REVIEW – Seiki Digital 50-inch, 4K UltraHD LED Display

By on Aug 20, 2013 in Displays, Reviews

Introduction

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear, love it or hate it, 4K/UltraHD is coming and it likely will hang around for the long haul -or at least until the powers that be tell us we need 8K. So I’m not going to waste time arguing the merits either for or against 4K, suffice to say you have a choice; you can buy in now, or buy in later. The subject of this review, Seiki Digital’s new(ish) 50-inch, 4K/UltraHD display, makes a strong argument for buying into 4K now -what with its suggested retail price of only $1,299. $1,299 is a far cry from what other first gen 4K/UltraHD sets are commanding, and yet there’s been some rather harsh vitriol thrown the Seiki’s way -vitriol outside of the normal “4K is stupid rhetoric.” What I wanted to find out was whether or not the criticism was warranted, so I threw down my credit card and bought one and have lived with it for the past few months. What I’ve come to discover is this; in AV circles, we often fear what challenges the status quo. The Seiki 50-inch 4K/UltraHD display doesn’t just challenge convention -it shatters it.

Now, I’m not going to blow smoke up your bum and suggest the Seiki brandishes the same fit and finish of say Panasonic’s ZT Series plasma or Samsung’s 8000 Series LEDs -it doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close to matching Vizio’s new M-Series displays in terms of build quality. That being said, it also costs a fraction of the before mentioned alternatives whilst packing a native resolution of 3,840 by 2,160 pixels, also known as consumer 4K or UltraHD. No, what the Seiki is, is plain. It’s high-gloss, piano black plastic exterior isn’t super slick, though, admittedly, it doesn’t look bad from normal viewing distances. If anything it keeps one’s focus not on the industrial design of the unit itself but rather the image centered within, which suits me just fine. The display itself measures 44.8 inches wide by 28.66 inches tall and 2.09 inches deep without its included stand. If you plan on utilizing the Seiki’s stand then the depth of the unit swells to 9.84 inches. Weight is reported to rest at just a hair under 50 pounds, which puts the 50-inch display in the hefty, but not unruly category.

In terms of connection options there are quite a few. For starters there are three HDMI 1.4a inputs followed by two USB inputs, a single component input as well as a VGA input (15 pin, D-Sub). It should be noted that the Seiki also has a built-in analog and digital TV tuner. In terms of audio inputs you have a stereo mini phono input (3.5mm), a single pair of RCA inputs and a headphone jack (3.5mm). Audio outputs include a pair of analog RCAs and a single, digital coaxial out.

As for the Seiki’s specifications, well, on paper, it’s a 50-inch quad full HD or consumer 4K/UltraHD design boasting a native resolution of 3,840 x 2,160. It has a reported refresh rate of 120Hz. The Seiki will play back all “lesser” resolutions, though it does automatically upscale them to 4K2K due to its native panel resolution. 4K content however is limited to 30Hz and can only be sent via an HDMI connection -more on that in a bit.  Outside of the information I’ve just listed above, not much else is shared about the Seiki in terms of its reported specs and/or performance, which isn’t necessarily bad, though some might view it as a red flag. From firsthand experience I can say the Seiki is an edge-lit LED design, that features a rather rudimentary menu system, though higher calibration controls are accessible via the display’s service menu -again, more on that in a moment.

As far as the remote is concerned, the Seiki remote leaves a lot to be desired -a whole lot. It’s small through and through and its button layout is terrible and not very intuitive to say the least. As an extension of the user experience the Seiki remote fails, which is sad because I feel it’s just one more item for critics to latch onto in hopes of discrediting this display. Needless to say, any gripes about the Seiki’s remote are likely justified.

Application

I setup and enjoyed the Seiki 4K/UltraHD monitor in a variety of situations, using a wide range of gear. First I employed the display as a PC monitor, replacing my dual 23-inch LGs for one, massive 50-incher. To pull this off I connected it to my HTPC that I recently upgraded with a true, 4K capable graphics card from AMD (Radeon R7770). I connected the Seiki to the graphic card’s  HDMI output via the included cable provided by Seiki in the box with the 4K/UltraHD display. I also used a Redmere equipped HDMI cable from Monoprice and achieved similar results. Now, I did not perform a full calibration of the Seiki while connected to my HTPC, but rather engaged one of its picture presets -I would get to calibration later.

