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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.
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)||7080/6983||Average|
|After color temp||6444/6505||Good|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 482||Average|
|After grayscale variation||+/- 61||Good|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.647/0.331||Good|
|Color of green||0.3/0.603||Good|
|Color of blue||0.153/0.059||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Y||Good|
|480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps||Y||Good|
|1080i video resolution||Pass||Good|