1st Apr 2014 | 02:30
It's OLED. It's curved. It's bloody brilliant
I was frankly starting to doubt that this day would ever come.
I've been shown big-screen OLED TVs at press events and technology shows for so long now without ever actually being able to buy one or even get one to test that I'd started to think the whole OLED 'thing' was basically just pie in the sky.
An AV dream that was never going ultimately going to turn into a hard, commercial reality.
But amazingly OLED TV is finally, properly here. There's a 55-inch set, the LG 55EA9800, sat on our test benches right now.
And not only can you genuinely buy it, but at its current $7,999 price point it's actually a good few grand more affordable than we'd originally expected OLED would be – notwithstanding the fact, of course, that eight grand is hardly bargain bucket stuff when considered against the prices of other normal LED and plasma 55-inch TVs.
Following up on previous OLED demo units, the 55EA9800 uses its OLED tech to deliver a jaw-droppingly svelte body just a couple of millimetres deep over a large quantity of its rear, and a viewing angle well beyond that of normal LED displays.
Plus it will also hopefully live up to all those countless demos I mentioned and deliver truly next-generation picture quality. Despite the fact that it's not a 4K screen (much more on this later).
Having failed to this point to be persuaded that the new trend for curving TVs is something worth pursuing, though, we're slightly perturbed to see that the 55EA9800 ports a gently curved design. Hopefully this won't distract too much from the 55EA9800's OLED potential.
Actually, even to this confirmed 'curve sceptic', the 55EA9800's curve has a couple of undeniable immediate benefits up its sleeve. First the curve undoubtedly adds to the set's design appeal. Second it allows the 55EA9800 to support its own weight perfectly stably using just a slim curved transparent stand that merely underlines the set's abundant, actually quite revolutionary attractiveness.
As if the 55EA9800's design wasn't already amazing enough, that transparent 'base' section also contains speakers. See-through speakers.
And before you start thinking to yourself that LG's been at the whisky again, the set's rated at a substantial 40W for audio power – a figure well beyond that enjoyed by most flat TVs. Even those substantially chunkier round the back than the 55EA9800.
Of course, stunning though the 55EA9800, the ability to produce a mind-bendingly slim screen is far from OLED's only trick. For fans of picture quality a far more important OLED benefit is the way the pixels in OLED panels each produce their own light.
This means that unlike LCD (but rather like plasma) the OLED picture doesn't inevitably end up as a compromise between an image's dark and light extremities, but is able to express the full dynamic range of a source.
Or to put it all more straightforwardly, OLED is capable of producing simply sensational contrast and black level response.
Its self-emissive nature also should help it join plasma in delivering much crisper motion, as there should be minimal response time delay, as well as providing a much wider realistic viewing angle.
In other words, the videophile in me has a heck of a lot to get excited about where the 55EA9800 is concerned. So it's a shame this excitement has a little of the edge taken off it by the fact that a) it's not 4K and b) it's curved.
The former of these issues wouldn't actually be classed as an issue on LG's debut OLED TV if the technology had rolled out a year or two ago, as I'd hoped it was going to. And it's not really fair to expect the very first commercially available OLED TV to support a native 4K pixel count - especially at a price of $8K. But at the same time I can't help the fact that I'm already falling head over heels in love with 4K.
The curve, meanwhile, raises objections based around the grounds that logic would dictate that curving a screen means you need to sit in just the right spot if you want the curve to potentially benefit rather than harm the viewing experience.
Surely if you're not sat in this 'sweet spot', you'd think, the image's geometry will be distractingly 'off'. Plus there's a sense that brands are starting to curve screens just because they can, rather than because doing so takes the picture quality debate forward.
LG, not surprisingly, has a few arguments marshalled in favour of the screen's curved approach. It reckons the curve follows the natural curve of your eye, making images look crisper right into the corners and creating a more immersive field of view that seems to wrap slightly around you.
