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Vizio M-Series review: Not just a pretty face

The Vizio M551d-A2R offers a potent combination of excellent design, decent picture quality, and a pocket-friendly price.

Ty Pendlebury Editor
Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
Expertise Ty has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He majored in Cinema Studies when studying at RMIT. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast. Credentials
  • Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
Ty Pendlebury
10 min read

Vizio has been around a while now, and though it started as a budget brand it has been making some small steps toward improving its image, and with the new M-Series the improvement is literal. The M-Series is inarguably the best-looking TV the company has produced, with a barely there bezel and subtle design elements.


Vizio M-Series

The Good

The <b>Vizio M-Series M1d-A2R</b> is an excellent value with great design and a snappy picture; it has excellent shadow detail, fairly deep black levels, and excellent processing; and its Smart TV access has been improved.

The Bad

It doesn't have as deep a black level as a plasma; it suffers from a slight red push; it has a reflective screen; Yahoo apps aren't very slick; and the remote sensor isn't very responsive.

The Bottom Line

The Vizio M-Series offers a potent combination of excellent design, decent picture quality, and a pocket-friendly price.

The picture the TV can produce is also impressive for its price, with excellent shadow detail and fairly deep blacks, and is worth the extra money over Vizio's entry-level E-Series for more-natural image quality. Local dimming for the price of a nondimming set is nothing to scoff at. Meanwhile, color performance offers up a little bit too much red, but otherwise the Vizio displays a full, rich color palette. As an LED-backlit TV it certainly performs well for the money, but it's worth repeating that it doesn't hold a candle to our value kings, the Panasonic ST60 series of plasmas.

With its new M-Series, Vizio has shown that it is determined to deliver a good-looking TV with unexpected performance for the price. If you need a large screen with design and picture smarts, the Vizio M551d-A2R and M501d-A2R offer compelling combinations.

Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the M551d-A2R, but this review also applies to the 50-inch screen size in the series. Not all sizes in the M-Series have identical specs, but according to the manufacturer these two models should provide very similar picture quality.

Models in series (details)
Vizio M501d-A2R 50 inches
Vizio M551d-A2R (reviewed) 55 inches

Vizio M1d-A2R series (pictures)

See all photos

For the last few years, Vizio's television designs have lagged behind its competitors, whether looking simply fuddy-duddy, or at their worst, quite cheap. But the company has amended that this year with both the E- and M-Series looking up-to-the-minute and much more expensive than they really are. The M551d-A2R is particularly striking, with a bezel as thin as a smartphone. The ends are finished in a brushed-aluminum cap and the effect is very tasty -- it rivals LG's designs at a fraction of the price. I particularly like the subtle Vizio logo tab on the right side; it looks like it's straight out of your browser's window.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The computer comparisons continue; with its monitorlike, nonswiveling stand, this television looks more like a computer than one of the company's own all-in-one PCs. This design focus could be the make-or-break point for the TVs given that living-room or home theater PCs never took off; do people want a TV that reminds them of a PC?

Sarah Tew/CNET

The TV comes with an updated remote control, which now features backlighting. However, the only way to activate this is to press any button, blindly, in the dark -- there is no dedicated "light" button. In addition, I found the remote sensor to be slow and highly directional as well; you have to point it directly at the sensor for it to work. If you end up mashing the keys several times in frustration after it freezes for a few seconds, you could find that it then completes all the commands with unexpected results.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you ever used the Yahoo apps on previous Vizio TVs, you'll know what the company is going for with its new menu system with its drop-down boxes and smartphonelike notifications. The TV now offers some helpful wizards, but they are confined to a left-hand window in most cases and often feature very small text. You should probably keep your glasses handy during setup.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 Eight pairs
Refresh rate(s) 240Hz Dejudder (smooth) processing Yes
DLNA-compliant Photo/Music/Video USB Photo/Music/Video
Other: None

The M551d-A2R is an affordable TV and it dispenses with many of the features (read: gimmicks) that you'll find its competitors sporting. There are no cameras or MHL ports, and most of the functions are in the service of the picture. The television has an edge-lit LED backlight with local dimming (16 zones). It features a passive 3D system, and includes eight pairs of passive 3D glasses in the box.

Vizio says its remote will gain wireless connectivity and learning functions with a forthcoming firmware update that will let users program their devices into the remote through an onscreen wizard.

Smart TV: Vizio has made some tweaks to its Smart TV platform, now named Vizio Internet Apps Plus. Most notably, you can now see more apps on the screen at once; the ribbon that appears at the bottom when you tap the V button now holds seven apps instead of four. Tap it a second time and you now get the new All Apps view. The company has also added a swath of new apps to its "store" -- mostly local news stations, but most notably it now includes Crackle video, 3D video-streaming service 3DGo, and music-streaming app iHeartRadio.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I'm not a big fan of the platform that Vizio's smart TV service is built on: Yahoo Apps. It squashes most of the information into a small rectangle on the side and still has the "widget" smell about it. As such, this makes a lot of apps, such as 3DGo, look and behave in a homogenized fashion, and it's not as intuitive as using native apps like Netflix.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Interestingly, the HDTV settings and USB player are also available as apps, which means you don't have to press the menu button (though this is easier in the case of settings).

For a comparison of the smart TV features of 2012 and 2013 TVs, check here.

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


Vizio M-Series

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Value 9