JVC LT-46FN97 LCD review

It isn't immediately obvious that the JVC LT-46FN97 ($3,499.95) stands out in a sea of new flat panel displays. Its styling is attractive but generic. Its feature set is good though hardly revolutionary. But when I first saw it in action at a JVC line show I knew I wanted to review it. Two other trade shows intervened before I had a chance to spend time with this 46" 1080p LCD set in my own studio, but demos at both shows made me even more anxious to check it out.

East Side, West Side
The jack pack on the rear of the JVC is covered by two removable panels. One panel hides the digital connections, the other the analog. The analog panel is located on the right rear as you face the set and faces the side so that the jacks are easy to access and the leads will not interfere with a wall-mount. Nevertheless, I always recommend that you hook up all of the leads you need, plus any you anticipate needing, before wall mounting any flat panel display.

Something else to keep in mind before wall mounting: There are no camcorder-convenient jacks on either the front or the side; you must use the connections on the rear panel. The only things you'll find on the side of the set are operating controls and a headphone jack.

There is a CableCARD slot near the digital connections. CableCARD facilities are rapidly disappearing from current sets as consumers realize how resistant cable companies are to the concept (they have to offer it, but they don't have to make it easy) and its current lack of interactive features like Pay-Per-View.

There are two RF cable/antenna inputs. The hookup instructions show both of these connected simultaneously from an antenna or cable feed using an external RF splitter. This is fine if you want to receive both NTSC (standard definition) and ATSC (DTV, including high-definition) channels over the air via the set's built-in NTSC/ATSC tuners. But keep in mind that if you use an outboard cable box rather than the set's CableCARD tuner you can't receive cable HD channels using an RF connection from the cable box to the set. Every cable box I know of requires an analog component or HDMI/DVI digital connection to deliver high-definition.

That's not the only aspect of the JVC's input/output complement that isn't entirely clear from the specs. There are two HDMI (HDCP compliant) digital video inputs (Digital-IN1 and Digital-IN2) that can carry both video and audio to the set. In addition, Digital IN-1 also has separate L/R analog audio jacks, which is a bonus if you wish to use a DVI-based source (via a DVI-HDMI breakout cable) with the set's audio system. A menu option allows you to choose between the digital audio carried on the HDMI cable or the analog two-channel audio entering these L/R inputs.

There are three sets of analog video inputs. Each of them also has L/R audio inputs. Video-3 has jacks for component and composite video, only one of which may be used at a time. Video-2 has S-Video and composite video connections and, ditto, you can't use both of them simultaneously.

Video-1 is a so-called Smart Input. If you're using an AV receiver or pre-pro with multiple video sources of various types attached to it, you can run composite, S-Video, and component video cables from the receiver or pre-pro to the set's Video-1 input. When the Smart Input setup mode is engaged, Video-1 will then recognize which input is carrying a signal at any given time and activate that particular connection. You need only select the appropriate input on the receiver or pre-pro; the set does the rest. (According to JVC, not all receivers or pre-pros will work with this feature.)

One limitation of the Smart Input is that it does not include either of the digital video (HDMI) connections in its input recognition set. Another hookup option, and the one I used for most of this review, is to use one of the new AV receivers or pre pros that converts all incoming source inputs to HDMI. I used a Denon AVR-4306 receiver (review in progress) connected to three different sources: an early standard definition ReplayTV tuner/DVR box via composite video, an HD cable box/DVR via component, and DVD/HD DVD players over HDMI. This setup required only a single HDMI run from the receiver to the JVC, with all the video format conversion and switching (but no scaling or deinterlacing) performed by the receiver. While much of my viewing was done this way, I also watched DVD and HD DVD connected directly to the set to insure the quality of the Denon's switching, which appeared to be pristine.

All of the inputs may be relabeled using a fixed set of 10 options, such as VCR, DVR, DVD, GAME, etc. But they cannot be renamed with more specific, unique designations, like JVC DVD, Panasonic Blu-ray, etc.

