To get the best TV picture quality, contrast is king. Most of the highest-performance imaging technologies, from to OLED to , aim for , which lend TV images the power and dynamism to approach real life.
Now there's a new tech in town. China-based TV maker Hisense says it has achieved the highest contrast ever in an LCD TV. Say hello to ULED XD.
It uses a novel manufacturing process applied to. Hisense takes two LCD modules -- the sheets that contain the that combine to create the picture on a TV -- and bonds them together, one in front of the other, with an LED backlight shining through both. It's like extra meat on an LCD sandwich.
The promise is a display that can rival the best TV technology ever, and still deliver the brightness of LCD, without many of the issues that plague high-end local dimming LCD sets today. Most intriguing for middle-budget video-quality fans, however, is that Hisense aims to release a 65-inch ULED XD TV in the US next year, for a price that's cheaper than OLED. Let's dive in., the
Two panels = 100x better black levels
Hisense, which uses the marketing term "ULED" on most of its TVs, , and when I saw it then I was immediately intrigued. So were TV makers, apparently, because Hisense says some of them visited its booth with testing materials to take notes.
At a follow-up demo in a private room in New York's Ace Hotel in May, executives walked me through the latest on XD. The basic idea is the same: bonding two LCD modules together improves the precision of standard LED local dimming.
"This allows us to hit black levels that are 100x better than traditional LCD flagship models that are in the market today," said Jim Ninesling, head of marketing for Hisense USA.
The most effective picture quality enhancement for LED LCD TVs today, local dimming controls the illumination in different areas of the screen. So-equipped TVs, like the and , typically have tens or hundreds of local dimming zones behind a single LCD module. They can get brighter than OLED TVs, but the dark areas of the image can't get as deep, and they can suffer stray illumination, or blooming, around bright objects. That's mainly because the dimming zones are relatively large compared to the tiny pixels.
Here's how ULED XD improves that local dimming arrangement, along with some of Hisense's top-level specs and claims.
- ULED XD takes two LCD modules and precision-bonds them together. One module handles the luminance information (black and white only), while the second handles color.
- At CES and the demo I saw in May, the luminance module had HD (1,920x1,080) resolution, bonded to a 4K resolution color module.
- When ULED XD comes to market, both the luminance and color modules will be 4K (3,840x2,160) resolution.
- The luminance panel only lights up pixels that are active, so the effect according to Hisense is to deliver local dimming on the pixel level, with 8.3 million "zones" in the 4K version.
- ULED XD will also have standard local dimming (132 zones), and combined with the two-panel design, it achieves a native contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1.
- The black level measurement on ULED XD is 0.00003 , according to Hisense. That's lower than any LCD I've measured, albeit not as low as OLED (which is 0 nits).
- Hisense claims a peak light output over 1,000 nits, compared to about 850 nits on the brightest OLED I've measured.
- ULED XD will also have quantum dots for wide color (100% DCI P3 and 84% Rec 2020), and both panels have 120Hz native refresh rate.
- It will run the Android TV operating system and only be available in a 65-inch size at first.
Demo time: ULED XD vs. OLED
Hisense followed its information session with a side-by-side comparison. Engineers had set up a prototype 65-inch ULED XD TV -- the version with the 1080p luminance module -- next to the, an OLED TV that won CNET's Editors' Choice award in 2018. Unfortunately, they didn't allow me to take any pictures.
The footage was the montage from the new Spears and Munsil HDR benchmark disc, with languid scenes of landscapes, insects and other natural objects. In this controlled demo XD held up well to my eye, with exceedingly deep black levels and brighter highlights than the OLED set. I did notice a bit of blooming and stray illumination in the most demanding sequences, with objects against a completely black background, but it was minor.
Moving off-angle I also noticed that the ULED XD didn't keep its brightness and fidelity as well as the OLED set. I asked Chris Porter, director of product planning, for an explanation. "When you stack two VA panels, you compound your viewing angle issues. We know it's important and it's on our radar."
Of course a controlled demo of a prototype is no substitute for a real-world review in CNET's TV lab, but ULED XD impressed me nonetheless. I'm excited to see more. Hisense says it should have a preproduction version of the shipping model (the one with the 4K luminance module) ready to show me in September or October, and it aims to bring a 65-inch production model to market "as early as possible" in 2020.
A 'value' compared to OLED, coming in 2020
Of course I asked about price. Although Ninesling admitted that it wasn't set yet, he did say "We intend to present a value to consumer versus the retail price point of OLED TV with our XD technology."
Looking ahead, I expect LG's cheapest 65-inch OLED TV in early 2020, the B9, to retail somewhere between $2,000 and $2,500. To be a "value" compared to that set, the ULED XD should cost less than $2,000 at 65 inches.
That pits it against some of the best 2019 LCD TVs, including higher-end models from more-established brands like Samsung, Sony and Vizio. In that way Hisense faces a similar problem to the one it encountered asking five figures for its laser projectors: if you've heard of Hisense, chances are you associate it with cheap TVs, not high-performance flagship models that rival OLED.
Those other TV makers could conceivably come up with their own dual-module technology as well, but Ninesling says it won't be soon. "We've been working on this for years, and we know that we're way out front. The precision bonding that has to take place to align two 4K modules is state-of-the-art factory technology."
Porter also mentioned the importance of Hisense's proprietary processing. "You can't split the image to a grayscale image and a color image in real-time with software only. It's got to be hardware-driven. With our Hi-View Pro 3 chip, we're able to control two cells, while every other chip on the market was designed for single-cell panels."
At its May event Hisense also showed off its lineup of 2019 TVs first announced at CES (see the gallery above), and many of them have similarly solid specifications at aggressive prices. The company is seriously courting US customers this year, and for videophiles looking for an alternative to OLED and local dimming LCD, ULED XD is worth keeping an eye on. If nothing else, it's probably gonna be affordable a lot sooner than .