Toshiba 55ZL2 £6999
17th May 2012 | 12:10
The next generation of TV is here; Ultra HD and glasses-free 3D
Well here's something you don't see every day. A TV that not only enables you to watch 3D without any glasses on, but also sports a native Quad HD or Ultra HD resolution.
In fact, no television before the Toshiba 55ZL2 has been able to offer either of these hugely significant features. So it's fair to say the TV will rightly be looked back on in the years to come as the start of what is looking likely to be a new era in television technology.
It's a pity, then, that the 55-inch Toshiba 55ZL2 arrives with a couple of clouds hanging over it. First there's the fact that when we've seen its glasses-free 3D system in action at numerous technology shows over the past 18 months, it's left us feeling distinctly unimpressed.
Second, it's always seemed - until very recently, at any rate - as if Toshiba's only interest in using a 4K screen was as a means of producing a convincing glasses-free 3D image. So it remains to be seen if the Toshiba 55ZL2 really gets the most out of its 4K talents.
Admittedly 4K is a tricky proposition right now on account of the lack of any 4K source or connection standards. But Sony has managed to get 4K working via a high-powered PC and a normal HDMI port and cabling on its VW1000ES 4K projector, so let's pray Toshiba has done the same with the 55ZL2.
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The Edge LED Toshiba 55ZL2 also has Toshiba's Places online system, and its pictures are driven, reassuringly, by Toshiba's ultra-powerful Cevo Engine processing system - a system that worked wonders with the recent Toshiba YL863 and Toshiba WL863 series.
The Toshiba 55ZL2 is the only 4K, glasses-free 3D TV in Toshiba's range right now, and sits miles above (in terms of price as well as spec) the next model down - the aforementioned WL863 and YL863 models.
Although we've tried to come up with a couple of alternative TVs from other brands in the 'Also consider' section at the end of this review, the bottom line is that the Toshiba 55ZL2 is, for now at least, so groundbreaking that it's genuinely unique. But is its uniqueness enough to justify you spending £6,999 (about $11,215) to secure one?
There are four fundamental things you need to know about the Toshiba 55ZL2 right off the bat. First, it's a 55-inch TV. Second, it's the first commercially released TV in the UK to support glasses-free 3D playback. Third, it's the first commercially released TV in the UK with a native 4K resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels. And fourth, the price of all this startling innovation is a cool seven grand (or about $11,215).
This latter fact will likely make the Toshiba 55ZL2 nothing more than a pipe dream for most people. But its glasses-free 3D and 4K features naturally make it a TV of huge importance and interest from a technical point of view.
The 55-inch screen for Toshiba's futuristic TV is very pleasantly dressed, thanks to its extremely slender black and silver bezel, plus its unusual but appealing rectangular desktop stand. It sticks out further round the back than most of today's Edge LED TVs, but this seems a minor aesthetic price to pay for the heavy-duty tech tucked inside.
Connections are interesting. Among the standard stuff we'd expect of any self-respecting high-end TV these days are two USBs capable of multimedia playback of film, photo and music files, and a LAN port for either networking your computers to the TV or taking the TV online with Toshiba's Places platform.
There are four HDMIs, too, again as you would expect, as well as a little slot for attaching a D-Sub PC feed via a provided adaptor. What certainly isn't normal, though, is the unique digital serial port input facing straight out of the Toshiba 55ZL2's top rear corner.
4K Quad HD
This digital serial port is there because at the time of writing it's the only way to get native 4K source images into the Toshiba 55ZL2. Unlike the Sony VW1000ES 4K projector, the Toshiba 55ZL2 does not appear to have any support via its HDMI ports for getting 4K in that way.
This is significant, because it means that really there's no way of getting 4K video into the screen at all, unless you use the special Toshiba HDD server supplied exclusively to high-end retailers. The only 4K images a normal person will be able to experience on the TV will be from digital still photographs supplied to the TV via the USB ports.
This is a huge disappointment of course, and may well make you wonder why the heck the screen uses a 4K resolution at all if you can't actually use it properly. But the answer to this lies in the Toshiba 55ZL2's glasses-free 3D capabilities.
The way the TV uses an array of lenticular lenses to direct different images to your left and right eyes to create a 3D effect means that only a 4K panel has sufficient resolution to deliver glasses-free 3D images that still look anything like HD in resolution.
