Toshiba 52XF550 LCD HDTV 
Home Theater Flat Panel HDTVs LCD HDTVs
Written by Adrienne Maxwell   
Tuesday, 01 July 2008

Introduction
Over the past two years, Toshiba has really elevated its LCD game to compete in the higher-end realm with companies like Sony and Samsung. I was quite impressed with last year’s high-end 52LX177, a 120Hz 1080p model whose performance rivaled that of pricier 120Hz models on the market. This year’s follow-up, the 52XF550, boasts a new implementation of the company’s ClearFrame 120Hz technology and incorporates the Super Narrow Bezel cabinet design. Yet its $3,299.99 MSRP still puts it the lower end of the price spectrum for a 120Hz LCD. Naturally, I was anxious to get my hands on this new TV to see if Toshiba could again prove itself a formidable competitor in the 120Hz category.

Set-up
The goal of the Super Narrow Bezel cabinet design is to put less frame around the screen to draw more attention to the image on the screen. There’s less than an inch of gloss-black bezel surrounding the 52XF550’s 52-inch screen on the top and sides. The bottom bezel measures about 1.25 inches; attached to it is the silver-and-black SoundStrip 2 speaker bar, which is only about one inch thick. The non-swiveling base also has a gloss-black finish, with slightly rounded corners (the smaller 40- and 46-inch XF550 LCDs feature swiveling bases). In all, it’s a simple but tasteful design that’s attractive when the TV is off and unobtrusive when it’s on. It also takes up less space than other 52-inch panels, which is an important consideration for anyone who wishes to place a big-screen TV in a cabinet. It’s worth noting that the 52XV540, which costs $400 less, uses many of the same performance technologies (including ClearFrame), but replaces the Super Narrow Bezel and SoundStrip 2 speaker with more traditional design elements.

The remote is similar in size and layout to previous Toshiba TV remotes; its long, wide design was a bit too big for my small hands, but I managed. The remote lacks the amber backlighting found on last year’s model. The buttons still look as if they should have backlighting, or at least glow-in-the-dark ability, but they don’t. The remote can control up to four additional devices. One of the device buttons is still labeled HD DVD, and I felt a twinge of sadness for Toshiba every time I looked at it. There are no dedicated source buttons, but you can jump quickly between inputs by pressing the Input button and the number that corresponds to the desired input. Using the remote’s “Pic Size” button and number pad, you can similarly jump between the six aspect-ratio options, which include a Native mode for viewing signals with no overscan and a 4:3 HD mode to reshape incorrectly stretched HD signals. Automatic aspect-ratio detection is also available.

The 52XF550 has a healthy connection panel, including three HDMI, two component, one VGA, one S-video and two composite inputs. Unfortunately, neither an HDMI nor a component input is located on the side or front panel. Along the right side panel, you’ll find power, input, menu, channel and volume buttons, as well as a single set of basic A/V inputs. The HDMI inputs accept both 1080p/60 and 1080p/24; all three are located on the underside of the back panel, facing downward, so it’s difficult to feed cable into them. The back panel has four pairs of stereo analog audio inputs, as well as a fixed stereo analog output and an optical audio output to pass digital signals to an outboard receiver. A single RF input grants access to the internal NTSC, ATSC and Clear-QAM tuners. The TV lacks a program guide, but the remote’s THINC button pulls up Channel and Favorites Browsers that show thumbnails of available/selected channels along the bottom of the screen; there’s also an option to scroll between inputs using this function, which I found to be a handy navigational tool. The THINC function used to include email access and music/photo streaming from a PC but while other manufacturers are adding Web-enabled functions to their high-end TVs, Toshiba opted to omit the needed Ethernet port on this year’s model.

