It's a plasma! It's an LCD! No, it's OLED! If you follow the TV industry, then you've undoubtedly heard writers like me discuss the Superman-like potential of OLED. For several years now, we've enticed you with promises of a display technology that can deliver the best of what plasma and LCD have to offer, all in an incredibly thin, light, energy-efficient package. After many fits and starts, after many a promised release date came and went without a TV arriving on store shelves, it began to look like large-screen OLED televisions may not see the light of day. Then, last summer, LG and Samsung pleasantly surprised us all by introducing 55-inch OLED TVs that you can actually purchase and take home. Alas, I had to miss Samsung's press event at which several video reviewers were given the chance to spend a little time with the KN55S9C so, when the company recently asked me if I wanted to get an OLED sample sent to me for review, the answer was an enthusiastic yes.
Needless to say, the first large-screen OLED TVs are not cheap. The 55-inch KN55S9C carries an MSRP of $8,999.99. That's about $6,000 more than Samsung's newest 55-inch Ultra HD LED/LCD TV, $6,400 more than the company's top-shelf 60-inch PN60F8500 1080p plasma, and $6,700 more than the UN55F8000 1080p LED/LCD that we recently put on our Best of 2013 list. As you'd hope for the asking price, the KN55S9C is loaded with all of Samsung's top-shelf features, including the excellent Smart Hub Smart TV platform with a QuadCore processor, built-in WiFi, a built-in camera, voice/motion control, universal control capabilities, and active 3D capability with the new Multi View feature.
That's the overview. Now let's dive in to the good stuff.
Both the LG and Samsung OLED TVs are curved, which certainly gives them a distinctive appearance. Samsung's "Floating Canvas" design is quite stunning: the curved OLED panel, which measures only about a half-inch thick, hangs within a larger and an even more curved frame that has black mesh material around its inside and a chrome silver finish around its outside. The floating design adds about four inches of open space between the frame and each side of the screen, making the overall width longer than that of your standard 55-inch TV. Likewise, the curved design increases the overall depth to about five inches; add in the stand that extends straight back from the base of the TV, and the overall depth is 14.2 inches. These days, I can pretty much lift and assemble a 55-inch edge-lit LED/LCD by myself, and I was expecting to do the same with an uber-thin, light OLED panel; however, all the design choices surrounding the KN55S9C add enough weight (about 60 pounds total) and bulk that I needed to call in the hubby to unload the TV and set it in place.
Given OLED's thin form, there's really nowhere to house the electronics and input panel. All of the KN55S9C's processing and connectivity options are housed in the separate "One Connect" box that links to the TV via a proprietary cable. So you can run all of your connections to the box, which has a sturdy build and measures about 14.25 inches long by 3.25 inches deep by one inch tall, and then run a single cable to the TV. The box has four HDMI inputs, one mini-jack component input with a supplied breakout
cable, one basic composite input, and one RF input to access the internal tuners. A LAN port is available for those who prefer a wired network connection over the built-in WiFi. Two USB ports support media playback and the addition of peripherals like a USB keyboard. An optical digital audio output and mini-jack analog audio output are onboard. Samsung's EX-Link serial port is also available for integration into an advanced control system, as is an IR Output to which you can attach the supplied IR emitter cable that allows you to control your cable/satellite box or Blu-ray player through Samsung's universal control system. The package includes both the Bluetooth-based Smart Touch touchpad remote with voice control and the standard IR remote.
The KN55S9C's features are essentially identical to those of the UN55F8000 that we have already reviewed. Instead of rehashing that discussion here, let me just point you to that review to learn more about the design and functionality of the Smart Hub Smart TV platform, the voice/motion control, the advanced search and recommendation features, the iOS/Android control apps, and the TV's universal remote capability. DirecTV subscribers might be interested to learn that this TV has built-in RVU, which allows you to tune in your DirecTV signal without a set-top box.
