It seems slightly unfair to begin every review of a Sharp LCD TV by mentioning the company's fall from the top of the market, but the situation is remarkable enough to remain notable. Sharp's AQUOS brand was launched in 2001 and here in the West, was more prominent in the early days of flat panel displays than it is today. The UK arm's marketing slogan, "Big In Japan", reminds us of the company's roots and adds a touch of Asian mystique. Whether that's enough to win back customers, though, is anyone's guess.
Regardless of who is or isn't buying what, I was excited to get a look at the top-end model, the LC-46LE700, to see what the company is doing with LCD technology these days. This is an LED backlit LCD HDTV with 1920x1080 panel resolution, 4 HDMI inputs, a quoted response time of 4ms, and Sharp's new X-Gen panel. Let's see if this selection of ingredients makes for a fine end result.
I admired Sharp's past LCD TV designs due to their distinctive look: the company wasn't ashamed to use rugged-looking, curved parts that may not have been to everyone's taste. Their new models are much more generic, but still good to look at. The most notable feature of the LC-46LE700 is the blue tinge at the bottom of the bezel surrounding the screen, which is both easy to look at and easy to ignore when the TV is on. The rest of the screen uses a gloss black finish, which is likely to become scratched during cleaning (the glass-like tabletop stand is supplied wrapped in plastic, presumably for this reason).
Connectivity is fairly standardised on modern displays, with each one having enough HDMI inputs for almost anyone, and at least a Digital Terrestrial tuner. The LC-46LE700 features 3 HDMI inputs on the back with a fourth on the side, a USB input for multimedia content (photos and music), 2 SCART terminals, Component video inputs, and an RGB PC input. There's also an RS232C port for more complex automated installations.
As with most recent Sharp displays, the LC-46LE700 uses the company's unique menu system, which makes using the TV feel a little more like using a computer's operating system than it does interacting with an A/V device. A blue (or red, green or grey, if you wish) bar runs across the top of the screen and shows the current date and time, and the various menu options appear as drop-down panels. Everything responds fairly quickly to user input, which is always a welcome feature.
Like most displays, Sharp's TVs feature different "AV Modes" such as the eye-scorching "Dynamic", "Game", and "Movie". To change between these, the user has to press the dedicated "AV MODE" button on the remote. These presets are independent memory banks which can be applied to each individual input. Each input also has its own unique memory bank which can store customised settings.
The first item in this menu is "OPC", Sharp's automatic backlight control. With this feature enabled, the TV will automatically adjust the intensity of the LEDs behind the screen to match the room lighting. There's manual control over this intensity, too, with the "Backlight" function. Contrast, Brightness, Colour, Tint and Sharpness all operate as expected.
The most important options, however, may end up being in the "Advanced" screens. The control given here is a huge leap over what was offered on the last Sharp LCD TV I reviewed. There's a Colour Management System which offers control over hue, satruation and "value", 2-point Greyscale control, control over the 100Hz system, Film Mode options (which range from Film Deinterlacing only, to Film Deinterlacing plus motion smoothing), a feature to disable Active Contrast, a simple Gamma adjustment, a DNR (temporal noise reduction) control, control over the 3D Comb Filter (which is only necessary for Composite video input), control over the "OPC" system, and finally... a Monochrome (Black and White) mode!
Calibration: Before & After
Before I performed a full ISF Calibration, the image being put out by the LC-46LE700 was somewhat unappealing. Normally after I unbox a display and set basic controls like Brightness and Sharpness, the TV looks imperfect but serviceable enough to look at for a short period of time. The LC-46LE700 was by no means unwatchable, but nothing I looked at on it really "read" properly to the eye. I lived with the TV in its "Movie" mode with only a basic calibration performed for a short space of time, before breaking out the measuring equipment and calibrating the TV.
After doing a sweep of measurements on the TV, I found out why:
The RGB Level Tracking chart and RGB Colour Balance charts show that when mixing Red, Green and Blue together to create White, the TV was doing it in such an inconsistent way that there was a huge lack of Red in darker areas, and an excess of it in brighter tones! Without looking at test patterns, it wasn't possible to pinpoint this problem, but the image looked wrong to the point of being offputting, despite the exact reason not being immediately apparent. This is why measurements are such a vital part of getting the most from any display.
