(Pocket-lint) - The Ultra HD Blu-ray player market is maturing, with 2017 serving up more choices than 2016 for a format that's still very new. As we move beyond the realms of the early adopter and into the mainstream, manufacturers are at a crossroads: go high-end, or go for value.
At one extreme there's the excellent Oppo UDP-203 which packs in a premium audiophile experience; at the other extreme players like the Panasonic DMP-U400 strip away the extras to give you disc playback at a much more aggressive price point.
The Samsung UBD-M9500 finds itself sliding into the middle of this arrangement: a balance of performance at a price that's dropped considerably since its announcement.
Where the M9500 really wins is in the user experience, making it one of the best players on the market to actually use.
Samsung UBD-M9500 review: Design and remote
- Curved design
- Front LED display
- Premium finish
The UBD-M9500 is very much an evolution of the K8500 player from 2016, sticking with the most distinctive feature of Samsung's Ultra HD Blu-ray player: its curved design.
This curve only serves to make the player look different - a throwback to Samsung's push on curved TVs and accessories that has now fizzled out somehwat - in a visually striking form that's more exciting than the norm. On one hand that makes this player a little more interesting to look at, on the other, it adds curves to a box that's surrounded by squared siblings. There's little uniformity once you stack the M9500 alongside your AV receiver or set-top boxes.
The addition of a small LED display in the centre of the front-top edge adds a little additional interest - it displays a "hello" to you when you turn it on and a "bye" when you turn it off. How personable. Otherwise, there are two touch buttons on the front (two fewer than the previous model): one for power, one to open the disc tray.
The player's included remote control is very much in the current Samsung style: a slim, curved smart remote that's visually very similar to the smart remote you get with most Samsung TVs (excluding the flagship QLED family). It includes some controls for your TV, as well as the playback and navigation controls you'll need for the UHD Blu-ray player.
If you're using a recent Samsung TV - we tested it with the Samsung QLED Q7 and Samsung MU7000 - then you'll find that, on connection, the TV will recognise the player and you'll have control through the TV's regular smart remote too.
There are some advantages to using the supplied remote, as it gives you faster access to some options and makes it easier to know which Samsung devices you're controlling.
Samsung UBD-M9500 review: Connections and setup
- 2x HDMI (one dedicated to audio)
- 1x optical audio
- Wi-Fi and Ethernet
The HDMI options will be familiar to those looking at Ultra HD Blu-ray players, with a second HDMI connection designed to let you pipe off an audio line if you don't want it all routing into your TV. In a basic setup this might be unnecessary, but for those with an older AV receiver that might not offer 4K passthrough, it means you can run HDMI audio to your receiver and the visuals direct to your 4K TV.
For those with audio equipment that doesn't offer HDMI there's optical audio too, so you have a choice in how you set things up. Many, we suspect, will be happy with taking video and audio over the one HDMI.
In this super-connected world, however, it's not just the local optical discs that the M9500 is interested in playing. The provision of Wi-Fi and Ethernet means you have choices for how you connect your player to the internet. Aside from the obvious ability to then update the player's software, this opens the door to a full range of connected features and services.
We've often been a little disparaging of this offering, as if you have a 4K HDR TV then you almost certainly have those smart services on that TV too. But, if you're looking to get yourself something that will give you Netflix and Amazon Video amongst other services, then you'll find it all here too.
On connection there's little to do in terms of setup (ensuring you've enabled the HDMI you've connected it to on your TV to cope with the 4K HDR signal you're going to be feeding it), but there are some settings that relate to playback. Aside from managing things like the audio decoding - it supports Dolby Audio and DTS-HD Master Audio so you can decode in the player or pass that through to another device to decode - there are also some picture settings.
This is an interesting option, especially in the world of HDR (high dynamic range) where everything is supposed to be "as the director intended" and pass unsullied to your TV. Nevertheless, you have the option to change the brightness, noise reduction and sharpness in a custom picture mode. The advantage that this offers is that you can change these settings without necessarily having to change the settings on your TV.
Many TVs will let you change the settings for each input. You might already be perfectly happy with how your TV looks and the option on the player means you can change the output without having to fiddle with the TV. We fired up Saving Private Ryan on Blu-ray and a few notches on the noise reduction helped to cut back some of that grain, so this is a useful option to use on an ad-hoc basis.
