Looking back at Samsung's debut QLED tellies from last year, it's hard not to think that they came out a year too soon. They were eye-wateringly expensive, and their use of only edge-based LED lighting ultimately seemed to sell the potential of Samsung's new metal-clad Quantum Dot technology short.

All of which puts some serious pressure on the Q9FN: the first of Samsung's second-generation QLED models to arrive in our test rooms. Can the 2018 set make QLED technology the OLED-beater that Samsung seems so convinced it can be?

Design

  • 4x HDMI in, 3 x USB Multimedia Port
  • LAN and Wi-Fi network options

However much the Q9FN might challenge and even surpass OLED in some respects, it's no rival on the design front. Not least because while OLED TVs tend to sport physics-challengingly thin rear ends, the Q9FN has one of the chubbiest butts around.

It has a good excuse for this in the shape: its direct LED lighting system, which back-illuminates the whole picture. But having a relatively large rear isn't really a big deal if a TV is being used on a desktop stand. Wall mounters, though, may find the Q9FN will stick out more than they feel comfortable with.

The rest of the design news is all good, though. For instance, while the rear of the screen may be deep, the frame wrapped around it is impressively slim. It angles back toward the screen, too, exaggerating the barely-there look.

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Even better, thanks to a new external connections box that now also incorporates the TV's power transformer, only a single cable runs into the screen. This cable is fatter than the near-invisible AV cable used to attach the external connection box on last year's QLED models, but most people will prefer a single slightly wider cable to last year's two separate power/AV cables.

The external connections box has grown immensely to incorporate the power supply and a fanless cooling system. But you can just pop it on a shelf of your AV rack or TV stand like you would any other external gear.

One last key design element of the Q9FN is its new Ambient Mode. Accessible via a dedicated button on Samsung's elegant new button-lite smart remote control, the Ambient Mode addresses the issue where TVs usually just leave a great big black hole in your wall when you're not watching, by letting you fill the screen with either a digitised artwork from either a selection built into the TV, or one of your own photos.

You could even potentially take a photo of the wall the TV is sitting against, and use that photo as the Ambient Mode screen saver, to truly minimise the extent to which the TV damages your decor.

The Ambient Mode runs in a low power mode so that design-conscious folk won't, hopefully, run up vast bills because they're not fully switching their TV off as often.

Full backlight quality

  • HDR Support: HDR10, HDR10+, HLG
  • Processing engine: Samsung Q Engine

The changes Samsung has introduced for its first 2018 QLED TV don't just improve on 2017's QLED picture quality; they transform it.

While all of 2017's QLED TVs used edge LED lighting, where the lights sit around the edge of the screen, the Q9FN switches to direct LED lighting, where the lights sit directly behind the screen. That's why it's a bit chunkier.

This lighting array matters because the direct lighting approach consistently delivers deeper, more consistent black colours and brighter, more contrasty whites - two essential ingredients in a good high dynamic range (HDR) performance.

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Just as importantly, Samsung has partnered the direct lighting with local dimming, where different sectors of the lights can output different amounts of light at any given moment. Again, experience suggests that this should have a transformative effect on the 9FN's contrast - especially as its number of separately controlled lighting zones is exceptionally high.

Samsung won't confirm an exact number, but it appears there is somewhere in the region of 450. This is anywhere between twice and three times as many separate dimming zones as the Sony XF9005, for instance. This extremely high number of individual dimming zones means there's practically none of the blooming you get with direct-lit TVs that use substantially fewer dimming zones (or backlight bars you get with edge-lit TVs).

The Q9FN also measures brightness peaks (admittedly only for a short time) of nearly 2,500 nits - by far the highest figure measured from any current TV, and one that should give it a serious leg up when it comes to showing HDR content. OLED TVs, by comparison, top out in brightness terms at just under 1000 nits (but as each pixel delivers its own light level, this can help their pictures still look extremely intense and contrast-rich).

Incredible contrast, brightness and colour

As a result the Q9FN's contrast is simply the best that's ever been seen on an LED TV. Incredibly deep black levels share screen space with the flat-out brightest colours and whites any consumer television has ever produced. The TV suffers hardly at all with the common HDR phenomenon of clipping, where the very brightest parts of the picture lose detail and flare out. There's simply no way any edge-lit LED TV could get even close to combining such deep black colours with such extreme bright highlights.

It's worth quickly covering Samsung's QLED technology. The QLED term isn't actually proprietary to Samsung; it can apply to any brand of TV that uses Quantum Dots to create colour rather than traditional colour filters. Samsung's QLED TVs, though, are currently unique in using new Quantum Dots surrounded by a metal sheath, enabling them to be pushed harder (to deliver more brightness and colour volume).

A key point about the Q9FN's brightness and QLED technology, therefore, is that it enables colours to be delivered at more extreme brightness levels than any other current display technology, without losing any saturation. Samsung claims it can now hit a full 100 per cent of the colour space used in commercial digital cinemas - a key target for TVs that want to get the most from today's HDR and wide colour gamut sources (such as 4K Blu-rays).

SamsungSamsung Q9FN QLED TV review image 4

Indeed, the Q9FN breaks new ground in the colour department, serving up an unprecedentedly wide-ranging, breath-takingly dynamic colour palette with HDR sources. This colour performance even extends into dark corners of the picture, as the lack of the backlight clouding normally associated with LED TVs means there's precious little opportunity for dark colours to have their tones affected by low-contrast greyness. Dark picture areas also benefit from remarkably little loss of shadow detailing by LCD standards.

In fact, the Q9FN's pictures are almost OLED-like in the way they control their light - despite the brightest parts of the picture looking brighter and more fully saturated than they would on an OLED TV.

