Finally, I can wholeheartedly recommend a 4K TV. Not because its higher pixel count makes a major difference in picture quality -- it still doesn't and 4K content in the wild is still as scarce as giant pandas -- but because it finally offers a better picture for the buck with all kinds of content than its 1080p counterparts. That TV is the Vizio M series.
Vizio is the current godfather of high-value TVs, and the 2015 M series is the poster child. It's priced hundreds less than any of the 4K offerings from Samsung and Sony, and performs better than most. The secret to that picture has nothing to do with resolution, but instead to a technology called local dimming, which can selectively dim and brighten independent areas of the screen for better contrast than competing TVs. Its benefits extend to everything you watch, 4K or otherwise.
Aside from traditional brand-related prestige, what are you missing when you go with the Vizio M? Well, it lacks a curved screen, doesn't have a sophisticated Smart TV system, doesn't support 3D, and won't blow anybody away with its dashing good looks. You can't talk into the remote to search, and you can't launch a Web browser on the screen. If any of that matters to you -- and for the record, almost none of it matters to me -- then this isn't your TV.
But if you want the best image quality for the buck along with the assurance that you can display 4K content now and in the future, the Vizio M series is my top recommendation so far in 2015. Its picture quality advantage over the Vizio E series , and any other less-expensive TV I've seen, is definitely worth the extra money in my book.
Meanwhile the Vizio P series from last year performed a hair better in my side-by-side tests, so if you can get one for the same price or less than the M, go for it. That difference isn't worth much extra money, however, and according to Vizio the P is being phased out soon anyway, likely to make way for a new (and I'm guessing more expensive) 2015 P this fall. Whatever other TVs come along during the rest of 2015, the mighty M is going to be tough to beat.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 65-inch Vizio M65-C1, but this review also applies to most of the other screen sizes in the series. There are some variations among the models that may lead to some differences in picture quality, namely different native panel refresh rates, but not as much as with the E series, where I felt compelled to review three different sizes to get a handle on their differences. See the Features section for details on those differences.
The M series is handsome enough but lacks the flair of most 4K TVs from Samsung, Sony and LG. Vizio differentiates it from the cheaper E series with a silver edging, whisper-thin when seen from the front and dominant from the side. The bezel is otherwise standard: black and exceedingly slim.
Unlike the P series, the M lacks the protruding "Vizio" tab on the lower right; the unobtrusive logo is tattooed on the bezel without further ado. The M's silver color is brighter than that of the P as well. With the two sitting side-by-side in my lab, I liked the darker P a bit better, and in some rooms the M's silver might stand out too much.
The other big change from last year's models is the design of the stand, er, stands. The TV rests on a pair of detachable, cast aluminum legs splayed far to the edges. The design is more stable than the central pedestal of yore, especially when you press down from the top on either side, but mandates a piece of furniture at least as wide as the TV itself. Unless you wall-mount, which is safer still.
From the side, the 2014 M series is thicker than some 4K LCD TVs, thanks in part to a direct LED backlight. That's a minor disadvantage in our book, not least because nobody watches TV from the side. More makers today are using direct, as opposed to edge-lit, designs anyway. The Sony XBR-65X850C and the Samsung UN65JU7100 are both direct-lit, for example, and both are thicker than the 65-inch Vizio M.
The M and P series remotes are identical, and I'm not a fan. The topside is particularly mediocre, with no backlighting, little key differentiation, and a somewhat confusing arrangement of keys around the cursor.
On the flip side is a full QWERTY keyboard that I liked a lot better. It's fully backlit and includes touches like directional keys and a dedicated ".com" button to ease log-ins. It was still kind of a pain to use, however, because it has to be aimed carefully and often required multiple button presses to register.
The menu system has the same arrangement as other recent Vizio sets. It's basic, easy to navigate, and I appreciate the helpful on-screen touches, including descriptions of various menu items and access to the full user manual.
|LED backlight:||Full-array with local dimming|
|Refresh rate:||120Hz or 60Hz|
|Smart TV:||VIA Plus|
The headline is 4K resolution, of course, but it's not the most important feature in my book. Vizio is still the only TV maker that sells affordable TVs with full-array local dimming, my favorite LCD TV picture quality enhancement. Every other 4K TV with local dimming, full-array or edge-lit, is significantly more expensive than the M series. The only exception I know about is Vizio's own P series from last year.
