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Toshiba L9300U series review: More pixels but less picture quality

Although its 3D deserves praise, overall the Toshiba L9300U is a worse performer and more expensive than its 4K competitors.

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David Katzmaier
David_Katzmaier.jpg

David Katzmaier

Editorial Director -- TVs and streaming

David has reviewed TVs, streaming services, streaming devices and home entertainment gear at CNET since 2002. He is an ISF certified, NIST trained calibrator and developed CNET's TV test procedure himself. Previously David wrote reviews and features for Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as "The Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics."

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17 min read

CES 2014 has come and gone, and with it scads of new TV announcements -- many of them with 4K resolution. Toshiba itself bowed a promising line of 4K sets that include full-array local dimming, a technology that, in my experience, goes much further toward improving picture quality than a few million more tiny pixels.

Toshiba_L9300U_35827462_35566941_35827463_11.jpg
4.3

Toshiba L9300U series

The Good

The <b>Toshiba L9300U series</b> 4K/Ultra High Definition LED LCD TV has accurate color and can deliver its full motion resolution without smoothing; 3D sources shown with full HD resolution and all the benefits of passive 3D; 4K resolution provides some benefit with 4K PC games; includes wireless keyboard; excellent connectivity; compatible with 4K/60 sources (HDMI 2.0) after firmware upgrade.

The Bad

Exceedingly expensive and a poor value compared with 1080p TVs and many 4K TVs; poor black level, uniformity, off-angle and bright-room performance; improvements afforded by 4K resolution are minimal to nonexistent; imprecise local dimming causes some blooming and washout; sluggish, low-resolution menus and Smart TV suite.

The Bottom Line

Although its 3D deserves praise, overall the Toshiba L9300U is a worse performer and more expensive than its 4K competitors.

Toshiba's L9300U series is still for sale, though, at least in the 65-inch size we reviewed (the 58-incher is getting scarce), but you shouldn't buy it. It's more expensive than many other 2013 4K TVs and doesn't perform as well. In fact, despite its high price, the L9300U doesn't even perform as well as some budget 1080p TVs we've tested.

So yes, this review is late and its subject basically obsolete already -- as well as impossible for me to recommend to anyone -- but still instructive. It serves as another piece of evidence that, as we found on previous 4K TVs from Panasonic and Samsung, the extra resolution is well-nigh invisible from a normal seating distance, especially with 1080p sources. It also provided me my first in-depth look (so to speak) at how great passive 3D can look on a 4K TV. I look forward to testing more 4K sets in the near future, including Toshiba's own. I expect most of them to run circles around the L9300U, and cost a good deal less.

Update February 26, 2014: A software update released February 3 and available via the TV's online update feature allows the L9300U to accept 4K sources at 60 frames per second, a component of the HDMI 2.0 specification. We have not tested this capability since we don't yet have access to any such sources, but we have updated the review text to reflect this additional capability.

Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 65-inch Toshiba 65L9300U, but this review also applies to 58-inch screen sizes in the series. Both have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality. It does not apply to the 84-inch 84L9300U, however, because according to Toshiba, its innards are too different.

Models in series (details)
Toshiba 58L9300U 58 inches
Toshiba 65L9300U (reviewed) 65 inches

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design
The Toshiba L9300U is a style throwback that lacks the ultramodern panache of many 2013 4K sets marketed by competitors. It reminds me of nothing so much as a slightly dowdier version of Vizio's 2013 M series. That's not such a bad thing -- we praised the M for its atypically-for-Vizio upscale looks -- but somehow it just doesn't seem upscale enough when you're talking about a TV this expensive.

The silver lining around the L9300U's playbook frame provides relief from the all-black of many HDTVs, but the rounded corners and plasticky feel are a step in the wrong direction in my book. The stand is pretty generic too, with its prominent stalk and open silver-colored foot, although I do like that it allows a swivel.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The remote is worse. The action of the central button array is stiff and emits a loud, old-school "click" with every press. There are simply too many buttons (but none to control aspect ratio), the layout forces a lot of stretching to reach far-flung keys, and the central keys aren't backlit.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The menu system is similarly disappointing for a high-end TV, with soft, ancient-looking icons and text, no explanations, and plenty of cryptic selections and messages. It also seems buggy. At one point a "No signal" pop-up persisted despite an image onscreen, and it took toggling inputs to make it disappear. The first day the TV simply wouldn't connect to Wi-Fi, although on subsequent days it seemed to work fine. A final annoyance: the response for power-off is laggy, so often I would hit it again, causing the TV to turn off then on again. Responses for other commands were also a step slow at times.