The 52XF550’s onscreen menu system is the same one we’ve seen in previous Toshiba TVs; it’s cleanly laid out and fairly easy to navigate, thanks in part to the remote’s exit and back functions. The Video set-up menu first allows you to choose between five picture modes: Sports, Standard, Movie, PC (HDMI and VGA inputs only) and Preference. As usual, the Movie mode produces the most natural image and has the best black level. With this mode as my base, I used the Digital Video Essentials DVD (DVD International) to adjust the contrast, brightness, color, tint and sharpness controls for the HDMI and component video inputs. Edge enhancement wasn’t a major concern at the default sharpness setting, although I still lowered the setting a few steps to remove any potential ringing around hard edges. Once you change a video parameter, the TV automatically switches to the Preference picture mode; happily, you can set different parameters for the different inputs. The basic Picture Settings menu also includes a 100-step adjustable backlight and a DynaLight mode that automatically adjusts the backlight based on the source content’s brightness. I’m not a fan of dynamic brightness controls, so I left the DynaLight off and turned the backlight all the way down to zero. Even at the minimum setting, the 52XF550 had a solid amount of light output for a room with average lighting. At its maximum backlight setting of 100, the TV is extremely bright; I never felt the need to push the setting beyond 20, even with all my room lights on and the blinds open.

The 52XF550 doesn’t have as many advanced picture settings as you’ll find in some higher-end LCDs, but the most common controls are here: dynamic contrast (which I left off), digital and MPEG noise reduction, an eight-step gamma adjustment, a choice between cinema and video processing modes and a Game mode to improve response time with a gaming console. In the color realm, the TV has three preset color-temperature options (Cool, Medium and Warm), plus the ability to add or subtract blue and green from these presets. However, there’s no direct access to RGB offset and gain controls to precisely adjust white balance. Toshiba’s ColorMaster feature allows you to tailor the hue, saturation and brightness of the primary and secondary color points.

Toshiba’s ClearFrame 120Hz technology doubles the TV’s frame rate from 60 to 120 hertz through Motion Vector Frame Interpolation (MVFI). Many 120Hz TVs feature a single mode that’s designed to reduce both motion blur and film judder, but Toshiba’s method lets you address each issue separately. In the Advanced Picture Settings menu, the ClearFrame option (on/off) is designed to reduce motion blur, a common LCD issue. I’m not sure why anyone would pay for a 120Hz TV and then turn the feature off, but hey, if you feel so inclined, Toshiba will let you do so. A second menu option, called Film Stabilization, deals specifically with film judder, that stuttering effect you see in moving images when a 24-frames-per-second film source is converted to 60fps video via the traditional 3:2 process. ClearFrame must be turned on to utilize Film Stabilization. There are three menu options: Off, Standard and Smooth (last year’s model had just on and off options). The Off mode adds no stabilization effect, while the Smooth mode appears to do more advanced frame interpolation to produce super-smooth, judder-free movement. The newly added Standard mode is particularly interesting because Toshiba says it is a true 5:5 mode, which means that each frame in a 24fps film source is repeated five times to create 120 frames. This is something film purists have clamored for; we’ll talk more about its performance in the next section.

The Audio set-up menu includes the standard bass, treble and balance controls, plus a StableSound feature to limit level variations. SRS WOW audio processing is onboard, with settings for 3D, Focus and TruBass parameters. If you’re utilizing the internal tuners, you can adjust the dynamic range control for audio signals and designate Dolby Digital or PCM for the optical digital audio output. On a related note, the TV’s mute function includes both half- and full-mute options.

The 52XF550’s HDMI inputs support Deep Color and lip sync, and the REGZA-Link HDMI-CEC function allows for more intuitive control of other Toshiba products connected via HDMI. You can adjust these HDMI parameters via the General set-up menu, where you can also enable or disable the TV’s power-saving mode that reduces standby power consumption.

