Editors' note, April 6, 2009: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
Editors' note, October 16, 2008: This review has been modified since it posted originally to account for two changes since then: the publication of the Sony KDL-55XBR8 review and the introduction of a product update that affects the Samsung A950's picture quality. See below for details on the update.
We've mentioned before that when it comes to black-level performance, the most-important factor in home theater image quality, you get what you pay for. Samsung's 46-inch LN46A950 is just more proof. This flat-panel LCD represents the company's second generation to offer a backlight based on cutting-edge LED (light-emitting diode) technology, and the picture it produces is impressive enough to rival the best plasmas. With a price like this ($3,499 list), we should hope so. Samsung justifies that price by squeezing just about every available feature into the LN46A950's flat frame, but at the end of the day, what you're paying for isn't interactivity or picture control or extra inputs--it's the picture.
Unlike many of the models in Samsung's lineup of myriad LCD HDTVs this year, the flagship A950 series doesn't make a major design statement. We liked the understated color of the frame, which looks like simple black or extremely dark gray at a normal seating distance. From up close, however, we could discern a subtle pattern that looked like nothing so much as fish scales covering the whole frame. Clear plastic overlays the scales and goes with the sleek glass-and-black base, whose pedestal unfortunately doesn't swivel.
Especially compared with thin-bezel sets like the Mitsubishi LN-T46148, Samsung's thicker frame makes this 46-inch set seem a bit bulky. The dimensions and weight for the LN46A950 total 45.7 by 29.9 by 11.8 inches (WHD) and 67.7 pounds including the stand, and 45.7 by 4.2 by 26.4 inches (WDH) and 58 pounds without it.
The remote uses a rotating, clickable wheel, similar to an iPod scroll wheel, for menu navigation, as opposed to the standard, four-way directional keys. The wheel would be a cool idea if it was more responsive, but with the brief delay between moving the wheel and seeing the results on the screen, we found ourselves a bit annoyed. The rest of the remote's buttons are nice and big and backlit, and we liked the dedicated "Tools" key that offered quick access to picture and sound modes, the sleep timer, and the picture-in-picture controls. We didn't like the clicker's glossy black finish, however, which picked up more than its share of dulling fingerprints after a few minutes. Worse, the 950 series remotes remove the handy "P Size" button in favor of a "Content" key, so you have to navigate into the menu to change aspect ratio.
Samsung's menu system is sleeker than last year's and blessed with big, highly legible text set against transparent backgrounds that occupy almost the whole screen. The 950 series adds a subtle blue accent along the top and bottom edges of selections that fades to black near the text. Getting around is easy; there's helpful explanatory text along the bottom, and we dug the context-sensitive menu that would pop up occasionally to provide more options. Overall, it's one of the best-designed and most-attractive menu systems we've seen on any HDTV, and it really makes setup a breeze--except for the confusing picture mode arrangement (see below). One cool extra reserved for the higher-end 950 series is a built-in "product guide" that takes you through the TV's myriad features, including its LED backlight.
The LN46A950 is quite simply the most fully-featured flat-panel HDTV on the market, and earns a perfect "10" in this category according to our subrating system. Among all of its features, however, it's the panel's LED backlight that allows Samsung to charge so much for a 46-inch LCD.
Compared with the compact fluorescent (CCFL) backlights in standard flat-panel LCD TVs, which remain turned on all the time, the LEDs can be dimmed or turned off individually across the screen as needed, allowing black areas of the picture to actually display as black, as opposed to the dark gray characteristic of most other HDTV technologies. It's worth noting, however, that there aren't nearly enough LEDs to correspond with all 1,920x1,080 pixels of the TV's 1080p native resolution, so the turn-off and blackening isn't exact. For the record, Samsung wouldn't tell us how many LED across how many sectors these models have--the number varies by screen size--but we suspect it's more than last year's LN-T4681F.
Unlike the 2007 LN-T4681F, the 2008 LN46A950 includes a 120Hz refresh rate. As with other Samsung sets, engaging one of the three "Auto Motion Plus" dejudder modes causes the TV to interpolate extra frames between the real ones, resulting in the characteristic smoothing effect seen on other 120Hz LCDs with dejudder. For more on how LEDs affect picture quality, and a look at 120Hz with dejudder on this set, check out performance below.
Interactive features: The LN46A950 offers the same fancy interactivity suite found on the LN46A750 we reviewed earlier this year. An Ethernet port allows the TV to display current news, stock ticker information, and local weather--although unfortunately it can't be used to access any possible firmware updates the company may deploy. This flagship Samsung also comes preloaded with interactive content, including a few simple games, recipes, a slide show of high-def art with music (the highlight of the preload pack), a children's section (games, stories, choppily animated sing-alongs) and a fitness section with stretching and massage instruction. More content can be downloaded from Samsung's Web site, transferred to a USB thumbdrive, and played back via the built-in USB port. Finally, the set can also reach out to your home network and play back photos, videos, and music stored on networked computers, or play such files from an attached USB thumbdrive. We didn't test these features this time around, so for more details, refer to the "Interactive" section of the LN46A750 review.
Picture controls: The LN46A950 has three adjustable picture modes that are each independent per input. That's great, but in addition there are three more picture presets, called "Entertainment Modes," that cannot be adjusted and are accessible via a separate key on the remote and the Setup menu. This arrangement is unnecessarily confusing on a TV with so many settings anyway; we'd prefer to have all of the picture modes, both adjustable and nonadjustable, be accessible together from a single key on the remote and one area of the Picture menu. Also, if you're in Entertainment mode, you're prevented from making picture adjustments, or even selecting one of the adjustable picture modes, until you actively cancel an Entertainment mode by navigating to the Setup menu (which the onscreen instructions suggest) or toggling the mode to "Off" using the remote. That's an awkward hitch in an otherwise smooth menu design.
Other picture controls include five color temperature presets along with the ability to fine-tune color using the white-balance menu; three varieties of noise reduction, including an automatic setting; a film mode to engage 2:3 pull-down (it also works with 1080i sources); a seven-position gamma control that affects the TV's progression from dark to light; a dynamic contrast control that adjusts the picture on the fly; a "black adjust" control that affects shadow detail; and a new color space control that lets you tweak the Samsung's color gamut and color decoding.
You can choose from four aspect ratio modes for HD sources, two of which allow you to move the whole image across the screen horizontally and/or vertically. As we'd expect from a 1080p TV, one of those modes, called Just Scan, lets the LN46A950 scale 1080i and 1080p sources directly to the panel's pixels with no overscan--the best option unless you see interference along the edge of the screen, as can be the case with some channels or programs. There are also four modes available with standard-def sources.
Other features: We appreciated the three power-saver modes and the singular fact that, much like Panasonic's plasmas, this year Samsung did not use the brightest picture mode as its default. Instead, the default picture mode for Home use is Standard, which saves a lot of energy compared with the much brighter Dynamic. Check out the Juice Box below for details on the set's energy use, which is among the best we've tested for any display of this size. As far as other conveniences, Samsung throws in picture-in-picture and compatibility with the company's forthcoming digital media adapter.
The connectivity of the LN46A950, as you may expect, leaves nothing missing. There are three HDMI inputs available around back, while a fourth can be found in on the panel's left side. There's also an Ethernet port marked "LAN" for networking features, a pair of component-video inputs; a single RF input for cable and antenna (the '07 models had two); and a VGA-style RGB input for computers (1,920x1,080 maximum resolution). The side also offers an additional AV input with S-Video and composite video, a headphone jack, and the USB port.
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.