In the cosmic battle for TV picture quality supremacy, it's the light side versus the dark side. LED LCD versus OLED. Samsung versus LG. And the dark side wins this round.
The JS9500 is Samsung's most potent Jedi warrior, its most expensive TV for 2015 and the one with the best picture. Its main advantage over our favorite TV of the year, LG's EF9500 OLED TV, is light output: it can get brighter.
Meanwhile one of OLED's big advantages is darkness; it can achieve perfect blackness on-screen, leading to better contrast and impact for all images, especially in the dark rooms and battle stations where theater-quality images are best experienced. Its picture is also substantially better from off-angle seating positions to either side of the sweet spot directly in front of the screen, and I like the fact that it's flat instead of curved.
At press time, both the Samsung and the LG cost the about the same at 65 inches -- a very expensive $5,000, £7,500 in the UK or AU$6,000 in Australia. But even if Samsung were to slash its price, OLED's advantages would probably make it worth the extra money for the high-end audience.
On the other hand, for truly high-end buyers who want an even larger screen, like the 78- and even 88-inch sizes offered by Samsung, OLED simply isn't an option. Even if you can find LG's 77-inch OLED TV for sale anywhere, it's likely going to cost a kidney or three.
For an LED LCD the UNJS9500 is superb, and in extremely bright rooms it might be the best choice on the market. But for just about everywhere else, all of its high-end features and picture enhancements can't keep up with OLED. Don't underestimate the power of the dark side.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 65-inch UN65JS9500, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. All sizes have nearly identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
The JS9500 looks every bit the expensive, futuristic TV that it is. The screen's metallic silver bezel is angled in sharply to resemble a modernist picture frame, and the contrast between the black screen and the silver edge serves to accentuate the curve. The frame isn't quite whisper-thin, but it's thin enough and unadorned but for small Samsung and SUHD logos.
The TV is a good deal thicker and heavier than many of Samsung's other LED TVs of the same screen size, not to mention LG's OLED models. That's because it uses a full-array as opposed to edge-lit LED backlight. Looking down from the top is one of the few ways you'll notice the thickness. From there you can also see the camera. A finger-press press causes it to pop out and swivel toward the viewer disconcertingly, like an exogorth emerging from an asteriod. This is no cave!
Many people who can afford a TV like this will want to wall-mount it, which in my book looks pretty awkward with a curved TV (unless you happen to have a curved wall too). If you instead elect to use the stand you'll find it accentuates the curve. Two large, silver metal legs splay forward slightly and draw attention away from the low-profile central pedestal, which is hidden cleverly under the curved panel's apex.
Last year I lauded called Samsung's remote the best TV clicker I'd ever used. The stripped-down wand found on the 2015 models simply isn't as good, and I actually prefer LG's clicker this year. Yes, Samsung's remote does offer that sweet, sweet motion control -- where you can whip a pointer around the screen just like a Nintendo Wiimote -- and it still has Samsung's awesome twist, where simply laying your finger on the capacitive button summons the pointer and a menu.
Again there are two different ways to move around: motion control with the pointer, and clicking from one item to the next with a traditional four-way cursor. But the new control separates them too much, placing the cursor control below the pointer, and the presence of two separate OK buttons complicates matters. I often had to glance at the remote, and ended up using motion control less, defaulting most often to the traditional cursor.
Samsung also removed too many of the dedicated buttons, including voice search, rewind/fast-forward and the "keypad" button. Yes, the new remote is aggressively lean and small, its motion control precise and slick, but I miss the old one.
The new menu system, however, is a big improvement. Just laying your finger on the touch-sensitive pointer button is enough to summon a basic menu. Icons appear on the top, bottom and left of the screen for "Menu/123," "Smart Hub" and volume, respectively, allowing you to dive into overlays for each while the main video continues playing.
The "Menu/123" overlay is the heart of the system, and it's very well-designed. It summons a number pad and full transport (play/pause/stop/record) controls for device and app control, and the top strip serves as a gateway to pretty much every major function, from settings menus to input switching to picture mode. Best of all you can rearrange the tiles along the top in any order -- including to the end of the strip, which only becomes visible when you scroll to the right. You can also move the number pad to either side. Yes, I often prefer dedicated keys for these functions, but this onscreen system is the best substitute for them I've seen.
|LED backlight||Full-array with local dimming|
|3D glasses included||1 pair|
It's almost impossible to think of a feature Samsung missed with the JS9500. The main thing that sets it apart from most cheaper TVs is full-array local dimming, my favorite LCD TV picture quality enhancement.