Each size in the M series gets 32 dimmable zones, meaning the screen can dim or brighten independently in 32 separate areas (the exception is the 43-inch size at 28 zones). More zones generally equates to better image quality in the form of less blooming (where the bright zones "leak" into the darker ones) and other benefits. The P series gets twice as many zones in most sizes at 64, and in our testing that did seem to make a difference, albeit small (see Picture Quality below for details). No other TV maker divulges the number of its dimming zones.
The E series specifications for "effective" refresh rate and Clear Motion Rate also vary for different sizes, and both numbers are basically fake. Like in past years, Vizio's "effective" number is double that of the true panel refresh rate. In the M series the 60-inch and larger sets have 120Hz panels, while the 55-inch and smaller TVs use 60Hz panels. Higher Hz numbers generally equate to improved motion resolution (less blurring). All of the M series models, even the 60Hz ones, offer optional smoothing, otherwise known as the Soap Opera Effect.
Unlike many higher-end 4K TVs, the M lacks fancy add-ons like HDR support, wide color gamut and even 3D. None are anywhere near essential in my book, especially at this price point. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if Vizio's 2015 P series (which hasn't yet been announced, but I suspect is coming this fall) ends up supporting HDR and/or wide color.
VA or IPS (updated July 22, 2015): Most LCD TVs sold today use one of two kinds of panels: VA (Vertical Alignment) or IPS (In-Plane Switching). In our experience VA panels deliver superior black level performance and overall picture quality, and the 65-inch M series I used for this hands-on review has a VA panel.
On the E series Vizio used both VA and IPS LCD panels in a variety of sizes, but the M series is more consistent. The only size that uses IPS is the 49-inch version, model M49-C1 . I didn't include it in this review, and I recommend getting the 50-inch M series over the 49-inch version for this reason alone. See the P series review, where I performed hands-on reviews of both panel types, for details.
Vizio originally told me that it would also be using IPS panels on the 55-inch version of the M series, but after this review published it changed its tune. It now says all 55-inch M series TVs will exclusively use VA panels, leaving the 49-inch size as the only 2015 M series with IPS. I have modified this review accordingly.
Smart TV: Pretty much identical to last year, and to the E series, the 2015 M series' Vizio Internet Apps (VIA) Plus smart TV suite doesn't try to do too much. No pretty-boy Tizen, WebOS or Android-powered voice commands, universal search or Web browsers here. That's fine with me, because I think the best Smart TV experience is provided by an external device like a Roku anyway. Or by, you know, a Roku TV .
If you decide to use Vizio for your apps instead of a streaming box or stick, you'll be greeted by a simple line of seven icons along the bottom when you hit the remote's central "V" key. Scrolling to the right brings up more, or you can hit "V" again for a full-screen interface. There you'll find all of the available apps neatly categorized, along with the ability to add, remove and reorder apps within the band.
Vizio's content selection is very good. HBO Go isn't available, and there are no major sports apps like MLB TV, NHL GameCenter, or NBA League Pass, but most of the other heavy-hitters for video are here, including Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu and Plex. Audio support is also solid, with iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Pandora and Spotify.
It's worth noting here that Vizio still uses the same involuntary software update system, and it's a drag. You can't simply check for updates manually -- you have to wait for them to be rolled out, and there's no way to opt out of receiving them (aside from disconnecting the TV from the network). I prefer the system used by most other TV makers, where you can manually check and opt out of automatic updates if you want.
4K streaming: I checked out 4K streaming on the built-in Netflix and Amazon apps and they worked as expected, although as I've seen in the past, consistent 4K streams from Amazon (as opposed to "HD" and 1080p HD") are more sporadic than they are on Netflix.
As usual I didn't see a massive image quality improvement over those services' HD streams, and in previous tests I've performed, neither 4K streaming services' image quality could quite match the best 1080p Blu-rays. And of course content is scarce, although Netflix in particular deserves credit for continuing to release many of its original series, such as "Daredevil," in 4K.
Unlike Samsung's 2015 4K TVs for now, Vizio also has a working UltraFlix app. I fired it up and plunked down $10 for a 48-hour rental of the marquis title, "Interstellar" in 4K (otherwise the selection was mostly Kung-Fu, concerts, flotsam and older films like "Fargo" and "Robocop"). In the app's favor, it looked great, visibly sharper than the Vudu HDX stream I compared side-by-side. I didn't have the chance to compare it to the Blu-ray, but I plan to soon. If UltraFlix can somehow get more worthwhile content, it may grow into a viable 4K streaming competitor to the likes of Amazon and Netflix.