Television and Movies
Since 120Hz is the 52XF550’s marquee feature, it seemed only fitting to begin by evaluating the ClearFrame and Film Stabilization technologies. With ClearFrame off, the 52XF550’s performance with test patterns from my FPD Software Group Blu-ray disc was similar to that of many traditional LCDs: text grew blurry and fine detail was lost as soon as the motion kicked in. The ClearFrame function provided a noticeable reduction in motion blur. The resolution pattern still showed some loss of detail in the 720- and 1080-line segments, but the small text in the fast-moving map pattern remained clean and legible. I took in several NBA playoff games during my time with the 52XF550 and was pleased with the amount of background detail during quick pans across the court.

The HD HQV Benchmark Blu-ray disc (Silicon Optix) contains a film-based stadium pan that provides a great example of how the Film Stabilization modes affect judder. The Off mode revealed blatant judder; the Standard mode reduced the judder but still looked like a film source; the Smooth mode produced super-smooth motion that looked more like video. With the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Blu-ray disc (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), output at 1080p/24 from the Pioneer BDP-95FD player, the Smooth mode did a nice job of reducing judder, with only an occasional misstep or stutter. Those who felt that last year’s Toshiba implementation was too subtle will be glad to know that the Smooth effect seemed more pronounced this time around, although it still wasn’t quite as smooth as I’ve seen in Sony and Samsung 120Hz TVs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I find it distracting when the motion is too smooth and felt that Toshiba struck a nice balance. The Standard mode, meanwhile, was a mixed bag. At times, it successfully reduced judder while retaining a film-like quality, which I appreciated; however, in many instances, it seemed to make the judder even worse. The results were similar with standard-def DVD movies and film-based TV shows, although I noticed more stuttering hiccups with TV content than with BD/DVD content.

As I moved through my arsenal of Blu-ray demos, I was impressed with the 52XF550’s black level and overall contrast. Scenes from The Black Pearl, Black Hawk Down (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment), The Prestige (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) and 3:10 to Yuma (Lionsgate) looked very rich and well saturated in both bright and dark viewing environments. The 52XF550’s blacks aren’t quite as deep as those of the best plasmas and LED-based LCDs, but they’re better than many traditional LCDs. Subtle black details came through well in scenes from The Curse of the Black Pearl, 3:10 to Yuma and War (Lionsgate), and the overall level of detail with these Blu-ray discs was outstanding. 

In the HD processing department, the Toshiba ably handles 1080i signals through both the HDMI and component video inputs. It passes the video and film resolution loss tests on the HD HQV Benchmark Blu-ray disc and it cleanly renders the staircase descent in chapter eight of the Mission: Impossible III Blu-ray disc (Paramount Home Entertainment). Digital artifacts weren’t a concern with 1080i HDTV signals, and both 1080i and 720p shows had excellent detail. The TV’s good black level and rich color palette made for some truly grabbing HDTV content. How I Met Your Mother, The Office and the NBA on TNT looked excellent.

When I switched to standard-definition content, the 52XF550 failed most of the 480i processing tests on the HQV Benchmark DVD (Silicon Optix), but went on to perform well with real-world DVD and SDTV signals. Its up-conversion of 480i to 1080p was solid; the level of detail wasn’t the best I’ve seen in a flat panel, but it wasn’t lacking, either. With my de-interlacing tests of Gladiator (DreamWorks Home Entertainment) and The Bourne Identity (Universal Studios Home Video), the 52XF550 created only minor jaggies and no moiré in the scenes. Its handling of video-based DVD content wasn’t quite as good, producing a few too many jaggies in diagonals. However, during my time with the 52XF550, I watched a good deal of SDTV, which alternates between film and video content, and I was seldom distracted by jaggies and other artifacts.

The 52XF550 features 14-bit processing, but it only uses a 10-bit LCD panel. The light-to-dark test ramp in Video Essentials revealed that the TV didn’t reproduce all of the transitions between black and white, creating uneven steps in the mid-to-dark gray region. As a result, I saw some noise in dark and deep-colored backgrounds with both HD and SD content. In most cases, it wasn’t excessive; at a normal viewing distance, I seldom noticed it. However, I was distracted by the consistent noise in one especially dark episode of Lost on ABC HD, and the smoke in chapter 10 of the Ladder 49 DVD (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) looked a little pixilated and noisy. I experimented with the TV’s noise-reduction options: the DNR settings had minimal impact and the MPEG settings (especially medium and high) noticeably softened the image.

