Toshiba 55WL863B £1800
27th Oct 2011 | 10:50
Toshiba transplants its Japanese 'intelligent' TV tech to the UK
For a couple of years now there's been an increasingly wide divide between Toshiba in Japan and Toshiba in the UK.
For while Toshiba's Japan division has been blazing a high-end trail with its phenomenally powerful and entirely uncompromising CEVO TVs, Toshiba in the UK has been increasingly turning into a (very successful) budget brand.
Today, though, Toshiba is finally trying to get back on higher ground with the 55WL863: its first UK TV to carry the brand's CEVO Engine.
This powerful processing engine ushers in a number of potentially important picture features, including an advanced 2D to 3D conversion engine, a 3D version of Toshiba's long-respected Resolution+ system for boosting sharpness and detail, and a potentially very handy NetResolution+ system for improving the look of streamed video from the Internet.
The CEVO Engine is also used to drive the 55WL863's PRO-LED screen, complete with a degree of local dimming.
As you would expect of a high-end TV, the 55WL863 has active 3D playback, extensive multimedia playback via USB or DLNA PC, and online features courtesy of Toshiba's new Places system - complete with some intriguing personalisation options.
Also contributing to the set's high end appeal is its build quality - born out of Toshiba's recent collaboration with the Jacob Jensen Design studio.
Alongside the 55WL863 can be found the 42-inch 42WL863 and 46-inch 46WL863, while if you fancy the same spec and build quality but in a silver finish, you've got the YL863 series.
If you'd prefer a passive 3D solution, meanwhile, then Toshiba's got your back there too, in the shape of its VL863 series. But today's all about the 55WL863, and finding out just what a newly invigorated, high-end Toshiba might be capable of.
The design Jacob Jensen's studio has come up with for the 55WL863 initially looks a little uninspiring.
It's just a black rectangle around a 55-inch screen essentially - though to be fair, the bezel is unusually slim (without delivering the same sort of ground breaking slimness found on some of Samsung's TVs this year).
The closer you get to the 55WL863, though, the more attractive it becomes, as you discover that it's exceptionally slim round the back and, best of all, incredibly well built from gorgeously tactile metal.
Turning to the 55WL863's stunningly slender and robust rear, all of its connections are positioned for access from the side - either the left or bottom edges. Which is of course ideal for people thinking of wall mounting the TV.
The connections themselves are in line with what you would expect of a top-end TV. Four HDMIs get the ball rolling, all built to the 3D v1.4 specification. Also of note are the set's twin USB ports, LAN port, and PC port.
It's worth noting that the slimness of the 55WL863 has required Toshiba to provide down-sizing adaptors for some of the connections, including the Scart and component inputs.
The USBs are capable of playing back photo, video and music files from USB drives, or you can use one of them for recording from the set's Freeview HD and HD satellite tuners.
Please note, though, that the satellite tuner is not a Freesat one; it just takes in whatever free to air channels it can find from the designated satellite, with no Freesat 'packaging'.
The LAN port is there for streaming files in from a networked DLNA PC (ideally a Windows 7 model for maximum compatibility), or for accessing Toshiba's Places online service. Or if you'd rather not bother with the wired approach, the 55WL863 ships with built-in Wi-Fi. Excellent.
As with Toshiba's VL863 passive 3D models, the 55WL863 sports a built-in camera. This is used in conjunction with a built-in face recognition system to figure out who is using the TV at any given moment, so that the set can automatically switch to that user's preferred settings - something that has the potential to prove particularly useful when it comes to the TV's online features. For it means the set can automatically call up your preferred favourites lists, email accounts, and personalised layout.
However, the personalisation feature is let down somewhat by the rather poor quality of the built-in camera, which doesn't really work properly if your room is either very bright or very dark, and doesn't enjoy much resolution either. Probably because of these problems the set 'read' the wrong user on a number of occasions during its time in the test labs.
Focussing next on the Places online system, as with other online Toshiba TVs this year it feels like a feature of great promise rather than a polished and finished article.
On the upside, its presentation is excellent, with bright, colourful, clean graphics and text, and a sensible, spacious layout that doesn't overload you with information. The focus on personalisation really is interesting too, with its support for individual email/social network accounts, and individual favourite content lists.
The catch is that there isn't as much content on Places as you get with most rival online systems at the moment.
The full list of video applications currently available looks like this: Viewster, BBC IPlayer, YouTube, Daily Motion, Box Office 365, Woomi, Cartoon Network, and HiT Entertainment. For music you've got just the Aupeo personal radio app. In the 'Social' Place you've got your email accounts, and access to your Flickr online photo library and Daily Motion video library.
In the News place, finally, you've just got the depressingly multilingual Meteonews.tv weather 'channel'.