Unlike many 2015 4K TVs, the M series lacks the VP9 decoding necessary to play 4K YouTube videos, so its YouTube app won't deliver 4K resolution. This is a hardware limitation so it can't be fixed via a software upgrade. I don't consider this omission a big deal, especially since YouTube's 4K content hasn't proved the sharpest in our tests, but it's still a knock worth noting.
Picture settings: The M series offers plenty of ways to tweak the image. There are six picture modes, all of which can be adjusted, and you can create and rename additional modes as needed. You can also lock modes to prevent accidental erasure.
Advanced tweaks include five gamma presets, a full color-management system and both a 2- and 11-point grayscale control. There are sliders for Reduce Judder and Reduce Motion Blur, and a Clear Action option that engages backlight scanning. There's also an option Game Low Latency that reduces input lag.
Connectivity: The M and P series are identical in this area, and equally complex and quirky.
Only one HDMI input, Input 5, is compatible with both newfangled HDMI connection protocols, namely HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 copy protection. The former allows 4K frame rates up to 60Hz, the fastest currently available. The latter allows the TV to accept copy-protected 4K content over HDMI, from devices like the Sony FMP-X10 media player, the Nvidia Shield playing back certain copy-protected content such as Netflix 4K, and forthcoming 4K Blu-Ray content. 2015 4K TVs from Samsung, Sony and LG offer multiple so-equipped inputs.
The other four are version 1.4, meaning they can handle 1080p sources up to 60Hz and 4K sources up to 30Hz. Of those four, only two support HDCP 2.2.
As expected, when I tried the Shield and the Sony players' HDCP 2.2-protected content on the inputs that didn't handle HDCP 2.2 (Inputs 3 and 4 on the M series), the content didn't play back. That protected content did play back on Inputs 1 and 2, confirming that they do indeed support HDCP 2.2, but when I tried 4K/60Hz on those inputs the signals were "dumbed down" to 4K/30Hz automatically (and otherwise played back fine). Only Input 5 displayed HDCP 2.2/4K/60Hz content natively.
The M series also had one other disadvantage connectivity-wise compared to the higher-end 4K sets from SLG and Samsung: lack of support for 4K 4:4:4 chroma subsampling signals via any of its inputs. This isn't a big deal to us since, once again, the only common 4:4:4 sources come from PCs. Another PC source, 1080p/120Hz, is accepted by Input 5 however.
Beyond HDMI, the Vizio's other physical connections include one each of USB, component-video, composite video, Ethernet and an RF tuner port. There's also an analog audio and optical digital audio output. As with other Vizio TVs, the M series' optical jack passes Dolby Digital.
The M series delivered better overall picture quality than any 4K TV at its price we've tested, with the exception of the P series. Moreover it outperformed other significantly more-expensive 2015 4K sets in our lineup, including two models from Samsung and one from Sony, and also had a demonstrably better picture than Vizio's E series. That advantage stems from deeper black levels, which lend the M series better contrast and pop.
Color accuracy was as good as the competition or better, including Samsung's quantum-dot-equipped JS8500 SUHD, and most other aspects of image quality were very good as well. Video processing isn't quite up to Samsung snuff, but still solid and by no means a deal-breaker.
The P series did evince slightly better black level and blooming performance in side-by-side comparisons, so given a choice between the M and P at the same size and price, I'd probably go with P. That said the M series is still an excellent performer and they both deserve the same 8 in this category. I'm reserving the 9 for TVs that may be better, and the only 10 I've awarded this year belongs to OLED .
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.
Black level: Creating a deep shade of black is the M series' main picture quality strength. To test its mettle I first queued up my favorite scene for black levels, chapter 2 of "Gravity" where Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone careens off into space. The M series delivered the second-best black levels, trailing the P series by the slimmest of margins. Outside of my side-by-side dark room comparison, it would be impossible to tell the two apart, and in the darkest scenes my light meter couldn't distinguish between them. From the letterbox bars to the void of space to the shadows of the spacesuits, none of the other TVs delivered the depth of darkness seen on the Vizio M and P.
The M showed very slightly better shadow detail than the P, however, with a bit more visible in near-black areas like the jetpack and tops of the astronauts' helmets as they spun. The Samsungs and Sony did a bit better still at handling shadows, and showed more stars against the blackness of space, but their significantly lighter blacks made these areas appear less realistic, and satisfying, overall.
