone and had no complaints with regard to color. (The only bug we did notice was that, somehow, the saturation tracking became severely distorted, something that was fixed by turning the TV off and on again).

The biggest problems we found relate to screen uniformity at low luminance levels. This manifests itself in two ways. After aligning the [Brightness] control correctly, we stepped through the darkest just-above-black shades (0.5, 1, 1.5, 2 IRE, etc.) and saw that the middle of the panel had a streaky, mottled appearance both with test patterns and low-APL content (dark scenes). We say the middle of the panel specifically, because the far left and far right appeared as zero black. In other words, the middle was non-uniform and a touch too bright, the edges were zero black so too dark. Ideally, the entire screen should appear as a solid shade of very dark gray. Reducing the [Brightness] control and therefore crushing some shades of black could help to conceal the problem, but obviously, crushing out shadow details is hardly ideal, and we’re unsure if this actually avoids the quirk or just pushes it higher up in the luminance range.

Additionally, with a 10 IRE or 20 IRE full screen, we could see some very unusual vertical stripes. Unlike the “jail bar” non-uniformity issues commonly seen on LCD TVs, the stripes on the LG OLEDs actually have hard edges, suggesting they are occurring at the panel driving stage rather than being only physical imperfections. That’s just our best guess – we’re still learning how the few OLED displays we have access to actually operate, so welcome any panel engineer insight on this. (The upcoming release of a flat OLED television in 2015 will let us see if the curved screen exacerbates uniformity issues or not).

Relating this observation to real-world performance, it’s obvious that test patterns, by their nature, stress the display so its performance can be thoroughly examined. From the time we spent with the EC9700 and dark content, we did see this flaw pop up in dark scenes from time to time. It appears that by crushing out some low-end shadow detail, its effect can be reduced, but that’s obviously far from ideal given OLED’s other black reproduction strengths.

Moving on to frequency response, there’s great news: LG have jettisoned the detail-reducing non-optional noise reduction system that’s still present on the EC9300. (There was some debate as to whether “noise reduction” was actually the intended effect as to what was happening; we were giving the display the benefit of the doubt by suggesting a misguided purpose for it rather than calling it a flat-out error – it was ugly regardless). In our review of the LG 55EC9300, we discussed this over a large quantity of paragraphs for the simple reason that from a video purist standpoint, there was no excuse for this sort of deliberate tampering – in contrast to, say, the aforementioned uniformity problems, which are obviously an engineering challenge that hasn’t yet been overcome. Now it’s gone, so our thanks go to LG for listening to this feedback and attending to our video purist desires. (There’s still the separate, optional [Noise Reduction] control in the menu if you’re watching a source with particularly grizzly video-generated fuzz). It’s a big step in the right direction and will only endear LG to the video purist audience who will likely make up a decent number of early adopters for these displays.

Subjective Impressions

We had a look at Sin City in a light-controlled theater environment, and were incredibly impressed by the glossy, rich, contrasty image. In the past, this title was an ideal choice for assessing individual tolerance of “phosphor trails” (flashes of light, usually green or yellow) on plasmas (and still is a good choice for looking for colored flashes on one-chip DLP projectors), but of course there is no such issue to be seen on the LG 65EC9700, since it is a sample-and-hold display.

Back in a brighter environment, the black-level performance remains outstanding. It’s a clear step above the final plasma TVs, which produced excellent black-level performance in darkened environments, but required specialized screen coatings to stand a chance of producing acceptable blacks when faced with sunlight. Of course, put the EC9700 near enough to a window and you’ll still see reflections of the outside world, but as on an LCD, they don’t visibly affect the black level quality.

There’s a little bit of contouring lingering in the 65EC9700’s images. We know that calibrating using the 20-point grayscale control greatly increases the risk of introducing this error, but it stills appears, subtly, even if the calibration controls are not used. Presumably, that’s because the same flawed processing is being used to perform some sort of under-the-hood offsetting even if the user hasn’t themselves engaged the controls. It can cause smooth textures, such as grain, or gradient-like light spilling from a lamp, to appear subtly coarse and ‘etched’.

