Move over, plasma, there's a new TV picture-quality sheriff in town.
His name is OLED. He may have arrived a few years later and quite a bit curvier than expected, but he's finally here. And he kicks ass.
Having spent a few quality hours with Samsung's first production OLED (organic light-emitting diode) TV, the KN55S9C, I can say OLED lives up to the hype. Its picture surpasses plasma and LED LCD in the most important ways, with no major gotchas or downsides.
Simply put, the Samsung KN55S9C produces the best picture I've seen on any TV, ever. Even with the unnecessary and distorting curved screen, I liked its picture better than that of the the ZT60, the Kuro, or anything else I've seen. But yes, I'd like a flat one even better.
Of course there's another contender for the badge already, LG's 55EA9800. I can't say how it compares to the Samsung because I haven't tested one in person yet, and I'll hold off on declaring a "best picture of 2013" until I do. In the meantime there are plenty of other differences between the two.
I'm also not placing the Samsung among CNET's list of Best TVs for picture quality because this isn't a formal review. I only got a few hours with a production sample, at Samsung's New Jersey QA lab, so I wasn't able to give it the full Monty. I hope that changes at some point in the future, ideally alongside LG's set and the rest of the current best, but for now the sheriff is only taking limited engagements.
Before I dive into the fun part, here are a few facts to get newcomers up to speed.
If you want to know more about OLED in general, check out our primer. In the meantime, say hello to the KN55S9C.
Meeting the beautiful beast
When I walked in to Samsung's home theater test room for my first date with diodes, my impression was "wow, it really is curved." The concave shape of the screen is radically different from any flat TV out there, and accentuated by the even-curvier frame. Its beautiful exterior, with that curved half-inch bezel and separate frame, calmly declares "I am the future" even when turned off.
I completely forgot the curve, for a while at least, when I turned it on. I've spent more than a decade paying close attention to how black a TV screen gets, because that's the basis of contrast ratio -- the most important picture quality factor. My favorite analogy is that black is the canvas upon which a display paints, and OLED delivers the purest canvas yet, with a black that's truly absolute.
In the completely dark room I couldn't tell it was on. Then the Samsung logo appeared in the middle of the screen, and other unlike most other TV technologies that produce a more or less faint grayish glow in the shape of a 16:9 rectangle, the rest of the OLED's screen remained indistinguishable from the surrounding blackness. There was none of the "blooming" of imprecise local dimming either, just the starkest separation of black and white I'd seen on a TV.
The other half of contrast ratio is white, and OLED delivers. It's not capable of getting as bright as the most torchlike LED LCDs, but it outdoes the brightest plasmas easily, without sacrificing any of those absolute black levels.
The combination is all OLED needs to earn the picture quality crown. After a few tweaks to confirm basic settings, my first piece of program material was the stunning "Samsara" Blu-ray. During Chapter 3 (5:13) the image fades up from black to jungle treetops with a temple in the distance. From the the deepest shadows among the trees to the bright sky, the image looked better than any I've seen, lifelike and true. A bit earlier, the red of the erupting volcano and the skin of the baby, both set against a black background, looked as punchy as I could want.
Better than plasma? Yes.
I didn't have to imagine how much better the OLED looked than a plasma, because at my request Samsung's reps wheeled in a PN60F8500 for a side-by-side comparison. It wasn't really fair, but it was still very instructive. In a completely dark room the OLED's rendition of black made that of the 8500 -- one of the best on the market -- seem like a dark grayish wash even when I equalized the TVs' light output. That said, the plasma kept up very well.
I switched over to the Macau scene (Chapter 11) in "Skyfall" and the blacks of the night sky and dark water, combined with the bright lamps and dragon near the entrance, again looked impressively inkier on the OLED, but once more the plasma held its own, with plenty of punch. The shadow detail advantage went to OLED, which had no trouble with tough areas like Bond's tux or his face as he walks through the bar. I have to imagine that the even-blacker Panasonic ZT60/VT60 would fare even better in a dark-room shootout with the OLED. The plasmas would look worse, I expect, but not that much worse.
Colors on both were also rich and vibrant; OLED didn't have a significant advantage in that category. I didn't perform a full calibration, but out of the box the OLED was accurate enough, if somewhat red in Movie mode on my sample. Given Samsung's track record with adjustability, I have no doubt a calibration would be able to improve it quite a bit. And yes, you're getting your $9,000 TV calibrated.