Meanwhile, the E series was relatively good at rendering black -- equal to or very slightly slightly darker than the Samsungs, and well short of the depth of the M and P -- but its wide-area dimming obscured more details than any of these TVs. It also showed more blooming in this scene than the others. As Stone tumbles and her flashlight revolves in and out of the image, dark parts of the image like the letterbox bars and the void brightened from the spillover of light. On the other sets, blooming was more controlled.
Dimmer highlights were also an issue on the E series, but not the M and P series. The bright areas like the sun peeking over the Earth, or the albedo off the white spacesuits, appeared plenty bright and natural. The Samsungs (particularly the JS8500) and the Sony were very slightly brighter in highlights, but the M and P looked much punchier overall nonetheless due to their superior contrast.
There were some tradeoffs for those black levels in the form of dimming-related artifacts. During Stone's spin, for example, a large swath of the upper letterbox bar got darker than the rest (16:35) and as she approaches the camera, the entire bottom bar snapped a shade darker, suddenly and noticeably. I also saw the blooming around graphical elements like white-on-black words during credits, or the pause sign displayed in the lower-left by my PlayStation 3. This bloom around that white icon wasn't as bright on the M as on the P series, but the P's blooming was smaller and more localized. In general I prefered the P's treatment, and I suspect it has to do with its superior number of dimming zones.
The Samsungs and the E series (all of which have local dimming from fewer zones than the M and P) showed similar issues albeit with even wider areas, which were in general less distracting than the M and P's more localized blooming, depending on the content. None of these blooming artifacts were particularly bothersome in the vast majority of program material, however, and as usual I'll take a bit of blooming at times for the big benefits to contrast and ovrall picture quality imparted by local dimming.
Beyond "Gravity" and other very dark material, the benefits of deep black levels are less obvious, but still evident. The extreme contrast of "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" still looked best on the M and P series, but the difference wasn't as extreme even in my dark room.
Color accuracy: The measurements after calibration put the M series in the same highly accurate section of the ballpark as the best TVs I've tested, with a superb grayscale and gamma result and excellent color scores. The basic metrics for color all fell below a Delta error of 3, the threshold for perception.
In my side-by-side comparison of program material those measurements held true. The black-and-white "Sin City: A Dame to Kill" For showed off the M's excellent grayscale with an exceedingly neutral palette, matching the best TVs in the room. I switched over to the lush "Samsara" and it was equally impressive, from the green of the African bush to the red and pink of the various uniforms. If I had to pick something to complain about it would be the slightly oversaturated look to greens, for example in the fields around the temples. Certain areas, like the face of the baby being baptized and the gold of the dancers' costumes, also seemed a tad more colorful than on the other displays.
Side-by-side is the only way I'd notice this issue, however -- that, and the fact that green, cyan and yellow measured slightly more saturated than they needed to be. Advanced measurements showed a saturation error slightly above Delta 3 after calibration (3.55), and similarly for the color checker (3.04) These errors are still quite small, however, and I doubt their effects would be visible outside of a side-by-side comparison. Luminance color error was also negligible.
Video processing: The M series performed admirably in this area, almost as well as the P series (after its software update) in fact. Neither quite equal the Samsung displays, but are still very good.
Even the 60Hz members of the M series offer adjustable MEMC (motion estimation, motion compensation), aka smoothing or the Soap Opera Effect. Vizio now offers a 10-position slider to control said smoothing, much like LG and Samsung, and the M series delivered true 1080p/24 cadence as long as I kept the Reduce Judder setting at zero. Increasing it stepped up the smoothing in satisfyingly small increments; the 1 and the 2 settings on the slider were still quite juddery, and may look better than zero (even to hardcore film buffs) in some scenes, for example slow pans over large areas.
I did run into some inconsistent behaviour with smoothing, however. When I switched from one input to the next and back the image seemed to revert to overly-smoothed, even though I was in the zero setting for Reduce Judder. If you notice this kind of issue, you may want to try a Reduce Judder setting of 1, which seemed to be more consistent in my testing.
Since I didn't test one of the 60Hz refresh panels I can't be sure how it does for motion resolution, but I expect the number to range between 900 and 1,200 lines because that's what I measured on Vizio's 60Hz E series sets. Getting those relatively lofty numbers meant engaging Clear Action, however, which introduced too much flicker to be worthwhile. So their real numbers sat at 300 lines.
