Editors' note, October 16, 2008: Samsung has changed the A950 series by introducing changes that affect picture quality. Check out this blog post for timing and other non-performance-related details on the changes.
To assess the picture quality impact of the changes, we compared our original LN46A950 review sample side-by-side to a new one, and will use the new one in all comparisons involving the A950 going forward. The differences we saw concerned black levels primarily. The company has raised the black level in very dark scenes--those with a very low "average picture level." In those scenes the new model showed improved shadow detail and eliminated some of the worst blooming effects we mention below, while the older model reproduced darker overall black levels--its LEDs appeared to dim more aggressively, while the new ones stayed more illuminated. We didn't notice any differences between the two Samsungs in the vast majority of scenes, however, which have higher average picture levels. As a result, we're not modifying the rating for this review or its final conclusions, although we did modify some comparative statements below in light of recent reviews, namely of the Sony KDL-55XBR8 and the Pioneer PRO-111FD.
The Samsung LN46A950 delivered the best overall picture quality of any LCD display we've tested, with the exception of the Sony KDL-55XBR8. We still give the overall nod to the top plasmas we've seen, but this set narrows the gap to within a hair's breadth (and some off-angle issues).
Scads of picture controls made calibration a bit more involved than with many other HDTVs, but the results were well worth it. The default Movie mode gave a fairly accurate color temperature by our measurements, albeit a bit bluish, so we used the detailed white-balance controls to bring it very close to the HD standard (see the Geek Box below). Once again we didn't mess with the company's color management system because the default Auto setting produced color points that hit the HD standard almost perfectly. As usual we appreciated Samsung's Blue Only mode when setting color; see this tip for details on how to use it yourself. The LED Motion Plus setting, in addition to cycling the backlight (see below), also had the effect of decreasing overall light output, so we had to pump the backlight control to the max to achieve our standard 40 footlamberts. Fortunately, unlike with standard LCD backlight controls, doing so didn't spoil black levels. For our complete picture settings, check out the end of this blog post.
After setup we plunked the LN46A950 amid a few other competing sets for our side-by-side comparison. We included three plasmas--the Pioneer PDP-5020FD, the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U, and the Samsung PN50A650--as well as two LCDs--the Samsung LN52A650 and the Sony KDL-46W4100. For old-times sake, since we used the HD DVD version for our review of the first LED-based Samsung LCD, we chose to watch the Blu-ray version of Transformers for the majority of our image quality tests.
Black level: Black levels on this display are superb, lending the image more pop and contrast than with any LCD we've tested aside from Sony's KDL-55XBR8. In dark scenes the Samsung LN46A950 approached the depth of black delivered by the current black-level champions Pioneer's Kuro plasmas, and beat the other displays in the comparison described above to a greater or lesser extent. At the 33:36 mark in the film, for example, showing a suburban lane lit by a couple of streetlights, the A950's letterbox bars, along with the black shadows of an unlit house and the side of a tree, all appeared darker than the other displays aside from the Pioneer, although they were just barely better than the Panasonic plasma. During the brief times when the screen faded entirely to black, the Samsung's LEDs turned off completely and its screen was darker than the Pioneer's. In other extremely dark shots, such as 55:40 and 57:35 into the film, the Samsung also briefly appeared darker than the Pioneer.
At other times, however, the A950 appeared slightly less impactful and high-contrast than a couple of the other displays. As we mentioned, the LED backlights can be dimmed or turned off completely, but since they don't correspond precisely to the number of pixels on the display, sometimes they don't turn off enough, especially when a bright area is displayed right next to a dark area. We saw numerous examples of this kind of "blooming" effect during the film. The letterbox bars, for example, would grow subtly brighter when bright areas, such as the light blue shirts of the crew of Air Force 1, entered the picture, and then darken again when they left. In most scenes the bars looked lighter during mixed dark and light scenes on the Samsung A950 than they did on the Pioneer or Panasonic plasmas or the Sony LCD.