The second setup or environment I chose to utilize the Seiki was my master bedroom suite, where it replaced my reference Pansonic GT Series plasma. Here the Seiki was connected to a bevy of source components starting with my Dish Network Hopper, Dune media streamer and Google Chromecast wireless dongle. I also went ahead and mounted the Seiki to my wall in the same local and using the same mount from Sanus that my Panasonic once employed.

Since this environment was going to represent my “reference” setup, I went ahead and calibrated the Seiki using SpectraCal’s CalMan 5 calibration software, a DVDO Duo as my signal generator and an X-Rite i1Pro 2 light meter. Out of the box and in the Seiki’s “normal” or default picture setting the initial measurements were, well, poor. My particular unit, out of the box, possessed a grey scale that heavily favored green. It was also far too bright, measuring 95 foot lamberts via a 100% IRE test pattern. SMPTE calls for roughly half to a third of that. Also, because the Seiki lacks any and all CMS, I would have to rely solely on the promise of a correct grey scale forcing the display’s colors to shape up and “act right” so to speak.

The Seiki’s finer grey scale controls are located within the unit’s service menu, which are easily accessed using a code. I’m not going to give the code to you for if you don’t know what you’re doing and/or are not a professional calibrator you stand to do more harm than good. Suffice to say, if you really wanted to get at the code, you can find it elsewhere online. Once inside the service menu I was able to correct the Seiki’s grey scale and bring its performance within tolerances set by SMPTE. That is to say post calibration I was able to have an average Delta E error of less than 3 -around 1.78 to be exact. Not bad, not bad at all. With the help of some new test patterns provided by DVDO I was able to fix the display’s brightness and contrast settings and bring them within reference levels too. In doing so I brought the display’s overall brightness down to around 36 foot lamberts, which is right where you want to be for a panel such as the Seiki. Gamma tracked true at 2.2 with an average color temp of 6500K. With the Seiki’s grey scale corrected, its coloremetry shaped up nicely, with red and magenta representing the display’s largest margin for error with a Delta E of just over 3. The other colors, post grey scale calibration, all fell within the tolerable limits. In truth, these are impressive results given a) how horrid the Seiki was out of the box and b) given the copious amounts of bad press I had read prior to taking my own measurements.

 

NOTE: I had every intention of showing you all of the charts, graphs and whatnot associated with the figures listed above, however in the process of generating said artwork for this review, I corrupted the original file and it was lost in the resulting crash. My apologies. The figures listed above are accurate and reflective of what I was able to obtain real world, I just can’t show you the graphs at this time. My sincerest apologies.

  

Following calibration I noted in my journal that the Seiki was very similar to my Vizio E-Series displays; in that post calibration of the grey scale, the display’s coloremetry improved dramatically. So while many will chastise the Seiki for not having CMS, it’s not a crazy omission given how accurate the display can be made to be with the right tools and professional oversight. Still, for absolute image accuracy one would need working CMS controls. Compared to the competition, the Seiki -at this stage -proved no better or worse than many of the Vizio, Sony and even some Panasonic displays that I’ve tested over the years. Your mileage may vary, but a mongrel the Seiki is not.

A few quick tips; the Seiki’s sharpness control might as well be renamed artifact enhancer. In my experience it should be set to zero whenever possible for the smoothest, sharpest image. Also, defeating the Seiki’s ambient backlighting sensor is a must as is its video noise reduction presets -both should be set to the “off” position for the best possible image quality. Still, even with the ambient light sensor off, the Seiki still seems to “ramp up” in brightness upon initial power up and/or switching between sources and sometimes even channels. It’s not anything to be concerned over as the ramp up occurs within a fraction of a second, but never the less, something is still going on behind the scenes.

With everything dialed in nicely I sat down for some subjective evaluations.

Personal Impressions

Let me just say this, as a PC monitor, with a proper graphics card, the Seiki is nothing short of phenomenal. I do a lot of video editing nowadays and it used to be that one needed two monitors in order to edit -not anymore. Throw in a third party calibration program like ColorMunki and create a calibrated profile via your graphics card rather than the Seiki and you have, no BS, a reference caliber 4K monitor on your hands for around $1,500. All that being said, and having used the 50-inch 4K monitor as my PC monitor for a spell, it’s too large for personal computing use, and no it has nothing to do with 4K, pixels or what have you. It’s just too big.

