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As I’ve mentioned in the NEC SpectraView 1980 review, a DeltaE value of one is considered a perfect calibration i.e. there is no difference between the CIE L*a*b* colour space and the colours reproduced by the monitor. In this case the average DeltaE value comes in at 0.99 which on paper looks very good. However, whether or not this figure should be taken as the be all and end all is debatable as I know that some people in the colour industry regard the CIE L*a*b* colour space to be an out-of-date reference.
Anyway, what I can’t ignore are my eyes and they tell me that the Reference 21 is a monitor whose colour accuracy, richness, smoothness and quality are simply sublime. In use there’s virtually no colour shift or banding and as for the trusty DisplayMate tests there was little evidence in the test screens of anything untoward. Colour scales were smooth and the 256 greyscale test can only be described as a very even ramp from black to white and vice versa. As for my test images shot with my digital SLR using the Adobe RGB colour space, I could clearly make out subtle nuances in colour tone and detail especially in shadow and highlight areas. Colours were strong and well saturated, but not overly vibrant or garish.
Furthermore, test prints produced in a fully calibrated workflow were very close to the Adobe RGB captured images viewed on the screen. After playing around with the Reference 21 for several days I was left in no doubt that it was the best colour performance I’d seen in an LCD monitor to date. It’s certainly one of the best displays on the market for pre-press proofing and I’m sure that it will kick-off a spate of LED backlight, full-size LCDs in the coming years. (In fact, keep an eye out in the shops for large format LCD TVs that are directly lit (no light guide) by LEDs.
I’m not going to dwell too much on the Reference 21’s design as it pretty much echoes what we’ve seen in NEC displays before it. In fact, both the panel and the design are largely based on NEC’s 2180UX. Both use a SuperAdvanced SuperFine IPS (In-Plane Switching) TFT panel and the chassis shares that same angular design that I’ve come to like, but others may disagree. The Reference 21 is quite heavy at 18.3Kg probably due to the weighty light guide, but its footprint is certainly smaller than a 21/22in CRT. Like its stable mate, the screen has a narrow bezel measuring just 19mm, the base has an integrated swivel plate and the screen can be tilted and pivoted. However, performing the latter was somewhat hampered by the stand’s fixed height making it easy to knock the corner of the casing against the desk top. Connectivity is covered by two DVI-D ports and cables can be stowed behind that familiar cover that clips into the back of the stand. The power supply is integrated and a DVI-to-DVI cable is supplied.
The similarity in design also extends to the OSD controls and menu system. Eight buttons cover power, a factory reset, a select button that also switches between the inputs, two pairs of select and adjust buttons and an exit button. With these you can adjust the brightness, picture position, video signal priority and the OSD’s horizontal and vertical position. Five colour temperature presets as well as an sRGB and of course an Adobe RGB mode can be selected along with another labelled “P” which is used to select the colour settings that were configured during calibration. Impressively, the Reference 21’s colours can also be adjusted over 6-channels - red, green, blue, yellow, cyan, and magenta. Even saturation and hue levels can be tweaked which is quite a rare feature.
So as this monitor gets reboxed, I have some time to sit down and reflect on what I’ve just tested and reviewed. One thing is for sure. This NEC Reference 21 is a big step toward hammering that last nail in the CRT coffin, especially when we’re talking about colour performance and form factor. Granted, at just under £3,000 per unit I’m sure many professionals will stick with the old, yet faithful CRT. However, as LED backlight technology matures and prices fall this is probably going to be the way forward.
In my opinion, NEC has invested wisely when it created the Reference 21. By combining two technologies that carry with them obvious benefits, NEC will surely reap the rewards. The LED backlight with its wide colour gamut capability, robustness, controllability and eco-friendliness combined with the smaller footprint and functionality of a high-end LCD is a recipe that the NEC Reference 21 has got just right - albeit one with a fat price tag.
Scores In Detail
- Image Quality