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Vizio M-Series review: Not just a pretty face

Picture settings: In the past, Vizio targeted its TV products toward sports enthusiasts, with pictures of Nascar drivers on its merchandising and sports-specific picture modes. But with the M-Series the focus has shifted, and nowhere is that more evident than in the new picture settings. Instead of a dozen different modes, there are now only six, and none of them are sports-themed. Instead you now get two Calibrated modes for the AV enthusiasts as well as a dedicated Game mode.

However, despite the TV now being Vizio's top-of-the-line series, there is still very little advanced tweaking available, offering only a two-point grayscale under Color Temperature, with zero advanced color calibration.

Connectivity: The Vizio has four HDMI ports plus two USB inputs for external disks and keyboards. You also get a component/composite port, an Ethernet port, and a digital optical output. While this television may look like an all-in-one PC, there's actually no RGB input; most computers come with HDMI now anyway.

Picture quality

While the picture doesn't pop as much as the cheaper E-Series', the M-Series' is much more accurate. The new E-Series firmware (review forthcoming) has a tendency to crush shadow detail in return for darker blacks, but the M-Series is able to retrieve most of that missing detail. Thanks to the local-dimming system, the M551d-A2R is able to provide a happy compromise between deep black and shadow detail. The downside is that dark scenes with white highlights don't have as much pop as on a plasma like the Panasonic TC-P50S60 or nondimming TVs. Colors are bright and saturated, possibly a little too saturated but better than the sickly-looking flesh tones of the E-Series.

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)
Toshiba 50L2300U 50-inch edge-lit LCD
Panasonic TC-P50S60 50-inch plasma
Vizio E500i-A1 50-inch edge-lit LED TV
Samsung 46EH6000 46-inch edge-lit LED
Sharp LC-60LE650 60-inch edge-lit LCD
Panasonic TC-P65VT50 (reference) 65-inch plasma

Black level: The smart dimming of the M551d-A2R may not have the absolute blacks of the cheaper E-Series -- which has just had a firmware update -- but the M-Series' picture is much more natural. The Vizio E500i-A1 has an etched look to the edges between the boundaries of light areas and dark -- and this is not evident on the M551d-A2R. Shadow areas also have more gradations on the M-Series than on the E-Series, where the smart dimming can obscure some low-level detail.

At 45:54 in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," the M551d did a better job of displaying the very dark mountaintop sequence with more consistency from a dark scene to a light one. The E500i, in comparison, kept the mountain too dark and then the backlight ramped up obviously once the processor decided there was enough white detail to activate the backlight. But the M551d wasn't entirely fault-free; there was some of this ramping-up "iris" effect on it as well, which could be distracting compared with the other TVs in the lineup, which all lacked the aggressive smart dimming of the Vizios.

On the "Watchmen" disc, the E500 actually did a better job of getting both dark and light areas in the Manhattan skyline right (12:24). The M551d blotted out some of the windows on the brightly lit Empire State Building and was the worst at this particular scene for its ability to convey white detail. The poorest performer overall, though, was the Toshiba, which crushed the scene completely, making the buildings look flat and two-dimensional.

As with the earlier Vizio M3D550Kd TV, the M551d has a problem with blooming around white or lighter areas on a black background. This was particularly evident with single images in the middle of the screen, and it was something the E500 didn't do. For example, at 20:38 during "The Tree of Life," the entire midsection of the TV bloomed when there was a single red image in the middle of the screen, but none of the other TVs did this.

Color accuracy: Color is very saturated on the M551d in comparison with all of the other TVs in the test, including the very colorful S60. Skin tones are just a little too pink in the already warm tones of the superheroes' faces ("Watchmen," 1:10) as they recover from their comeuppance against a horde of ambushing gang members. In comparison, the E500 looks undersaturated and the Silk Spectre looks sickly, even more spectral than should be normal.

While red is on the too-colorful side, the other two colors that make up the RGB specification are well-handled. Switching back to "The Tree of Life" (37:18) you see the mother lying on the grass, and while her hair is a little too red, the turquoise of her dress is identical to that produced by the Panasonic S60, and the grass behind her looks green and lush.

Video processing: The Vizio M551d passed 24p successfully with smooth movement overall and just the right amount of judder in the flags on the deck of the ship during our "I Am Legend" test. In comparison, the image from the E500 was very jerky and unstable. When presented with the 1080i deinterlacing test, the M551d had an excellent hold on moving bars -- and equaled the other best in the lineup (Panasonic S60) in quality. Meanwhile the next scene of a slow pan of a sporting arena did exhibit some moire in the stands; the E500 did much better here.

If you play games, you'll be pleased to know that the M551d performs very well in Game mode with a score of 38ms. This should translate to an almost undetectable amount of lag when playing online games, but beware if you play games in calibrated mode, as the lag shoots up to a very noticeable 130.9ms.

Uniformity: While the consistency of the backlight was very good in most scenes -- with no backlight clouding -- it was blooming that was the biggest problem here (as noted above). When viewed off-axis, the blooming was even more evident, and compared with the E500 it had a much more muted, dark image.

Bright lighting: The M-Series is quite reflective, so you will see some reflection of yourself in a lit room, and of the lineup the only one more reflective was the Toshiba. Otherwise, the M551d's blacks were deep when viewed in the light with only an occasional blue tint but decent amounts of shadow detail. If you're worried about reflections, you can opt for the cheaper E-Series, but its slightly worse dark-room picture is the trade-off.

Sound quality: For a television with such a small bezel, its competent audio performance was surprising. Vocals were clear, with Ving Rhames' subsonic mumbling still intelligible and less nasal than on the E500, but the compromise was that the E500 had better bass and enabled more action movie bombast. While both handle treble well, the E500 had a darker, more closed sound overall. During the music test, the M551d passed with clear distinction between Nick Cave's voice and the bass guitar, but the E500 failed miserably here, with loud distortion of the singer's voice. If you're looking for better bass response than these two TVs give, then the Sharp is the TV to consider.

3D: What's more distracting to you? Interlacing artifacts or ghosting in 3D? If it's the latter, then a passive system like the M551d is excellent with 3D as good as I've seen -- it exhibited no crosstalk, with good color, and a solidity to images that active TVs can't muster. There was little additional interlacing on moving edges during the chase scenes of "Hugo," either, but of course the whole image demonstrated an interlaced image due to the nature of passive 3D TV.

Read more about how we test TVs.

Black luminance (0%) 0.001 Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.09 Average
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 1.500 Good
Near-black error (5%) 0.34 Good
Dark gray error (20%) 1.481 Good
Bright gray error (70%) 2.64 Good
Avg. color error 1.645 Good
Red error 2.603 Good
Green error 1.244 Good
Blue error 2.729 Good
Cyan error 1.15 Good
Magenta error 0.786 Good
Yellow error 1.358 Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) Pass Good
1080i deinterlacing (film) Pass Good
Motion resolution (max) 850 Average
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 320 Poor
Input lag (Game mode) 38 Good

Vizio M551D-A2R calibration report

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