Details between the two were basically the same, as I'd expect when comparing two 1080p TVs. Don't believe any claims of "extreme sharpness" due to OLED technology. Yes, the picture looks better, but that's because of contrast ratio (dark blacks and bright whites) and other factors independent of resolution. For that reason I couldn't care less that the KN55S9C is "only" 1080p and not 4K. Do you?
Character is what you are in the light
When I cranked the OLED to near its maximum (about 106 in Movie mode) it made the plasma's highlights look even more muted. I frankly found it painful to watch such a high-contrast image in complete darkness however, and wouldn't recommend it to anyone. But the point is that the OLED can do both true black and very bright white, so you can adjust it to taste with the lights low, or crank it for daytime viewing.
I did just that and the distance between OLED and plasma widened further. With as much light as I could muster in Samsung's dim home theater room (I missed the windows and overhead lights I use in my own lab for bright-room testing) the OLED's significantly brighter highlights and superb screen coating preserved punch better than any TV I've seen. Yes, LED LCDs can get brighter, but since the superior black levels of the OLED were preserved so well, it provides the best punch in the light too.
I also noticed that reflections were both more muted, again thanks to an excellent antireflective screen, and much less likely to be caught in the curved screen of the OLED than in the flat screen of the plasma. That's one important, unexpected benefit of the curve. Pretty much the only one.
I want my flat OLED TV
For a videophile with money to burn who doesn't mind a relatively small 55-inch size, the curved screen is a major fly in the ointment.
It was definitely noticeable from the sweet spot at my seating distance of about 7 feet. The corners seemed wider than the middle, creating a subtle trapezoid effect that I found distracting compared to the flatter shape of the traditional screen. The horizontal edges bowed wider toward the edges too, creating a subtle "U" along the top edge and an inverted one along the bottom.
Another strange effect was that the roundness of the curve changed as I sat higher or lower relative to the screen. From my standard seating position, in an office chair watching the TV set atop a 2.5-foot stand, the bottom of the screen bent more noticeably than the top. From off-angle the distortions became even less equal.
The TV also angles back on its stand by default. Samsung's rep told me part of the reason was to comply with standards designed to prevent it from falling over. The visual effect, however, is of even more distortion; from my seat the vertical edges of the screen narrow toward the top. Combined with any distortions in the film -- "I Am Legend" uses a lot of fish-eye lens shots, for example -- the total started to seem Escheresque.
The curve wasn't all bad. On shots with greater depth of field, like the cityscapes at the beginning of "I Am Legend," I thought I experienced a slightly greater sense of depth and immersion as I looked out into the distance in the middle of the screen.
I can imagine the curve is something you can get used to, just like any artifact, but if I was that videophile with infinite funds, I'd probably still wait for a flat one. They'll in all likelihood arrive in sometime in 2014, although LG has already shown one that will go on sale in Europe this year.
Beyond its crazy-good picture, the Samsung KN55S9C can do something else unique: show two different full-HD images at the same time, a feature dubbed Multi View. Passive-3D-equipped TVs can do something similar aimed at gaming, but on the KN55S9C it's actually designed to be used to watch two TV shows on the same TV.
The set ships with four pairs of specialized 3D glasses that include built-in headphones. In Multi View mode the TV seen sans glasses shows two sources intermixed (below). Don the glasses and you can switch freely between watching one or the other; a toggle on the glasses switches both the video you see and the audio you hear through the headphones (the TV itself remains silent in Multi View mode). You can watch any source, including Samsung's Smart Hub or a streaming app, on the "main" Multi View screen, but the secondary screen is restricted to an external input connection (HDMI, etc) or the internal TV tuner.
Although I didn't test it for this hands-on, the feature worked perfectly in past demos I've seen; there's no hint of image interference thanks to the speed of OLED. It's not all that convenient to use however, mainly because both viewers need to be wearing the 3D glasses with headphones shoved into their ears. Also, don't overlook the fact that you'll need two separate live TV sources if both viewers want to watch live TV. Of course, if you can afford the KN55S9C, you can afford to connect two cable or satellite boxes to it. And to get an installer to create "his" and "hers" remote control setups.
Of course, the KN55S9C will also display 3D sources; it uses active technology as opposed to the passive found on the LG's OLED. Even though I didn't get the chance to test it this time around, based on previous experience with preproduction samples I wouldn't be surprised if Samsung's KN55S9C delivered the best active 3D picture quality ever. I'll have to wait to test whether its 3D surpasses the excellence of the Sony 4K passive 3D set.
