Review: Seiki SE50UY04 4K Ultra HDTV (it’s $1,400!)
Yep, the Seiki SE50UY04 is an Ultra HD TV for $1,400. Don’t believe it? Here it is for sale on Amazon. It’s a 50-inch, 3,840 x 2,160, LED LCD, for the same price as a mid-range plasma or LCD.
Since the only other Ultra HDTVs we’ve seen have been of the $20,000 variety, to call the Seiki “disruptive” would be putting it mildly.
So the question on everyone’s mind… is it any good?
(Note, this TV’s resolution is 3,840 x 2,160, which is officially called Ultra HD, and colloquially called “4K.” I use the terms interchangeably throughout because saying Ultra HD all the time gets boring.)
Check out Gary’s first look on the SE50UY04.
As you’ve probably guessed, the SE50UY04 is a stripped down model. How stripped? Well, there are no smart TV features, no 3D, very limited picture adjustment options, limited scaling/processing, and none of the fancy gesture/voice/thought control nonsense of other 2013 TVs.
In theory, I like the idea of a “dumb monitor” TV. Roku and Apple TV streaming boxes are cheap and fantastic. I don’t care about 3D, and I can I never touch my TV’s remote anyway. However, the lack of decent processing is a bit of a concern.
Set’em up, set’em down
There’s nothing to visually distinguish this Ultra HD TV from any other 50-inch flat panel. In fact, its boxy design and minimal flourishes make it more similar to a bare-bones, inexpensive LCD. Oh, wait…
The menus are simple. There are picture mode presets, basic picture controls (contrast, brightness, etc), and color temp settings, but that’s it. No CMS, no detailed grayscale adjustments, no gamma adjustments, none of the things we’ve gotten used to in user menus these days.
The remote is, as you’d expect, a basic affair with small buttons and no backlighting. Since there’s no built in web browser or streaming apps, it doesn’t really need to be anything more.
After setup, I plugged in my cable feed just to see what kind of picture it creates “out-of-the-box.” Well, it does indeed create a picture.
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So many pixels!
I feel like I should pause for a moment and explain a few things. Resolution is not, has never been, and never will be the most important aspect of picture quality. In testing that I’ve done with multiple trained and untrained viewers, and in the opinion of TV reviewers and TV designers, contrast ratio is the most important. The better the contrast ratio, the more realistic the image looks. It appears to have more depth, and even more detail. After that, color accuracy, lack of artifacts, color temperature, all are important.
This isn’t to say that resolution is not important. Obviously 1080p (HD) was a big step up over 480i (SD). The issue is we’re limited by the resolution of the human eye. So with a 50-inch TV, you need to be sitting about 4 feet away to be able to resolve all the resolution this TV is capable. Most people sit a lot further away than that. Check out HDGuru contributor Chris Heinonen’s excellent 4K Calculator.
As the calculator shows, there is a range where you might be able to see more resolution than 1080p, depending on your vision, seating distance, and screen size.
If you’re not planning on sitting close to this TV, and are just looking for the best TV of 2013, I’ll save you some time. This isn’t it. To spoil the ending, this is a fairly average LCD that just happens to be Ultra HD resolution. With just about all content you can get right now, there are other, cheaper TVs that look vastly better.
There are a few other factors worth considering too. There isn’t any 4K content commercially available. This will hopefully change, but at the moment, you can’t go into a store and buy a 4K disc, nor can you go to Netflix and stream a 4K movie.
Further, the current generation of HDMI inputs only handle 3,840 x 2,160 up to 30fps. So even if the Seiki could do 1080p/3D, there’s no way to send 4K3D to anything at the moment.
Have I talked you out of 4K yet? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
So let’s presume you are planning on sitting close. Maybe you want to use this as a monitor, or are otherwise sitting four or so feet away. Or, maybe, for whatever reason you don’t believe the math and eyeball physiology. In that case, there are two radically different aspects to the Seiki’s performance, and both are worth discussing.
Seiki supplied a server with 4K content. As is the case with most high-resolution content right now, this was a lot of slow moving landscapes: Desert scenes, beautiful starry skies, etc.