Beyond the letterbox bars, we noticed some blooming in dark areas in the middle of the image, too, such as the black clothing of the stewardess and some of the businessmen on the flight, which appeared a bit brighter compared with the black in other areas of the LN46A950's screen. The same uniforms and suits were more consistent on the screens of the other displays, displaying the same level of blackness. More distracting was the blooming that appeared around bright items on dark backgrounds, such as the white spaceships floating against the star fields in 2001: A Space Odyssey or small play-pause icons and the progress bar of our PlayStation 3. The issue was subtle in most cases, to be sure, but definitely apparent, and detracted from the apparent black level of the entire picture in scenes with mixed light and dark areas.
We complained about blooming in the review of the LN-T4681F last year, and as far as we can remember (we didn't have an 81F to compare directly with the A950), it was worse then. Lighter areas around the "Transformers" logo in the opening credits, for example, were much less noticeable with the A950 than we remember from the 81F. We assume that Samsung has improved its LED technology in the interim somehow, probably by adding more LED units to the backlight.
It's worth mentioning here that black level performance fell off precipitously when we moved off-angle by just one seat cushion on our test couch. Check out Uniformity for the full scoop.
Color accuracy: According to our measurements the Samsung LN46A950 has among the best all-around color reproduction available today. Observations of Transformers backed up the measurements quite well. Primary and secondary colors, like the red of Prime's hood and the blue of his helmet, as well as the cyan of Lake Mead in the sunlight and the yellow of the dust kicked up by the helicopters, all looked as true or more-so than any of the displays in our comparison, including the superb Panasonic plasma and the other Samsung displays. The grayscale from light to dark areas stayed linear, which showed up in the natural skin tones of Maggie both under the interrogation lights and lit by the rising sun in the helicopter. Colors also appeared rich and extremely well-saturated, owing to the Samsung's excellent black levels and spot-on color decoding. Finally, unlike many other LCDs, the A950 didn't discolor noticeably in black or very dark areas, maintaining as neutral of a grayscale as either of the two excellent plasmas.
Video processing: For most of our viewing of Transformers we kept the A950's Auto Motion Plus processing turned off because we preferred a more filmlike look, as opposed to the smoother, more videolike look of engaging the processing. Some viewers might want that smoothing effect, however, so we checked out how it looked compared with the other displays.
As we found with the LN52A650, the A950's smoothing became more pronounced when increasing the setting from Low to High, and we preferred the look of Low. The difference was most visible in pans, such as the long camera move over the Hoover Dam at the 1:34:34 mark. Compared with the Sony's Standard setting, we noticed that the smoothing kicked in a bit more slowly in Low and Medium after a transition, which could be a bit jarring at times. We also noticed artifacts like the characteristic halo that appeared as the background met Bobby Bolivia's shirt during a sweeping pirouette shot in the car dealership at 15:28--as usual, it was less obvious in Low than in Medium or High. In its favor, the Samsung didn't show as many breakup artifacts, where complex patterns like the yellow of Bobby's shirt appeared to separate unnaturally, in its Medium and High modes compared with the Sony's High, although as usual the Sony's Standard was the most artifact-free of all the dejudder settings. The Samsung, but not the Sony, also showed the infamous "triple puck effect" in all three of the AMP settings, where one hockey puck traveling quickly would sort of blur and break up into three pucks, and then reassemble as it slowed back down.
We also checked out the Samsung with 1080p/24 sources and dejudder turned off to see how the set handled true 24-frame sources. Compared with the Samsung and Panasonic plasmas, which by default refresh at 60Hz and so have to perform 2:3 pull-down for 24-frame film material, the A950 and the other 120Hz LCDs looked equally smooth, without the characteristic hitching motion we saw on the 60Hz displays. The difference was subtle in most scenes to our eye, but came across better during shots like that long pan over the Hoover Dam or in the extended flyover of the Intrepid aircraft carrier from I Am Legend. For those who want to set their Blu-ray players at 1080p/24 output, the A950 will deliver the benefits of that setting.
