Sharp LE821 (LC-46LE821E) Review

Steve Withers unearths Sharp’s new LE821 (LC-46LE821E) HDTV and discovers whether adding a ‘fourth’ primary is the next stage in TV evolution or a marketing Neanderthal

TV Review

5

Sharp LE821 (LC-46LE821E) Review
SRP: £1,999.00

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Introduction

With all the recent hype surrounding 3D TV, it’s easy to forget that manufacturers are still releasing plenty of their spatially challenged siblings onto the market. The LC-46LE821E is Sharp’s latest offering and whilst it includes many of the most recent TV developments such as 100Hz frame interpolation, LED edge backlighting and a built-in Freeview HD tuner it has eschewed the third dimension in favour of the fourth. You see the LC-46LE821E is the first Sharp display to feature their new quad pixel technology. Rather than using the traditional combination of red, green and blue sub-pixels to create an image the new Quattron LCD panel instead adds yellow as a fourth sub-pixel. By doing so Sharp claim that they have “evolved LCD TV technology from three to four primary colour technology, broadening the visual experience and immersing viewers in a palate of colours that has never been possible until now.” Bold claims indeed but let’s see how the LC-46LE821E performs when put through our comprehensive review process.

Styling and Connections

There is no mistaking Sharp’s intentions when you first look at the LC-46LE821E, this is clearly intended to be a premium product with the emphasis on build quality. The sheer glass fronted display has rounded corners and silver trim that gives the LC-46LE821E a very attractive and contemporary appearance. Unfortunately the glass is quite reflective, which can be an issue if you are watching dark viewing material in a room with a lot of ambient light. Beneath the glass front the 46” screen is surrounded by a black bezel that is 5cm wide at the top and sides and 11cm wide at the bottom. Also, along the bottom, there is a 2cm wide mirrored strip within which there are a number of fluorescent symbols as well as the word Sharp. Thankfully these lights can be turned off but amusingly the LC-46LE821E warns you that if you do you won't be able to tell if the display is on; presumably image and sound don't provide enough of a clue. For those that prefer to completely turn off their display, as opposed to leaving it in stand-by, there is an on/off switch at the rear on the right hand side. Due to the edge-lit LED backlighting the LC-46LE821E is less than 4cm deep but is still quite heavy because the rear panel, which is also black, is made of metal rather than the usual plastic. The stand consists of a silver metal column on which the display can swivel and a heavy grey glass base which adds to the overall feel of a serious design statement.

This design aesthetic extends to the remote control which is well made and reflects the LC-46LE821E’s black with silver edge motif. The remote is comfortable to hold, easy to use with one hand and the buttons are sensibly laid out.

Sadly this attention to design did not extend to the placement of the majority of the connections and inputs. At first I thought that the Sharp had sensibly included downward facing inputs at the rear, which would make mounting the LC-46LE821E flush against a wall easier. Unfortunately only the antennae connection, the RS-232 connector, the optical digital audio out and a RGB input are at the rear, all the other connectors and inputs are poorly positioned at the side and only 10cm from the edge of the display. This means that if you use reasonably high grade HDMI cables they are clearly visible at the side of the LC-LE821E and totally ruin the clean lines of the design.

At least the LC-46LE821E comes well equipped in the connections department and sports no less than four HDMI inputs, three v1.3 and one v1.4 which adds an ethernet channel and an audio return channel(ARC). The audio return channel allows the display to send or receive audio when connected to a v1.4 equipped AV receiver. There is also a LAN socket, a USB connector, a CI (Common Interface) slot, a VGA connector, a headphone socket, a composite video input and an audio input to use if you are connecting a DVI device to one of the HDMI inputs. Interestingly, Sharp have decided not to include separate component video RCA inputs or a SCART connector, which reflects the ubiquitous nature of HDMI as a connector these days. If you still use either of these connection methods you can use the RGB input and the necessary adaptors which are provided.

Menus and Set Up

When you first turn on the LE-46821E you are given a choice of Home or Store, obviously I chose Home. After that, there is the usual process of setting the language, time and date etc. and also tuning the digital channels; this took about 5 minutes and was a very straightforward process. Sadly the resulting EPG is rather uninspired in design, especially compared to some of the slick guides I have seen recently. There is no thumbnail of the channel you are currently on, it is monochrome, too busy and frankly difficult to read. There is also no automatic description when you highlight a particular program and the guide uses symbols for different types of content that aren’t that informative. All in all a bit of a disappointment. In the UK the LC-46LE821E comes with an inbuilt Freeview HD tuner but my review set was European so I was only able to evaluate standard definition Freeview.

