Sharp AQUOS LC-57D90U LCD HDTV
Per screen inch, this is the most expensive TV we've reviewed in years. The early 50-inch plasmas were certainly more expensive (and obviously smaller), but, in the era of higher yields and vicious competition, it's rare to see any company come out with a model that unabashedly eschews the price wars. An obvious comparison would be one of a Ferrari, and Sharp would indeed love that comparison. For the extra money, does this 57-inch offer greater performance compared with the Camrys of the LCD world? The better question would be, does it offer enough better performance to justify its substantial premium?
At a Glance
Other than its larger size, there is little to distinguish the LC-57D90U from its smaller Sharp brethren. Its bezel is the same burnt-gold finish (they call it titanium) that is nicely different from the black and silver found everywhere else in the flat-panel community. The remote, too, is the same as those found with other models. The buttons have an oddly squishy feel. There's no direct-input buttons, but it is backlit. The menus are colorful and are pretty easy to follow, although it is often hard to distinguish between what is selected and what is unselected since the colors are so similar. There's an average amount of adjustments, but I was hoping for a bit more from a premium panel. So, why is this panel so expensive? Well, it uses different glass than the rest of Sharp's LCD line. It's from their brand-new Kameyama factory in Japan. They claim a 4-millisecond response time (more on that later), a 1,500:1 contrast ratio (about twice what they claim on their other panels), a greater viewing angle (more on that later, too), and a bunch of other improvements. The proof, though, is in the pudding, or, in this case, the liquid crystal.
Specs Versus the World
Most manufactures claim pretty outrageous numbers for their contrast-ratio measurements. I have to hand it to Sharp for keeping them far more realistic. Their claim of 1,500:1 isn't too far off from our measured 1,298:1, although it is only slightly better than the 37-inch we reviewed in our June issue's Face Off (1,269:1). It's a small increase, but it's enough to make it the best contrast ratio of any LCD we've measured—and the second best contrast ratio of any flat panel we've measured. (The Philips plasma in the January issue had the best, at 1,613:1.) The maximum light output was 98.92 foot-lamberts, which, on a screen this size, is oppressive in a dark room. Backing that down to the minimum backlight setting, the black level was a fairly decent 0.022 ft-L. This was bested by one other LCD (again, the Sharp 37-inch from June) and one plasma (surprise, the Philips again). This may seem impressive, but, like most flat panels, it doesn't look very black at all. Sure, it looks OK with the room lights up, but I like to watch movies in the dark. In that environment, the black level isn't great. Movies like Serenity or Master and Commander end up looking rather gray.
Sharp, as well as other LCD manufacturers, consistently quotes viewing-angle numbers upward of 170 degrees. That is, you can watch the LCD from nearly any angle except from behind. While this is technically true, the image from the sides is far different than the one from the good seat. The LC-57D90U's viewing angle is better than other Sharp models but not quite as good as some LCDs (Hitachi's IPS panels, for one) or any plasma. If you have a really long couch or other wide viewing area, an LCD probably isn't for you.
One spec that I can't measure objectively is response time. This is another spec for which manufacturers can get away with claiming just about anything. In other words, it's pretty much a meaningless number. The problem is, liquid crystals react at different speeds depending on what they're doing, and the way they react isn't intuitive. It takes longer for a pixel to go from one shade of gray to another shade of gray (say from 40 IRE to 45 IRE) than it does to go from totally black to totally white (on to off). By extension, there are two ways to measure response time: gray to gray or rise and fall, respectively. Because the rise-and-fall number is almost always much lower than the gray-to-gray measurement, the former is the one that most companies claim (if they specify at all). That said, few companies claim a 4-ms panel regardless, so Sharp's LC-57D90U would be worth checking out if for no other reason. Sharp calls their technology to get fast response times "Quick Shoot," which they use on other panels, as well. Those other panels don't share this model's advanced glass, so their response time is labeled as 6 ms. A 44-percent reduction in response time is quite a feat and surely is a large part of the reason this set costs more than my car.
Let me first say that I am especially allergic to motion blur. Some people freak out at rainbows from single-chip DLPs. For me, the same annoyance occurs with motion blur in LCDs. Watching a variety of content on the LC-57D90U, motion blur never bothered me, which is something I can't say for just about every other LCD I've seen (except maybe for the Hitachi from the June Face Off). On really detailed scenes in HD, the image was a little softer when there was motion. For example, you may not be able to make out a person's individual hairs as you could when the head wasn't moving. But the softness was so slight, most people probably wouldn't notice it at all. That's quite a noteworthy achievement. A TV, though, is more than measurements and numbers.
There's a lot that I'll forgive in a budget display. If a cheap plasma or LCD doesn't do something that a more expensive model does, well, chalk it up to the price point. But, when a $16,000 1080p display doesn't accept 1080p, I have a real problem. This oversight is pretty much inexcusable. Yes, from what I can tell, the LC-57D90U correctly deinterlaces 1080i, so there shouldn't be any noticeable degradation when watching HD content. I used a static deinterlacing test, as it was the only one available to me at the time. Using this same static test, previous Sharp models also seemed to deinterlace 1080i correctly; but, when you introduce a motion element, they failed. (See Gary Merson's HDTV article in the March issue or online.) For that matter, the highest-resolution PC signal you can send it is 720p. Sharp points out that, at the moment, the industry as a whole hasn't finalized an HDMI 1080p spec. While this is true, several other manufacturers have released products that can accept 1080p over HDMI now.
And it keeps getting weirder. Regardless of the menu setting, the LC-57D90U takes over 10 seconds to lock up to a 3:2 sequence, far longer than any display I've reviewed recently at any price point. And, to top it off, it crushes blacks with a 480i component input. Even with 1080i on the HDMI input, it seemed to crush blacks slightly.
The scaler was pretty good, as it brought out a lot of detail in 480i material. There was some odd noise, especially in faces, that was similar to what I saw on the Sharp 37-inch from the Face Off. I figure this must just be a byproduct of how Sharp scales. Video deinterlacing was pretty good, with very few jaggies on the waving-flag scene on the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark DVD.
I watched every HD DVD available on the LC-57D90U, mostly because I could. The detail is excellent, even when there is some motion, as I mentioned earlier. True, the detail was most apparent when there was some actor's big head on screen, but you could see it at other times, too. Despite setting the color level with Video Essentials and matching the settings across the inputs, the color was very off. I had to turn it way down for it to look normal. Even so, thanks to the inaccurate color points, the color didn't seem quite right. This was probably exacerbated by the fact that the Yamaha I reviewed last month had nearly perfect color points.
Feed the LC-57D90U a signal from a decent scaling DVD player via HDMI, though, and this LCD's character changes rather significantly. The image is far more natural, with none of the scaling issues and noise that's apparent with the analog input. If you get one of these, don't bother inputting anything analog, as the digital input looks much better. In fact, had the whole set looked as good as it did with the digital inputs, its performance numbers below would undoubtedly have been a good 4 or 5 points higher.
Due to its price and oversights, I can't take the LC-57D90U too seriously as a product. As a technology demo of what Sharp can do in the future with LCD, it's quite a success. The 4-ms response time is impressive, and a better contrast ratio is always good. For us mortals, though, $16,000 would buy smaller LCDs for every room in the house, a fully loaded Honda Fit, or two months of gas for a Hummer.