In terms of motion blur, the LN46A950 is capable of performing as well as the best plasma displays we've tested, as long as you're willing to engage its dejudder processing. We checked out the FPD Benchmark's motion resolution test and found that with both dejudder (in any strength) and LED Smart Motion engaged, the display resolved around 1,000 lines, which is about the same as we saw on the best plasma we've tested so far in this department, the Pioneer PDP-5020FD. LED Smart Motion is a setting that makes the TV's backlight cycle on and off extremely quickly, scanning much like a CRT, which helps eliminate motion blur, according to Samsung's reps.
Disengaging either of these settings on the LN46A950 dropped motion resolution considerably. We were curious how the TV would do without dejudder, so we turned it off but left LED Smart Motion on. Counting lines didn't help much since the Samsung seemed to only resolve three of the four lines in the test pattern at higher resolutions, although the image still appeared a bit less blurry than on the standard Sony and Samsung LCDs with dejudder disengaged. With test material, the LED display also appeared marginally sharper, although it introduced a strange doubling effect at times--when the letters on license plates passed close to the camera, for example. Nonetheless we preferred leaving LED Smart Motion turned on, as the doubling appeared very rarely in most program material. The plasma, for its part, looked considerably sharper, and so remains our pick for best motion resolution if you don't want to engage that videolike dejudder.
As usual, we found it difficult to detect motion blur during Transformers or any other real program material, but for people who are more sensitive to this phenomenon, the Samsung A950 is the best LCD available.
Another issue that we have a hard time spotting in real program material is 1080i deinterlacng performance, but for what it's worth the A950 also passed this test with flying colors, deinterlacing both film- and video-based material properly. To make that happen we had to first engage Film Mode in the menu, which is set to Off by default.
Uniformity: In terms of maintaining an even light output and neutral color across the screen, the Samsung LN46A950 is among the best LCDs we've tested. It didn't suffer from the characteristic brighter edges or darker corners that plague so many other LCDs we've tested, and color remained consistent in every part of the screen
From off-angle, however, the LED-based Samsung was a poor performer even compared with most other LCDs we've tested. Blacks became noticeably brighter from just one position to the left or right of the sweet spot right in the middle of the couch. From either of those off-angle seats the far edge of the screen also washed out more noticeably than the near edge, and blooming became a lot worse; that unnatural cloud of light around bright objects on dark backgrounds showed up a lot more clearly from off-angle. Finally, discoloration set in and black areas appeared greenish from those non-sweet spots. If you want peak performance from off-angle, plasma is still the only game in flat-panel town.
Bright lighting: In a bright room the mirrorlike finish of the A950's screen proved somewhat distracting, especially when showing darker scenes. We could discern objects in the room and lights reflected in the screen more clearly than with other displays in our test (the A650 LCD not included), especially the matte-screen Sony LCD. In its favor the A950 did maintain its black level better under bright lighting than any of the other displays, although personally we'd trade black levels in a bright room for less-noticeable reflections.
Standard-definition: The Samsung LN46A950 aced most of our standard-def tests. It resolved every line of the DVD format and images looked as sharp as we'd expect. It removed jaggies from rotating diagonal lines and the stripes of a waving American flag as well as any display we've tested, and its noise reduction did a fine job of cleaning up the moving motes of snowy noise from sunsets and skies on the HQV test DVD. One exception was the TV's Auto noise-reduction setting, which didn't work nearly as well as selecting one of the manual settings. Among the two film mode settings, both Auto 1 and Auto 2 correctly performed 2:3 pull-down processing, although only Auto 2 correctly dealt with the horizontally scrolling text overlay from HQV; Auto 1 introduced combing breakup.
PC: As we expect from any 1080p flat-panel display, the Samsung LN46A950 performed perfectly with PC sources. Via both analog and digital inputs, the set resolved every line of a 1,920x1,080 source with no overscan, and text looked crisp and natural.
Before color temp (20/80)
After color temp
Before grayscale variation
After grayscale variation
Color of red (x/y)
Color of green
Color of blue
Defeatable edge enhancement
480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps
1080i video resolution