Key TV features
Display technology LCD LED backlight Edge-lit with local dimming
Screen finish Glossy Remote Standard
Smart TV Yes Internet connection Built-in Wi-Fi
3D technology Passive 3D glasses included 4 pair
Refresh rate(s) 240Hz Dejudder (smooth) processing Yes
DLNA-compliant Photo/Music/Video USB Photo/Music/Video
Other: Includes wireless USB keyboard with touchpad; optional Skype camera (FreeTalk 7291; $130)

Features
Toshiba obviously aimed to make the L9300U as "kitchen sink" as it could, but the set is still missing some of today's flagship extras: a touch-pad remote, built-in camera, and voice and gesture control, to name a few. But for what matters -- picture-affecting features -- the L9300U ticks the requisite boxes.

Chief is edge-lit LED backlight offers local dimming, which Toshiba calls "DynaLight." The L9300U also has a 240Hz refresh rate according to the company's specs, although according to our testing it behaves more like a 120Hz TV (see below). Toshiba talks up its "CEVO 4K" upconversion technology of 1080p and other lower-resolution sources.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This is also the first 4K TV with passive 3D we've reviewed. Toshiba throws in four pairs of glasses.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Beyond the picture Toshiba does manage to one-up its competitors by including an external wireless keyboard, complete with touch pad. It paired easily with our review sample, and certainly made using the Web browser more satisfying. Other Smart TV systems work with keyboards, but no other maker includes one.

Another cool extra not found on other sets is IR pass-through. A pair of included wired IR blasters can be placed in front of any two components, and commands beamed at the TV will be passed on to them. It's designed for use with devices hidden in cabinets, out of sight of standard IR commands. I didn't test this feature.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Smart TV: Toshiba calls its smart TV feature Cloud TV, a slightly desperate-sounding grasp at futurism. In fact it's one of the most archaic smart TV suites I've seen.

The first thing I noticed is that the graphics on the page again seem soft, particularly on a 4K screen this large. Navigating around, each page took inordinately long to respond. And the design makes little sense. The main portal is dominated by the date, an events calendar you'll never use (no, it won't interface with your actual Google or iOS calendar), a seemingly random collection of TV clips, a "messages" section you'll never use, an ad, and a window showing what's currently playing on your selected TV input. A series of tabs on the bottom provides access to still more services.

If Netflix is all you care about, then you might not mind the clunky, slow design because that app gets a dedicated remote button to skip the main interface. Otherwise, the quickest way to get to anything worthwhile is to navigate to a subpage called "my page" (perhaps because you can superficially customize it by deleting and shuffling icons around) and choose an app. Toshiba is missing Amazon Instant, but otherwise the big names are accounted for: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Skype (additional external camera required), Vudu, YouTube, and Facebook (but no Twitter). There's also a third page called "contents" that just repeats much of the content from the other two.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Web browser is OK as these things go, mainly owing to the included touch-pad-equipped wireless keyboard. Yes, it's clunky and slow to load and I immediately ran into a frustrating time trying to enter a simple URL (ahem, cnet.com, ahem), but at least the touch-pad tracking was decent. Nonetheless I quickly longed for the relative ease of a phone, tablet, or computer-based browser.

Sarah Tew/CNET
Picture settings: Toshiba includes the kind of wide selection you'd expect at this price, with a 10-point grayscale control, full color management, and a few dubious processing settings like "Resolution+," "Fine Texture Restoration," and "Brilliance Restoration" that I left turned off. There are three settings of dejudder, dubbed "ClearScan," as well as a toggle for DynaLight, which engages local dimming.

Sarah Tew/CNET
Connectivity: As mentioned at the top of the review, Toshiba has made public a software update that allows the TV to accept and display 4K signals at 60 frames per second, one of the hallmarks of HDMI 2.0. It is available as a standard downloadable software update, and brings the L9300U up to the same level of connectivity as TVs like the Panasonic WT600.

Unlike most 2014 4K sets announced at CES, the L9300U lacks HEVC decoding, so it won't work directly with upcoming 4K streaming services from Netflix and others. Toshiba told us "HEVC cannot be added internally later."

Meanwhile the set's other connectivity is more than ample, with four HDMI inputs, one component-video, two USB, and an SD card slot. The set also includes that oh-so-rare port these days, a VGA-style analog PC input. It can accept signals up to WXGA+ (1,440x900 pixels).