Unlike LG's TV, the KN55S9C has a separate breakout box for its external connections -- namely four HDMI, two USB and the other requisite ports -- that connects to the main TV via a single umbilical that also supplies power. The box actually houses the TV's "brains," and Samsung says it can be completely upgraded and replaced by a future box. The connection box is essentially an Evolution Kit, providing an element of future-proofing that other TVs, like LG's OLED, can't.
The KN55S9C also includes Samsung's other high-end features, such as built-in camera, voice and gesture control, and a comprehensive Smart TV suite. Check out our review of the UNF8000 for more.
I was surprised that Samsung's panel is thicker than OLEDs I've seen in the past, albeit still less than an inch in depth. Its other dimensions are also chunkier than preproduction OLEDs we've seen. It weighs 60 pounds and measures 5.3 inches deep without the stand, but you'll probably keep the stand since the set can't be wall-mounted. That depth takes into account the curve. LG's set is significantly lighter at 38 pounds and deeper with the curve at 7.56 inches. The flat LG set currently on sale in Korea is significantly thinner and lighter than either one.
Conclusions and caveats
OLED is finally here, and as expected it's awesome and ridiculously expensive. I have no idea how quickly prices will fall to the realm of affordability, but judging by how long the technology took to arrive (hi there, 2008!), I'm not holding my breath. Unless you're at the very highest end of the TV market, a good LED LCD or plasma is a much better choice, not least because it'll likely be flat and potentially bigger than 55 inches.
Nonetheless, OLED is something special and genuinely exciting, and even if you can't afford it, you should try to check it out in person. No picture is perfect, but the one produced by an OLED TV is as close to reality as display technology can get.
Select measurements and other observations
I used Samsung's Konica Minolta CS-2000 spectroradiometer and my own QD780 signal generator to make some quick measurements in lieu of a full calibration.
With my normal method of measuring 0% black, which blackens the entire screen aside from a 5% stripe to make sure the screen remains active, the KN55S9C measured 0.00004 fL, the lowest (best) I've ever recorded. I have no trouble believing that the only reason it's not zero is because of light leakage from either the stripe or somewhere else in the room.
Peak light output with a window was 132 fL in Dynamic mode, 106 in Movie with Cell Light at maximum. That's better than any plasma we've measured -- the Samsung F8500 comes closest at 83 fL -- but not as good as the brightest LEDs like the Sharp Elite, which can reach 300.
The KN55S9C's peak light output became significantly dimmer with a full screen, 43.1 and 49 fL, respectively. LED LCD doesn't typically become dimmer with a full-white screen, an advantage over OLED and plasma albeit one most noticeable with most of the screen occupied by bright content (think hockey, skiing, or a Web page). OLED is much better in this department than even the best plasmas like the F8500, however.
Color accuracy in default Movie mode was OK, but not as technically accurate as on many high-end TVs, including Samsung's own LED LCDs and plasmas. I measured an error level (Delta E 2000) average of 4.19 for the combined grayscale/gamma (that's Average on CNET's scale; anything less than 3 qualifies as Good), mainly due to a minus-blue trend as the image brightens. Gamma itself measured a superb 2.17 overall. Average error for colors was a more respectable 2.83, and would have been much better but for desaturated blue.
Motion resolution was superb, measuring the full 1,200 lines in all Auto Motion Plus modes except for Off and Custom in certain settings (namely, turning down the antiblurring slider). Engaging the Clear Motion setting turns on black-frame insertion, which did make a very slight visible improvement over modes when it was turned off, at the expense of cutting light output in half, introducing slight flicker, and disabling true 1080p/24 film cadence. The optimal setting for correct cadence, with no Soap Opera Effect or loss in motion resolution, is Custom with the deblur slider at 10 and the dejudder slider at 0.
Off-angle was as good or better than on any plasma, with only very minor color shift (toward green) from extreme angles, and much less attenuation in light output compared with plasmas like the F8500, which get dimmer when seen from extreme vertical angles. Screen uniformity was perfect aside from the curved screen issues noted above.
Input lag in Game mode was 60.3ms, toward the high (worse) end of an Average rating from us. Using the "PC input trick" didn't improve that number, which also worsened significantly to 151ms in Movie mode.
I did not test 3D this time, but based on prior observations, including those of the MultiView feature, Samsung's OLED introduces no visible crosstalk.