Update December 2022: NEC has pulled out of the pro-photo market completely. I now recommend the rival the Eizo ColorEdge CS (or CG with built-in colorimeter) range.
NEC MultiSync PA271Q monitor review – Introduction
With outstanding image quality, the 2560 x 1440 27-inch NEC PA272W is one of my favourite displays. So I was a little discouraged to hear that it was discontinued in all its guises; MultiSync, SpectraView and SpectraView Reference.
My disappointment didn’t last long, however, as NEC has announced a single replacement for all three versions, the MultiSync PA271Q. Typically, there isn’t much between updates though; a new connection standard and perhaps one or two new colour modes for out-of-the-box colour control are usually all that’s different. But, as a completely new model, that’s not the case with the new PA271Q.
For a start, it has a lighter weight body than the series has used previously, more in the vein of the excellent NEC EA275 UHD model. For example, the weight has dropped from a hefty 12.6kg to a far more manageable 9.6kg. Doesn’t sound a lot admittedly, but it means you can easily move the monitor from room to room; and like the EA275 UHD, there’s even a built-in “handle” in the bezel at the back. At the time of writing, it’s not clear if this weight reduction is due to the new panel technology or chassis electronics or both, but it is impressive.
(Update 27/11/2018; my contact at NEC has since confirmed the reduced weight is a direct result of new panel tech and electronics). So let’s take a closer look.
Check price and availability at the following:
WEX Photo (UK) (No longer stocked… )
What is it, and why do you need it?
The NEC MultiSync PA271Q is a 27-inch monitor with a 2560 x 1440 (QHD) 16:9 ratio display. That 16:9 ratio is more in-keeping with video-centric displays – as opposed to the more photo-oriented 4:3 panels of old – but if you’re using Photoshop, or a parametric (RAW) editor like Lightroom or Capture One, with the tools on either side of the image you can maintain a decent size image. With Capture One you can even rearrange the desktop to move the browser from underneath to the side, which is how I have it set up. While it’s a bit of a compromise the more video-centric aspect ratio also naturally means switching between photo apps and video editors is relatively painless.
Wide-gamut monitors like this that cover the Adobe RGB colour space (99% in the case of the PA271Q) are essential for accurate assessment and adjustment of colour when preparing files for any print-based output, such as magazines, sending images to print bureaux or even home-based inkjets. Typical “standard” monitors, even those on fairly recent high-end iMacs (not the latest 2017 models) use the smaller sRGB colour space. This is around 75% of Adobe RGB and is limited by some green and blue hues. If you can’t see all of the colours, how are you going to make accurate colour corrections to your images? Also of interest to imaging professionals is the eciRGB v2 colour space. This is another space that’s suitable for assessing images intended for print as the gamut extends beyond Adobe RGB in cyan, green and red hues.
Monitors like this are also recommended for editing and colour grading video, though you should use a dedicated colour space such as Rec.709, DCI-P3 or Rec.2100 (HLG or PQ) instead, which are all supported via selectable Picture Modes. Besides possessing a wide-gamut high-grade IPS (in-plane switching) display for wide-viewing angles with minimal colour shift, the PA271Q has some other high-end features that aren’t usually found on more accessibly priced monitors.
It features sophisticated chassis electronics that allow you to adjust a wide range of settings for colour, colour temperature, black point, luminance (brightness) and gamma among others. Contrast that with others such as the high-end 5K iMac and iMac Pro which only allow you to adjust luminance (brightness) and means, in short, you can’t calibrate them properly. As colour drifts over time as the display ages, being able to select a wide range of parameters using the chassis electronics is essential for accuracy when re-calibrating. The adjustment of the monitor’s electronics via a colourimeter is called hardware calibration and differs from the more typical software-only calibration used on lesser displays like that used on th 5K iMac. Software-only calibration also uses a colourimeter but instead alters the computer’s video card output and rarely achieves the same accuracy.
In both cases, a display profile is produced which is used by your Mac or Windows system preferences, which in turn is automatically used by your application’s colour management system to reproduce the colours on screen. So long as the display has been accurately described by the profile and the display settings from calibration are maintained, colour-managed applications like Photoshop, Lightroom and Capture One can reproduce those colours consistently. Problems usually arise from non-colour-managed apps, which typically assume an sRGB display is being used.