During our brief time with the LG 65EC9700, we weren’t able to do a side-by-side comparison to rule out the color problems we found on the 55EC9300. On that display, using even the 2-point grayscale controls distorted blue colors towards a sickly cyan-green, although we’ve also read reports that other calibrations of that older display have gone well, suggesting that it could be another bug under the hood that not everyone has had the honor of experiencing.

So far, our impressions are much the same as with the EC9300, of course with our undefeatable noise reduction complaint fixed: difficult to calibrate, some contouring and screen unevenness, and critically for many, the world’s deepest MLL (minimum luminance level). We do not expect motion quality to be any better than LCD-grade based on casual observation of high motion content and assessment of the earlier model, but will withhold judgment until we can say for sure.

Preliminary Benchmark Test Results

Dead pixels One stuck white subpixel, one stuck red subpixel, very difficult to see on UHD panel
Screen uniformity Issues with hard-edged “columns” visible; extreme shading at far left and right of panel, visible in some darker scenes
Top-left edge of panel more blue than bottom right with full field white
Peak Usable Light Output 251 cd/m2 (73 fL) with 18% window, 319 cd/m2 (93 fL) with 5% window
Calibrated black level (black screen) 0 cd/m2 (0 fL)
Calibrated black level (4×4 ANSI) 0.0001 cd/m2 (0.00003 fL)
Black level retention Tradeoff between crushing black details and avoiding “floating” in middle of panel
Primary chromaticity Very good (except for a one-off bug we ran into)
Scaling TBD
Video mode deinterlacing TBD
Film mode deinterlacing TBD
Viewing angle TBD
Motion resolution TBD
Digital noise reduction Present, optional
Sharpness No visible ringing, but occasional misplaced pixels (except in PC Mode) around fine text – not visible outside of computer use or disc menus
Luma/Chroma bandwidth (2D Blu-ray) TBD
1080p/24 capability No judder with [Real Cinema] engaged
Input lag (high-speed camera) TBD
Leo Bodnar input lag tester TBD
Full 4:4:4 reproduction (PC) TBD

Final First Impressions

The LG 65EC9700 carries over most of the characteristics of its sister 1080p model, the 55EC9300. In a nutshell, that means world-beating zero-black performance, and off-axis viewing angle quality that’s better than anything else on the market (albeit a small amount behind the now-extinct plasmas). Of course, the pixel count is now quadrupled thanks to the 3840×2160 resolution, and LG have listened to our complaint with the smaller 55EC9300’s rogue detail-reducing non-optional noise reduction feature, which is now happily in the rear-view mirror, allowing for full detail for all sources to be make it out of the panel.

Nobody else has (re-)entered the OLED arena to challenge LG’s #1 black level spot – they’re still the only company pulling off the feat of getting these panels into consumers homes. What’s more, addressing the noise reduction issue is a good sign that LG are on the right track and are listening to video purist interests.

If you currently own a high-quality plasma display such as one of Panasonic or Samsung’s later outings, we do not recommend that you get rid of it for an OLED just yet. The EC9700’s uniformity issues are something LG should investigate, and its performance with high-motion content such as sports is still more LCD than PDP.

Of course, we’re optimistic that the improvements will continue with each new generation of displays. Since the 65EC9700 took a while to get to market (the LG 65EC970V British-equivalent model isn’t even available in the wild yet), it does not necessarily represent LG’s latest and greatest engineering achievements – it’s nearly of the same kin as the already-reviewed EC9300, after all, and it’s already an improvement on that. To really see what we can expect in the future, we’ll need to look at LG’s 2015 OLED product, rather than the 2014 hold-overs – and we’re hoping that can happen sooner rather than later. For now, we can be hopeful that, as an improvement over the earlier effort, LG is on the right track.