The JVC also has a Monitor/Recording output with a choice of composite or S-Video outputs, plus L/R analog audio. This output works only with the Video-1 input set, and there are restrictions on what you can record from it. Most significantly, if you are receiving an ATSC/digital cable signal, it may be accessed for recording only from the S-Video or composite output terminals. This means, of course, that you cannot record a high-definition program at full resolution from the set's HD tuner using this output.

But I'm not sure why you'd want to do this. Normally you will use the tuner in a VCR or DVR to record programming for posterity or time-shifting. The set does provide two IEEE 1394 i.LINK connections that may be used to record and play back non copy-protected, high-definition programs using a D-VHS recording deck—a feature offered by few other current sets. The fact that JVC is the only manufacturer with a consumer D-VHS deck in its product line just might have something to do with this. Hopefully, those connections will come in handy when (or if) we get Blu-ray or HD DVD recorders in this country that offer compatible i.LINK inputs and aren't crippled by copy protection thingamajigs.

One important point that may concern some potential buyers is that the LT-46FN97 will not accept a native 1080p signal. The only high definition sources it will accept are 720p and 1080i.

Command and Control
The JVC's on-screen menus offer the usual set of video controls: Tint, Color, Picture (contrast), Bright (brightness), and Detail (sharpness). In addition, a Color Temperature control offers two settings, High and Low.

There is also an Energy Saver Mode, which adjusts the overall brightness of the image over a range of -30 to +30. What this actually appears to be is a backlight adjustment. I found that it produced the most natural, comfortable image when turned down nearly all the way. I used a setting of -25 for most of my tests.

The Color Management feature is said to "Ensure dull colors are compensated to produce natural hues." I saw little or no change when I engaged this on good program material, so I left it Off.

Dynamic Gamma, to quote the manual again, "Makes it easier to see dark areas when a picture has many dark areas, and makes it easier to see the bright areas when the picture has many bright areas." Its effect was subtle, but I left this feature off as well.

Smart Picture "detects the APL (Average Picture Level) and adjusts the contrast suitable for what you are watching." Off again.

Smart Sensor adjusts the brightness depending on the light in the room. You can also turn on a Sensor Effect feature that triggers an indicator on the screen when Smart Sensor is adjusting the brightness. Smart Sensor may be helpful, perhaps, for casual viewing, but I didn't use it in my tests.

Natural Cinema engages 3:2 pulldown, with Auto, On, and Off settings.

There are also a number of those ubiquitous features that all sets offer in one form or other, such as multiple aspect ratios, parental lockout (V-Chip), freeze, and Twin (displays two sources side-by-side on screen).

I never felt the need for video noise reduction on any high-definition or good quality standard definition sources I watched on the JVC, but I did occasionally find the set's two video noise reduction controls useful on mediocre analog cable stations. The Digital VNR has four positions: Auto, Min, Max, and Off. Max produced the best result on those marginal signals, though it did soften image detail. MPEG NR, set simply to On/Off, is said to reduce block noise and mosquito noise together. The MPEG NR control produced no noticeable degradation in the image, but since neither of these MPEG artifacts was ever distracting to me as I watched the JVC, I also turned this feature off.

There are also four selectable video modes: Standard, Dynamic, Theater, and Game. JVC does not refer to these options as modes, however, but rather lists them (oddly) in a menu called Video Status. You can manually change the picture control settings for these "modes," and configure them separately for each input for both HD (720p/1080i) and SD (480i/p).

The Standard, Dynamic, and Game modes were too bright and cartoonish. They also add edge enhancement that can't be dialed out with the Detail control. I can understand why some users might want to select Standard for bright daytime viewing, and it's there if you need it. But Theater produced the most natural-looking image in subdued room lighting.

There's also a separate button called Theater Pro, which is claimed to provide the most accurate color temperature (D6500). That's the setting I used for all of my evaluations and measurements. The Theater setting of the Video Status control, with the Color Temperature control set on Low, appeared to be identical to Theater Pro.