Like other high-end models, the PA271Q leaves the factory with a calibration certificate showing outstanding colour accuracy. Stability and accuracy are important between calibrations, especially when frequently switching between colour modes. To aid that it has an integrated colour processor and LED backlight sensor that constantly checks and adjusts various settings to maintain that accuracy – in theory increasing the time between calibrations.
There’s also a Uniformity function that compensates for luminance and colour variations in the panel. The effectiveness of this technology varies between make but the high-end NEC panels are second to none.
While it’s probably unnecessary to recalibrate it immediately after unboxing, and it certainly doesn’t look as if it needs it, the PA271Q does have its built-in calibration feature. Alternatively, you can opt for the company’s SpectraView II calibration software for more control. However, SVII is a paid-for extra. In both cases, an optionally available colourimeter is required (but this is an essential option for colour accuracy at any level).
As already mentioned the PA271Q is lighter than many previous models, and is as a result much easier to move around and set-up. The stand has a good range of movement left and right and plenty of adjustment of the height, and when tilting. Another high-end feature meant for viewing vertical images is the ability to rotate the panel through 180-degrees (make sure it’s a full height first and tilted back) – so you can add the power and connection cables.
It has a thin bezel and the stand and cable management have been simplified. Presumably, the weight doesn’t shift so much as previous models when raised, so it doesn’t have to protrude to the rear. That makes it look a lot smaller and means you can place it closer to a wall, freeing up desk space. On the desk, it doesn’t have the monolithic presence of its predecessor or of rivals like the Eizo ColorEdge displays. There are no DVI-D ports, they’ve been dropped in favour of two full-size DisplayPorts (DP), one IN for connection to a Mac or PC, the second is OUT for daisy-chaining a second monitor. Further future-proofing is provided by the USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) port which supports a single cable connection for video, audio and the USB hub.
Cables include DisplayPort, MiniDisplayPort to DisplayPort and full-size HDMI. But there’s no USB-C cable supplied, so if you’re using a modern Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) enabled Mac, such as the later 5K iMac, iMacPro or the new Mac mini, you’ll have to get a Thunderbolt 3/USB-C (USB 3.1 Gen 2) cable, not the USB-C ‘charge cable’. Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 USB-C to Thunderbolt 2 Adaptor doesn’t support direct connection but when connected via a (powered) Thunderbolt 2 hub (actually a G-Tech G-RAID Studio) and using the supplied mini DP (Thunderbolt 2) to DP cable, it worked perfectly fine.
A USB-3 cable is also supplied in case additional data/control is required from the computer, especially for the built-in hub and audio – it has two small in-built speakers – if the USB-C connector isn’t used. Two USB upstream ports are provided to supplement the DisplayPort connections, so you can connect two computers such as Mac and PC with just one keyboard and mouse and switch between them. At the time of writing, I’ve not tried this, so can’t confirm how well this works.
The built-in hub is a major plus for photographers in the studio, or even when used in an office.
A hub is located on the right-hand side and is easily accessible. Besides having three USB 3.1 ports for charging a phone, connection to a keyboard or card reader etc, the PA271Q has a mini DP IN port to connect a Mac (or PC) with a TB 2 cable rather than using one of the other ports underneath. In addition, there are two HDMI ports for direct connection of suitably equipped PCs or cameras – the latter of which is useful for monitoring or playback of video capture or Live View. There’s also the SENS/MEM port – a dedicated USB port for the NEC colourimeter or third-party devices for the self-calibration feature.
Once connected the monitor has a physical power switch to isolate it from the mains. This is located on the right side and is more easily accessible than the usual under the bezel of rivals. There’s a row of touch-sensitive buttons used to power on, navigate the OSD, and direct access to most-used features including the Picture Modes, though most if not all of the contents are also accessible using the free-to-download Multi Sync profiler app. Navigation of the OSD is slicker than most but the app is preferred for more complex tasks.
In either case, several Picture Modes allow quick access to several photo and video industry standard colour spaces so you can predict what your output will look like in them.
As a photographer, you’re unlikely to switch between these that often, though if you’re a filmmaker you likely will. Typically, as a photographer, you’ll be using the Full mode, which will use the full or native gamut of the monitor and is the most suitable with imaging editing apps in a colour-managed workflow. Nevertheless, you might want to check images intended for the web in sRGB and edit or playback video clips in some of the others such as REC709 and the still relatively uncommon DCI (P3) colour space. Editing video in the native gamut of the display is likely to lead to oversaturated clips.