Given how interest in 3D appears to be waning while interest in 4K is growing fast, Toshiba's decision to apparently focus on 4K resolution as a means to a 3D end rather than as a key feature in itself might seem rather bizarre. However, let's not forget that work started in earnest on the Toshiba 55ZL2 a good 18 months ago, when the short-lived period of 3D fever was at its height and consumers were forever saying they'd only get into 3D properly if they didn't have to wear 3D glasses.
Also, of course, there's the sad but unavoidable fact that 4K sources are about as common as pasta trees. A state of affairs that doesn't look set to change any time soon.
Still, Sony has managed to at least make its VW1000ES projector able to take 4K sources from a massively high-spec PC via HDMI, so it's an almighty shame that Toshiba doesn't seem able to do the same. At least that would have given us leave to talk about the potential for future 4K video content delivery to the Toshiba 55ZL2.
The glasses-free 3D feature on the Toshiba 55ZL2 needs more explanation. It's already been noted that it uses a lenticular lens system on the TV's screen to deliver the necessary offset images to each eye.
But it should be added that the Toshiba 55ZL2 is able to deliver these offset images not to just one 'sweet spot' but to as many as nine. This is a potentially critical improvement over early glasses-free 3D televisions we've seen, which have only delivered a credible effect from one or maybe two precise viewing points.
Toshiba even has a tracking system in the Toshiba 55ZL2 whereby a camera built into the TV scans the room for faces and adjusts its viewing sweetspots accordingly. Very clever - and something that's only possible because the 55ZL2 employs Toshiba's powerful Cevo Engine processing.
The presence of this processing unsurprisingly filters into numerous other areas of the Toshiba 55ZL2 too. For starters, as with the Toshiba 46YL863, which also uses Cevo Engine processing, you can get your TV to auto-calibrate itself with the help of the TPA-1 colour meter. This plugs into one of the TV's USB ports, so that it can use the measurements it takes from a built-in set of test signals to adjust various aspects of the TV's settings.
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There are a couple of problems with the TPA-1, though. First and foremost, it's not included for free with the Toshiba 55ZL2, despite the TV's massive asking price. Instead it costs £200-£250 (around $315-$400) extra. Also, we've found the calibrated pictures the TPA-1 produces to be a little imperfect, leaving reddish tones looking slightly muted and out of balance.
The Cevo Engine system is at play in the Toshiba 55ZL2's general picture processing too, since it powers an 800Hz effect achieved through a combination of a 200Hz native panel, a scanning backlight and frame interpolation.
Perhaps the area where the Cevo Engine will most earn its corn, though, is in its upscaling of normal Full HD and even standard definition sources to the screen's native 4K resolution. This potential for making Blu-rays look even sharper and more detailed than they do on a good Full HD TV is arguably the set's main attraction - unless you're a 3D obsessive - given the set's apparent inability to play native 4K video through any practical channels.
Delivering this upscaling is a turbocharged version of Toshiba's previously acclaimed Resolution+ system, complete with different levels of processing power when it comes to adding sharpness to the image.
The Toshiba 55ZL2's on-screen menus reveal control, too, over the potency of the TV's motion compensation systems; MPEG and standard noise reduction systems; a genre-based set of picture presets including three 'Hollywood' modes; colour and gamma management systems; and something called a Slant Line remover, which proves very good at removing the jaggedness that can appear around upscaled curved edges.
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Wrapping up the Toshiba 55ZL2's potent feature mix is its Toshiba Places smart TV service. This is unfortunately probably the set's most underwhelming attraction, at least when considered against the online services available from other big brands these days.
The problem is that it just doesn't have enough content. Video services aren't too bad, including as they do the BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Acetrax, Viewster, Daily Motion, Box Office 365, Woomi, Cartoon Network and HiT Entertainment - though there's no Netflix or LoveFilm support.
However, while there are a few minor other bits and bobs scattered around the Places services, including Twitter and Facebook support, overall there's just no escaping that you can get way more video, gaming, information and social networking apps from the latest TVs from Sony, Samsung, LG and Panasonic.
Hmm. Should we start with the Toshiba 55ZL2's glasses-free 3D abilities here, or its 4K ones? Let's get the bad news out of the way first and go for the glasses-free 3D.
Actually, referring to the Toshiba 55ZL2's 3D performance as the bad news is a bit harsh, because in many ways its 3D images are many times better than we'd expected them to be.
