Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
The midrange of a product line is sometimes where bargains meet high-performance, and that describes the LNA550 series of LCDs from Samsung quite well. The company's entry-level 1080p resolution models, represented in this review by the LN46A550, lack the fancy "touch of color" styling, Internet-connectivity, and 120Hz processing of their step-up brothers in the company's A650 and A750 series, but keep the superb picture-quality basics of black-level performance and color accuracy. We also appreciated that, unlike the glossy screen on flashier high-end models, the A550's screen doesn't reflect ambient light like a mirror. If you can stand to lose a few features and style points, the LN46A550 looks like a great choice among midrange LCDs.
Basic, glossy black defines the LN46A550's look. A relatively thick swath of fingerprint-attracting, black plastic borders the sides and top, while an even thicker black plastic strip is nestled along the bottom of the screen. The very bottom edge of the cabinet receives a thin strip of accent chrome, from the center of which peeks a blue accent light, which, thankfully, can be turned off. The downward-firing speakers are completely hidden from sight. The overall look will blend well into many rooms and retains the element of classiness imparted by glossy piano black.
Including the matching swivel stand, the LN46A550 measures 44.4-inches wide by 30.2 inches high by 11 inches deep, but removing the stand brings the panel down to 44.4 inches wide by 27.6 inches high by 3.9 inches deep.
We're fans of Samsung's 2008 TV remote. The buttons are nice and big and backlit, and we liked the dedicated Tools button 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.
Samsung's new menu system is sleeker than last year's and blessed with a big, highly legible text set against transparent backgrounds that occupy almost the whole screen. Getting around is easy; there's helpful explanatory text along the bottom, and we dug the context-sensitive menu that pops 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).
As we mentioned above the LN46A550 lacks many of the more esoteric, often less useful, features found on step-up models. Like most other LCD and plasma TV models on sale in 2008, however, it does have a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels (aka 1080p), although at this screen size those extra pixels don't translate to any appreciable increase in detail over lower-resolution televisions.
The LN46A550 offers all of the control over the picture found on more expensive Samsungs. It 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," which 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 pulldown (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. (Phew!)
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 LN46A550 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.
We appreciated the three power-saver modes and the 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. 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 LN46A550 is one minor weakness. Its three total HDMI inputs, two on the back and one on the side, may not be enough for the some gear-heavy home theaters, but it's still plenty for most people. Two component-video inputs, a VGA-style RGB input (1,920x1,080p maximum resolution), an RF input for antenna and cable, an optical digital audio output, and a stereo audio output round out the back-panel connectivity. We'd like to see a standard AV output with composite and S-Video on the back panel, but the sole such input available on this TV is located on the side. A side USB port allows the TV to handle digital photos and MP3 music. We also liked the inclusion of a headphone jack.
We found it difficult to find anything to complain about when evaluating the LN46A550's picture quality. Its black-level and color performance equals or exceeds that of most more-expensive LCDs, and while there was a bit more motion blur on test material than with 120Hz models, we didn't find it objectionable (or even noticeable) in normal program material. Screen uniformity is worse than many models we've tested, but still better than others and not a deal-breaker in practice.
As usual with Samsung HDTVs, the extensive picture setup options allowed us to really hone color accuracy during our calibration. We employed the user-menu white balance controls to bring grayscale variation to within an impressive 50K or so (see the Geek Box below), meaning the set hewed close to the 6500K standard from the darkest to the lightest areas. Although there are controls available to adjust primary and secondary color points, the default "Auto" color space came close enough to the HDTV standard that we didn't need to use them. We also tried using the blue-only mode (see this tip for details) to set the color control, but it resulted in colors that looked too de-saturated compared to our reference, so we used the traditional filters instead to set color, with better results. Check out our full picture settings for all of the details.
We arranged our comparison of the Samsung LN46A550 against a few other 1080p LCDs we had on-hand, including the Sony KDL-46W4100 and KDL-46Z4100, Samsung's own LN52A650 and the Vizio SV470XVT, along with a pair of plasmas, the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U and the Pioneer PDP-5020FD. This time around we watched Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on Blu-ray played via the trusty PlayStation 3 for our main image quality tests.