It's even argued that curving a screen actually increases its viewing angle as light is more focussed towards the viewer – though this doesn't really stack up where OLED is concerned, since OLED is itself so beneficial to viewing angles that it doesn't need further assistance from the curve.
Experience of commercial cinemas provides ample proof that curving a screen can be beneficial to really massive screens. But a 55-inch TV?! Hmm.
The 55EA9800 is 3D capable as we'd expect of a modern high-end TV, and just as inevitably uses LG's own passive 3D technique.
There's also a full version of LG's picture menus, complete with ISF-certified calibration menus including colour, gamma and white balance management tools. Plus, of course, the 55EA9800 sports LG's current smart TV system.
This is one of the most content-rich platforms in town, including a strong suite of the all-important video streaming services that make up the heart of any smart TV service.
There are a few too many pointless smaller apps – C-list games, silly infotainment bits and bobs – cluttering up the interface, but the presentation and organisation is attractive and quite effective, if perhaps a little overwhelming. At least until you get used to it.
Doing its best to make using the TV easier, though, is one of LG's excellent 'magic' remote controls. This rather brilliantly provides point and click technology, where you literally just aim it at the option on the screen you want to select, and a nice, tactile 'fly wheel' for speedily scrolling up and down long menus.
Excellent – so much so that it's no great surprise to find arch rival Samsung 'borrowing' the point and click idea for its 2014 TVs.
After so many years of hype, surely it's going to be physically impossible for OLED to live up to our hopes at the first time of asking? Actually, no. It's not impossible at all. In fact, the 55EA9800 makes magical pictures look like the easiest thing in the world.
There are so many strong points to its pictures that it's initially hard to try and break them down into their constituent parts to see what's making them tick. But once I'd taken on board the fact that basically pretty much everything works better with OLED, I was finally able to start getting somewhere.
For me, the first thing I always look at when testing a flat panel TV is black level response, as this has tended to be where non-CRT technologies have most struggled to get to grips with the requirements of video (as opposed to PC) playback. And to say the 55EA9800 knocks it out of the park in this critical imaging department would be a colossal understatement.
Black to the future
Essentially, where a dark scene should look pretty much totally black, on the 55EA9800 it really looks pretty much totally black. The grey wash that pervades pretty much every LCD TV technology to some extent is gone, leaving dark scenes looking instantly more believable, immersive and dynamic.
Even better, the 55EA9800's extraordinary black levels are so naturally and locally created – right down to individual pixel level – that they don't in any way lead to the sort of severe reduction in shadow detail you have to suffer with normal LED TVs when they try and deliver a half-decent black level. This pixel-level luminance control helps dark scenes look as deep and detailed as bright ones, making it much easier to get truly lost in films that contain lots of dark content.
There's still more to be said about the 55EA9800's contrast performance, too. For instance, OLED's ability to deliver pixel-level luminance precision means there's no need for a dynamic contrast system, so pictures tend to look much more stable in brightness terms than those you get with the dynamic contrast engines found – and often required – on normal LED TVs.
OLED's lack of an 'external' light source like edge LED arrays means too that you don't have to worry about the sort of backlight clouding problems routinely witnessed with edge LED and even (to a lesser extent) direct LED TVs.
Good black levels are often connected with good colours. So it follows that the colours on a screen with black levels as stunning as those on the 55EA9800 should be nothing short of magnificent. And so it proves. The punch and dynamic range of the colour palette on show is a joy to behold, injecting life into tried and trusted test discs that we'd never really realised was there before.
This is not over-saturated 'show off' colour performance, though. There's no sense of colour tones being out of whack or lacking in tonal subtlety and nuance. In fact, the sheer range of colour OLED can handle actually makes colours look more natural rather than less, for all their extra punch.
This fact combines with the imperious black level response and a mesmerisingly intense luminance output, meanwhile, to ensure that subtle deep colours curing dark scenes look as natural as their bright scene counterparts – something normal LED and even plasma TVs can find notoriously difficult to deliver.