The set's onboard audio system sounds OK for the nightly news, but you'll want to use your outboard home theater audio gear for any serious viewing. The audio controls include the sort of gee-whiz modes that appear on most TVs these days. These include MaxxBass, which sounds gimmicky but actually makes the rather tinny sound of the set's two 1.6" x 6.3" speakers far more tolerable at moderate volume, without adding boom. Smart Sound compresses the audio to limit annoyingly loud commercials, or to let you fall asleep more easily while watching Attack of the Killer Tomatoes on the Late, Late Show.

I wasn't impressed by the JVC's remote control. It's programmable for up to four devices (including the TV). It's illuminated, but the backlighting isn't as useful as it should be. The buttons light up, but most of their functions are designated on the body of the remote, which isn't backlit, rather than on the buttons themselves, which are. There are also too many buttons of identical shape and size. And while the main Menu button is easy to find, a number of important functions may be accessed only through dedicated buttons on the remote that are less prominently positioned. Still, as with most problematic remotes, it wasn't as annoying after I got used to it as it was on first touch.

But there was one major ergonomic nuisance that didn't go away with time: the inputs may not be accessed directly but only by going "around the horn" using the Input button. This is made worse by a one or two second delay when switching from one input to the next. And you can't jump ahead two or three input selections by rapidly pushing the Input button two or three times. The set must lock onto each subsequent input in the chain before it will accept a command to move on to the next.

Setting Up
I live in a difficult reception area, with the line of sight to the transmitter blocked by a mountain ridge (I use an outside antenna with a signal amplifier). The high-definition stations I picked up using the set's on-board ATSC tuner looked pristine, but while I was able to pick up a reasonable range of DTV stations, I could not pick up the local NBC affiliate, Channel 4. Some of the other ATSC tuners I have tested in this location (but not all) have also failed to grab this signal. The JVC's tuner also had a problem with frequent macroblocking breakup on channel 7 (ABC). It also picked up CBS and Fox. For PBS it locked onto channel 28 in Los Angeles and channel 58 in San Bernardino, but not PBS Channel 50 in Orange County, which some tuners I've tested have been able to pick up.

I did all of my critical viewing for this report with the set in its Theater Pro Video Status mode, with the color temperature control set to Low. I wanted to do a full calibration prior to critical viewing, as I normally do, but did not receive workable information from JVC for accessing the service menu in time to make our deadline. Fortunately, the Low color temperature setting was reasonably accurate. I've measured better, but it did not compromise the set's otherwise exceptional performance. If I receive usable service menu access instructions, the calibration results will be posted here in the near future.

Through the Looking Glass
On high-definition cablecasts I was immediately impressed by the JVC's relaxed, natural-looking images. It displayed few of the usual limitations of LCD displays. Its blacks weren't as deep as the best plasma flat panels or microdisplay rear projection sets, but it rarely reminded me that I was watching an LCD. I also watched more than a few football games during my time with the JVC without ever thinking about image blur. Yes, I'm sure it was there, because I did see it on very rapid scrolls across the screen, either horizontally or vertically. It was most obvious on white titles against a black background, but harder to spot on more complex images. In several weeks of viewing, with all types of program material, I rarely gave it a thought.

The JVC's off-axis performance was good. Move much beyond 45-degrees or so and you'll begin to see some pink discoloration (more visible on black and white program material than color). But most viewers will not notice it, particularly if they use the included swivel stand. And neither white field uniformity (which introduces subtle tints to some parts of the screen but not others) nor banding (stair-step transitions from lighter to darker areas and the reverse, when smooth gradations are called for by the source) were obvious. I did see some banding on test patterns, but it was no worse than average for a digital set. False contouring was rare.

What wasn't rare was the overall quality of the image. Yes, really poor analog stations looked two-dimensional and sometimes noisy (though as noted earlier the set's noise reduction helps with this). But good analog stations looked fine, digital standard definition stations often looked very good, and the best high-definition came very close to that "looking out the window" ideal.

