At CES 2014, Vizio made a huge splas h with its Reference Series of LCD TVs, which boasted LED FALD (full-array, local dimming) backlighting and—most importantly—Dolby Vision high dynamic-range (HDR) capability. Since then, videophiles have been clamoring for news about when the Reference Series will be available, but Vizio has maintained complete silence.

Yesterday, I attended Vizio's 2015 product showcase in Manhattan, and there it was—the Reference Series in all its glory. The Reference is a 120 Hz, 384-zone FALD LCD that supports Dolby Vision HDR. Available in two sizes—65" and 120"—it features an expanded color gamut that fully encompasses the DCI-P3 specification and covers 70% of the BT.2020 gamut.

When I last saw Vizio 's flagship TVs in 2014, their impressive image quality stood above the competition's offerings—in fact, many observers (including me) proclaimed it the best picture at CES that year. However, those TVs were only prototypes. When they went missing for over a year, some people lost hope that Vizio would ever ship the Reference—some even called it vaporware. However, that notion can now be laid to rest. The Reference TVs I saw at yesterday's event used production parts and panels. I witnessed the same excellent image quality that first impressed me in Vegas.

This time around, the footage on display was the format Vudu plans to stream later this year. It was only near the end of the event that I discovered the bitrate: 15 Mbps, lower than I expected it to be. Regardless, the Dolby Vision encoding held up quite well on the 120-incher, even when viewed close up, and it looked practically perfect on the 65-inch Reference.

Warner Brothers is the first studio to remaster movies for Dolby Vision, Vudu is the first streaming service to announce that it will stream the format, and Vizio's Reference UHDTVs are the first to support Dolby Vision. It's the first time I've seen a stream that unquestionably beats Blu-ray quality. In my opinion, Vizio trumped its TV-industry rivals by showing multiple movies in Dolby Vision, all encoded for Vudu streaming.
Edge of Tomorrow, Man of Steel, Into the Storm, and The Lego Movie are all slated for release on Vudu in Dolby Vision. Vizio's demos featured clips from all four.
One demo occurred in a totally dark room—even the walls were black. There were three TVs—a 65" Reference sat in the middle; to its left was a 65" Samsung HU8550, and to its right was a 60" Pioneer Kuro. The HU8550 and the Kuro showed BT.709-graded footage, while the Reference played the same material mastered in Dolby Vision.

The result was the most compelling HDR demo I've seen to date. The Lego Movie benefited tremendously from the added pop afforded by HDR and an expanded gamut. And despite the very dark viewing environment, the HDR presentation did not cause any eyestrain—it simply looked better than the BT.709 displays.

The Kuro looked accurate, with deep blacks and great motion—but it also looked a bit dim. The Samsung HU8550 produced a decent image, but with compromised black levels compared to the Reference 65" sitting beside it. Neither BT.709-calibrated TV could match the vibrancy of Dolby Vision-encoded content—it's beyond their capability.
These images are deliberately exposed in a manner that captures the extra dynamic range found in the highlights of the Dolby Vision version.
I asked about how the Reference would handle HDR content other than Dolby Vision, Vizio's Chief Technology Officer Matt McRae said it'll have no problem with that content because Dolby Vision's requirements match or exceed what other HDR formats might offer. What matters is the Reference will handle other HDR formats thanks to its bright 384-LED FALD backlight and 10-bit video handling.
In this unusual demo, Vizio took away the optical layers to reveal the backlight in a Vizio Reference and a Samsung HU8550.
The Reference uses VA (vertically aligned) LCD panels that exhibited very good contrast when viewed head on; as with other VA LCDs, contrast and saturation drop when viewed from off axis. But the upshot is notably deep blacks when seated in the optimal spot—not as deep as the Kuro in the comparison, but deep enough to provide a satisfying dark-room viewing experience.

Needless to say, even if you buy an HDR-capable UHDTV, you'll spend a lot of time watching non-HDR content, at least until more HDR content is made available. Of course, it helps to have 384 local-dimming zones, but one area I was particularly curious about was motion resolution. According to Vizio, the Reference offers BFI (black-frame insertion) as a separate function from motion estimation (aka frame interpolation, which causes the soap opera effect).

UHD/4K requires a fast data connection. The Reference Series comes with 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi to make sure UHD/4K content streams smoothly. In addition to Vudu, apps that support 2160p streaming include Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, UltraFlix, and Toon Goggles.

Of course, the big questions were: When will the Reference Series be available, and how much will each model cost? Unfortunately, Vizio did not reveal any answers to either question, except to say they will be available sometime this year. Yeah, we've heard that before—at CES 2014! It's tremendously frustrating to know that such a capable UHDTV is being developed but not know when it might be available to buy. Hopefully, it won't be another year and a quarter before we can report a delivery date and pricing.

If early impressions are any indication, Vizio's Reference Series will live up to its name. When it comes to specs, it is one of the most capable HDR-capable LED-FALD LCD UHD/4K TVs on the market. Over a year in hiding has not diminished its appeal one bit. The only difference is now it has some competition, especially in the Samsung SUHD TVs. Nevertheless, the Reference has some of the best specs out there, especially with 384-zone FALD and full coverage of DCI-P3. Will it claim the title of top-performing LCD? Only time will tell—and I hope it's not too much more time!