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It's not often that we get an up-close look at a truly new TV technology, but that's exactly what happened when we brought the Samsung KN55S9C OLED TV into our labs. OLED promises to be a game-changer that could one day push current TV technologies to the sidelines. It combines the best attributes of plasma and LCD sets: the deep blacks, high contrast, and unlimited viewing angles of plasma TVs with the bright images, super-slim designs, and energy efficiency of LCD sets.
That's a winning combination, judging by our tests of the Samsung KN55S9C. It's arguably the best all-around TV we've ever tested, with the highest overall picture-quality scores and no major shortcomings—except, perhaps, its steep $9,000 price. Still, that's much less than the $13,500 price disclosed when it was introduced earlier in Korea, and significantly below the current $15,000 retail price tag of LG's comparably sized 55EA9800 set, which we're hoping to test shortly.
This isn’t the first OLED TV we've seen. The Sony XEL-1 wowed us when it was introduced a few years ago. But it cost $2,500 and had a tiny, 11-inch screen, making it unsuitable for use as a main TV. Manufacturing larger sets has been a challenge, but Samsung's was worth waiting for, though panel lifetime and screen burn-in are yet to be determined.
Samsung’s new OLED TV is a striking-looking set, with its elegant, slightly curved screen perched within a rectangular metallic stand. While it's likely that the curved screen—a design characteristic also shared by LG's OLED set—is primarily an aesthetic touch to differentiate the TV, Samsung claims the curve helps create a more immersive viewing experience, giving viewers a sense that the TV is actually larger than its actual screen dimensions. From the viewer's seating position, you can sense the curve from the outer profile of the frame, which has a bowed contour at the top and bottom of the screen, much like a Cinerama projection screen in a movie theater.
We also noticed that the TV is angled back a bit on its stand, so it faces slightly upward. This means the preferred position for this TV is at or below eye level to the screen. Because of the curve, there is an implied viewing sweet spot that limits the optimal seating position to the two or three viewers directly in front of the screen. But unlike that of many LCD TVs, the KN55S9C’s picture doesn’t look washed out as you move off angle from the center of the TV, though at wider angles the curve introduces some subtle non-uniform image geometric distortion to the picture, and at more extreme angles the edge of the TV can actually block the image. (A regular flat TV, by comparison, maintains the image geometry over the complete 180 degrees.)
Still, at normal viewing angles, most viewers probably will not find the curve distracting. But there is one other consequence of the curved screen: This TV can’t be wall-mounted.
Like other OLED TVs we’ve seen, this one is incredibly thin—perhaps half an inch thick— though it's not quite as noticeable due to its positioning within the stand. All connections, such as a cable box or Blu-ray player, are made to the TV via a separate media module, which includes four HDMI inputs, a USB port (there are two additional USB ports on the TV), an Ethernet slot, a component-video input, and an antenna input. The module then connects to the TV using a single proprietary cable, reducing visual clutter. The only other cable is the TV's power cord.
As you'd imagine of a TV at this price, the S9C is loaded with features, including Samsung's Smart TV 2.0 Internet platform, with a quad-core processor, built-in Wi-Fi, a full Web browser, access to apps, and streaming movies and TV shows from several online services. The set also has the company's Smart Interaction feature, which allows control using voice and hand gestures, and 3D capability. (The set comes with four sets of unique 3D/Multiview glasses—more on that later—that connect using 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless RF technology.)
One benefit to the TV's stand is that it provides some extra space to house a multiple array of speakers. Though we haven't completed our sound tests on the SC9, based on our early evaluation the TV can produce very good sound quality, at sufficient volumes to fill a medium-sized room.
Before we get into our test details, it might be helpful to understand what makes OLED (organic light-emitting diodes) different. All TVs use three primary colors—red, green, and blue—to create images. In a so-called LED LCD TV, light is produced by an LED backlight, which shines through red, green, and blue color filters to create images. (The LCD crystals change position to either block light or allow it to pass through.)
Plasma TVs are more like OLED, in that they are self-illuminating, meaning they generate their own light; they don't require a separate backlight. In a plasma TV, colors are produced when pockets of gas are charged, exciting red, green, and blue phosphors.
On an OLED TV, the image is created by using a film that contains thousand of organic LEDs—each with red, green, and blue subpixels—across the panel. The organic (carbon-based) material is sandwiched between two electrodes; when electricity is applied to the material, it generates light, illuminating each pixel’s red, green, and blue subpixels to produce colors. Unlike plasma TVs, which can be a bit dim, OLED TVs offer LCD-like brightness, but without the need for—and shortcomings of—a separate backlight.
All this is great in theory, but how did the TV actually do on our test patterns and real-world video? In a word, brilliantly.
We were wowed by the seemingly effortless, accurate reproduction of high-definition programs and movies viewed on Samsung’s OLED set. The TV delivers on all key image quality attributes, including image brightness, deep black levels, full 1080p picture detail, accurate colors, and unparalleled 3D performance. We’ve often seen TVs that match some of these key performance benchmarks, but what makes the SC9 unique is that it hits them all. There was none of the screen nonuniformity or degraded viewing angle performance we’ve seen on LCDs, and no coarse contouring (banding) on smooth shades, or visible graininess on dark shadow detail that we see on some plasmas.