Local dimming is a technology that allows LCD TVs to dim or brighten specific areas of the screen independently from one another, which helps increase contrast. "Full-array" means that LEDs that provide illumination are mounted behind the screen, as opposed to along the edges, which allows more precise control of the dimming, improved brightness and better contrast.
Lesser Samsung TVs, such as the JS9000, JS8500 and JU7100 have local dimming as well, but they're all edge-lit, and the JS9500 offers significantly more zones, which again should improve the preciseness of the dimming. Unlike Vizio however, Samsung won't specify the exact number of zones.
Like its fellow SUHD models, the JS9500 boasts a nanocrystal-enhanced LCD structure, said to improve color and light output, and HDR capability, which is designed to deliver better contrast in the form of brighter highlights, among other improvements.
Nanocrystals seem very similar to Quantum Dots, but Samsung doesn't want to use that term, instead it's going with "revolutionary Nano-crystal technology." The nanocrystals are designed to emit specific wavelengths of light, which allows for greater efficiency (more light for the same amount of power) and wider color gamuts that better approximate the range of colors found in real life. Samsung's method applies a layer of those crystals between the LED backlight and the standard liquid crystal display element inside the TV. For more details, check out Quantum dots: How nanocrystals can make LCD TVs better.
The other big feature is compatibility with high-dynamic range content. HDR video, not to be confused with HDR in photography, promises better picture quality thanks to brighter, more realistic highlights and other improvements. It's widely viewed as the next step beyond 4K, which addresses only resolution, not contrast or color. Only a few HDR-capable TVs have been announced so far.
Like nearly all current 4K TVs, the JS9500 uses a panel with a 120Hz refresh rate. To its credit the company has backed the "Motion Rate" claims down to a smaller number than in previous years, 240 in this case, which it achieves by virtue of a scanning backlight and optional black frame insertion.
The cavalcade of features extends beyond the picture. The built-in is for Skype and other apps, and also enables Samsung's motion control. The latter involves waving your hand around to try to control the TV, but I didn't test this feature.
More interesting in my book is the OneConnect connection box, which houses most of the inputs and offers a modicum of future-proofing. In future model years you'll be able to buy new OneConnect boxes that may offer improved connectivity, processing and software. The latest version, model SEK3500U ($400 in the US), connects to to compatible 2013 and 2014 Samsung TVs and delivers an octa-core processor, Tizen Smart TV, the new remote, HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 inputs, and the VP9 and HEVC codecs.
In a time when lots of TV makers are dropping 3D to cut costs, Samsung keeps it in the mix. The JS9500 only includes a single pair of active glasses, however, which seems a bit stingy on a TV this expensive.
Like many Samsung sets the JS9500 is also compatible with external hard drives and apps that use the Vidity system to store copy-protected movies, including HDR and 4K titles available from M-Go. The company sent me a Western Digital My Passport Cinema drive to test with the TV, and it worked as expected, although downloads for M-Go took hours. Like eight of them.
Smart TV: Samsung's 2015 TVs use the Tizen operating system found on some of its smartwatches and cameras, as well as a few phones. Tizen has a rocky history you can explore in-depth using the links below, but most to users of the new TVs that's irrelevant. In the end the main thing you'll notice is the new interface.
The first thing that came up when I hit "Smart Hub" was a clean, simple, horizontal overlay of icons, with recently used apps and other items, like inputs, lined up along the bottom of the screen. To its left sat an inscrutable "Featured" box that seemed a bit frenetic in the way it cycled through icons, but otherwise harmless enough. Between the two is prominent space for an ad that disappeared and reappeared every few days, making its absence almost as annoying as its presence.
I mentioned the improved basic menus above, and the new design of the deeper menus is also an improvement, once you figure out how to get there. To launch more apps beyond "Recent," or do anything else within the Smart system, you'll have to go to "Featured," a rather unintuitive choice in terminology. There you'll find whatever Samsung wants to push -- at press time for the JS9500 review, that was PlayStation Now, GameFly, a game called Piercing Blow Special, Pandora and Crackle, among others -- as well as icons leading to more "apps" and "games" in addition to search and the Web browser.