One feature that's unique to the KN55S9C is Multi View, which is tied to the TV's active 3D capability and allows two people to watch different HD sources simultaneously using the shutter glasses. The TV comes with two pairs of active 3D glasses, which also have integrated earphones in the wraparound-style frames, so that each user can listen to the audio attached to their specific source. Multi View is easy to set up, and the feature worked fine when I tried it out. It also works with compatible split-screen videogames, allowing each player to have a full-screen experience. Frankly, I see this latter option as being the more common use for Multi View.
As with other top-shelf Samsung TVs, the picture menu is loaded with all of the advanced tools you need to fine-tune the image quality, including four picture modes (Dynamic, Standard, Relax, and Movie; a professional calibrator can also customize Cal-Day and Cal-Night modes through the service menu), an adjustable Cell Light control to tailor the brightness to your viewing environment, two-point and 10-point white balance controls, plus color temperature presets and flesh tone adjustment, seven-step adjustable gamma, three color space options (Auto, Native, and Custom) and full color management of all six color points. a blue-only mode to help with proper color and tint adjustment, and digital/MPEG noise reduction.
Interestingly, this TV also has the Auto Motion Plus function found in Samsung's 120Hz/240Hz LED/LCDs to address issues of motion blur and judder. The judder part I understand - some people love those de-judder smoothing modes, so much so that even plasma TVs have them, despite the fact that motion blur is not an issue with plasma. I had always been led to believe that motion blur would not be a concern with OLED either, but that has not proved to be the case with these first two OLED TVs from Samsung and LG. Samsung has incorporated the full complement of Auto Motion Plus options here: the Clear mode reduces motion blur without changing the quality of film sources, the Standard/Smooth modes add frame interpolation to reduce judder, and the Custom mode lets you independently adjust the blur and judder tools. Within the Custom mode, you can also enable the Clear Motion option that inserts black frames to further improve motion resolution at the expense of image brightness. We'll discuss performance in the next section.
The KN55S9C puts two tiny speakers and one woofer in the frame that surrounds the OLED panel. Given the lack of real estate in said frame, it should come as no surprise that the audio quality is nothing to write home about. Then again, if you're buying a TV this expensive, I sure hope you plan to make a similar investment on the audio side.
Click to the next page for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion . . .
As usual, Samsung's Movie mode proved to be the most accurate picture mode right out of the box. With no adjustment at all, the Movie mode already measured within reference standards, both in white balance and color points, using my X-rite i1Pro 2 spectrophotometer. (The Relax mode came in second, offering decent numbers that fell just outside of the reference range.) The Movie mode's red/green/blue color balance was excellent across most of the range; the correlated color temperature average was 6,420 Kelvin (6500K is the
target), and the average gamma was 2.13. The largest grayscale Delta Error occurred at the darker end of the spectrum, but it was still only an error of 2.43 (anything under three is considered imperceptible to the human eye). All six color points also came in well under the DE3 target, with the largest Delta Error being blue at just 0.83. It's fair to say that calibration is not a necessity, but it's also fair to say that, if you're going to purchase such a high-end display, you should drop a few hundred dollars extra and get it calibrated anyhow, to ensure that you're getting the best possible performance in all areas. As I mentioned in the Hookup section, the KN55S9C has all of the tools to perform an advanced calibration, and I was able to achieve nearly perfect results in both white balance and color. Performing just a quick calibration, I was able to lower the maximum grayscale Delta Error to 1.52, get a more desirable gamma average of 2.22, and make the color points even more accurate.
Now, on to black level. Oh, that glorious black level! Like plasma, OLED is self-emitting, meaning that each pixel generates its own light and doesn't require an external light source the way LCD TVs do. Plasma pixels require some priming to respond quickly enough to signal information, which is
why you don't generally see absolute black when a pixel is supposed to be "off." OLED pixels don't require that priming, and this OLED TV produces the closest thing to absolute black that I've ever seen. And right next to that absolute black, you can still have really bright elements, without the imprecise "halo" effect you see with local-dimming LED/LCDs. The result is a stunningly rich image with outstanding contrast and depth. During an aerial shot of the stadium in Sunday Night Football on NBC, the contrast between the truly black sky and the bright stadium lights was simply gorgeous.