The best standard definition DVDs, as they often do on a relatively small screen, challenged high-definition sources in image quality. My favorite test DVD, Charlotte Gray, looked superb. The JVC ran neck and neck with some of the best video projectors I've had in-house with respect to color (slightly glowing greens but no worse than most digital displays), detail, and lack of artifacts and video noise.

Only in its blacks and shadow detail does the JVC come up a bit short. Although the best LCD displays—and this JVC certainly belongs in that category—continue to improve, LCD has more ground to make up than other current digital display technologies before it can challenge the venerable CRT in these characteristics. Nevertheless, I was only rarely distracted by the gray fog that often pops up in dark scenes on digital displays, and LCDs in particular. The opening scenes in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World showed more than a trace of this, but I could still follow the action. As LCDs go, I would rate the JVC's performance on dark scenes as above average, but this is still the set's most noteworthy limitation.

Beyond that, however, I had few complaints. And when I moved on to HD DVD, things turned even shinier. Those who argue that you can't see the superiority of high-definition on a relatively small screen are simply wrong. True, on a relatively small screen you can't see tiny details from a normal viewing distance. But when the entire image is in crisp focus (in contrast to DVD where details at medium and long range are fuzzy), you can sense you are watching that something out of the ordinary. Even at my 10' viewing distance, the best HD DVDs really took off on the JVC.

I've used Phantom of the Opera often in previous reviews. One of the first HD DVDs, it remains one of the most delicately detailed high-definition discs out there. Check out any of the scenes that take place in the grand lobby of the opera house, including chapters 13 or 20. Even the tiniest details you can make out from a typical viewing distance are crisp. True, if you sit too you can see that they look just a little soft, but that's likely a limitation of the source (in a complex chain running back from the pressing plant to the lenses used in the original photography), not the JVC.

The JVC's detail stands up to scrutiny on other HD DVDs as well. Robin Hood looks amazing for a film over 50 years old. The opening titles are so crisp they could have been shot this year. The vivid Technicolor hues pop out of every scene, especially Will Scarlet's bright red accoutrements, cleverly camouflaged against Sherwood Forrest's rich greenery. I doubt if the film looked anywhere near as good in its original theatrical release as it does on the HD DVD/JVC combo. There is some visible noise, but that's understandable given the film's age.

Stereophile editor John Atkinson once referred to images of fish as the videophile equivalent of audiophile recordings. True enough, I suppose, but when they look as good as True Blue, (an HD DVD released by Toshiba in Japan but not available in the U.S.) I'll suffer through it. Not that there is much suffering involved here; this video-sourced material looks stunning on the JVC.

Conclusions With the possible exception of the newest 1080p plasmas just starting to appear- and currently going for twice the price of comparably sized LCDs- the JVC LT-46FN97 is as impressive a flat panel display as I've seen. Two other contenders, the Sony BRAVIA KDL-46XBR2 and the Pioneer Elite PRO-1130HD, were not on hand for a direct comparison. But when both are set up for the best image, the JVC produced slightly deeper blacks than the Sony, with comparable brightness and marginally more accurate color points. But the JVC has a less sensitive HD tuner, less flexible setup controls, an inferior remote, and more mundane styling than the Sony. The Sony will also accept a 1080p source directly. The Pioneer PRO-1130HD plasma has the best blacks and punchiest image of the three sets, plus an outboard processor that may be more convenient in some systems. But it also has a weak HD tuner, bandwidth that's less than the optimum 37.1MHz in HD, lower resolution at 1280x768, and it costs $2,000 more.

Certainly there will be developments down the road that will bring LCD displays closer to the CRT ideal of super inky blacks and super high contrast ratios. But in the world of today's flat panel displays, the JVC LT-46FN97's combination of performance and value is hard to beat.

