Sharp LC-60LE636E £2599
27th Mar 2012 | 15:45
Sharp begins its 'big screen, small price' campaign
At this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2012), Sharp's stand really stood out.
Not because it was particularly cutting edge (although it did have an 8k resolution TV), but because of the striking simplicity and attractiveness of its core message. It said that Sharp is going to sell really big screens for really small amounts of money.
This idea sounded good to us, and now its first fruits are here in the shape of the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E - also shortened to Sharp Aquos LE636. This brooding 60-inch TV has a full UK price of £2,599 (about $4,150), but is already available in some stores for just £1,295 (about $2,067).
This truly is extraordinarily cheap when you consider that, for instance, the Samsung UE60D8000 costs £3,000 in the UK, or $4,200 in the US.
The suspicion has to be, of course, that Sharp has really slashed the performance and features of its new 60-inch television to hit such a remarkable price level.
But a glance at its spec sheet uncovers such reassuring features as a Freeview HD tuner, 100Hz processing with 'film dejudder', multimedia playback via DLNA or USB, USB Time Shift support and Sharp's Aquos Net+ online platform.
Here's hoping this surprisingly long list of features doesn't mean that Sharp has saved all its cost-based compromises for the Aquos LE636's picture quality.
The Sharp Aquos LE636's size obviously makes it a TV that sits relatively high up in Sharp's range.
But as testament to how Sharp is following through on its bigger-screen policy, it sits below no less than four other sets: the 60-inch LC-60LE831E (which adds Sharp's Quattron technology); two 70-inch models, the 70LE836E and 70LE741E; and most jaw-droppingly of all, the imminent 80-inch LC-80LE646E.
But for now, let's find out if Sharp's debut budget biggie, the Aquos LC-60LE636E, is as appealing in the flesh as it sounds on paper.
Just in case you didn't pick up on this yet, the Sharp LC-60LE636E is a 60-inch TV that can be found retailing in some places for as little as £1,295 (about $2,067).
So potent an attraction is this, it's tempting to just leave this section of the review and move on. But Sharp's ridiculously tempting big-screen bargain has plenty more tricks up its sleeve.
For a start, it's surprisingly good looking. You might well have expected such a value-driven TV just to house its vast screen acreage inside a boring, no-frills plastic frame.
But the bezel is pretty eye-catching, thanks to both its impressive slimness and its classy, high-gloss black finish. The little illuminated (if you want it to be) Sharp 'swish' symbol along the bottom edge is attractive too.
The Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E isn't especially slim around the back by today's standards. But if this is one of the areas where Sharp has had to compromise in order to keep pricing down, that's just fine by us. After all, you don't sit there looking at the back of your massive telly, do you?
The TV's connections are very respectable for its price, too. Most of the important jacks are arranged for sideways access, to make the screen easier to wall hang, and they include, for instance, four HDMIs - as many as you'll find on the most premium of rival sets.
Plus you get both USB and LAN multimedia jacks, and even Wi-Fi, courtesy of an included USB adaptor.
The USB port can play photo, music and video (including DivX HD) files, or else it can be used for recording from the built-in tuner - a tuner that, incidentally, can receive HD and standard definition Freeview broadcasts.
The network options, meanwhile, can play back files from a connected DLNA PC, or they can enable you to go online with Sharp's Aquos Net+ platform.
Sharp's Aquos Net+ is currently rather off the pace compared with some other big-brand TV online systems.
Based on Philips' NetTV platform, the only really handy services available at the time of writing are YouTube, Picasa, an open web browser and, to a lesser extent, the Box Office 365/Napster/HIT Entertainment subscription services.
Aquos Net still doesn't have BBC iPlayer, which has become standard fare with all the other big TV brands.
The Sharp Aquos 60LE636's huge screen is illuminated by Edge LED lighting, contains an inevitable Full HD resolution, and drives its pictures with a 100Hz system, to counter judder and motion blur.
This is all pretty respectable stuff for the price tag, although you can't help but wonder whether Sharp will be able to light a screen as big as 60 inches from the edges without causing pretty major backlight consistency problems.
Heading into the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E's on-screen menus, it again gives you more than you might reasonably expect for such a cheap TV.
There's a healthy degree of colour management, for instance, that enables you to adjust the hue, saturation and 'value' of all six of the key colour components. There's also a sliding Gamma adjustment bar, a Film Mode for adjusting the image to suit movie (as opposed to video/TV) sources and a Fine Motion mode for reducing judder when showing motion.
It's good to note, too, that you can adjust the backlight independently to the image's brightness, giving you a level of backlight flexibility that might come in very handy should the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E prove to have the sort of backlight consistency flaws discussed earlier.
You might expect the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E not to fare too well in the energy consumption department, given its size. But in fact Sharp has managed to bag an A+ rating for its king-sized screen, using the latest EnerG standard.
