Philips 9954 (56PFL9954) 21:9 LCD TV Review

Letterboxing, be gone!

by AVForums
TV Review

5

Philips 9954 (56PFL9954) 21:9 LCD TV Review
SRP: £4,500.00

Introduction

Few debates in the video world get heated as those surrounding letterboxing, which is the practice of presenting a Cinemascope ratio film on a narrower display device with the unused parts of the screen filled in with black. Film fans can get somewhat agitated even when well-meaning people ask why their favourite movie is playing with part of the screen unused, as they've had to suffer through the alternative (cropping the edges of the picture - a frankly ridiculous practice) in the pre-DVD years.

In truth, nobody enjoys the presence of black bands at the top and bottom of their television screen, but there is simply no workable alternative (at least, not outside the world of anamorphic projection). Well, not until now, at least: Philips’ premium 21:9 display is the first LCD HDTV which features a Cinemascope-ratio panel, so users can finally watch 2.35:1 and similarly composed films with a full-screen video display. Scope ratio or not, does the 56PFL9954H and its "wide 1080p" 2560x1080 resolution panel have what it takes to deliver a compelling cinema-like experience?

Design and Connections

The 56PFL9954H is styled in a similar way to the recently reviewed 32PFL9604, with curved edges, and a “bowtie” effect at the bottom of the display where the bezel meets the speaker grille. For some reason, this top-end model features gloss black styling, compared to the more professional looking brushed steel effect as seen on the aforementioned 32” model.

As you’d expect from Philips, the Cinema 21:9 display features the Ambilight system, where LEDs mounted on the back of the display cast light onto the walls around where the TV is situated. Philips describe the purpose of this system as being to give the impression of a wider image, and the default behaviour is to sample the dominant colour in the on-screen images and scatter light of a similar tone across your walls. This can be a little distracting, but fortunately you can also configure AmbiLight in a fixed, custom tone, meaning that you can set it up to act as a convenient bias light, which will help prevent eye strain in darkened rooms, without any of the fuss of an external "DIY" solution.

Connectivity is well covered, with no less than 5 HDMI inputs, as well as Component video inputs and 2 SCART terminals. There's also a PC VGA input, as well as Composite and S-Video inputs. An ethernet jack is present on the back of the TV for hooking up to the internet, but fortunately, there's no need for cables: Philips smartly includes a wireless receiver inside the TV. This, coupled with a fairly usable TV-based web browser, makes Philips' displays the most successful so far at executing the "Internet on your TV" concept.

Menus

The menus on the Cinema 21:9 display are Philips’ usual design and hold few surprises. They’re sometimes slow to react, and are laid out in a way which conceals technical configuration (a few extra clicks are required to get into picture controls). Given that setup will only be done once, this is not a bad decision, just an unusual one.

”Smart settings” is the top level picture adjustment. The display’s initial picture set-up assistant splits the screen down the middle and asks the user to pick which side they prefer the look of (the choices include an image with full shadow detail vs one with clipped blacks, and an image without ringing artefacts vs one with), and the resulting configuration is stored as the “Personal” preset. Selecting one of the other presets (“Cinema”, for example) will activate the necessary mode, but making any changes at all from that point on will overwrite the original “Personal” preset without asking the user first. So, if you own a Philips display and have it professionally calibrated, make sure you write the settings down, because it's incredibly easy to wipe them.

In the “Picture” settings screen, the first adjustment is “Contrast”. This is a little sneaky, and is actually a combined Backlight and White Level adjustment. Independent controls for both would be ideal, but this is much better than a display with no Backlight control at all. At its highest values, dropping the Contrast control will lower the intensity of the backlight lamps behind the panel. After the physical backlights are at their lowest possible intensity, the display then begins to limit the digital white level of the display.

Brightness, Colour and Sharpness work as you’d expect. Noise Reduction is a standard 3D/temporal noise reduction system, and is quite effective in reducing analogue noise buildup in broadcast signals. Although we’re using Digital TV broadcasting now, there is still a lot of analogue equipment in the chain, particularly with BBC channels, so there is a potential use for this control.
The control labelled “Tint” is actually a control to select a Greyscale preset (Normal, Warm, Cool, or Custom). Selecting “Custom” unlocks the “Custom tint” greyscale control screen - more on this later.

On the HDMI inputs, we have an option called “PC Mode”, which bypasses some video processing features. I had to enable this to gain the best picture quality (explanation later). There’s also a Light Sensor control to vary the panel brightness depending on the room lighting, and an aspect ratio control called “Picture Format”.

Lastly, the “Perfect Pixel HD” screen alows us to control the functions of Philips’ image processing chip. “Perfect Natural Motion” allows you to set the motion compensated frame interpolation (200hz system) between Mild, Aggressive, and Off settings. If this feature is turned on, “200 Hz Clear LCD” can be enabled, which increases motion resolution, but adds different artefacts. We would love there to be an option to turn on the anti-blur processing (Clear LCD) without adding the silly looking motion interpolation processing, but so far, few manufacturers offer this level of control. I found most of the other controls in this menu to be unnecessary.

