LG 55LW980T £2500
5th Oct 2011 | 14:29
Does LG's 55-inch flagship LCD TV live up to the hype?
So here it is at last. After a seemingly interminable wait, the new flagship model in LG's LCD TV range, the Nano 55LW980T, is finally here, bringing with it a massive feature count and, hopefully, LG's best flat TV picture quality ever.
The most exciting thing about the LG 55LW980T is its use of direct LED lighting, where the LED clusters sit behind the panel, rather than the much more common edge LED lighting system. Although more expensive, the direct LED approach enables TV manufacturers to have much greater control over local luminance levels in their TVs' pictures, which experience has shown consistently results in much better picture quality.
The LG 55LW980T has plenty of other neat tricks in its feature locker, too. It's got LG's passive 3D TV technology for a start, complete with no less than seven pairs of 3D glasses thrown in for free. Plus it's got a truly extensive suite of multimedia tools, including playback of video, music and photo files from USB devices or networked, DLNA-capable PCs.
The LG 55LW980T can access LG's rapidly expanding Smart TV online platform via LAN internet or integrated Wi-Fi, and boasts a new 'number' in the ever-escalating war of TV specs: MCI 1000. The MCI bit of this spec stands for Motion Clarity Index, revealing that the 1000 bit is essentially LG claiming that the 55LW980T delivers a 1000Hz-like effect. This is thanks to a combination of the screen's high native refresh rate, a scanning backlight, and motion interpolation processing.
While such spec sheet numbers always need to be treated with healthy suspicion, though, it's useful in this case if only because it indicates that the 55LW980T enjoys LG's most advanced suite of image quality tools to date.
Joining the 55-inch model in LG's LW980T range is the 47-inch 47LW980T.
If you can't quite run to the LW980T's premium pricing you can step down to LG's LW650T models, such as the LG 55LW650T. The TVs in this range use edge LED lighting rather than direct LED lighting, and carry an MCI 850 engine rather than an MCI 1000 engine.
If you prefer plasma technology and active 3D playback, LG's got you covered with its PZ950T range. Right now, though, there's a lot to get through with the LG 55LW980T, so let's get down to business.
Using direct LED lighting in the 55LW980T is a bold statement of intent for LG, showing just how far the brand is prepared to go to chase the enthusiast market. After all, such lighting is much more expensive to produce than edge LED lighting - especially when you use 288 separately controllable LED clusters like the LG 55LW980T does.
It's certainly worth noting that LG's greatest rival, Samsung, no longer seems interested in trying to offer a direct LED option in its TVs.
Direct LED traditionally requires a markedly deeper rear end than edge LED technology. But LG seems to have moved past this problem pretty emphatically with the 55LW980T. Its rear end sticks out by only 27mm, making it actually slimmer than most edge LED TVs. LG has accomplished this feat by introducing an "advanced light emitting filter" in front of the LED lights, which dissipates the light to deliver a brighter, smoother, more evenly lit final image.
There is a concern, perhaps, over whether the filter might potentially reduce black levels while it goes about its light-diffusing work, but at this point at least it's only fair to give LG's technology the benefit of the doubt.
Especially as that technology has helped to produce such a gorgeous-looking TV. Because as well as striking slimness, the LG 55LW980T enjoys a pleasingly narrow bezel - just 1.7cm across - and a single-layer fascia, with the top sheet of glass that covers the whole face extending slightly beyond the black bezel on each side in a cunning bid to emphasise the TV's slender profile.
As noted earlier, all 288 light clusters behind the LG 55LW980T's screen are individually controllable, thanks to a process known as local dimming. This key feature enables much greater control over the light levels of specific areas of the screen than you can get with edge LED lighting, with obvious potential benefits for contrast (LG quotes a contrast ratio of 10,000,000:1). The LG 55LW980T even goes so far as to provide three different strengths of its local dimming process.
The LG 55LW980T was originally going to get an active 3D system, but a few months ago LG decided that this potentially sent out mixed messages regarding the brand's preferred passive 3D alternative. So the LG 55LW980T arrives with one of LG's polarising filters applied to the front of its screen, and seven pairs of free glasses.
Clearly this number of free 3D glasses is designed to rub the active 3D camps' noses in the fact that LG passive glasses cost peanuts to make while pairs of active 3D glasses cost anywhere between £60 and £120 a pair.
The LG 55LW980T also carries 2D to 3D conversion, and allows you to adjust the 3D image's depth and viewpoint settings. These are both welcome tools, given how some people have different tolerances to different levels of 3D effect.