Yet more good news – though there is a little twist to this one – concerns the 55EA9800's sharpness. OLED's self-emissive approach means the LG's pictures are almost completely free of the motion blur and lag problems associated with normal LCD technology. Moving images look more or less as crisp as stationary ones – something which inevitably helps the screen do full justice and then some to high quality HD sources.
There's a tiny bit of judder around, but it's not heavy. And since it's not heavy, if the judder bothers you, it can be tackled quite nicely by LG's built-in motion processing system as it isn't having to work as hard as it does with non-OLED screens.
The 55EA9800 caps its exhibition of OLED's glories with its viewing angle, which is pretty much limitless in the extent to which you can move down the screen's sides without colour or contrast taking a hit in the way they do quite quickly with LCD TVs.
And as for that curve…
There is a separate limiting factor on the 55EA9800's useful viewing angle range, though: the screen's curve. For if you sit far enough down the side – more than 40 degrees or so – the curve clearly starts to affect the image's geometry, foreshortening content near to you and compressing the image's centre. As well as making the top corner furthest from you seem to bulge out.
Obviously none of this is desirable. However, to be fair to the 55EA9800's curve, if you're sat roughly opposite the centre of the screen and not too far away, the way the image gently bends at its edges does strangely make the picture feel slightly more '3D' even when you're only watching in 2D, and also creates the sensation that it's filling slightly more of your field of vision.
What's more, thankfully we found that the rather gentle level of curvature used by the 55EA9800 didn't make the 'sweet spot', from where the curvature doesn't start to negatively affect the image, as small as we'd feared it might.
Overall, while I remain sceptical that curving a 55-inch TV is in any way necessary or even helpful, at least my experience with the 55EA9800 hasn't inspired any genuine curve hate in me.
One last element of the 55EA9800's picture performance to consider is its 3D playback. And once again it is, for the most part, a resounding success.
OLED's intense brightness naturally provides a great foil for any dimming caused by donning one of the four free pairs of 3D glasses you get with the TV, and the immaculate contrast the 55EA9800 can deliver helps it deliver an unusually precise sense of 3D depth, especially during dark scenes.
Motion looks much less juddery than it tends to with most TVs' 3D playback too, colours lose none of their intensity, and best of all there's practically no crosstalk ghosting noise to worry about so long as you follow the usual passive 3D rule of not watching from a viewing angle more than around 13 degrees above or below the screen.
The only issue I have with the 55EA9800's 3D efforts, in fact, concerns passive 3D's habit of reducing the resolution of native HD 3D sources. Passive 3D's usual issues of jagged curved edges, occasional visible line structure and slight softness with 3D sources seem exaggerated by the gorgeous qualities of OLED's basic picture quality.
Actually, having mentioned the slight sense of resolution loss with 3D caused by the use of the passive format, we might as well talk briefly about that other resolution elephant in the room: 4K. Or the lack of 4K where the 55EA9800 is concerned.
This does mean that for all the quality OLED makes possible the 55EA9800 simply can't deliver the same detail and texture levels as native 4K TVs can when fed native 4K content. Which is something we just can't ignore now that 4K is really starting to gain traction in the AV world (despite the continuing lack of native 4K content).
Still, while the idea of what 4K OLED might do to the home entertainment world is almost too exciting to contemplate, the fact that the 55EA9800 delivers such amazing picture quality even without being 4K is itself a pretty resounding endorsement of OLED's capabilities.
Usability, sound and value
The 55EA9800 certainly can't be accused of not trying unusually hard to be user-friendly. Especially impressive is the latest version of its Magic Remote concept, which combines excellent, impressively accurate 'point and click' technology with a simple, tactile wheel for scrolling through long menus.
The remote fits perfectly in your hand and within seconds even the most technophobic of users should be using it to whizz through the 55EA9800's menus and features as if they'd been born to do it.