Yes, proponents of 4K will tell you that you can sit mere inches to feet from any respectable 4K display and this is largely true, but just because you can doesn’t always mean you should. With the Seiki resting at the back of my desk, my eyeballs were a scant two and a half to three feet away from what became an enormous 50-inch display. It’s too much. Even with my desktop resolution set to 3,840 x 2,160 and my screen partitioned appropriately the sheer scale of the screen itself proved to be the bigger hurdle -not pixels. Though, almost as soon as I had experienced the 50-inch Seiki as a PC monitor did I begin to pine for its 39-inch 4K sibling at $699 retail. At 39-inches diagonally the smaller Seiki 4K monitor would be near ideal for PC use -especially in an edit bay. Also, for those caught up on the Seiki’s 30Hz restriction when being fed a 4K2K signal, it’s a non-issue for general computing, editing etc. Serious gamers may want for more, but for those who endeavor to do some higher level browsing, HTPC viewing and/or editing the Seiki is more than adequate.

As for movies I stuck with Blu-ray or HD content almost exclusively. Why? Well, SD material doesn’t always look best when upscaled to HD, so asking it to go up from there is only going to embarrass. If you’re one still clinging to a large library of SD material, take the money you would otherwise spend on the Seiki and update your favorite library titles to HD before venturing further, for our impending 4K universe isn’t about to do you or your collection any favors.

Moving on to Blu-ray material I began with the sci-fi action flick, Oblivion (Universal). Again, post calibration, the Seiki was marvelous and when viewed from proper viewing distances -in this case four to eight feet -the image was sharp, bright and “punchy” but still true to the original source material and came close to the standard(s) set by my reference display -Panasonic’s GT Series plasma. Being that the Seiki is an edge-lit LED display there were still some traces of its illumination pedigree, though oddly enough none of them presented themselves in the black bars top and bottom of the screen due to the film’s anamorphic format. In truth the black bars top and bottom of the 2:35.1 image were as black as anything I’ve seen this side of a Kuro. Now don’t go getting your underpants in knots over my mention of Kuro, I’m not implying the Seiki has Kuro-like “black levels,”  just that the bars top and bottom were void of any edge lighting anomalies -when sitting on-axis of course.

Getting back to the image itself, many have chastised the Seiki for possessing average scaling abilities when converting non-4K source material to its panel’s native resolution. Up close and personal I could see where one might come to such a conclusion, however from proper viewing distances the Seiki performs fine. In reality, from distances of 3 or more feet, its upscaling is hard to distinguish from general h.264 compression visible both on the Seiki as well as on my HD monitor used for comparison.

Which brings me to my next point. 4K or UltraHD isn’t magic, it doesn’t “solve” any video problems we currently face with HD content, if anything it stands to suffer as much if not more at the hands of our need for compression. So before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, let’s be crystal clear about what we’re talking about here. I think a lot of folks have the wrong idea about what 4K is and as a result they’re mistaking things that plague any display -4K or not -as being a downside or fault of 4K, which simply isn’t the case. Viewing Oblivion on my reference Panasonic monitor proved as compression filled as via the Seiki, though when I stepped back and viewed both from an appropriate distance, the image, in both instances, was able to be enjoyed. Like I said earlier, just because those who wish to sell you 4K say you can sit as close as you want due 4K possessing four times the pixels, our use of HD-sourced compression schemes render that “promise” somewhat moot.

Focusing less on my Blu-ray disc’s compression and more on the material itself I must admit I was rather impressed. While on-axis, black levels were deep, rich and largely grain free, though they didn’t exhibit the best contrast in low light scenes; favoring absolute black in lieu of 100% smooth transitions. I’ve noticed this in many LED displays, including a few of my reference Vizio displays, so don’t think it’s a fault of only the Seiki. Off-axis, I did note that it was possible for the Seiki’s blacks to exhibit a subtle purple hue, but again, this is not unique to the Seiki but rather most all LED displays. On the flip side, highlights and contrast in the film’s lighter moments was superb. Blooming was nearly non-existent and noise too was kept to a minimum -or at least was appropriate to the source material. On close ups, the Seiki captured and rendered fine textures such as pores and skin brilliantly. Despite lacking full CMS controls, colors appeared natural, or at least true to the source material, with solid definition and delineation throughout -especially for a film like Oblivion who’s color pallet is, largely, tone-on-tone.