It's good to see Toshiba apparently focussing most of its content sourcing on video, but Places could do with a few more non-subscription video options, and its music and news 'places' are sorely malnourished.
It's also a bit weird that there are still no Facebook or Twitter apps in the Social Place section, and it's annoying as hell that the BBC iPlayer and YouTube apps aren't properly integrated into the Places platform. Instead, selecting either of them from the Places menus throws up a message telling you that you have to quit out of Places and select the 'Connected' option in the TV's normal menus to access these two key online features.
Focussing next on the features that make the 55WL863's pictures tick, the full HD 55-inch screen is illuminated by edge LED lighting but with a degree of local dimming available. Local dimming isn't always very successful on edge LED TVs, so it will be interesting to see how well it works here. The claimed contrast ratio of 7,000,000:1 is promising at least, even though it's almost certainly also rather fanciful...
The really big cause for hope with the 55WL863's pictures, though, is the new CEVO Engine. For as well as driving key 'headline' features like the NetResolution system for improving the appearance of streamed video and the 3D Resolution+ system for boosting the sharpness of 3D images, the CEVO Engine works on a more micro level when it comes to improving such general image components as colour, contrast and motion clarity.
The arrival of the CEVO Engine also introduces (actually very accurate if rather gentle) 2D to 3D conversion to a Toshiba TV for the first time, with the set's 3D abilities being of the active variety rather than the passive ones found on Toshiba's step-down VL863 series.
It's a bit disappointing that you don't get any of Toshiba's active 3D glasses included for free with the TV, though.
Heading finally into the 55WL863's onscreen menus, there's a pretty comprehensive suite of tools for calibrating pictures. These include a solid if somewhat imprecise colour management system; different strength settings for the LED local dimming feature; a simple black/white sliding bar 'balance'; adjustments for the static gamma setting; MPEG and standard noise reduction systems; the facility to turn on or off Toshiba's Resolution+ system and adjust its level of potency; and a trio of different tools focussed on motion.
The first of these motion tools lets you choose Smooth, Standard and Off settings for Toshiba's Active Vision M800 processing (which combines a 200Hz refresh rate with a scanning backlight and frame interpolation processing to deliver a pseudo 800Hz effect if you use its strongest Smooth setting), but you can also adjust the range of motion that the interpolation processing works on. There's even a further separate 3D judder cancellation system, with auto and off settings.
Calibration is further aided by a provided test pattern, an RGB filter that can remove the red, green or blue elements from the picture individually to aid colour tuning, and finally a white balance adjustment that lets you use the 2-point or 10-point fine-tuning system.
If some of these advanced features sound far too scary for you to tinker with yourself, you may be interested to note that Toshiba has also used the power of the CEVO Engine to come up with an innovative TPA-1 auto calibration system for use with the WL863 and YL863 sets. This comprises a meter that attaches to one of the TV's USB ports and hangs down over the screen's front ready to read the test signal outputs produced by the screen when you set the auto calibration system in motion.
Colour calibration works completely automatically, while gamma works to arrive at your preferred targets for colour temperature (the default, sensibly, is the D65 temperature generally considered best for video) and gamma (we chose 2.2).
Toshiba deserves a great deal of credit for trying to put a degree of 'professional' calibration into the hands of ordinary end users, with next to no technical knowledge being required. However, while the calibration device will suit the sort of AV enthusiast whose idea of a perfect picture is one that sits in line with the established video standards, it's also quite possible that many normal users won't actually like the relatively undynamic picture the calibration system - accurately - arrives at. Especially as it leaves reds looking a little flat.
It's also doubtful how many end users will care to fork out the £250 you need to purchase the auto calibration system.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the 55WL863's pictures is how incredibly different you can make them look.
The panel and the calibration tools both have the flexibility to deliver images that can look radically different in brightness, contrast, colour and sharpness depending on what settings you plump for. This has the potential to be very handy given how much different picture 'looks' can suit different types of content.
It does also, though, place rather a burden on both the TV's presets and end users, who need to spend a little time setting the TV up to its best advantage.
Not all of the presets are particularly successful, sadly, tending to push the picture's brightness and contrast so hard that images look overcooked and noisy. And it is possible to royally mess pictures up if you're not careful with some of the backlight, noise and motion controls.
But crucially, while getting the best results from the 55WL863 isn't always as easy as it should be, you certainly can get it producing some really very nice pictures indeed.
If you're a film fan, the best place to start is the set's Hollywood Pro mode. For even if you don't invest in the auto calibration system which uses this mode to store its settings, it delivers the most accurate (according to the D65 standard) colour tones and the most natural looking detail levels.