LG has left seemingly no stone unturned in its bid to produce a picture that's both impressive and flexible enough to suit any tastes and needs - including those of calibration outfit the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF), which has given the LG 55LW980T its full backing. There's a reasonably extensive colour management system, for instance, as well as white balance fine-tuning and extensive gamma adjustments.
There's also an almost infinite amount of control over just about every element of the LG 55LW980T's video processing, from its dynamic contrast engine through to its colour boosters, noise reduction systems and motion compensation tools.
Particularly welcome is the facility to adjust the individual levels of processing power applied by the set's TruMotion system to the separate judder and blur motion issues you invariably get with LCD screens.
Another big potential draw of the LG 55LW980T is its multimedia functionality - especially its Smart TV online services. LG has made giant strides in this department since 2010, first by massively ramping up its content level, then by introducing a great-looking interface.
It's interesting to note, too, that LG has recently added a significant number of extra online video-based features over the past month or so, including the Blinkbox TV and movie library, Autocar, a 3D Zone of streamable 3D content and an ITN news feed.
These join a roster that includes YouTube, BBC iPlayer, AceTrax, the HIT Entertainment channel, Box Office 365, the Cartoon Network, iConcerts and Daily Motion.
As well as the now really impressive store of video streaming sources, LG's Smart TV service carries an abundance of lesser apps. These still continue to be mostly forgettable, apart from the inevitable Facebook/Twitter social networking apps. But there are a few gems among them now, including a Crunchy Roll app that provides access to a startling selection of Manga and Anime sources.
It was a little disappointing to find the LG 55LW980T's Smart TV system working seemingly as sluggishly as that of LG's 50PZ950T plasma TV. Particularly aggravating is the way some features insist on taking an age to load unnecessary header graphics before letting you access their features.
The LG 55LW980T did score a major Smart TV success over the 50PZ950T, though, courtesy of the fact that its online services all seem to actually work. There was no repeat of the stuttering while streaming video and crashing apps found with the 50PZ950T. Phew.
The LG 55LW980T also supports streaming of a wide selection of file types - including HD Video - from DLNA PCs, and you can get all these goodies via either a LAN port or a built-in Wi-Fi system.
The LG 55LW980T additionally supports playback of a similar selection of multimedia files from USB drives, and can also record from the built-in Freeview HD tuner to correctly formatted USB storage drives.
One last rather cool feature of the LG 55LW980T, if you're a gamer, is its Dual Play mode. This uses the polarising properties of the screen to enable two players to enjoy full-screen gaming simultaneously. You just need to purchase two pairs of special glasses that only show one 'half' of the screen's polarised signal to each player.
While there's obviously considerable resolution loss if you take this gaming approach, it's still vastly preferable to trying to play a two-player game using the usual split-screen system.
Wrapping up this section of the review with a quick connections count, the highlights are four HDMIs, two USBs, a D-Sub PC port, the aforementioned Wi-Fi and LAN ports, and an RS-232C port for system integration.
So to the moment of truth: does the LG 55LW980T deliver on its direct-LED potential? For the most part actually yes, it does. But only if you set it up right.
The main reason we say this is that unless you're careful with some of the LG 55LW980T's settings, it can suffer some fairly serious contrast flaws.
When we first watched the LG 55LW980T, using its picture presets, dark scenes exhibited some positively crude levels of haloing around bright objects whenever they appeared against dark backgrounds.
This phenomenon is by no means uncommon with direct LED TVs when using local dimming, and is an artefact of the locally-controlled luminance areas in the panel not being able to control brightness accurately enough to stop there being a cloudy halo around bright objects. But this haloing issue is the worst we've seen on the LG 55LW980T.
Unless, that is, you turn the TV's LED local dimming tool either off or down to its Low setting from the mid level preferred by most presets. However, reducing the potency of the local dimming causes its own problems, sadly, as black level response takes a noticeable hit. Turn the local dimming off entirely and suddenly the image's black level response is really quite disappointing - far worse than you get with a half-decent plasma TV, and not really better, it seemed to us, than you might get from a good-quality edge LED TV.
Thankfully, there is a settings configuration that more or less works for the LG 55LW980T. What you need to do is have the LED dimming tool set to low, and the backlight set to between its 50 and 60 level. This allows the screen to deliver a perfectly credible black level without making the haloing a serious problem, or squeezing/crushing out of the picture too much shadow detail.
It's a shame that the LG 55LW980T provides so much flexibility with its contrast settings only to effectively force you to stick with one very specific setup mix, but there you go. At least you can get a satisfying result in the end, and that's all that really matters.
With this initial calibration hurdle settled, it's finally time to settle back and admire the rest of the LG 55LW980T's picture stall. And there really is an awful lot to admire.