The set’s naturally deep black levels were the best we've seen, though only marginally better than the best plasma sets we've tested, such as the Panasonic ZT60-series models. (This is a testimonial to the ever-improving blacks we're seeing on top-performing plasma sets.) And OLED TVs require none of the local-dimming tricks or dynamic backlight adjustments we see with LED-backlit LCD sets. Yet the OLED set's images were very bright, well above what we’ve seen from any plasma TV, so you get an unparalleled contrast range that makes images pop off the screen.
For our tests with real-world video, we cued up "The Avengers" Blu-ray disc to the Black Widow fight scene, which takes place in a dark warehouse. We were instantly impressed by the scene's well-defined shadow detail, thanks to the OLED inky deep black level, as well as the ease with which the brighter highlights were reproduced. The contrast on dark scenes was superb.
On a brighter daytime battle scene, the OLED showed equal dexterity, not just by its ability to drive the image to comfortably high brightness levels—critical if you intend to use the TV in a bright room—but by its capacity to clearly anchor shades of gray to that deep black level, guaranteeing great depth and nuanced tonality to the image. This is the best contrast range we’ve ever seen.
Add spot-on, realistic colors and full 1080p resolution to the mix and the overall viewing experience seemed to almost go beyond HD. We tried numerous best-mastered Blu-ray titles in our collection, and they've never looked as good as they did on the Samsung OLED TV.
If we want to be very picky, the color temperature at the darkest levels was a tad on the cool side, and near-black detail was also a bit too dark at the best black level (brightness) setting. We could raise the brightness level to address the issue, but it would come at the expense of the deep blacks, so we played with different gamma options. Ultimately we put our picture settings back at where we started.
Theoretically, OLEDs have very fast response times, faster than LED LCDs and even plasmas. This should mean that OLEDs, like plasma sets, can handle motion without noticeable blurring. But in our tests with the TV's Automotion feature turned off, motion blur was surprisingly LCD-like: only fair, and greater than what we typically see with plasma TVs. With the Automotion feature activated, the set's motion-blur reduction improved to the level of excellent, with no noticeable over-smoothing (the "soap opera" effect) we see in some LCD TVs that makes film look like video.
We know that 3D isn't everyone's cup of tea, but we'd be remiss not to mention that this set's 3D performance is stunning, simply the best we've ever tested. In fact, we were quite surprised to see the OLED deliver near-perfect scores on our 3D ghosting tests.
On our special 3D test patterns, ghosting was nonexistent, whether we were watching the screen head on, tilting our heads, viewing from above or below eye level, or viewing from the sides. Even the better plasma and LCD TVs exhibited at least some degree of ghosting, and very rarely earn an excellent score. LCD 3D TVs that use passive technology tend to have viewing-angle issues with ghosting and reduced resolution due to the polarization process they use; when used in the 3D mode, plasmas tend to be on the dim side.
Samsung's OLED TV uses "active" 3D technology, which works with active-shutter glasses that yield full 1080p resolution, with a surprisingly bright image and deep blacks. When we swapped out our test patterns for 3D feature films and videos, we were wowed by images that seemed to jump off the screen, with none of the usual distractions that tend to mar the effect. Again, "effortless reproduction" is the phrase that comes to mind.
The glasses that are included with the TV aren't your run-of-the-mill 3D glasses. They're lightweight models with built-in stereo earphones that enable a unique feature called Multiview, which allows two viewers to watch and hear two separate programs simultaneously on the same TV. For example, one person could watch the movie "Titanic" on cable (connected via one of the HDMI inputs) while another family member watches "The Avengers" from a Blu-ray player (connected to another HDMI input), but only when using the special glasses, so each person only hears the audio track for their program. A small switch on the glasses lets you choose one program or the other.
In our tests, Multiview worked very well, with a nice bright picture that was free of any interference from the other program, mainly due to the OLEDs lack of 3D crosstalk. On the negative side, the picture adjustments aren't accessible in the Multiview mode, so we couldn't optimize the picture and found it to be over-sharpened. We were also surprised to see that resolution was visibly reduced when watching a 3D movie in the Multiview mode.
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It should be obvious that we were impressed by the performance of Samsung's first OLED TV, though we should note that the set was likely optimized for best performance. We hope that all retail models will offer similar performance.
But all OLED TV manufacturers face formidable challenges before these sets can become a mainstream choice for consumers. One is that OLED is hard to manufacture, especially in larger screen sizes. Yields right now are relatively low, so a large percentage of sets that come off the manufacturing line aren't up to snuff and can't be sold. There's also a question about longevity, since the blue diodes have a shorter life expectancy and lose brightness at a faster rate than the other colors.
And there's also a possible issue of burn-in, where the set retains ghosted images of persistent images, such as station logos, that are left onscreen. In a preliminary test, we displayed our special "burn-in" test pattern, which includes a mix of very high contrast graphics, on the screen and checked every 10 minutes for image sticking.
We did see subtle image retention on some of the plasmas in the room in as little as 10 minutes, but it took a full hour before the OLED showed any effects of the test pattern, and even then it was very subtle. As a result, we're cautiously optimistic about OLED burn-in. We'll just have to wait to see if OLED TVs can maintain their image quality over the long term.
But based on our evaluation of the Samsung SC9 TV, OLED TV is off to a promising start, taking the best attributes of current TV technologies while overcoming their main limitations. We'll soon be getting the LG 55EA9800 OLED TV—which uses a slightly different OLED technology (white OLEDs and a color filter)—to see how these two sets compare. Keep checking back for our head-to-head comparison.
—James K. Willcox and Claudio Ciacci