Once you click "apps" you're greeted by a friendly, clear list of app tiles neatly categorized and searchable. I prefer its design to the app store for LG's Web OS and Android TV, the Google-designed system used by high-end Sony and Sharp TVs this year. The selection is superb, second only to that of Roku TV among Smart TV providers.
Samsung used to offer cross-platform search, but not anymore. Searching using the main magnifying glass icon gave me results from the app store, YouTube and the Internet, but didn't find TV shows or movies from any of the apps. You can still search within individual apps, of course, but if you subscribe to multiple services cross-platform search is very useful. Web OS, Android TV and Roku TV all have cross-platform search.
Of course Samsung includes a browser and of course it's nowhere near as good as using your phone, tablet or computer. Both Samsung and LG offer motion control on the browser, which helps a lot, but LG has the advantage of a scroll wheel on the remote.
Oodles of other smart features are onboard. Game streaming can be had courtesy of Sony's PlayStation Now as well as GameFly, allowing streaming gaming and control via external controllers. Samsung's Multi Link Screen feature (above) lets you put up the browser and other apps split-screen next to a show. Another extra is the "extra" function, which for some reason gets a remote control button even though its only function for now seems to be summoning halfway-related tweets alongside whatever show you're watching. Its technology is pretty cool, though, actually analyzing video content in conjunction with your provider/channel list to figure out what you're watching. It didn't always work, though.
While Tizen is an improvement over the complex multipage system Samsung used in the past, and definitely better than Vizio, it's still not as good as LG's Web OS or Android TV overall -- and all are a step or 10 behind Roku TV. Especially if you're getting a TV this expensive, it's worth springing the $70 for a Roku 2, or another streamer (or game console for that matter), instead of using the inbuilt system. It's also worth noting that on the JS9500 I experienced a couple of crashes during my brief test period, and load times weren't always the fastest.
4K streaming apps: I checked out 4K streaming on the built-in Netflix and Amazon apps and they worked as expected. As usual I didn't see a massive image quality improvement over those services' HD streams, and in previous tests I've performed, neither 4K streaming services' image quality could quite match the best 1080p Blu-rays. And of course content is scarce, although both services are ramping up their selection, especially of original TV series.
Samsung TVs don't have access to the 4K streams of Vudu yet; currently they're exclusive to Roku 4, so the best you'll get out of Samsung's app is Vudu's (still superb) HDX quality. It does have UltraFlix, however, and as mentioned above it can stream a small selection of 4K movies from M-Go, and even download some to the optional hard drive for improved quality. Some titles are even available in HDR.
New for this year, the YouTube app can also deliver videos in 4K resolution. I checked out a few of the 4K videos there, including "Honey Bees" and "Beauty of Nature," and they looked sharp enough, but as usual it was difficult to tell from looking if they were actually in 4K.
The best way to tell in my experience is by using Florian Fredrich's 4K resolution pattern. (Friedrich runs an independent test laboratory in Munich, runs Quality.TV along with renowned video expert Joe Kane and, among other activities, consults for numerous companies, including Samsung.) The JS9500 delivered every line of the pattern, although it took more than a minute to bump up to 4K level; prior to that, the pattern revealed that the stream was only in 1080p. As usual with streaming, your mileage will vary.
Picture settings: Almost nothing has changed from recent Samsung vintage in this department. In addition to four preset picture modes, advanced controls include 2-point and 10-point grayscale plus an excellent color management system. Samsung's Auto Motion Plus dejudder control is the best in the business. It not only turns the Soap Opera Effect on or off, it allows adjustment of both blur reduction and smoothness -- and includes a setting called LED Clear Motion that improved motion resolution further, albeit along with some visible flicker (see Video processing below).
You can adjust the local dimming via the Smart LED function. There's also a UHD HDMI Color mode, which allows the TV to "see" and display the 4:4:4 chroma subsampling content that may potentially be included in HDMI 2.0-compatible sources. Such signals are essentially nonexistent today, so I didn't test the efficacy of this mode.
It's worth mentioning here that HDR sources, at least the ones I tested, automatically change some of the the picture settings to specific parameters. They almost always changed automatically once I switched to a non-HDR source, but the switch can still be disconcerting. See the HDR tests below for details.
Connectivity: The JS9500's One Connect input box is silver and larger than the black One Connect Mini boxes included with step-down 2015 Samsung sets. And while those TVs offer a few connections on the back of the sets themselves, the only jacks on the JS9500 are found on the separate box, which connects to the TV via a 6-foot umbilical.