For starters, 2D pictures still look extremely dynamic even with the local dimming engine only set to Low. Both bright and dark scenes look so multilayered, solid and vigorous that you almost feel as if you're watching 3D without any glasses on!
Colours are nothing short of gorgeous, too - especially when watching HD. They're extremely punchy and dynamic thanks to the way the local dimming engine permits the screen to be bright where it needs to be, even during dark scenes. But much more importantly, colours are also capable of looking both beautifully natural and extraordinarily subtly delineated, with not the faintest hint of a stripe of blotch (unless it's there in the source).
No sooner have you taken all this on board than something else about the LG 55LW980T's pictures hits you straight between the eyes: their awesome sharpness. HD sources are a joy to behold, with every last pixel of picture information rendered crisply and vigorously, right down to the finest grain that might be tucked away within a good Blu-ray film transfer.
What's more, this extraordinary detail intensity is achieved without the help of the entirely unnecessary Super Resolution system tucked away within the TV's menus. Nor does it seem forced to the extent that images look excessively fizzy, or the edges around bright objects look stressy.
Seeing so much HD detail in such a natural - and stable - way is a trick that never gets old. Especially as the set delivers more shadow detail than you would ever get with an edge or CCFL-lit LCD TV, and you're seeing it all in the gloriously large setting of a 55-inch screen.
Crucial to the extreme sharpness just described is another startling LG 55LW980T strength: its motion handling. There's practically no motion blur or judder at all, even with LG's TruMotion processing turned completely off.
This makes the LG 55LW980T the best LCD TV LG has ever produced where motion is concerned. In fact, the naturalism and clarity of the LG 55LW980T's motion reproduction is in some ways its most 'premium' achievement if you're looking for key reasons why you feel so directly connected and immersed in what you're watching.
Overall, once you've overcome the contrast issues noted earlier, the LG 55LW980T's HD 2D pictures are little short of sensational. And thankfully a surprising amount of quality remains when you switch to 2D.
The upscaling engine LG has used appears to be a level or two cleverer than the brand's usual efforts, resulting in standard definition images that look remarkably clean, believably coloured and reasonably sharp. There are TVs around that make standard definition look sharper, but this extra sharpness usually comes at the expense of noise. So the balance that LG has struck seems eminently sensible. And in any case, the LG 55LW980T does have the tools to ramp up the standard definition sharpness if you really want it to.
Before getting into the LG 55LW980T's 3D performance, there are a couple more little problems with the 2D pictures. First, the screen's glassy finish is rather reflective of any reasonably bright objects in your room.
Secondly, console gamers dreaming of playing their games on the LG 55LW980T should note that the screen's input lag measures around 60-65ms, using its gaming mode with picture processing turned off. This is actually much better than many other LG sets this year, but it's still much higher than the figures measured on most rival screens, and could definitely prove detrimental to a serious gamer's performance.
Things take an almighty upturn again, though, with the LG 55LW980T's 3D performance. In fact, in many ways its 3D images are a revelation, delivering the most persuasive argument yet in favour of LG's passive 3D technology.
This actually comes as something of a surprise, truth be told. Another 55-inch passive TV, the LG 55LW650T, underlined the weaknesses with the passive 3D format rather than its strengths. But while these weaknesses are still there on the LG 55LW980T, they seem much less dominant, allowing the passive advantages more room to shine.
Let's get the problems out of the way first. The most troubling one is the visible appearance of the 3D filter on the screen over certain areas of 3D pictures. This can manifest itself as very slight dark horizontal lines over bright parts of the picture. Or it can appear as short horizontal lines over very bright edges (meaning they can look slightly jagged) or small bright objects.
The impact of this visible filter structure diminishes with every foot you move away from the screen. But it's certainly visible from the 2.5-3m range that seemed the most comfortable viewing distance during this test.
Another issue with current passive 3D technology is that crosstalk (double ghosting noise) goes through the roof if you have to watch the TV from an angle of more than around 12 degrees above or below the screen. Also, even if you're watching from the perfect position, there's evidence of slight soft light leakage around some very bright objects, such as the white body of Maximus the horse in Tangled.
It's apparent on the LG 55LW980T that there is a reduction in resolution from the Full HD 3D pictures obtained from a 3D Blu-ray player. But for some reason - possibly/probably the extra quality of this TV's core picture technology - the impact of this latter issue isn't nearly as noticeable as it was on the 55LW650T.
In fact, 3D Blu-ray pictures look engagingly detailed and - mostly - sharp on the LG 55LW980T. Sure, there's a mite less detail and texture in skin tones, hair, grass and other areas of extreme detail than you might get with an active 3D screen, but the difference is less pronounced than expected - especially because the extra brightness of the passive 3D picture helps drive detailing out with more impact.