Picture quality
The Toshiba L9300U might have 4K resolution, but its other picture-quality issues make that extra sharpness, however difficult to discern, moot. It delivered lackluster, grayish black levels far short of even the less expensive 1080p TVs to which I compared it. Uniformity and blooming were below par, as well as off-angle and bright-room performance. Video processing was a mixed bag, while color represented a strong suit.

It's 3D performance is a revelation however, at least to those sick of the compromises inherent in active 3D and passive at 1080p. The combination of 4K and passive 3D provides, as I saw before on the $25K, 84-inch Sony XBR-X900A, the ultimate in 3D picture quality and comfort so far. Of course the Toshiba's other picture-quality problems persist with 3D sources -- I'd still rather watch a 3D movie on another TV with deeper blacks, for example -- but it overcomes the artifacting and line structure issues inherent in 1080p passive 3D sets beautifully.

4K sources testing
Video sources with true 4K resolution are very rare these days, but I was able to test a few for this review. As before I conducted all of these tests from a relatively close seating distance for 65-inch TVs: 77 inches (6.4 feet). The most important 4K test I performed on the L9300U employed the same pair of Redray players I used in the Panasonic WT600 review.

It came filled with a few 4K videos (at 4,096x2,060 pixels, so scaled somewhat by the TVs), the best of which for my tests was the "Red 800" sampler montage. It contained plenty of spectacular shots, including extreme close-ups of eyes and fingernails, desert and arctic landscapes, motorcycles and crossbows, and a variety of other highly detailed images.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Seen side by side, the Panasonic and Toshiba 4K TVs didn't show much difference in detail at all; the major differences were in black level and other non-resolution areas (see below), where the Panasonic won pretty much every time. Even when I thought the Panasonic looked sharper, the difference was so slight it could easily be attributable to contrast, for example.

The Redray players did include a few test patterns as well, and for what it's worth I saw a difference in one of them. A circle resolution pattern looked cleaner on the Toshiba, without the hitches and interruptions found on the Panasonic. I'm not sure what this means for real-world program material, however -- again, the 4K stuff I watched looked free of artifacts and virtually identical, resolution-wise, on both.

I also compared the Toshiba with the Panasonic S64 plasma, a same-size 1080p TV, using two Red players. One was connected to the Toshiba and outputting 4K while the other was connected to the S64 and downconverting that same 4K footage to 1080p. According to Red's rep, "In general the downscaled RED codec should look better than any H.264 content commercially available to consumers, including Blu-ray content." From what I could see on the S64 and other 1080p TVs, there's no reason to doubt that statement -- the downscaled video looked spectacular.

As I saw with the Panasonic WT600, it was almost impossible to tell the the 4K TV from the 1080p one. I looked at the same shots described in the WT600 review, and saw the same results: very slight increases in detail in some areas on the 4K set, but mostly none. See that review for more info.

In previous 4K TV reviews I've spent time testing and describing how most 4K sources show little improvement over 1080p, with the exception of PC games, which definitely look sharper. I didn't repeat those tests for this review, but I can't imagine, after aping the WT600's detail so thoroughly with the Red material, that the L9300U would behave any differently.

High-definition sources testing
For the next few years, anyway, 4K TVs are going to be displaying, at best, 1080p high-definition content most of the time. The majority of my testing of the L9300U used various examples of high-def, from Blu-ray to broadcast TV.

In no case did its extra pixels afford any improvement to high-def video seen from normal seating distances.

I expanded my comparison lineup with HD sources to include all of the following TVs. Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV's picture controls worked during calibration.

Comparison models (details)
Panasonic TC-L65WT600 65-inch LED LCD (4K)
Panasonic TC-P65S64 65-inch plasma
Sharp LC-60LE650 60-inch LED LCD
Vizio M601d-A3R 60-inch LED LCD
Sony KDL-55W900A 55-inch LED LCD
Samsung UN55F8000 55-inch LED LCD

Black level: The Toshiba was worst in our lineup at producing a convincing, deep shade of black. Its image both in dark scenes and bright, looked more washed out in comparison with the others, robbed of the punch and contrast that I expect from a high-end TV.

My favorite dark torture test, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," revealed all of the set's weaknesses in this area. The hillside overlooking Hogwarts at night, from Chapter 12, one of the darkest scenes in any movie, appeared way too bright, especially in our comparison lineup. Even the budget Sharp, which lacks any kind of dimming, conjured a deeper black.

Details in the shadows were also indistinct -- the folds in the evildoers' robes, for example, blended into the murk instead of standing out clearly, as they did on the other TVs. I also noticed that highlights, for example Voldemort's face as he addresses his robed troops, appeared dimmer on the Toshiba than on the others, including the Panasonic WT600. That 4K TV delivered superior contrast, black levels, and shadow detail in every scene.