With SRS WOW employed, the tiny SoundStrip 2 speaker system produced reasonably full, dynamic audio for its size, and the StableSound function proved effective. As with many LCDs, screen uniformity was a minor concern here: an all-black test pattern revealed visible light near each of the screen’s four corners. However, the issue wasn’t dramatic enough to affect real-world content, even with darker DVD scenes. The 52XF550’s viewing angle was better than that of many LCDs, but it still didn’t compare with plasma. At about 45 degrees off-axis, the black level began to go up and color saturation began to go down, although the image remained watchable at wide angles.

The Downside
In the performance department, my primary concern with last year’s 52LX177 was its color. The new 52XF550 exhibited some of the same out-of-the-box color inaccuracies. The color points, especially green, were oversaturated, while the color temperature, even at the Warm setting, was somewhat cool. In chapter five of the Corpse Bride DVD (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), both the white snow and the dark sky had too much blue in them, compared with the image from my reference Epson projector and Panasonic plasma. More troublesome was the excessive amount of green in the image. It simply didn’t look right – and not just to the trained eye, as my husband commented on the issue in the first few minutes of watching this TV. The absence of precise white-balance controls means you can’t dial in a more accurate color temperature on your own; you’ll need a professional calibrator who can access the service menu. However, the blue and green drives in the color-temperature menu allowed enough adjustment to make a positive difference. Using the image from my Epson projector as a reference, I removed a lot of the green push and created more natural skin tones by lowering both the green and blue drives. As for those oversaturated color points, the ColorMaster system offered the flexibility to tailor color saturation to suit the viewer’s tastes. I eased up on the saturation of several colors to produce a color palette that was more to my liking. At the end of this effort, colors still weren’t completely accurate, but they were definitely rich and engaging.

On the ergonomic front, I encountered some minor HDMI handshake issues when using a longer 20-foot HDMI cable, but had no trouble with shorter cables. At times, when the 52XF550 was powered up and connected to my A/V system, I found myself unable to control my DirecTV HR-21 HD DVR, regardless of whether I used the DirecTV IR remote or my Monster RF universal remote. At first, I thought the REGZA-Link HDMI-CEC function, which is enabled by default, was sending its own control commands that were interfering with my system. However, the problem remained when I turned off REGZA-Link – and it remained when I switched to the TV’s component video inputs. The 52XF550 didn’t interfere with control of any other device in my system, and the set-top box interference was intermittent, but it certainly affected my enjoyment of the TV-watching experience when it occurred. Admittedly, this issue could be confined to my review sample or caused by my A/V system, but I’ve never encountered this kind of problem before.

Conclusion
As with last year’s 52LX177, Toshiba’s new 52XF550 has the price and performance to give the other big-name contenders in this market a run for their money. Its good black level, light output, detail and processing combine to produce a very attractive HD image and a solid SD image to boot. While it isn’t flawless, Toshiba’s 120Hz implementation effectively reduces motion blur and film judder. I like the decision to separate ClearFrame and Film Stabilization, as this allows you to better tailor the effects to your liking. The 52XF550’s color issue requires some attention, either by a professional calibrator or a patient end user, but the payoff can be striking. If you’re in the market for a 120Hz display, the 52XF550 belongs on your list of must-demo products.
Manufacturer Toshiba
Model 52XF550 LCD HDTV
Reviewer Adrienne Maxwell
Diagonal Screen Size 43 to 56-inches
# of HDMI Inputs 3
# of Component Video Inputs 2
HDMI Version 1.3
Native Resolution 1080p
Refresh Rate 120Hz





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