The LG 55LW980T emphasises even more than the 55LW650T passive 3D's advantage in brightness. Donning one of the free pairs of glasses the TV set ships with reduces brightness and colour saturation by only a fraction of the amount that active glasses do, overcoming one of the most common arguments against watching 3D at home.
There's also no flickering with the LG 55LW980T's 3D approach, and only minor amounts of crosstalk noise (so long as you avoid the viewing angle issue noted earlier). Also, overall the passive 3D experience feels less fatiguing than the active one.
The visible filter and loss of resolution issues will still make active 3D a potentially more appealing solution to AV enthusiasts. But it's a close-run thing, and we'd advise even a die-hard resolution lover to at least spend a little audition time with an LG 55LW980T before parting with any money.
Sound, value and ease of use
LG has clearly put a lot of work into getting good audio out of the 55LW980T's svelte form. In fact, it sounds more potent, dynamic, clear and well-rounded than any number of much chunkier sets, and in doing so produces a soundstage that feels equal in scale to the substantial images the 3D TV produces. Impressive.
There's no getting around the fact that the £2,500 you need to buy the LG 55LW980T is a substantial wedge of money. Especially when Panasonic's outstanding TX-P55VT30B can be found for as much as £200 less.
But then in a way it's an alternative to Panasonic's active 3D model more than just a rival. So if you're persuaded by the passive 3D argument, a couple of hundred quid probably won't seem like much to worry about - especially if you've got enough money to be thinking about buying a TV that costs more than £2,000.
Ease of use
In most ways, the LG 55LW980T is very easy to use. Its on-screen menus are graphics-rich and extremely legible, and the Home Hub screen that provides access to all of your inputs, online sources and TV controls is surely a template for the way all TV menus will look in the future.
Also commendable is the LG 55LW980T's provision of not one but two remote controls: a perfectly pleasant 'standard' one and a rather groovy 'Magic' one that enables you to access features on the TV simply by pointing the remote directly at them or waving it around, like some kind of WiiMote. Only more useful.
It's good to find, too, that if you feel intimidated by the LG 55LW980T's extensive suite of picture calibration tools, the TV carries a decent Picture Wizard feature that guides you through the basics of picture optimisation.
The only significant usability problems are that the Smart TV menus are a bit sluggish, and you can only access the TV set-up menus by first navigating to the Home Hub screen.
LG clearly wants to send out a message with its 55LW980T. And that message is that if anyone still clings on to a belief that the Korean brand is only interested in the budget end of the market, they're very sorely mistaken.
Basically the LG 55LW980T reads like a bucket list of stuff a modern home entertainment enthusiast would want from a TV. Its direct LED illumination system, for a start, has long been associated with the quality end of the LCD world, even though it's deemed too expensive to use by many brands.
It's also a very attractively and gorgeously built TV, and comes packed with connections and multimedia ambitions that include a feature-packed online Smart TV platform, and playback of most types of video, photo and music files from DLNA PCs or USB flash drives.
Also on board is LG's most high-powered video engine to date, and the set is extremely easy to use, considering it's got so many features.
The best thing about the LG 55LW980T, though, is that it doesn't just talk a good talk. It actually delivers on most of its promises, with outstanding picture quality (provided you take care with its backlight and local dimming settings) and punchy sound.
The LG 55LW980T isn't cheap, but it's got so much going on and delivers so much quality that it appears to be worth every penny.
The LG 55LW980T looks every inch a flagship TV model with its svelte but well-built bodywork. It's got all the connections you'll need, too, and delivers a feast of multimedia functionality - including a much-improved Smart TV platform.
Its picture quality is terrific for the most part too, with good contrast, colours, motion reproduction and sharpness. Perhaps most importantly, it makes another fine case for LG's passive 3D technology.
The set's native black level response is surprisingly average, but thankfully you can fix this via the local dimming system without causing haloing artefacts.
The screen is a bit reflective too, and the Smart TV services are sluggish. The passive 3D pictures lose a little resolution and can reveal signs of the filter on the screen. The screen's input lag is too high for gaming comfort, too.
AV enthusiasts have been on tenterhooks for months to see how LG's new flagship Nano LCD TVs would turn out. So it's a relief to be able to report that they most definitely deliver the goods, combining great design with an uncompromising feature list and, best of all, some really terrific picture and sound quality.
It's a real shame gamers might have to shun the TV on account of its input lag, but aside from this the LG 55LW980T is comfortably the best TV LG has ever made.