Trying to find reasons to explain how the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E can be so cheap, the only really significant issues are that it isn't 3D ready, and doesn't employ Sharp's 'Quattron' technology, whereby an extra yellow sub-pixel is added to the usual red, green and blue ones that make up an LCD TVs picture.
But there are doubtless plenty of people out there who would be happy to forego both of these features in return for getting such a huge screen for so little money.
Sharp's LCD TVs have really come on in picture quality terms in the past couple of years, so it isn't as surprising as it probably ought to be to find the ridiculously cheap Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E producing instantly attractive images that give no immediate evidence of the TV's extraordinary cheapness.
Pictures look very dynamic, for instance, thanks to a compelling combination of bright, reasonably rich colours and, even better, a potent black level response. Whites look punchy and clean, too.
In short, first impressions suggest a startlingly good contrast range for such an affordable king-sized TV.
HD feeds look nicely detailed too. Certainly there are some big TVs out there that deliver an even greater sense of crispness, but you're never in any doubt with the Sharp that you're enjoying the delights of an HD image.
Playing a big part in this impression is the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E's reproduction of motion.
There's much less blurring and resolution loss over moving objects than would normally be expected of such a price-focused panel. Nor is judder by any means excessive, even in the panel's native mode, without motion processing in play.
Calling in the Fine Motion system does reduce judder a little, though, and it's a decently invisible system on its low setting, in that it doesn't generate many unwanted side effects.
There's just an occasional sense of a stutter with it, as if the processing is suddenly has to catch up with the source image.
Please note, though, that if you choose the TV's Movie preset, for some bizarre reason both the set's Fine Motion and Film Mode settings default to High, resulting in an image that looks unnaturally fluid and beset by lagging and haloing artefacts.
It was noted earlier that the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E is capable of some likably punchy pictures, but it should also be stressed that it can produce a wider range of colour tones than might have been expected for its money.
Skin tones and large colour expanses entirely avoid the plasticky or blotchy look associated with screens unable to resolve small colour differentiations.
One final strength to report is that provided you don't run the backlight down too low, the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E is capable of resolving a decent amount of shadow detail during dark scenes.
The set is by no means perfect in this regard; by the time we'd optimised the backlight, contrast and brightness levels to produce what seemed to be the most convincing black colour, shadow detail had started to be a little crushed out of the image.
But nudging the brightness level up to a point where shadow detailing emerges again still leaves a black colour that can be considered very credible for a screen of the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E's price.
It's not especially surprising to find that the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E isn't as satisfying with standard definition as it is with HD.
After all, it's quite a challenge to convert the often rather grubby, compressed standard definition images the UK gets from many Freeview broadcasts into something pleasant even on a 42-inch TV, never mind a 60-inch one.
Standard definition images on the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E look a touch soft, and - as with numerous other LCD TVs - they tend to suffer with a less punchy, dynamic colour palette.
However, the set does do a decent job of calming down the worst of any compression noise that might be in a standard definition source, and images remain contrast-rich and bright. So overall standard definition images are never less than eminently watchable.
The Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E also measures pretty well when it comes to input lag, turning in a consistent figure (using the Game preset) of around 34ms - sufficiently low not to seriously damage anyone's console or PC gaming performance.
For 90 to 95 per cent of the time, in fact, everything about the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E's performance is good - which translates into brilliant within the context of its low price.
However, tragically - if not entirely surprisingly - images are let down by one single but undeniable flaw: backlight inconsistency.
The need to illuminate such a large screen evenly using just lights ranged around its edges proves a technical challenge too far, resulting in some obvious areas of unnatural extra brightness when you're watching very dark scenes.
There's a strip of extra brightness around 3 inches across, running down each side of the screen, and four or five other clouds in more central positions over the image too.
Needless to say, whenever you see these over something dark you're watching, you can't help but be distracted.
As usual, you can reduce the impact of these clouds somewhat by pushing down the image's backlight level. And if you're watching in a bright room you might be less aware of the issue, too.
But of course, there's a good chance that if you've bought a 60-inch TV, you'll be keen on dimming the lights and watching films in a cinema-like environment.
At which point, unless you're willing to put up with dark scenes so devoid of backlight that there's practically no shadow detail at all, you will see the backlight consistency distractions fairly regularly. Darn.
Usability, sound and value
As with so many TV operating systems these days, the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E's is a classic mixed bag.
Kicking off with the remote control, it looks fine in a hardcore tech kind of way, with its slender build, glossy black finish and shiny silver trim down each side. But its slenderness means that many of its buttons are tiny - indeed, you almost need a magnifying glass to see some of them.
Couple the smallness of many of the buttons with the fact that most of them are very crowded together, and you've hardly got a recipe for an easy user experience. Especially if you're trying to use the remote in any sort of darkened environment (there's no backlight).
There doesn't seem to be any great logic to the layout of the remote's buttons, either. Even after using it for a week we weren't getting a feel for where all the most useful buttons were.