Test Results

Neither the Greyscale nor the Gamma tracking were especially linear, and the lack of red in the greyscale mix manifested itself in the image. Likewise, setting the black level control optimally was actually somewhat difficult, because of the gamma characteristics at the low end (shadow details were not too easily visible, and squinting at setup test patterns and trying to "see through" the backlight illumination proved difficult). Colour fared much better, and was excellent already out of the box, but the Greyscale errors overshadow this.

Fortunately, Philips does include a "Custom Tint" option in their TV menus, which allow us to alter the Greyscale characteristics and gain a more accurate picture (a warning, though: like the other menus on this TV, it's incredibly easy to wipe your carefully calibrated settings without the TV asking you first).

Greyscale errors could be minimised effectively in the brighter intensities, but the design of Philips’ user control prevents us from getting the best results. For some reason, their system allows you to adjust Red, Green and Blue at the high end (although red is already at its maximum position by default so can't be raised any higher), but only Red and Green at the low end. Guess what there was an excess of at the low end? That's right, the one colour that we can’t alter - blue! Furthermore, actually raising the low-end controls is problematic due to their coarseness: raising the Red control quickly gave blacks a visible red tinge. Fortunately, using only the high end controls and gently adjusting the low end did allow for a big improvement, but I still do wonder why no control is given over low end Blue.

Calibrating Greyscale and adjusting the “Colour” control slightly brought about an improvement in the already excellent colour accuracy, but as there is no Colour management system on this display, there is no further improvement possible (not a huge loss given how close its accuracy already is). Interestingly, the calibrated accuracy on this display is somewhat worse than on the Philips 32PFL9604 I recently reviewed - on that display, both the Low-end and High-end greyscale controls could be used effectively to get a more natural image. This is almost certainly due to the fact that the panels are sourced from different vendors.

The first standard-def video test I performed with the Cinema 21:9 display was the “Jaggies” test on the Silicon Optix HQV disc. This test is designed to see how well the video processor in the TV can suppress interlacing jaggies, as you'll often see viewing standard definition TV broadcasts on an HDTV. All three rotating bars in the test pattern appeared somewhat, but not entirely jagged, at all times. This revealed that the display’s diagonal filtering is average. The effects of this were most evident during sporting events on Digital TV, where smaller details would flicker slightly during camera movement.

Next up, the film mode processing tests. These test the TV’s ability to detect film content and process it accordingly. Sadly, the TV does not correctly detect the 2-2 cadence with 50hz material, which means that standard definition film content is best sent in to the TV from an Upconverting DVD player, unless the Upconverting DVD player has the same problem as the TV - many do. As it doesn't pass this test on its own, this TV will show a loss of vertical resolution and flicker in fine details if you feed in standard definition pictures from the likes of an SD satellite or cable box. (As is common with displays, the American-centric 3-2 cadence did pass).

Lastly, scaling, or the resizing of standard def content to the HD panel. To test this, I used the SMPTE RP-133 resolution test chart. In this case, it revealed that the scaling in this display is average: there’s a moderate amount of ringing around fine details, and perceived clarity is also somewhat average. Raising the sharpness addresses the second issue, at the expense of making the ringing worse. The very best video processing can get a much closer balance of both.

Of course, with the Cinema 21:9 display, we have one extra test to perform. Cinemascope ratio content, unfortunately, is always delivered with conventional 16:9 TVs in mind. This means that the image is encoded with the black Letterbox bars as part of the image. There is no video source that is natively 21:9, and since Blu-ray Disc has no support for this either, it seems that there won't be for some time. Because of this, the image sent to the TV must go through a scaling process so that it can fill the screen as intended. The image on the right illustrates this process (click for full size).

Fortunately, the damage done here is minimal, with both test cards and real world content still looking relatively crisp. I found that I preferred to gently raise the Sharpness control with real world content to compensate for any slight softening introduced.

As usual with Philips displays, input lag is excessive in the default setup (at least 100ms). Perfect Pixel certainly seems to be one of the slower video processing chips out there. As usual, the "PC Mode" is our saviour here. This effectively killed lag entirely, and made video games a lot more fun to play (don't even try it without the PC Mode enabled - you'll lose every time!) We are very glad that this option is present in the display's menus.

Energy consumption was measured at around 160-180w after calibration, with any auto contrast and auto backlight systems disabled. This is not very much at all, especially for such a large display. The amount consumed appeared to rise depending on the luminance of the input video signal, which is strange given that all "Auto Contrast" and similar controls were disabled.

Picture Quality

After initial tests, it was time to watch some 2.35:1 ratio Blu-ray Discs and experience what this TV was designed for. The TV’s aspect ratio menu (which you’ll probably use a lot given this display’s unusual proportions) is accessed quickly by a dedicated remote button. From here, you can select a 16:9 option, which will add black bars to the sides of 16:9 content to preserve the correct proportions, and of course, the "Cinema 21:9" option. Sure enough, selecting this mode correctly scaled the video so that films were presented in their original aspect ratio, without distortion and without letterboxing. It's a fantastic and slightly surreal sight to see such wide films play back on a television without black bars (and, thankfully, without cropping).