The 65-inch M series I tested has a 120Hz panel, however, and it behaved as well as I expect for such a TV. With Clear Action engaged it hit 1080 lines of motion resolution, an excellent result. That setting didn't introduce flicker that bothered me, but it did truncate the light output quite a bit, so I kept it off. Without Clear Action, and with the Reduce Blurring slider maxed out at 10, the 65-inch hit around 900 lines, which is still very good. Interestingly the P series has was a bit better in this department, scoring 1200 lines without Clear Action and delivering a bit less blur on my test pattern.
It's also worth noting that the M series didn't suffer from the kind of over-sharpening I saw on the early version of the P series; upconversion from 1080p to 4K, and its rendering of native 4K material, looked as clean and natural as on the other TVs. To be fair, Vizio's software update also fixed that issue on the P series.
Just like the P series, input lag on the M series was among the best I've ever measured, a mere 20.73ms when I turned on the Game Low Latency and used HDMI input 5. Using any of the other inputs with GLL engaged lag was a modest, but still very respectable, 47.37ms. Turning it off increased lag significantly.
PC gamers, it's worth remembering that my input lag tests were conducted only at 1080p/60Hz. Higher resolutions and/or refresh rates might yield different results.
4K sources: 4K material is still scarce enough that I didn't spend nearly as much time testing it as I did 1080p, but it's getting more common. I enjoyed a variety of 4K clips from numerous sources, including 4K demo boxes and files (primarily supplied by TV makers) and streaming (see above).
I used a 4K distribution amplifier to compare the M series directly against other 4K sets in the lineup, and the main image quality differences I saw were the same as in 1080p: almost all to do with contrast and color, as opposed to resolution. The best 4K content looked spectacular on all of the TVs, as I've come to expect.
I also checked out a variety of 4K test patterns from both my DVDo test pattern generator and from Florian Friedrich (Mr. Friedrich drives an independent test laboratory in Munich, runs Quality.TV along with renowned video expert Joe Kane, and among other activities consults for numerous companies, including Samsung). The M series looked as good as or better than the other sets in our lineup in most areas. In a couple of Florian's most challenging tests I did notice some differences, for example in the pixel phase, phase modulation and zone plate tests on a couple of the TVs, but the M series passed these tests with no issues. It also looked great in the moving text test, unlike the LG 65EG9600 .
Uniformity: The M series performed well in this category, with the most obvious issues being the result of blooming. Beyond that I didn't notice any major irregularities in the backlight during program material. Specialized test patterns did reveal very slightly darker edges compared to the middle, and the upper corners were very slightly brighter than the rest with black fields, but the difference was invisible with any actual programs I watched.
From off-angle the M series behaved typically for a VA panel: black levels lightened, impairing contrast, while colors shifted toward blue and red and became desaturated. None of the other TVs in my lineup behaved appreciably better or worse from off-angle, although it's worth noting that blooming and stray illumination became more obvious the further I moved away from the sweet spot directly in front of the screen.
Bright lighting: The screen finish on the M and P series is an identical semi-matte that does an excellent job controlling reflections -- better than any glossy screen. On the other hand it fails to preserve black levels as well as the glossier finish of the Samsungs, robbing the image of some contrast.
That said I find bright reflections more annoying than lack of contrast in bright rooms, so overall I consider the Vizios (and the matte Sony) superior to the Samsungs in this category. I also like the M and P slightly better in bright rooms than the E, on account of their superior light output and slightly better black level preservation.
Sound quality: The M65 I reviewed didn't sound terrible by TV standards, but there's no way its audio can begin to compete with even the cheapest external soundbar or home theater system. Listening to music, Nick Cave's Red Right Hand, its bass was decent, a bit more powerful than the Sony or the P series, equal to the Samsung JU71000's bass but not as tight. The Sony has the most balanced and pleasing (for a TV) sound, however, without the kind of overly bright sound as the others. You can live with the M65 sans external speakers if you don't care much about audio quality, but it's definitely worth investing in something better if you do.
|Black luminance (0%)||0.007||Good|
|Avg. gamma (10-100%)||2.25||Average|
|Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)||0.673||Good|
|Dark gray error (20%)||0.848||Good|
|Bright gray error (70%)||0.634||Good|
|Avg. color error||1.882||Good|
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)||Pass||Good|
|Motion resolution (max)||1200||Good|
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)||900||Good|
|Input lag (Game mode)||20.73||Good|