Some people might feel the urge to nudge the brightness and colour saturation up a touch from the Hollywood Pro preset levels, as otherwise the image really is startlingly 'duller' than it is with any of the TV's other main modes. But the reasoning behind this setting is that you'll be watching your films in a darkened room, where brightness isn't as important as subtlety and accuracy.
In a marginally tweaked version of the Hollywood Pro mode, a number of picture strengths stand out. First up, colours are mostly really good; natural in tone and exceptionally subtle when it comes to portraying the tiniest of colour shifts. This stops skin tones from looking plasticky and creates a really 'high end', cinematic feel to good quality Blu-ray sources. Rich reds occasionally look a little out of kilter with the rest of the colour template for some reason. But this certainly isn't a deal breaker.
The sharpness of HD images is well-judged in Hollywood Pro mode too, in that while pictures look effortlessly HD - especially given how HD's extra detailing really shines in the TV's gaping 55-inch screen - pictures don't look 'forensically' sharp or over noisy
It's a huge help to the credibility of the 55WL863's pictures, too, that they suffer scarcely at all with motion blur. This is particularly important when you're watching a screen as large as 55-inch - and what's even better about the 55WL863's motion handling is that it looks good even without calling into play the set's motion processing.
In fact, using the M800 processing on its highest-power 'smooth' setting has a negative impact on HD pictures rather than a positive one, making things look processed and unnatural. The same is true of the TV's noise reduction settings, which should be turned off for HD viewing - and for most standard definition viewing too, actually.
The 55WL863 unexpectedly supports a slightly wider viewing angle than most LCD TVs too, and finally where 2D viewing is concerned, its black level performance is good. Normal scenes containing a mix of light and dark material look punchy but natural thanks to the set's ability to produce a pleasingly deep black colour within the same frame as rich colours and bright whites - so long as you set the LED backlight control feature to 'Weak'.
Turn the backlight control off and dark scenes become rather grey, while setting it to medium or high leads to black crush and some quite distracting instability in the image's brightness level.
In an ideal world it would be possible with the 55WL863 to get a slightly deeper stable black colour. It also has to be said that there's minor evidence of backlight bleed in the set's corners. But so long as you keep the backlight output at a sensible level - no higher than 55% - the brightness inconsistencies are only very seldom visible, and won't distract many people even when they do appear.
If you're the sort of person who tends to get distracted by backlight issues, though, you may just be better off going for a top-notch plasma TV instead.
While the CEVO Engine has doubtless made its presence subtly felt in the HD picture results so far - especially as we spent most of our time watching the mostly good settings arrived at via the exclusive, CEVO-powered auto calibration system - its impact becomes much more overt when watching standard definition.
For standard def sources are upscaled to the screen's full HD resolution exceptionally well, thanks to the way detail and sharpness are added at the same time that noise is suppressed. Colours retain their naturalism and subtlety during their upscaling transition, too.
Toshiba's processing also works very nicely with video streamed from online sources like YouTube, smoothing away with aplomb the worst of the rough edges and MPEG blocking noise.
It should be added that the 55WL863's Resolution+ system needs to be engaged to achieved the best upscaling results. But make sure you only leave this running at a mild strength level, as otherwise it can start to make images look noisy.
The CEVO Engine is also, more surprisingly gloriously apparent when watching 3D. For here engaging the Resolution+ mode delivers a result that's nothing short of revelatory, sharpening and adding more detail to even full HD 3D Blu-ray pictures to a degree that makes them quite simply the most detailed active 3D pictures yet seen on a TV. Seriously.
It's also brilliant to be able to report that the incredible detailing in HD Blu-ray pictures is emphasised and driven out of the screen by the 55WL863's exceptional 3D brightness. Toshiba's glasses seem to knock far less brightness out of pictures than most rival active shutter brands - especially those from Panasonic and Sony. And this fact joins forces with the screen's own inherent brightness and colour vibrancy (if you use the Dynamic preset for 3D viewing) to produce full HD active 3D images pretty much as bright as those you get from LG's top-end passive 3Ds.
All of which makes it all the more tragic that the 55WL863's in many ways class-leading 3D pictures are undermined by crosstalk noise. For the presence of this double ghosting issue, caused by the screen not being able to refresh its content fast enough to keep up with the shuttering mechanism in the 3D glasses, is both consistent on the 55WL863 and often pretty noticeable whenever it's around.
It's not restricted to dark scenes like it is with an increasing number of 3D TVs either; you can clearly see it over especially - but not exclusively - background objects during bright scenes too.
It's particularly bad during the first hour or two you have the TV switched on from cold each day, but even after the set has had plenty of 'warm up' time ghosting is still routinely apparent. It also affects side by side 3D sources like Sky feeds more than it affects sequential 3D.
