March 8, 2010
By: Gordon Brockhouse

Great price, especially considering the advanced technology
Wonderful colour and detail on HD programming

Dated cosmetics
Sibilant sound and inconsistent audio via HDMI

Vizio isn't exactly a household name in Canada. But the Irvine, Calif. company is well known in its home country. According to iSuppli Corporation, a California-based market-research company, Vizio shipped more LCD televisions in the U.S. during 2009 than any other vendor. Canadian distribution of the Vizio line is still limited. But the company it plans to expand into Canada during 2010.

The Vizio lineup ranges from low-priced 19-inch TVs to large-screen models with advanced technology, like the 55-incher reviewed here. Cosmetically, the VF551XVT looks a bit dated. For one thing, it's almost five inches deep - which makes it less svelte-looking than current premium flat-panels from major brands. Logos outlining the TV's technical features are etched into the lower right corner of the bezel; there are similar illuminating logos in the lower left. Below the screen is a horizontal speaker strip with silver grille. The styling is more typical of a 2005-era TV than 2010.

Below the surface, this 55-incher is pure 2010. The "XVT" in the model name stands for "eXtreme Vizio Technology." In the case of the VF551XVT, this means LED backlighting with local dimming, as well as 240Hz processing, all of which makes the Canadian retail price ($2,200) seem very attractive.

Many LED-illuminated LCD televisions place LEDs above and below the LCD screen, and distribute light to the rear of the panel using a grid of tiny prisms. These LED-edgelit TVs are often very slim. This Vizio television uses an array of 960 LEDs behind the screen. (While the TruLED logo in the accompanying picture might lead one to believe that the VH551XVT uses separate red, green and blue LEDs, in fact this TV uses white LEDs.) LED-backlit designs allow a feature called "local dimming," in which groups of LEDs can be controlled independently, lowering light output behind dark areas for deeper blacks and better contrast. Not all LED-backlit TVs have local dimming, but this one does; its LED array is divided into 80 independently controllable blocks.

The goal of 240Hz processing is to prevent blurring of moving objects on the screen. The picture is refreshed 240 times per second, instead of 60, as on standard LCD televisions.

For testing, we used two program sources: a Pioneer Elite BDP-23 Blu-ray Disc player, and high-definition broadcast content recorded onto a Rogers Cable HDTV PVR. Programming include movies, prime-time series and several events from the Vancouver Olympics.

Setup: The VF551XVT comes pre-installed on a supplied rectangular base, which is nice, as you can just schlep it from the carton to a stand, plug it in, and start watching. The Getting Started poster and User Manual are very clearly written and organized, and the manual is very thorough.

When you first power the TV up, a setup wizard asks you to confirm your preferred language, and whether the TV is being used in a store or at home. Choose "Home," and the VF551XVT defaults to Standard video mode (other options including Movie, Custom, Game, Golf, Basketball, Football, Baseball and Vivid).

In Standard mode, the Backlight Control is set at 85 (the max is 100), Brightness at 80 and Colour at 60. In the Advanced Video menu, Noise Reduction and MPEG noise reduction are both set at Low, Colour Enhancement at Normal, Adaptive Luma at Medium and Smart Dimming is turned on.

The resulting picture looked quite vibrant, without being overblown. In Olympic curling and hockey HD broadcasts, I could see texture in the ice. Skin tones looked very natural. However, dark colours in high-contrast scenes were a bit crushed. For example, in long shots, the dark blue short of the U.S. men's hockey team looked black. Also, reds had a slightly orange tinge.

After this initial check, I loaded a calibration disc into the Pioneer Blu-ray player, which was connected directly to the display via HDMI. The standard brightness test pattern on Digital Video Essentials HD Basics displayed correctly with the default settings. But other brightness test patterns showed two problems: crushed blacks (confirming my experience watching Olympic hockey) and a magenta tinge in areas that should have been a mid-grey. Increasing brightness to 93 corrected the crushed blacks, but caused bright tones and colours to be blown out; this would affect texture in bright areas of the screen, such as ice in a hockey game. I found that the best compromise was to use the default settings for brightness (80) and backlight (85), and reduce contrast to 66 and colour to 48. Blacks were still slightly crushed, but not worrisomely so, and the magenta tinge in the mid-tones disappeared.

In the Advanced Video menu, I thought the picture looked more natural with Colour Enhancement turned Off, Adaptive Luma set to Low and Smart Dimming turned On.

Evaluation: Local dimming (or Smart Dimming as Vizio calls it) can cause side effects such as light halos in dark areas, but I saw no evidence of this (or any other picture artifacts) with this Vizio LCD. On the contrary, blacks were satisfyingly dark, and high-definition pictures had convincing three-dimensionality.

With its somber tones and colours, the 1982 sci-fi thriller Blade Runner is a good test for black performance and shadow detail. On this Vizio TV, the oppressive atmosphere was very well conveyed. Dark objects such as Decker's coat had excellent texture; while flyovers had great (almost dizzying) depth. However, background details such as the office interiors at Tyrell Corporation were a bit crushed. I noticed the same effect in interior shots in a Masterpiece Theatre production of Jane Austen's Emma.

Lost and House in HD both looked wonderful, with great detail, lovely warm colour and convincing skin tones.

The Opening Ceremony of the Olympics also looked fabulous. Dark tones were satisfyingly deep, with a very good transition to dark blues and greys. At the other end of the brightness scale, there was lots of texture in the snow in shots of the Rocky Mountains. However, in some shots, dark colours, such as Stephen Harper's suit, were slightly crushed. The fireworks display against a black sky looked spectacular.

With the tweaked settings, hockey was very satisfying. In the first Canada-U.S. men's hockey game, I could now make out the difference between the Canadian team's black shorts and the Americans' navy shorts, even in long shots. And there was good texture in the ice. Testifying to the effectiveness of the 240Hz processing, there was not a hint of motion blur.

Sound is a weak point of this TV. In the default Flat mode, audio is intelligible, but sounds quite sibilant. Other modes (Rock, Pop, Classic and Jazz) sound muted and "cuppy." On my review sample, centre-channel sound did not play from Blu-ray Discs when the player was hooked up via HDMI, so that I could not hear dialog.

Audio, occasional crushed blacks, and dated cosmetics are the only weak points in what is otherwise a superb TV, which is offered at a great price considering all the advanced technology it employs.

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