The main menu used a different approach and showed the image on the left and bottom of the screen with the menu choices along the top and down the right but this made the menu choices actually quite difficult to read and navigate. I’m from the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” school of thought and I much preferred Sharp’s earlier and more traditional menu design. Thankfully, when you actually choose certain picture controls, the image reverts to the centre of the screen which is a relief otherwise calibrating would have been a very laborious process.

The unusual layout aside, the menu selection follows the more familiar pattern with choices for Setup, Tool, Link Operation, CH List and EPG. All the various choices are included in Setup and then key areas are repeated in the other headings so ,for example, all the controls relating to the EPG are in both Setup and in EPG. Using the same logic Link Operation contains all the controls related to the Time Shift recorder, the inputs and Aquos Link and CH List is rather obviously a list of all the channels. Finally, Tool (no giggling at the back), collects together all the controls related to the image and sound such as AV Mode, Picture, Wide Mode and Audio.

The AV Mode relates to different preset picture settings such as Auto, Standard, Game, PC, User, x.v.Colour, Dynamic, Dynamic (Fixed) and Movie. These presets fluctuated from the retina burning to the passable but Movie was clearly the most accurate, and it was this preset that I used for the out of the box measurements. The Wide Mode refers to the different ratio settings that are available depending upon the input. For standard definition sources you can choose between Normal, Zoom 14:9, Panorama, Full, Cinema 16:9 and Cinema 14:9. However for high definition inputs the choice is only Full which slightly overscans the image and Dot By Dot which pixel maps the image exactly. Therefore to ensure the highest image quality, with high definition sources, make sure the display is always set to Dot By Dot.

Within Picture itself are all the other controls that relate to the image such as the OPC (Optical Picture Control) which automatically adjusts the backlight depending on the ambient light in the room. These controls are always rather crude and will result in image fluctuations so I would recommend leaving it off. Then there are all the standard controls you would expect to find on a LCD HDTV such as Backlight, Contrast, Brightness, Colour, Tint and Sharpness.

Within the Advanced settings there is a 3D Colour Management System (CMS) with controls for all three axes of colour: Hue, Saturation and Value (Brightness or Luminance). There is also a Colour Temp control which sets the colour temperature, either Low, Mid-low, Middle, Mid-High and High. Within this control there is also a user setting allowing two point greyscale calibration. Then we have Fine Motion Advanced which controls the 100Hz function and offers a choice of Off, Low and High. The Gamma Adjustment can be used to adjust the mid-level brightness of the greyscale. Film Mode detects film based material and ensures it is correctly deinterlaced, this should always be set to Standard. There are two other settings Adv (Low) and Adv (High) but these add motion smoothing to the deinterlacing giving film based material an unpleasant video quality. The Active Contrast control tries to increase the dynamic range of the image and should be left off. DNR is the temporal noise reduction control and offers five different settings Off, Low, Mid, High and Auto. This also includes a 3D Comb Filter but this is only necessary if you are using composite video. There is a Monochrome setting which changes the image to black and white and I’m really not sure what purpose this serves. Finally, there is a control to set the range that the OPC function operates in if you have it turned on.

Sharp are to be congratulated in offering such a comprehensive set of controls, as well as allowing the different functions to be turned off, if necessary, and for including both greyscale controls and a CMS.

Features

The LC-46LE821E is part of Sharp’s new Quattron line of HDTVs and is available in either 40” or 46” screen sizes. Like most modern HDTVs the LC-46LE821E comes with an impressive set of features including 1080p resolution and a Freeview HD tuner although, as I mentioned. my review set was from Europe so sadly this was missing.

In addition to the previously mentioned Quad Pixel technology and LED edge-lit backlighting the LC-46LE821E also uses Sharp’s proprietary UV2A X-GEN panel with Mega Contrast which is intended to deliver darker blacks and brighter whites. The LC-46LE821E also has 100Hz frame interpolation which is designed to retain clarity and definition with fast moving images.