The Toshiba's local dimming also showed some blooming artifacts -- although they weren't as visible as on the Vizio, for example, with its much deeper black levels. I first noticed them around brighter graphical elements, like the display overlay from my PS3 in the letterbox bars, but they also showed up in program material. At 1:13:15, for example, as Potter walks through the triage ward, the bottom-right corner of the letterbox bar flashed distractingly as the adjacent area alternated between brighter and darker.

I tried playing with the Dynamic Contrast control but ended up leaving it off. Yes, it yielded some black-level and shadow detail improvement, but it was still no match for the WT600 -- and came at the expense of blowing out brighter areas. I left the DynaLight control, which toggles local dimming, turned on. Disabling it made black levels even worse, although it did eliminate blooming. One strange effect of Dynalight, however, is that it made bright areas even brighter than normal. The white-out in Chapter 22, for example, was a good deal brighter than on any of the other sets. My calibration took this issue into account.

Color accuracy: The Toshiba's measurements were quite good in this area, and aside from a washed-out looking palette, a direct result of its lighter black levels, colors looked very good. The whites in Chapter 22, along with the faces and skin tones of Harry and Dumbledore, appeared as accurate as any of the other sets. The faces of the children in the bucolic Chapter 19, during young Snape's reverie, likewise looked good, as did the blue of the sky and the green of the leaves and grass.

Black and near-black areas, like the smoky transitions and the robes of the students, had a touch more green than I'd have liked to see, but it wasn't bad. The Toshiba was also plagued to a noticeable degree by that common LED bugaboo: excessive blue in full black areas such as the letterbox bars. As usual it was exacerbated by the light black levels.

Upconversion from 1080p to 4K: I didn't conduct the same kinds of extensive tests on the L9300U as I did on the Panasonic or Samsung 4K sets in this category. That said, I did compare it with the Panasonic WT600 and S64, 4K and 1080p sets respectively, and arrived at the same basic takeaway as before: 1080i and 1080p sources played back on the 4K-resolution screen don't look appreciably better, and in fact can sometimes appear slightly worse. In other words, from what I've seen so far, 4K at 65 inches does nothing to improve the look of today's HD sources -- from Blu-ray to broadcast TV.

Again I used the monk/mandala sequence from "Samsara," as well as some football in 1080i high-def via Verizon Fios. Again the Toshiba looked very sharp -- but no sharper than the 1080p S64 or the 4K WT600. Again, the major differences had little to do with detail and more to do with contrast.

There was one issue with the 9300U, however. According to our 1080p test pattern, some edge enhancement or ringing remained even when we reduced Sharpness to its minimum setting and disabled all of the picture options that might cause it. It was visible in program material too, for example along the edges of the monks' faces in "Samsara" (11:14). The effect was subtle, but noticeable enough that I'd give the upconversion edge to the WT600, which showed no extra "enhancements" when properly adjusted.

Video processing: The 9300U offers that rare ability in a LCD TV: it can deliver its full-motion resolution without having to introduce the smoothing action of the Soap Opera Effect. Unfortunately, according to our measurements that motion resolution is more consistent with a 120Hz TV, not the 240Hz Toshiba claims on its spec sheet.

Engaging the Standard mode under ClearScan delivers correct 1080p/24 cadence with no smoothing, and that's the mode I chose for testing film-based material. It did look a tad jerkier than some of the other TVs during the pan over the aircraft carrier from "I Am Legend," but that's a slight nitpick. The Cinema mode introduced smoothing, as did Smooth, while Off did not.

If you happen to like the look of the smoothing effect, you might be disappointed to hear that in so-equipped modes the Toshiba introduced worse artifacting, specifically halos and breakup around moving objects, than usual. Compared with the other sets' least aggressive dejudder presets, Cinema on the Toshiba showed more distortion around Will Smith's head as he walked along the pier (24:29), for example.

The L9300U's motion resolution fell short of true 240Hz sets like the Samsung F8000, Sony W900, and Panasonic WT600, measuring 700 lines in all modes aside from Off (which registered the expected 300). Those other sets range from 1,000 to 1,200 lines, so people who are very sensitive to blurring might notice a slight deficiency on the Toshiba in this area. I didn't, for what it's worth, especially in program material as opposed to test patterns. (Note that since my motion test is based on a 1080p Blu-ray, it's not ideal for judging the L9300U's true motion resolution. It is the best I have at the moment, however, so I included the numbers anyway.)

