Sharp LC-52XS1U-S LCD Flat Panel

At last year's CEDIA Expo, Sharp unveiled it's first LCD TV with LED backlighting and local dimming. Not only that, it's ultra-thin—about 1 inch at the top and side edges, thickening to 2 inches in the middle. The image it produced on the show floor was stunning, with deeper reds and darker blacks than most LCDs are capable of.

Dubbed the Limited Edition series, this set is available in two sizes—the 65-inch LC-65XS1U-S and the 52-inch LC-52XS1U-S reviewed here. At $12,000, the 52-incher is the most expensive flat panel of its size on the market. Is its astronomical price tag justified by out-of-this-world performance? I was eager to find out.

Thin is In
The LC-52XS1U-S is among the thinnest sets currently available, though that distinction won't last long as other companies introduce similarly svelte flat panels. A stylish silver bezel is trimmed in black, and you can either wall-mount it or put it on the optional stand ($750), which seems nearly as heavy as the set itself. The removable speaker is located below the panel in a separate enclosure.

This ultra-thin design is made possible by placing the processing electronics in an outboard audio/video controller (AVC) that carries the model designation TU-X1U. This box includes most of the set’s connections, though there are also recessed front-panel connections for convenience. Also, the set's power cord is not detachable, which avoids the bulk of such a connector and its chunky socket. A standard HDMI cable connects the AVC box to the panel.

The set’s front-panel controls and the IR receiver for the remote are located just below the screen. You must aim the remote at the panel, not the AVC, to perform any function. The remote commands are sent via HDMI to the AVC, which performs all control adjustments, processing, switching, and tuning.

The AVC has no front-panel controls of its own, but you can access all the adjustments through the onscreen menus. There’s one annoying shortcoming in this regard. On many sets, when you select a picture control to adjust, the rest of the menu disappears and the selected control drops to the bottom of the screen so you can make the adjustment with a full view of the image. Not on this set. The entire Picture menu remains on the screen and covers as much as a quarter of the image, making it difficult to see the effect of your changes.

Other than its thin profile, the key feature of the Limited Edition models is LED backlighting and local dimming. In contrast to the usual fluorescent backlight used in most LCDs, a local-dimming set uses clusters of LEDs arranged in many zones behind the screen. These zones can dim or brighten individually as required by the image on the screen at any given moment. In essence, the LEDs form a low-resolution version of the image behind the high-res image in the LCD panel. This technique significantly improves both black level and shadow detail, which are traditional shortcomings of LCD technology.

Unlike LED-backlit LCDs that use white LEDs with color filters, Sharp uses red, green, and blue LEDs in the Limited Edition sets. According to Sharp, RGB LEDs provide a much larger color gamut than white LEDs—150 percent of the NTSC gamut in the case of the LC-52XS1.

Of course, other manufacturers use LED backlighting with local dimming in their flagship sets—for example, see our reviews of the Sony KDL-55XBR8 and Samsung LN55A950. Oddly, while Sharp claims that this set has a dynamic contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1, it makes no specific mention of local dimming in its promotional materials, either directly or by a proprietary name.

The LC-52XS1U-S offers eight different A/V Modes. However, the user controls are associated with the selected mode, not the inputs. If you adjust, say, the Movie mode for HDMI 1 and then select it for HDMI 2, the same settings will be applied to both inputs. The only exception is the User mode, whose controls are independent for each input.

An Advanced Picture Setting menu provides additional controls apart from the usual picture adjustments. The most useful are the Color Temp options (five different settings, plus overall red, green, and blue white-balance controls to fine-tune each of them), a color management system (CMS) with hue and saturation controls—but not intensity—for each color, and a two-position Color Gamut control. The set does not have separate high and low white-balance controls, not even (according to Sharp) in a service menu. Gamma adjustment is another feature I’d like to see here but don’t.

The Advanced Menu also offers other controls, including Film Mode (On/Off, for interlaced inputs only), selectable Digital Noise Reduction, and Active Contrast. The latter produced a garish, excessively contrasty, overly saturated image.

Fine Motion Enhanced is Sharp’s 120-hertz motion-compensation feature. It produces an additional, interpolated frame for all input sources other than 1080p/24. Fine Motion Enhanced does not operate with a 1080p/24 source; the set displays such sources at a 96-fps frame rate by repeating (not interpolating) the extra frames.

I rarely used Fine Motion Enhanced, but it did noticeably smooth out motion blur (depending on its speed) without making film-based material look totally like video. This is a failing of many such systems. (For more on this, see Gear Works in this issue.)

The Sharp is also loaded with other features. Aquos Link (Sharp’s version of the HDMI CEC protocol) provides interactive control of compatible components linked via HDMI. When you connect the Ethernet port to a home network, you can obtain (limited) Web access with a high-speed connection without a computer. And you can view still JPEG images through the set’s USB ports.

The remote is a good one. It can control four components apart from the set itself. However, it doesn’t offer direct input selection, and the backlighting only illuminates half of the buttons.

The manual’s table of contents (page 11) and On-screen Display Menu breakout table (page 22) were of little use, as the page references were incorrect. It required a tedious page-by-page search to find the right information.

The First Pass
The Sharp’s 480i-to-1080p upconversion of standard-def sources was excellent, with a couple of exceptions. In two of our standard tests, I had to use a nonobvious Film Mode option to get a passing result (Film Mode Off for one of our jaggies tests and Film Mode On for a 2:2 cadence test). But for most normal program material, whether film- or video-based, Film Mode On proved to be an artifact-free option.

The set’s high-definition processing (1080i to 1080p) was excellent nearly across the board. It only failed the moiré tests in chapters 7 and 8 of Mission: Impossible III on Blu-ray (the Vatican’s brick wall and staircase). This indicates that movies at 1080i will show artifacts from time to time.

On my first go-round with real program material, the Sharp showed no obvious weaknesses. In the Low setting of the Color Temp control, the picture had a very slight blue shift. The default Enhanced Color Gamut setting was clearly overripe, and I quickly abandoned it in favor of Standard, which was much better but still appeared to be a bit oversaturated. But the set’s resolution of detail was remarkable, as good as any other set I have tested.