Samsung may be top dog in the global TV market, but it’s still rankled by the fact that it’s not truly regarded as a high-end brand. Despite critical plaudits and mass-market success, its moniker isn’t bandied around as a premiere league name. Samsung doesn’t resonate the way Ferrari or Dunhill does. But it has a plan to change all that - and that plan has a number: nine.
To change people’s perceptions, the Korean giant has decided to produce money-no-object home entertainment products in the shape of the 9 Series. The first fruit of this audacious initiative is the 9000 Series LED TVs, of which the UE55C9000 is reviewed here. It’ll be joined shortly by the 9 Series HT-C9950W 7.1 home theatre package, a gleaming confection of titanium speakers, 3D Blu-ray and digital amplification. These nines purport to embody Samsung’s finest proprietary technology and no-compromise design aesthetics.
The 55-inch UE55C9000 (also available as a 46-incher) is certainly a spectacular example of cutting edge TV design. Impossibly thin at just 7.98mm, with a slim brushed-grain bezel, this sliver of a set is unquestionably beautiful. The rear of the panel is just as eye-catching as the front, with no ugly ventilation grilles to spoil its lines and a chrome bulge which joins the screen to stand.
The stand itself is actually far more than just a pedestal. It houses the speakers (rated at 2 x 15W) which fire forward from the front rim, and also functions as a connection hub. Given how slim this stand is, a bunch of fiddly adaptors are supplied for connecting Scart, phono AV, Component, Ethernet, etc. Around the side of the stand are USB ports, for media playback or adding a Wi-Fi dongle if a wired network connection isn’t available or desired.
The feature specification is extremely good. The set has extensive multimedia playback support (JPEG, MP3, DivX, MKV and AVI), is DLNA compliant and offers access to Samsung’s fast-growing Internet@TV online portal, which now has such diversions as YouTube, BBC iPlayer, Lovefilm and assorted apps.
Picture quality is rarely less than ravishing. The panel itself is preternaturally sharp. Still images have a ruthless clarity that’s quite mesmerising. Colour vibrancy is bold and there’s a well-like blackness to its images which creates tremendous depth. We’re not sure TV and movies are meant to zing quite as loudly as they do with this set, but for sheer eye-candy it’s difficult to beat.
The pencil-thinness of the screen has been achieved through edge-LED backlighting. Given the size of the panel, the light distribution is reassuringly even. Greyscale performance is excellent and deinterlacing is extremely good. To protect your retinas we’d advise you set brightness no higher than 45.
While all Full HD LCD screens look sharp with static or slow moving images, they lose a good deal of fine detail during movement. We’re not talking about the comet tails and image blur that used to afflict first generation LCD panels, but the subtle loss of clarity that can come from even modest amounts of motion. This panel suffers less than most in this regard.
The UE55C9000 has a variety of picture processing modes to protect motion picture resolution, including LED Motion Plus and variable high frame rates, up to 240Hz on 60Hz sources and 200Hz on 50Hz. Using a motion resolution test pattern developed by the Advanced PDP Development Centre, we noted a drop-off in sharpness at 6.5ppf (pixels per frame) from 1080 lines to between 850-950. Not too shabby.
Obviously, 3D will be a key attraction for many buyers. The screen is compatible with all current 3D formats: Full HD 3D Blu-ray, side-by-side Sky 3D and some other modes you’ll never need. We auditioned the screen with a selection of 3D Blu-ray movies (not that there are that many), Sky 3D and gaming in the shape of the Avatar Xbox 360 game.
The initial impression (certainly from friends and family who viewed this set) was that its 3D effect is a wow. Stereoscopic images are extremely bright and colour fidelity is robust, given the filtering that occurs from the Active Shutter glasses. While the 3D Blu-ray standard delivers 60Hz to each eye, a 120Hz refresh rate for LCD is just too slow. So Samsung doubles this to 240Hz, and embellishes it with a technique called Dual Black Insertion.
While other brands double LCD refresh to 240Hz by running a left/left/right/right image sequence, Samsung inserts a black frame (so we get left/black-frame/right/black-frame etc) to reduce image retention and improve image definition.
Side-by-side formats look fine but its Blu-ray images which have the greatest tangible depth. That said, crosstalk is an obvious issue (as indeed it is on all of Samsung’s 2010 3D screens). Crosstalk occurs when part of an image intended for one eye leaks into the other, creating a slight ghosting. With fast moving material this is often impossible to spot, but high contrast verticals (usually buildings) are a dead giveaway.
Is this a deal breaker? Probably not. While TV manufacturers and creators like James Cameron insist that in time all our content will be viewed in 3D, we have no intention of spending our entire TV viewing time behind uncomfortable glasses. We suspect we’re not alone.
3D addicts starved of real 3D content can also take advantage of the set’s 2D-to-3D conversion. This takes regular video content and adds faux dimensionalisation. What we have here is probably the best 2D conversion process currently available. It’s a totally unpredictable process, but seems to work better with HD source material.
Samsung has taken a slightly different approach to creating fake 3D. Instead of dividing an image vertically, and placing the bottom segment to the foreground, treating the middle as mid-distance and top as far distance, it uses a high-intensity algorithm based on depth processing. This divides a 2D image into 96 segments which are individually analysed for depth. The resulting data soup is then used to create the stereoscopic image. It should be noted that the process creates thin vertical black bars, left and right.
As impressive as the UE55C9000 is, we do have some reservations. If there’s one aspect of the 9000 Series which doesn’t convince it’s the touchscreen remote. It’s an ambitious replacement for the standard zapper which can link via Wi-Fi to display streaming media and TV channels. But the simple fact is it’s just a monumental pain to use. The screen itself is frustrating to operate: it’s all too easy to hit the wrong command. It’s also excessively power hungry. In general viewing it doesn’t have the stamina to last a day and invariably spends most of its time recharging via a USB wall wart. After just a couple of days we predict you’ll be desperate to wield a traditional remote handset. Indeed, we feel strongly that Samsung should have bundled a simple remote control with the screen as an option.
The UE55C9000 is a head-turner of a TV. Exquisitely made, and blessed with Samsung’s most advanced picture technology, it’s much more than just another big 3D telly. For the market-leading Koreans this is a statement product - and comes with a price tag to match. In truth, the screen isn’t flawless, its 3D performance is compromised by crosstalk and the touchscreen remote is a spectacular fail. But to carp is to miss the point. While every other TV manufacturer is aiming low, Samsung has reached high. Awesome job, guys.