Moving on to the film 2012 (Sony), I noted more of the same with regards to the Seiki’s low light, or low level contrast -it was good, but not great. In darker scenes it was easier for me to reconcile h.264 compression anomalies magnified by the Seiki’s need to upscale. It wasn’t wholly distracting, or even the Seiki’s fault, but never the less macroblocking was present. For what it’s worth, it was present when viewed on my Panasonic plasma too. 2012 takes some liberties when it comes to color (what modern film doesn’t nowadays?), even so the Seiki rendered the somewhat hyper-real color pallet with amazing accuracy. Yes the film’s overall color pallet is a touch “crushed” and overly saturated, but it seemed to serve the Seiki quite well. Again, turning off all video aides such as noise reduction, sharpness etc. made for the smoothest, most film-like image in terms of not only motion, but edge fidelity and sharpness as well. Fine details like plumes of smoke and debris from the Yellowstone eruption sequence were captured well and rendered in such a way that even from a distance of 4 to 6 feet I could, maybe, be swayed into thinking there might be some benefit to 4K’s heightened resolution at the Seiki’s 50-inch diagonal size. Emphasis on some.

I wrapped up my HD viewing with Prometheus (20th Century Fox) . The opening sequence was brilliant in its overall portrayal and use of the Seiki’s natural abilities. All of the above mentioned caveats notwithstanding, the image was still breathtaking. Moreover, the waterfall that serves as the prologue’s backdrop was bite the back of your hand gorgeous in its rendering via the Seiki. Color, while cool in tone, did seem to favor blue just a touch more than via my reference displays, but nothing too distracting. Outside of that, motion, noise, artifacts etc. they were all kept to an absolute minimum -or within the realm of the original source -so that the only thing I was left to focus on was the content itself, which is what any display should aspire to do. While some have criticized the Seiki as being a below average or poor example of an LED that just so happens to also be 4K, I would disagree. After calibration -albeit grey scale only -and turning off all video enhancement aides, the Seiki is capable of producing one hell of a pleasing image. One that is every bit as good as some of the best, more affordable players on the market today. While it won’t unseat a Panasonic ZT Series plasma any time soon, it will hold its own against many of today’s current crop of LED displays in one facet or another.

And What About 4K?

I do have in my possession 4K content, both mine as well as some given to me by a couple of my filmmaking friends. I re-encoded some of this content in order for it to be compatible with the Seiki and put it through the display. I had to re-encode for some of the content was of the D-Cinema variety, which falls far outside the scope of what the Seiki, or any existing 4K display available at the consumer level, can accommodate. Remember, the Seiki, along with the LG, Sony and others are but HD displays with 4K or Quad Full HD resolutions. Meaning you cannot send a full 10-bit, non Rec. 709, 4,000 plus pixel image to them -it won’t work. Moreover, should a heightened 4K standard be ratified in the future, it stands to reason displays such as the Seiki as well as costlier options from Sony, LG etc. will not be compatible. Especially if that standard hinges upon a new connector such as HDMI 2.0. This is definitely something to keep in mind though it’s not a deal breaker for the Seiki can be had for under $1,300 whereas its competition routinely retails for $5,000 or more -way more.

But back to the image.

If you’re able to put a true, consumer 4K signal to the Seiki the results are nothing short of astonishing. With scaling (largely) a non-issue and compression kept to an absolute minimum (these are my encodes not some corporate lackey’s) the image put forth by the Seiki is astonishing. My only gripe, again, would be its lack of contrast in low light scenes. Outside of that there is virtually nothing to complain about. I can go on and on, but the Seiki’s true 4K performance isn’t something that is likely going to be seen by many of its owners, as the best most consumers can hope for is a good Blu-ray disc and/or transfer via the 4K display. Which is a shame. Though if any of my pro or prosumer filmmaking friends are reading this, you might want to check the Seiki out for yourself.