I regret that I had to return my review sample of the Panasonic TC-P60VT60 plasma before this OLED TV arrived, but I still had the step-down Panasonic TC-P60ST60 on hand to do some comparisons ... and really, there was no comparison in the black-level department. Don't get me wrong, the ST60's performance is still absolutely amazing for the price, but the difference in black level between it and the Samsung OLED was not subtle. Back when I compared the ST60 and VT60, I talked about subtle improvements that the
VT60 offered in black level, but this OLED TV produced distinctly darker black levels in every demo scene from The Bourne Supremacy (Chapter One), Flags of Our Fathers (Chapter Two), and The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Chapter Four). The only LED/LCD I had on hand was Vizio's M551D-A2R, another low-priced TV that earned high marks from me but could in no way rival the black-level depth and precision of OLED. Within those deep blacks, the KN55S9C was also able to reveal the finest, subtlest black details.
Again, though, the real treat is just how bright the OLED TV can be in tandem with those great blacks. You don't have to limit image brightness to retain good blacks, as you do with an LED/LCD. At its default settings, the KN55S9C's Movie mode served up about 60 ft-L with a white window test pattern. The brighter Relax mode served up about 95 ft-L. I'm not sure you can relax in a dim to dark room with a TV cranking out 95 ft-L, but hey, that's what the adjustable Cell Light control is for. You really have the freedom to tailor the KN55S9C's brightness to suit your viewing preference and comfort level without having to worry about how the adjustment will hinder black level. I dialed back the Movie mode to about 50 ft-L, ISF's maximum recommended brightness for a dim room, and it proved to be perfect for both daytime and nighttime viewing.
One thing I did discover during measurements is that, as we see with plasma, this OLED TV produces more light output in a white window than it does with a full-white field. I got the above numbers using an 18 percent window; when I switched to a full white field, the Movie's mode 50 ft-L dropped to about 20 ft-L. However, the real-world result is not nearly as dramatic a brightness reduction as what you see with plasma TVs. Plasma TVs can produce very bright elements to yield great image contrast, but throw a fully bright, white-heavy image up on the screen, and it dims noticeably, causing whites to look muted and even grayish. With this OLED TV, full-screen whites still looked very white and bright, much brighter than those of the Panasonic ST60. I was perfectly content to stick with the "dimmest" Movie mode for daytime viewing with zero concerns about image brightness, but there are also much brighter picture modes available to calibrate for daytime viewing if you desire.
The KN55S9C's great light output and contrast yield excellent results with 3D content, too. The OLED TV provided all the detail and crispness that I like in an active 3D TV, combined with the image brightness and complete lack of crosstalk that passive 3D can offer. In my demo scenes from Monsters vs. Aliens, Ice Age 3, and Life of Pi, I saw no crosstalk at all, regardless of where I sat in relation to the TV. The KN55S9C served up some of the best-looking 3D I've seen to date. The supplied SSG-5900CR glasses were light and comfortable to wear, although the highly flexible, wraparound frames can fall off easily if you're not deliberate in how you tuck them around your ears.
Like plasma and unlike LCD, OLED has a wide viewing angle; image saturation does not drop off as you move to the sides. The KN55S9C also passed all of my 1080i and 480i processing tests, produced a nice amount of detail with upconverted 480i sources, and served up a very clean image with little digital noise. Regarding motion blur, with the Auto Motion Plus function turned off, motion resolution was very similar to that of a standard 60Hz LCD TV, blurring lines down to DVD level in my resolution pattern on the FPD Benchmark BD. However, when I enabled AMP, regardless of which setting I chose, I got nearly perfect motion resolution in
the same pattern - identical to, if not better than, plasma motion resolution. This means you again have flexibility to choose whichever Auto Motion Plus mode you like. If you like the smoothing, de-judder effects of frame interpolation, you can use the Smooth or Standard mode. I personally prefer the Clear mode, because it deals with the blur without adding any artificial smoothing effects in film sources.