For starters, you don't see the overt vertical 'seams' in the 3D image that were once visible in early pre-production models whenever you moved your head even slightly away from a viewing sweet spot.
There's also much more sharpness and detail in the glasses-free 3D images than there was in the version of the set we saw at CES back in January.
Motion is handled surprisingly well, given how much strain the TV's processing systems are being put under by having to handle up to nine viewing spots. There's minimal judder or blur to spoil the 3D effect.
Perhaps because of this, the glasses-free 3D images also appear to have more sense of depth to them than they did during previews.
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And then, of course, there's the simple fact that you're watching 3D pictures without the encumbrance of any 3D glasses. This is a startlingly liberating experience, especially if you've watched a few hours of 3D movie content while wearing glasses in the past.
It also feels much more natural and much less tiring than wearing active shutter glasses, and enables you to enjoy essentially the same levels of brightness and colour saturation that you get while watching 2D TV and films.
There are three big problems with the Toshiba 55ZL2's glasses-free 3D experience, though. First, objects in the distance of 3D images look so soft relative to foreground objects that they at times look out of focus.
Second, although it's much improved from early pre-production samples, you are still regularly slightly aware of the physical structure of the lenticular lenses creating the 3D picture. This appears as a faint straight line structure or, in one quite large patch of our test screen, as a really quite distracting wavy line structure. Thank goodness this waviness does not cover the whole screen, or else we'd have a genuine nightmare on our hands.
The third issue with the Toshiba 55ZL2's glasses-free 3D images is that you have to sit really, really still. If you don't - if you move your head position by as little as six inches left or right - the image drastically loses its focus and suddenly suffers heavy degrees of crosstalk.
Keep moving in the same direction and you'll eventually get to another 'sweet spot' and it will all click back into focus again. But the bottom line is that by the time you add the need to sit stock still to the visible line structure and blurry backgrounds, you've got just too many distractions to enable you to fully engage with what you're watching.
You can and will often sit there marvelling at the technology that makes glasses-free 3D possible at all - especially given how far Toshiba has brought things on from its pretty disastrous pre-production samples. But you won't so readily find yourself getting lost in the 3D film you're watching, and that, surely defeats the entire purpose of 3D.
Right, 4K. As expected, it's here where, for us, the Toshiba 55ZL2 really starts to justify its scary price. Firing up the special shiny 4K server box Toshiba provided us with to watch its 'showreel' of custom-shot 4K content instantly caused our jaws to dangle open in awe.
The native 4K pictures on show are quite simply the finest images ever seen on a TV. Period. The star of the show, of course, is the astonishing amount of detail. You can see leaf details in trees, ripple details in water, skin details on people, texture details in clothing, masonry detail in buildings and so on and so forth that you can't get even close to seeing with normal HD footage.
What's more, this extreme detail is accompanied by complete clarity - by which we mean there's not a trace of video noise of any sort (unless you get stupidly close to the screen, at which point you can just make out a faint honeycomb structure presumably caused by the 3D filters).
Seeing all this groundbreaking clarity and detailing writ large across a 55-inch screen is a stunning experience that turns watching TV into something akin to looking through a window at the real world. Basically, from this point on we'll never be able to feel quite so excited by normal Full HD pictures again.
The tragedy is, of course, that most people will never be able to experience this stunning 4K video for themselves at home even if they buy a Toshiba 55ZL2, on account of its apparent inability to receive 4K via its HDMI.
Sure, the 4K images produced from digital photos via the USB ports also look absolutely incredible - so much so that well-heeled photography enthusiasts might see this as reason enough to splurge seven grand on a TV.
But for most folk, the decision over whether to spend so much will have to boil down to how good the TV is at upscaling HD sources to its 4K screen.
Feeding the Toshiba 55ZL2 a series of our most-watched Blu-rays and a couple of HD channels from our Sky HD receiver, it's a major relief to find that the TV's upscaling abilities are indeed rather good. HD pictures look slightly crisper and more 'dense', for want of a better word, than they do on normal Full HD scenes.
What's more, the Cevo Engine system is powerful enough to achieve this HD to Quad HD remapping without generating unpleasant amounts of processing noise. So long as you don't feel tempted to push the Resolution+ system any higher than its '3' setting, at any rate.