LG's onscreen menus are among the more attractive in the TV world too, and generally make it pretty clear where you need to go next in order to achieve a desired end. They also do a quite thoughtful job of screening the most complex adjustments from people who aren't keen (and thus, presumably savvy) enough to seek them out.
The Smart TV menus are perhaps a touch overwhelming as LG seeks to fit into one densely populated 'scrolling' hub screen quantities of stuff that rival brands are increasingly tending to put into completely separate screens. But this is a small point, really, and overall the 55EA9800 is much easier to use than you might expect from a TV of its spec level.
While you struggle to see the 55EA9800's speakers thanks to their small size and see-through design, you can certainly hear them. The power and dynamic range they're capable of producing is pretty incredible all things considered, outperforming the speakers found in many much larger, deeper TVs that use speakers you can, you know, actually SEE.
It doubtless helps that the 55EA9800's speakers fire forwards rather than down like those of many other skinny TVs.
The only complaint I might make about the 55EA9800's audio in the circumstances is that the soundstage they produce is a bit narrow – possibly because the TV's curved design forces the speakers at each end of the chassis to face slightly towards each other.
On the one hand – and probably, sadly, the hand that applies to the vast majority of the TV-buying public - $8k is an awful lot of cash to splash on a mere 55-inch television. On the other hand, the 55EA9800 is no ordinary 55-inch television.
Its OLED technology makes it both prettier and a better performer than any other HD TV to date, and we could even imagine fans of 4K having their heads turned by the 55EA9800's advantages in every other department bar straight resolution.
It's also worth remembering that when it launched the 55EA9800 was four grand more than it now costs. And when 55-inch OLED TVs were first announced not far off 18 months ago, five-figure prices were being talked about.
With its amazing super-slim and subtly curved design and groundbreaking OLED picture reproduction system, there's truly never been a TV quite like the 55EA9800 before.
I sincerely hope there will be more like it in the future, though, for its picture quality proves that its beauty is way more than skin deep, serving up picture thrills the likes of which I've genuinely never seen before.
The decision to curve the 55EA9800's screen feels a bit like adding an unnecessary layer of controversy to its mostly seriously tasty proposition, but unless you've got a particularly large family fighting for seating positions the curve shouldn't represent enough of a problem to put you off buying into the 55EA9800's countless other charms.
In fact, only the set's price and lack of 4K resolution count significantly against it.
The 55EA9800 had me from the very start thanks to the extraordinary slimness of the majority of its rear, and its spectacular if controversial curved sculpting. And my love for it merely grew when it became apparent that in pretty much every important picture area OLED technology simply makes pictures better.
Given how much I love 4K, it's clearly a shame – if hardly a surprise at this point in OLED's journey – that the 55EA9800 is HD only. Its eight grand entry price is also clearly prohibitive, and it doesn't sport a comprehensive suite of key catch-up TV services.
The long, long wait is over and vaguely affordable big-screen OLED entertainment has finally arrived. And what style it's arrived in, with the 55EA9800 imperiously rising to the challenge of living up to all the hype OLED has built up around itself over the past three or four years.
Apparently OLED screens remain prohibitively difficult to make, leading to everyone bar LG seemingly withdrawing from the OLED market again for the time being. But that loss looks set to be LG's gain, for if it can continue to make OLEDs as outstanding as the 55EA9800, there will surely always be people out there desperate to buy them.
If you fancy saving some money but still want to secure yourself some 'miles ahead' picture quality, I think you can still get one of Panasonic's P60ZT65 flagship plasma TVs. If you fancy going this route, though, I suggest you get a shift on.
The same goes for what we'd say is the best LED-based full HD TV in town, the Sony 55W905A, with its impressive local dimming system (though this is no match, in truth, for the pinpoint luminance abilities of OLED).
Otherwise your best alternatives in terms of price and cutting edge performance – certainly if you value resolution over contrast - are the Sony 65X9005A 4K/UHD TV and the Samsung UE65F9000 4K/UHD TV set.