The LC-46LE821E features Sharp’s Time Shift technology which allows you to pause live TV or record programs if necessary. The total amount of standard definition material that can be recorded is only 2.5 hours and if it is high definition then it is only an hour which is barely enough to cover an episode of Doctor Who so I’m not entirely sure what purpose it really serves. I guess it is useful if you want to pause a live broadcast but it’s no replacement for a dedicated PVR.

As far as sound goes, the LC-46LE821E includes onboard Dolby Digital Plus decoding as well as a 2.1 channel sound system that includes 2 x 10W speakers and a 15W subwoofer. To be fair the sound produced by the LC-46LE821E was solid and enveloping but I’m assuming that anyone who spends nearly £2,000 on a TV will also be using a dedicated amplifier.

The LC-46LE821E also includes a full range of the latest ECO picture controls designed to minimise the display’s power consumption, including options to adjust the backlight, to turn the display off, if there is no signal or no operations are performed for a certain period of time, an audio only function and a sleep timer.

In fact the only major feature that the LC-46LE821E doesn’t include is Internet TV, the LAN port is purely for firmware updates and home networking. For this purpose the LC-46LE821E is DLNA compliant allowing you to stream music and photos (but not video) across a network. You can however access video, photos and music using the USB terminal. Finally the LC-46LE821E is also compatible with the DivX video on demand service.

Measured Results Out of the Box

For the purposes of these tests I used the Movie mode, which appeared to be the most accurate of the available presets. In this setting the OPC function had been turned off but the Backlight was set quite high at +16, Brightness was set at 0 and Contrast was set at +30. The Sharpness control was set at 0, Fine Motion Advanced (100Hz) was set to High. The Active Contrast was turned off but the DNR was set to Auto and the Film Mode was set to Adv (High).

As you can see in the graphs, the pre-calibration [tip=Greyscale]Greyscale[/tip] measurements aren’t too bad for an out of the box preset. The Correlated [tip=Colortemp]Colour Temperature[/tip] is a little high but at least it is a smooth line. The same goes for RGB Level Tracking where we see three reasonably uniform lines with Blue tracking 100 quite closely but Red tracking too low and Green tracking too high. With the two point Greyscale Control on this display we should be able to easily improve on these results. The Gamma RGB graph shows Blue tracking the [tip=gamma]Gamma[/tip] target of 2.2 quite closely but Red and Green deviate quite significantly at higher brightness levels which suggests the Contrast is set too high and the display is clipping.

Since the LC-46LE821E is one of the first displays to use a quad pixel panel I was very curious to see how the [tip=gamut]Colour Gamut[/tip] would measure out of the box. The marketing literature refers to Yellow as the fourth primary which is somewhat misleading because Red, Green and Blue are the only primaries, Yellow is a secondary colour and is composed of Red and Green. So it is difficult to see how adding Yellow as a fourth sub-pixel will achieve anything other than making the image appear more golden.

Given this assumption, and based on viewing actual images, I expected that Yellow would be oversaturated but I wasn’t prepared for how inaccurate the entire colour space would be in the measurements. The triangle with squares at the corners represents [tip=Rec709]Rec709[/tip] on the [tip=CIE chart]CIE Colour Chart[/tip] which is the colour space that HDTV, DVDs and Blu-rays are created in, so ideally this is what a display should reproduce. If you look at the graph, you can see that the LC-46LE821E has a colour space that is nowhere near Rec709, every colour point with the possible exception of Blue deviates substantially from [tip=Indstand]industry standards[/tip]. I’m used to seeing Green being oversaturated on displays in an attempt to create a brighter or more vivid image but these measurements are the strangest I’ve ever seen. Clearly the addition of a Yellow sub-pixel is having a significant effect on the display's native Colour Gamut. However Sharp has been sensible enough to include a 3D CMS on the LC-46LE821E so hopefully we can calibrate the image to something approaching Rec709.

Calibrated Results

Before calibrating I turned the Backlight down from +16 to 0 which is the middle of the scale and resulted in an image that was still bright but with improved blacks. Using a Pluge pattern, I checked the Brightness which was already set correctly at 0 but as suspected the Contrast was set too high at +30 so I moved that down to +20 which should prevent clipping. I checked the Sharpness control and this was correctly set at 0 but I turned both the Fine Motion Advanced off and the DNR off as I felt neither of these were necessary. The Film Mode was set to Adv (High) which looked awful so I changed the setting to Standard to ensure correct deinterlacing of film based material without any unnecessary processing.