To be clear about this, upscaled HD images don't look anything like as mesmerisingly brilliant as native 4K sources do. But there is a sense of resolution enhancement that you don't get with even the best Full HD TVs, so it's possible some people will consider this reason enough to spend £7k (about $11k) on a TV.
Even the Cevo Engine struggles to convert standard definition sources to the Toshiba 55ZL2's 'Quad HD' resolution, though.
Because while good quality DVDs just about survive the upscaling journey, standard definition broadcasts from the TV's own tuners tend to collapse into a mushy, noisy mess. To be honest this doesn't come as much of a surprise, given just how many extra pixels of picture information the processing is having to add, but it certainly underlines the point that the 55ZL3 is a next-generation TV that's left the standard definition world far behind.
Shifting our attentions finally to other aspects of the Toshiba 55ZL2's picture performance not directly related to its 4K or glasses-free 3D capabilities, the set turns out to be very accomplished.
Black level response, for instance, is very good for an Edge LED TV. Dark scenes thus generally look natural and engaging, despite there being an occasional shortage of shadow detail and some occasional evidence of light 'blocking'.
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This latter phenomenon finds rectangles of slight extra brightness appearing around bright parts of otherwise dark pictures, and is caused by the way the TV dims groups of its edge-mounted LEDs to enhance black level response.
Keeping the Toshiba 55ZL2's backlight and contrast settings under control can reduce the impact of this problem, and it should be said that it only really happens under fairly extreme contrast conditions, such as where a white title sits at the centre of a black backdrop. But there are one or two much more mainstream Edge LED TVs out there now that handle Edge LED local dimming even more satisfactorily.
The Toshiba 55ZL2's colour reproduction, meanwhile, is excellent too. The range of tones it can deliver is enormous, as is the degree of subtlety with which it can delineate even the tiniest of tonal shifts.
As noted before, you're probably better having a stab at calibrating colours yourself than relying on the auto-calibration system, or you could call in an engineer from the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) to calibrate the set for you.
But anyway, even using some of the calmer presets without playing around with settings much at all, colours are mostly beautifully handled. The only issue we could find was that skin tones could occasionally look a touch inconsistent.
The Toshiba 55ZL2's motion handling continues the good news. The native response time of the panel is good enough to keep motion blur to a minimum even without the Active Vision M800 motion processing in play.
But if you wish to set this processing to its Standard setting to enjoy a little less judder, you can do so without the picture looking processed. We would strongly recommend, though, that you avoid the overcooked Smooth Active Vision M800 mode.
Aside from the occasional backlight flaws and the standard definition problems noted earlier, the only other problem we had with the Toshiba 55ZL2's mostly excellent (and with native 4K sources, awesome) 2D pictures was that the screen is rather reflective of ambient light in your room. Certainly positioning the set with a direct light source right opposite is not recommended.
Usability, sound and value
Although it doesn't adopt the Smart Hub 'home page' approach that's serving Samsung and LG TVs so well this year, the Toshiba 55ZL2 is still impressively easy to use, considering how cutting edge it is.
Its 3D mode kicks in automatically, for instance, and you're always reminded to run a Tracking check so you can't accidentally forget to optimise the screen for each viewer's position.
The on-screen menus, meanwhile, are reasonably attractive in their presentation, and their concentric wheel layout seems to be a very easy to follow and concise way of quickly providing you with access to all the features the TV has to offer.
The sub-menus behind the main selection icons are a touch bland visually, but they get the job done.
The menu system for the Toshiba Places online services is terrific, meanwhile, with bold, colourful, easy to follow graphics, and a brilliantly logical layout. The only irritation is the way you have to quit Toshiba Places to play BBC iPlayer or YouTube material, because for some reason these haven't been integrated into the main Places infrastructure.
The biggest bones of contention with the Toshiba 55ZL2's operating system are that it's trickier to network with PCs than many rivals, and that the remote control isn't very pleasant at all. Partly because it feels crowded and not helpfully organised, but mostly because of the annoyingly fiddly sliding metal cover at the bottom end.
This is supposed to keep rarely used buttons out of sight when you don't need them, but it mostly just makes the remote uncomfortable to hold and generally a bit fiddly.
Perhaps helped by the fact that the Toshiba 55ZL2 has a fairly chunky rear end by Edge LED TV standards, its sound really isn't bad at all. The speakers manage to keep dialogue reasonably clear even during loud action scenes, and they don't phut or distort even under pretty extreme duress.