Like many displays I've tested recently, the Colour accuracy was really quite good. This strength was essentially masked by the poor Greyscale performance, though, so in order to appreciate the fact that the Primary and Secondary colours were fairly accurate, the aforementioned problem had to be fixed first. The most notable errors here were the Secondary colours, with Cyan being deviated towards green and Yellow taking on an overly red hue.
However, the LC-46LE700 features a great amount of calibration control, and together with a measuring device and the gathered data, it was possible to offset the errors and turn the Sharp's slightly wonky-looking picture into something much more watchable. I'll let the charts do the talking here:
As you can see, after calibration, the RGB Level Tracking chart is much, much more flat and even (pay attention to the scale and note that peaks or dips in the chart are typically only a couple of percent). Gamma tracking was also improved, but not perfected. This basically means that the amount of lightness in between absolute black and absolute white wasn't quite in-spec, and the average gamma of around 2.5 (rather than our desired 2.2) means that shadow details are likely to be crushed slightly. The TV's menus do have a basic Gamma control, but it doesn't offer much adjustment. I had to set it to +2 to even get this close to the desired standard - a few more allowed clicks might have got us all the way to near-perfection in this regard.
The Colour Management System on board the LC-46LE700 promises control over Hue, Saturation, and "Value" (which I presume means "Luminance"), but in reality, not all of the controls are entirely useful. Raising the Saturation of a colour, for example, would often just raise Luminance instead. As a result, it was not possible to reach full saturation on every colour, but the final result was still absolutely excellent. The most problematic inaccuracies (the off-hue Cyan and Yellow colours) could be completely ironed out, and the amount of each colour present is nigh-on perfect. I'm used to seeing improvements in picture quality after calibration (that's the point, of course), but I can't remember the last time I saw a display improve by this much. It's very, very fortunate that Sharp included these controls, because the pre-calibration Greyscale measurements are some of worst I've seen lately.
I ran the usual round of video processing tests on the LC-46LE700 to make sure that all of its digital video processing was operating correctly. Firstly, I pulled out the Silicon Optix HQV benchmark DVDs (both the PAL and NTSC variants) and tested the diagonal interpolation capabilities of the TV's video processor. Effective diagonal interpolation will disguise jaggies in Interlaced content such as standard definition TV, which helps immensely in making fast-moving video material like sports watchable on the big screen.
In this area, the LC-46LE700 is average. On the HQV disc's test, all of the three rotating bars showed some small jaggies, particularly the bottom two. Ironically enough, the slow response time of the LCD panel actually helped make the flickering less noticeable (one flaw worked to help conceal another). In real-world usage, some jaggedness was noticeable in moving areas, but I never found this unduly disturbing.
Next, I tested the TV's film mode processing. When presented with an Interlaced signal created from a Film source (an example being a film broadcast on TV), the best video processors switch to Film Mode processing, which results in jaggy-free images. Sharp's display features a few options for "Film Mode" in its menus: there's an "Off" setting, where the TV operates in Video mode at all times, and a "Standard" setting which attempts detection of film cadences. There are also "Advanced (Low)" and "Advanced (High)" settings, which do cadence detection AND motion interpolation, which gives films a video look which many people describe as "the soap opera effect". I chose "Standard" to preserve the original film look.
Sadly, the processing was never entirely effective: with both the European-centric 2-2 PAL test and the American/Japanese 3-2 NTSC tests, the TV would correctly engage Film Mode processing, but then quickly switch back to Video mode, resulting in jaggies and reduced resolution. As a result, I highly recommend users connect a high quality Upscaling DVD player to the LC-46LE700 and bypass the TV's standard definition video processing whenever possible.
Finally, I input a 576i SMPTE test pattern chart, to make sure that the TV was capturing even the smallest details of a standard definition image, and also to make sure that it was resizing the image to fit the Full HD panel appropriately. Good news here: the actual scaling (resizing) part of the video processing is great, with the display presenting the full range of frequencies present in the source without any obnoxious blurring or ringing (provided the Sharpness control is set at 0). Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, the Video Deinterlacing and Film Mode processing are sub-par, meaning that this final stage in the SD-to-HD conversion process isn't hugely relevant.
I also input a 1080p resolution test pattern and confirmed that no fine details were being truncated with High Definition sources, either.