Uniformity: Here's another category where the L9300U fell short of the competition. The edges were a good deal brighter than the middle. In certain dark scenes and letterbox bars, the bottom middle of the screen glowed significantly brighter than the rest, and quite a few lighter areas appeared elsewhere. The overall effect was relatively blotchy, at about the same level as the Sharp.

I also noticed more blooming in difficult areas, for example when the Toshiba displayed a "resume playback" graphic of a Yes/No box amid an otherwise black screen, the set's poor uniformity compared with its peers was obvious.Only the Vizio, with its edge dimming, showed similar issues, which weren't nearly as bad.

From off-angle the L9300U lost black-level fidelity quickly, becoming brighter on the far edge as I moved away from the sweet spot directly in front of the TV. This issue also reared its head when I sat relatively close -- something you might want to do do justify investing in a 4K TV. From close distances, the edges of the screen, which become increasingly off-angle the closer you scooch, looked even brighter in comparison with the middle.

Bright lighting: Things didn't get much better for the L9300U when I switched on the lights. Its screen collected brighter reflections than any of the other TVs in our lineup, including the glossy F8000 and W900A. I could clearly see myself reflected in the screen, especially during dark scenes. It was tough to tell whether the TV preserved black levels well because they were light to begin with -- but regardless, no other TV in the room showed worse (lighter) black levels than the Toshiba under the lights.

3D: The first thing I said to myself when I compared the 60-inch passive 3D Vizio, which has 1080p resolution, with the 65-inch passive 3D Toshiba, which has 4K, was "wow." The line structure, jagged edges, and related artifacts I've come to associate with passive 3D in 1080p -- for example, along the edges of the words "Paramount," "infinitum nihil" and "GK films" at the beginning of "Hugo" -- were gone from the Toshiba, leaving clean, smooth 3D. Even the graphical elements of my PS3's display looked better.

Too smooth, I noticed next when the initial pan over Paris commenced. I disabled the "3D judder cancellation," which is turned on by default, and continued watching (the standard smoothing/dejudder controls are grayed with 3D).

The Toshiba's resolution superiority was immediately obvious in program material, too. From the first still shots, of a lamp hanging over the concourse and the railing above, solid areas and lines alike again looked cleaner. I looked at the trouble areas in the film as well, in particular where the camera moved over a scene that contained a horizontal edge at a shallow angle. Examples, like Uncle Claude's bowler hat (22:41) and the edge of a low wall outside the station (22:05), were likewise clean. The 3D image looked as sharp as on any of the active 3D TVs in our lineup, including the Panasonic WT600 and our reference F8000.

In fact, since the Toshiba doesn't suffer nearly as much crosstalk as those two (or any active 3D set we've tested), it seemed even sharper. That ghostly double image of crosstalk was visible on the active sets in scenes like that of Hugo's hand as it reached for the mouse (5:01) and the tuning pegs on the guitar (7:49), but not on the passive models. The only instance of crosstalk I saw on the passive sets was around the head of the inspector as he threatened Hugo (44:27), but of course the double image was much more prominent on the active sets.

Of course the Toshiba's poor black levels were also visible in 3D sources, robbing them of contrast and punch in the same way. The passive glasses provided some tint, so the blacks weren't as bad as with 2D sources, but they were still easily the worst, most washed out in the lineup. Colors were too reddish in the default Movie mode, but when we applied the same settings used for our 2D calibration (we don't calibrate specifically for 3D) they looked as accurate as on any of the TVs.

Toshiba's included passive glasses aren't the best; I much prefer the fit of LG's or Vizio's better-fitting specs, especially over my glasses. Happily, passive glasses are cheap and available in a variety of styles, so you can easily purchase others if the included ones don't satisfy.

GEEK BOX: Test Result Score
Black luminance (0%) 0.005 Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.36 Average
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 2.606 Good
Dark gray error (20%) 4.101 Average
Bright gray error (70%) 0.474 Good
Avg. color error 1.093 Good
Red error 1.038 Good
Green error 0.645 Good
Blue error 1.859 Good
Cyan error 1.995 Good
Magenta error 0.467 Good
Yellow error 0.556 Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) Pass Good
1080i De-interlacing (film) Pass Good
Motion resolution (max) 700 Average
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 700 Average
Input lag (Game mode) 42.3 Average

Toshiba 65L9300U CNET review calibration report

Toshiba_L9300U_35827462_35566941_35827463_11.jpg
4.3

Toshiba L9300U series

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 6Value 1
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