The TV struggles to deliver a rich sense of bass, though, despite having what appears to be fairly large woofers on its rear. And this means the mid-range sometimes feels a bit overcrowded. But this is true of almost all other flatscreen TVs too, and actually the Toshiba 55ZL2 sounds better than most.
Clearly no TV costing £7,000 (about $11,215) could ever sensibly be called a bargain. But then let's be fair: the Toshiba 55ZL2 is no ordinary television. It's the first domestic TV ever to deliver 3D without the need for glasses, and it's also the first domestic TV ever to give you a 4K resolution - the latter of which feels like a genuine and mouthwateringly spectacular glimpse of the future of TV.
The problem is that unlike the recently released 4K projector, the Sony VPL-VW1000ES, which supports 4K playback from PCs via HDMI, the Toshiba 55ZL2 doesn't appear to provide any way of enabling normal users now or, crucially, in the future to actually get the full benefit from its 4K resolution, at least with video.
So with its 3D flawed and its upscaled-to-4K HD images impressive but certainly not nearly as brilliant as the set's real 4K images, the Toshiba 55ZL2's £6,999 (about $11,215) price seems rather a high one to pay for something that's in some ways an exercise in frustration.
Toshiba's 55ZL2 is designed to get any tech obsessive's pulse racing. After all, it breaks new ground in not one but two huge areas. First it can genuinely produce a watchable 3D picture without you having to wear glasses. And second, to help it achieve its first innovation, it employs a native 4K or Quad HD pixel resolution for the first time on a domestic TV.
Toshiba has thrown all of this tech into an attractive body, too, and powers the whole kit and caboodle with its extremely powerful Cevo Engine processor.
The set additionally has Toshiba's well-presented but currently under-nourished Places online system, as well as plenty of multimedia support.
In action, the glasses-free 3D images are better than expected, but still flawed. However, the native 4K pictures - still and video - are nothing short of spectacular, blowing ordinary HD out of the water and providing us with a vision of a dreamy TV future. The television upscales HD well too, even if the results are no match for the real 4K deal.
However, the TV doesn't do nearly so well with standard definition, and tragically there doesn't currently appear to be any standard (HDMI) way for normal consumers to be able to get 4K video sources into the TV, either now or in the future. This fact makes the Toshiba 55ZL2's £6,999 (about $11,215) price tag much harder to swallow.
The TV looks good and is easy to use. Best of all, though, its picture quality with 4K still photographs and video is so spectacular it has to be seen to be believed. Its upscaling to 4K of ordinary HD sources also makes it a cut above other TVs in picture terms.
The set's apparent inability to accept any 4K sources via HDMI is a crushing blow, because it effectively means no normal users will get to play 4K video sources on it either now or, more importantly, in the future. The Toshiba 55ZL2 also struggles with standard definition broadcasts, and its glasses-free 3D images, while better than expected, are still fundamentally flawed. Oh, and lest you've forgotten, the Toshiba 55ZL2 also costs £7,000 (about $11,215).
The Toshiba 55ZL2 is a remarkable achievement for Toshiba, not to mention a genuine landmark in TV technology. Glasses-free 3D and a native 4K resolution for the first time in a single TV? Amazing.
Against all odds, Toshiba has even made its glasses-free 3D system watchable, while native 4K video and photographs look simply mind-blowing. The set's performance with normal HD is hugely impressive, too.
However, watchable 3D images are also fundamentally flawed. And the Toshiba 55ZL2's apparent inability to support 4K video via HDMI is a crushing blow that instantly emasculates what would otherwise have been its most attractive feature.
With no other 4K or glasses-free 3D TVs in existence right now, all we can do is look at premium sets from rival brands.
The Samsung UE55ES8000 obviously stands out in this respect, offering Full HD 3D (with glasses) and mostly excellent video standards within a sensationally slim and attractive body. Its online features are far in advance of Toshiba's too. But of course, it doesn't enjoy a Quad HD resolution.
Another notable alternative would be the Panasonic TX-P55VT50. This uses plasma technology, and thus delivers a better black level performance than the Toshiba, as well as outstanding Full HD 3D.
However, its pictures aren't nearly as bright as those of the Toshiba, and again, the P55VT50's maximum resolution is only a quarter that of the Toshiba 55ZL2.