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
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.
”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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
- 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
- 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
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.
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