Samsung UBD-M9500 review: Performance
- No Dolby Vision support
- Superb playback
- Fast and quiet in operation
Ultra HD Blu-ray sits at the top of the performance tree when it comes to 4K HDR playback. Although Netflix and other streaming services will give you both 4K and HDR, choosing an optical disc gives you the best result, both in terms of picture and audio quality, as well as doing away with the need for variable bitrates or buffering.
The only caveat to that at this stage is Dolby Vision isn't supported by Samsung's player and you'll probably want the Oppo or LG player if DV is high on your list (remember you'll need a compatible TV too, as well as some source materials which will be available in 2017).
With all that said, the Samsung M9500 is an excellent Ultra HD Blu-ray player, affording wonderful crisp detail and HDR punch that drags you into the new generation of home entertainment.
The player is reasonably quiet, but there is some audible disc noise and minor whirr from the rear cooling fan. During quiet scenes of The Revenant, it's this background hum you can just about hear, although we wouldn't say it's much a problem - it's certainly quieter than the Xbox One S.
It's also worth noting that the M9500 is fast in operation too. We've found that Panasonic's players seem to be rather slow in terms of just powering on and off, and this Samsung player has no such problems.
Samsung UBD-M9500 review: Streaming services and a wonderful UI
- Mirrors Samsung's 2017 TVs
- Fast interface
- Netflix, Amazon Video and other services
One of the things that Samsung has put a lot of time and attention into over the past few years in the user interface (UI). This runs on Samsung's Tizen platform and on the M9500, the UI matches that of the company's latest TVs.
It uses a ribbon across the bottom of the screen to present large thumbnails for major functions - like Amazon Video, Netflix, BBC iPlayer or YouTube - with the ability to quickly skip across to the service you want with instant access.
Previously in this review we mentioned that it helps to use the Blu-ray player's remote if you have a Samsung TV as it gives a better sense of cohesion. Pressing the home button on the remote opens the ribbon for the respective device and as they both look similar, this can be confusing. It's a minor point that might not matter, but could save some fiddling around if your whole entertainment system is Samsung-powered.
The other thing that this ribbon offers is quick access to some of the most pertinent settings. You can access the picture and audio settings quickly and easily, so you can almost instantly decide how you want the audio decoding to happen. Compare that to some other players where you have to dig several layers deep into a clunky menu and Samsung offers an experience that's clearly more enhanced and much more enjoyable to use.
Finally there's the all-important "tools" button on the remote. When pressed during playback, this opens a side menu that will give you some other functions specific to the playback of the title you're watching. The top option is "information" and it's here where you can tap the button and get a readout of the video and audio formats, so you can quickly see you've got things set correctly to be watching 4K HDR with your preferred audio format.
What all this amounts to is a major "win" in the usability department: if you're after an Ultra HD Blu-ray player that will provide a genuine upgrade to the connected functionality in your living room and offer a better user experience than your older or other brand TV, then the M9500 succeeds in doing that where some players don't, making this a first-class choice.
While user experience is important, you do now have more choices for players than in 2016. If you're happy with your connected TV experience for things like Netflix and Amazon Video, then you can find players that are as good in playback as the Samsung that you might be able to get for cheaper - like Panasonic's lower-spec players, or indeed the older Samsung K8500.
Samsung launched the M9500 at a slightly lofty £500 price point, which has now tumbled to around £349 at John Lewis, or under £300 from Amazon, making this player a lot more appealing than it was previously.
The alternatives to consider
Last year's player is similarly elegant and a little less cash too. If you're looking for an even better value bargain then this could be it.
Read the full article: Samsung K8500 review
If it's top end that you want, then it's top end you shall have. The Oppo player is pricey, but it handles audio and image quality with more command than any other player on the market today.
Read the full article: Oppo UDP-203 review
If it's more affordable that you're after then this Panasonic comes in at sub-£300. Sure, there's no curve like the Samsung, but if you're only hiding the player away then such visual appeal might not matter. Although we do far prefer Samsung's user interface - Panasonic's is very basic by comparison.
Read the full article: Panasonic DMP-UB400 review