There's an argument to be made here that the advantages in terms of detailing, colour richness and brightness of the 55WL863's 3D pictures counteract the crosstalk issues. Especially as it's possible that the brightness and dynamism might be down to Toshiba leaving the shutters on its glasses open longer than some other brands do, even though doing this usually increases crosstalk.
It's also true that over time you can 'train' yourself to focus on the foreground objects generally less affected by crosstalk.
But it's still a damn shame that while there are moments when the 55WL863's 3D pictures will have your jaw hanging open in awe, there are as many moments when the crosstalk will attract your attention for all the wrong reasons.
Sound, value and ease of use
It is, of course, always difficult for super-slim TVs to deliver an even half decent soundstage. But the 55WL863's audio track isn't just half-decent - it's actually fully decent!
The built-in speakers can go impressively loud for a start, and they do so without distorting, even during action scenes. Voices sound really clean, clear and believable too, proving just how open and expansive the set's midrange is.
Treble information is handled really well as well, adding lots of detail to the soundstage without sounding harsh.
Bass is the inevitable weakness, but there's at least a sense of low frequency information - and because the mid-range is so open, the soundstage seldom sounds unbalanced.
At £1800 the 55WL863 isn't a bad price at all for such a large, beautifully constructed and mostly very talented screen. It's not quite as well featured as one or two other brands' flagship TVs, for sure, and its Places online service needs more content to join its well-designed interface.
But then Panasonic's equivalent P55VT30, LG's equivalent 55LW980T and Samsung's equivalent UE55D7000 all cost significantly more, so it's easy to imagine many people thinking the Toshiba does more than enough given its relative cheapness.
Ease of use
Considering what a potentially complicated TV the 55WL863 is, it's actually quite easy to use. Toshiba's latest concentric circle main menu arrangement is well thought through and excellently presented, and while the reversion to a standard 'list' format once you've found your preferred 'submenu' is a touch disappointing, these lists are still easy to read and reasonably well organised.
Also sensible is the way Toshiba has divvied up its options so that the more sophisticated calibration features only come up if you really go looking for them, ensuring that mainstream, more casual users don't have to be faced with reams of features they have no intention of using.
The remote control is a bit of an oddity. It's buttons are adequately laid out and very responsive, and Toshiba has attempted to continue the theme of segregating different levels of functionality by using a sliding silver cover that can be positioned over different button groupings.
While clever, though, it's hard to imagine many people using the slide in the way it was meant to be used, and as a result it will likely just feel like an unnecessary contrivance to most people.
Toshiba's first real stab at introducing some of its CEVO processing power into its UK TVs isn't without its flaws, but it's still a very nice TV overall.
The attraction begins with its design. For while the 55WL863 doesn't look particularly glamorous from a distance, get up close and you can really appreciate both its exceptional slimness and its terrific metallic build quality.
It's also got all the connections most people will need, including an extensive suite of multimedia tools such as video/photo/music playback from DLNA PCs, USB multimedia playback (including DivX HD), recording from the HD tuners to USB drives, and Toshiba's Places online service.
'Places' is a little content-light right now, but it's a cloud-based service, so content levels will surely increase over time. At which point you will likely really start to appreciate its pretty interface and clever attempts to offer personalised experiences for all the members of your household.
Toshiba has had a fair stab at appealing to the high-end 'installation' market by offering a solid set of picture adjustments and even an auto calibration system, and best of all the 55WL863 produces far and away the best picture quality Toshiba has yet delivered from a flat-panel TV. The addition of Resolution+ to the 3D environment delivers some particularly mesmerising results.
Some minor red saturation and some more troubling 3D crosstalk issues take a little of the sheen off, but overall the 55WL863 remains well worth at least a trial run.
The 55WL863's build quality is gorgeous, and its connections leave no stone unturned in catering for these modern multimedia times.
The presentation of its Places online service is superb too, and its attempts to personalise the TV for different users are worthy. There's a satisfying degree of calibration flexibility as well, and best of all the TV's picture quality is mostly excellent.
The remote supplied with the 55WL863 isn't as helpful as it thinks it is. Also, the Places service needs to have more content added to get closer to the online services offered by rival brands, and it's a shame the otherwise exemplary 3D pictures are let down by noticeable crosstalk.
There's some minor light bleed in the picture's corners during dark scenes too, but this isn't nearly as bad a problem as it is on some of Toshiba's other TVs this year.
While there's a nagging sense that Toshiba could perhaps have used its CEVO Engine processing a bit more overtly in the 55WL863, it's still the case that the system has helped Toshiba deliver a really good TV that deserves a place at the top table of TV quality this year.
The set's multimedia support is good, and its 2D pictures are sharp, colourful, bright and natural for the most part. What's more, 3D pictures are in some ways the best we've seen, with just the existence of crosstalk noise letting them down.
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