Highs and Lows

Bright, colorful, sharp image
Good blacks for an LCD
The Smart Input facilitates source hookup and switching

Slow input switching
So-so remote control
Slightly insensitive HD tuner
Will not accept a 1080p source

*** Specifications ***


46" (Diagonal) LCD Flat Panel Television
Reception Format: NTSC, ATSC
Number of pixels: 1920 x 1080
Audio amplifier: 10Wpc x 2
Inputs: Two 75 ohms RF (antenna), three composite (with L/R audio), two S-Video (with L/R audio), two component (with L/R audio), two HDMI (one with L/R audio), PC (analog RGB D-Sub), RS-232, two i.LINK (in/out)
Outputs: TosLink digital audio, Monitor/Recording (S-Video or composite, L/R analog audio), headphones
Dimensions: 44.4" x 30.7" x 13.5" (WxHxD, with stand)
44.4" x 28.5" x 4.9" (WxHxD, without stand)
Weight: 82.5 lbs. with stand, 68.2 lbs. without stand
Power consumption: 286W
Price: $3,499.95

*** Review System ***

Pioneer Elite DV-79AVi DVD player
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player
Scientific Atlanta Explorer 800HD HD cable converter/DVR
ReplayTV standard definition tuner/DVR
Monster and UltraLink HDMI
Tributaries and Monster component

*** Tests and Calibration ***

The JVC performed reasonably well on my usual menu of tests for deinterlacing and scaling. Its performance on the various jaggies tests was only fair. While it was marginally slower in locking onto 3/2 pulldown than some displays we have tested, it did lock on. It displayed some line twitter on a 2:2 pulldown test for video-based (not film-based) sources. But I was never bothered by artifacts with real program material on anything but the worst analog cable sources.

Viewing multiburst luminance response patterns from my AccuPel HDG-3000 test pattern generator revealed that the JVC was essentially perfect out to the maximum frequencies required for 480i (6.75MHz) and 480p (13.5MHz) standard definition in both HDMI and component. It was also good in component 1080i, though a little noise and unevenness was evident on the highest burst (37.1MHz), along with a response that was rolling off visibly at that frequency. The 1080i HDMI multibursts also held up to the 37.1MHz maximum with only a slight unevenness in the highest frequency burst. The 720p bursts, with both component and HDMI, were also excellent, though both showed some rolloff at 37.1MHz (the more so with component than HDMI).

The color resolution was also more than adequate to support the set's fine overall resolution. At a number of resolutions, with both HDMI and component, there was noticeable, non-defeatable edge sharpening visible on vertical lines in a sharpness test pattern (even with the Detail control at its -30 lower limit). This oversharpening was essentially insignificant in the Theater setting, but quite obvious in the Standard, Dynamic, and Game modes.

The RGB color points were comfortably close to the ATSC (high-definition) standard. Green was very accurate, and blue, in particular, closer to the blue-purple of the standard than most displays I've tested.

The JVC would not reproduce below black with an HDMI source, but did do below black in component. It did above white on both HDMI and component. Overscan averaged about 2.5% in all resolutions and in both HDMI and component.

As noted earlier, JVC did not provide workable service menu access information prior to the initial posting of this review. But we have subsequently received it, and have now performed a full calibration. The factory High Color Temperature setting measured close to 8000 Kelvins, the Low setting was comfortably close to the D6500 standard. A red shift dropped the color temperature to under 6500 Kelvins over much of the brightness range, but not enough to be visibly intrusive in normal viewing. But following a full calibration, the set measured even closer to the D6500 standard, apart from a blue shift below 30IRE. The before and after results are now shown in the chart.

I measured the JVC's contrast ratio with several different settings of the Energy Saver Mode (backlight). In all cases the peak contrast was approximately the same. My preferred backlight setting of -25 produced a peak contrast ratio of 636:1 (36.25foot-Lamberts peak white/0.057fL video black). At a backlight setting of zero, the peak contrast measured 677:1, with a peak white level 53fL, but the black level also increased in near lockstep, to 0.079fL. Increase the backlight to maximum, incidentally, and you'll get a contrast ratio of 620:1 and a peak white output of nearly 81fL.

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