I calibrated the Greyscale using the available two point [tip=WhiteBal]White Balance[/tip] control and this resulted in an excellent set of new measurements. The graph now clearly shows a Correlated Colour Temperature that correctly measures to [tip=D65]D65[/tip] across the scale. The Gamma RGB is now measuring at 2.2 and the RGB Level is tracking smoothly across the scale with a DeltaE (error) of less than one which is too small to even be registered by the human eye. Sharp should be commended for delivering such reference quality greyscale performance from the LC-46LE821E.

I had hoped that the CMS of the LC-46LE821E would provide me with an opportunity to improve the colour balance but I found this to be incredibly difficult. Firstly given that Red is under saturated you can’t add what isn’t there so it is impossible to really improve that colour. Secondly, the CMS controls didn’t actually behave in the way that a proper 3D CMS should with both Saturation and Luminance appearing to just affect Luminance (brightness). Thirdly, Yellow seemed to be fixed in some way because, even if I moved the CMS controls to the their full extent, it appeared to have no real affect on that colour.

On a related issue, instead of grouping the Hue, Saturation and Brightness controls for each colour together, all the colours are grouped under each control. This meant for example that with Green once I had tried to calibrate Hue I had to come out of that control which required three button presses and then go into Saturation which was another three button presses. Since these controls are interdependent there is a lot of going backwards and forwards which further complicates an already difficult process.

All this was very frustrating and I was only able to make minimal improvements to the colour performance of the LC-46LE821E. No matter what I tried, I just couldn't reduce the luminance numbers for either Green or Yellow. If you are going to create a native colour space that differs from Rec709, then at least make sure that the CMS can correct the colour points accordingly or what's the use including it?

I really wish that manufacturers would stop expanding the colour space and just make displays that accurately reproduce Rec709, because as long as that is what content is created in, then that is all we need. The previous Sharp that was reviewed on AV Forums had a reasonably accurate colour gamut, out of the box, so I feel that this is a step backwards for Sharp.

Video Processing

The digital video processing capabilities of the LC-46LE821E were put through a comprehensive series of tests and actually proved to be very good. Using both my PAL and NTSC HQV benchmark discs I first checked the SMPTE colour bar test which the LC-46LE821E easily passed, correctly scaling the full 576i and 480i images without any loss of detail or unwanted ringing. The LC-46LE821E also scored very highly in the jaggies tests on both discs as well as performing very well on the diagonal interpolation test, with two of the three moving bars appearing smooth and only the bottom most extreme bar showing very slight jaggies. The LC-46LE821E also resolved all the fine brickwork in the detail tests and quickly locked onto, and displayed, a solid image in the film detail test (provided the Standard Film Mode is enabled). The LC-46LE821E also performed well when displaying film material with scrolling video text. In the cadence tests the LC-46LE821E correctly detected both the 2:2 (PAL - European) and 3:2 (NTSC - USA/Japan) tests as well as a number of less common formats.

The LC-LE821E also performed very well in tests on the HQV Blu-ray using high definition content. With the player set to 1080i the LC-LE821E correctly deinterlaced and displayed both the video and film resolution tests (provided the Wide Mode is set to Dot By Dot). The LC-46LE821E also showed a reasonably fast response to changes in cadence, good scaling and filtering as well as good resolution enhancement. The only high definition test that the LC-46LE821E performed poorly on was the one showing video text overlaid on film based material.

The LC-46LE821E also performed well with the Spears & Munsil Blu-ray, an excellent test disc that I would recommend to any interested readers. This has a number of tests designed to check a display for clipping, its sharpness, any image cropping, chroma alignment, the high and low parts of the dynamic range, chroma and luma performance, geometry etc.

Overall this is an excellent set of results and appears to be an improvement on the digital video processing that was used in previous Sharp LCDs.

Picture Quality

Despite my serious misgivings regarding the addition of a Yellow sub-pixel, the picture quality of the actual displayed images are very good. The combination of the LED backlighting and the X-GEN panel with Mega Contrast gives the LC-46LE821E a reasonable dynamic range and the reference greyscale really showed its benefits here, with smooth gradation from black to white and no colouration.