Things to Consider

The Seiki 50-inch, 4K display isn’t perfect, nor is it the best LED display on the market today. Yes, when properly calibrated the image put forth by this affordable 4K display can more than impress, however there are other elements to its everyday performance that are less inspiring. For starters the speakers contained within are garbage -truly, crap. If you’re one to occasionally enjoy content via your display’s built-in speakers, you’re not going to want to via the Seiki. Trust me.

Next, the Seiki’s on screen display and menu options are a joke too. While the display can be calibrated -mostly -the methodology and means for which to do so are cumbersome and rudimentary at best. Moreover, the Seiki’s green on green menu just looks like sick.

The Seiki has zero Internet connectivity or streaming features built-in. I didn’t mind this myself as I prefer to use 3rd party devices for streaming, devices such as the $35 Google Chromecast. Those looking for all-in-one solutions when it comes to online content will be left wanting.

The remote is garbage.

Lastly, when a consumer 4K standard is finally ratified and brought to market there is a very real chance the Seiki, like all first generation 4K displays available today, will not be compatible. This means that it (the Seiki) despite its native 4K resolution, is little more than an upscaling HD set now and forever. Yes you can get your hands on 4K resolution HD content (that’s what I call it) and play it back via the Seiki, but this content is going to consist, largely, of screen saver like material and NOT your summer blockbusters. Moreover, unless you plan on watching Blu-ray content exclusively, the Seiki isn’t for you, for even broadcast HD can be rendered unwatchable via the Seiki should the compression be too invasive. Again, not the fault of the Seiki, but rather our existing compression schemes.

Comparable Products

There are a number of 4K/UltraHD displays available to consumers today. Most notable among them are those offered by Sony, which retail for around $5,000 and $7,000 respectively. The Sony displays do a better job in the scaling department to a certain degree, though in many ways suffer the same ailments as the Seiki -only you pay more for them. Moreover, like I mentioned above, should a 4K standard come to market -and it will -the Seiki along with the Sony models will likely be rendered obsolete. So as far as 4K upscaling HD displays are concerned, if you must have one today, my vote would be for the Seiki, if for no other reason than it saves you money. While $1,300 is not completely inexpensive or close to free, it’s not $5,000 plus. Spend a few extra bucks on proper calibration and feed the Seiki a steady diet of the best Blu-rays available today and it will more than satisfy your early adopter cravings.

Conclusion

It’s not that the specialty AV pundits have it wrong, it’s just that I think these early crop of 4K displays are being held to some mythical new standard -one that has literally zero point of reference. 4K/UltraHD is NOT a cure-all, it’s not even something wholly new. For example, when HD displays first came to market, all we had to go off of in terms of judging their quality was our ability to watch SD material (think DVDs) through them. This resulted in an often dizzying array of image quality. HD to 4K is no different. Scaling is all well and good, but you cannot put into an image what isn’t there to begin with. Moreover, compression remains the elephant in the room, and it’s one we will not be asking to leave any time soon. However, rather than see compression for what it is -a destroyer of worlds -we ascribe its faults to what we don’t understand.

The Seiki isn’t a piss poor display, it’s not great, but it’s far from horrid. In many ways it’s like a pro-style monitor, which might explain why I like it. It’s dumb. It is only capable of putting out what you put in. We’ve grown accustomed to AV devices that are akin to unicorns, magical black boxes that seemingly fix everything without us being the wiser. But in our reliance upon such devices we’ve gotten away from understanding the ins and outs of taking a signal from point A to B. The Seiki makes us part of the chain again. It requires you to focus, to put in a bit of time, and if you do, it will reward you.

Out of the box, as a plug-n-play solution I’d say skip the Seiki. But if you’re desperate to be an early adopter, and know that you’re going to have to do some of the heavy lifting yourself in terms of calibration and making sure your source material is up to snuff, well, then the Seiki is the best way to go in my opinion. Sure you can get more bells and whistles with the Sony, LG and Samsungs of the world, but when it comes down to brass tacks, i.e. absolute image quality, under the right circumstances the Seiki will more than hold its own.

If you’re a professional or semi-professional filmmaker looking to dabble in 4K and have a powerful enough machine with the requisite graphics card, than the Seiki 4K/UltraHD display is likely tailor made for you. For everyone else, it’s a truly inexpensive way to see what all the 4K fuss is about.