Although Philips’ display does indeed solve the letterboxing problem, this does not in itself guarantee fantastic picture performance. As is frequently the case with LC displays, the panel itself is the limiting factor, rather than any video processing issues. The first thing I noticed was that the panel used in this display uses a triad pixel structure. In other words, the tiny red, green and blue sub-pixels that make up one full pixel are arranged in a triangular pattern, rather than being stacked beside each other in a square-like configuration as is commonly the case. I imagine that the panel was manufactured by Sharp, as they are the only company using this unusual structure. This sadly does have a small effect on the perceived detail of the image, and gives straight lines a very subtle “serrated” effect due to the triangular arrangement.

On top of this, the viewing angle, response time, uniformity, and black level are not particularly great. There are displays which do much worse in these areas, but there are also better ones. Of course, none of those better panels have a 21:9 ratio, which is surely the same problem faced by Philips’ engineers: there is hardly a wide choice of panel vendors from which to source a 21:9 panel, so these are perhaps the inevitable compromises that result from being the first with an ultra-wide display.

Response time was slightly problematic, particularly with black areas of the screen, which left quite noticeable motion trails at times. With the "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" Blu-ray Disc, scenes of Harrison Ford’s shadow moving around in the desert would leave small orange trails when the pixels could not update quickly enough. Now, the TV does include a 200hz system to combat this old LCD problem, but this is not suitable for use with movies because of its motion interpolation, which gives films a sped-up “soap opera” like look. In any case, we had to use the “PC Mode” option to bypass Overscan (with "PC Mode" off, Overscan is applied, meaning that the extreme edges of the picture are cropped). "PC Mode" disables the 200hz system entirely. In its usable configuration, the panel managed around 250-300 lines of motion resolution, which is fairly standard for LCD TVs when not in 100hz/200hz mode.

There's still a lot of 16:9 content (and similarly framed films), however. I checked out some Blu-ray Discs to ensure that this was being handled optimally by the display. As it happens, there are a few obstacles to getting the clearest picture possible, but fortunately, they can be overcome. The default setting for 16:9 content applies a non-linear stretch to the picture, so the middle of the screen (where your eyes will be looking most) is left basically unscaled, with the picture becoming more and more distorted at the extreme edges to fill the panel. This mode also crops a little bit of the top and bottom of the image.

Fortunately, this is soon disabled by selecting the 16:9 aspect ratio. However, in the default setup, the TV applies overscan, which means the extreme edges of the picture are lost and subtle ringing is created due to the scaling required. Philips haven’t included a dedicated “No overscan” setting, but the “PC Mode” option cuts out many unwanted video processes, including overscan, so selecting this displays all of the available image.

However, we aren't done quite yet! Selecting PC Mode and using the 16:9 setting still shows ringing and aliasing in the image. In fact, it looks as if the TV is actually scaling the image twice. Fortunately, all's not lost: select “Unscaled” at the bottom of the aspect ratio list, and your 1920x1080 16:9 sources will finally be displayed with all of their clarity. (Selecting “Unscaled” with PC Mode off, for some reason, creates disturbances in very high frequencies).

Verdict

5
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

Pros

  • The only way to watch Cinemascope ratio films without letterboxing on a television
  • Sound quality is excellent (by built-in speaker standards)
  • Colour accuracy is excellent
  • Ambilight can be configured to work as an effective bias lighting solution
  • Net TV is the best out of the "internet on your TV" systems

Cons

  • Black level is average
  • Greyscale calibration controls do not allow full adjustment of "low end"
  • Viewing angle is limited
  • Common LCD "smearing blacks" issue
  • Standard def scaling and deinterlacing are average
  • High price tag theoretically pits this display against considerably better projection setups

Philips 9954 (56PFL9954) 21:9 LCD TV Review

Philips should be commended for introducing an HDTV which provides viewers with a means of watching 2.35:1 films without letterboxing. The 56PFL9954 is a very unusual product and one that is most welcome in the marketplace. With this said, the quality of the LCD panel itself is somewhat lacking, and the viewing angle, black level, and average motion resolution may well be enough to undo the advantages of having a full-screen video display. Personally, I would still rather watch letterboxed films on a higher quality TV than watch them full-screen on this, but then again, I am highly tolerant of letterboxed video in a way that others may not be.

The 56PFL9954 is certainly no substitute for a high quality anamorphic projection setup, although it may cost the same as, or more than one. With that said, if installing a projector isn't an option in your viewing environment, and you absolutely can't stand letterboxed movies, then this display is currently your only choice. I hope that it is the first of many, because I'd love to see this excellent concept done justice on a future model.

Scores

Sound Quality

.
.
8

Smart Features

.
.
.
7

Ease Of Use

.
.
.
7

Build Quality

.
.
.
7

Value for Money

.
.
.
.
.
.
4

Verdict

.
.
.
.
.
5

Picture Quality

.
.
.
.
6

Video Processing

.
.
.
7

Greyscale Accuracy

.
.
.
.
6

Colour Accuracy

.
.
8

Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black Level

.
.
.
.
.
5

Screen Uniformity

.
.
.
.
.
5
5
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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