Sitting on the front of my couch, the TV was 6.5-feet away. With my 20/15 vision (as verified less than a month ago), the level of detail was incredible. All the hyperbole you’ve read from other 4K coverage is understandable when you’re sitting close. If I leaned in, I could see even more detail (proving my point earlier about the resolution of the eye, FWIW).
From a limited, strictly resolution-based subjective assessment, Ultra HD on the Seiki is pretty awesome. It’s a lot like the first time I saw HD, in the long ago times of 2000. There is that “window into a world” aspect that is undeniably cool.
This is, of course, with pristine 4K content, of which there is basically none in the real world. I think we all have taken for granted how good TV processing has become, at least from the Tier 1 TV companies. If you send the Seiki a great 1080p signal, it looks OK. Anything worse, like the always ugly Grey’s Anatomy, and it’s a soft smeary mess. I’m sure many people will give it a pass on processing performance, because of the price. I suppose that’s a valid argument, but what you’re saying is that the Seiki really isn’t a $1,400 TV, because you have to get something with it for it to look right.
Thankfully, there are myriad products that can upconvert now. A lot of receivers will do it, the new OPPO BDP-103 and the OPPO BDP-105 will upconvert Blu-ray and external sources, and there are a bunch of Blu-ray players that do it just with discs. Samsung was kind enough to send over one of the latter, a $250 BD-F7500. It’s got all the important streaming features (see, told you you didn’t need them in the TV), plus the 4K upconversion.
So I put on Life of Pi as a 4K output from this player. This was a noticeable improvement in overall picture quality. I particularly like Chapter 21 of this Blu-ray, as it has a lot of great close ups, plus crazy colors and lots of contrasty shots. Close ups of Pi and Richard Parker’s faces, when they weren’t moving, perhaps looked a little more detailed than on a 1080p display, but not significantly. When they moved, the improvement was lost. When I saw this disc on an ST60 I reviewed recently, I remember being blown away by shot after shot. I got none of that here. This is due, in part at least, to the lower contrast ratio. Shots like the night sky at the end of this chapter, with all the stars, was flat, gray, and showed off the panel’s mediocre brightness uniformity (edges are brighter than the center). There’s none of the “wow” factor you’d expect. With 4K content you get that, certainly, but with anything else, the display’s negatives outweigh the slight improvement scaling to 4K gets you.
Because resolution aside, the SE50UY04 is still just an LED LCD, and not a great one. As such, it has all the positives and negatives that go with that technology.
The contrast ratio is annoyingly impossible to verify, as the dynamic blacklight is always active. Turning off the “DLC” or dynamic luminance control does nothing. This might actively adjust the gamma instead of control the backlight, but once I discovered it didn’t turn off the dynamic backlight, I turned it off (I always turn off any “dynamic” anything in my testing, they add nothing to the picture and are usually add their own problems).
I measured 74.38 footlamberts with a full white image, and 0.0018 with a full black image, for a dynamic contrast ratio of 41,322:1. It doesn’t look anything close to that good. With any bright object on screen, you get noticeable bands of light emanating from the edges (where the LEDs are). For example, if you put the menu up over a black image, there’s a gray band on either side of the centrally located menu out to the edges. Measuring that gray band as a better example of what “black” might be if the local(-ish) dimming was turned off, I got a “black” level 0.0245. This would mean a contrast ratio closer to 3,000:1, which is certainly in the ballpark of most modern LCDs. Since all of these numbers are pretty sketchy (measurement wise), I wouldn’t strongly stand by any of them. Subjectively, visually, it looks close to other TVs I’ve seen with a contrast ratio of around 3,000:1, plus the local dimming. In short, it’s not bad, but it’s not great.
Off axis performance is fairly typical, with the color washing out somewhat as you move to the sides. More noticeable is an increase in black level along the edges near the LEDs. Like the contrast ratio, it’s not bad: I’ve seen better, and I’ve seen worse.
Motion blur is definitely worse than other LCDs I’ve seen recently. Using the FPD disc, upconverted to 4K by the Samsung, at best the Seiki does “720” lines of resolution (the number on the disc). So this is something like 1440, far less than the 2160 possible. This bares out with content as well. Still or slow moving images look far more detailed than anything in motion.