Black level: The Samsung delivered relatively deep blacks for an LCD. As Harry and his friends ascend on broomsticks over night-shrouded London, for example, the shade of black in the letterbox bars, the shadowed trees among the streetlights, and the forms of the fliers looked as deep as that of the A650 and the Sony Z4100, deeper than the Vizio, and not quite the match of the W4100 or the two plasmas. Details in the shadows, such as the apartment steps and the leafy bushes as they approach the gateway apartment, also looked solid, although not quite as well defined as on the displays with deeper blacks.
Color accuracy: The solid, post-calibration grayscale and accurate primary colors of the Samsung LN46A550 came across well in the film. As the group leaves in the wagon after meeting Luna Lovegood, we that noticed her pale skin tone, and the slightly more apple-cheeked face of Weasley, looked as natural as on any on the other displays, without the slight blue or red tinge that can come with an uneven grayscale. Later, during a flyover shot of the forest around Hogwart's, the green trees and blue sky, for example, appeared as natural as the reference Samsung A650 and Panasonic plasma.
Color decoding was also spot-on, and after we'd adjusted saturation to our liking, the image looked rich and vibrant, albeit not quite as good as on those displays with deeper shades of black. We were also impressed that the A550's color stayed relatively true in very dark and near-black areas, not veering too far into blue or green as we've seen with so many other LCD displays.
Video processing: The LN46A550 properly de-interlaced 1080i material from both film and video, according to the HQV test disc, and, as expected, it resolved every line of a 1080p resolution source as long as we engaged the Just Scan aspect ratio mode. We used a special test disc, designed to reveal motion blur caused by the display, and, again as expected, the A550 didn't fare as well as the plasmas or the models with a 120Hz refresh rate, introducing more blur than those sets. On the other hand we didn't notice objectionable motion blur while watching Potter, for example, or on any other fast-moving program material.
Uniformity: Like many LCDs we've tested, the Samsung A50 evinced some unevenness across the screen, with brighter areas visible to either side compared to the darker middle. This issue was more obvious on the A550 than on any of the other displays in our comparison, including the A650, although its effects were subtle (but still noticeable) in the darkest scenes. Off-angle performance was fairly good, although the A650 seemed to preserve its black levels better when seen from either side, an of course the plasmas beat the LCDs in this category.
Bright lighting: Samsung clad the screen of the less expensive A550 series with a less shiny surface, and in a bright room we could appreciate the difference. The set's screen prevented the reflections of the lights and windows from becoming too distracting in darker scenes, while the shinier screen of the A650 proved much more distracting in bright rooms. Samsung claims that the shiny screen preserves black levels better in bright rooms but we had a hard time appreciating any improvement through the A650's highly reflective screen. For bright rooms, the A550 is as good a choice as any other non-shiny LCD, including the Sonys and the Vizio in our comparison, and it outperformed both plasmas and the A650 in this area.
Standard definition: The LN46A550 performed a bit below average in our standard-def tests. It did resolve every line of the DVD format, although details in the grass and stone bridge appeared a bit softer than we'd like to see. It removed jagged edges from moving diagonal lines and a waving American flag somewhat, although there were still more jaggies than many sets we've tested, including Samsung's own LN52A650. The set's noise reduction worked quite well to remove the motes from noisy shots of sunsets and skies. Film mode, once engaged in the menu, enabled effective 2:3 pulldown detection.
PC: Via both VGA and DVI the Samsung performed as well as we expected with PC sources, resolving every line of a 1,920x1,080p source with no overscan or edge enhancement.
|Before color temp (20/80)||6650/6805||Good|
|After color temp||6465/6511||Good|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 300||Average|
|After grayscale variation||+/- 41||Good|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.642/0.337||Good|
|Color of green||0.287/0.595||Good|
|Color of blue||0.15/0.064||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Y||Good|
|480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps||Y||Good|
|1080i video resolution||Pass||Good|
|1080i film resolution||Pass||Good|
|Samsung LN46A550||Picture settings|
|Picture on (watts)||137.12||101.52||79.78|
|Picture on (watts/sq. inch)||0.15||0.11||0.09|
|Cost per year||$42.86||$31.84||$25.11|
|Score (considering size)||Good|