There's also HDR and HDR+, but with the latter there are precious few sources available for testing this system. In fact, only Amazon delivers HDR10+'s extra scene-by-scene dynamic metadata to help TVs deliver a more precise and punchy HDR picture. And since Amazon doesn't let you switch between HDR10 and HDR10+ on the same TV, there's no way of judging effectively just how much of a difference HDR10+ truly makes.

Samsung's latest processing engine produces a notable improvement in tonal finesse that brings a new sense of clarity and definition to the most precise and detailed native 4K sources. While the QE65Q9FN is at its imperious best with HDR 4K sources, it's also outstanding with standard dynamic range, sub-4K pictures, thanks to its upscaling engine. 

Samsung also provides an HDR+ processing option that can convert standard dynamic range images into something that approximates to HDR. The HDR+ system continues to be the most aggressive of the TV world's SDR-to-HDR conversion systems, really pushing brightness and colour saturations hard. However, it does so with more balanced and natural results than last year's equivalent system, as well as doing a better job of limiting noise in dark areas.

One last key feature of the Q9FN's pictures is their resistance to ambient light and onscreen reflections. Samsung has fitted the TV with a new filter that soaks up light interference almost freakishly well.

Any issues?

There are a couple of issues to report with the Q9FN.

First, while it supports slightly wider viewing angles than its predecessor, it can't really be watched from much more than 30 degrees before colour saturations reduce and backlight blooming becomes aggressively exaggerated.

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Second, occasionally mid-dark areas of the picture can seem to flicker or pulse, as if the backlight system can't quite decide what light levels to deploy. Having pointed this latter issue out to Samsung, though, the brand seems confident that it knows how to fix it. Look out for an update to this review if such a fix does indeed materialise.

Last, there's no support for the Dolby Vision HDR platform, which is undoubtedly a shame given how good Dolby Vision content can look on TVs that do support it (such as LG's OLED sets).

These niggles don't detract significantly from what is, overall, the most exciting, precise and dramatic HDR 4K pictures that any TV has ever produced.

Smart Features

  • Samsung Eden and Smart Things

After a couple of generations of worthwhile refinements and feature additions, Samsung's smart TV interface is now really strong.

For starters, its home screen offers fast access to lots of content sources without eating up much screen real estate. Its Apple TV-like two-tier approach - where the top tier highlights content related to/contained within the app or source you've got selected in the bottom tier - works more slickly and with a wider range of content providers than it has before too.

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It's easy to customise what goes where on the home screen app bars, and Samsung has done a good job this year of making live TV a much more integral part of the content browsing engine.

Samsung's voice recognition/control system continues to impress greatly, from its accuracy at recognising what you say, to the extent it integrates into every facet of the TV's functionality. There's no longer a need to learn complex sentence structures to communicate with the TV either; often just one word is enough.

Also important to mention - though it's more a tool for the coming months than right now - is Samsung's new Smart Things feature. This enables the TV to communicate with and even control other smart devices on your home network - from fridges to lights, robot vacuum cleaners, kettles and so on.

Sound quality

Samsung seems to have put the Q9FN's chunky bodywork to good audio use.

The set produces a powerful, well spread but also well controlled sound stage that's dynamic and well-rounded enough to handle even full-on action scenes without sounding harsh, thin or muddy.

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Dialogue always sounds locked to onscreen lip movement rather than drifting vaguely around the front of your room. Bass levels are deep and clean enough to satisfy with all but the most extreme soundtracks. And the speakers reproduce more than enough subtle sound detailing to make films and TV shows sound convincing and immersive.

However, the sound doesn't really project forwards much. Also, very intense, shrill sounds can generate a slight unwanted vibration in the TV's frame. Neither of these issues prevent the Q9FN from sounding far better than your average flat-panel TV, though.

Verdict

Samsung needed to get its QLED story back on track quickly after the technology's hit-and-miss debut last year. Fortunately the Q9FN achieves that goal - and then some.

The switch to a direct-lit screen with outstanding local dimming technology finally sets Samsung's Quantum Dots free, letting their full colour, contrast and brightness potential shine - literally. No other TV before has served up so much of HDR's potential.

Some people will still prefer the gorgeous pixel-level light precision rival OLED TV technology can muster - especially if they're more interested in standard dynamic range playback than HDR. Some people may also decide they just can't live without Dolby Vision, despite the Q9FN's support for HDR10+ and remarkable performance with (standard) HDR10.

The bottom line, though, is that the Q9FN is at the very least a worthy rival for any OLED TV seen to date. For its sheer, unadulterated HDR impact, there's currently nothing out there to match it.

Price when reviewed:
£3,700 (65in)

Alternatives to consider

LGLG E7 4K OLED TV image 1

LG E7

This mid-range model from LG's 2017 OLED TV range delivers peerless contrast, rich colours and striking built-in Dolby Atmos audio from one of the thinnest, most gorgeous designs the TV world has ever seen. Smart features are provided by LG's superb webOS platform too. Viewing angles are better than those of any LCD rival, though the Samsung Q9FN is far brighter (important for HDR) and covers a wider colour range.

Sonysony zd9 4k tv review image 1

Sony ZD9

This 65-inch Sony LCD TV has been the HDR king since its launch in 2016 - which is why Sony continues to sell it now. It actually uses more local dimming zones than even the QE65Q9FN, and it combines this impressive backlight control with gorgeous colour and extreme amounts of brightness. The QE65Q9FN betters it with its higher brightness and reduced backlight clouding, but  the Sony can now be had for some aggressive prices - routintely below £3000 now