Each mode is adjustable, typically to alter the monitor’s colour temperature to match the lighting that the print is intended to be viewed under and/or the brightness of the ambient lighting to match the monitor. So for example, if you want to drop the 160 cd/2 of Adobe RGB down to 120 cd/m2 you can do so easily, as the Luminance (or Brightness) has its own touch-sensitive button and is thus directly adjustable from the bezel. Although it’s not clear from the monitor’s documentation when using the profiler app the ICC/ColorSync profile is generated every time it’s changed. If you want the preset modes left untouched there are several custom Picture Mode options in the profiler app which could be used instead.
The free-to-download software is feature rich and further exploration of it is required. It may be possible to include a review of this and/or NEC’s SpectraView II profiler software at a later date.
The self-calibration feature doesn’t require a computer to be attached, which is especially useful if you’re pairing it with only a laptop. However, you will need a colourimeter. As far as I can tell, the auto option appears only compatible with the NEC colourimeter, available at extra cost (£TBC / $299 at B&H, including the SpectraView II software). A dedicated USB SENS/MEM port in the display’s hub to the side (see above) is used exclusively for self-calibration, which is a nice feature. I couldn’t locate my X-rite i1Pro (on which the NEC colourimeter is based) but fortunately, I also have a Datacolor Spyder4, and that is compatible when used in the manual self-calibration mode. There’s no documentation to assist with this but it’s easy enough to work with. There are no target values, however, and the calibration is purely a measuring exercise.
In addition to this, the PA271Q can be calibrated using a wide number of third-party software solutions, including that bundled with the Datacolor Spyder4. That said, Datacolor has not updated its software for macOS 10.13 and thus it doesn’t have the option to select the high-end AH LED (GB-R) type backlight found on this monitor. I like the Datacolor software application, but it doesn’t automatically set the display’s settings – you have to enter them manually to as close as you can. After calibration, the software measured the gamut as 99% of Adobe RGB – the same value that this monitor is claimed to be capable of by NEC. I didn’t have access to the SVII calibration software, which is also compatible with the excellent Spyder4 and which provides both target values and presumably automated adjustment of the display’s parameters.
Unless you can access the self-calibration option though – you would be better served to make these adjustments via the SVII app, as you would be able to verify the calibration accuracy before making any changes to the settings.
NEC has designed the PA271Q to appeal to photographers and occasional filmmakers. Of course, there are 4K and 5K panels, such as those used in the 5K iMac and iMac Pro – I’ve used them since they were introduced, and I’m on my second with an iMac Pro and I’m not convinced the extra resolution is useful for determining focus accuracy. High res 4K and 5K screens tend to make everything look good, though to be fair you can use them to quickly see which are okay (or rather which aren’t, and are out of focus). For considered accuracy though, you can’t beat a high-end display like that found on PA271Q and especially as this one has a superbly sharp image. Earlier models had an aggressive anti-reflection coating which imparted a grainy-looking image. The PA271Q on the other hand has a much-improved coating with excellent suppression of reflections from light sources and the sharpest image of this pixel density I’ve seen.
From Spyder4’s test data, it also has excellent colour accuracy and outstanding colour and luminance uniformity. Although not cheap exactly and to get the best from it you might want to consider the SVII software, the PA271Q is, without a doubt, a superb choice. If you’re wondering if NEC is going to introduce a Spectraview variant, which includes a hood, usually an additional warranty on the backlights, SVII utility and a bump in price, you’re just going to have to wait and see. (Update, 27/11/2018: my contact at NEC has confirmed that this monitor will not be available as a SpectraView variant, however a hood, colourimeter and SVII software will be offered separately). If you’re reading this in the US, the choice is probably far easier than in the UK, as its rival Eizo ColorEdge CS (or CG with built-in colourimeter) range equivalent is far pricier for very similar image quality.
More information about the monitor is available from the NEC display solutions website.
Check price and availability at the following:
WEX Photo (UK) (No longer stocked… )
Disclosure. This monitor was provided by NEC Display Solutions (UK) for review and was returned.