After calibration, the image quality put out by the Sharp LC-46LE700 was potentially impressive, but still suffered from typical LCD display flaws. The fact that LEDs are used as a light source instead of fluorescent tubes, coupled with the X-Gen panel, does improve contrast performance over previous Sharp displays somewhat, but please remember that this is still an LCD TV and still suffers from the usual pitfalls.
Firstly, viewing angle is still problematic. The image suffers from a noticeable loss of contrast when viewed from the sides. Motion, too, is uniformly blurred, as it is on any LCD TV, but more irritatingly, areas of darkness are especially prone to the dreaded smearing when they're surrounded by certain other colours. That is to say, black objects often leave trails, which may be a non-issue for readers used to LCD, but would likely prove incredibly irritating for Plasma users. Sharp do include a 100hz option in the TV's "Advanced" settings which can be activated under certain circumstances, but this made almost no appreciable difference on real-world content, and only a small (and debatable) improvement on motion resolution test patterns.
Sadly, these inherent display technology flaws mean that we can only appreciate the post-calibration Greyscale and Colour excellence if we're sitting directly in front of the display and watching relatively slow-moving footage, rather than watching fast-paced video from the sides. Other LCD displays on the market suffer from similar problems, but not to the same extent as Sharp's panel.
One other feature of Sharp's LCD panels is their somewhat unique pixel layout. Most LCD TVs on the market are using a striped pixel array, which simply means that the red, green and blue subpixels which make up each individual pixel are striped uniformly, from top to bottom, on the screen. On the other hand, Sharp use what looks like a delta array, which means that each second row is offset by half a pixel. The result is a vaguely CRT-like, "stippled" look, and altogether the image looks slightly less defined than the more common pixel structure, when you're sat near to the display. From larger viewing distances, it's not really an issue, but it's worth mentioning for people who sit closer.
Fortunately, the LC-46LE700 did well with handling 24p content. Without any adjustment, it correctly displayed 24p content from Blu-ray Disc without any judder, which made films more satisfying to watch on this screen.
Standard definition Digital TV broadcasts looked as expected on this display: that is, fairly poor. This is not the display's fault, though, but the result of a noisy analogue-centric signal chain and/or low bit-rates (depending on the individual channel). After being used to Plasma displays, though, compression artefacts stuck out more on this TV, because LCDs do not have any panel-generated noise to act as a dither to mask the compression soup (a somewhat backwards advantage of Plasma, but an advantage nonetheless).
Sadly, blacks on this TV were never fully black, but always more of a dark, slightly uneven purple. I can only assume that Sharp's use of LED backlighting has been purely for environmentally-friendly reasons rather than performance gains, which is admirable in its own right.
Even in the "MOVIE" AV mode, I didn't find games overly unpleasant to play on this screen (unless they were dark enough to highlight the response time issues). Fortunately, the performance can be improved with the dedicated "GAME" mode, which increases responsiveness and makes games more enjoyable. In this mode, I measured the input lag as being roughly 10-14ms slower than my benchmark CRT screen, which is a spectacularly low figure for a digital panel.
Sharp tout their LED-based LCDs as being especially eco-friendly, and their claim makes logical sense. After calibration, I measured the power being drawn by the display with both a full black, 50% grey, and full white screen. All three measured intensities used the same amount of power: 83 watts - not as great a saving as locally dimmed displays, but a very small amount of power in any case. It's pretty amazing to think that we have a display device here which uses less energy than most modern games consoles!
Companies producing LCD TVs with LED backlighting have cunningly marketed them as "LED TVs", presumably in an effort to escape from the negative connotations that LCD technology still brings. Unfortunately, just changing the backlighting system from Fluorescent Tubes to LEDs cannot solve the age-old LCD problems of motion blur and off-axis washout, which the LC-46LE700 is especially prone to.
The image put out by the LC-46LE700 after calibration is by no means terrible, but the unfortunate truth is that this display really doesn't excel in any area above its competitors, other than eco-efficiency. The low input lag is impressive and is a real plus point for video gamers, but even this is by no means a unique achievement in this fiercely competitive market. The final issue is almost certainly the price, which unfortunately puts the LC-46LE700 up against recent Plasma displays which perform to a consistently higher standard in every single area - except, of course, for power consumption.
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