It seems like years since we were first promised large-sized OLED TVs for our home — mostly because it has been years. Delays have seen on-sale dates and products slowly slip into the rear-view mirror.
But now there are two OLED TVs for Australians to choose from: the Samsung KN55S9C and the LG 55EA9800. Both are 55 inches and both are sporting a curved panel.
While we're yet to see the Samsung TV in the testing labs, we've been putting LG's offering through its paces, and it's safe to say that we're impressed with nearly everything — except, perhaps, for the price tag.
Unlike most modern TVs, the 55EA9800 comes out of the box as a single unit. There's no fiddly stand to get set up and screwed on. At just 17kg, it's fairly easy to get the TV out and on to an entertainment unit.
The box design helps — it's one of the most convenient packing solutions we've seen, with just three pieces of styrofoam to hold the TV in place and a single box containing all the assorted remotes, manuals, glasses and other accoutrements. Packing up the TV for its return was a one-person job that took no more than five minutes.
The clear base has two speakers built in — helpfully they're actually labelled "Clear Speaker" just in case you were a bit confused on the matter. In all, there are apparently five speakers in the 55EA9800, producing 40W of sound.
The back panel is made of carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic, which LG says helps to add rigidity and support for the screen. We're willing to take their word for that, but we will say that the carbon fibre is a rather pleasing design touch in terms of looks.
At its thinnest, the TV is just 4.3mm thick, although it gets a fair bit thicker towards the start of the clear base, simply so there's somewhere to put all the electronics.
And, of course, there's the curve. It's far more subtle than you might expect, especially when viewed from the front. Viewed from the side, it's more pronounced but still nowhere close to what you might expect from some images of the 55EA9800.
Ignoring the screen for a bit, the 55EA9800 has all the features of an LG Smart TV, such as the LA8600. We still think the interface for the Smart TV functions needs a big update in terms of design, but all the elements are there, including a good range of apps.
The 55EA9600 uses the LG Magic Remote but also has a regular remote for people who don't enjoy the wizardry of the on-screen pointer. The Magic Remote actually seemed more responsive with the 55EA9800 than it has felt on other TVs, although that could be just our perception of the experience.
The USB camera
(Credit: Nic Healey/CNET Australia)
There's also a USB camera that can be attached to the top of the TV and plugged in via a special USB port on the rear, letting you use the video and gesture functions, as well as voice control.
While there are no buttons on the TV, there's a touch panel under the LG logo, where you can access basic functions like channel, volume, input and even on/off.
In all, we saw very few differences from other current generation Smart TV offerings from LG.
A quick note on the sound from the built-in speakers: it's better than you'd expect but still not exactly great. Thin panels don't leave a lot of room for big sounding speakers, so while we applaud what LG have done, we think a TV like this deserves a good surround-sound system to go with it.
Where we saw a massive difference was, of course, in the panel. It's really quite remarkable just how much the colours pop, especially when side by side with a traditional LCD or plasma screen.
As a bit of background, there are actually two different technologies being used in the OLED screens at the moment. LG is using a so-called "four pixel" system, also called "white OLED". Other manufacturers, such as Samsung, use an RGB-pixel system similar to plasma TVs.
Geoffrey Morrison from CNET has an excellent article explaining the difference in great detail, but here's a quick excerpt on how white OLED works:
Red, green and blue OLED materials are sandwiched together. When powered, these create a white light. This white light passes through a colour filter to create the red, green and blue subpixels.
LG claims that this process means longer lasting panels, as well as an easier manufacturing process and a brighter and more efficient screen. We'll wait until we've spent some significant time with an RGB model before we judge which method seems to have the better experience.
What we will say is that the contrast is just amazing. With OLED panels, black is the genuine absence of light and, combined with the brighter colours, it makes everything look sharp and crisp.
The difference compared with plasma and LCD is very noticeable, across both brightly coloured images and dark, moody scenes. We tested across a number of Blu-rays — including The Fast and The Furious and Source Code — as well as live TV, and the 55EA9800 excelled.
The 55EA9800 is centre, with an LG LCD TV to the left and a Panasonic plasma to the right.
(Credit: Nic Healey/CNET Australia)
Both in brightly lit rooms and near-total darkness, the TV was great to watch. We had thought the curve might create problems with viewing angles, but it didn't seem to cause any issues at all. The screen is quite reflective, however, with the depth of black heightening this effect.
It's worth remembering that the TV is still just a 1080p panel. While the colour range and contrast make things seem sharper, it's still the same resolution as your current TV — at least until 4K Ultra HD OLED gets a mainstream release.
The 55EA9800 is actually THX Certified but, for some reason, in Australia, LG has chosen not to license the certification. What this means is there's no THX Cinema preset when you're looking through the picture mode options. LG assured us that you could "calibrate the 55EA9800 with a chroma meter/signal source to achieve THX performance".
This could be a little more effort than some people are looking for, but we found that the standard cinema preset, along with the default picture mode, still produced excellent images. For people who want to get stuck into user settings, you've got a remarkable amount of depth for tweaking the picture to your tastes.
A caveat for people who are bothered by the dreaded "Soap Opera Effect" (SOE): some of our co-workers did think that the brighter colour range heightened the SOE. We didn't find it to be a problem, and you can adjust the level of motion smoothing (which LG calls TruMotion) to strike a balance if it is an issue. We'd recommend keeping at least some motion smoothing on, however — there was a slight judder on very fast-paced scenes when TruMotion was completely off.
So, what's with the curve? Honestly, it's really not clear why we're getting curved OLED ahead of flat panels, nor why both LG and Samsung have said that they'll be sticking with curved for some time now. While conspiracy theories abound, both companies are claiming that the curvature allows for a more immersive viewing experience, so let's address that.
If you're watching the 55EA8900 alone, with a chair carefully positioned to have you exactly the right distance from the screen and in the exact middle then maybe — maybe — you could make a case for the curve feeling like a mini-IMAX. But remember, this is a 55-inch screen, not some 84-inch monster.
The curve is more subtle than might be expected.
In all, we found the curve neither added nor detracted from the viewing experience. Aesthetically, we liked it a lot, but in terms of how you actually see the panel, it's almost invisible. You basically forget it's not a flat screen — unless you're seated at the absolute outer edge of the viewing angle.
So, while it does mean you can't wall mount the 55EA9800, in our opinion, the curvature is a slightly baffling but otherwise pleasant design quirk.
Buy or not?
It seems like a simple question, but it's quite complex. We're confident that nobody could be disappointed when viewing the 55EA9800. We'd run out of superlatives to describe the picture before we felt like we'd done it justice.
But is it worth AU$11,999? First generation technologies always command a premium price, and while this isn't exactly OLED TV 1.0, it's close enough for Australian consumers.
At the moment, it's just not clear where the OLED market is going to go in terms of pricing, sizing and resolution, nor is it clear what time frame it's all working to, so we're not really in a position to tell people to wait six months for prices to fall and flat screens to arrive. Those things may happen, but given the lengthy delays for OLED TVs of any description, there's no guarantee.
Perhaps it's best to put it this way: dedicated early adopters with deep pockets will be purchasing a truly great TV panel that's also a design talking point when featured in the lounge room.
No one will blame the rest of us for waiting a little while to see what happens down the track.