In all honesty, I can't come up with a significant performance downside to the KN55S9C. It delivered everything I was expecting, and my expectations were awfully high. I'm sure, though, that some of our readers will lament the absence of an Ultra HD resolution at this high price point. Right now, there is no Ultra HD OLED TV on the market, but we have seen prototypes from Panasonic and Sony and will likely see more offerings at CES 2014. Having already reviewed a 55-inch UHD TV in the form of the Sony XBR-55X900A I stand by my assertion that the benefits of the higher Ultra HD resolution are going to be very difficult to appreciate at this screen size and thus it is not really necessary. The KN55S9C's use of the separate One
Connect box means that you could potentially swap it out for a future One Connect box that supports native 4K input sources with HDMI 2.0. Sure, the source would be downconverted to a 1080p resolution, but I'd go so far as to argue that, given OLED's amazing contrast, the downconverted image could look better on a 55-inch TV than native Ultra HD on a mediocre edge-lit LED/LCD.
My only real complaint with the KN55S9C is the curved screen. While I was aware of the curve when viewing content (especially 2.35:1 movies), I didn't find it to be a distraction ... and I do think the TV's design is eye-catching. Still, I feel that the curved design diminishes the "wow" factor of just how flat the OLED panel is. The bigger concern, though, is what the curved screen does to room reflections. The screen itself isn't as glossy and reflective as most of the high-end LCD and plasma TVs I've tested lately, but it's reflective enough that you can see general forms - and because of the curve, those forms get stretched and distorted across the screen, which causes them to take up more screen real estate and therefore be more noticeable. Seeing a lamp reflection on the screen is a bit distracting; seeing that reflection stretched all the way across the screen is annoying. You definitely need to be mindful about where you position room objects in relation to the screen; try to keep them "outside the curve," so to speak.
Peruse the setup menu, and you will notice a function called "Screen Burn Protection," with a pixel shift and an automatic shut-off control akin to those found in a plasma TV. That's because OLED can be subject to image retention just like plasma. Given that this is a new display technology, we just don't know yet how susceptible OLED TVs really are to image retention. I didn't notice any short-term retention issues during my casual TV watching, and the pixel shift function is wisely turned on by default. Still, you need to be aware of this potential and approach this TV much like you would a new plasma TV.
Competition and Comparison
Currently, the only OLED competitor to the Samsung KN55S9C is LG's 55EA9800, which also has a curved screen and carries a $9,999.99 price tag. I haven't personally reviewed the LG TV, but at least one reviewer I trust, at HDGuru.com,
compared the two sets directly and gave the nod to the Samsung. Another competitor would be a high-end plasma like the Panasonic ZT Series or VT Series or Samsung's own PN8500 Series. The only LCDs I'd consider to be serious competition would be top-shelf models that use full-array LED backlighting with local dimming, such as the Sharp Elite PRO-X5FD, Sony XBR-55HX929, and perhaps LG's new 55LA9700 UHD TV.
Believe the hype, folks. That's what I take away from my time with the Samsung KN55S9C. Its performance is that good, truly the ideal combination of plasma and LCD and just gorgeous to behold. Purely from a performance standpoint, it's easy to give the KN55S9C my wholehearted recommendation. Add in the issues of form factor and price, though, and it becomes more complicated. This is where your personal preference, passion, and income come into play. As much as I love the picture quality of this TV, I'd prefer a non-curved OLED TV where you can truly appreciate the thin form factor, but I know other people who love the curved design. The asking price is significantly higher than other excellent performers in the plasma and LCD realms; this TV is really targeted at the ultimate videophile who is willing to pay the price to be an early adopter and own the best of the best. The rest of us will likely drool from afar for a few years, impatiently waiting until the price comes down to a more realistic level. Based on what I've seen with the KN55S9C, OLED is definitely worth the wait.