In some ways the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E's on-screen menus are better. Or at least they're relatively clever. In a bid to enable you to keep watching TV while you use them, the menus are organised around a double-axis system that spreads across and down from the top-right corner, with a slightly smaller version of the picture playing in the bottom-left without any menu content appearing over it.
This system is especially helpful when you want to channel browse while still being able to see and hear the show you're watching.
While there is a full-screen EPG if you want to use it, you can also access the guide from the main cross-bar menu, with scrollable listings appearing down the side, and a nifty little ticker coming up under the picture telling you more about the TV programme being shown.
While it's easy to appreciate and even applaud the thought behind the picture-preserving menu design, though, it also creates a few problems. The most obvious one being that the space available for you to work with in the right-hand column is limited, leading to some unhelpful text abbreviations and a slightly confusing look and layout.
As with the double-axis menu system on Sony's recent TVs, you have to scroll along the top menus a bit more than you might like to get to some useful features. But to be fair, Sharp does seem to have put a bit more thought into putting the most useful menus first than Sony has.
Overall, the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E's menus look and feel quite cutting edge in some ways, but we wouldn't be surprised to see the brand adopt a more graphical style for its menus in the future, following the sort of Smart Hub trend started by Samsung and LG.
While there's a good chance that a screen as big as the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E will be used with a separate audio system, the sound produced by the set's internal speakers is surprisingly good.
The soundstage is large enough to do at least some justice to the scale of the pictures, and the dynamic range is surprisingly expansive, delivering clear trebles at one end of the scale and at least a hint of bass, too.
Pleasingly, the soundstage is potent enough to open up when a movie soundtrack shifts up a few gears, and nor does it tend to sound too harsh or thin during action scenes, even at loud volumes.
All in all, then, the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E puts in a pretty good effort.
For the majority of your viewing time, if you've bought a Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E you'll probably be sat there watching it smugly, thinking that you've bagged yourself the greatest AV bargain ever.
With HD sources in particular, the TV exceeds budget expectations in almost every way, from black level response through to colour vibrancy and sharpness.
However, if you're a movie fan who regularly likes to dim the lights for a serious film-viewing session, you'll almost certainly become aware during dark scenes of some fairly distracting backlight consistency problems.
And we can readily imagine many such movie fans feeling more than a little annoyed by this problem.
On paper, the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E sounds too good to be true. Being able to get a 60-inch screen from a respected brand for £1,300-2,600/$2,000-4,150 pretty much rewrites the big-screen pricing rule book.
The screen isn't nearly as basic with its specification as you might expect either, managing to include extensive picture calibration tools, 100Hz processing, multimedia playback from USB sticks and DLNA PCs, and even a degree of online functionality.
It looks very pretty too, putting to shame the bland plasticky finishes of your typical budget TV.
For much of the time, the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E's performance merely underlines its up-front appeal, with colourful, bright, punchy and sharp pictures that it's hard to believe are really coming from such an amazingly cheap screen.
It even sounds good, despite being impressively slim.
However, tragically much of its excellent work is undone by a single but aggravating flaw: noticeable and distracting backlight consistency during dark scenes.
The Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E's price is so low for such a big screen that it's almost unbelievable.
With that in mind, its performance is remarkably good, too, for much of your viewing time, with dynamic colours, a rich black level response, plenty of sharpness and even some potent audio. The set's a nice looker for such a big unit, too.
The chink in the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E's otherwise formidable armour is the appearance of pretty obvious backlight consistency flaws when watching dark scenes. This can be quite distracting when you see it, and is impossible to calibrate away.
Sharp's online service is pretty limited compared to most rivals, too, and some aspects of its operating system could be better.
Sharp's new policy of offering huge screens for peanuts prices has nearly got off to an extraordinarily positive start with the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E. It's better looking than it's got any right to be for a budget 60-inch TV. It's got more features than it has any right to have for its money. And in many ways it even produces much better picture quality than it has any right to.
What a pity, then, that film fans in particular will find their movie nights troubled by the set's backlight consistency flaws.
There really aren't any other 60-inch TVs that come close to the price of the Sharp Aquos LC-60LE636E.
If you want the ultimate in big-screen TV picture quality, though, and you have deep pockets, you could go for the Panasonic P65VT30 - especially since this is currently getting quite heavily discounted (to around £2,800/$2,600) because Panasonic's new 65-inch models are incoming.
If you'd rather go for a 55-inch model with stunning looks, cutting edge features and a generally excellent performance (provided you're careful how you set it up), then you couldn't do much better than the new Samsung UE55ES8000. But again, you'll need the best part of £2,500/$3,900 to bag yourself one of those.
For a really cheap alternative to the Sharp, you could consider a TV such as the 55-inch Kogan KULED551HDAA, which is now on sale for just £749 (about $1,200). But please be warned that you'll have to accept some fairly significant picture quality compromises with this cut-price offering.