The LC-46LE821E looked great with high definition images and displayed 24p content flawlessly which made watching films a very satisfying experience. In addition, the excellent video processing shone through with standard definition material on DVD and even managed to make Freeview broadcasts look reasonable, when the bit rates weren't too low.

The colours were very pleasant to look at but there was a definite golden hue to everything, as if the scenes were being shot at 'magic hour', the time just after the sun has risen or just before the sun sets. I'm sure a lot of consumers will like this expanded colour palette but I'm used to seeing very accurate colours and I knew it wasn't what the director or cinematographer intended.

As I had with other displays, I noticed that when there was no signal, even for a second or two, the LC-46LE821E will stop displaying an image completely giving a totally black screen. I assume the purpose of this is to make the display as energy efficient as possible but it might also be a surreptitious method of improving the perceived black level. This 'global dimming', for want of a better word, has an unfortunate side-effect because, by briefly having a completely black screen, you were made more aware of display's actual black level.

Sadly blacks on this TV weren't as good as they could be, this might be a combination of the inherent limitations of LCD technology and the use of LED backlighting. I was also surprised at how uneven the LED edge backlighting was when the LC-46LE821E was displaying a dark screen, there was definitely a cloudy effect present. I photographed the screen whilst it displayed the a 10 [tip=IRE]IRE[/tip] raster in an attempt to show this effect. It is a shame that manufacturers feel the need to sacrifice backlight uniformity in pursuit of ever thinner displays

I found that the LC-46LE821E suffered from the same off-axis problems that most other LCDs seem to have but with an even more acute optimum viewing angle. As soon as you stood up or moved to the side, there was a very noticeable loss in contrast so, unless you are sat directly in front of the screen, you can't really appreciate the quality of the displayed image. Panasonic seem to have found a solution so clearly off-axis performance can be improved.

The LC-46LE821E also suffers from the other big limitation of LCD technology and that is how motion is handled. It seems that no matter what solutions manufacturers try LCDs just can't handle motion very well. The LC-46LE821E includes a 100Hz function but I couldn't see any appreciable improvement in motion when I used it.

Gaming Performance

I measured the input lag at 80ms in Movie mode which is quite slow but things improved remarkably in Game mode. Incredibly, I wasn’t really able to measure any appreciable input lag in Game mode and, at worst, it was no more than 10ms. I actually repeated the test a number of times because I couldn’t believe these results but they were accurate. This is an amazing performance from a digital display and should please even the most hardcore of gamers.

Energy Consumption

Sharp claims that because their new range of HDTVs use LED backlighting, their energy consumption is up to 40% less than that of traditional LCD TVs. The numbers certainly back that up with the LC-LE821E using 55W at 0IRE, 64W at 50IRE and 66W at 100IRE when in Standard mode. The differences are a result of the Active Contrast function but when I used the calibrated Movie mode, which has that turned off, the energy consumption was a consistent 76W for all three IRE levels. In stand-by the LC-LE821E uses less than 1W so overall these are very impressive numbers for a display of this size.

Conclusion

I can't help but feel that the LC-46LE821E is something of a missed opportunity, it gets so many things right but then lets you down in a few key areas. I understand the manufacturers need to differentiate their displays from one another and to find a unique selling point but I wish Sharp's engineers had stopped drinking the marketing department's Kool-Aid and concentrated on creating a reference quality product. I honestly think that the addition of a fourth sub-pixel is retrograde step in TV design and takes attention away from the real goal which is accurate colour reproduction. Ultimately I know there will be consumers who like the expanded colour gamut but it isn't what the content creators intended.

Overall the LC-46LE821 has a lot going for it including excellent build quality, a reference Greyscale and very good video processing. It's just a shame that these merits have been overshadowed by marketing imperatives. The reality is, that this is an expensive display and there are others available, with similar screen sizes, and reference Greyscale and accurate colours, that cost a third of the price.

Scores

Sound Quality

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.
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7

Smart Features

.
.
8

Ease Of Use

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.
.
.
.
5

Build Quality

.
.
.
7

Value for Money

.
.
.
.
.
5

Verdict

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.
.
.
6

Picture Quality

.
.
.
.
6

Video Processing

.
.
.
7

Greyscale Accuracy

.
.
.
7

Colour Accuracy

.
.
.
.
.
5

Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black Level

.
.
.
.
6

Screen Uniformity

.
.
.
.
6
6
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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