Oddly, the SE50UY04 overscans severely with 1080p content. It’s pixel-perfect with 4K, though. A 1-pixel on/off pattern, sent as 1080p via BD, has the banding typical of overscanning. Sent 4K via the Samsung, it looks a lot cleaner, with no visible banding. This doesn’t seem to be perfect upconversion either. It’s more one white pixel, one gray pixel, and one (maybe two) black pixel(s), but you need your face on the screen to be able to tell this. This is a Samsung thing, though, not Seiki, just wanted to mention it.
Out of the box, color accuracy is decent, with the color primaries all matching their HDTV specs, though the secondaries (yellow, cyan, magenta), are each a little bit off correct. The levels (gamut luminance) aren’t great, though.
The same goes with color temperature. Out of the box, in the Warm color temp mode, the image is too warm, with way too much green.
However, there is a service menu (no I won’t give you the code). If you or a trained calibrator have the right measurement equipment, you can actually dial in the color temp to be pretty much spot on. Interestingly, after calibrating the color temp, the color points improve for some reason too. As you can see in the attached chart, the color points are spot on perfect. However, their levels are still a bit off, so color doesn’t look quite as natural as the color points themselves would lead you to believe. So add a professional calibration to the list of things this TV needs to perform its best.
One last place you can get 4K content is with a PC. Though not “officially” supported on my video card, the software that came with it allows custom resolutions. Sure enough, 3840×2160/24 worked like a charm and damn the text is tiny (you can adjust this in Windows). Massive screen real estate is cool and seeing high-res photos, full screen at higher-than-1080p resolutions is cool, though once again you have to be sitting really close to get any reasonable use out of anything. I tried out three games: StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm (no real improvement), Planetside 2, and Battlefield 3. The only benefit with the shooters is the ability to resolve distant targets better. If you’re sitting really close to the screen, enemies in the far distance that would have been too small to target are now “larger,” so you can see them better. When I moved my gaming PC to my theater, and had to give up my beloved (and now dead) Sony CRT monitor, stepping down to 1080p was a noticeable loss in my ability to target really far away targets. So this ability of 4K gaming is not lost on me.
The overall image however, isn’t radically better. This is another myth about 4K when it comes to gaming. The textures and polygons only scale to an extent. Jacking up the resolution doesn’t mean a corresponding increase in picture quality. The game looks the same, it just has finer edges, and the distance thing mentioned earlier. Better textures, more polygons, better shaders, better anti-aliasing, and so on would do more for the long-sought “photorealism” in games more than increasing the resolution alone.
It’s also worth noting that because the framerate is limited to 24 or 30 fps, the motion is far less smooth than what you’d get with a “regular” TV or monitor. The motion blur comes into play here too. Looking at the gravel at the starting area in the “Caspian Border” map in BF3, it’s very detailed, but as soon as you move the mouse, it blurs significantly.
I applaud Seiki for making a big splash, and coming out with what will probably be the most talked about TV of 2013. I’m sure there will be many who will buy this TV just because it’s 4K, and it’s $1,400. So yes, the Seiki does 4K and that is cool. If that’s all you want, by all means get one.
However, judged just as a TV, the SE50UY04 comes up short in many key areas. The motion smearing is terrible, the contrast ratio is average, off axis isn’t great, the colors look a little weird, the uniformity isn’t very good, and with anything but a perfect source, it looks really poor.
It’s as I said earlier: the SE50UY04 is a mediocre TV that just happens to be 4K. If all you want is that resolution, I’m not sure why you’d care about a review in the first place. After all, this is the only 4K TV even remotely close to this price.
If you’re just trying to find a great looking TV, spend the same money on a Panasonic TC-P55ST60. It’s got far fewer artifacts and a significantly higher contrast ratio. With most content, and at any reasonable seating distance, that higher contrast ratio will make it seem more detailed than the Seiki.
If our ratings included value, our score would be higher, but we rate strictly on performance. As such, the $1,400 Seiki SE50UY04 gets 3 out of 5 hearts.
Disclosure: The Seiki SE50UY04 reviewed is a manufacturer supplied production sample.
Geoff Morrison @TechWriterGeoff
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